Author’s Note: To Liz for all her positive encouragement and enthusiasm, and to Sandy, who helped in spite of being ill, to Lil, who made me steer the plot back onto the road when it wandered into the ditch, and to Fidelma for her eagle-eyes and her ruthless comma slashing, and to Carol for her final examination -- my Thanks!.
Answer All Bells
C. Lyn Barrow
“God grant me the courage not to give up what I think is right even though I think it is hopeless.”
~ Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz (1885 - 1966)
The low Mediterranean sun shimmered across the inlet
setting the water afire with brightness, but the breeze off the sea was cool
against skin that was hot and sweaty from the late afternoon temperature. Lee Crane was the only occupant of the dozen
or so beachside tables fronting the small, fashionable bistro, the late
afternoon heat driving almost everyone else inside or into the water of the
bay. He had been to the French Riviera
only once before, in the company of a group of wealthy friends from
He leaned back in the wrought iron bistro chair, absently swirling the icy drink in the tall glass as his dark-amber eyes quartered the bay restlessly. A few sailboats, some swimmers, and a pair of sail-boarders far down the beach; there was nothing of any real interest to be seen, just peace and quiet and happily relaxed tourists on vacation.
But for him, this vacation was really not so casual. He couldn’t help but view it as more
assignment than pleasure coming, as it had, at the insistence of Seaview's Chief Medical Officer, Will
Jamieson, and Admiral Nelson himself.
His best friend, Commander Chip Morton, had suggested the location
assuring Lee that he would find Etoile de
Mer the answer to all of Nelson’s and Doc's specifications, and had even
made the reservations. He supposed they
were right in their concern for him.
Even his own NIMR secretary, Denise Hunter, had agreed that he
desperately needed to get away. She had
suggested he join her on her already scheduled hiking tour in the Swiss Alps,
but Doc had vetoed that idea, and Nelson had concurred. They wanted him to ‘relax not climb all over the
It had only been a few weeks since the explosion in the engine room had killed three crewmen and nearly Lee also. He knew he was fully recovered from the injuries he had sustained. At least the physical ones, he admitted honestly. But in little more than two years he had faced death too many times and perhaps it had begun to tell on his nerves. Recently, on more than one occasion in fact, he had found himself dressing down a crewman for some insignificant infraction he would normally have dismissed out of hand. He still had a tendency toward apprehensiveness, jumping at shadows Chip called it, which was completely out of character for him. There was also the persistent insomnia and, when he did sleep, there were unpleasantly frequent nightmares. His performance had suffered; he now had to confess. They were scheduled for a long tedious mission to begin upon his return; one that was highly sensitive and technically intense despite its repetitiveness. It was a mission that would require him to function at peak capacity and, aware of that and disturbed by his atypical behavior, Chip had - at last - gone to Nelson with his concerns and the Admiral had in turn consulted Jamieson about his Captain.
It was just stress. Jamieson had concluded after a battery of tests. Delayed reaction to all that had happened to him since he’d signed on with the Nelson Institute of Marine Research. Crane needed to get away; to separate himself from everything Naval, and Institute-related, even if they had to order him to do it. And so he was on vacation wearing a monogrammed polo shirt, chino shorts and topsiders, instead of his khaki uniform and leather oxfords. His unconscious smile widened. How many other submarine skippers were literally ordered by any superior, much less a four-star Admiral, to take themselves off on vacation to a place as far removed from his normal Spartan life at sea as humanly possible and not to return for at least two weeks; longer if he felt more time would benefit his full recovery.
His unreliable smile faded. Recovery.
He had left
He had spent the past six days in, what he considered, decadent luxury. The cottage, on the hotel grounds near the beach, was not at all what he would have selected for himself. Six days away from Seaview and he was already bored enough to weep. It wasn’t rest he needed, he’d decided, but action to stave off the unpleasant memories; the ever-present regret over lost shipmates. He raised his drink and sipped absently at the tart liquid. It wasn't alcoholic; he seldom drank strong liquor. It blurred his senses, made thinking difficult and he hated to be impaired in any way. The smile returned - vaguely. He knew he was disappointing the hotel staff. They had obviously expected an important VIP; and all they got was him - a lowly submarine captain, a US Naval Reserve Officer, a sailor who hadn't even touched the fully stocked bar in his bungalow.
He might have expected one of the bistro barmaids to hail him or even one of the obsequious waiters, but this voice held no hint of accent to his American ears. Still, his highly sensitized sense of alarm, his own personal spider sense did not react, and he placed the glass on the ornate iron of the tabletop, and rose, turning to the summons. He frowned, somehow surprised that he did not recognize the man standing a few steps away from him. He was shorter than Crane by several inches, slender, almost slight, his mouse-brown hair thinning and receding from his forehead although Lee was certain he couldn't be much older than he was himself. He was well dressed, but not richly, his clothes definitely American, not high fashion, either Paris or Italian.
"I'm Lee Crane," he confirmed. There was no threat in this man, he decided, but there was something else that set the short hairs on the back of his neck on end; the expression in the gray eyes, one he had seen in other men's eyes, men who were trained agents of any one of the clandestine organizations of the world. It was those eyes that made the man's next words no surprise.
"I was sent by Admiral Jesse Carstairs. He needs your services." Lee only nodded. "You don't seem surprised that we found you."
"Should I be?
He’s always said he could find a diamond in the
The other man shrugged eloquently, and rounded the table to seat himself in a chair across from the one Crane had occupied. The tall submariner sat down slowly. "Your reaction is not what I was led to expect, Captain.”
Lee inhaled slowly, fully. "Admiral Carstairs has always flattered himself that he knows me better than I know myself. Maybe he doesn't." He hesitated only momentarily. "You have a name?"
"We won't be together long enough to become friends Captain, but to simplify things, you can call me John."
Lee nodded, certain that his name was anything but John. Now for the next hurdle. "How do I know it was Admiral Carstairs actually sent you?"
"I'm supposed to say to you, Coelacanth. He said you'd understand."
Another time the code word might have brought a smile to
the young Captain's lips, but not today.
Admiral Jesse Carstairs had sought him fresh out of the Academy, drawing
him into Office of Naval Intelligence training before he entered
"All right," he conceded at last. "What's up? Must be something important for him to hunt me down here. Unless... Did Admiral Nelson tell him where I was?"
"I have no idea, Captain. I'm only told as much I have to know. You should be aware of that."
Lee raised one eyebrow at the other man, not liking his tone, but he put it down to the fact that he was accustomed to the deference generally paid his rank. "Do you fill me in, or do you direct me to someone who can?"
"You're to come with me."
Crane leaned back in his chair, determined not to be so easily moved. "You aiming for Carstairs' job, John? Even he gives me a little more than that."
"We're on a deadline, Captain Crane."
"I'm accustomed to working on deadlines, John. Am I correct in assuming that someone will take care of collecting my belongings and settling the hotel bill?"
John almost seemed to blanch. So, Lee thought, he wasn't as experienced as he wanted him to believe. "I can assure you, it will be taken care of," the agent said then, covering his near-faux pas.
Crane set the glass back onto the iron tabletop with a definite clink and stood up, towering over the still seated man.
"Then what are we waiting for, John? Let's go."
Lee followed the smaller man away from the beach. He was not particularly happy to be abandoning everything he had brought with him. There was a camera that he had purchased specifically for this trip, and three rolls of film already exposed that he did not want to lose. And there were the souvenir gifts he had found for Nelson and Chip; he was still looking for something suitable for Jamie.
He knew he was allowing his mind to wander as he followed John along the beachfront toward the small pier ahead, but he was unwilling to dwell on what he expected to lie ahead of him. His missions for ONI had always been performed in secret, at least until he had joined Nelson's NIMR. If Carstairs had side-stepped protocol and sought him out without consulting Harry it could mean only one of two things, either the mission was of such importance that it did not matter whether Nelson approved or not, or dangerous enough to prompt Carstairs' actions, knowing that Nelson would veto Lee's involvement out of hand. Either way, it did not bode well for Captain Lee Crane.
John released the aft mooring lines and stepped down into a
twenty-foot power boat and waited, his hand on the
controls as Crane freed the bow line and joined him in the modified cigarette
boat. The engines roared throatily as
John eased the craft away from the dock.
The cove was small and shallow, not large enough or deep enough for the
ocean going yachts or cruise ships that frequented
"Where we headed?" he shouted over the noise of the engine.
"Deep water. You'll see."
Lee frowned, his golden-brown eyes darkening with displeasure. "I can see that. Tell me or I'm over the side and back to shore."
"We're meeting Admiral Carstairs aboard the SSN
Fargo." John looked up, meeting
those intense, ever-changing eyes that bored into him. He cleared his throat uneasily. "The
"I can fill it in from there."
Lee shifted on the seat and looked forward, seeking the
telltale wake of the periscope that would be the first evidence of the sub's
presence. Right on schedule he saw what
he sought, and within minutes John pulled the cigarette boat alongside the sub
and idled the engine.
With a quick glance at him Lee stood and climbed aboard the
Crane descended the ladderwell familiarly, dropping into
"Officer on the deck!" someone sang out,
announcing his arrival, and the Commanding Officer of the
I'm Commander Sam Parker. Welcome
Crane felt the barely discernible shudder as the planes were engaged, sending the sub deeper into the Mediterranean waters. He extended his hand then, grasping the Lt. Commander's warmly. He was nearly Lee's height, but not as lean, and perhaps ten years older than Crane himself. Lee always felt humbled in these situations, when he was thrown in with men senior to him in age, but junior in rank.
"Commander," he said firmly, glancing swiftly around the control room, noting the seamen turned diligently to their duties. "You run a tight boat, Mr. Parker."
"As you're personally aware, Captain, it's a necessity when you've got an Admiral aboard," Parker replied congenially. "I don't envy you your admiral." He grinned and Lee knew he referred to Nelson's well-known volatile nature. "Admiral Carstairs is waiting for you in the wardroom, Captain Crane. Maybe we'll have time to chat later." Then, "Mr. Frawley will escort you...."
Lee nodded, more than willing to visit with another sub captain, then turned to follow the young lieutenant aft, stepping over the knee-knockers and moving along the companionway quickly. "Permission to speak, sir?" Frawley said over his shoulder and slowing down.
Lee had almost forgotten the formality of the regular Navy. "Granted," he replied evenly.
"Guess the old
Crane smiled. "Considerably, Mr. Frawley, but she’s a good boat. I served on a Sturgeon Class just before I came to the Seaview."
"Aye, sir, the Sawfish. But you had
action aboard the Sawfish, and we...
we’re such small potatoes... particularly next to the Seaview. We never do
anything... just ply between the
Crane came to an abrupt halt, forcing the younger man to stop as well, or leave him behind, hearing a note of exhilaration in the boy's voice that unaccountably set his teeth on edge.
"We’ve drawn more than our share of tedious assignments too, Lieutenant, such as counting seals, and inspecting coral reefs. It's not all success and glory, you know."
"Oh, I'm sure of that, sir, but you've got to admit you and your crew have seen a lot and done a lot since the Seaview was launched. You've actually engaged the enemy face to face, so to speak. That must be real excitement."
Lee inhaled slowly, deeply. He had seen too many young men in the armed forces that had a similar way of thinking. "Lieutenant, military service is a job. If you signed on for excitement you're in the wrong line of work."
"Do you recall the oath you swore?"
Lee shook his head, unconvinced. "I
will support and defend the Constitution of the
The young man shook his head, obviously disturbed, but Lee plunged on, as though unable to stop himself.
"I have. It doesn't excite me. It sickens me, and each day I have to do everything in my power to try and keep it from happening again."
He broke off, memories of Chief Jones' untimely demise all too present in his mind. It was only a few weeks short of a year after he had taken command of the Seaview that a dive, led by Crane himself, had seen the expert diver lost inside a treacherously shifting wreck. The whole incident continued to plague the conscientious captain of the Seaview even now. And there had been the men killed in the engine room explosion, and too many others.
"Think about it...." he finished weakly.
Crane brushed by the lieutenant, familiar with the layout of Sturgeon Class submarines. He shouldn't have spoken out, he thought distractedly. It wasn't his place to straighten out the kid's attitude.
"Uh, sir? Captain Crane, sir?"
Lee stopped and turned slowly. The lieutenant was young, very young, it seemed to him, fresh out of the Academy. Why weren't they teaching these kids what it was really like out here?’ he wondered fleetingly, then relented, recalling his own training, his own education, his own naïveté. They had all been that young... once. He sighed raggedly. Frawley wasn't the first man he had dressed down lately, and with little more excuse than Frawley. Maybe Nelson and Jamieson had been right to send him on vacation. He had not really accepted it before but he was forced to face the likelihood now.
"Lieutenant?" he replied, more kindly, he hoped.
"I'm sorry, sir. I didn't mean anything, sir."
"No offense taken, Frawley."
"It's just that you aren't so much older than me, and what you've already achieved is... well... it's pretty amazing. I just figured...."
"That I had to be an over-achiever who revels in secret missions, gunplay, deep dives, and ordering the launching of torpedoes?" Frawley did not reply but he could see the confirmation in the young lieutenant's eyes. He sighed wearily. "I do what I have to. That's all any of us do. I'm proud to be of service to my country but I'd be just as proud if all we did was purely scientific investigation and we had no enemies to defend against. You've chosen the Navy as your career. It's up to you whether you live up to that oath or have to live down a career that's less than what it should be. That's all I'm saying."
Lee started to turn, but something in Frawley's expression froze him in place.
"It hasn't been easy, has it, Captain," the lieutenant observed, surprise heavy in his tone. "It never occurred to me...."
"No, Mr. Frawley, it hasn't been easy," Lee
replied, and completed his turn, preceding the
They entered the wardroom together, both men coming to a halt and locking their salute before the tactical head of ONI, seated at one of the tables, his left hand wrapped around a coffee mug. He waved his right hand in some semblance of a salute.
"Thank you, Mr. Frawley. You're dismissed," Carstairs muttered, his gaze focused only on the taller of the two men, and waited until the young lieutenant had retreated and closed the door behind him. "Join me, Captain Crane. The coffee's pretty good on this boat."
"Thank you, sir," he said, and sank down into the place across from Carstairs. Protocol dictated that he wait for the admiral to address him again, but Lee was too familiar with Carstairs' games to be drawn into playing them here. "You sent for me, Admiral. What's going down?"
Carstairs chuckled. In his way he was as intimidating as Nelson but Lee was accustomed to dealing with the most notorious admiral in or out of the Navy on a daily basis and Carstairs was aware of it. "That's one thing I like about you, Crane. You're direct and to the point. No shilly-shally for you."
"Not when my life's on the line, sir. What's up?"
Carstairs eased back in his chair studying the young man across the table from him closely. He knew everything Lee Crane had done over the last ten years, and everything that had happened to him since Harriman Nelson had selected him as commander of his archetype submarine, Seaview. Knowing him the way he did, it should come as no surprise that the man was still willing to risk his life, but somehow it did.
"We've got to retrieve a man from
"Doesn't sound so tough. You could just send in a team of Seals...."
"And risk the
"Where is he?"
district in northwestern
Crane closed his eyes thoughtfully. Carstairs had seen him like this before,, his exceptional mind seeking and sorting what information he had on the subject at hand. After a moment he nodded, his multi-hued eyes meeting the admiral's dark brown gaze evenly.
"He wanted Nelson," Carstairs replied as if that was explanation enough but Crane remained silent, expectant. "He knows Nelson, met him at a scientific conference a few years back. We refused to risk Harry and then he said he would recognize you from some pictures he's seen of you with Nelson in scientific journals. And, since you're one of ours...."
"Not any more, Admiral," Crane replied flatly. "What value does he bring to us?" he continued as though he had not just denied his affiliation with ONI.
geophysicist. We have evidence that he's
being sought by several of the countries with whom the
"Not a bad idea, considering," Lee said softly. He exhaled slowly and deeply, and Carstairs knew he had him. "How do we procede?"
"You'll pass for Albanian...."
"Not if I open my mouth. I know enough of the language to ask directions but that's about all. That, and my accent won't be accurate."
"Have you forgotten what we can do, Lee? We have better than 36 hours before we plan to put you ashore. By that time, with your knack for languages, you'll be speaking Albanian like a native." Crane nodded, accepting. "The mark is holed up in a town about fifteen kilometers from the coast, a place called Shëvin."
"Do we know where? Or do I just wander through the streets of town calling his name and waiting to be picked up by the Albanian army?"
"That won't happen... we hope." Carstairs' tentative response evoked a grim smile from Lee. "Look, Captain, I wouldn't throw your life away on a pointless mission...."
"But you would on one the brass considers important enough. We both know that, Admiral. It's part of the game. Tell me what you know about Shëvin."
"First, tell me what
you know about
Lee pushed himself to his feet, moving slowly toward the counter where a tray of mugs and the coffee urn stood. Carstairs had offered coffee, and Lee suddenly felt the urgent need of the caffeine. He returned and sank back onto the chair.
"It's been under
communist rule since right after World War II and still has one of the most
repressive governments in
"Pretty much. Apparently our man made it as far as Shëvin with no trouble then came under the suspicion of the military authority there, a Colonel Metzer."
"He's been arrested?"
"No. He found a CIA safehouse and he's holed up there but Metzer's got an eye out for him. We figure he doesn't know the identity of our man but, if he decides he's worth his trouble, he'll turn Shëvin inside out to find him and turn him in."
"You seem to be pointedly avoiding the defector's name. Is it someone I'd know, or are you being overcautious?"
"I guess that's exactly what I'm being, Lee. But we're running at maximum depth under complete radio silence. Even if someone wanted to blow the whistle on us, they'd find it pretty difficult."
"What about... John?"
The admiral frowned, then broke into a wide grin. "Oh, John. How'd he do?" he asked unexpectedly.
"He's a little overzealous and he needs to remember who his allies are, but yeah, I guess he did all right. Why?"
"He's my kid brother's youngest son."
"He's not Navy," Crane replied with absolute confidence.
"No, he's CIA. It's their intel we're following."
Crane nodded grimly, none too pleased with that information. "Since when has the CIA cooperated with the Navy? Or vice versa?"
"Since their defector would only deal with one of our own. You, remember. The man's name is Dr. Cadek Dorogoi."
"Never heard of him."
"No, but the spooks have and so has Harry Nelson, I assure you. We've got a full dossier on him, so you won't have to worry about an imposter foisting himself off on you."
Lee nodded, recalling that just such an event had happened to another of Carstairs' operatives and had resulted in the agent's death. He hadn't really thought about how it had affected the ONI tactical director but he realized now that he should have. He had just lectured Frawley on the unpleasantries of command and had disregarded it in Carstairs' position. He shook his head, somehow disappointed in himself.
"What's the plan?"
"Just the bare bones,
Lee. The CIA had it plotted out to the
second, but I know you. You're the best
man I've ever known to take what he has at hand and make it work for him. I'd never try to hamstring you by giving you
orders that you'd be hard-pressed to follow." Lee lowered his gaze to his hands. "We'll drop you off shore before dawn
day after tomorrow. You'll have maps,
money, the names of contacts and everything else we can come up with to give
you all the advantage we can. We're not
at war with
Lee nodded almost reluctantly. "Well, give me what you have, tell me which billet you've assigned me and I'll get started on my homework."
"Then you'll do it?"
"Did you ever have any doubts, Admiral Carstairs? No, I didn't think so," he responded gently. The expression that grew on the older man's face was somehow troubling, out of character for the ONI Chief.
"Are you sure you're up to this, Lee? I'm well aware of why you were sent on this vacation."
Lee allowed his own instant displeasure to show in his eyes as he leaned forward across the table. Was he taunting him. "There's nothing wrong with me!" he said firmly, perhaps more firmly than he should have, for he saw anger flare in the admiral's eyes.
"This mission is too important to be undertaken by a man on the ragged edge of a breakdown, Captain. Physically, you may be fully recovered but I didn't recruit you purely for your strength and stamina. You know the dangers involved in getting someone out of an unfriendly country. Death is sometimes the best you can expect. Do you honestly think you could stand up to deprivation and torture if it came to that?"
"How can any of us know until we come face to face with it, Admiral?" he asked, bringing his ire back under control. He rose slowly, picking up the dossier that Carstairs pushed across the table at him. "There's more to Dorogoi than you've told me, but I don't suppose it's anything I need to know to get him out. If it was, you'd tell me, wouldn't you."
"Of course, Captain."
"I thought so. I trust you've got the suitable attire ready for me?" he asked, pitching his voice lightly.
"The CIA has provided everything you'll need."
"Then I'd better check all the seams for bugs and blades, hadn't I?" he grinned affably, referring to the sometimes not so friendly rivalry between the two organizations, as he turned toward the door. He paused, the smile vanishing and turned back to face Carstairs who had not moved. "Admiral, I have a favor to ask of you."
"What is it, Crane?"
"Once I'm gone... ashore... notify Admiral Nelson of what I'm doing. He should know."
"I'll tell him, Captain. You're in guest cabin 2. Officer's mess on this boat is at 1700 hours. Join me, if you please."
"I will, Admiral. Thank you."
Carstairs rose from his place at the table and
watched in silence as the young officer strode from the wardroom, his back
militarily straight, his head held high.
And yet the admiral knew that as soon as he stepped ashore in
ó ó ó ó
Admiral Harriman Nelson ambled along the companionway between officers' mess and his own quarters. Dinner had been particularly tasty tonight, he thought, but then Cookie knew how much he liked curried dishes. He was pleasantly full, even replete, and he returned to his desk reluctantly, the schedules for the planned tests for their next tour no longer appealing. He pushed open the door to his quarters and crossed the room to his desk, then sank down into the padded swivel chair. He pulled off his shoes, stretched his feet luxuriously and leaned back in the chair, smiling wistfully. It was nearly 1900 hours on a Saturday night. It would be almost 0400 Sunday morning where Lee was and he wondered if his young captain was asleep, or if he was still out on the town, hopefully enjoying himself to the fullest. After the last couple of years he certainly deserved some real R & R.
Nelson closed the folder he had left on his desk and opened
the right hand file drawer in the pedestal, inserting it into the proper
hanging folder. Closing the drawer he
reached for the pack of cigarettes and tapped one out and lit it, inhaling slowly. In thirty-six hours they would be at sea once
more, heading south toward the Canal, then on into the Atlantic and south
toward the Continental Shelf off the coast of
It would be good to be underway once more. The repairs were completed and checked out. He drew on the cigarette again, feeling the smoke burn into his lungs. He really should stop smoking, he knew. Jamieson had warned him often enough, but he didn’t want to stop. He enjoyed smoking. It helped relieve the tension he experienced all too often. Like now. He sighed wearily. Call him paranoid, and perhaps he was, but without his captain aboard he felt vulnerable.
The speaker box on his desk squawked, then
a moment later
"Admiral Nelson, sir?"
"What is it,
"I have an incoming call from Admiral Carstairs, relayed from ONI headquarters in DC through the Institute switchboard."
Nelson chuckled dryly.
"Well, he's going to be disappointed if he's looking for Lee for
another of his missions, won't he? Go
ahead and put him through,
"I'm afraid he isn't, Harry. He wanted me to notify you. We just put him ashore on the coast of
"You son-of-a...." Nelson ground out, his voice reflecting the instant fury that had risen inside him, his cigarette a smoldering reflection of his temper. "You know we agreed that you were to pass your requests for his help through me!"
"There just wasn't time, Harry," Carstairs said patiently. "We knew where he was and we had a mission that only he could handle.... Him, or you."
"Me? I'm no secret agent! Not any more! Even when I did work for the ONI!"
"That was only part of why we needed Lee. Thanks to you, he's become highly
recognizable. The man he is to extract
"Yes, of course. He was a genius on underwater seismics. But I thought he was dead," Nelson replied, his temper beginning to ease as Carstairs had intended. He stubbed out the cigarette, giving his attention fully to the call. "He dropped out of sight several years ago...."
"He went to
"Then let him buy a plane ticket! What the hell does he need my captain for?"
"Well, it seems that there are some members of the Albanian government who would just as soon he remain with them. He made it to a little town near the coast, and managed to contact the CIA to send someone to get him."
Immediately Nelson was suspicious. "How'd he contact the CIA? Just put a quarter in the pay phone and dial their local number?"
Jesse Carstairs sniggered. "Now I know where Crane gets his sarcasm. Or, did you get it from him?"
"Just answer the question."
"Evidently they have agents in a lot of places. I
think Dorogoi may have contacted them before he left the capital city of
"You think?!" Nelson roared. "This whole deal smells to high heaven! And you've thrown Lee right into the middle of it.... AGAIN!"
"It's a straight in and out extraction. He'll be just fine, Harry."
"Not if he's recognized! If Dorogoi knows him, there might be others!"
"He's the most capable man I know at getting himself out of trouble. Relax!"
"I won't relax! Never mind that he's important to me... to the Seaview and NIMR, he's a human being... an American! He's not a full time ONI agent! You have no claim on his life!"
"He agreed to go, Harry. I exerted no pressure on him whatsoever. We didn't hold a gun on him at any time. He willingly got up from his table at the beach bistro and followed the agent to our rendezvous and all we said was please."
"I find that hard to believe, Jesse, but it's completely in character for Lee Crane. Do you have an estimate of when to expect him back?"
"Two days, if everything goes as planned."
"When did that ever happen?" Nelson grumbled sourly. "You'll be picking him up?"
"As soon as he signals us. He'll be all right, Harry."
"If you believe that, why did you wait until he was on his way to call me?"
"I wouldn't have called at all if I hadn't given him my word to notify you."
"You'd have just put him at risk then dropped him back
There was silence for several seconds. "It's not the first time, Harry."
"Since he went to work for me?"
"How many times?"
"This is the fourth. You only knew about the last one."
"You really are a bastard. You'd better pray nothing happens to that boy or I'll have your head... and your stars!"
"He's one of the best we have, Harry. He'll be just fine."
Nelson shuddered, not at all as confident as the other man. "I want to know the minute you hear anything. Anything! Do you understand me?"
"I read you, Nelson. Calm down before you have an attack of some kind. I'd hate to have Crane come back to that now, wouldn't you?"
"Yeah. Adriatic coast, toward the north. Dr. Dorogoi has gone to ground in Shëvin, Lezhë."
"The Seaview will sail as soon as we can get her prepped. tomorrow... say... eighteen hours."
"He'll be back safely in mother's arms long before you can even get through the Canal."
"Then we'll save him the long flight back to the States. I've got a bad feeling about this, Jess."
"You're just P.O.'d because you weren't consulted first. I know you as well as you know me, Harry Nelson."
"I don't think so. Not a bit. The very minute you hear from him!"
"Will do. Relax...." Carstairs began to reassure him again but Nelson slammed the phone down, shifting his attention to the call-box.
"Control room, aye, sir," Chip Morton's voice sounded metallically.
"Mr. Morton, I want the boat ready to sail in eighteen hours.... No, make that twelve hours."
"Aye, aye, sir." Then, "Admiral, sir, I... I thought we were waiting for Captain Crane to return before...."
"I want us at sea by 0700 hours tomorrow, Commander. That doesn't require any further explanation, or have you suddenly taken to questioning my orders?"
"No sir, Admiral. Uh... should I send out a recall to the men on shore leave?"
"Get who you can, but anyone who isn't aboard when we sail gets left behind!"
"Aye, aye, Admiral."
Nelson lifted his hand off the switch, then depressed it again. "Chip... when you get your crews started, stop by my cabin. We have some things to talk over."
ó ó ó ó
Lee Crane trudged along edge of the narrow road toward the
northeast. At least the sun had finally
risen high enough above the distant mountains that he no longer had to squint
and he pushed the brim of the typical Greek fisherman's hat back off his
forehead. He was traveling ultra-light,
as one of the trainers at ONI had called it, no pack, no extra gear, only the
clothes on his back, the lightweight gun beneath the
dark sweater in the back waistband of his trousers and the intel in his
head. He had left everything that might
identify him behind on the
He was confident he could pass as an out of work
Greek-Albanian fisherman. He had the
clothes and the looks and now he had the language. It continued to amaze him how the CIA/ONI
device could teach him to converse passably in any language they chose in such
a limited amount of time. He still
remembered enough of the half-dozen or so other languages he had learned in
that manner that he could get along well in a couple of countries in Southeast
He had covered perhaps a third of the distance between the
coast and Shëvin. There should be a bus
running along this road; the fisherman in the coastal village had confirmed the
CIA Intel. Lee knew that such public transportation was notoriously unreliable
in most of these eastern European countries and he had seen nothing of it
yet. But, of course, it was still early
in the day. His legs already ached from
the distance he had covered and he vowed that, once back on the Seaview, he would talk to Chip about
making their biannual trek into the Sierras a more frequent thing. Maybe it was just as well that he had not
gone with Denise to
The Old Man would be furious when he found out what he was doing, Crane was certain. He had never really approved of the assignments his captain had undertaken for ONI. Nelson felt he had a proprietary right to be concerned over the risks he took, Lee knew, and that he had no right to put either the Navy's investment in him or Nelson's own at jeopardy. He was the skipper of the most advanced submarine in existence and the situations their work put them into should be enough excitement for any man. Excitement. He had told Lt. Frawley that he didn't do his job for the excitement. Had he spoken the truth? Yes, he assured himself. Working for the ONI wasn't exciting. It was damned scary, in fact, but it was a job he was uniquely suited for or they wouldn't have selected him virtually right out of the Academy and trained him for their covert missions. That was why he was here, he told himself; not out of any twisted sense of superiority, or even overly developed patriotism. He was simply the best man for the job and he accepted that.
The job. His thoughts returned to the mission at hand
as he plodded determinedly along the road.
He had the Intel provided by the CIA and little more. It was nearly impossible for him to make any
real plans until he could gauge the situation first hand. That was one of his strong points, as
Carstairs had confirmed. He had always
been able to think on his feet, a talent that had come in handy repeatedly in
his career. He had already hashed over
every scenario he could think of that was likely to transpire but the CIA info
had been sketchy, at best. Shëvin was a
moderately large town, for
The dossier had also given fairly detailed information on Colonel Anitol Metzer, who had risen through the army ranks to the position he now held but, whether entirely on his own merit or by the benefit of his marriage to the daughter of one of Albania's most prominent generals, who was to say. He had been assigned to Shëvin, his birthplace, twenty years ago and had turned it into his own private empire, presiding ruthlessly over its people.
Lee felt he knew the kind of man Metzer probably was; he had encountered his ilk before and not to his own benefit. Metzer was the proverbial big fish in the small pond, perhaps consumed with a drive to greater things or fearful of losing what he already had. But it undoubtedly suited him, to be the king of his small domain and it would be a position he would defend at all costs, even to the elimination of an itinerant fisherman or an aging scientist.
The place Dorogoi was hiding was designated as a
CIA-friendly safe house but, with each stride Lee took away from the coast, the
conviction grew that something about the whole situation was out of
kilter. Since his graduation from
He grinned in spite of his concerns. That idea would have made Harry Nelson
chuckle, he knew, but he doubted Nelson was doing much chuckling about
now. In fact, he found himself hoping he
still had a job when he got back to
Well, the best action was to get this mission over with and get back to what he really loved, the Seaview. His stride lengthened then and he began to whistle a tune he had heard one of the fishermen at the coastal village whistling at dawn that morning. His arrival on shore had gone unnoticed, he was certain. He had slipped silently out of the zodiac onto the shore a good one hundred yards south of the strand that protected the tiny community. He had walked along the beach, his shoulders rounded, his head down, approaching the two men who were mending nets beside their beached boat. It had been his first attempt to use the language skills he had learned over the past twenty-four hours and he had been a little nervous when he asked one of the men if there were any positions available in their little fishing fleet. The fisherman had laughed, then sobered solicitously. He sympathized with a man who had lost his boat and his livelihood, but fishing was not so good there at the moment, he had said. Take a bus into the city. There might be work there, he had advised predictably, and Lee had thanked him and started to walk toward Shëvin.
A distant, throaty rumble sounded from behind him and his stride faltered. He turned, facing back toward the west, watching as the promised bus clattered toward him. He sighed, incredibly relieved that his legs would not be expected to carry him the remaining ten kilometers and waved one arm to flag down the bus.
"What you doing out here in the middle of nowhere, fisherman?" the driver asked sharply through the permanently open door and, although the words sounded strange in his ears, Lee understood what was said to him easily.
"I am looking for work. I was told that in Shëvin...."
"Then get on. It's been a lonely trip so far."
Lee climbed the rusted steps into the ancient bus, reaching into his pocket for the money Carstairs had provided. "How much?"
"Give me one Lek. You look as if you should save your money, my friend. Besides, we are nearly there."
Lee nodded, smiling gratefully at the man’s blatant lie, and pealed a single green, pink and blue bill off the meager roll that was tied with a piece of fishing line. Attention to detail was what preserved or betrayed, he knew. He thrust the worn bill at the driver and sank down in the bench seat behind him.
"My name is Kani. We could talk until we reach Shëvin. This can be a very lonely road." The driver put the bus back in gear and the vehicle lurched onward, grumbling and complaining every inch of the way.
"So it has proven, Kani. I am Lee... Levik Shpata. I was a fisherman until my boat was swamped in that bad storm a month ago."
"Ah, that is too bad. But you have a good name... Shpata... A great man in our history... A war lord..."
"I am but a fisherman," Lee countered quietly. "What do you know about Shëvin? Are there many new people there?" The question was important for him to find the answer to, but it would not seem out of the ordinary to the bus driver. Too many new people in a community would mean fewer job opportunities.
"Not that I heard of. Not too many people going anyplace around here. Between you and me, Levik, I would keep going... maybe to the capital. Shëvin is not a good place to be a stranger. The mayor is the police chief as well the military governor. He is a harsh man, I hear."
"I am a law-abiding man."
"That may not be enough with Colonel Metzer. Come, my friend. Ride with me to the capital. Shengiin is a much better place... or the
"I would not venture too far from the sea. It is all I know."
"But you are young and smart, too, I bet. You could learn a new trade. You could drive a bus, like me."
Lee fought hard to keep his smile kind and sincere. "My thanks, Kani. How often do you make this drive? And do you go only the one way?"
"Oh no. You were fortunate to be walking today instead of tomorrow. My home is in Rrëshen and I start my route from there. But tomorrow I would have been going the other direction."
"How long.... You’ll be in Shëvin again tomorrow?" He met the man's nearly black eyes in the rear view mirror.
"Yes, of course.
You thinking of going back to the
"Perhaps," Lee replied, allowing a hint of dejection to creep into his voice. If there is no work, at least I can catch enough fish there to feed myself. I will not starve."
"Sounds like you have it all figured out."
"I have nothing figured out. I am just trying to stay alive," he said, with more feeling than he had intended. He saw the driver wink at him in the mirror and he knew he had not betrayed himself, that his vehemence was well within expectation. "Tell me about Shëvin," he requested again.
Kani shrugged eloquently. "In a few minutes you can see for yourself, but... All right. See all the fields along here? Once there were many small farms but now the land is owned by Colonel Metzer's favored few in the city."
"You don't like this Colonel Metzer." Kani shook his head emphatically. "Are you not worried that I might tell him?"
Kani chuckled. "I am a good judge of character. I have only just met you and I find that I would trust you... even with my bus.... She is like my wife, this bus. I think you felt that way about your boat...."
"I do, Kani. I certainly do. I hear there is a winery in Shëvin?"
"No longer, I am sad to say. It is hardly more than ruins, now, and the tourists do not come to see the ruins of wineries, only more ancient things. The winery was destroyed during the War. The Italians had established a base there and the Americans or the English bombed it from airplanes. It had good wine, once." Lee smiled, appreciating his obvious sorrow. "There is a church in Shëvin, as there is in Rrëshen. You don't see them too much, nowadays, but there are still many Christians in this district. I am Orthodox myself, but I think the Roman churches are very nice; not as beautiful as ours, of course, but very nice."
"I thought it was a convent... for women...." Lee said abruptly.
"Oh there is that, as well. They do not mingle with the people of the town, keeping themselves within their walls."
Lee nodded thoughtfully.
"How can they continue?
Surely there are not many women in
"More than you would think. Many families would prefer to see their daughters behind those walls of silence than to have them live in a society that values them not at all. Even a few daughters of the wealthy now make their homes there."
"Then it's as much a prison as a home...."
"You have not heard them singing, Levik. Take a walk along their walls early morning or late afternoon and just listen. They are happy there. I sometimes envy them their freedom...."
"Freedom," Lee scoffed, knowing it would be expected of a man of this country. "They are only hiding...."
"Oh, my friend, be not so harsh. You are not like most other men in this country. I knew it at once." Lee swallowed spasmodically. Was he discovered so easily by a mere bus driver. "Most men in this country pay homage to Allah in public, even if they worship as Christians in their homes. You do not wear the garments of one of the true believers, my friend. Am I mistaken?"
"I am not Muslim," Lee replied softly, feigning some alarm but the bus driver did not seem to notice.
"I thought not. Greek, perhaps.... Then you should know that the women of the convent are entitled to respect if nothing else. There are those who say that during the War, when Italians and Germans occupied our country, some among them did more than pray for our country, though there are those who say that was more than enough."
Lee noted the man's vagueness, but answered distantly, his
thoughts on other, more current problems.
"I understand that happened frequently, all across
Once more Kani sought his gaze in the mirror, and the driver nodded wisely. Both men were silent for some time, then as they were nearing the outskirts of the small town, the bus driver spoke again.
Lee got slowly to his feet then extended his hand to the driver, his long fingers closing about the other man's blocky hand, and he smiled affably. "God willing, I won't need your assistance, Kani, but you have the gratitude of this man of the sea."
"Be careful, fisherman. If you find yourself in need of food, sometimes the extern sisters at the convent will provide a meal...."
"Again, my thanks. Hopefully I will find work or, if not, perhaps I'll rejoin you on your trip back to the coast. You expect many passengers?"
"Sometimes... the district capital is in that direction."
Lee smiled his thanks and released the driver's hand, then turned away, descending the steps to the pavement. He did not look back but started along the street, glancing into the occasional shop, moving slowly, using the windows as mirrors to study the square across the street behind him. He observed the pair of uniformed men approaching him on foot just as the bus moved down the street between them to keep its schedule and Lee stepped into the tiny café in front of him. He sank down into one of the wooden chairs, doffed his cap and folded his arms on the tabletop, leaning forward heavily. He knew the local militiamen would be there soon to question him and if they searched him they would certainly find the Glock and he would be a dead man. Still he tried to behave as normally as possible, looking up wearily as the café proprietor came out of the kitchen toward him.
"You want food or just a place to rest, stranger?" he asked bluntly.
"Food. I can pay," he clarified. "What do you have?"
"Pule me arra," the man told him defensively. Lee nodded, assuming rightly that the common chicken with walnuts dish was almost all the café served.
"Do you have beer? Birra Tiranë?" he asked, confident the popular beer named after the capital city would be available.
The proprietor made a rude noise deep in his throat and wheeled away, reentering the kitchen only a moment before the soldiers stepped inside the shabby little establishment and came to a halt. Lee had seated himself with his left shoulder toward the door. He looked toward them, keeping his expression open and bland. He did not smile, nor did he give any evidence of fear to trigger any overt actions on their part.
"You arrived just now
on the eastbound bus?" one of the men demanded. Lee centered his attention on the speaker, a
sergeant by his insignia, which he recognized from the brief but intense
research he had done before leaving the
Lee stood up slowly from the table. He was a hand's width taller than either man and, rather than flaunt his height, he slumped feigning a degree of subservience he had never known. He reached into his trousers pocket and pulled out the palm-sized case. The leather was stained and even wrinkled and inside, the papers were hard to read, but still legible. The sergeant examined them closely, then tapped the case against the back of his free hand.
"My fishing boat capsized a few weeks ago in a bad storm," he explained softly. "I lost it... and everything I owned. My papers were nearly ruined."
"You should have them replaced... Shpata," the soldier said, reading from the papers. "You're looking for work?" Once more Lee only nodded. "Not much for a fisherman here. No other captains would take you on?"
Lee shook his head this time. "There is no work along the coast. Even those who have their boats are bringing up empty nets. An equal share of nothing is still nothing...." He spoke quietly, a man who had nearly reached the end of hope.
"What will you do if you find nothing here? Move on to the next town?" the sergeant asked, betraying just the faintest trace of compassion.
"No. As I told
the driver of the bus, I will return to the
The sergeant returned his papers, which Lee took and dropped back into his pocket. "I doubt you'll find much here, Shpata, but I wish you the luck of your search."
"My thanks, Sergeant."
"Just stay out of trouble while you are here. Colonel Metzer has little patience with anyone who disturbs the peace in Shëvin."
"I mean no one harm," he answered honestly.
The two soldiers studied him a moment longer, taking in the worn boots and faded trousers, the moth-eaten sweater that seemed to have stretched to a size too large for its wearer, the water-stained cap on the table. Not for the first time on these assignments did Lee's lean physique play in his favor. Too often, of late, Dr. Jamieson had lectured him on his being too thin, but here, the ideal weight of an average American would have certainly exposed him as a foreigner. Most Albanians, even these two soldiers, had no spare fat on their bodies at all.
"You will be under surveillance while you are here, fisherman. We give you fair warning."
Lee inclined his head as the men wheeled and began their retreat from the tiny restaurant. "Sergeant...." Lee called as they reached the sidewalk outside. "Is there an inexpensive inn?"
"Across the square, two streets down. The Blue Bird. Tell them Sgt. Omaka said it was all right."
"Thank you, sir."
The soldier nodded curtly and continued on down the street, his comrade at his side.
With a suppressed sigh, Lee sank back into his chair, glancing up furtively as the proprietor eased from the kitchen, a bright green bottle in his hand. He set the bottle down on the table with a sharp thud. "I figure a man like you won't want his beer in a mug. Right?"
Lee reached out for the room temperature beer, his fingers encircling the bottle. "This will be just fine." He leaned back in the chair, sipping absently at the Tiranë beer, his mind whirling with plans and problems. He wanted to have Cadek Dorogoi on the morning bus back to the coast. The quicker he could get him out of town, the less likelihood that Metzer would get his hands on him and, for some reason Carstairs had refused to reveal, Dorogoi's defection was of vital importance.
He had eaten half the boiled chicken with its walnut sauce before he even realized what he was doing and he cautioned himself to be more aware of his actions or he would betray himself without any help from anyone else. He finished eating, drank the last few swallows of the beer, and peeled off three bills of his meager supply of funds. "Is this enough?" he asked the proprietor. "I should have asked before you brought the food."
"It will do, fisherman. I have no work for you, though."
Lee allowed a smile. "I was going to ask. Do you know of... anyone?"
"It is too late for planting crops... too early for harvest. Business in Shëvin is not so good as to allow many jobs.... I'm sorry."
Lee rose from the table, still smiling thinly. He picked up the cap and squared it on his head with unconsciously military precision. "I'll look around some more. It may be that I will have to go back to the coast and live on mussels and seaweed, if I can't find anything. Thank you. Your pule me arra was very good, and will sustain me until tomorrow."
"Uh...." The proprietor glanced through the door, then looked back up at the tall young man standing before him. He was a pleasant person, considerate and gentle, both characteristics rare ones here. "Stop by in the morning if you're heading back to the sea. I'll make sure you do not make the trip on an empty stomach."
"You are too kind. If.... When I get a new boat I will bring you a basket of fresh fish for your generosity."
"That would please my patrons. They get tired of chicken," the owner of the café chuckled dryly at his own expense. "The policeman told you truthfully, fisherman. Do nothing to attract Colonel Metzer's attention. Men have been known to die in his hands... even men who have done nothing wrong."
Lee studied the man's face closely for a moment, finding nothing but sincerity in his craggy features. He nodded slowly then, and quietly left the café, ambling across the narrow street to the town square.
The town was smaller than he had expected somehow; little more than a dozen square blocks, and he knew that his presence would quickly be known to more than just the military. He would have to make sure every move he made was in character, beyond suspicion. There was a reasonably prosperous-appearing hotel facing onto the square, but it appeared that most people lived in apartments behind or above their places of business, for there were few free-standing homes and those were on the eastern edge of the town. After a very brief survey of his surroundings Lee returned his attention to the business section, pausing frequently to inquire about work, but seeking only the place it had been reported was Dorogoi's hiding place. He found it at last, a cobbler's shop a few blocks off the square. He glanced inside as he passed, observing the single man at the battered counter, but continued on without hesitation. He maintained his routine for nearly two blocks, then began to limp, stopping every few steps to ease an imaginary discomfort. He stopped entirely at last and sank down on the broken curb to pull off his left boot, reached inside as if to check the reason for his distress then, glancing around him, he pulled the boot back on and rose, retracing his steps with increasing difficulty.
He entered the cobbler's shop diffidently, grinning boyishly at the middle-aged man behind the counter. "Ndjemëni, zoti," he greeted, excuse me, sir. "My boot is causing me some pain."
"Take it off. I'll look at it." Obediently Lee eased town onto the crude bench against the wall and pulled the boot off once more, surrendering it to the cobbler. "This boot has been wet... sea water, I would say."
"I am a fisherman. My boat was capsized in a storm a while ago. All I possess is what I have on..."
"And your crew?" the man asked, putting the boot on the cobbler's last.
"There is only me."
"Why are you in Shëvin? Looking for work?"
"I am, though I'm not having much luck. I find I'm anxious to return to the coast. I miss the sea-view...." he finished, using the name of Nelson's submarine as had been the required cue. As he had expected, the cobbler looked up from his work sharply, eyeing him suspiciously.
"I would think... after such an experience, you would be glad to be away from such a dangerous life at sea," he replied. No counter-identification had been provided Crane, but the man's surprise had not been feigned.
"No, it gets into your blood. I can think of no other life I would prefer...." he said honestly.
"Well, your boot can be mended. What about the other one. If it was as wet as this one, it could use some looking to. My wife has a pot of tea brewing, if you would like to step into the back and wait while I repair your boots...."
"A kind offer, zoti. Looking for work is a thirsty job, itself."
Lee removed the other boot and handed it to the cobbler then, following the wave of his hand, he rounded the counter and slipped through the drapery that covered the door into the back of the shop. The space was a sitting room of sorts boasting a threadbare couch, two equally worn chairs and a square wooden table with three rickety chairs placed at it. A small, graying woman appeared in another doorway, a teapot and the handles of two mugs firmly in her grip. She deposited her burden on the tabletop and, with hardly a glance at the tall stranger in her parlor, she ducked beneath the curtain and vanished from his sight. He stepped forward, picking up the teapot and lifting the ceramic lid to peer inside.
"The tea is not poisoned or drugged, Captain Crane."
Lee replaced the pot on the table and nodded a greeting to the distinguished looking man leaning against the rear doorjamb. "I wondered when you would put in an appearance, Dr. Dorogoi."
"You know who I am?" He seemed surprised.
"I know. The same way you can identify me."
The Russian approached and sank down onto one of the three chairs. He took the pot from Crane's hands and poured himself a cup of tea, leaving the other cup empty. He was of average height, stocky and with salted-brown hair. He seemed calm, even self-composed, but there was a flicker in the gray eyes, the telltale evidence of enduring fear. Lee watched him for a moment then sat down opposite him, though he took none of the tea.
"You sent a message...?"
"I have to get out of this country," the other man said sharply, his fear bubbling to the surface.
The Captain leaned back in his chair, rocking it back on two legs as he studied the other man. He was definitely afraid, but of what?
"What happened?" he asked, bringing the chair back down and leaning forward earnestly.
"If I don't get away, they'll take me back. I won't be responsible for what happens then!"
"Why do they want you, Dr. Dorogoi. What is it that you can do for them?"
"I... I discovered a way... to cause deep sea earthquakes at any location on earth... of a magnitude of eight or higher."
Lee swallowed sharply. "But that...."
"Would create tsunamis that would destroy everything along the coastline of any country in the world. Yes. I know."
"How many people know what you've found?"
"Some suspect, but no one knows for sure. Much of the information is in my head. The rest I have on data disks... with me."
Crane's tension betrayed itself in his habitual raising of one long-fingered hand to his head, combing through his short-cropped hair before he lowered his right hand to his left, seeking the ring he did not wear. He nodded slowly. "We'll get you out, Doctor."
"How?" Dorogoi wailed. "There are no private cars in this town and I can't walk all the way to the coast! They'd be on us in minutes."
"I have an idea," Lee assured him. "Do you think you can disguise yourself well enough to enable you to walk from here to the square without being identified?"
"We will help him, Captain," the woman's voice said from the curtained doorway. Lee smiled gently turning his head only slightly as she parted the drapes and rejoined them.
"So you're the contact," he stated flatly. She nodded.
"I was born in
"To keep it simple. Doctor Dorogoi, I want you to leave here at tomorrow morning and walk slowly to the city square. I'll make contact with you there."
"They'll arrest me!"
"Not if your friends do their job well," he replied, smiling charmingly at the cobbler's wife.
"You're not going to tell us any more?" she asked
"I'm afraid not, zonjë. You know the drill, of course... what you don't know you can't betray." He stood up, towering head and shoulders above the small woman. "I'd better go. I'm under surveillance, and if I stay much longer there'll be soldiers in here to check on me." He turned to face the frightened Russian. "Dr. Dorogoi, try to relax. I wish I could do something more quickly, but I can't. Let our friends here come up with their disguise, then try to think yourself into that persona. It'll help."
"You'll be arrested if they suspect you."
"Then I have to make sure they don't suspect me, don't I?" He smiled again, that reassuring, confidence-inspiring smile his crew knew so well then he turned and ducked through the curtain into the shop front.
"Your boots are finished, fisherman," Besenik told him, his voice raised unnaturally loudly for any listener they could not see. "They were not meant for walking long distances."
"I am well aware of that now, cobbler," Lee answered as he balanced first on one foot, then the other to pull the boots on. "I can only hope your repairs will get me back to the coast."
"I'm sure they will last as long as you have need, Levik."
Crane nodded and stepped back out onto the street, whistling absently. The soldiers who had been shadowing him were loitering just down the street, waiting for him to reappear. He pretended not to notice, stamping his feet and grinning widely to convince the watchers that his boots had never felt better. His stride was lighter, longer as he walked down the street. He took no notice of the two soldiers but continued his futile search for employment. By dusk there were few places where he had not inquired and he was extraordinarily glad he was not really in need of a job. The bus driver, Kani, certainly seemed to have been correct about the opportunities in his place.
As darkness fell the carillon bells of the Abbey of St. Helena began to sound through the unnatural stillness. He was not far from the convent with its tall, strong walls, its heavy extern gate and he was reminded of his comment that had likened the place to a prison. But the bells did not sound like anything ever connected to a prison. Then he had heard the singing begin, beautiful, angelic voices drifting on the evening air, and he had to admit the truth of Kani's statement that the sisters within were, doubtless, happier than any who dwelled in the city nearby.
He sought out the Blue Bird Inn, its marquee simply a square plank of wood painted with the crude likeness of a blue bird in flight and even then the paint was dull and faded. It took Sgt. Omaka's name, and most of his remaining funds, to get him a room for the night but he knew he needed to rest and plan, and the night air was already turning chill and damp. Not the sort of night he wanted to spend sleeping beneath a tree in the town square unless absolutely necessary.
The room was on the second of the three floors, sparsely furnished with only a narrow bed and a wash basin on a stand. There was a single bathroom for the entire building, down the hall from his room, and although there were few guests at the hotel, he knew that bathing would leave him too vulnerable. He closed the sleeping room door behind him and crossed to sink down onto the lumpy mattress. He stretched out on top of the covers, his hands folded behind his head and stared up at the ceiling.
He did have a plan, insufficient as it seemed. He had not lied to Dorogoi. If it went as he hoped, they would both be
He ran his hand across his mouth, which had gone suddenly
dry. He knew what would probably await
him if he were to be captured by Anitol Metzer and just the thought made his
blood run cold. But, if he judged Dorogoi
correctly and, if he were to be returned to the government agency he had fled,
he would swiftly reveal everything to them about his discovery. And that would spell disaster to the
world. He sighed raggedly. Dorogoi had to escape
ó ó ó ó
Lee awoke quickly and completely as he had trained himself
to do years ago at the Academy to the sound of the Abbey bells. It was still dark outside the small window
beside the bed but he knew it was nearly dawn and the carillon summoned the
nuns to Lauds, their morning prayers. He
threw back the blanket he had pulled over his long legs and swung them off the
bed, rising and stretching stiffened muscles.
Absently he pushed the sweater sleeve up, seeking the watch that was as
much a part of him as his
His stomach grumbled emptily and he recalled the café proprietor's offer of breakfast. He must behave normally he knew and seeking a free breakfast would be in complete character for a nearly destitute man. He snatched up the Greek cap and put it on then slipped quietly from the room. He descended the stairs silently and moved through the rundown lobby and stepped out into the pre-dawn chill. He paused, searching the shadows, seeking the men, or others like them, who had been watching him since he arrived, but he could find no evidence of them. He could make his way to the cobbler's shop once more, but he was reluctant to draw undue attention to the couple. No, he decided, he would return to the café and wait. The sun would emerge from behind the mountains at about the time the bus arrived, he estimated, and if luck was with them they would soon be well on their way to the coast.
The café was open and alight and there were three other men seated in the establishment, either just drinking coffee or eating some sort of coarse bread and what appeared to be common scrambled eggs. The man must have quite a flock of chickens, Crane thought absently as he lingered in the doorway, seeming hesitant and unsure of himself. The proprietor turned then, saw him and grinned widely.
"Ah, my friend the fisherman! So, you are returning to the coast?" Somehow the man did not sound at all disappointed or regretful, Lee thought. "Sit down, sit down! I promised you a meal, and you shall have it!"
"You will be forever held in kind regard in my heart, zoti. And I will not forget the fish...."
The owner of the café placed a plate of vezë të rrahura, scrambled eggs, on a
table and a steaming mug of what Lee identified from his only previous visit to
this country, as Albanian mountain tea, çaj
He was the last man in the café when he rose at last. He crossed to face the proprietor and extended his hand. The Albanian took his hand in both of his own, shaking it warmly, then he hesitated, gripping Lee's hand firmly and turning it palm upward. Lee froze, not sure what it was that alarmed the man who had been so friendly but certain, nonetheless, that he had discovered something that would reveal him as an impostor. Lee raised his gold-flecked brown eyes from their clasped hands expecting, at the least, fear in the man's face so he was unprepared for the gleam of excitement in the dark brown, nearly black eyes that met his.
"These hands have never hauled nets for a living, my friend," he said softly.
"And, if they have not?"
The proprietor sobered abruptly. "You must leave Shëvin quickly then. It is not a safe place for foreigners."
"Nor you either if you seem too friendly toward me."
"Don't worry. The Colonel is my cousin." Lee gave a start of alarm but the proprietor merely tightened his grip. "I have no more use for him than you should. But he holds family detached from his suspicions. Fortunate for me."
"And me," Lee agreed. His hand turned and his fingers tightened on the other man's. "I'll try to find a way to send you those fish."
"Send them to Alexander Toponof. I will accept them with gratitude."
Toponof followed him to the doorway, watching as the tall young man strode across the narrow street toward the square. What was it, he wondered absently, that drew him to this stranger. He moved with the slightly rolling gait of a true seaman but his hands were smoother than they should have been, callused in places that had not been caused by nets. Whoever he was, he would soon be safely out of Shëvin, and no longer his concern. He chuckled softly and turned back into his café. Why should he concern himself with a stranger? he asked himself, and yet he did. There was something so likable, so honest about the young man that he could only wish him well, even as he feared the worst.
There was no one else in the square, even the militiamen had not reappeared and Lee found a tree against which he could lean and still watch for Dorogoi's approach. He recognized him immediately although the disguise was a good one and not far from reality, thus making it easier to uphold; a hunched, black-bearded, bespectacled man, a scholarly man, a teacher, perhaps, but there was none of the polish and style of the man he had met the previous afternoon. He came from the northeast, walking slowly, tentatively, a dilapidated suitcase clutched almost desperately in his right hand. Lee followed his progress with only his eyes, seeming to continue to stare straight ahead as the man approached.
"You're doing well," he said, his voice just loud enough to reach Dorogoi. "Slow down just a bit. The bus is just now coming down the street. Walk straight to it and get aboard. I'll join you in a few minutes. We can't appear to know one another...."
"Then what?" Now that the moment was at hand Dorogoi had nearly reached his breaking point. He had to be reassured.
"I'll be with you, but if I'm not... have the driver let you off the bus a couple miles south of the first fishing village on the coast. Your ride will find you. Just wait for them to find you. You'll be fine. Just stay calm."
"I can't go alone...!"
"Keep your voice down. The bus is stopping now. The driver's a good man. Trust him. I'm right behind you."
Dorogoi continued on slowly, hesitantly, his steps faltering, but he kept moving. He was nearly to the street, approaching the bus from the rear when Lee stepped away from the tree and followed. He watched as Dorogoi climbed aboard the bus behind another man, an apparent farmer, and behind him, a third man, another farmer, ran across the square from the other direction and charged aboard. Lee approached more slowly, straight on to the side of the bus. Kani looked up and saw him, his homely face breaking into a beaming smile.
"Levik, my friend! You are here!" he called happily but at his hail Lee's own steps hesitated.
He had given his assumed name only twice, once to Kani, on the bus, and once to Sgt. Omaka, and yet, he recalled belatedly, the cobbler, Besenik, had called him by name when he left his shop. He had not caught the slip at the time, had not even thought of it until Kani hailed him, but now it throbbed in his mind like the steady pulse of the Seaview engines. He caught the movement of the approaching soldiers through the windshield of the bus and he began to back away, his gaze catching Kani's and holding it.
"Leave now, Kani," he ordered, his tone brooking no argument.
"But...." Kani attempted nonetheless.
"Go!" Crane ground out, his
voice low, but commanding, as if he still stood on the
As no man of his crew would question such a tone, neither did Kani. He threw the bus into gear and began to ease it away from the curb but he moved only a few feet before he was forced to a halt by the human barrier before his bus. One of the soldiers, not Omaka, but a man of higher rank, Lee noted, stepped to the still open door, blatantly ignoring the tall, shabbily dressed seaman. Lee glanced swiftly to left and right. There were other soldiers approaching the bus. They knew about Dorogoi....
"What do you want, Lieutenant?" Kani called out, his voice calm, if slightly irritated. "You know the penalties for delaying me!"
"We have information that a defector may be trying to leave Shëvin. Your bus is the only way," the soldier said. He put out one hand, gripping the doorframe in preparation for mounting the stairs.
Lee swallowed quickly, groping at the back of his waistband for the small gun he carried there. There was only one way to ensure the departure of the bus and that was to give the soldiers their man... or one they could believe was their man. He pulled the Glock free, fingering the trigger familiarly, releasing the weapon's safety-action and aiming carefully. He fired, the bullet slamming into the top of the bus just above the officer's head, then he waited only long enough to see the soldier hurl himself flat on the ground. Crane wheeled and began to edge across the open square, knowing that his furtive actions would draw attention away from the bus more surely than an open run. He snapped off another shot at the lieutenant as the man got to his feet, another calculated miss, then there were shouts of alarm and anger from the other soldiers. Through it all he heard the lieutenant ordering the bus out of town, the throaty rumble of the laboring engine and he smiled grimly as he turned and began to run.
He reached the far edge of the square and headed down one of the side streets, stretching out into an easy, long-legged lope. He had never laid claim to being much of a sprinter but he had taken a ribbon or two at the Academy for long distance. He had already admitted to not being in peak condition but with his life on the line he knew he could elude most any man they set after him in a straight run. But that wouldn't last for long, he knew. He ducked his head reflexively when the first bullet sang past him, then he skidded around a corner, darting between the close-set buildings.
He knew he could not totally evade them, or their interest
might well return to the bus and he could not allow that. He should be with Dorogoi, to ensure he made
good his escape, that the man made it safely aboard
The sky was growing brighter by the moment, the sun nearly clearing the peaks to the east, and with the sun came more soldiers. The dossier he had committed to memory had put their numbers at forty men who reported to Colonel Metzer. At the time he had read it, he had thought the number perhaps an overestimate but not now. Most of those forty men seemed to be searching for him and making no secret of their whereabouts. They were encircling him, slowly cutting off any path of escape and he knew it but the longer he held out, the longer it took them to find him, the nearer safety Dorogoi would be.
So far luck had been with him. He had dodged through alleyways and down narrow streets, his hours of wandering the town the previous day paying off now. He would allow the soldiers to catch sight of him, then vanish using every trick the ONI had ever taught him, every instinct of his own agile mind. He had been in similar situations before, staying behind to cover the escape of others, but usually it was in the jungle, not in a city, and usually it was his own team he protected, not a man who had been an unfriend to his country, if not an outright enemy, just weeks before.
Abruptly the luck that had favored him vanished in one instant. He was running, full out, down one of those alleyways, going from one street to another to evade his pursuers when it happened. It was not a soldier, but a stray cat that brought him down. The alarmed animal erupted out of a wooden box at the side of the alley, screaming in a mingling of terror and fury, bolting across the alley nearly between his running feet. Lee's strides faltered and he fought to stay upright and regain his balance, but it had happened too quickly, too unexpectedly, and he went down, crashing to the ground, taking most of his weight on his right knee, before he could turn it into a tuck and roll and regain his feet.
He was suddenly sweating, the pain radiating both up and down his leg like living flames. "Damn," he muttered, and staggered a few steps forward, blanching at the intensity of the pain in his knee. There would be no more running for him. He slumped back against the wall of one of the buildings, flexing his fingers on the grip of the pistol, his index finger poised over the trigger as a door opened in the blank side of the building across from him. "Naila...." he managed, his surprise clear in his voice as he brought the Glock up to bear.
"It was Besenik," she whispered.
"I know." He shook his head as she raised one hand beseechingly. "Where is he?"
Her voice trembled, but she spoke without hesitation. "Dead... a few minutes ago.... He was a viper in my house...."
Lee swallowed heavily. Nothing had brought home to him the difference in cultures as strongly as what she had done without hesitation. "They'll suspect you."
"It doesn't matter now."
"Yes, it does!" he snapped, pushing away from the wall and hobbling toward her. "You've got to make contact with your people.... You may be my only hope," he added, seeing the rejection in her eyes turn to resignation.
"You are as good as dead, Captain. You will be arrested and Metzer does not release his prisoners."
He hobbled up the single wooden step and pushed past her into the living quarters of the building, then on through the bedroom, the kitchen and into the sitting room. He came to a halt beside the body of the woman's husband. He was clearly dead, the handle of a large kitchen knife protruding from his chest. There wasn't much blood. That was good.
"I'm sorry," he mumbled, and he was. This whole mission was blowing up in his face like a bursting balloon. He leaned down and wrenched the knife from the man's body, closing his mind to the woman's anguished gasp. "You didn't kill him, I did. I came back here for help and he attacked me, and I shot him."
"No," she protested weakly.
"It's the only way.... God, I hate to do this," he grumbled, tucking the Glock into the front waistband of his pants and switching the knife to his right hand. He made the slash quick and surely, cutting through the sleeve of the sweater on his left forearm, grimacing as he dropped the knife to the floor and retrieved the automatic. He stood over the dead body, once more taking careful aim before he fired. He heard the distressed whimper from Naila, but he turned toward her sternly. "The bullet probably went clear through him at this range. Tell them I knocked him down and then shot him. Now, start screaming, and don't stop until they come."
She stared at him in abject horror. This was a different man from the personable young American Naval officer he had been before and he frightened her. Still, what he suggested made sense if she had any desire to survive. He was limping heavily toward the front of the shop, glancing back at her, his expressive eyes imploring her to do his bidding. Resignedly she opened her mouth and began to shriek as he pushed open the front door and stepped out, facing the rifles that were pointed at him. The line of soldiers parted, and a tall man, dapper in his dark gray uniform, stepped forward to confront him. He reached out, removing the pistol from Crane's hand, smiling as he spoke.
"Captain Lee Crane, of the submarine Seaview, you are under arrest."
ó ó ó ó
The air was cool and the breeze from the mountains fresh
here in the bell tower high above the stone walls of the Abbey of St. Helena
and Sister Monika threw back her head, allowing the peace to wash over her and
through her. She had been at the Abbey
only a few weeks and still found the walls somewhat confining, but she was
confident that she had a true vocation, and the moments she spent here in the
tower acted as a balm to her socially-oriented spirit. Monika was young, only eighteen. She had entered
Below her in the Abbey park a single bell toned the end of recreation and Monika turned to go, but as she turned a flash of sunlight on a car windscreen caught her attention and she hesitated, watching as the long, sleek convertible swept through the trees on the road near the Abbey. It was the type of car favored by the head of the local military, she knew, and as she climbed down the ladder she found herself wondering what it was doing on a road that led only to the deserted winery, abandoned during the War and never opened again. Strangely, despite the heat of the airless tower, she shivered as she called back to mind the picture of the car... the driver alone in the front seat, while three men rode in the back, two uniformed officials flanking a bare-headed man in the center. Before her entrance to the Abbey she had seen many such incidents... men being taken to die. Perhaps that was one reason she had sought the life of a religious. As kind as they were, the Council seemed to think so, that her calling was not sincere, merely a young girl's attempt to escape the unpleasantness of the world. The general conjecture was that she would never be clothed, that she would find an excuse to leave before then. Somehow she would prove... to them as well as herself... how true her vocation really was.
"Ah, Sister Monika, I was looking for you." Monika nodded a greeting to Sister Grace, also dressed in novice-gray, but who would take her final vows in just two weeks. Grace was a tall, regal looking girl from Tiranë, nearly three years older than Monika, and the young postulant never saw Grace without marveling at the matching of name to nun, at least in Sister Grace's case. In her own case she had been born Monika, and Monika she was to remain, though it was generally the custom of the Abbey that aspirants were given a new name, a name that would remain with them throughout the rest of their religious lives. Monika was a perfectly good name, the name of a saint, the Abbess* had assured her, and it suited her, though it was possible that another name might be added officially when she was clothed. It seemed they had doubted, even upon her entrance into the Abbey, the sincerity of her desire, the truth of what she knew to be her vocation. Sister Grace interrupted her unpleasant reverie as she took her hand and led her to the bulletin board outside the refectory. Gentle and caring, Grace's eyes brimmed as she pointed out the new plea from someone in the town outside their walls for prayers. "One of the Extern Sisters gave it to Dame Joseph to post," she explained softly.
Theirs was not a silent order, except for certain periods of the day, but the two girls had learned to keep their spoken words low, in keeping with the reverence of the place and their lowly standing in the community.
"A political prisoner... an American," Monika murmured, remembering the car she had seen just minutes earlier, certain it had been the same man. But someone in the town cared enough about him to ask for their prayers, she realized. The two girls' eyes met and held for a moment. More recently come from the world beyond the Abbey walls than the others of the Order, they each were more cognizant of what fate the hapless American was likely to meet.
They separated then, returning to their tasks before Vespers, adding their prayers to those of the community, their inexperience tempered by their more immediate knowledge of the nameless American's plight. Sister Monika found it difficult to work for her concern, but it was a comfort to know that there were nuns stationed in the chapel offering up special prayers for the American's safety, and if that was an impossibility, an easy death.
ó ó ó ó
Admiral Jesse Carstairs sat at his desk aboard the SSN
Fargo staring morosely at the ship-to-shore telephone squared on the blotter
before him. In a few moments his
radioman would notify him that the connection had been completed, routing his
call through ONI in
"Your call to Admiral Nelson is ready, sir."
Carstairs grumbled a response and reached for the phone, lifting it and pressing the earpiece to his ear. "Harry."
"I was beginning to think you weren't going to call, Jesse."
"I told you I would, Harry. Uh...."
"What is it?" Nelson demanded sharply. "Damnit, he's gotten himself hurt again, hasn't he! I warned you about--."
"Harry," Carstairs interrupted. "He... he didn't come back...."
"I... I'm sorry. He stayed behind to cover Dorogoi's escape."
"He would." Nelson's voice was tight, strained. "Do you know his status?"
"He's alive... but he's been arrested."
"Arrested?" The word was a moan. "When?"
"The CIA contact saw him taken into custody about 0930 hours yesterday."
"Yesterday! It's taken this long for you to notify me!? My God, man!"
"We just got word ourselves, Harry. We took Dr. Dorogoi aboard at about 2330 hours last night. He was... to put it kindly... in a highly distraught state. We could get nothing from him. The CMO ended up having to sedate him. We really had no information at all until about fifteen minutes ago when we received the communiqué from the CIA. Their contact in Shëvin had to wait until it was certain the call could be made without being discovered. It seems her own husband notified Metzer that Lee was taking Dorogoi out of the country."
"A woman," Nelson replied, his tone softening minutely. "We don't appreciate how fortunate we are to live in a free country, you know, Jesse."
"Maybe not, but men like your Captain Crane certainly do."
"What are you doing about getting him back?"
"At this time... nothing, I'm afraid. It would take a full-fledged covert invasion to get him out of where he is now."
"Can't!" Nelson's voice was a bullhorn of fury. "Says who?"
"The Secretary of the Navy."
"You mean, we can risk one of our own to bring out a Russian defector, but we can't risk anyone to bring our man out?"
"That's about it, Harry. I said I was sorry."
"Then I guess we'll just have to do it!"
"Harry, you can't!"
"Just try and stop me. You did this without my knowledge. Don't try and stand in my way when I try to fix the mess you've made!"
"That's all I can
do right now. It'll be another
twenty-four hours before we reach the
"Then pick me up at
Carstairs heard the sharp snap of the disconnection and he leaned back in his chair, unbearably tired. Damn the man, anyway, he thought brutally. There was no way of telling if Crane was even still alive and to risk everything to retrieve one man....
Admiral Jesse Carstairs sat forward, his elbows on the desk top, and braced his forehead against his palms. Crane wasn't just any man, or just any agent. Carstairs had had a hand in training him himself, and he knew the degree of dedication and courage that lived in the heart of that tall, lean body. He would not die easily. He had already proven that on more than one occasion. He was not an agent Carstairs was willing to lose.
He reached out, picking up the intercom mike. "Commander Parker."
"Set coordinates for
ó ó ó ó
He had lost track of time. He knew how dangerous that was, but it was true, nevertheless. He had not really expected Metzer to be such an expert at the cruel business of torture when he had surrendered into his hands.... It would not have made any difference in his actions; he knew that now, though at this moment it might seem that a swift death by a dozen bullets would have been better than this endless death by inches.
He let his head fall back against the stone wall, but even that support did not ease the throbbing in his temples, the dull ache that continued to build in his neck. Time. His reeling mind returned to dwell on time. It was growing dark again, for the second time since he had been arrested. There had been no indication that Dorogoi had been taken. For that he was grateful. And there had been no questions regarding Naila, only Besenik. Thus far it appeared that his spur of the moment plan at deception was succeeding or perhaps, in this culture of male dominance, Metzer did not consider any woman to be a danger, only a necessary evil. Still, he could not let down his guard. He could not allow himself to confirm his own identity. He must continue the ruse. He must continue to be Levik Shpata, fisherman, not Lee Crane, submarine captain. He must not reveal the truth.... If Metzer could confirm that the man he held prisoner was, in truth, the man he believed him to be and exploit his presence in the country, his rise to power would be assured. In any case, Lee's own future was not looking too bright just now.
For a day and a half the bitter-visaged Colonel had interrogated him, more or less continually. So far he had withstood the physical torment as well as he could, the beatings with fist and rifle butts, even the lash laid again and again across his back, but his strength was flagging, his body beginning to take control of his mind, his mind beginning to wander through the wilderness of pain that consumed him. He closed his eyes, longing for the respite of sleep, or unconsciousness, but it did not come. Not now. It had been his newfound ability to separate himself from the torture when it became too much for him to stand, to remain conscious, but somehow apart from what was happening, that had helped him hold his tongue, but his ploy had been discovered now and he had already paid the price.
He was alone for the first time since his arrest, since they had brought him to this damp, stone room with its staring windows and empty doorway. Of course, he was not really alone. There was at least one guard just outside in the darkness enjoying a cigarette while his superior was at dinner, and as he lay quietly Lee could smell the smoke from beyond the opening. He had been awakened sometime after dark by the tolling of a distant bell, from the monastery they had passed in the car the day before, he remembered distractedly. They were prisoners too, his wandering mind told him; then, No, they were there by choice, safe from the cruelties of their world. Safe.... He had come to concentrate on those bells, listening for them, waiting, maintaining his hold on his tongue by counting the minutes until they would sound again.
With a grimace of pain he shifted his position. At least he was no longer suspended from the ring in the ceiling, he acknowledged, though his shoulders ached cruelly from the torment. Metzer was a professional in the art of torture and he had used every physical pressure Lee had ever heard of short of thumbscrews and the boot. Crane chuckled mirthlessly, then groaned. The art of torture... what a ludicrous phrase. Where had he heard it? Oh yes, from Metzer himself when he had first been captured. First the psychological torment, then the physical. Despite what Nelson and Jamieson had believed of him, psychologically he was strong. It had not been his mind that had been affected by years of traumatic events, but his spirit. He knew it now and he knew that if he was afforded the opportunity he would be able to handle it, the anguish, the grief when someone he knew well died, the responsibility when they died because of some order of his.
He knew where he was being held, the bombed out winery outside the town. He had gotten a good look at the ruins as the car arrived, one large building that had once housed the casks of wine, and the machinery shed, which is where he had been taken. The bombings had seen the near total destruction of the winery, and the intervening years had turned what was left into little more than an empty shell, but a ghost of what it had once been that the locals avoided at all costs, and that Metzer had taken for his own purposes. Empty, isolated, distant from any habitation, a man’s screams would be heard by no one, despite the empty doorways, and the vacant windows.
Lee knew the impossibility of his being able to escape, but he knew he had to try before Metzer could return to start on him again. His knee was swollen to nearly twice its size, for starters. The initial fall had bruised it deeply, but he would have been able to tolerate that. It was the attention Metzer had given it since his arrest that would cripple his efforts at escape. Escape... the word hovered in his mind like a tempting morsel of food and just as unattainable. No food, but more importantly no water in thirty-six hours, combined with the unremitting pain.... It was no wonder he felt almost delirious, his mind drifting dangerously out of control. He had to at least try to escape. If he was unsuccessful... there had to be a way he could end it. There had to be.
He moved again, wincing as the sweater pulled free of the dried blood of the stripes that laced his back. The sweater, not in perfect condition to begin with, now hung from his lean body in near shreds. Metzer had been scrupulous about leaving the handcuffs in place since his arrest, letting the cuffs, digging into the flesh of his wrists, add to his already considerable pain. Desperately, Crane struggled futilely to rise, fighting back waves of nausea and faintness when he tested his right leg. It would slow him down severely, but it would be the wound in his side that could stop him entirely. He shuddered even at the memory.
It had been after a long night and even longer day of Metzer's brutal questioning that his continued stubborn silence had pushed the Colonel past his own breaking point. Metzer had screamed a curse at him in absolute fury and whirled, tearing a rifle from the guard's hands and plunged the bayonet through his prisoner’s body without apparent thought to the consequences. It was the only time Lee had cried out. But Metzer’s cursing had gone on interminably, even as he had ripped the bayonet blade free and ordered him cut down. The Colonel had stalked angrily from the room as Lee had been allowed to crumple to the floor, his consciousness retreating for a time. The sky outside, visible through the gaping doorway had been pale then and the monastery bell had been chiming vespers for the second time since his arrest, now the sky was black and the bell was silent.
He pressed his left hand against his right side. The bleeding had begun again when he had
tried to stand, and his fingers were sticky and wet, though most of the blood
soaked almost immediately into the heavy sweater. The ten inch blade had pierced completely
through his body, he knew, doubling the ugly wound, and there was nothing he
could do to staunch the flow of blood.
Once more he fought to push himself to his feet and this time he was
more successful, but he slumped against the wall, desperately needing its
support. Could he do it? he wondered. Did he
have the strength to incapacitate the guard and make good his escape in the
condition he was in? Did he have any
other choice but to try? No. He was certain of that. It would be disastrous for Nelson, for the
Navy, and yes, even for the
He inched around the wall, keeping his shoulder against the damp stone as he made his way to the open doorway. The guard was there, to the left of the opening, leaning inattentively against the wall, a smoldering cigarette forgotten in the hand that had dropped to his side as he lightly dozed, confident of his prisoner's helplessness. Lee watched him for a moment, summoning his depleted strength, then, his decision irreversibly made, he crossed the dark opening. The only weapon at his disposal were the chains that bound his wrists, and he doubled his fists, bringing them up with desperate force beneath the unsuspecting guard's chin. The man's head cracked back against the wall, then, without a sound he slid to the ground, but Lee paid highly for his freedom and the sky whirled crazily as he sagged against the wall praying for the strength to go on.
The awful weakness passed, leaving behind it a fierce residue of pain that filled his body as he hobbled away from the squatty stone building, keeping to the shadows to prevent the guards stationed atop the clustered buildings from seeing him. The metal cuffs on his wrists chafed viciously as he moved and sparks of agony shot through his knee with each faltering step. Each beat of his heart pumped more of his precious blood from the wound in his side. The buildings blurred, then were suddenly somehow behind him and he was safely in the trees between the winery and the city. His pain-wracked mind wandered as he staggered on and on, putting distance between himself and Metzer but a plan, more of a hope, began to develop slowly. Lee fell, rose, and fell and rose again, his vision blurring strangely as he forced himself on. Each time he sprawled across the ground he longed to remain where he fell, to allow himself to slip into a slumber that would undoubtedly be his last.
Then he would remember the Seaview, and Nelson, Chip Morton and all the men of his crew who depended on him, and his resolve strengthened once more.
How long he continued so he did not know, but he was certain even a blind man could follow his faltering progress, even without the steady dripping of blood onto the hard-packed ground that marked his passage. If they had tracking dogs any effort on his part to conceal his passage was useless. If not, then perhaps there was still a chance. If only there was some way that his tracks could be really concealed....
He was leaning against a tree, though he did not know how he had come to be there, when the lightning first illuminated the darkness of the night. That instant of light had revealed a massive building not far from him, a cross adorning the top of a tall, slender tower. The abbey.... Twice he had been directed toward this place and now it stood before him like a building out of the middle ages, imposing, sheltering....
The first drops of rain were beginning to splash into the ground as he eased away from the support and protection of the trees, making his way laboriously toward the walls of the Abbey of St. Helena.
ó ó ó ó
Sister Monika knelt silently on the prie-dieu* at the side of the Rectory, nearly unaware of Dame Firmina kneeling nearby. She had gone to the Reverend Mother* after None yesterday, begging to be allowed to keep her own vigil in the night for the unknown American. It was unheard of for a postulant to be allowed such liberties, but the Abbess had gazed into the girl's earnest eyes and nodded. Once before, during her childhood in the nearby village where she had been born, Monika had known a man who was taken away by Colonel Metzer's soldiers. He had been returned, eventually, but he was a shattered man, scarred and crippled, and she had had nightmares for months afterwards. And this was an American; a man from a country that was nearly legendary to her, a country so rich that everyone longed to be able to go there to live. She remembered the dark-haired man she had glimpsed in the back seat of the car with Metzer yesterday afternoon. Somehow she was sure it had been the American prisoner. He had seemed subdued, his head bowed, but now she wondered if, perhaps, he had already been unconscious.
She flinched as Dame Sofía touched her shoulder gently, signaling her that her vigil was over. Her knees were stiff as she stood up and backed away from the prie-dieu. She nodded respectfully to the elderly sister and slowly left the sanctuary, still lost in the silent world of prayer and reverie, feeling the pins and needles of returning circulation to her feet and legs. She looked forward eagerly to her bed, knowing that would come entirely too soon for her liking, and hoped that the nearly incessant thunder would not keep her awake. She had really been unaware of it until she left the chapel, lost as she had been in her prayers.
Her path back to her cell took her by the parlor and, as she passed, a slight movement from within attracted her attention. An involuntary gasp was torn from her throat and her hand went automatically to cover her mouth. For a long moment she was unable to move at all, the astonishment of seeing a man beyond the grille, on the visitors' side of the parlor at this time of night almost more than she could grasp. She stared at him in disbelief, but he seemed unaware of her presence as she crept toward the grille, his back toward her as he seemed poised on the verge of flight. He was tall, she noted, and slender, and dressed in the shabby garb she had seen hundreds of fishermen wearing on the coast. What was a man doing here? she wondered frantically, and what should she do? He turned slowly toward her, and she gave a slight squeak of alarm. He was a handsome man, or would have been had his features not been blurred by bruises and blood. His hand was red with fresh blood as he raised it to wipe across incredibly expressive eyes, eyes that were neither the dark, nearly black-brown she was accustomed to seeing nor blue, but golden brown, and they were bright with the glitter of fever. He stumbled forward, nearly collapsing against the bars that separated them. His hands went out as he grasped the carved wood, the chain links of the handcuffs jingling as he did so. Monika staggered back away from him and she did not realize for a moment that he had spoken to her, with hardly a trace of accent, convinced, as she was, as to who he was.
"Sister, please," he whispered, his voice quavering in emotion and exhaustion. "I must see the Reverend Mother...."
Lee cried out in denial, his heart sinking as the girl whirled and darted away. He clutched desperately at the grille-work as the stiffening went out of his knees and he slipped to the floor in a heap. He had no notion of the passage of time before he roused himself from the daze into which he had slipped and clawed his way back to his feet once more at the sound of footsteps from the other half of the room beyond the ornately carved wall. The same young girl burst into the room and behind her came the most beautiful woman Crane had ever seen in his life. She was nearly as tall as he was, her figure anonymous beneath the long, black habit, but her face was framed by pure white cloth beneath the black wimple, making her blue eyes seem larger and deeper. She must be in her late sixties, he estimated, and was the most regal, graceful, magnificent woman he ever remembered meeting. She seemed to glide across the floor and her hand was cool as it closed over his on the grille.
"My son," she murmured. She quickly produced a key from somewhere and surrendered it to the girl. Lee's head swam and he was threatened with a maddening weakness, but the Lady Abbess's hand tightened on his and he drew himself up once more. "I will not ask which of the extern sisters admitted you to the parlor. It is enough that they have done so. If we are to help... you must obey us implicitly, or you may put the entire Abbey in jeopardy. Can you understand me?" Lee continued to stare at her, unable to put his agreement into words. "You said he spoke to you?" she demanded sharply of the girl.
"Yes, Mother," the novice assured her, then, helplessly, Sister Monika reached out and touched Lee's hand, drawing his attention momentarily down to her.
"I understood you, my Lady Abbess," he said, shifting his gaze back to the older woman, "but...." He raised his hands to his throbbing head. "I'm having trouble thinking...."
"Do you seek sanctuary, my son?" the Abbess inquired, speaking the ages-old formula.
"Please.... But... not at risk... to you...." he choked out.
"Can you walk if you lean on me?" Monika asked, inserting the key into the lock and turning it firmly. The Abbess glanced at her in surprise at the postulant’s presumptiveness, but the girl's consideration was only for the injured man.
He nodded dully and allowed her to take his arm and lead him through the door into the enclosure. The Abbess led the way through the darkened Abbey toward her own rooms, opened the door, and stood aside for the two who followed her.
"In here, Mother?" Monika asked, shocked.
"Can you think of a better place, my child? He is not the first man to be sheltered here. Actually, there is a room below my cell where he can be hidden. I'll take him from here, Sister. Find Sister Edwina and Dame Sofía and ask them to come to me. Tell them they are needed once more. Then you are to return to the parlor; lock the door and make sure there is no evidence of his arrival on this side of the door. The extern sisters will take care of the parlor and beyond."
Monika nodded, but did not step away from the swaying American.
"Very well. When you have done what I ask, you may return, daughter. Perhaps our Lord has placed him in your care for a reason. Go now. He needs help I alone cannot give him."
Lee stood reeling dizzily in the middle of the Abbess's study, then caught himself on the edge of the desk. The Abbess put her strong arm around his waist to steady him and did not see the pain that flashed across his face as she urged him around the desk, though she surreptitiously wiped blood from her hand as they progressed. He blinked, staring dazedly through the open door into the austere cell behind the office, seeing the room through heavy mists as they entered. The narrow bed with its rumpled blankets stood in mute testimony of the late hour of his intrusion. Lee fought the tides of darkness that threatened to wash over him and, as two more of the cloistral nuns entered the study behind them, he raised his manacled hands to his head once more.
"I... I'm sorry...." he managed, then toppled forward, not even the Mother Abbess's strength enough to keep him from falling.
"Help me with him, Sisters."
Abbess Celeste pulled the sconce on the wall and a sharp snap of a releasing catch echoed through the room. She pulled up the trap door that appeared in the floor, then the three of them managed to carry the unconscious man down the carved stone steps into the tiny, dark room. They moved quickly, confidently even in the blackness. They put the American on a bed that stood with its head against the wall, not unlike those they slept on themselves, then one of the women found and lit the kerosene lamp that awaited them on a small, square table. A warm, steady yellow glow illuminated the room and revealed anew the damage that had been done the young man who had surrendered himself into their care.
"Sister," the Abbess said softly, addressing Edwina. "Please assist Sister Monika. You have had more experience in removing such evidence as may have been left behind by our guest."
"Benedicite, Mother," Sister Edwina replied evenly and turned back to the stairs. "I will send her to her bed when we are through, Mother."
"No, Edwina. Allow her to join us here. She has become involved in this and now must learn the seriousness of what we do."
The aging nun nodded respectfully and slowly climbed the stairs, then lowered the trap door back into place. The Abbess nodded. Dame Sofía went down on her knees beside the bed and dragged a heavy case from beneath, struggling with it until the Abbess moved to her aid.
"It's been a very long time since we worked together like this," Sofía observed. "Do we still have the skill, do you think?"
"We had better hope so, or this brave young man will die." The Abbess dragged one of the straight, wooden chairs over to the bed. Between them they managed to get the case onto the chair. "I don't remember this case as being so heavy," she commented, forcing a lightness into her tone that she did not feel.
"He's very young, Celeste," the other nun said quietly, long acquaintance granting her a familiarity she rarely used. "Near as young as we were the last time we used this room."
The Abbess paused in her examination of the contents of the medical case. "You'll have to replenish our supplies from the infirmary, Sofi. Some of these things have not tolerated the years as well as others. We need to get started now, though. We'll make do until we can get the supplies restocked."
On the bed, Lee moaned softly as his arm brushed against his wounded side and he shuddered, but the two nuns had already set to work, cutting the rain- and blood-saturated sweater carefully from his body. The bayonet wound was still bleeding freely and between them they rolled him onto his side long enough to slip a folded towel beneath him, the two women exchanging a horrified look at the mass of lacerations on his back. The Abbess placed a square pad of doubled and redoubled gauze over the wound and pressed down. Helplessly, Crane groaned, and his eyes flickered open to stare from one wimpled woman to the other.
"How long have you been awake, my son?" Abbess Celeste asked gently.
"Only a minute, Lady Abbess." His eyes closed for an instant and there was near-panic in the amazing depths when he opened them again. "Forgive me. I wasn't thinking.... I'm putting you all at risk...."
"And more at risk if you should rise and try to leave now. You are the American that Colonel Metzer arrested yesterday?"
"I... I'm just a fisherman," he protested.
"An Albanian fisherman who speaks fluent English?" the Abbess asked in accented but understandable English.
"I... I didn't.... I wasn't...." he denied, still in Albanian, but there was doubt in his eyes now.
She smiled, and caressed his cheek gently. "No, you didn't, but you understood what I said. You are safe here, my son. There is no further need for pretense...."
"I don't.... know what you mean."
Her smile widened. "Very well. But you must rest. We will do what we can for you. I promise you, Colonel Metzer will not find you here. Please, my English could use some exercising."
He blinked dazedly, then spoke again, this time in English. "This... not your first time...."
"Hardly, my young friend."
"It has been many years since we were called upon to be of aid to those who have been wrongly harmed. There are only a few of us left who were here then. No one else knows of this room. No one," she finished emphatically.
He nodded slowly, somehow gaining strength from her quiet voice, her fingers enclosing his near hand, even from her touch against the pulsing wound in his side. Dame Sofía had retrieved a bowl from a cupboard, rinsed it out with water from a spigot in a sink against the wall, then splashed alcohol into it in effort to sanitize it, before she had refilled it and returned to the bed. She began to wash away the blood that encrusted his face and chest, shaking her head and grumbling beneath her breath.
"You are a courageous young man. Will you share your name with us? I am Peter Celeste, Abbess of this
community. This ill-tempered old woman
with me is Dame Sofía. She has been
"This place....?" he asked thickly, but she seemed to understand.
"This room is part of the original castle that became
"Not... God...." he choked out, his voice barely audible now. "Lightning...."
The Abbess smiled again, gently, kindly, patiently. "And who do you suppose sent the lightning?"
Lee tried to smile then sighed, his precarious hold on consciousness at last slipping away.
"He needs a real doctor, Celeste," Dame Sofía told her firmly. "I can make him more comfortable but I can do little for injuries as severe as his."
"He has survived this long, old friend, and he was brought here for a purpose, I think. We will continue the prayers of protection for his sake, as well as to confuse any who might question the strange commotion in the Abbey this night."
"I should stay with him. He'll need constant monitoring even when I get him patched together. He was likely to infection before the rain-soaking. Now it is nearly a certainty. Even a strong man cannot always defeat such enemies."
"The community cannot do without its Infirmarian." The Abbess carefully lay his hand down on the bed at his side, and rose, beginning to pace as the Infirmarian lifted the cloth from the bayonet entry wound. Celeste came to an abrupt halt at the sound of a soft rap on the trap door above and looked upward as a sliver of light revealed the opening edge of the hatch and Sister Monika's young voice spoke the traditional request of admission.
"Come, Sister. There is no formality in this place. Come."
The trapdoor was hardly open far enough to admit her before she was scrambling down the steps to join them. Sister Edwina must have remained above to close the door, the Abbess decided, as it was returned to its securely closed position. Edwina had been little more than Monika's age when she had helped them in this room. Now the torch would be passed to a new generation of women. Abbess Celeste drew the girl to her, feeling her trembling, the coldness of her young body through the novice habit.
"There was so much blood, Mother..." she sobbed. "On the floor, even on your desk.... How can he possibly survive?"
"He is strong.
He would not have managed to reach the Abbey otherwise." The Abbess gazed down at the tiny
postulant. "Do you possess even a
small degree of his strength and courage, child?" Monika looked up at her in confusion. "It seems that his life has been placed
into your keeping from the first, Sister.
This may be the reason you have been called
"I have a true vocation, Mother," Monika protested, hearing only the old doubts she had always heard.
"Perhaps, child. You are young in your profession. This may be just the first of your trials. Will you accept it?"
"What must I do, Mother?"
Abbess Celeste gave a brief nod. "Neither of us can remain here with him, Sister. We will attend him when we can, but our extended absence would noted. I expect Colonel Metzer will be calling on us before long. The community must be prepared...." She looked down as Lee groaned once more.
"You're not going to tell them, are you?" Monika asked fearfully.
"No, child. But I must be there to reassure our sisters. We are like so many children when it comes to the affairs of the world beyond our walls. Most of us have been too long away from the ugliness you have come from so recently."
"I don't know nursing...."
"I'll show you what to do," Dame Sofía assured her. "But, Abbess, I need your help now. He is waking again, and there is nothing to give him for the pain."
Abbess Celeste turned back toward the bed, then sank down onto the wooden chair. It was true, she realized. The change in his breathing betrayed his return to consciousness and she reached out, taking both his hands in her own, whispering one of the prayers she had used too frequently during the War. Once more his eyes opened, fever-bright now and met her blue gaze squarely. She could see the pain that dwelled behind his eyes yet she knew he would not surrender to it, that he would continue to fight until his last breath.
"Monika," she said quietly, nodding the girl toward the other side of the bed. "Here, take his hands. Hold him while we tend his wounds. He will not fight you.... Will you?" she asked, smiling kindly at him and once more shifting into accented English. "This is Sister Monika. Do you remember her?"
"Yes," he managed, his voice incredibly weak. "At the door...."
“Many of us here have a little English. It is included in our studies, but I fear our understanding is greater than our ability to converse,” the Abbess told him, smiling her reassurance to the girl.
Monika rounded the bed to kneel beside him and her hands were trembling as the Abbess raised his hands over his head, and she slipped her fingers into his palms. He closed his eyes and his mouth tightened.
"Did we hurt you?" the girl asked timidly.
"Shoulders... took some strain," he responded in a strange, unintentional mixture of Albanian and English.
"What is your name? What may I call you?" she asked again.
Abbess Celeste nodded approval at the young postulant then she squeezed out a cloth from the basin and began to gently wash the rest of the blood from his face. His eyes closed again, and she could feel the tightening of his muscles as the cloth moved down to his chest, and yet his fingers remained loose and relaxed around the girl's hand. Monika swallowed a sob and looked away as the cloth cleared blood from cuts and burns and bruises.
"I'm... sorry...." the young American whispered once more speaking in their native language, not his own.
There were tears in Abbess Celeste's eyes as she finished soaking the remnants of the sweater from his chest. His eyes were still closed, his teeth were clamped into his lower lip and his entire body trembled with the effort he made to remain motionless and silent. As her hand brushed across his ribs he gasped, and inhaled sharply.
"Forgive me, my son," she murmured. "I cannot tape the broken ribs... there are too many open wounds. You will have to lie very still, I'm afraid. You have moved about too much as it is and you have lost a great deal of blood." She sighed dejectedly. "You need more than our rough ministrations. You need a doctor and I dare not risk sending for one."
"Jamie...." he breathed out the name. "First time... I ever ac... acshuly wanted to see his ug... ugly face...."
"He is a good friend?" Monika questioned, needing to divert her own attention from what the older women did, as much as to distract him.
Always... makin' me stay... in
His foreign words were slow and pained, disjointed, but Monika understood them well, and her heart fluttered with compassion at his unwitting admission that this was not the first time he had been injured. She looked up at the Abbess and realized that there were tears on the older woman's cheeks as she labored diligently to stop the bleeding from the awful wound in his side.
"You have no friends in Shëvin?" Abbess Celeste asked conversationally.
"No.... Came alone...."
Celeste straightened, exchanging a shuttered look with Dame Sofía and Monika's heart sank. She did not need nursing skills to understand what that look meant.
"Is there anyone we could contact?" the Abbess continued gently.
"They'll... come...." he whispered distantly, his mouth softening into a wistful smile. "Won't... be able to... keep 'em away...."
"Who, my son?"
"From his ship...." Monika interjected, drawing the Abbess's startled gaze. She gulped at her own temerity, but continued. "He is American, and he mentioned a ship...."
"Is that true, my boy? Are you American military?"
His eyes were out of focus as he looked up, first at Monika then at the Abbess. He was beginning to fade, his strength failing. "They'll come...." he repeated, his eyes closing. He shivered and his body relaxed.
"Mother!" Monika sobbed.
"He has merely lost consciousness, child. Stay here with him. Do whatever Dame Sofía tells you to do."
Sofía looked up now as the Abbess rose and handed her a towel to wipe her hands clear of blood. "Are you sure, Abbess?" the elder of the two women asked.
"I won't allow him to die without doing everything in my power to prevent it, Sister."
"I know. But his presence endangers the community."
"It is little different than it was during the War, Sofía. Would you have me summon the authorities after I have offered him sanctuary?"
"No, Mother!" Monika cried anxiously. "You cannot!"
"His survival may not be wholly in our hands, Sister," Dame Sofía warned her. "The stab wound bleeds internally. He will live only so long without proper medical care."
"How long, Sofía?"
"A day... two... He is a strong man but this may be a battle he cannot win."
"He must live, Dame Sofía!" Monika blurted again, totally forgetting herself in her anxiety.
"Why is he so important to you, child? Is it because he is young... and handsome?"
Monika gazed down at the unconscious man once more. "He is, isn't he?" she marveled. "But he was covered over in blood when I first saw him. No, I think it is something else. Our Lord admonished us to take care of those who were in need of help.... didn't He?"
Abbess Celeste's face relaxed into a broad smile. "I don't think He put it quite that way, child, but... your heart is right. I will tell the community that you are ill and must remain in your cell. Learn from us what you can while we are here, Monika, for soon you will be his primary caregiver."
The girl paled slightly but nodded sincerely. "It will be my honor, Mother, to do what the Lord has placed on me to do."
"I am only glad that you were there to find him, Sister. He would certainly have bled to death if you had not...."
Monika lowered her head, closing her eyes in an attitude of prayer, her fingers tightening minutely on the injured man's hands and for the first time since her arrival Celeste saw real compassion in the girl, real selflessness and she began to have hopes that she would make a nun after all.
ó ó ó ó
Abbess Celeste flinched in alarm as the rap sounded on the hall door of her study. She straightened from closing the trap door, and made sure the small throw rug that concealed the hatch was in place. She straightened her wimple and stepped to the door between the rooms, continuing on to the desk as she answered.
The hall door swung open to admit Sister Marta. "Benedicte, Mother. I am sorry to have awakened....." The woman fell silent, belatedly realizing that the Abbess was fully dressed. "There are soldiers at the parlor door. They demand entry."
"Demand? At this hour?"
"It is Colonel Metzer, himself. What should I do?"
Celeste shook her head wearily. She had been up all night, first working with Sofía tending the young American's injuries, then the three of them had kept vigil at his bedside, offering up prayers for his survival as a fever claimed him and began to climb. He was alone now, as much alone as any man ever is when he begins his approach to the throne of God. She crossed herself fervently in reflexive prayer. Sofía and Monika had returned to their cells nearly a half- hour earlier to snatch an hour’s sleep before Lauds. Monika would plead illness after morning prayers and be sent to her cell, but in truth, she would once more descend the stone stairway to minister to the injured American. Celeste sighed wearily, and met Marta’s gaze.
"You don't have to do anything, Sister. I will come," she answered softly.
Metzer's arrival was not unexpected but it was inconvenient. It also pointed up another problem she had neglected to consider. Abbess Clare had seemed so competent and in extraordinary control of every situation, particularly during the war years and now Celeste felt uncommonly inept, a condition she had not experienced in a long time. It would have been disastrous if Sister Marta had discovered her missing from her quarters at this uncommonly early hour. She would have to find someone to remain in her office when she went below, to act as a shield for her uncommon actions. She now remembered the ancient nun from the library who had seemed to find it necessary to spend many hours in the Abbess's office, studying some of Clare's volumes of antiquated biblical texts that she herself had inherited. She smiled wanly. The only other person in the community not already worn to bones, and who knew about their unusual guest, was Sister Edwina. Edwina was novice mistress and could not be reassigned or there would be questions. Did she dare take anyone else into her confidence? She would have to think on the problem. A solution would come to her, she was certain.
She followed Sister Marta down the corridor toward the parlor, moving with all the nobility of her calling and her position, her hands tucked into the wide sleeves of her habit. Sister Marta was too much the rule-follower to expect her to keep a secret like this. Dame Firmina was timid and too easily frightened to be involved in the subterfuge. Dame Dorinda James was a possibility, but she was nearly deaf, and hearing would be a vital aspect to the keeping of their secret. Perhaps Sister Levi. She was strong and courageous and her older brother had been imprisoned by Metzer five years ago. Yes. Perhaps Sister Levi could be assigned to perform some service in the Abbess's office. And Dame Joseph, Celeste’s staunch supporter in virtually everything. She smiled wanly, hating to involve the unwitting members of the community in this subterfuge but certain of her path, nonetheless.
There were a dozen men crowded into the small parlor beyond
the carved gate but only one man was in motion.
Colonel Metzer paced restlessly in front of the door, his hands clasped
behind him. She knew Anitol Metzer's
family well, or had once. They had been
devout, church-going people before the communists had gained power in
"Colonel," she greeted him softly. "It's been a long time since you have
"This is not a social call, Abbess. I must request admittance to search the abbey for an escaped political prisoner."
"You must know that is not permitted. Only priests, doctors and workmen are allowed into the enclosure."
"Do not take me for a fool, Abbess. Consider us workmen, about the business of the State. The man we seek was badly injured and cannot have gone far... but he is clever and would not be above scaling your walls to save himself.”
“I thought you said he was injured. The walls enclosing
“Exactly, and you have no choice in this matter. We are searching every building in Shëvin,
"Threats now, Anitol? God cannot be coerced."
"There is only a flock of women here, Abbess. Not God."
"Is he not, Colonel?"
Metzer cleared his throat noisily, realizing that he was not going to intimidate her. "Is it not time for your morning prayers, Abbess? If we are allowed to begin, we should be finished by the time you and your women are out of chapel."
"Grant us a few minutes, Colonel. I would send one of the extern sisters for Father Dominick to say a mass for us. Your presence will be most disturbing to some of the sisters who are unaccustomed to the nearness of so many men and familiarity will be reassuring."
"The bells that call us to Lauds have not yet rung, Colonel. Unless you want fifty screaming women on your hands, I suggest you give us those few minutes before your men begin their search."
He stared at her coldly for a few moments. "Send for your priest, Abbess," he told her bitterly and spun away, beginning to pace once more.
Abbess Celeste smiled benignly. She would send Sister Talia to fetch Father Nicholas and if she knew the lay-nun as well as she believed, there would be another stop for her before she returned to her duties.
ó ó ó ó
Chip Morton stood at the charting table at the forward side
of the control room, one hand braced on the table. His attention was centered on the Admiral as
the rusty-haired man stood quietly in the observation nose, staring through the
transparent wall at the sea ahead. He
had hardly moved in hours, not since Sharkey and Kowalski had departed in the
flying sub to pick up Admiral Carstairs on
"They're here. It's about bloody time!"
"Marx, open the belly bay," Chip barked. "Prepare to receive the flying sub.
Men swung into action around the control room, performing their duties by long habit but with careful attention to detail. Through the soles of his feet Morton felt the vibration of the opening bay doors then, within moments, the subtle jolt of the docking clamps fastening onto the flying sub and drawing it into the bay and securing it. Morton's gaze flicked over the controls, gauges and panels critically, then he relaxed as they all read green.
"Close the bay doors and pipe Admiral Carstairs
aboard," he ordered, nodding briefly to Lt. O’Brien. "Take the CON, Mr. O’Brien. Keep us on course for northern
"Aye, aye, sir," the young officer replied evenly.
Morton stood by as the two seamen opened the hatch and stood back, saluting respectfully as Jesse Carstairs emerged from the flying sub and Harper sang out with the customary "Admiral on the bridge," greeting. Nelson stepped forward, gripping the other man's extended hand, drawing him away from the hatch as CPO Sharkey climbed through the hatch also.
"Let's go to my quarters where we can talk, Jess...."
"Just a minute, Harry. I'm not alone...."
"Not alone? Lee....?" Nelson whirled, his face brightening hopefully.
"Just me, Admiral Nelson," a feminine voice said from the dark maw of the flying sub cockpit. Both Nelson and Morton, not to mention every man of the control room crew stared as the speaker materialized from below. Someone snickered but the two top Seaview officers were too busy staring at the pretty redheaded woman who climbed easily from the flying sub hatch.
"Miss Hunter?" Nelson choked and Morton duplicated his strangled tone as Lee's Institute secretary stepped out to join them. "Denise? What are you doing... here?"
"I sent for her," Carstairs explained. "Come on. You wanted to talk in your quarters. I'd say we'd better get to it."
"Uh... wardroom," Nelson corrected, never comfortable with women aboard.
Chip Morton nodded his agreement and pivoted on one foot, marching through the control room and aft to the compartment where the officers generally ate and had their meetings. He pushed open the door and held it for the two admirals and for Lee's secretary, to whom he gave a swift nod and a wink of welcome. After a quick glance at the instrument panel on the far wall to check Seaview's course and speed, he joined them at the long table.
"What's going on, Jesse?" Nelson demanded then.
"I heard from the CIA just before I left the
"Thank God," Nelson breathed in relief.
"Don't celebrate yet. Our agent says he's badly hurt and..." Carstairs lowered his head momentarily, seeming to study his watch. "He's taken refuge in the local monastery.... Metzer may suspect he’s there but he hasn't been able to find him, despite a thorough search of the place."
"But the agent's sure that's where he is?"
Carstairs nodded soberly. “Has it on the best authority.”
"That's why I'm here, Admiral Nelson," Denise Hunter said softly.
"I don't understand. Maybe I'm being thick-headed but--."
"No, Harry," Carstairs cut in. "Just listen for a minute, will you? This monastery... the only outsiders who are allowed in are doctors... and the army, at gunpoint. They managed to send word to us... through the CIA contact that Lee needs a doctor... badly. I've come up with an idea on how to get one in to him."
"You can't trust any local doctors!" Chip argued. "Wouldn't they be as likely to turn him in as help him?"
"Most probably, Mr. Morton. But it wasn't a local doctor I had in mind. Could you ask your CMO to join us?"
Chip nodded and rose, striding to the wall-mounted
intercom. He picked up the handset and
double-squawked it, asking for the
"I'm surprised they could find you, Denise," Chip observed into the tense silence that had fallen. "Weren't you on vacation, too?"
She smiled and withdrew a cell phone from her jacket pocket. "Never out of touch with one of these.... They sent a helicopter to pick me up."
Chip knew Denise fairly well, dealing with her almost as frequently as he did with his own secretary, and he knew that at the moment her cheerful façade was an act. As with so many women, Denise had become well and truly smitten with the handsome captain of the Seaview practically from the moment he had hired her. As far as Morton knew though, she had never made any attempt at coercing him into an even casual relationship. That would have doomed their working rapport, Chip was confident and, as a totally oblivious Lee had commented on more than one occasion, Denise was intelligent and had an eye for detail. He was sure from that, if for no other reason, that the young woman had maintained her professionalism.
"You sent for me, Admiral Nelson?" Dr. Jamieson said from the doorway where he had hesitated an instant before moving toward the table. He saluted both Admirals, realizing belatedly that Nelson was not the only senior officer in the room, then identifying Jesse Carstairs, he frowned. "This is about Captain Crane, isn't it?"
"It is, Doctor."
With the confirmation of his fears, Jamieson took one of the chairs at the end of the table, as far from Carstairs as he could get, it seemed to Morton. "He was supposed to be on vacation. What's happened?"
Carstairs glanced furtively toward Nelson. "You haven't told him?"
"No one knows all the details you've given us but Mr.
Morton and myself.
"Know what, Admiral?" Jamieson interrupted.
He may lecture Crane on his health, to the point where the Captain frequently avoided him, but it was only because he liked the young officer and was concerned about his welfare. Crane was a good CO, taking an active interest in his men and, after all the times he had been in Sick Bay, either to visit sick or injured seamen, or because he himself had been injured, Jamieson even considered him more than just a commanding officer. He was a friend.
"Seems he was sent on another ONI mission right in the middle of his vacation, Jamie. One that blew up in his face if what Admiral Carstairs tells us is what actually happened."
"I'm telling you exactly what I know, Harry. I have no reason to lie to you about anything that's happened!"
"None, except that you knew I would have vetoed this mission for him at this time and made it stick, but you went around me." Nelson's face had gone livid once more but he was valiantly trying to hold his temper and, from the expression on Jamieson's face, Chip figured he was not in much better humor. "I don't like that one little bit. Now, look what's happened."
"We can hash that out once we get him back."
"Get him back!?" Jamieson exclaimed. "I thought.... Why did you send for me, if.... Where is he? What's going on?"
"Stand down, Jamie.
I'm as upset about this as you are, but our getting irate won't help Lee
in the least." Nelson struggled
visibly to maintain control then turned his intense blue gaze on Carstairs,
though he was still breathing hard, as though he had run a marathon. "We're pretty much in the dark without
more information, Jesse, information that only you have. Fill us in on what you know so we can develop
a plan or tell me you already have a way to get him out of
"It's a long shot."
"Aren't they all? You and your ONI chiefs only send him on assignment when your regular agents have come up empty."
"No one forces him. If Lee were here, he'd tell you...."
"Damn it! Lee's not here!"
Carstairs seemed uncomfortable and his gaze slid away from
Nelson's fury. "I'm well aware of
that, Harry. Well aware." He lowered his head, almost shamefacedly, and
began to fidget uneasily with the watch on his wrist "I feel really bad about all
this... not that I offered him the job... but I was damned offhand with him
when he came aboard the
Nelson slumped back in his chair. "Are you admitting that you misled him?"
"No! No, of course not. I told him the absolute truth. I gave him a full dossier on the area, the town, and the military governor of Shëvin. I would never let him walk into something unprepared, but when I told him that Dorogoi would only meet with either you or him...."
"You told him WHAT?" Nelson yelled, his rage once more completely out of control.
"It's true, Harry. Dorogoi was afraid of duplicity. He said he would only leave the country if someone he recognized came for him. You... or Lee."
The wardroom was heavy with silence for a long moment. "Could Dorogoi have been bait in a trap? Possession of either one of them... the Admiral or Lee would make a petty despot powerful overnight!" Chip said harshly. Both admirals stared at the usually mellow Exec in surprise, then Carstairs shook his head.
"No.... It may have ended up as a trap, but it wasn't Dorogoi who was behind it. The man was honestly scared to death. Since we picked him up the only coherent thing out of his mouth was his claiming that Lee had played the decoy in order to allow him to make good his escape."
"The Captain had to have known what to expect...." Jamieson groaned.
"Damn it! Of course he knew! But that's Lee. He'll do the right thing, even if it kills him!" Nelson scrubbed his face with both hands. "All right, Jess. You said you had a long-shot plan. What is it?"
"As I told you, we know where he is." Nelson nodded, silently urging the other man
to speak. "He's at the Convent of
"Good God!" Jamieson gasped.
Carstairs grinned at him. The comment striking him as absurdly appropriate. "You might say that, Doctor." He cleared his throat with difficulty. "There are forty-two cloistered women inside and six extern nuns. It was one of them who got the message to the CIA contact. We've got a little leeway as far as his being discovered is concerned but we can't delay. The last message we received said that Lee's badly hurt, bleeding internally. They're doing everything they can for him but he needs a doctor."
"That’s why you sent for me," Jamieson replied evenly.
"Exactly. And it's why we needed Denise. She's the only one who can get inside and stay inside and her coloring is right to pass as your sister, Harry. Sorry.... I figured you'd want to be included in this...."
"Yes, of course, but... Denise....? It'll be too dangerous for her...."
"She's ex-CIA, Harry, and she's spent enough time on the Greek-Albanian border to be conversant in the language." Denise lowered her head, refusing to meet either Chip or Nelson's accusing gazes. "Don't worry. She wasn't a CIA plant on NIMR. She got the job legitimately."
"Miss Hunter?" Nelson growled.
"Lee has known my background from the first, Admiral," she explained. "I wouldn't try to deceive him. It's just never been important before."
"You're up for this mission?" Chip asked.
"We have to get him out of there, Commander Morton. If I can help, of course I am going to do so."
"How? What's the plan?" Nelson said, looking once more toward Carstairs.
"Well, like I said. It's kind of sketchy. We'll have to put our heads together and work out the details."
"I can't help unless you tell me everything."
"Admiral Nelson," Jamieson interrupted again, drawing the attention of both senior officers once more, but he did not seem in the least reticent. "We have to be quick. Even Lee won't live long with internal bleeding.”
"I know, Jamie, and we’ll get to him as quickly as we can. But going in without knowing what we're up against won't get him out, either. Lee may be able to think on his feet and change course in mid-stride but I, for one, don't like surprises... or as few as is humanly possible."
ó ó ó ó
Abbess Celeste sat at her desk, her head down on her folded arms, dozing lightly. It was recreation period and ordinarily she would use this time to either walk in the cloistered garden or perhaps read one of her beloved books. In that she was very much like Abbess Clare. If only she could achieve the calm Clare had possessed. She sighed, straightening. It would soon be time for Compline and, when the lights were put out for the night, it would be the first chance she had had all day to descend to the hidden room and check on the American. There had been no sign of Sister Monika and she could only take her continued absence as an indication that he still lived.
The first chimes of the carillon echoed through the complex, and Celeste rose slowly to her feet. For fifty years her life had been ordered to the sound of those glorious bells. She rose to their call, and answered to their summons a half-dozen times a day. She loved the Abbey, her sisters and their continuous glorification of God, and yet she had risked it all to take in the handsome young man that Anitol Metzer had hurt so badly. Why had she done it? She could not identify a reason other than it had been the will of God. There had been something in the man, Lee he had said his name was, that had touched her heart. He had endured so much in silence. He had not begged, nor railed against those who had harmed him. He had been, instead, simply concerned that his presence would endanger the community. A man like that, there had been no question of sending him away.
She went to the door, pulling it open then came to a startled halt, face to face with Sister Grace. The girl had not reacted well to the invasion of soldiers, her own family history a study of conflict with the government. This afternoon, in consideration of her anxiety, she had been given light duty monitoring the Abbey phone, which rang only once or twice a month. And yet here she stood, puffing from her hurried passage, her white hands twisting together before her.
"My goodness, child. What is it?" she asked, precluding the girl's customary greeting.
"A phone call, Mother."
"It is Compline. Tell them to call another time," she suggested casually.
"But... Mother... he said it was very important. He speaks our language poorly but he said it was vital that he talk to you... a matter of life and death...."
Abbess Celeste hesitated. Compline was not something she would miss but she could not put off the feeling that the call was as important as the caller indicated.
"Very well, Sister. I will join the community as soon as I am able."
The girl bobbed her head, whispered the customary words of respect due the Abbess and glided away.
The telephone room was nearby and Celeste entered, picking up the handset and speaking quietly.
"This is Abbess Celeste," she said guardedly.
"I'm very sorry to disturb you at this hour, Lady Abbess." The man's grasp of the Albanian language was, to say the least, limited but he seemed to be trying very hard. "My name is Niels Harrison.... We have just arrived in the city and I have encountered a problem I think perhaps you can solve."
"I will do my best. What is it?"
"My sister is a Cistercian nun from a monastery just
across the border in
"We have no doctor," she answered automatically. It was strange. It almost seemed as though the man on the phone was reading his plea. It did not flow as with normal conversation. "Is she well enough to be unattended?"
"Her doctor is traveling with us. He will accompany her long enough to get her settled, then depending on her condition tomorrow, he will return to administer her treatments. She has terminal leukemia, Lady Abbess."
"I am truly sorry, sir. You are not Albanian, are you?" she asked at last, the rhythm of his speech patterns too strange for her to accept. There was a brief silence on the other end of the line.
"Uh... no, we are not.
We are... from
"It is no matter. I just detected a strange accent... Your sister's name?"
" Denise... I should say, now, she's Sister Coleta."
"We will be pleased to have her with us. When will you bring her?"
"We can come now, if that's all right."
Celeste hesitated. It would mean that she would miss Compline altogether and, what with the military search of the convent, the routine had already been disrupted too much. "Can you wait an hour?"
"Uh... yes." She thought he sounded particularly distressed about the delay but she did not mention it. "An hour. Thank you, Lady Abbess."
"Your papers are in order, are they not?" she asked impulsively. "The military is being particularly vigilant just now...."
"So we discovered," he answered bitterly. "They accosted us almost before our car came to a halt...."
"So he knows you are bringing your sister here?"
"Actually, he suggested it," the man said smugly. "Well, sort of. An hour, Mother Superior...."
The Abbess smiled as the connection was broken and did not correct him on his designation. It was not something many people outside the cloisters would know, that a Mother Superior was not always an Abbess and vice versa.
She replaced the phone on the hook and retreated quietly toward the chapel. She was disappointed that her return to the hidden room would be delayed but she knew she could not begrudge the Cistercian sister a place among them, particularly if she was dying, as her brother had stated. She genuflected as she entered the chapel then found her place and knelt quietly, her hands clasped prayerfully before her.
ó ó ó ó
Celeste concentrated on the beautiful singing of the
psalms, not joining in tonight herself but allowing the peace to wash over her
and renew her spirit. She remained
seated as the community filed past her, most bound for their beds, leaving only
two sisters kneeling near the altar, silently responding to the request for
prayers for the American who had been Colonel Metzer's prisoner. The names of four members of the
"Mother Abbess?" Dame Joseph's voice sounded softly at her elbow. "There are people in the parlor. They say you are expecting them."
She nodded and rose stiffly, looking from the older woman to Sister Ruth, a member of their community for little more than two years. "A sister in Christ, from a Cistercian monastery to the north. She is ill. Prepare the guest cell for her, Sister," she directed the younger woman, “then ask Dame Sofía to meet us there.”
"Of course, Mother," she replied and moved away with the easy, flowing steps all the nuns acquired.
Dame Joseph lingered, her night-brown eyes studying the Abbess she had known since they were both girls. "If she is ill, shouldn’t I fetch Dame Sofía to the parlor, or has she gone to see to Sister Monika again?"
Celeste smiled. "Curiosity can be a sin, Sister," she admonished her, then, her tone softened with the love that filled her for this kind woman. "We will talk of this more later. Tonight we already have our work cut out for us. Come with me."
"There are men with the Cistercian, Mother."
"Her brother and her physician. I know. It will be all right. Everything will happen as the Lord wills it."
The two women walked with practiced serenity into the corridor and toward the parlor. They could see the two men beyond the gate, both pacing restlessly, their attention on the cloistered side of the wall, not on the woman in her dark habit who was seated against the wall, her fingers moving ceaselessly on a string of rosary beads. Celeste withdrew the key from her sleeve, and inserted it into the lock, allowing Dame Joseph to pull the panel open. The two men surged forward but halted in the opening as the Abbess raised her hand.
"Only our sister may enter and the physician...." The older of the two men, a stocky, russset-haired man some few years younger than Celeste herself, grumbled in irritation but stepped back. "You are Mr. Harrison?" He nodded, blue eyes meeting blue eyes intently. "Your... sister will be well received here. Fear not for her."
He inhaled sharply and wheeled, going to the much younger woman and assisting her to her feet. She was very pale, freckles standing out clearly on her white face as she crossed the parlor to the door, moving slowly, unsteadily, leaning on his arm with her body hunched over, but the hand that accepted the Abbess's was smooth and firm and the blue eyes that met hers briefly were sharp and clear; not those of illness and pain. That expression she had seen all too recently in astonishing hazel eyes. Celeste inhaled quickly, covering her surprise.
"Welcome, Sister," she murmured and shifted her attention to the second man, taller than the older man, his straight, receding brown hair combed to one side, his long face a mask of concern but his anxiety seemed far from the woman who was supposed to be his patient. She extended her hand toward the young woman to usher her inside, then jerked in alarm as the sound of the outer door slamming reached her ears. She looked up, already certain of who approached before Colonel Metzer and three of his men entered the parlor.
"Abbess, I heard you had visitors," he greeted casually. "Ah, Mr. Harrison and company.... Greetings."
"Colonel," the red-haired man ground out. "My sister needs to rest. I will be glad to remain and talk to you if you allow her physician to see her settled."
"We can all accompany her...."
"No!" Celeste countered firmly, her voice only just overriding the Cistercian's brother's outcry. "This woman is obviously ill. She must be allowed to rest. You found nothing when you searched the Abbey before. Do you think she is the man you sought in some fantastic disguise seeking to enter by some ruse?" she finished and Metzer's gaze fell momentarily. Could the sharp glance from the brother contain more alarm than was warranted? "Allow us to see Sister Coleta safely to her cell. It shouldn't take fifteen minutes for the doctor to make sure that she has come to no harm and return here."
Metzer shifted from one foot to the other, his desire to search the Abbey once more nearly a physical pressure. Abbess Celeste stood quietly, waiting, knowing that if she urged him further he would act in opposition to their need.
"All right," he agreed finally. "Fifteen minutes. No more."
She nodded, aware of the redheaded man's sigh of relief and the way the doctor chewed his lower lip anxiously. Harrison stepped to his sister, gave her a quick hug, pressing his cheek against hers and whispering what must certainly be loving reassurances against her ear, then the doctor picked up a small suitcase, took her arm, and followed the Abbess into the enclosure, leaving Sister Joseph, like Horatio at the bridge, to guard the entry into the Abbey.
Celeste could hear the doctor whispering to his charge and
it seemed that she heard not only a man's voice, but a woman's as well, but she
dismissed it as imaginings, brought on by all the strange events. The guest cell was no different from the
rooms all the sisters at
“Our Infirmarian will be here momentarily.…” she began, but the two new arrivals seemed to suddenly ignore her very presence, their heads close together.
"We have to take her into our confidence," the doctor was saying softly in English.
"You are American!" Celeste gasped and the man turned toward her, standing shoulder to shoulder with the Cistercian sister, his astonishment clear in his face.
"We are, uh... ma'am...." he said, groping for the right title. She smiled sympathetically.
"And, you are his friends, are you not?" she continued uneasily but vaguely enough, she hoped, that if she was wrong she could make some excuse.
"Then Lee is here?" the woman, who was obviously not a Cistercian nun sworn to silence, gasped out anxiously. Celeste merely smiled benignly. It was the name he had given to Sister Monika. "Is he hurt very badly?"
She sighed, willing to surrender this worry to those who knew the injured man better than she did, herself. "I fear so. He has a fever and has lost too much blood...."
The tall physician shook his head despondently. "There's no way I can help him in the time we have... even if he was lying right there in that bed," he said vehemently. I... I trust he's well hidden?"
"Well enough, but he needs more care than we can afford him. Can you arrange to come back tomorrow? As your... as the other man suggested?"
He nodded distractedly. "You'll have to place a call to the hotel. Say that Sister Coleta has taken a turn for the worse and needs me to come." The doctor sighed in absolute frustration as the Abbess nodded her understanding then he turned back toward the younger woman. "Can you make do with what we've brought tonight?"
"I'll have to, won't I? We knew this was a possibility."
"Our Infirmarian is highly skilled. It is her talents which have kept him alive this long," Celeste heard herself saying, her tone more than a little defensive. "Forgive me. I, too, fear for his life."
The doctor attempted a smile but failed miserably. "I'm never gonna let him off the boat again...." he grumbled faintly.
"You are the one he called Jamie?" Jamieson jerked as if he had been struck but nodded. "He spoke of you... with affection. He knows you have only his welfare in mind...."
The doctor grimaced. "I suppose so, but he always fights me... every inch of the way."
"Not this time, I fear. He is much too ill."
"I have to see him now!" Denise said urgently but the Abbess shook her head in denial.
"Not now. When the Colonel has gone and the community sleeps. I will send for you. Until then... get some rest. It may be a long night for us all."
A sharp rap on the door brought them all around but Celeste had been expecting it and called out the customary “Deo Gratias.”
The panel swung inward to admit Dame Sofía. It seemed she had shrunk in physical stature since last night but the spirit of love and compassion that made her such an excellent Infirmarian glowed within her brightly.
“Benedicte, Mother,” she greeted. “Sister Ruth said you had need of me?” Her gaze flitted from the unfamiliar woman to the man.
“Dame Sofía, this is Sister Coleta. She will be staying with us for a few days. This is her physician… Jamie….” The older woman smiled pleasantly, knowingly and nodded to them both. “She can tell you more specifically the extent of his injuries, so that you can come prepared when you return.”
Jamieson looked eagerly at the old nun, aware of the bright intelligence shimmering in the dark eyes.
“He has been badly treated, but most of his injuries are surface wounds and will heal.”
“His knee is deeply bruised, perhaps even broken. Colonel Metzer used a recent injury against him.” She kept her gaze focused on the doctor, even when Denise gasped miserably. “He has a through and through stab wound in his side, here,” she said, gesturing, “He grows weaker with each beat of his heart.”
“Damn.... Sorry, Ladies,” he apologized off-handedly, his mind much too focused on the problem he faced to concern himself for their sensibilities. “He needs me now….” He moaned. “With that kind of injury he won’t be able to last much longer.”
“I am sure you have not come to us empty handed,” Dame Sofía continued and the Abbess merely nodded, confident, it seemed.
Jamieson put the case down on the floor. “Lee's tough and he's got to know we'll find a way to help him." Once more the two nuns nodded perceptively. “We did bring some things… antibiotics, some plasma…. He’ll need both before I can operate.”
The young woman with him sagged visibly and eased down on the edge of the narrow bed, her hands clutched together in her lap, her head bowed, but she was not praying, the Abbess knew, at least not in the manner of her own Order.
“He can’t be allowed to die….”
"He still lives, Sister...." the Abbess began then gave a little shake of her head, rejecting the title even as she uttered it. "One of our postulants stands vigil at his side. She has not come to me, which she would have done if he had succumbed to his injuries."
“Just what did that monster do to him?” Jamieson demanded sharply, though not really expecting a reply, his concern overcoming his professional demeanor.
“Use your imagination, Doctor, and when you have done that, make it twice as bad.” She sighed wearily. “But God is not finished with him yet, I must believe, for him to make good his escape, and come here… the only place in this city where he might find help. There is work yet for your friend to complete. Colonel Metzer knows he is here, but he knows, also, that he cannot violate the sanctity of the Abbey and retain his hold on Shëvin.” She turned, pulling open the door to reveal Dame Joseph's anxious face as the senior nun raised one hand to rap on the panel. "Come, Doctor. Allow Dame Sofía to see to your patient for a time. Your allowed time is nearly over. Colonel Metzer will surely come in search of you if you are delayed."
Jamieson struggled to regain control of his own
emotions. He was not accustomed to such
intrigue and his own personal courage had only been tested in his steady performance
of his duties in
"Let's go," he murmured then, allowing himself to be guided back to the parlor by Dame Joseph. The Abbess did not accompany them, he noticed belatedly, nor had she remained in the room with Denise, but he dismissed her from his mind as the nun opened the parlor door and allowed him to exit.
"I thought we were going to have to come looking for you, Doctor," Metzer said callously. Jamieson stared at him coldly, not replying.
"Did you get her settled?" Nelson asked quickly.
"As well as possible in fifteen minutes. She's not doing well at all, sir. This trip is likely to prove to be too much for her."
"If... she's going to die, I want it to be at home... not on foreign soil," Nelson answered softly, and they both knew who it was that they really meant. Metzer frowned and Dame Joseph made a particularly rude noise coming from a nun. "It was her own choice to leave her home monastery, Sister. Come on, Doctor. Let's get out of here. The company has become decidedly less than congenial."
Nelson pivoted and stalked from the room, thrusting open the door that took him out of the parlor and into the outer courtyard of the Abbey, with Jamieson close behind. Colonel Metzer stepped closer to the inner gateway but allowed Dame Joseph to close and lock it without interference. He glared down at her menacingly.
"Tell your Abbess that I... will keep a close eye on your monastery... to keep you safe."
Dame Joseph inclined her head subtly, remaining frozen in place otherwise, her hands tucked into the wide sleeves of her habit until he smiled suggestively and drifted away, beginning to chuckle softly as he and his men departed the parlor.
ó ó ó ó
Sister Monika sat quietly in the straight-backed chair at the bedside, her hands clasped in prayer at her breast. She was tired but she had napped once or twice during the long night and day, retreating to the narrow bed against the far wall of the subterranean room as her exhaustion became too much for her to withstand. She had been amazed at the amenities the hidden room offered, tins of food, water from the tap in the rustic sink, even a tiny bathroom over behind the stone stairway. Dame Sofía had told her the story of how Abbess Clare had first discovered the room during a remodeling effort even before Sofia’s arrival at the convent, and fitted it out as it now existed. It was not until the war that her foresight was explained, when the sisters of the Abbey frequently hid partisans from the enemy forces and even an occasional Allied soldier or airman. She had been little older than Monika herself and Abbess Celeste had only just come to St. Helena's during those wartime years, but they had acted with courage and compassion, even as they did now.
She had been praying for the unconscious man for hours, it seemed, and she opened her eyes, looking toward him. He was so pale and so still, but his chest still rose and fell and occasional moans still broke his silence. She sighed. He had been so badly hurt. The Communist government was harsh, and it seemed to foster such men as the Colonel, capable of committing any atrocity in their hunger for their own personal glory. She had seen his cruelty in her own tiny village not five miles north of Shëvin and it was one reason her heart had brought her to the safety of this convent. She had been an orphan, a fatherless child whose mother had died before her first birthday, living at the reluctant charity of one family after another in the farming community, passed among them like an unwelcome ailment.
She stirred in her chair, knowing that Compline was over now and reached for the cloth floating in the water in the bowl on the other wooden chair. She squeezed out the water and once more set about trying to cool the American’s overheated skin. His fever was high she knew, for although the aged thermometer had been broken when the old medical case was opened, his skin was unpleasantly hot to the touch. She wiped the cloth across his wide, smooth forehead, then folded it and laid it down carefully, her fingers moving from the cloth to his almost-curly hair. It was so very black, she thought in amazement, and soft, not stiff and coarse. His eyes had not been the familiar dark brown she was accustomed to either, but unique, a color that was not wholly brown, but with flecks of blue, green, and gold. And they were open, looking at her!
“You’re awake,” she gasped out. He had lain as still as a dead man, either asleep or unconscious throughout the day, and she had almost given up hope of his ever waking. “How are you feeling?”
“Fine,” he whispered, then licked at his lips dryly, betraying the lie.
In an instant she was on her feet and darting across the room to the water tap, filling a metal cup halfway and rushing back to his side. She struggled to lift his shoulders and hold the cup to his lips at the same time. He did his best to help her she knew, but he was shaking with weakness before she allowed him to lie back against the hard pillow.
“How long…?” he managed then, his voice little more than a whisper and his Albanian beginning to suffer with his failing strength.
“Nearly two full days. The Mother Abbess will be here soon.”
“You been… here… all tha’… time?”
“Most of it.” She lifted one of his still-manacled hands between both of her own. “I saw you… the day Colonel Metzer took you to the winery. In his car. I have been praying for you ever since.”
“Musta helped,” he replied, trying to smile but unable to do more than twitch his lips.
Unable to do anything more for him, Monika took the cloth and wet it again in the bowl of water, replacing it on his forehead. He closed his eyes but she could see from the taut line of his mouth that he was still awake. They had nothing to give him for the pain and although Dame Sofía and the Abbess had done their best to tend his many injuries, he was still slowly losing blood and they had been concerned about the likelihood of internal bleeding and its dangers. He was so much weaker than he had been when he arrived. It seemed to the girl that, without more aid than they could give, his life would simply drain away and he would surely die. She took up his hand again. It seemed to give him some degree of comfort or reassurance.
“Who…?” his faint voice asked. For a moment she thought she had only imagined his question, then his eyes flickered open for a brief moment, and he looked up at her, the fever making his eyes slightly glazed.
“Me? I am Sister Monika. I am new come to the Abbey.”
He did not reply at once. “It was you… at the gate….” He shivered slightly, and his fingers tightened on her hand. “I scared… you….”
“You were a frightening sight… all covered in blood that way. But I wasn’t afraid of you.”
She gave a bobbing little nod of her head. “I’ve always been afraid of him. He used to come to my village when I was a child… he controls it too.” He closed his eyes again, longer this time. “You said your name was Lee?”
“Yeah… Lee Crane… what’s… left… of me….”
She smiled, responding to the weak smile he did manage this time then she jumped in alarm at the sound of the trapdoor catch releasing. She let go of his hand and stood up, turning to face the stairs but it was black shoes and a long black skirt that she saw in the opening and she relaxed.
“Abbess,” she sighed in relief as the tall, imposing woman closed the hatch behind her and descended the steps.
“How is he?” she asked, smiling down at the wounded man.
“Awake,” he admitted, “barely.”
“Your courage has been rewarded, my son,” she said enigmatically, and his dark brows drew down over fever-hazed eyes. How he managed to follow what she was saying, in a language that was not naturally his own, she could not imagine, but this young man was a wellspring of surprises. “Some of your friends have arrived.”
“No….” he gasped, somehow alarmed. “Too… dan’jrus....”
“Perhaps, but they are here now. If they abandon their plan it could be even more dangerous for them. Colonel Metzer already suspects us of aiding you.”
“No! he choked out, his eyes closing.
He was shivering and Celeste could not keep her steps from
taking her close to him, her hand going out to touch his bearded cheek. There was several days’ growth on his face
that now concealed the worst of the cuts and bruises but she knew that in
another place, at a better time, he would go clean shaven, as neat and orderly
as any man could be, as the quality of his haircut attested. She had been impressed by his friends, for
friends they had certainly been, not merely acquaintances, or someone hired to
bring him safely out of
“Sister Monika,” she began again, tearing her attention away from the man. “Is there anything you would have me send with Sofía when she returns?” As she had expected, the girl shook her head. “One of his friends will accompany her. A woman....”
“Wom…un…?” Lee choked out. She had thought he had lapsed into unconsciousness again and his broken voice startled her. “Who?”
“She calls herself Sister Coleta. I don’t recall another name, though I’m sure one was said. The others will return tomorrow, your friend Jamie, and a man named Niels Harrison....”
“Nelson!” Lee gasped, his head rocking from side to side in agitation, his eyes staring wildly. “Please… no....”
Monika grasped his hands that had risen as if to fend off some threat and Abbess Celeste knelt quickly beside the bed, her own hand resting lightly on his shoulder.
“Is he not a friend, my son?”
“No.... More’n... friend... I’m... here...” He fell silent, words becoming too difficult to utter but he continued after a few moments, typical of the fortitude they had come to expect from him. “...so he wouldn’t... come....”
He suddenly shuddered fiercely, his hands tightening into fists in Sister Monika’s grasp and then slowly he relaxed, inch by inch, muscle by muscle, his eyes closing, his lashes lying long and dark and motionless on his pale, olive skin.
“Mother?” Monika wailed.
“It’s all right, child. He has merely lost consciousness again. I only hope that this man, Nelson, knows what he is doing, and will not endanger himself, even in an effort to aid his friend. Our young Lee has already done enough of that for them both....” She pushed herself wearily to her feet. “Are you able to remain here with him, Monika? It has been a great responsibility that has been placed upon you.”
“Do you doubt that I can do this, Mother?” she replied fearfully.
Celeste shifted her attention to the petite girl. “Not I, child, but you have yet to convince yourself completely, I think. This burden was given you not by me, but by a
higher power and it is not up to me to doubt, only offer what assistance I can
provide. Your awareness of him and your
concern for his survival has bound you to him in a way uncommon and even
unwelcome to most of the sisters of
“I am aware of that, Mother.”
Celeste smiled down at her, remembering the truth of her own impossible attachments to the patients she nursed so many years before. “Love him, Sister, for he is a man worthy of being loved and it is in a woman’s nature to love. But do not forget who he is, or who you would be.”
“I love no living man, Mother, nor will I,” she answered firmly, almost defiantly.
“Very well. Just remember that in order to enter into a life-contract with God you must have no doubts... none whatsoever.”
“I understand, Mother. I am certain of my vocation.”
Abbess Celeste only nodded as she turned away, returning to the stone stairs. If only she could be as sure as the girl. It was frequently the ones who were so confident who ultimately failed. Somehow she did not want that for this girl. There was something about her, something that convinced her that Monika would, one day, be much more than just a valuable asset to the community, something that reminded Celeste of herself so many years ago. The War had changed her. Maybe this young man and his life-threatening injuries would do the same for Monika.
ó ó ó ó
Denise walked just two steps behind the old Infirmarian along the silent, deserted corridor. It must be nearly midnight. With each minute’s delay in the Spartan cell, she had felt her nerves grow ever more tense, like the rubber band on a toy airplane that was being wound ever tighter. She clutched the small case to her, as much to keep her hands from shaking, as in possessiveness. A door opened ahead of them, and Dame Sofía turned quickly into the dimly lighted room that proved to be the Abbess’s office. The tall, statuesque head of the Abbey stood to one side, then closed the door silently, nodding a greeting to Denise, but keeping her silence. She motioned them into her personal cell, closing that door behind them and surprisingly she knelt in the middle of the open floor, fumbling at the braided rug on the floor while the Infirmarian adjusted the wall sconce. A moment later a crack appeared at the edge of the rug, and the Abbess was slipping her fingers beneath it, lifting the heavy panel of the trap door.
Denise set down the case and moved forward, adding her strength to the older woman’s but she discovered that the door lifted easily and silently. She accepted the case from Dame Sofía’s hands and followed the Abbess down the wide stone steps carefully. She hardly registered the room, her eyes only for the familiar figure lying so still and white on the narrow bed not ten feet away. She stumbled forward, hardly glancing at the very young nun who had risen from her chair and stood now at the bedside, her hands folded and every inch the picture of a postulant sister, from her dark gray habit to her short, white wimple. Denise deposited the case on the foot of the bed, a eased down on the mattress beside her NIMR boss and the man she admired to the exclusion of all others, save, perhaps, Harriman Nelson, himself.
“Captain?” she said softly. “Lee?”
He did not stir. She had never seen him with a beard before and somehow it made him seem dark and even menacing, but he was unconscious and would threaten no one in this condition. She eased aside the blanket that had been pulled up nearly to his chin, inhaling sharply and closing her eyes for an instant at what she saw. He had been systematically tortured, the cuts and burns and bruises speaking volumes. She shivered in horror, recognizing the telltale marks of whipping on the visible flesh of his sides and shoulders and she could not bring herself to even consider what his back must look like. There was a large bandage taped in place on his left side and a towel beneath his back that was stained with bright red blood. He was still manacled, the Sisters unable to remove the restraints, but gauze enwrapped his wrists beneath the heavy cuffs, offering some padding, though the bandages were marked with his blood.
“We have to get these off....” she murmured, a sob catching in her throat.
She tore the unfamiliar, dark blue wimple from her head, her red hair curling wildly from its confinement and removed a thin strip of metal from the lower edge of the cloth. She set to work on the locking mechanism of the cuffs and, within minutes, had them off and dropped to the floor and Lee’s arms lying limply at his sides.
“He’s so quiet... so very, very quiet... and he’s burning up with fever,” she observed to no one in particular, but she was dimly aware of the old Infirmarian moving the young girl aside and taking her place on the opposite side of the bed. Dame Sofía leaned over the unconscious captain, examining the exposed wounds, lifting the edge of the bloody bandage over the stab wound.
“There is infection. He might have fought it more successfully, but there was a storm the night he escaped....” the old woman confirmed.
“I’ve done my best to keep the fever under control with wet cloths,” the girl assured her anxiously, “and I make sure he drinks some water each time he awakens.”
“You’ve done all that you could,” Denise sighed. She was suddenly overwhelmed with dread, knowing these cloistered sisters had done their best but afraid that it had been too little, that she had arrived only to watch him die. “There are medicines and plasma in the case, beneath a false bottom. Can you help me? I could manage, but I’m not very good at it... and I don’t want to hurt him any more than he already has been.”
“Dame Sofía will do it, child,” the Abbess assured her kindly.
Denise rose slowly and pulled the habit off over her head, then stood beside the bed in a closefitting black knit shirt and stretch pants, watching impatiently as the Infirmarian administered one of the hypos of strong antibiotic that Jamieson had sent with her. It was a broad-spectrum drug, one that he used frequently with the Captain, he had told her, and one he usually reacted well to under normal conditions. She raised her hand, wiping at her stinging eyes. What were normal conditions for Lee Crane? she wondered vacantly. This? Lying here all beat to hell, bleeding internally? She, as his secretary, knew better than most at NIMR how frequently he threw himself into the midst of danger to protect others and how often he was injured in the effort. And that was on routine missions, not ONI operations like this one. She knew also that he seldom came back from ONI assignments undamaged. This time she just prayed that he came back alive....
She found herself on her knees, her eyes locked on his gaunt face, her fingers just touching his cheek, feeling the fever burning in his body.
“Lee... oh, Lee,” she whispered. Tears were streaming down her cheeks now, unnoticed by the other women, but not by the man on the cot.
He had awakened the moment the needle had jabbed into the muscle of his arm but the strength to move had returned with irritating slowness. He opened his eyes, gazing up into the freckled face leaning over him then he forced one hand to rise, tracing a tear sliding down her smooth skin with one finger and smiled thinly. Denise took his hand in hers and held it to her lips while Dame Sofía finished inserting the IV into the vein in his left arm and attached the plasma bag to a hook suspended from the low ceiling, perhaps placed there once for that very reason.
“Pulled you off... vacation... too...?” he managed with some difficulty. He frowned whether in pain or from his aversion to his own helplessness she did not know.
“Told ya you should have come hiking with me.... We could have turned off the cell phone....”
“You’re not... ONI...” he accused gently.
“Neither are you, Captain Crane,” she replied with equal gentleness. “Not really.... But that never seems to stop you if you’re needed.”
“Touché,” he answered, a smile warring with the agony in his eyes. “I take it the package was delivered on time and in good shape?”
“Better shape than you, that’s for sure. Admiral Carstairs said the man was having a case of the crawling terrors but he’s all right.”
He nodded, relieved and his eyes squeezed closed briefly, his mouth twitching in discomfort before he spoke again. “He was really scared. I was... afraid he’d decide to go back....”
She shook her head. “I brought pain relievers.... A hypo or pills? Name your pleasure,” she countered, her trembling voice doing little to mask her emotions.
“Don’t tell Jamie.... Gimme the shot.”
Denise smiled weakly, nodding as Dame Sofía pointed questioningly to a second case of disposable hypodermics. She knew the reputation Lee had earned aboard Seaview of routinely rejecting pain medications no matter what the injury and she also knew how hard the admission that he needed the relief was for him to make, even now.
“Dr. Jamieson’ll be here tomorrow, Captain. You’ve got to hold on until then.” He nodded distantly, his eyes drifting closed. “Lee...?”
“Let me look at your knee while they’re re-bandaging your side. I can at least do that much.”
“Might ‘s well,” he slurred. “Get it done... all at... once... give th’ pain-killer somethin’ to work on.”
She nodded compassionately and folded the blanket back off his right leg. The Nuns had merely cut the trousers off mid-thigh, their own discomfiture dictating their actions, but the young girl had been putting ice on it routinely, she discovered with some relief. Still, his knee was horribly swollen and black with bruising. She shook her head in horror.
“How’d this happen, Lee?” she asked, the obvious marks of intentional torment on the skin above and below his knee forcing her mind to create ghastly scenarios.
“Fell over a cat.”
She started to make a quick retort at his flippancy but realized that he was serious just in time to bite back her disbelief. “And Metzer pounded on it while he had you, didn’t he?”
“Denny....” he admonished, his gaze shifting to the three nuns hovering about him. She flushed but did not apologize for her language. “They’ve been good to me....” he told her, glancing once more at the nuns. She hadn’t believed otherwise but she knew his acknowledgement would please them. “Put themselves... in danger for me.... Whole... convent... at risk....”
She nodded, understanding his concern.
She knew she was hurting him, or the Sisters were, or perhaps it was both, for he had fallen silent again, his even white teeth clamped into his lower lip and his eyes were squeezed closed, his brows drawn down sharply. Still, she examined his knee as thoroughly as her limited knowledge would permit, tears starting from her own eyes once more as his breathing became sharp and ragged.
“I’m sorry, Lee,” she told him and he rocked his head back and forth on the pillow, rejecting her culpability. The Sisters had completed the re-bandaging of his side when she also withdrew her hands and she became aware that he was trembling violently. She wiped her tears away with the back of her hand, glancing up as the young nun made a similar gesture. Their eyes met, their gazes locking in mutual understanding for just a moment.
“I don’t think it’s broken, but we probably need a CT scan, or, at the very least, an x-ray to be sure.”
“Not much... chance of that.”
“Probably not until we get you back to Seaview.”
“I’m sure the Admiral’s already got a plan in mind.”
He flinched at the mention of the Admiral. “Can’t haul me... out of here on a stretcher... and I sure as... can’t walk.”
“We’ll come up with something, Lee. All you need to think about is just getting well.”
“That’ll take time...” he said softly, his gaze touching the Abbess, then the Infirmarian.
“I know. We’ll have to impose on these good ladies for a while longer....”
“No!” he cried vehemently, then groaned aloud, almost seeming to collapse in upon himself as the pain struck anew. His eyes closed inescapably. ““I can’t stay... that long. Too dangerous....”
Abbess Celeste drew the chair nearer the bed and sat down taking his clenched hand in hers, gently opening his fingers and forcing him to relax. “Fear not for us, my son. God brought you to us. It will be His will that takes you away again. If we suffer because of what we have done, that too, is His will. Do not take that responsibility upon yourself.”
Lee forced his eyes open once more, gazing at her intently and despite the pain visible there she saw only compassion and courage.
“Sorry, Abbess... I’m afraid I’m not that strong....” he admitted, his voice infinitesimally steadier. “Can’t let you get hurt... b'cause of me. It’s my job....” It was an explanation, not a reason, not an excuse and the Abbess accepted his statement for what it was. She smiled at him.
“You are strong, my son, and you are what our Lord has made you.”
Lee’s pale skin took on a rosier hue. She had embarrassed him but whether it was the mild praise, or her frank acceptance of God’s will, she did not know. She patted his hand maternally and rose, turning toward Denise.
“You will stay with him for a time, Sister?” she asked with a slight smile.
“I wouldn’t leave him now, Abbess. You... none of you need to stay....”
“I will remain, Mother,” the young girl put in anxiously, almost as though she was afraid of being sent away.
“You must be tired, Sister Monika. Would you not prefer to return to your cell and your own bed?”
“I’ll sleep over there in the extra bed. We can take turns. And that way I can be here in case... she... needs assistance in any way. Should she need Dame Sofía she would not know where to find her. I do...."
"All right, Sister. All right," she said patiently. "If Sister... Coleta...?"
"Just Denise, Lady Abbess."
"If Sister Denise does not object to your company then I do not object to your remaining. We will continue the pretense of your illness." She smiled warmly. "You are young enough that all sorts of contagious ailments come to mind." Now it was Monika who was blushing and she lowered her head, concealing her face in the folds of her wimple. "There should be some canned soup in that cupboard," she continued. "Try to get him to take some nourishment. He will need all his strength in the days ahead, I think."
"And maybe he'll pay closer attention to you than he does to Dr. Jamieson, Abbess. He's notorious for disregarding the Doctor's orders," Denise commented, glancing quickly at Lee, catching the black look he sent her.
"Then you send for me if he needs strong handling," Celeste assured her with a smile. "And you, Captain, must listen to her. She has only your welfare in mind."
"I hear... that a lot," he admitted sheepishly, but the illusion of strength he had achieved earlier was gone from his voice.
She nodded, finding herself liking this young man more each time she saw him. Dame Sofía stepped around her, beginning to ascend the stairs ahead of her with slow, measured steps. “God be with you, children,” Celeste gave them her blessing as she followed Sofía, wondering at the Infirmarian’s unusual rush to depart. They exited the hidden way slowly, the Abbess offering her assistance to the older woman, then closing the hatch behind them before she turned to face her old friend.
“What is it, Sofi?”
“I don’t think we should wait until daylight to summon the American physician,” she stated flatly.
“His condition is that bad?”
“It is worsening. We know it has been at least near forty-eight hours since he arrived here... but we do not know how long before that he was stabbed. That wound has now become life-threatening.”
Celeste made her decision swiftly. “As Infirmarian you should make the call, Sofi.”
“Do you think the Colonel will be listening?”
“Assume that he is. There is more at risk here than just the life of one man, even if that man is most admirable.” She sighed wearily. “The number is on a pad on my desk. You know what to say.”
ó ó ó ó
Nelson replaced the receiver on the hook on the ancient wall phone with a trembling hand. He supposed he should be grateful that the proprietor had answered the phone in the first place and had stirred himself enough to come to the room and summon him, but it had precluded his asking any of the questions burning inside him. He longed to bolt from the hotel, to rush to the Abbey and force his way inside and remove his captain from this benighted country. But he couldn’t do it that way. He would need the entire crew of the Seaview to stand a chance and with Lee hurt, he accepted the impossibility of the notion. He wheeled, returning to his room, one that adjoined Jamieson’s. He appreciated how difficult it was for Chip Morton, frequently forced to stay behind on Seaview while his best friend ventured into danger and he chafed bitterly when he found himself in similar straits.
He crossed the room and pushed open the adjoining door.
“Jamie,” he said tightly. “Time to go.”
The CMO threw back the blankets on his bed and rose, still fully clothed and transitioning instantly from slumber to awareness. It was a requisite for Navy doctors, Nelson decided; that ease of waking, not the sleeping in his clothes.
“It’s the middle of the night,” Jamieson observed.
“They called. Said we were needed... you were needed, now.”
Jamieson nodded then continued, but careful of his words, in the likely case they were being eavesdropped upon. “What did they say? There’s been a turn for the worse?”
“Yes. We don’t have much time... Damn, I wish I could go in with you!”
“I’ll take care of... everything.... Let me get my bag.”
Nelson returned to his own room long enough to pull on a heavy coat, then Jamieson was at his side and they were walking down the corridor, through the threadbare lobby and out into the street. The car they had obtained in the North was parked at the curb and their driver, another CIA contact from Shkodër, would be the only one of them to have a full night’s sleep, left behind at the hotel to provide him with plausible deniability. It took only a few short minutes for Nelson to drive to the Abbey. His instincts told him they could have walked the short distance and perhaps allowed Metzer to believe they were still in the hotel, but they were walking a very thin line between discovery and success and they, he in particular, must remember their cover story.
They climbed out of the car and rang the bell at the gatehouse. He was only vaguely surprised that an extern sister seemed to be waiting for the summons, admitting them swiftly to the parlor where the Abbess and the nun Jamieson identified for him as the Infirmarian, awaited them. The Infirmarian beckoned the doctor to follow her even as the Abbess stepped out of the enclosed monastery and motioned to one of the chairs in the parlor. Neither woman seemed unduly distressed, but Jamieson followed the elder of the two without delay.
“I will wait here with you, Mr. Harrison,” the Abbess told him, placing the slightest emphasis on his assumed name.
He sank down onto the chair, his knees suddenly weak. “How... is...?” He made a frustrated gesture with his hand, unable to voice the questions that clawed at him, knowing the possibility of there being a listening device in the room. How could people live like this? he demanded silently.
She studied his ruddy face for a long moment and Nelson found himself bracing for bad news, but she smiled serenely. “I’ve alarmed you. Forgive me,” she told him. “We can speak freely now, Admiral Nelson. The extern sisters always clean the room after it is used,” she informed him carefully. “We could speak in English if it would be easier for you. I could use the practice."
“Oh, thank you,” Nelson sighed in relief, switching from his limited Albanian gratefully. “I was never very good at languages.”
“Unlike your young friend.”
Nelson nodded slowly. “Lots of practice... Tell me, how is my captain?”
"When we left him he was awake and talking but, after her examination of the wound, Dame Sofía decided it was unwise to wait any longer for your doctor to look at it." Nelson sagged in reaction. "He is a strong man, his spirit as well as his body."
He nodded jerkily. "That's true but sometimes I think he has more courage than sense."
“You called him captain, as did the young woman who is not your sister, I think, though your coloring is similar. And she referred to you as admiral. Who are you, and why did he come here?”
Nelson hesitated. He had no doubt whatsoever that Lee had endured the torment Metzer had inflicted upon him in order to deny who and what he was. Did he have the right now to expose him to anyone, even this righteous woman? Did he have a right not to? They had put their convent, and their very lives, at risk to protect him.
“We’re all ex-military, but we’re in the private sector now. I’m retired. I hired Lee away from the Navy a couple years back to command a ship built by the company I founded after I left the Navy.”
“So, Sister Monika was correct. She said he was a... sailor.” She smiled again. “And you are his... superior, as well as his friend?”
“His friend... yes.”
“The orders that sent him here did not come from you?”
“No! I didn’t know anything about it until he was already here. I’d never have allowed it.”
“He would not have appreciated that, I think. He may be your captain, but he is very much his own man.”
“You’ve got him pegged there! It’s in his nature to do the right thing as he sees it, whether it puts him in danger, or not.”
“Would you really want him to be any other way? “ Nelson shook his head slowly. “He obviously cares for you a great deal, Admiral. He was very upset when he learned that you had come for him.”
“He would be. He took this mission to keep them from asking me to do it.”
“Would you have done?”
“I don’t know. At any rate, I doubt I would have completed it as successfully as he did. He did accomplish what he set out to do, you know. He’s very good at what he does.”
“It does not appear to have been so successful for him. He may have accomplished his goal, but to what cost?”
“That’s the way he works....” Nelson sighed deeply. “It’s the way he lives his whole life... duty, honor, country....”
"There are many, like you, who call him their friend?"
"I don't know how many of them would think of it that way but, yes, I think so. He can be a little... too... dedicated... for some, but I'd say that most of those who do know him realize that he'd put his life on the line for them without hesitation if it came down to it."
"His responsibility.... Yes, we had a brief discussion about that."
Nelson's gaze went instantly to the woman's face and he managed a weak smile. So, he thought almost irrationally, even the Reverend Mother of the convent was not immune to Lee's determination.
Celeste reached out, patting the Admiral's hand much as she had done with Crane, wishing she could do more to ease his concerns, his fears, but her own were too intense to put aside and she knew that they both were only being realistic. “He is quite charming... for a man with the injuries he has suffered.” The admiral nodded. “If her calling was not so strong, I would fear for the heart of our youngest postulant.”
Now Nelson frowned. “Lee’s a man of honor, Reverend Mother. He would never do anything that could be even remotely construed as seductive where the girl is concerned.”
She smiled pleasantly. “A man like him... does not have to do anything, Admiral. His very being is enough to influence a young woman’s heart.”
Nelson’s smile broadened. “And perhaps even one not so young?”
Abbess Celeste flushed slightly but returned his smile sincerely. “Perhaps. Courage, and intelligence, combined with selflessness, all in an attractive package is hard to resist, even for an old fossil like me.”
“That’s my captain, all right.”
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“This is a pretty mess you’ve gotten yourself into, Captain,” Will Jamieson commented gently as he crossed the short distance to the bed where Crane lay. His practiced eye took in the Captain’s paleness, the pinched mouth, the hands clenched at his sides as Denise moved out of the chair where she had been seated, making room for him. Lee rolled his head toward him heavily, as if even that movement was nearly too much for his strength, and looked up at the doctor. He recognized him, Jamieson was relieved to see. At least there was that much. But he had lost too much blood, was still losing blood, he realized, at an alarming rate despite the nuns’ efforts.
“I know you dislike my sick bay, Skipper, but I wasn’t aware of the lengths you’d go to just to avoid it.”
“Sorry....” Crane replied, his voice thin, strained. Jamieson had expected the Captain’s usual smile of attempted reassurance. This time he did not get it.
“This is your Jamie?” the eldest of the nuns asked the injured man, and the doctor wondered what Lee had told them. But, she was smiling, pleased and even Crane’s expression had eased somewhat.
Despite the medication he was certain had been added to the
IV drip suspended from the ceiling, Lee was in a lot of pain, pain that he was
determinedly attempting to conceal, Jamieson knew. He had long ago learned to recognize the
signs with his Captain. He also
understood the man’s stubborn reasoning behind his persistent rejection of pain
medications unless he was fully incapacitated or strapped to the bunk in
“Looks like these ladies have taken pretty good care of you, though.”
“Still... alive....” Lee acknowledged grimly.
But only just, Jamieson thought to himself, but aloud he resumed his normal bedside manner, although he was certain he would not be fooling Crane. “Well, let’s just have a look at you, shall we? We’ll have you fixed up and back on your feet in no time.”
Jamieson was dimly aware of the derisive snort from the old nun but he determinedly eased the blanket down off Lee’s chest, biting his lip as he observed the blood-stained bandage on the Captain’s left side, the multitude of cuts and lacerations that laced his torso.
“Nice playmates you have, Lee....” he whispered, reverting to using his patient’s first name, the only sign he gave of his intense reaction.
“Yeah.... Didn’t play... nice at all....”
“Don’t you worry about a thing, Skipper.”
“Never do.... Not with you... at the helm, Jamie....”
“Then why...?” Jamieson started to question him, then broke off, smiling.
It was a commonly accepted thing that Captain Crane fought medical treatment whenever possible. It wasn’t that he enjoyed hurting, it was only that anything that took him away from the performance of his duty was something he avoided at all costs. And, the doctor admitted, he could perform that duty better, half dead, than the majority of other officers he had served with and under could at full strength.
For the first time since his arrival, Jamieson noticed a smile beginning to soften the pain-taut lines of Crane’s mouth.
“You’d better be on the lookout once I get you back on the Seaview, sir,” he murmured kindly.
“Let’s get on with it... Doc....” Lee answered, his eyes beginning to lose focus. “Don’t know... how much more... I can take....”
Jamieson inhaled sharply. He had never expected to hear those words from Lee Crane and to do so brought home to him more poignantly than anything else the condition the Captain was really in.
“We’ll take care of you, Lee. Give me ten minutes and I’ll have you sleeping like a baby....”
Jamieson swallowed heavily. Lee really was in bad shape.
ó ó ó ó
Will Jamieson returned to stand next to Lee's bedside after removing the scrubs he had brought with him and washing the blood from his hands in the small sink. It could have been a worse place to perform surgery, but he couldn't think of many at the moment. The lighting had been poor, there was no sterile environment; and he could not fully convince himself that he had found and sealed all the sources of bleeding in his friend's belly. He was accustomed to operating aboard the Seaview, sometimes under unfavorable conditions, but there he had everything he might need close at hand and corpsmen to assist him. Dame Sofía had proven to be an able assistant, he admitted, frequently handing him instruments even before he could ask, and she had also been absolutely correct about Lee’s deteriorating condition. The surgery had gone well enough, without undue complication, but had they waited the additional eight to ten hours as had been the original plan, he doubted the results would have been so favorable.
By long habit he picked up Crane's arm and pressed his fingers to his wrist above the fresh bandages covering the lacerations, checking his pulse. The antibiotics and the plasma that the women had begun earlier had helped, there was no question about that; but had it been enough? He’d known men to die on occasion, even after a successful surgery, if infection set in or, as in this case, could not be controlled. The next twenty-four hours would be the most telling. If Captain Crane survived that long, then his chances of recovery were... well, not good... but better.
He looked up, hearing a choked sob from the shadows beyond the bed. Denise had her hand balled into a fist and pressed against her lips. As with all ONI agents she had been given field-medic training but he knew she had never observed a full-blown surgery before and particularly not on someone she knew well and cared about. Hell! he thought vehemently. They all cared about this persistently courageous young man. Damn Lee Crane! He was incorrigible! There had been times the past couple of years when Jamie had wondered, however briefly, if somehow the man had a death wish. But that had been before he really came to know the young captain of the Seaview. He knew that Lee had one of the strongest survival instincts he'd ever encountered. He was not self-destructive. He was just determined to be the shield that protected his crew and Seaview herself and, all too frequently, that determination extended to include ONI missions.
He knew he had to say something to these women clustered about but at the moment he was speechless, unable to form a single word of reassurance and the time was drawing near when he must leave. Will Jamieson glanced at his own wrist to confirm his inner clock. Lee’s watch? Where was it? he wondered.
“I don’t suppose he was wearing a watch when he arrived?” he asked then, his speechlessness broken.
“Only the chains. It was important, or valuable?”
“Only to Lee,” Jamieson replied.
Denise spoke up, sniffling a little first. “It was a gift from the crew of his command when he left to take the job with Admiral Nelson. He wears it constantly and it wasn’t among the things he left with Admiral Carstairs. He won’t be pleased to have lost it.”
“I doubt it is truly lost,” Dame Sofía said, “only taken from him.” She was exhausted, Jamieson realized and he berated himself for his lack of consideration.
“You’ll leave his care to these two tonight, won’t you?” he asked kindly, nodding toward Denise and the young nun. “He should sleep through the night and probably part of tomorrow to get the anesthetic out of his system. It’s the best thing for him right now anyway.”
The old Infirmarian glanced down at the unconscious man but nodded slowly. “I will go when you do, Doctor. I will be no more than five minutes away should there be need.”
“Denise, you know what to watch for, don’t you?”
“Very high fever, cough, unusual swelling around the incision, cold or clammy skin... excessive pain.... ”
“It’s going to have to be something pretty spectacular before Lee ever admits to being in pain....” he began, then saw the startled expressions on all three faces turned toward him and recalled his young friend’s earlier confession. “Okay. I’m leaving some aspirin for his temperature; it’s the best thing I have with me for fever. Just continue with the cool water cloths. That’ll help. His temp is bound to go up for a while, just his body reacting to the trauma he’s been through. If it doesn’t go down substantially, say within a day or two; that will spell a real problem. Add 10mg’s of morphine to the IV Y-site every four to six hours, and keep pushing the antibiotic.”
The old nun rounded the bed to stand beside him, her hand resting on his forearm. “It is clear that you do not want to leave him, Doctor, but you know that is how it has to be. Colonel Metzer will learn that you have been here and he will seek you out. The pretense that you have created depends upon your ability to come and go freely when you are needed.”
“I know,” he grumbled morosely. “But usually it’s Lee running out on me, not the other way around.”
“We’ll take good care of him, Dr. Jamieson,” Denise assured him. The tears were still in her eyes, but her voice was steady. “Sister Monika and I will.... We’ll take care of him....” she finished lamely.
“I know you will, Miss Hunter,” he replied kindly. He reached out, taking her hands briefly, but warmly. “I doubt you’re any more anxious to break in a new boss at the Institute than Nelson is eager to have to find a new captain for the Seaview.”
“How is the OOM taking all this?”
“About like you’d expect. It’s killing him not to be here, himself.”
“And you, Doctor? I think you have also taken a special interest in this young man.” Dame Sofía observed.
Jamieson chewed his lower lip as he inspected the bandages that now encircled the captain’s middle, then he checked his pulse rate once more before he readjusted the IV drip. At last he closed his medical bag and straightened. “I think the young lady there has the right idea,” he said, nodding toward Sister Monika where the girl knelt in the shadows, quietly praying.
“You and I have done what may be done medically, Doctor. It will be her prayers that are his biggest aid now.”
The pragmatic physician merely nodded, willing to accept her confidence but all too familiar with his captain’s sometimes difficult healing. Well, it can’t hurt, he thought distantly.
The old Infirmarian shifted slightly, looking toward Denise and Sister Monika. “Sister, if you can feign weakness I think it a good idea if you put in an appearance at Lauds. It has become known in the community that you have a stomach ailment, one that can come and go... as we need it.” The girl nodded obediently. “And Sister Denise, it would also be advisable for you to return to your cell before the morning bell, my dear, and remain there for a time. I suspect that Colonel Metzer will not be satisfied with the word of the extern sisters as to the seriousness of your ailment and he may pay us another visit, thinking that we will be caught off guard so early in the morning.”
“But, Lee....” Denise began to protest and even Jamieson moved to interrupt, but Dame Sofía waved them both into silence.
"As soon as Lauds is complete, I fear Sister Monika will suffer a relapse. But if he acts to his nature and comes and, if you convince him of your distress, it may be the Colonel himself who summons our doctor to your aid.”
ó ó ó ó
Dr. Jamieson had only been gone a quarter of an hour but already Denise’s level of anxiety had begun to climb. She sat beside the bed in one of the two wooden chairs, holding Lee’s unresponsive hand in hers, just staring at his abnormally pale face. He would survive. He must! she thought desperately. Dr. Jamieson had said that, had Lee received immediate care in a real trauma center, the stab wound would have been considered serious but not life threatening. It was the delay between the actual injury and the nuns’ first attempts to help him that had caused the problem. Blood loss, infection, dehydration, all had combined to bring him unpleasantly near death. She had only seen him when he was nearly healed of various wounds, but never like this, when the injuries were so fresh and so awful, when he suffered so horribly.
“Are you in love with him?” Sister Monika’s voice spoke softly from the far side of the bed and Denise looked up guiltily. She smiled then.
“In love with him? I’d have to say no, Sister, not any more. But I’d guess that most of the women at the Institute have fancied themselves in love with him at one time or another, but do I love him? Do we all love him? That’s a definite yes. Little good it does any of us.... He only has one love in his life... the Seaview.”
“That’s his ship? I have heard of men who felt that way. And he is the captain of this ship?”
Denise nodded, hearing a degree of admiration in the girl’s voice that was slightly alarming in a nun. “He is. It’s his life.”
“But he might one day find a woman for whom he would abandon the sea....”
shook her head vehemently. “That’s not
something he would ever be capable of doing, I’m afraid.” She took a new direction, hoping that she was
not making a very big mistake. “Even if
he should meet a woman he loved enough to marry, he would never... willingly...
give up the Seaview. As you have been called to
Monika sat studying her hands clasped in her lap for a long time before she responded. “You seem to know him very well.”
“I work for him... for nearly a year now. As captain of the Seaview he holds an important position in the Nelson Institute for Marine Research and I handle the paperwork for him while he’s away at sea, things that don’t need his personal attention. Admiral Nelson, you haven’t met him yet, it’s his foundation.”
“And this Admiral... he has come all this way to retrieve an employee?”
Denise allowed an honest smile. At least the tone of adoration had slipped from the girl’s voice. “He’d go to the ends of the earth to make sure Lee was safe, and Lee... for him? Further.”
“He would die for him,” the girl stated firmly. “He nearly did.” Her fingers moved restlessly on the beaded rosary. “He said he had come so that his friend... the Admiral... would not. That it was too dangerous....”
“That sounds like Lee. He watches out for everyone... everyone but himself, it seems.”
“You sound as if he could have avoided being arrested if he had wanted to. How can that be?”
“I think he probably could have. The whole town is still talking about it... how he led the Colonel’s men on a merry chase for over an hour, before he surrendered himself....”
“Surrendered?” Sister Monika gasped, horror stricken. “I did not know. Couldn’t he have escaped?”
“You saw his knee.
That’s probably part of the reason he gave himself up... but only
part. It isn’t in him to just accept
defeat, even if he could hardly walk.
He’s too much the fighter.
Something kept him from going with the person he came to remove from
“Didn’t he know what Metzer would do to him?”
Denise touched Lee’s cheek tenderly. “Of course he did. But he wouldn’t have hesitated... even if his death had been an absolute certainty.”
“That’s rather foolish, isn’t it?” Now disillusionment had crept into the girl’s voice and Denise allowed herself to relax somewhat. They definitely didn’t need a pubescent girl thinking she was in love with the Captain just now, she thought brutally.
“Not if it’s your life he’s protecting. I can’t begin to tell you all the things he’s done over the years, what he’s risked....”
“And what he has suffered,” Monika interrupted again, not so concerned with the missions as with the man. So, Denise thought, the girl wasn’t quite as naïve as she might have believed.
“There’s been that. His best friend and first officer, Chip Morton, is constantly after him to drop the ONI assignments because he gets hurt so often. But, knowing Lee, even if he never went on another job for the ONI he wouldn’t be able to stay out of harm’s way. Trouble seems attracted to him like moths to a flame.”
“Is that why you fell out of love with him?”
“Oh, I don’t think so, but it is awfully hard to see someone you care about so frequently bloodied and broken.”
“And yet, he continues to do it.” Monika shook her head thoughtfully. “I was wrong. It isn’t foolishness... It’s absolute insanity.... Glorious, courageous, dedicated... but insane, nonetheless.”
“Guess you could say that, all right,” Denise agreed, smiling gently.
ó ó ó ó
“I just don’t like it, Jamie. I just don’t,” Nelson grumbled at the wheel of the car. “We’ve got to get him out of there somehow.
“Oh, I agree, Admiral, but I’ll be damned if I can think of a way to do it that won’t get us all thrown into Colonel Metzer’s jail. You?”
Nelson grumbled louder, a sound Jamieson recognized as his helpless anger sound. “As close as he came to dying, maybe it could have been in a coffin, but I guess Metzer would be certain to check that out pretty thoroughly.”
“Yeah, and that would take wholesale cooperation from the entire convent. I didn’t get the impression that very many of the sisters even know they’re harboring a fugitive.”
“It’s a cinch he’s not going to be able to walk out of there for quite a while, even after that stab wound heals up enough to let him move around. His knee is a real mess.”
“But not broken?”
“Not that I could tell without a CT scan. But there’s enough damage to it that walking’s going to be more than just a little difficult for several weeks, at the least.”
Jamieson nodded his silent agreement to whichever difficulty it was that the Admiral was cursing. “You gonna put the brakes on his ONI junkets after this?”
“That’s assuming we get him back alive.” Nelson’s voice was incredibly soft and broken, drawing the doctor’s gaze.
“We have to believe we will, sir....” It felt strange to Jamieson for him to be the one urging optimism on anyone, particularly when it came to the Captain’s health.
“We had better contact Mr. Morton,” the Admiral commented, overriding Jamieson’s reverie. “He’ll be putting the Seaview up on the beach and sending out a landing party if we don’t let him know what’s going on.”
“We did promise,” Jamieson agreed. “Want to drive to the edge of town? If Metzer has a tail on us we can see them coming from there.”
“We’ll turn you into an agent yet, Jamie. Yes, let’s do that. If Metzer or any of his men show up we’ll just convince them that I was too upset and worried about my sister to go straight back to the hotel.”
It took them only a few minutes to reach the outskirts of the small town, its streets deserted in the middle of the night. Nelson guided the big car off the road onto the gravely verge and killed the engine then withdrew the small transceiver unit, disguised as a pack of cigarettes, from his inside jacket pocket. The mechanisms were tiny but powerful and preset to Seaview’s frequency. All he had to do was loosen the metal strip from the cellophane to act as an antenna and press the logo on the side of the pack to activate the scrambler. Jesse Carstairs had provided the device, swearing that it was as safe as churches, that nothing short of a comparable device would even be able to detect the signal. Still Nelson preferred to be safe rather than regret the precautions he had chosen to make.
“White Dog to Gray Lady, do you read?”
The answer was instantaneous and affirmative, betraying the
“How’s Lee?” he blurted out, forgetting the clandestine code they had worked out before Nelson had left Seaview.
Nelson glanced sidelong at Jamieson and shook his head, perturbed, but sympathetic. Morton and Crane’s friendship was nearly legendary among the crew of Seaview and they all knew of the XO’s proprietary concern when Lee undertook one of the ONI missions.
“Alive, Chip,” Nelson said, relenting.
“Bad enough to make things tricky.”
“Harry...?” It was Admiral Carstairs’ voice now. “You can talk freely. We’re reading no traffic from this end.”
“I’m not comfortable....”
“I am. And it’s one of our communication devices, remember?”
“But it’s one of my men, remember?” Nelson snarled back, then sighed explosively. “I still owe you for this, Jesse,” he continued and his vow did not promise good things for the ONI admiral. “He’s a mess. That’s all I’ll say for now. But we’re dealing with the situation as best we can and he... he’s fighting.”
“Details, Harry. Details.”
“Not on your life! Or on his!”
“Then how long before you’re back aboard?”
“A couple of days but we’ll have to come empty handed, I’m afraid.”
“No!” he heard Chip’s wail from the background.
“Not my choice either, Mr. Morton, but our hands are tied. Don’t give up on him. You know he’s got more lives than a whole litter of cats.”
“Let’s just hope his friend doesn’t decide to dispose of him like a bag of unwanted farm kittens.”
“He wouldn’t go down quietly, Chip. Don’t forget that.”
“I’m not forgetting anything!” Morton promised vehemently as Nelson broke the contact, returning the cigarette pack to his jacket.
ó ó ó ó
Lee awoke slowly, transitioning from drugged unconsciousness to semi-awareness with all the speed of a barnacle adhering itself to the hull of a ship, or so it seemed to him. He fought the fog that swirled through the lobes of his brain, obscuring hearing, thought, sensation, then feeling it retreat cell by cell. He was first aware of the silence around him, thick, heavy silence, broken by the muted sound of a carillon chiming in the distance. He knew where he was; in the hidden room in the Convent of St. Helena’s. And he knew why he was here. He was not in a great deal of pain at the moment, just enough to remind him not to move too quickly. He suspected there was a potent pain killer in the IV that dripped something, probably plasma and antibiotics, steadily into his arm. He had experienced the slightly disoriented, floating sensation before. Morphine. He sighed wearily, not liking the addictiveness of the drug, but appreciating its efficiency.
The bells had fallen silent but how long ago he could not tell. It might have been a moment or an hour. His mind was still working fuzzily and he had a tendency to find himself jerking awake, one of the reason he was convinced that he should not depend on even his inner clock. Slowly, like a hundred-year-old man, he raised his left hand, feeling the tug of the IV needle taped to his arm. Damn! he swore silently. His watch was gone. He vaguely recalled someone discussing its loss; Jamie, he decided, had asked about it and one of the Nuns.... He shivered, the memory of Colonel Metzer’s snarling face so near to his own sweeping over him as though the man stood before him at this moment.
You won’t be needing this any more, Captain, he had said, his mouth curled into a bitter smile as he opened the strap and removed the watch from Lee’s up-stretched arms. He had turned the watch over, tipping it toward the light. LC, from SSN 587, with thanks, he had read the inscription aloud and laughed sourly.
There had been more taunting after that, laughter that had
ended in more brutality and Lee inhaled slowly, deeply, knowing it was going to
take a lot to erase the man’s viciousness from his memory. But still he wanted his watch back. Of course if he got out of
He turned his head on the hard pillow, first to the left then to the right, discovering that he was alone for what he was sure was the first time since his arrival at St. Helena’s. He couldn’t blame them. He had forced himself on them. They had taken care of him, gently, tenderly and with great compassion. But they had to go on with their lives. They could not appear to change their routine. It was one of the first things he had learned from his ONI training and at the moment his greatest fear was that his presence would threaten their safety.
Once more he moved his hand, his right this time and slipped it beneath the blankets that covered him, laying his palm flat over the heavily bandaged area of his side. Exploring with his fingertips he found that, what had begun as a two-inch puncture wound had turned into a four-inch incision, with a thin, flexible plastic drainage tube extending from the bottom of the incision. There was no collection bag that he could feel, and guessed that Jamie must have constructed it from supplies he had with him. The bandages around it felt dry however and he supposed that was a good sign.
He sighed again, indescribably weary, but he didn’t want to go back to sleep yet.
Jamie was an excellent doctor. God knew he had put him to the test often enough since he’d taken command of the Seaview. And he always gave Jamieson a hard time. No, he admitted, more than a hard time. The man was only trying to do his job, trying to keep his captain healthy and he, ungrateful SOB that he was, made Jamie’s life hell while he did it! Lee withdrew his arm from beneath the blanket and laid his forearm across his eyes. Must be the morphine, he thought dazedly.
And Denise had been here, he seemed to remember, unless that was a delirium-born memory, too. Though why his secretary would be here was beyond his grasp at the moment. He smiled, or he thought he did, but didn’t feel his mouth move. The picture he had in his mind was of Denise, petite, vivacious, red-haired Denise in a nun’s habit, her freckled face framed briefly by a dark blue wimple. He allowed his arm to slide down across his eyes, shutting out even the dim light from the single fixture in the ceiling. She was ex-CIA, but she was through with that life, had sworn vehemently that she would never be drawn back into the Firm again for any reason. But why was she here, then?
What were either of them doing here? What had possessed them? Jamie was no agent to go undercover even to save his captain’s life and, although Denise had the training, and perhaps the desire to help him, she had been on a hiking trip, he was certain; out of reach. She had invited him to go with her. If he’d agreed, he wouldn’t be here, now. If he’d agreed, he wouldn’t be lying here, feeling the pain beginning to build, unable to move more than his hand to help himself. Feeling sorry for himself. Lee closed his eyes, banishing the self-pity, knowing it wouldn’t serve him, knowing in his heart why they had come.
The only thing he could do at the moment was wait for healing to take place and he didn’t even have Jamie to rail against to make the waiting tolerable. Was that why he always berated the man who only wanted to help him? Probably not. He hated inactivity as much, if not more, than he hated the injuries themselves. He had always been a bad patient. Even his mother had complained about his impatience when he had been sick as a child, though his mother was not his subordinate and she had never been forced to put up with his belligerence. He owed Jamie an apology. Or, at the very least, better behavior.
He heard the subtle click of the trapdoor latch being released and tensed. He had no reason to believe that any of the sisters who knew of his presence would betray him but he was uneasy nonetheless. He realized, belatedly, that he was holding his breath until a solitary figure descended the stone steps, letting the trapdoor close softly behind her as she crept down into the cellar room. It was the young girl, he identified, and he wondered at her continued vigilance. Was she intended to become Infirmarian after the old one... what was her name... Dame... Sofía. Yes, that was it. And this was....
“Sister Monika,” he said aloud, or more or less aloud. His voice was thin, hardly audible, but the girl flinched as though struck.
“You’re awake!” she blurted anxiously. “Your doctor did not think you would awaken until much later in the day.”
“He should know better than that,” Lee managed to get out, though it took nearly all his strength. “Musta been... worse off than I... thought....”
The girl sank down onto the chair to the left of the bed, her restless hands finding her rosary and running the beads through her fingers. “You were very... ill.”
“Still... am....” he admitted faintly. “Jamie... gone?”
“He will be back later. Your lady friend is still here.”
Lee smiled in spite of himself. He had never thought of Denise as his Lady Friend, though he suspected that it had flitted through her mind briefly when she first came to work for him. He was overly familiar with that look in the eyes of some women when they looked at him.
He closed his own eyes desolately, but his misery had little to do with physical discomfort. Women had a tendency to suffer around him, for one reason or another, he decided. He did not want these good women who had sheltered him to have to go through any unpleasantness on his account. He had to remove himself from their sanctuary as soon as he was physically able. As soon as....
He raised his head slightly from the pillow, blinking against the blurring of his vision as he gazed at the very young woman. “Metzer...?” he got out.
“He still seeks you, Captain. It is why your lady... Denise... is not here.” She broke off, seeing the sudden panic blaze in his fever-darkened eyes. “No, she is well. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to alarm you...” He rocked his head. “The Reverend Mother fears that if Colonel Metzer is aware of the doctor’s visit here during the night, he will demand to see her to verify her illness.”
“No....” he groaned.
“It’s all right. It’s what Mother expects. They have a plan among them to enable the doctor to return once more.”
“They have to... go....” he sighed. “Can’t endanger... th’selves... and you....” His eyes drifted closed once more, but not before she saw the pain that had returned to flicker through them. “Never... meant....”
“I know that, Captain. We are all aware of that. But, don’t you see...? It’s our duty to help you.... Our Lord said, as ye do unto the least of these, ye do it also unto me... “
Lee tried to smile once more, nearly failing. “Pretty lofty... company....” he said, but there had been conviction in the girl’s voice and he closed his eyes, somehow moved by her devotion. He wanted to stay awake until Denise and Jamie returned. He had to convince them to leave the country at once, before Metzer’s suspicion of them put them in the same kind of situation he had escaped. He couldn’t hold onto consciousness without help. Already he could feel the waves of oblivion threatening to break across his mind.
“Have you been here?” she finished when his voice died. She was aware of the frustration in his eyes. He may find himself frequently injured, but he certainly rebelled against being incapacitated.
“No.... you... convent...”
“Oh,” she answered with a blush. “Just a few months. I’m still a postulant....”
He managed a pained smile. “A trainee.... Like a... midshipman....”
She gave a little shake of her head, unfamiliar with the
“Tell me....” he began again. “How d’you... b'come.... What d’you... have t'do?”
She smiled, understanding now what he wanted to know, and why. Her explanation would be a distraction for them both.
“Reverend Mother says our order is a little different from
those in other parts of the world, because we are more isolated from
She hesitated, sighing despondently and it seemed her thoughts took a different turn.
“And yet... you still want...?”
“More than anything, Captain. There are only two of us who have not been clothed. I am the youngest and the only postulant....”
“Why... here?” he asked, then closed his eyes, regretting the impulsive question. It was none of his business and he merely wanted her to talk to him, to help him remain awake. She was so very young and yet she seemed to understand.
“You’re fever has risen again. Your doctor said that it might. Let me get some water, then I’ll tell you all about myself. Will that be acceptable?”
He lowered his eyelids in agreement, his thick, dark lashes pausing briefly against his pale skin as he fought the pull of sleep. The girl returned swiftly with the bowl of water from the tap and he relaxed, the cool damp cloth on his forehead a balm to his overheated body.
“Are you sure you want to hear all this? It's not very exciting....”
“Yes,” he whispered, then, “First, when's Jamie coming... back?”
“I’m not sure. Probably mid-day. Reverend Mother is hoping that Denise can convince the Colonel himself to call her doctor.”
“Good... idea....” He shuddered.
“Are you in a great deal of pain?” she asked anxiously.
“I’ve never given anyone a shot before, but I could probably add some more of the pain killer to the IV. I watched the doctor do it before. It.... It’s been long enough, I’m sure.”
“Wait....” he urged. “Morphine... strong stuff.... Makes me sleep.”
“That’s what Dame Sofía told me after the doctor left. But it’s very effective.”
“Pretty... much.” He shivered again but managed a smile. “Back... to you....”
She understood that he was delaying the administering of the pain reliever until the need was intolerable but she did not call him on it. Instead she merely returned the smile that was so weak but so heartfelt, so beautiful that she felt her own heart stutter within her breast. She inhaled deeply, readying herself.
“I was born in a little village near here. My mother died when I was just a few months
old and I became a ward of the town. We
have a very small church there and I loved the rites and the peacefulness. When I found out about
“They doubt... that you’re serious?” Lee asked into the silence that had fallen.
She tipped her head to one side, wondering how he could be so perceptive when he was so badly injured. “Yes, I guess that’s what it is. I think they are afraid that I only want to join them out of fear of the life outside these walls, but that isn’t true.”
“You... sure?” She lowered her head, and he knew that her words had been mostly bravado. “Why?”
“I cannot tell you that, Captain. I don’t really know. I just know that I am so happy here and I know I can be of use here and out there, beyond our walls... my existence would serve no purpose.”
“That really matters... to you,” he said, and it was less a question than a statement. “What can you do... in a cloister?”
“We pray!” she told him firmly. “For our country, for our people, and... for those who need us. Don’t forget, you are alive and in this cloister, right now.”
“We are self-supporting... at least in part. We have a garden where we grow fruits and vegetables for our table. There are shepherds that provide us with wool which we prepare, and spin, and weave into cloth. The shepherds sell the cloth and we receive a portion of the proceeds. I am very good on the loom," she confided, then blushed at her own pride. "There are the dowries that some of the postulants bring, that goes to support the convent upon her taking her solemn vows.”
“Dowry...?” he asked, that one word conveying his confusion and earnest desire to know.
“It’s a bride’s dowry, like they did a thousand years ago.... A girl brings what she can, or what her family will provide. As a foundling I had nothing to offer, but Sister Grace, who comes from a wealthy family in Tiranë, provided a great deal.”
“She’ll be... better off... than you?”
Monika smiled, and even giggled a little. “No, not really. It only made her confirmation a little more certain. We all take a vow of poverty and chastity, Captain. Grace will be treated no differently because of what she brings to the convent than I will be. It is not the life we led before we came here by which we are ultimately judged, but by the life we lead here.”
“You should... do well, then.”
“Do you really think so?” She smiled blissfully. “I know this is where I belong!”
“I... I’m glad you were here,” he admitted, his eyes drifting closed more frequently than he could control.
Monika smiled and refreshed the cloth, folded it and laid it on his forehead. He would be unable to remain awake until the doctor returned, she was certain, but she could not fault him for trying. Both the Abbess and Dame Sofía had commented on this man’s strength and Monika now realized that they had meant his strength of purpose, as much as his physical stamina.
“Sister....” he whispered.
“If... if I’m not conscious when Jamie comes... tell him... for me...
that they have to leave
“I will, Captain,” she agreed absently, then gasped as he reached out, his long fingers encircling her wrist.
“You’ve got to make them... understand.... Metzer... will arrest them... all.... Here... he’s the power....”
“I am aware of that.”
“I’m trouble... for you.... They’re even more....”
“But they won’t want to leave without you and I’m sure you can’t travel!” He was becoming agitated and she knew that could not be good for him. “Please, be calm, Captain. Everything will be all right.”
“Not... if Nelson is arrested.... They’ve got to go! I’ll find... a way out... later....”
He was nearly panting with anxiety now. She knew he was correct though and seemingly much more objective about the threat than his friends had been. In their need to see him safe they were more concerned about his welfare than their own. He knew he was incapable of escaping this underground room, even to protect his friends or the nuns who concealed him, and the knowledge was obviously intolerable for him.
“Captain... Lee,” she urged, going back to his given name to reach him through his anxiety. “I’m sure they are being very careful. They just want to make sure you’re going to be all right before they go....”
“I’ll... be... fine....” he promised, his eyes remaining closed this time and his breathing slowing as he began to lose his battle with oblivion. “Tell me...” he whispered long after she believed he was asleep.
“About your life... before you came here...”
“I’ll tell you whatever you want, Captain. You just relax and try to sleep.” She smiled warmly. “If you miss anything, I’ll tell you again later, if you want.”
His battered mouth curved gently into a meager smile. It was his only response but Monika knew he was still at least partially aware and she began to talk, telling him things she had never told anyone, except perhaps the priest, during confession. He remained silent, motionless but for occasional small movements to seek a more comfortable position or an involuntary flinch at a shooting pain. She told him of her early childhood, of learning that her mother had never been married and yet had given birth to a child and suffered the stigma of that sin. She told him of how she had come to seek solace in prayer to another woman who had conceived out of wedlock and given birth to the most glorious of all men and how that had given her peace and strength to face the taunts of her peers, the knowing glances of the adults of the town. She told him of how, during the years of being shuffled from one household to another, she had come to long for some place to call her own, a place where she would be accepted for herself and a place she would never have to leave again.
She had not realized how important that aspect was to her until she started talking to him. She had grown up feeling a burden to her village, to the people who housed her, but never loved her. She wanted desperately to be a part of this community, to be of use and perhaps, even a little bit important to them. The way this wounded man was important to those around him, the men on the ship he captained, to the doctor and to the woman who loved him dearly, but refused to be in love with him.
And there was the other man. The Admiral.
She had not met him, but after Lauds she had overheard
Sister Elosa talking to Dame Joseph, seeking information from her regarding the
strange activities going on in their convent.
Several of the nuns had seen the man and were intrigued. He was considerably older than the Cistercian
nun he claimed was his sister but his distress had been obvious. He had paced the parlor restlessly when they
had originally brought Sister Coleta to
Once more Monika refreshed the cloth on Lee’s forehead. He was asleep now, she decided, his lashes lying still and damp against his skin. Even bearded, bruised and bloodied, he was an incredibly handsome man and she felt the stirring in her breast once more. Suddenly, more than anything in her world, more than a safe life at St. Helena’s, more than acceptance, she wanted this man to survive, to be able to return to those who held him in such high esteem. For the first time in her short life and without even knowing what she did, she truly put concern for another’s welfare ahead of her own.
ó ó ó ó
As Lee had feared, he was asleep when the trap door opened again to admit Denise and Will Jamieson, followed closely by Dame Sofía. Monika looked up. She had been expecting them for some time and now that they were here she rose to her feet, unaware that a new sense of calm involvement had given her a subtle glow. Dame Sofía, the first one down the stairs came to a halt at the foot of the bed, staring at her, then at Lee’s silent form on the bed. Jamieson stepped round her and eased down on the edge of the bed, swiftly checking the Captain’s pulse, then fitting a stethoscope to his ears and listening to both his heart and lungs.
“Did the Colonel do as Reverend Mother expected?” Monika asked of no one in particular.
“He sure did,” Denise replied smugly. She stood near the head of the bed, staying out of Jamieson’s way, but as near as she could get to Crane, the girl noted. “Dr. Jamieson’s going to have make it quick again, unfortunately. Metzer’s in the parlor with the Admiral.”
“Yeah, and the mood Nelson’s in, I sure don’t want Metzer to push the wrong buttons," the physician grumbled. "He’s about ready to have a team from the Seaview fly in here and pull us all out right under Metzer’s nose!”
“You cannot do that!” Monika cried anxiously. “Captain Crane would never survive....”
Jamieson spared her a quick glance. “I know. It’ll be a week before he should even be out of bed and I don’t know how long after that before he’ll be able to walk.”
“He gave me a message to give to you, Doctor,” Monika informed them then.
“What did he say?” he asked distantly, beginning to remove the bandage that covered the incision in Crane’s side.
“He said that you must all go... leave
Jamieson’s hands froze and he looked toward the girl. There was a new determination in her, he noted. “We want all of us out of here as soon as he can travel.”
“You must go without him.”
“Sister!” Dame Sofía said sharply. “You take too much upon yourself!”
Monika turned toward the older woman and this time when she faced her she did not lower her gaze as she usually did. “They are not my sentiments, Dame Sofía, but his. He fears greatly....” She broke off, feeling the instant rejection of her words from both of the Captain's friends, but she continued to address Dame Sofía. “He fears not for himself, but for their safety, as well as ours. If they remain, Colonel Metzer is bound to discover that they are deceiving him, and his retribution will be dreadful.”
Her statement met with silence, but only for a moment. “She may be right, Dr. Jamieson,” Denise observed softly, her CIA training surfacing. “We won’t do him any good at all if we’re incarcerated, or... dead.”
“I’d argue, if it didn’t sound so typically Lee Crane,” Jamieson grumbled. “Him, lying here hardly able to lift his head and he’s worrying about us. Dam.... Sorry, Sisters. It’s just that... this man...” He sagged, his shoulders rounding. “He does this to me too d... too often.”
“Does it to you?” Dame Sofía questioned with a smile. “I don’t think that is what he intends.”
Jamieson smiled weakly and returned to his examination of the stitches that sealed the wound. “No, he never intends to get hurt. He just has a way of living his life, of throwing himself completely into whatever it is he’s involved in, that sometimes ends up putting him in more danger than any four men should have to deal with. He has... abilities... that allow him to excel in certain things....”
“Like speaking a foreign language with all the skill of a native?”
Denise smiled. “That I can explain. An agency of our government has developed a method of speed-learning foreign languages, and Lee has a particular knack for it. Admiral Nelson spent nearly the same amount of time under it, but... well, you heard the results. It speeds the learning but most agents still have to spend a couple of weeks getting to the place Lee reached in twelve hours.”
“He is truly an exceptional man,” Sofía said gently. “But that was apparent from the first. I think, perhaps you are all the kind of people we have not seen in this country for a very long time.”
“Them, maybe,” Jamieson muttered, hardly separating his attention from his careful examination of the wound. “Lee and the Admiral and Denise. Not me. I’m just a ship’s doctor....”
“Who puts his life in danger to offer aid to a man who is more to him than just his captain, I think,” the old woman observed.
“Nah, I’m not in the same class as them. B’cides, Lee pretty much resents me for
throwing my weight around in
Jamieson jerked back. “Lee... er, Captain! I didn’t know you were awake.”
“You never do.”
“Now, Skipper....” Jamieson began to scold, then broke off abruptly, seeing a spark of intense pain flash through Crane’s expressive eyes as he looked up at him. “Lee, are you all right?” he asked anxiously.
“I’m... fine....” the Captain replied, a faint hint of humor in his voice, despite its weakness. “How do you ‘spect... me to be... with you pokin’ at me? Just... like always....”
“What I expect and what I get are frequently fathoms apart, Skipper.” He touched the other man’s face. “You’re running a pretty high fever, you know.” Lee did not answer the obvious. “What’s this I hear about you ordering us off the poop deck, sir?”
Lee’s gaze drifted momentarily to Monika, and his lips twitched in a feeble smile. “You know I’m right, Jamie,” he murmured. “You... can’t get me outa here... the shape I’m in. We’d all be... caught. And... I, for one, don’t want to... be... Metzer’s guest... again.”
“But, Lee... Captain Crane...” Now it was Denise who stumbled with familiarity. “We can’t just leave you here!”
“You can’t do... anything... else. That’s an order.”
“Admiral Nelson will countermand that order in a heartbeat, Captain,” Jamieson argued.
“Not... if you tell him that... that... trying to make a run for the coast would kill me....”
“Just tell him the truth, eh?” Jamieson straightened, sighing. “He mentioned bringing FS-1 in to take you out.”
“That would spell disaster... for the convent. We can’t allow Metzer... confirmation... that they’ve been harboring me.”
Jamieson nodded, knowing that his captain spoke the truth. “I’ll talk to the Abbess, to make sure that they don’t have a problem with your staying on a while....”
“There will be no problem,” Dame Sofía assured them. “He will remain in my care... mine and Sister Monika’s, and perhaps a few others who will be taken into our confidence.”
“Thank you, Sister,” Jamieson began, but fell silent as Lee raised his hand to the old woman. She slipped her gnarled hand into his larger one.
“You know I’d go if I could?” the injured man asked her then.
“When you arrived your first consideration was for our safety, Captain. Nothing has changed, either in you or in our willingness to be of aid.”
He smiled, a major accomplishment they all knew, but it was Jamieson who responded. “Thank you, Sister, but I’ll still have to talk to the Abbess. And Captain Crane, you know I’ll have to clear this with the Admiral.”
“Convince him, Jamie. If Metzer gets his hands on any one of you....” Lee shuddered violently, his eyes closing to conceal his pain and more.
Jamieson shook his head sorrowfully, his gaze going from Crane’s face to Denise’s, to the two nuns, then back to rest on the increasingly flushed face of the Captain. “The one time you’re not fighting me about staying in bed and I have to miss out on it,” he groaned. “You’re going to owe me for this, Skipper.”
“I already owe you, Doc. I... I’ll try to be better... next time.”
The CMO stared at him in stunned disbelief then, to cover his own concern, he grumbled, “If you really want to make me happy, then don’t let there be a next time!”
The Captain smiled and Jamieson knew he understood. "Just get the Admiral out of here," Lee said as firmly as his lack of strength allowed but it seemed that, as he took charge of the situation, his voice became clearer. "I've got an idea..."
"How.... When...." Jamieson blurted, then shook his head again, remembering who it was he dealt with.
"You got a radio with you that'll reach Seaview?"
"The Admiral does," he assured him.
"See if he'll agree to leave it with me."
"That's a wonderful idea, Lee," Denise said, her satisfaction clear. "It's an ONI-developed instrument. It can't be traced!"
"I'm familiar with them. I don't want to endanger the Sisters any more than I already have." He inhaled slowly, gathering his strength, it seemed. "I... I'd like to talk to the Admiral before you go... if you can figure out a way to do it."
"It would be a good idea, my son," the old Infirmarian commented. "It will greatly ease his mind, I think. I will speak to Reverend Mother. Between us we will devise something."
Lee nodded, returning his gaze that had drifted to the Infirmarian, back to Jamieson. "I want you to leave first thing in the morning."
"Too soon, Lee. I'm not comfortable with your condition...."
"Me either, Jamie, but then you never are. But Metzer knows what kind of shape I was in last time he saw me. He'll also know that I can't possibly be ready to be transported. He'll expect you to stay around.... You can't do that."
"I'll talk to the Admiral. You're probably right, Captain, and God knows these ladies are more than capable of taking care of you now. Maybe," he forced an insincere smile, "you'll even pay more attention to their orders than you ever do me."
"No, it's all right. We understand each other... maybe a little better now than before. I'll talk the OOM into your plan."
"And I'll help," Denise put in. "I'll stay with him until you and the Admiral come back, Dr. Jamieson."
"Then let's get this wound re-bandaged. I want to teach the young sister here just how to administer the antibiotic and the morphine before I go."
"Got anything... not so... strong?" Lee asked hesitantly.
"Not for a few days, Skipper. I'll leave some other stuff for you to begin later. I don't want you addicted to the morphine any more than you do and, besides, I'd like it to still work next time we need it."
"Next time? Thought... there wasn't gonna be... a next time...." Lee grinned.
"I'm sorry to say, Captain Crane, that there's likely a fat chance of that."
ó ó ó ó
“I can’t believe I let you talk me into it, Will,” Nelson protested grimly as the two men walked quickly through the darkness. "Leaving him isn't really an option."
“It wasn’t my idea, Admiral. You know that.”
They spoke in muted tones, careful to keep their voices low and their footsteps on the cobbled pavement from echoing through the stillness. It hadn’t taken Nelson long to locate the sentinels Metzer had set and he had muttered something about cashiering the men if they were in his service, as he and Jamieson had easily avoided their detection. Jamie had wisely refrained from comment.
“Yes, I know.” Nelson sighed wearily then. “But you think these nuns will be able to take care of him adequately?”
“They... at least a couple of them - have done it before, sir. I do wonder what he’s got in mind... for getting out, though.”
“If his track record is anything to go by, I’d say he’ll manage to do it, one way or another. I... I just don’t like abandoning him.” Jamieson shook his head in silent agreement.
“I don’t like to think about having to face Mr. Morton once we’re back aboard Seaview without him. He’ll have us both for dinner.”
“I’m afraid you’re right.” Nelson drew in a slow, deep breath of the damp night air. “How long do you think it’ll be before he’ll be able to get around on his own?”
“This is Captain Crane we’re talking about, here.”
“What does that mean?”
“Just that he’ll act to what he thinks he has to do, not what he should do. If he was on board Seaview I’d have him in Sick Bay for a couple of weeks at least, then I’d have him on sick call for another month before he could even go back to light duty. That’s with constant care and all the modern conveniences we have at hand. Here....” Jamieson shook his head morosely. “The nuns’ll do everything in their power to make sure he recovers but I could only bring just so much plasma, and he’s already run through most of that. The antibiotics and morphine won’t last much longer either. All he’ll have then are the tablets to help with the pain.... and that knee’s going to give him a lot of that.”
Nelson stopped, drawing the physician into the deeper shadows at the base of the convent wall not far from the extern gate. “You’re no more confident of this than I am, are you, Will?”
“No, Admiral, but there’s nothing else we can do. If Metzer has even the slightest excuse... well, you can imagine what would happen to the nuns... as well as what he’d do to Lee.” He scrubbed anxiously at his forehead. “And there’s Denise to consider...”
“But she’s still a woman and Metzer doesn’t like women. Do you really want to risk falling into Metzer’s hands? One of us would betray the convent, and Lee, and I doubt he’d last long a second time, given the shape he’s in. And we know what they’d do with you, and Lee, too, if he survived.”
Nelson nodded. “Come on, someone just opened the gate.” He stepped around the doctor carefully, proceeding with a quiet caution he seldom was forced to employ. “Le me make sure it’s the one we’re expecting...” he advised, motioning Jamieson to a halt as he edged forward.
“Admiral?” the female voice, hardly more than a whisper, was the one he remembered and with a wave to his companion he slipped quickly inside the gate.
The courtyard was dark but for a single lantern in the far corner that did little to illuminate the entire area. Sister Talia led the way familiarly through the dimness, pulling open the door into the parlor and stepping aside.
“Twenty minutes, Admiral. No more,” she admonished. “I will wait here, and I will ring the entry bell if there is need for alarm.”
“Thank you, Sister,” he whispered, and passed her, stepping into an equally dim parlor.
“Come with me, Admiral, Doctor,” a voice said to his right, and surprisingly, a black-garbed nun rose from one of the chairs where she had been waiting. “I am Sister Edwina. The House is asleep, but for those of us the Reverend Mother has taken into her confidence, so I must ask you not to speak, and to move with all silence.”
“You just lead the way, Sister.”
The corridors were deserted, nearly dark and he suspected that some of the available lighting had been intentionally dimmed to make visibility all the more difficult. At last the nun entered an office through an open door, which was closed almost instantly behind them and Nelson jerked in apprehension as a candle flared to light.
"Abbess," he whispered as the tall, exquisitely beautiful woman turned toward him. "Thank you for allowing me this opportunity...."
"Come this way, please, Admiral. Sister Edwina will remain here in case there is any trouble."
"God forbid," Jamieson murmured under his breath, but the Reverend Mother merely smiled.
"Most certainly, Doctor."
She led the way into the tiny cell where she slept, pausing only long enough to turn a candle sconce on the wall, an act that released a catch holding the trap door closed, Nelson noted. Light from below illuminated the stone stairs and he followed the Abbess's gesture and descended into the cellar room, though she did not follow.
"Lee!" was torn from Nelson’s throat as he caught sight of his friend. He had only seen the captain of the Seaview so pale once or twice, both times as the result of severe blood loss and now his normally olive complexion was ashen. Crane was bare-chested, except for the bandages that completely encircled his middle, but it seemed to the Admiral that very little skin was actually visible for the bruising and bloody lacerations. Somehow Lee had managed to get himself nearly upright, his back braced by several pillows as he leaned against the steel tubing of the headboard on the narrow bed. A blanket had been laid across his shoulders but the faint sheen of perspiration on his face betrayed the fever that raged within his body.
"Captain! What do you think you're doing?" Will Jamieson demanded harshly as he pushed past the Admiral and went down on one knee at the side of the bed. "You could have broken that wound open...."
"But didn't...." Lee countered sharply.
His ever-changing eyes were as sharp as his voice as he glared at Jamieson and the doctor realized belatedly that Crane had moved with a specific purpose in mind, to not be flat on his back when he met the Admiral. Will gave a minute shake of his head and held his silence. The captain was burning up with fever but he had expected that, would have been more than surprised if it had not developed but, with Lee conscious and fighting, half the battle was already won, he felt certain. Or at least he tried to convince himself it was so.
"Lee...." Nelson said again, his voice trembling with emotion. "You're a mess, lad."
"Sorry, sir," Crane replied, smiling wanly.
Denise stepped forward unexpectedly, and addressed the nuns. "Ladies, let's give these men a few minutes of privacy."
Nelson watched in no little surprise as Lee's secretary herded the two nuns, neither of whom he had seen before, one older than the Abbess and the other little more than a child, up the stairs and out of sight. The trap door closed behind them, leaving the three men alone and Lee sighed somewhat raggedly. He had watched their departure, one hand rising as if to hold Denise back from leaving or bid her farewell, but now he shifted his gaze to the Admiral briefly before seeking Jamieson.
"Jamie, I'll never complain about your mollycoddling again," he told him softly, smiling.
"Tough duty being taken care of by a bunch of nuns, eh, son?" Nelson asked, understanding easily. Lee's eyes closed briefly, his only immediate response. "I don't like leaving you here, Lee," the Admiral continued.
"I know. But no way you could sneak me into the car and beat Metzer to the coast without all of us being picked up. You've got to leave openly, alone... just like you arrived. Maybe if I don't show up for a while he'll be convinced I either got away or that I'm lying dead somewhere."
"That comes too close to what might have happened without these women," Nelson agreed.
Lee lowered his head. "Every minute I'm here endangers them more. But...." He sighed. "I guess, as long as I remain hidden and Metzer doesn't find out about this place...."
Nelson rested his hand comfortingly on the younger man's shoulder, careful of the bruises he knew the blanket concealed. "Lee, you can't waste your energy worrying about them. They knew what they were letting themselves in for when they took you in. The best thing you can do for them is heal as fast as you can, and get out of here. Doc said you already had an idea?"
"A vague one. Did you bring the radio?"
"Right here," Nelson said, retrieving the pseudo pack of cigarettes from his coat pocket.
"Ah," Lee acknowledged, accepting the small instrument familiarly. "One of ONI's finest...."
"To hear Jesse tell it, anyway."
Lee grinned. "You sure this won't cut into feeding your addiction, Admiral? Don't want you jonesing all the way back to the Seaview.”
"Don't you worry about me, Mister!" Nelson barked, but a weak imitation of his usual tone.
"That goes both ways, Admiral. Under the circumstances I'm as secure as I can be for now. Surely Doc told you I wouldn't make the trip in good shape, didn't he?" he asked, glancing at Jamieson for confirmation.
"I told him, Captain."
Nelson frowned, apparently unconvinced.
"All three of you have to get out of here," Lee warned softly, then forced a grin. "But before you do, how about giving me some help getting to the head?"
"Lee, you shouldn't..."
"Got a better idea, Doc? First time I ever missed some of the conveniences of
"I can hardly wait to hear the jokes about that once we get you back to the Seaview," Nelson told him. "It’ll help get Chip through... till you're back aboard," he finished, and Lee nodded.
"He knows I’m not coming back with you?"
"He does, and nearly blew out the speaker in that little radio when I told him. They'll be standing by off-shore, watching for my mirror signal."
"He's not liking this a bit, is he?"
"Not a bit. I'll be surprised if there's hide left on anyone aboard by the time you get back." Nelson hesitated, inhaling deeply, finding this parting even more difficult than he had expected. "But you're probably right about us getting back to the hotel. Was there anything else you wanted to talk to us about before we go?"
"No...." Crane replied tentatively. "Just... thanks...." He swallowed with some difficulty, it seemed. "To all of you...."
Both the Admiral and Jamieson heard the break in the young captain's voice and knew it was not pain that had caused it. He knew, better than either of them, the problems that lay ahead of him before he could find a way to return to the Seaview.
Jamieson rose to his feet abruptly. "Well, come on then. If you're determined to hang around here with the nuns, let's see if you can even make it to the head without falling on your face."
ó ó ó ó
When Nelson and the doctor emerged from the hidden room, only the Abbess and Denise were waiting, but the Admiral was hardly aware until Denise touched his arm to halt his blind progress. She had spoken his name, he realized then, but he’d been oblivious and he had to shake his head to clear it before he could reply, then with only a low grunt at first.
"Sorry, Denise. I...."
"You are shocked by what was done to him?" the Abbess asked softly.
Harriman Nelson nodded, but the nod turned into a weary shake of his head. "It's not the first time he's been hurt.... It's just the first time I haven’t been able to help him...."
"He is doing better, Admiral," Jamieson offered encouragement, but Nelson was still shaking his head.
"I know Lee as well as you do, Doc. We both know how good he is at hiding his pain... but when the blanket fell off and I saw his back.... God!" He glanced at Abbess Celeste apologetically, expecting some admonition, but she remained silent, her gaze lowered in silent agreement. Nelson cleared his throat uncomfortably. "Reverend Mother, I want you to know how much your assistance means to all of us. There are a lot of people who depend on that young man and even more who'd be mightily upset if he... if he were to die." There, he had managed to say the word. "I want him back as soon as he's able. He's already working on a way to do it and I appreciate your agreeing to let him stay...." He raised one trembling hand to his eyes, rubbing away the betraying dampness. "Is there anything I can do for you... for the convent?"
"We are never averse to prayers, Admiral," she said kindly, "but I am afraid there is nothing you can do to aid us, short of removing the threat Colonel Metzer poses to our continued existence."
"Then he does want to see you closed down?"
"It would not make him displeased. We contribute little to his community and the Church is unwelcome to the Communist mindset."
"Perhaps you should consider taking your convent out
"This is where God has placed us, Admiral. We may not serve Colonel Metzer's purposes but we follow a different path than his. We will remain as long as it is God's will that we do so."
Admiral Nelson gave another curt nod, appreciating anew the degree of courage and dedication within these cloistered walls. "Denise can stay with Lee tonight,” he said, all too aware of the little sigh she gave at his words. “That’ll give your women some relief before we go, Reverend Mother. We'll be by with the car after your morning prayers to pick her up. At least there won't be the comings and goings to attract Metzer’s attention after that."
Dr. Jamieson stepped forward. "Lee's IV should be good until morning, til Dame Sofía can visit him. But I didn't get a chance to thank her for the really excellent job she’s done, or that young girl. Will you pass my compliments along for me." The Reverend Mother nodded. “That girl is amazing, the way she picked up on everything I told her so quickly, and she's very caring. She’d make a great nurse....”
The Abbess smiled distantly.
"I think, perhaps, your Captain Crane has saved the futures of more
than one person in Shëvin, Doctor."
At his puzzled expression she continued.
"He completed his mission before the Colonel arrested him, one
saved; and the postulant, Monika may be the second. We had despaired of the depth of her
commitment, the place she would fill here.
We feared she viewed
The Americans seemed to squirm uncomfortably at her statement.
"What... if she falls in love with him, Mother?" Denise asked timidly, speaking what all three feared.
Abbess Celeste smiled again, beatifically. "There are many kinds of love, child. It would seem that your Captain Crane is an easy man for those of evil intent to despise and, likewise, for the pure of heart to honor. We are cloistered but we are still women whose nature it is to love and it does none of us harm to cherish him for what he is, a brave, honorable soul. As for Monika, she is an innocent. She has accepted his welfare as her contract with God. It may be that his coming to us was not so much chance as it might appear." She made a little shooing motion with one hand. "The crutches he wanted are there in the closet, child. It may ease his mind to have them near at hand."
Denise nodded and retrieved the wooden crutches quickly, descending the stairs as the Reverend Mother closed the hatch behind her with practiced ease.
“You are aware of why he wanted the crutches?”
“To spare the sensibilities of my women... young Monika in particular. He is a kind man, thoughtful of others. But it will be difficult for him... to move about in his condition.” Both men nodded agreement, but they knew that Crane was more than capable of accomplishing just about anything he set his mind to. “I will see you out, gentlemen.”
ó ó ó ó
Crane lay in that nether-place between consciousness and oblivion, listening to the indistinguishable voices from the room above, through the open trap door. It had been more difficult than he had expected to hobble from the bed to the Spartan bathroom behind the stairs, even though the IV had been disconnected and he had not the trouble of dragging it with him. He had been forced to exert every ounce of his meager strength to keep from passing out before Nelson and Jamieson managed to get him back to the bed and stretched out full length. He’d fought the waves of unconsciousness that followed as he had fought Metzer's cruelty, but for a totally different reason. He knew how difficult it was for the two Seaview officers to leave him behind, knew that if he fainted, for whatever reason, weakness or pain, it would then be virtually impossible for him to convince them to go. And they had to leave. He had not really fooled them; he realized that when, without a word, they had begun to shove the bed, with him on it, nearer the door to the bathroom, leaving him only relatively few steps to make and rigged up a hook in the wall to hold the IV.
He blinked his eyes open as the hatch above was closed and Denise moved toward him, a bright if forced smile on her freckled face. She leaned a pair of ancient wooden crutches against the wall at the head of the bed, then sank down on the edge of the mattress beside him. She reached out, her fingers combing through his curly black hair. It never seemed mussed, as short as he kept it, but in a couple of weeks it would have grown out enough that she would actually be able to feel the softness of it, the way it would curl around her fingers.
She jerked her hand away, blushing, but his eyes had closed and she doubted that he had noticed. The long, feathery lashes moved slowly and he looked up at her, the feeble light from the ceiling bulb catching fire on the gold flecks in his eyes, making them seem brighter, almost glistening and she touched his cheek tenderly, feeling the fever burning inside him even through the thickening beard. But Dr. Jamieson must surely have noted the fever, she decided, and if he was unduly troubled by it he would surely inform the Abbess before they left, she comforted herself.
"Hi," Lee whispered inanely.
"Hi, yourself. Whatcha doing over here?"
He glanced sidelong at the bathroom door. "Closer to the head. The Admiral and Jamie practically had to carry me.... Guess they took pity on me." His voice drained away for a moment. "See you brought crutches."
"Yes. They should be tall enough, or nearly so. They were the Reverend Mother's from when she broke her leg a few years back."
"Owe her... all of them... a lot." Surprisingly, he reached up, taking her hand from his face, and holding it gently. "Thank you for coming, Denny," he murmured.
"You would have done it for me," she answered, just as softly. They both knew it was true and Lee smiled wearily.
"You gonna finish your walking tour of the
"Do you really think I'm going to be able to go back to my vacation until you're safely back home, Captain Crane?" He looked up at her through his lashes, a faint smile still playing at the corners of his mouth, then he sobered abruptly. "Don't you even think that!" she snapped. "You will come home! I know it as sure as I know I'm really uncomfortable sitting here in this nun's outfit that really doesn't suit me at all!”
He lifted his hand, still clutching hers and touched her lips with one finger. "Hush," he told her. "That's what makes you such a good assistant," he whispered. "You always seem to know what I'm thinking... before I do." He sighed raggedly, as though unable to prevent even that small moment of revelation. "It's going to be a long couple of weeks...."
"Just as long for us, Skipper."
"Try to reassure Chip when you get back to Seaview, will you? The Admiral... I don't think either he or Jamie are totally convinced--."
"I will," she interrupted quickly. "And don't you worry about a thing. You have the radio the Admiral brought?"
"Yes... but... I just thought.... How're you going to contact Seaview without it?"
"Don't tell me an old Navy man like you has forgotten about semaphore, have you?" His smile deepened minutely. "It's what we planned all along. Mr. Morton has been keeping a standing watch."
Lee nodded slowly, his dark brows still furrowed in thought. "The Admiral said they'd establish a regular patrol, waiting for my call. That seems too dangerous."
"Oh, so now you're worried about the Great Albanian Navy?" she scoffed lightly, almost desperate to alleviate his concerns. "Are you going to lie here until you're healed just dreaming up problems and disastrous scenarios?"
"It's my job," he replied quietly, but smiled. "I guess I'll just have to admit that I'm out of the action for a while and leave it to people who can actually stand up for more than five seconds without wanting to pass out."
"That's a good idea. Chip will be glad to know you have so much confidence in him," she joked.
He looked stricken for a moment. "But I do!"
"I know, silly. So does he. But maybe he wishes you didn't have quite so much confidence in him, though." At his questioning frown, she continued. "If you weren't certain you could depend on him to run your boat, you wouldn't feel at liberty to take so many of these ONI missions, now would you."
His gaze fell once more, and she knew she was right. "Don't tell him that. He'll start screwing up just to keep me home."
"That might not be such a bad thing... you staying home for a while, that is. And, really, I don't think Chip has it in him to do anything other than his level best."
He looked up once more, humor softening the golden glitter in his eyes. She glanced over her shoulder, to the place where the IV was suspended, knowing that the Captain still suffered.
"I'm all right, Denny," he assured her, following
her thoughts as well as she had done his.
"The plasma's almost gone, and the morphine'll be gone in a day or
so, not that I can say I'm sorry. And
the way Jamie's got it hooked up I won't have to worry about dragging the
blasted thing into the head with me like I do in
"I wish that's where you were, Captain."
He smiled again, a weary, tentative smile. "Me too, Denny,” he admitted, using the
derivative of her name again, as only he was permitted to do. She blinked, surprised, but his next words
confirmed that, as usual, it was not himself he was thinking of. "I've already put too much of a threat
"They knew what they were doing. At least Abbess Celeste did...."
"But the others. There are nearly fifty women living here, isolated, protected by their walls... and their faith. I doubt there're more than a half-dozen that are remotely aware that I'm here. It's not fair...."
"It wasn't fair what Metzer did to you, either. Would you have preferred that the Reverend
Mother turned you away? We wouldn't,
Captain, not me, or the Admiral and Jamie, or any of those men you would be
leaving behind on Seaview." She sat back, releasing her hand from his now
almost painful grip. "This is going
to be hard on you, I know, but maybe for the first time in your adult life
you're going to have to stay put and let someone else shoulder the responsibility
for a while. I doubt you've had to do
that since you graduated the
"Good... for me?" he choked out. "I'm putting them at risk! Every one of them, not just the Abbess, or Sister Monika or the others who've been taken into the scheme."
"Didn't they teach you at
"I'd say you've been given your orders, Captain, by a power a lot higher up the chain of command than even Admiral Nelson and Admiral Carstairs, and you'd better take them." He frowned for a moment, confused, then he relaxed, understanding at last.
"Well, since you put it that way." He inhaled slowly, reaching a point where the effort found the pain, and he exhaled just as slowly. "You always been this smart, Denise?"
"Of course. But with the smart boss I have I just don't get the chance too often to fly my colors."
"We'll have to change that when I get back."
She smiled widely, hearing him make the commitment to survive and return to the Seaview and NIMR. "You'd better try and get some sleep. That's the best thing for you, you know."
"What about you? You look pretty tired."
"I'm fine...." she began, repeating words he spoke all too often. His soft chuckle interrupted.
"I'll move over and you can snuggle up with me," he proposed. Her heart leaped. Such closeness was something she had wanted for a long time but she knew the offer was innocently made. Perhaps he just wanted to know the physical touch of someone he knew, she thought rationally, because he certainly wasn't strong enough for anything else right now. "I promise, I'll keep my hands to myself," he vowed, as though he had actually been following her thoughts.
She stood up. "Let me get this habit off, first," she said. "It just doesn't seem right, even if we're both as innocent as babes, to be sleeping in the same bed with you all decked out like a nun."
"You... aren't," he whispered as she pulled the flowing robes off over her head.
"Aren't, and never was, never will be...." she countered quickly and lay down on the narrow bed beside him, resting her head carefully on his shoulder when he moved his arm to make it impossible for her not to do so. He put his arm around her, holding her gently, but securely.
"Next challenge..." he murmured after a few moments' silence.
"What's that?" she prompted.
"Clothes.... Suppose they have a poor-box around this place? All I've got left are my boots and these half-trousers."
She smiled, glad that he felt well enough to try to joke. "I'll mention it to the Abbess before I leave. Come on now, close your eyes and try to rest. I'll be right here if you need anything...."
She knew he was beginning to drift off, despite his efforts otherwise. It would continue to happen that way until he regained some of his lost strength, she knew, but she also understood why he fought so hard.
"Thanks, Denny," he whispered, his voice trailing away into nothing as the tightness around his mouth began to relax.
She moved her head just enough to enable her to reach his cheek. She kissed him gently, maternally, not passionately, and she knew that, at least for her, it would have to be enough.
ó ó ó ó
The tall, fair-haired Exec paced restlessly back and forth on the fore deck of the Seaview, pausing now and again to raise the binoculars to his eyes and peer into the distance. They had been on the surface for a half-hour now and, in these waters he couldn’t relax, couldn’t convince himself that there would not be trouble if they were seen. It was the reason he had taken Seaview to the bottom of the Adriatic after the zodiac was launched and kept her there, lying at 100 fathoms near the edge of the Adriatic Depression that was nearly 5000 feet deep in places. Chip Morton felt that his mood was still down there at the bottom, as dark as the deepest trench, his heart as cold as the 35 degree water. He’d been unable to rid himself of the awful foreboding that had hit him when Nelson had contacted them before 0200 hours that morning. The information the Admiral had conveyed to the waiting crew had been neither good nor welcome, but it hadn’t been as bad as Morton had somehow feared. They would be returning but Crane would not be with them; he was alive but in no condition to make the trip from Shëvin, even without any interference from the military.
The bobbing dot on the horizon had finally resolved itself into the zodiac he had dispatched to retrieve the trio and, as it drew steadily closer, Morton realized that CPO Sharkey had come to stand at his side, watching as silently as the Exec.
“Deck crew standing by to bring the shore party aboard, sir,” the COB told him smartly.
“Very well, Chief,” Morton replied and as he spoke he knew that his tone was flat, devoid of life.
“The Skipper’ll be just fine, sir. You know how tough he is.”
“I know, Sharkey. But... I... I just can’t get rid of the feeling that he’s a long way from being out of the woods yet.”
“But the Admiral said--.”
“I know what he said, Chief,” Morton snapped, more crossly than he intended, but Sharkey only nodded, understanding. “It’s like he’s on a leaky boat, bleeding into the water, and there’re sharks all around him. Sure, he’s safe enough for the moment, but can he really depend on that boat to stay afloat? And what happens if the sharks start ramming the boat?”
“Mr. Morton,” the Chief said gently, “the Skipper’s about as smart as they come in this kind of situation. Why, I bet him and the Admiral already got it figured out between ‘em just how to get him outa there when he’s well enough to travel. You just wait and see.”
“Well, we don’t have long to wait,"
“Uh, Mr. Morton?” Chip stopped, turning to face Sharkey inquisitively. “If there’s anything you want us to do... off the record kinda, you know we’ve got the men for it, and we’re all ready....”
“Thanks, Chief. Let’s just see what the Admirals come up with before we go launching torpedoes at imaginary enemies.”
“Been there, done that, sir,” Chief Sharkey said with a grin and was rewarded by a slight twitch of the Exec’s lips in response.
The Chief followed closely behind Morton as the taller man moved toward the place near the conning tower where several crewmen had snugged the zodiac up to Seaview’s side.
“Chief!” Morton’s call summoned him and he leaped forward to lend a hand.
Morton extended his own hand to Admiral Nelson, steadying the older man as he clambered aboard the relatively stable submarine. Chip swiftly absorbed Nelson’s slightly rumpled appearance, his paleness, the bloodshot blue eyes that seemed to slide away from his without meeting his gaze.
“Admiral?” he queried softly hoping, but not expecting some encouraging news.
“Let’s get below, Commander,” the Admiral grumbled, flinging off Morton’s support and pushing past him toward the conning tower hatch.
Chip turned his attention to the others being assisted from the zodiac but, like Nelson, Doc Jamieson just shook his head and hurried on.
“Denise?” he said then, taking the woman’s arm. She was dressed in the same black stretch pants and body-hugging shirt she’d had worn when they left the Seaview and she came to a halt, staring up at him from eyes as reddened as the Admiral’s. He carefully eased her out of the way of the men stowing the zodiac but made no further motion toward the hatch. “How badly is he injured?”
“Bad enough. The Admiral says he’s seen him hurt worse, but he lost a lot of blood and he can hardly put any weight at all on his knee. We would have had to carry him out to the car and there was just too much surveillance for that to be a viable option.”
“So Metzer still suspects?”
“Oh I think he’s pretty sure Lee's in the convent but since his search didn’t turn up anything, he’s standing off, just waiting, watching for him to try to attempt an escape.”
“Do you think he tumbled to who you were?”
She sagged, “Not specifically, but I wouldn’t be surprised
if he suspected we were there for Lee.
He’s not a stupid man. I talked
to the nuns taking care of Lee... It
seems Metzer’s also very tenacious. Once
he gets his teeth into something he doesn’t let go. He wants Lee and I think that the President
“Lee seems to have that affect on some people.” Morton sighed, slumping and resting his hand atop his head momentarily in a particularly Crane-like gesture. “Did Metzer give you any problems getting out of town?”
“Just what Lee had already expected, I’d say. He showed up just as we were about to pull away from the convent, made the men get out and he searched the car as thoroughly as any forensic expert could have done. Of course there was nothing for him to find.” She sighed, shivering slightly. He took her hand again and slowly led her toward the conning tower. “We thought that would be it from him but there was a roadblock just a few miles out of town. The soldiers there repeated the same search Metzer had performed.”
“They thought maybe he would join up with you outside of town? Metzer thought he would be physically able to do that?” Chip asked incredulously. “You don’t think the nuns will weaken or get frightened and give him up?”
“Definitely not the ones I met, and the Infirmarian, quite an old lady, assured me that even should his presence be discovered by the community at large, they would not betray him. It seems they have an undisclosed tradition of giving aid to those who need it. It’s something they all agree to when they are ready to take their final vows.”
“And there aren’t any who haven’t taken that vow?” he asked, reassured but at the same time a new concern washed over him.
“Just two. One is to take her vows in a couple of weeks and the other is the one who first discovered him. She has taken him on as her special mission,” Denise finished with a weary smile.
“She’s a novice? That’s pretty risky, isn’t it?” Chip said, one eyebrow arcing speculatively. “In more ways than one. We know the affect Lee has on unsuspecting women, and an innocent like that?”
“Ah, the romance of a man nearly beaten to death,” she sighed extravagantly. “No Chip, I have too much confidence in her, and in him, to be concerned with that.”
Chip made a rude noise deep in his throat but she knew he didn’t disparage his friend’s honor, just any female’s ability to resist him. More than once she had heard Morton make casual comments to Lee about his unwanted capacity for attracting women. It was that, in part, that had convinced her to hold her own affection inside, to consciously alter her budding attraction from sexual to platonic. It made working with him so much more comfortable for them both.
“So how are we going to get him out?” Chip whispered, as much to himself as to Denise.
“The Admiral left the radio with him... so we can keep in touch. We'll know when he’s strong enough to try an escape.”
“No matter how quickly or how long it takes Lee to recover, Metzer’s going to be waiting.”
“One of the reasons ONI pegged him for this assignment, Chip, was his ability to come up with workable solutions for impossible situations. I know how much you trust him. Trust him in this too.”
Morton paused, glancing sidelong at the redheaded woman. He nodded shortly and preceded her into the sail, ready to guide her feet down the sail ladder.
ó ó ó ó
An hour later Chip Morton stormed out of Admiral Harriman Nelson’s quarters, face flushed with anger, his fists clenched in frustration and turned toward the ladderwell that descended into the control room. He thundered down the metal spiral and erupted into the control room with a vehemence and fury seldom exhibited, unintentionally drawing every man's attention. He stormed to the charting table, nearly elbowing Lt. O’Brien aside before the younger man stepped back, staring at the Exec in open amazement. No one spoke, no one questioned his actions. They all had strong suspicions as to what had caused them.
“Any problems, Mr. O’Brien?” he said at last, tone strained, his mouth still pinched.
“None, sir. We’re resting easy on the bottom at 80 fathoms. The scopes are clear.”
“We’re likely to be here for a while. Schedule any necessary maintenance while
we’re idle. We won’t have a better
opportunity to get the boat shipshape till we’re back in
The lieutenant made appropriately agreeing sounds, although they all knew that the Exec’s orders stemmed from his own frustration. O’Brien wanted desperately to inquire as to what the two admirals had decided but negativity was written all over Morton’s face and the junior officer kept his silence. It seemed that the Chief of the Boat was not so restrained.
“We’re not gonna do anything but sit here and wait?” Sharkey demanded, moving forward. There were grumbles from others of the control room crew also.
Morton whirled on the COB, blue eyes flashing fire. “O’Brien, you have the CON! Chief, with me,” he ordered, striding toward the rear hatch and as he approached the sonar station he gave a quick jerk of his head. “Ski!” Nothing more, but the senior rating lunged to his feet and bolted ahead of him toward the aft section of the boat.
In the passageway behind the control room Chief Sharkey followed, his steps hurried as he worked to keep up with the XO. “Mr. Morton, sir, what you gonna do?”
“Chief, how far do you think the men of the Seaview would go to help the Skipper?”
“All the way, Mr. Morton. You know that!” the COB grumbled, pained that the loyalty of his men could even be questioned.
“Even if it means defying the intent of an order, if not the actual order, itself?”
“Aw, sir, you ought to know that. We’ve done it dozens of times....” Sharkey began, then broke off as Morton glanced pointedly at him.
“I don’t need to know that, Chief,” he told him but, for the first time since he had come down the spiral ladderwell, the fire of rage in his eyes seemed to have been damped somewhat.
Morton came to a slow halt, his broad shoulders rounding in what could have been weariness, but that Sharkey read as despondency. The Exec was arguing with himself, he realized. He had frequently seen the same expression on the Captain’s face when he wrestled with some difficult decision. It only took the XO a few moments longer to come to that decision than it might have the Skipper, but it was obvious to the COB when it was done. “They left the ONI radio set with Lee but we have to be on the surface and within its range to receive his call.”
“But, Mr. Morton....”
“Exactly. What if he needs us and we’re not... handy....”
“We... we could still lose him then, sir. Surely Admiral Nelson knows that.”
“He knows. I... I think he’s leaving it up to me....” Morton’s voice was strained and tight. He didn’t like the situation he found himself in, Sharkey realized, but he knew the Exec would do everything in his power to help his friend. “More than my CO, Captain Crane’s my friend, Sharkey," he went on, confirming the Chief's assumption. "I’ll be damned if I leave him hanging out in the wind without some backup at hand.”
“I’ll spread the word for volunteers, sir.”
“No need, Chief. Kowalski came to me yesterday with an idea. He’s been talking up the men on the quiet, just like you suggested.”
“But....” Sharkey blustered. “I didn’t know a thing about it!” Now Morton allowed a slight smile, knowing the COB’s propensity for knowing everything that went on aboard Seaview.
“Sorry, Chief, but I was hoping that it wouldn’t become necessary. Now it appears that it is. Come on, I could use a cup of coffee before Ski gets his men rounded up.”
But it was not to be. More than a dozen men snapped to attention as Commander Morton stepped into the crew’s mess and he came to an abrupt, stunned halt. Kowalski pushed his way through the crowd to confront the Exec as Sharkey moved inside the room to stand at Morton’s shoulder. No one saluted. This was not an authorized mission and the men seemed to know that Morton acted on his own, not as their superior officer and they responded in accordance.
“Mr. Morton, sir,” Kowalski said evenly. “Looks as though you’re going to have your pick of volunteers, sir.”
“But I told you no more than three....”
“It was our idea, sir,” Seaman Patterson interrupted, stepping forward to flank his friend. “Ski explained the plan, and we just wanted you to know that we’re behind you. The rest of the crew woulda been here too, but we didn’t wanta be too obvious about the whole thing.”
Morton was aware of Sharkey muttering almost soundlessly under his breath. He nodded grimly.
“First,” Morton said, “thank you for volunteering. I’m sure Captain Crane would be proud. Secondly we don’t have the Admiral’s sanction, or the Navy’s I don’t think I have to tell you that this idea might not work. We’re on our own and it could mean the life, and certainly the career of any man involved.”
“If it gets the Skipper back alive, sir, it’s worth the risk!” Kowalski assured him, amid a chorus of quiet agreement and Chip nodded gratefully.
"All right. I don’t suppose anyone here speaks Albanian?”
A single man edged through the assembly and came to casual attention. "Just a few words, though, sir."
Chip shook his head reluctantly. “Anyone else?”
“Me, Commander Morton.” The voice came from behind him, in the doorway. He whirled, staring down at Denise Hunter in astonishment. “I’m going with the landing party.”
“Good God, Denise! No!” he gasped in alarm.
“You can’t stop me, Chip. I’m the only one here that has a working knowledge of the language. Besides, I have the training in covert operations that your men don’t.”
“But you just got back.”
“And Captain Crane is still there," she replied formally, then resorted to a more familiar tone. "I can be of use to your team, Chip. I know I can.”
“It’s all right with me, Mr. Morton,” Kowalski put in as the assumed second in command of the undertaking. "I admit, I’ve been a little worried about us not knowin’ the language, and all."
Denise smiled at him gratefully, then turned back to Morton. “If I can have your radioman send a message for me, Chip, I may even be able to get us some help on shore. I still have some contacts and since Admiral Carstairs has been using a lot of CIA Intel... and we know more of what the real situation is now....”
“All right, I’ll arrange it,” Morton told her grimly before turning back to face the assembled men. “If we've got the language aspect covered, we need someone who might be mistaken for the Skipper from a distance. DeLuca... maybe. Who else? Rossi? Benedict? Chee? Too short. Davalos?” As they were named, each man stepped forward eagerly.
“It should be me, sir,” Petty Officer Ladon Davalos stepped
away from his fellows. “I’m first
generation American, sir. Both my
parents are from
Morton studied the Security Chief closely. He was older than most of the other crew, perhaps even older than Morton and Crane, themselves, but Laddy, as he was fondly called by his shipmates, was as darkly good looking as the Captain and of a height with Morton himself.
“All right, we have some details to work out. The rest of you... as you were,” Morton said firmly, the rage of fifteen minutes before completely hidden. “And men, I won’t forget your... your willingness to help... every one of you. And Captain Crane will certainly be informed...”
“No need, sir,” Patterson assured him. “The Skipper never takes credit for what he does. We all know he’d put his life out there for any one of us under any circumstances, and has done. We sure can’t do any less for him, sir.”
Morton nodded, a thickness growing in his throat, then stepped back, watching in silence as all but the two enlisted men and Denise left the room. He was moved, impressed by the devotion the men had for their captain and he totally failed to notice that Chief Sharkey had slipped away with the others.
ó ó ó ó
CPO Sharkey walked quickly down the passageway into officers’ country, then paused, glancing both directions before he knocked briskly on the door of Admiral Nelson’s quarters. He reached for the knob, entering as he heard the summons, then came to attention before the two admirals seated on opposite sides of Nelson’s desk.
“He has the team picked, Admiral,” he revealed, his gaze jumping from Nelson to Carstairs, and back. “They’ll be ready when we surface.”
“You were right, Harry. He certainly didn’t waste any time.”
“Chip Morton doesn’t rile easily but, when he does, things tend to happen,” Nelson said, a smile in his voice. “Especially when Lee’s safety is involved." He sobered abruptly, shaking his head. "My hands are tied. I can’t order him to do anything and I can’t even authorize any kind of shore party to stand by to offer assistance.”
“But you gave him the info he needed and turned him loose. You have my compliments, Harry. This crew is well put together.”
“You can thank the Captain for that, Admiral, sir,” Sharkey put in, speaking freely as was his habit.
“You too, Francis?” Nelson said quietly knowing that, although the COB had served with him off and on for years, he held a healthy respect for the young captain.
“Sir?” Sharkey inquired innocently, but Nelson merely glanced toward Carstairs and both men smiled.
ó ó ó ó
Sister Monika paced the dimly lit cellar room restlessly. At least it now seemed that he would survive, she told herself. Fever had raged within his body for much of the last two days, but it had finally broken during the night just past and, for the first time since his arrival he seemed relatively comfortable. For those two days he had raved in delirium, waking infrequently, speaking words in his own language that she did not understand, but some in hers that she did and wished that she had not. In his rambling mutterings he had relived the day and a half he had spent as Metzer’s prisoner and perhaps other times as well, and she began to wonder just what kind of life he led to have been so seriously injured so many times.
But he had been unconscious for so long, she moaned. Both the American doctor and Dame Sofía had
cautioned her that it would likely be the case should his fever continue to rise. She knew from her own experience that sleep
was now the best thing for him, to aid in his recovery now that the fever had finally
broken, but she couldn’t help but worry.
Prayer had helped. It had eased her own mind and restored her confidence that all
would be as it must. She was
certain that he could not be allowed to fall into Colonel Metzer's hands
again. He must not! The safety and well-being of Captain Lee
Crane had become her responsibility. She
had accepted that from the first and it tore at her heart to see him still so
incapacitated after so many days. It had
been a week since he was arrested, a week of such agony that no man should have
been forced to endure. But he had
suffered his ordeal valiantly, exhibiting more concern for his friends and the
She knew that the Colonel would be going mad with frustration and, the angrier he became, the more vigorous would be his search for the fugitive. He had approached the Reverend Mother again yesterday but she was determined not to play into his hands and, in order to ensure the young American’s safety, she had allowed another search of the convent. But Monika was afraid, terribly afraid, that they would be unable to continue to keep his presence a secret for long, at least from the other members of the Community. There were already at least five others besides herself who knew he was here and, twice this morning at Lauds, she had caught Sister Grace eyeing her strangely. She did not know the rest of her monastic Sisters well enough to guess how they would react to the concealment of a fugitive within the walls of their convent. That was a decision and a responsibility that Abbess Celeste had accepted for herself and Monika was relieved it was not hers.
“Sit down... please....” came the very weak whisper. Once more he had awakened without her awareness as he had done before and now he lay, watching her restless steps. He attempted a smile of reassurance, she decided and, when he spoke again, his voice was somewhat stronger. “Please... you’re wearing me out....”
“Have you been awake long?” she asked, sinking down into the chair at his side.
He smiled, unwilling to squander his meager strength to answer her question, when another burned more fervently in his mind. “Did... Did I talk a lot? I’ve been told... sometimes I do...”
“You did, but most of it I could not understand.”
"That's good." His eyes closed briefly, as if even those few words had exhausted him, but he was not finished yet. “How long has it been since... since my friends left?”
“Almost exactly two days.”
He lifted his left arm, then remembered that he had no watch, and groaned aloud. “What time is it?”
“After Lauds, before Terce. Probably about .”
“The... cigarette pack... the radio... that the Admiral left with me... where is it?”
She rose and hurried to the crude wooden cabinet against the far wall, and returned with the small object in her hand. “This?”
He snatched it from her, though his gesture was slowed by his weakness, and his hand was trembling. He fumbled with it for a moment, then abruptly a hollow voice echoed in the room from the small box he held.
“Gray Lady to Seahorse, come in Seahorse....”
Lee let out a deep sigh of relief. “Seahorse, here,” he said, making a good effort to keep his voice strong and steady. “Been waiting long?” he asked genially, recognizing Chip’s voice.
“Seahorse.... What’s your status?” Morton asked, relief heavy in his tone.
“Five by five, Gray Lady,” he smiled, forcing it into his own voice as he used the antiquated aeronautical radio term agreed upon between himself and the Admiral to signal his continued safety. The sound of Chip’s familiar voice was somehow reassuring. “Did the white dog find his way home?”
“Here,” Nelson’s voice sounded. He would not say more, Lee knew, unless pressed however’ much he wanted to. The radio transmissions were supposed to be undetectable but it never hurt to be cautious. It would have to be enough for them all to have made contact, to be reassured of the others’ continued survival.
“A-OK,” he finished, feeling his strength draining away abruptly and he swiftly deactivated the radio. It was all that was necessary, he told himself, a confirmation, code words exchanged. He allowed his hand to drop weakly to the bed at his side but he continued to clutch the radio fiercely.
“You spoke strangely,” Monika observed.
“Code. To let them know I’m all right. Something obscure, easy to avoid if....”
“If you were retaken by Colonel Metzer and forced to respond to their call.” He nodded distantly and the girl continued, undeterred. “You allowed them to believe you are better than you are.”
“Doesn’t do any harm. I should have a few days before they contact me again.”
“They will wait that long?”
“I can only hope so... but somehow I doubt it.” He could not hold back the smile even though he continued to worry. “I need to have the radio turned on every morning about this time.... It’s SOP.”
She frowned at the unfamiliar term. “Your men are very loyal.”
“To a fault,” he admitted.
“They emulate their captain, I think.”
His smile widened, finally reaching his amazingly changeable eyes. Monika was, by no means, immune to the smile that had charmed every woman at Nelson’s Institute, and she flushed warmly.
“Are you hungry?” she asked.
“I am,” he replied.
“I’ll make you some soup, if you don’t mind the canned variety.”
“My favorite flavor,” he replied lightly, still smiling.
She rose, taking the radio gently from his hand and returning to the cabinet once more, replacing it in a drawer and opening one of the rough-hewn doors. “Beef or chicken?”
“Surprise me,” he answered softly. After a few moments he continued, working hard to keep his tone cheerful. “You seem to have been here with me a lot. Have you been banished to the cellar too?”
She finished opening the can of soup and poured it into a small aluminum pan before she glanced over her shoulder at him. “Reverend Mother has granted me special dispensation.”
He hesitated, amazed at her diligence. “Can’t have been... easy.... You aren’t accustomed to such duty....”
“Before I came to St. Helena’s I lived as any young woman
Her voice broke on a sob and he struggled to shift around to look at her, wondering what horrors made her so suddenly emotional.
“I’m sorry....” he whispered.
“No, don’t be.” She turned back to the small hotplate, dismissing his concern as she added water to the pan. “This is American soup. Are you familiar with it?”
Lee sighed and nodded, recognizing the distinctive label. “Yes. I fix one kind or another for myself frequently when I'm home."
"You have no one to cook for you?"
"Only on board ship."
"Then perhaps that is why your friend, the doctor, seemed to think you were too thin... even before your injuries." Lee allowed the smile to return. "He also wished Dame Sofía better fortune than he has experienced, in keeping you in bed long enough to heal. He seemed quite worried that you would try to leave before you were truly strong enough to do so."
So, Jamie had been harping on his favorite subject even here. Lee's smile changed from wry amusement to affection. He understood the CMO better now and, after this mission, he would certainly see the older man's continued consideration with fresh eyes.
"Doesn't Dame Sofía concern herself with the welfare of the community?" Monika nodded without turning, stirring the soup. "And if Abbess Celeste repeatedly became ill because of some venture or another, wouldn't Dame Sofía feel it her responsibility to advise her to better practice? Even when she knew the Reverend Mother would do precisely what she chose to do anyway?"
Monika turned, leaning back against the cabinet and meeting his direct gaze. "It is a game between you?" she stated, more than asked.
"In a way I suppose it is. He has his job, I have mine and sometimes the two are just at odds. I know Jamie only has my best interests in mind and he knows I wouldn't do anything rash... if it wasn't absolutely necessary... for the safety of my crew and my command...." he finished lamely.
She moved closer to him, leaving the soup beginning to simmer on the hotplate. "I'm sure he is as well aware of your dedication to duty, Captain, as we are," she said gently. "In tending to your hurts we have all become aware that this is not the first time you have suffered severe injury in the performance of that duty."
He felt the blood drain from his face. "All?" he choked out, his thick lashes lowering momentarily.
She smiled kindly, realizing that his chagrin was for her sake, not his own. "We are not all innocents here, Captain. Dame Sofía and the Abbess, tended many wounded men during the war. Sister Edwina, who is also Novice Mistress, has four brothers and lived with them in a two-room hut in the mountains until she came here. Dame Joseph was once married. After her husband was killed at the beginning of the War she became a nun. And I...." Her smile became almost impish and he began to relax somewhat. "I offered up my prayers. It was all I could do until your friend, Jamie, taught me how to tend the IV and how to care for the open wounds."
He swallowed with some difficulty, knowing intimately, the condition his back had been in after Metzer’s interrogation. Even now, unless he lay very still, there was intense discomfort. For this girl, hardly more than a child, to have had to deal with those ugly gashes.... “Not pleasant duty....”
“Nor was the acquiring of them, I think. I was very glad you were not awake while Dame Sofía was cleaning the stripes. There were threads and fabric from your sweater driven into the cuts.”
He nodded soberly. “It generally works that way.” He allowed his eyes to close momentarily, forcing the unpleasant memories from the forefront of his mind. "I don't remember anyone else. Just you... and Dame Sofía and the Abbess...."
"You were unconscious at first then delirious for some time, don't forget. We have taken turns, several of us, to allay the curiosity of the other sisters at our absences.”
“Is it working?”
She smiled, understanding his desire to lighten the mood he found himself in. “Nuns are, by their very nature, dutiful. They may wonder but no one will question.”
“The Abbess runs a tight ship,” he observed, and was rewarded with a soft giggle from the girl.
“I will be sure to tell her that you think so, Captain.”
She turned back to the hotplate and switched if off, then retrieved a spoon from a drawer and a deep bowl into which she poured some of the soup. She placed the bowl on the seat of the chair next to the bed and carefully levered Lee up so that she could slip behind him, supporting him against her, then reached for the bowl. She blew onto the soup she dipped up, then placed the edge of the spoon at his mouth, just touching his lips.
“Beef with barley, my favorite,” he muttered between sips.
“You would say that even if it was not,” she returned.
“No, really. I... they serve it a lot in sickbay. Doc says it’s richer than some of the others....”
“But you do not have the canned soup on your ship. The cook makes his own?”
“Yes,” he admitted, then tried another smile. “A ship’s cook is probably the most important man on board....”
“Not more important than the captain, I am sure.”
“Depends on who you talk to. In my case, you might argue that it was the doctor.” He was smiling weakly. “Enough about me... tell me about yourself. You said you’d tell me again... if I forgot....” She smiled, surprised that he had he remembered that much. “Have you wanted to be a nun for a long time?”
“As long as I can remember, really,” she told him, willing to oblige his curiosity once more. “It was my mother’s dream, as well....”
“I didn’t think.... You’re not trying to live your mother’s dream, are you? It won’t work if you are.”
“No, I’m certain I’m not. I didn't really know her; she died when I was a baby....”
He frowned thoughtfully, searching his scattered memories. “You told me that before, didn’t you?” She smiled. “Sorry. That was rude... to forget. Go on.”
“It’s all right, Lee... Captain Crane....”
“Please, you called me Lee before... didn’t you? I seem to remember....”
She blushed, and offered him another spoonful of soup. “I may have said a lot of things while you were unconscious.”
He smiled earnestly. “You have my most heartfelt thanks, Sister. I’m sure your prayers had a great deal to do with my survival.”
“You are too kind, Captain. I am inexperienced--.”
“As a nun, perhaps, but I think not to prayer. Dame Sofía told me that you were keeping some sort of vigil for me... the night I... barged in.”
“It was on your behalf, yes, but I can take no credit. We all prayed for your safety. It is well known what Colonel Metzer is capable of.”
“Even here, inside the walls of
“The extern sisters keep us informed of the events outside.”
“How long have you been here? You probably told me that too, but I can’t remember....”
She smiled. “Just since February.”
“And before?” he asked, once more directing her back to her own history.
“Why do you want to know about me? I am no different than any of the others here.”
“You are to me.”
He raised his hand, pushing away the empty spoon. He had eaten more than he had expected to be able to, her gentle persistence making it somehow easier. She retrieved another spoonful but he shook his head and she slid out from behind him, rising to return the bowl to the small sink.
“Please,” he implored her. “I had an idea... or maybe it was a dream... a possible way out, but I need to know more about how things are around here. If you tell me....”
“You should try to sleep. Dame Sofía said it was the best thing for you right now. Sleep and a little soup and water.” She returned with a glass of water in her hand and lifted his head off the pillow in order for him to drink.
“I’ll just lie here and listen while you tell me all about yourself,” he suggested. “If I fall asleep....” He started to shrug but thought better of it. “Please...?”
She sank down on the edge of the wooden chair, folding her hands in her lap demurely. It was already a habit, quiet hands, a prayerful mind, a devout life, but that was as she wanted it.
“All right,” she agreed at last. “How much should I tell you?”
“Whatever you feel comfortable with. You said you were an orphan?”
“I suppose so. I never knew who my father was and my mother died of influenza when I was less than a year old. She was a good girl, all the people in the village said so, and was probably taken advantage of by some unscrupulous man. She never revealed his identity, never spoke of him, they said, but it was commonly accepted that he had been a married local man. It was for that reason that I was passed from one family to another all my life.”
“No man would acknowledge you and their wives took you in out of... what...? Pity? Misguided altruism? I doubt that. More likely to punish their husbands.”
She rewarded his more worldly speculation with a smile and reached out to brush a curl of his lengthening hair from his forehead. His skin was still cool, much to her relief, but there was pain in his eyes once more.
“Go on, please,” he begged her, his voice soft but beginning to fade, it seemed.
She smiled, knowing she had told him all this before, but yielding to his request. “Mine was a small village and to make my presence as little hardship as possible, I would go from home to home, three months here, six there. But I was never truly welcome. I spent a great deal of time taking refuge in the village church from the taunting of the other children." He nodded, understanding the cruelties children were capable of dealing to one of their own. "The church, like the village, is very small but the priest gave me psalms to memorize and taught me the catechism. It was the only place I ever felt welcome.” She fell silent, her fingers seeking and beginning to count the beads of her rosary without conscious direction.
“Is that when you decided you wanted to become a nun?” He knew he should remember all this, but his mind was still full of clouds.
“Yes. But there is doubt among the abbey council about whether my vocation is a true one or if I am still only seeking a refuge from the harshness of life. A sanctuary, of sorts.”
Lee smiled weakly. “Not such a bad thing... for me, anyway.” He reached out to her, taking one of her hands in his. “What do you think? Did you come here... to hide?”
“I have thought about it a lot. There is really nothing in the outside world that calls to me, but nothing that frightens me either... except, perhaps, Colonel Metzer and his kind.”
Lee exhaled slowly, his eyes closing for an instant before he shifted his gaze to her face once more. “Tell me... about Metzer....”
ó ó ó ó
The days passed with agonizing slowness for Lee as he lay confined to his bed, too weak to do more than hobble to the bathroom when need overcame disability, then return to his bed to collapse in total exhaustion, hardly strong enough to even hold for any length of time the books that Abbess Celeste had selected for him from the Abbey library. He cursed his weakness knowing that, as long as he was forced to remain here virtually helpless, he was putting the sisters in jeopardy. He still slept a great deal, though he did not fight against it, knowing it was one of the few ways he could help his injured body to recover, but he begrudged the days slipping away from him.
During his infrequent hours of wakefulness he began to formulate a plan of escape. It was sketchy at best but it was a beginning and it all depended on his being able to walk in time for the Clothing Ceremony of Sister Grace, in less than ten days’ time. Even the thought made him dizzy. He had learned enough from Edwina, the Novice Mistress, to understand that the Clothing Ceremony was a big event in a soon-to-be nun’s life, and for a girl from a wealthy family, like Grace, there would likely be dozens of people from all over the country in attendance. It would be his best chance to make good his escape.
He knew that his strength would be slower to return than it had been to vanish. He had little recollection of the wasting fever that had besieged him but he was all too aware of the vast amount of blood he had lost. He could not help the little shiver of memory. It would be a long time before he could forget the feel of the inch-wide blade sliding into his body, the instant gush of warm blood, the almost immediate agony. He had weathered the beating and the whipping relatively well, he had believed at the time, but now he wondered. At some point during the long hours he had managed to separate at least a part of his awareness from his body, to remain aware, but apart, able to respond and yet not suffer the fullness of the torment Metzer had intended for him to experience. Now he wondered if that was truly a good thing.
Metzer. At this point in time the Colonel was his own personal nemesis. Lee had run across others of his ilk on previous ONI assignments but, fortunately for him, he had almost always managed to avoid or escape their grasp before too much damage had been inflicted upon his body. Almost always.... Well, it was a risk inherent in the job, he told himself brutally. But one he no longer was required to take. He was no longer active Navy and he knew Admiral Nelson was unbending in his desire for him to limit his ONI activities. And Chip....
It had been four days since he had spoken the few words with his long-time friend for, though he had been contacted daily, the Exec had not been among those who had spoken to him briefly. He could only wonder why but suspected Carstairs’ hand in the rotation. Chip’s half-dozen words, no, less than that, but they had conveyed his friend’s concern, even his fear for Lee’s safety. Chip had never made any bones about his vehement opposition to Lee’s involvement in the frequently life-threatening ONI missions. From the first moment he had learned about them, and it had been years ago now, Chip had lectured him on the dangers, the risks. He had cajoled and coaxed, he had threatened and pleaded. He had insisted that Lee had no right to jeopardize the investment the Navy had in him or the future Nelson envisioned for him. But Chip knew how strongly Lee felt about doing whatever he could to maintain the security of his country. It was why he was here. Wasn’t it?
He had to be honest with himself. The reason he had taken this particular assignment had nothing whatsoever to do with national security. It wasn’t even to prevent them from asking Nelson to do it. He had intentionally avoided asking Admiral Carstairs what Dorogoi’s importance was to their mutual bosses. It would have made no difference if the Russian had been nothing more than a straight defector or if he had possessed information vital to the salvation of the entire world. He admitted he had taken this particular assignment because he had been bored and feeling more than a little rebellious at the enforced inactivity. And because he was bored, he had ended up here.
Lee covered his eyes with his forearm, blocking out even the feeble light of the late afternoon sun slanting through the three circular air vents at the top of the wall. They were at ground level completely concealed behind a low bush, the Abbess herself had assured him. There was virtually no way they would ever be seen unless someone crawled every inch of the base of the high walls and, even then, there were similar air vents placed every ten feet along the foundation. Still he could almost feel Metzer’s cold eyes studying the gray exterior walls of the Abbey for some indication that the man he sought was truly within and he shuddered, feeling the bite of a fear that he could not suppress. He was helpless. He could not run. He would not even escape this room should Metzer discover its existence.
With a sudden vehemence that would have been recognized by
every crew member aboard the Seaview,
Lee Crane sat up, swinging his left leg off the bed, his left hand pressed
against his side as he moved his right leg with the other. He sat up straight, almost rigid, his eyes
closing while the light-headedness faded and the pain eased. He would never regain his strength if he remained
flat on his back, he told himself brutally.
The crutches lay on the floor next to the bed and he snatched them up, determined to begin this new ordeal immediately. Jamie’s careful stitches pulled uncomfortably as he levered himself to his feet but he did not feel any of them give way and he tucked the crutches beneath his arms, clutching the hand grips firmly and started across the open room. He had made his way to the head several times a day since the fever had broken but this was somehow different, no walls handy to brace himself against, no nearby destination and easy return. His knee screamed in protest as he tried to put a little weight on it and he closed his eyes, bracing himself against the crutches and tried again. The knee buckled on his third step, nearly spilling him to the floor but after years aboard a submarine his equilibrium was good and he recovered quickly. He was breathing heavily before he reached the cabinet standing against the far wall and he placed his hands, palm down, on the countertop, still using the crutches for support but bracing himself almost desperately.
He let his head droop and his eyes closed. He was too weak. He longed to turn and just slide down onto
the floor and sit there with his back against the cabinet. His knee was afire with agony, hot, throbbing
pain, bolts of lightning shooting both up and down his leg. He was shivering but, whether from the pain
or from his unaccustomed exertion, he did not know. All he wanted to do was get back to the bed,
lie down and sleep for a week. Instead
he straightened, turning on his left foot and resumed his efforts; to the wall,
then to the stairs, back to the cabinet.
Then and only then, did he allow himself to return to the bed. The crutches fell from trembling,
almost numbed fingers and he slumped down onto the edge of the bed. He leaned forward, working his leaden fingers
into the damaged knee, only dimly aware of the tears of agony that coursed down
his cheeks as he massaged the muscles and ligaments. He would not know until he was back on the Seaview, or
perhaps even back at the
Lee shook his head wearily.
Even... he thought morosely. He
needed a physical therapist, a whirlpool, stronger drugs... a new knee... if he
expected to be able to walk out of
“Damn!” he muttered beneath his breath.
For the first time he actually longed for one of the potent pain-reliever tablets that Jamie had left for him and that he scrupulously avoided as often as he could. But the small plastic bottle that contained the pills was in the cabinet and, he admitted, he was nowhere near strong enough to make the endless journey again. Well, he told himself, he had endured pain before and he could do it again, at least until he could regain enough strength to retrieve the pills. Slowly he lay back against the thin mattress, though he made no effort to bring his legs up onto the bed. An hour. He would give himself an hour then he would begin again. Maybe he would take it a little slower the next time but he knew what had to be done and it was not in his nature to avoid the imperative just because it was difficult.
He may have dozed but he opened his eyes as the sound of the familiar click of the trap door release resounded in his quiet cell. He turned his head, watching dispiritedly as a pair of sturdy black shoes and the dark gray hem of a novice’s habit appeared on the top step. He pushed himself back upright, smiling with pleasure as the young nun descended toward him.
“Sister Monika,” he greeted, realizing that he had missed her cheerful smile.
She seemed preoccupied, even somehow sad and she crossed the room without looking toward him, placing his supper tray on the small, square table. She stood quietly, her hands still on the edges of the tray.
“What’s wrong, Monika?” he asked gently, fearing the worst.
She drew herself up with an obvious effort and turned to face him, an almost believable smile arranged on her face. “Just the novice blues, Captain. Sometimes I can be very foolish.”
“That’s not something you have a corner on, Monika. Should have seen me a little while ago....”
She looked down at the crutches, so clearly lying where they had fallen, then back at his still-ashen face. She retrieved the medicine bottle from the cabinet without a word, shaking two of the caplets into his palm, then returned to the table for a glass, into which she splashed water from a metal pitcher. He tossed down the pills and then drained the water.
“Thanks,” he muttered.
“For not scolding me,” he replied sheepishly.
“I would never....” she began, then giggled, a sound he had come to prize. “Do I detect the reason behind some of the conflict that exists between you and your doctor?”
“Conflict may be putting it a little strongly. I... I tend to push myself sometimes.”
“It seems better than surrendering to weakness,” she observed archly.
Lee grinned, fully, completely, honestly and the girl flushed warmly. She took the glass from his unsteady grasp and placed it on the table next to the tray. She removed the cloth from the tray with a little flourish.
“Reverend Mother ordered that you are to have meat as often as we can get it in order for you to regain your strength,” she said quickly, covering her reaction to his smile once more. Lee nodded. He realized from her tone just how extraordinary this addition to his diet was and the hardship it doubtlessly placed upon the women of the community.
“Also, Dame Joseph has sent a bottle of local wine. It is very old, but she says age makes it better... just like her.” Once more Monika laughed softly and Lee’s smile widened momentarily. “She says that wine is a restorative too. It is frequently mentioned in the Bible and....” Her own smile became warm and fond but whether her affection was for the old nun she described or for some other reason, he did not know. “Mother Celeste said that if the wine was not really as good as she claims that she would be required to give Dame Joseph penance for her pride. The winery belonged to her husband’s family before the war and she was very happy there.”
“Give Dame Joseph my thanks for her kindness,” he replied, accepting the offering gratefully but the memory he had of the ruined winery differed dramatically from the old woman’s youthful remembrances. The aroma of the food was enticing however and he realized that he was actually hungry. He did not remember much of what he had eaten since coming to the Abbey, ingesting what he was given dutifully, if not enthusiastically. “Give me a minute for those pills to kick in then I’ll move to the table to eat... if you’ll sit with me.”
“Do you think you should?” she asked anxiously,
He smiled gently.
“Unless I plan on becoming a permanent resident of
“When?” she whispered, her voice weak.
His head bowed once more. “Not as soon as I should,” he admitted grimly. “I’ve never accepted inactivity well and this time... when I need to get out of here... so that you Sisters and the Abbey won’t be endangered further....”
He sighed raggedly but with typical resolve, he fought the despondency and reached down for the crutches. She moved swiftly to his side, steadying him as he pushed himself to his feet. The few steps to the table were, at once, more difficult and yet easier. His legs were shaking, his heart pounding with the effort then he sank down onto the wooden chair in relief, surrendered the crutches to Monika and slumped forward, his arms crossed on the tabletop.
“Lee?” she asked timidly.
“This isn’t good,” he murmured.
He knew that in
“Talk to me while I eat,” he implored. “I’ll do the best I can by the food. It smells great.”
She eased down into the chair to his right, apparently ready to offer assistance if it seemed to be needed. She watched silently as he picked up the fork and stabbed a small piece of potato and popped it into his mouth, following it immediately by one of the tiny bits of meat. There could not be more than an ounce or two of the meat but he knew he really did need it to restore his strength. He had expected lamb but as he chewed diligently he was surprised to discover that it was beef.
“Do you have beef often?” he asked casually, since she seemed disinclined to talk on her own. “Or is this something special, just for me?”
She smiled at him, uncorking the bottle of wine and pouring the glass half-full before she answered. “One of the Extern Sisters said a small piece was given them at the gatehouse. It was providence, the Reverend Mother said, but I think you must have friends in Shëvin. The piece was very small, not enough for even a single bite for forty-two women but the vegetable stew we are to have for our nighttime meal was flavored with its broth. There was also a brace of chickens but that will be for another meal.”
He looked up at her, tormented by the knowledge that he was freely given what they could ill-afford to share but confident somehow that he knew the source of the chickens; a café owner who seemed to have an abundance of the fowl and who spoke highly of the Convent.
“Why are you so quiet?” She glanced up sharply, a haunted expression in her dark eyes. “What’s bothering you? Has Metzer been back?”
“No, it is nothing like that.”
“Then what?” he insisted.
She pointed him back to the food but nodded as he diligently broke off a piece of the rich, homemade bread and sopped up some of the juice.
“I am a very foolish girl, Captain.”
He chewed conscientiously, remembering that she had said much the same thing upon her arrival but had then become distracted. “You said that before,” he said, silently urging her to speak. “But you seem... more sad than foolish.”
She did not reply at once but slid the glass of wine closer to his hand. Obediently he picked it up and sipped absently. It was good, he admitted, rich, slightly sweet and full of flavor. He smiled as he sat the glass back down.
“I will tell Dame Joseph that the wine met with your approval,” she told him then sighed brokenly.
He put the fork down on the plate and reached for her, wrapping his long fingers around her smaller hand. “Sister Monika, something is obviously wrong. Please... tell me....”
She closed her eyes, a single tear creeping between the lids. “Sister Grace is being clothed soon and her dress came today.... I have yet to conquer the sin of envy.”
He frowned, totally baffled. “I don’t understand,” he told her honestly but his voice revealed more concern than confusion. “I thought the nuns here all wore black habits.”
“Oh, they do,” she replied, brushing an imaginary spot off
her own gray novice’s habit, “but when a girl takes her final vows at
“Tell me about it.”
“Only if you eat. There.... That’s better,” she went on as he dutifully removed his hand and picked up the fork once more. “A Clothing is the last time a novice ever wears anything but the habit. She has been judged by the Abbey council as ready to take her solemn vows but, before the ceremony, she is given one last opportunity to change her mind. She goes into a room where the clothes she arrived in have been laid out for her. She may put them on and depart with no questions asked or, if she chooses to remain, then she is Clothed.”
He nodded, understanding up to a point. “This dress you mentioned?”
“Oh, it is just beautiful... like a real wedding dress. She’ll walk down the aisle and everything.” She sighed wistfully. “I wish you could see it. It is made of white satin, with long sleeves and a round neck that rests right here....” She drew an imaginary line about her own throat. “It has lace on the sleeves and lace appliqués on the skirt. If it only had pearls on it, it would be perfect!”
Lee smiled warmly. She might be a nun in training but she was still very much the young girl. “Is that the way you would have your dress?”
“If I were fortunate enough to have my own, yes. But I have no family of importance to make a large celebration necessary. If I become a nun I am sure my Clothing will be of little consequence.”
A presentiment of dread thrilled across Lee’s mind but he ignored it and pressed on, hearing a note of despondency in the girl’s voice that he did not like. He took up the fork once more and scooped another bite of meat and vegetables, shoving the bits onto the fork with the thick bread.
“All this time,” he muttered around the food. “I guess I was wrong. I never suspected that there was so much politics inside a convent.”
“Yeah, you know. The ones with the clout have more privilege.”
“No!” she denied vehemently. “We are more equal than that! I didn’t mean it that way!”
Once more he laid aside the fork. “Then how did you mean it?” He knew his tone was almost brutal but his options were limited and he did not have the physical strength to argue with her. “Sounds to me like you’re just feeling sorry for yourself. You have no money to give to the Abbey, so you think they will not appreciate you....” he began again then broke off at the flash of anguish through her dark eyes.
“I... I thought you would understand.”
His manner changed, softened and once more he reached out, his hand covering hers comfortingly. “I do, Monika, more than you can know. But I can see what you’re doing, even if you can’t. I’ve seen it before in young Naval officers who come aboard ship expecting a place to be made for them instead of them making a place for themselves. That’s what you’ve done, Sister. Instead of finding ways to be necessary to the Abbey, you’ve been dwelling on reasons why you’re not. Give them a chance. Allow them to accept you for who and what you are. I’m sure they won’t reject you the way the families in your village did.”
“But....” she choked out, stumbling to her feet and tearing her hand from his. “I thought you....”
She whirled and fled up the steps and, as the trap door slammed behind her, Lee could hear her running steps retreating.
“Lee Crane, you’re a damned fool,” he swore aloud then he hunched over and with his elbows on the table he braced his forehead against his hands.
ó ó ó ó
Monika ran through the Abbess’s office like a fleeing hare, unbearably aware of Sister Levi’s anxious hail as she passed her and erupted into the corridor beyond. Sister Levi had been there when she had gone down into the cellar room, smiling at her knowingly, it had seemed to Monika. They all knew something was different with the orphan girl who wanted to be a nun, even those who did not know of the American’s existence. She had seen it in Sister Grace’s face the past few mornings at Lauds, the speculation, the curiosity. The nuns with whom she had shared attendance on the young Captain must certainly know that she had fallen in love with him. And now, to be rejected by him, in a way that did not even acknowledge her feelings for him. It was more than she could bear.
Nearly sobbing she raced around the corner, her destination the chapel but she fairly collided with a tall, uniformed man and she looked up, staring into the dark visage of Colonel Anitol Metzer as he gripped her arm securely to keep her from falling, it seemed. She had seen him before only a few times; once, when she was a young girl, when he and his men had come to her village to arrest a Yugoslavian man who had, like Lee, taken refuge in the church. The man had been dragged, fighting and screaming, into the street and hurled into the back of a truck to be taken away.
“Ah ho, Sister, where are you going so rapidly?”
“What are you doing here?” she countered hotly, all her sorrow, her hurt turning instantly into fury.
“Answer a question with a question. Commendable, Sister. No meek little mouse, are you.”
“Then answer my question.”
The Colonel smiled coldly. “Surely you know, little Sister. It is not the first time we have been here, of late. We still seek the foreign criminal.”
“Here?” she blurted, horrified.
“Why not here?”
“We are a community of women, sir. The only men to step inside these walls have been your own and the Cistercian sister’s physician. But they are gone....”
“I am aware of that, Sister, though that party has yet to arrive in Tirana, where they said they were bound.”
“Uh... perhaps they had to stop somewhere else? Sister Coleta was in a very poor state while she was here,” she answered as truthfully as she knew how.
“Oh, so you saw her during her visit?” he asked suspiciously.
“Once... in Chapel.”
“And she seemed so ill to you?”
Monika swallowed heavily and her gaze slipped away from the intimidating man. “We were told that she was dying....” she hedged.
“So they informed me as well. Did it not strike you as odd, little Sister, that they would come so soon after my prisoner escaped?”
She looked up swiftly. “I suppose that did appear odd. But they are gone now and your prisoner is still missing.”
“Is he?” Metzer asked enigmatically.
Monika felt her heart pounding fiercely within her breast. Surely he would hear it, she thought frantically. Or he would wonder about her trembling hands, her weakened voice.
“Oh, have I alarmed you, little Sister?” His voice was unbearably cold and patronizing. “I came only to speak with the Abbess, not to frighten children.”
“But you have done that nonetheless, Anitol.” The steady, calm voice of the Reverend Mother came from behind Monika and the girl found herself able to breath once more. The Abbess stepped up beside the novice, facing the Colonel, her closed expression and her height matching his. “You wanted to speak with me?”
“Could we go to your office, Abbess Celeste?”
“You have no right to be here, Colonel,” she stated flatly and Monika stifled a gasp behind her hand at the Abbess’s effrontery. “You have repeatedly forced your way into our presence. I have permitted it until now because of the unusual circumstances but this time I must insist that you return to the parlor. We can talk there.”
“Oh,” Metzer said with a cynical smile, “now you throw your weight around, Abbess.”
“I knew your mother, Anitol, and I was your teacher when you were a child. I am not.... That was a distasteful comment.” She gave a little shake of her head and glowered at him and the half-dozen men with him. “Your presence and that of your soldiers... has caused enough distress to my women.”
Metzer’s hungry gaze slipped past her, impaling the trembling novice. “Is that true, little Sister? You didn’t seem particularly distressed before. In fact, I would say you were cut from the same metal as our revered Abbess.”
Monika glanced up at the Abbess in alarm. How would she react to being compared to the lowliest and least deserving of her women? she wondered frantically. Abbess Celeste’s intense blue eyes met her dark ones and she gasped again, for there was no accusation there only gentle agreement.
“You may be right, Anitol. Now, please come with me before some of my less spirited Sisters find you here for, I assure you, they will be alarmed.”
She wheeled abruptly and strode with determination back along the corridor, leaving him to follow. She entered the parlor and seated herself regally on one of the ancient chairs situated there and gestured at an equally antiquated sofa for Metzer. To Monika’s amazement, the Colonel followed her directions, sinking down onto the couch, his knee-high booted legs stretched out before him. Monika hesitated in the doorway, somehow unwilling to take a single step outside the safety of the cloistered Abbey.
“Mother?” she murmured tentatively.
“Ah, Monika, child.... Fetch Sister Levi from my office and both of you go to your suppers. Tell Sister Ruth where I am and that I have a guest. I will join you presently.”
With a bob of obedience Monika whirled and darted away,
determined to first seek out Sister Ruth so that the Reverend Mother would not
be alone with the soldiers. Ruth was a
large woman, accustomed to heavy farm work before coming to
Metzer watched the girl until she disappeared from his sight, smiling still. “She is very young, Abbess,” he observed coldly.
“And you seem to have a penchant for arriving just in time to interrupt our daily Offices, Colonel.”
“All of Shëvin orders its day by the carillon of
“And why is that, Colonel?” she urged when he seemed disinclined to continue.
“I have come to give you news about the escaped prisoner.”
Celeste bit back a quick response, frowning instead. “And why is that?” she asked, schooling her voice to be calm and indifferent.
“I am not the monster you believe me,” he cajoled but there was still an edge to his voice that warned her to silence. “You know of my wife, Abbess?”
“I know that she is the daughter of General Bochari. Little more. We have never met.”
“She has voiced an interest in your Order, Reverend Mother, a concern for your women.” Celeste felt her mouth go dry but she merely nodded as though this information had been long expected. “She requested that I come here, to put your mind at ease about the missing criminal....”
“That was kind... of both of you,” she replied cautiously. “You have apprehended him then?”
“Not yet, Abbess, but a man of his description has been seen along the coast several times in the past few days, a tall man, black haired, traveling with two other men and a woman.”
This time Celeste could not hold back the swiftly indrawn breath and she knew that Metzer had been waiting for her reaction. “But that description could be of anyone....” she attempted weakly.
“And so it could but since he is obviously no where in Shëvin, I can only assume that he has gone elsewhere, can I not? And the number and sex of those he is with...? It seems that perhaps you were deceived, Reverend Mother. Perhaps the visiting nun was not exactly what she seemed.”
Celeste had expected his final words, had prepared for them for days and responded easily. “I saw nothing amiss in Sister Coleta’s behavior while she was here, Colonel. That she suffered greatly was apparent to the entire community.”
“And what of her physician and her... brother.”
“Were just as they appeared, or so it seemed to me. The physician tended his patient with the greatest skill and concern. The other was nearly beside himself with worry. I had no doubt of the truth of his anxiety.”
“Then perhaps these reports are of different people altogether. But, of course, we will not know until they are found and... interrogated.”
Celeste knew her face went white but she was incapable of preventing the purely physical reaction. Colonel Metzer only smiled.
“You disapprove of my methods of interrogation, Abbess Celeste?”
His words were a trap and she knew it. If she reviled him for his cruelty he would be certain she knew more than she should and, although the words rose in her throat, she bit them back, certain that in speaking, she would only endanger the convent and might well sacrifice the safety of the hidden man.
“Even here we know of your devotion to duty, Colonel. It... It is your affair.”
“Exactly right, Sister Peter-Celeste,” he concluded, using the name he had called her as a child but with no fondness only an intentional lack of respect. “I will inform my wife that you and yours are safe and that, until the fugitive is recaptured, my men will remain on duty outside to safeguard the Abbey. Does that meet with your approval?” He had risen slowly to his feet, towering above her in an obvious attempt to intimidate her but she rose to face him, smiling beatifically.
“We accept your protection in the spirit with which it has been provided, Colonel. And now, my women await me for our evening meal, as I am certain your wife awaits you.”
Gathering about her all the mystique and authority she had developed over fifty years as a nun, the past ten of which were as Abbess, Celeste turned and retreated from the parlor, passing Sister Ruth as that sturdy woman secured the parlor gate and pocketed the key. They walked side by side down the empty corridor, neither speaking, instead listening for the sounds of the men’s booted footsteps departing the Abbey and the echo of the outer parlor door closing behind them.
ó ó ó ó
Once more Lee lay stretched out on the narrow bed, one arm thrown defensively over his eyes, his body tense with pain. It had taken him a while but he had managed to finish the food Monika had brought for him as well as the glass of wine. He did not drink a lot, or often, and seldom enough to become intoxicated; nor had he ever, even as a midshipman. Ordinarily he was too conscious of the prominence of his reputation to do that, unwilling to lose control in the slightest where it might reflect badly upon his rank, his command, or upon Nelson. Still, the wine had relaxed him for a short time, enhancing the pain relievers enough for him to make it back to the bed and collapse, more or less in good order.
He heard the footsteps on the wooden floor above him then the snap of the latch release and he shoved himself up, dragging his unresponsive leg off the bed and sitting up a moment before his visitor began to descend the stone steps.
“Reverend Mother,” he said softly in greeting as she pulled the hatch to behind her and turned to face him. Something was wrong, he knew immediately, his ability to read the expressions and body language of the seamen who served under him one of the reasons he was such a good captain. “What is it?” he asked anxiously and would have risen had she not stepped quickly to the bed and eased down beside him, patting his hand maternally.
“Colonel Metzer paid us a visit.”
“Another one?” he gasped harshly. “Then he must know--.”
“He has suspicions only, my son,” she interrupted. Her fingers tightened around his, comfortingly. “I think you have friends in our country you had not planned upon.” He stared at her blankly. “Apparently sightings have been made of a man answering your description somewhere near the coast, together with two other men and a woman.”
“No!” he choked out. “The Admiral wouldn’t--.”
“Do you believe they would abandon you to an unknown fate? No? I thought not. If those three who came here are any example, you must have many friends who would stop at nothing to see you safe.”
He sagged, his shoulders rounding, his head hanging. “Chip... and some others...” he admitted faintly, understanding the other man’s absence from the radio now. “But... why...?”
Her fingers tightened again, and he looked up at her. There was pride mingled with the unconditional love he could see in her eyes and he could not doubt that the pride, as well as the love was for him.
“You are a man whose loyalty evokes loyalty, Captain Crane. I knew this long before I ever met your Admiral Nelson, or the other two. As you do only what it is in you to do, so do those who care for you.”
He gazed at her for a long while, drinking in her strength and compassion that washed over him. There was nothing he could say. He could only accept her estimation with the grace it was given. At last he nodded.
“What else did he want?”
“To tell me that it appeared the man he sought was now far from Shëvin.” Lee frowned, disbelieving Metzer’s assertion even as the Abbess had done. “And to inform me that the guards will remain to... protect... the Abbey.”
“At least he’s out in the open with it now.” He sighed wearily. “When was he here?”
“An hour after Vespers. He forced his way past the Visitors’ Parlor once more and... fortunately, he encountered Sister Monika in the hallway.”
“Monika?!” he blurted out anxiously, half rising once more, but Abbess Celeste was still the stronger of the two and he sank back down. “Is she all right? She must have just left here.”
“Yes, I’m sure. She performed most admirably.” He exhaled deeply in relief. “She has changed a great deal since you came, Captain. I think she has come to love you in her own way.”
He sagged again, this confirmation of his own conjecture too much for him to withstand at the moment. “Reverend Mother... I’m sorry,” he began, but she shook her head.
“I’m not, my son. I am grateful to you for stirring Sister Monika’s heart to something more than her own wishes, you see. A nun is still a woman, not an empty shell, not an empty, sealed jar. You have cracked the seal on Monika’s heart and now she will be able to allow God’s love to enter and cleanse her spirit. She may have come to us for all the wrong reasons but, because of you, I believe she will remain for the right ones.”
“You give me too much credit, Mother.”
“We are all the instruments of God, my son. You, no less than any other.” He turned toward her once more, a puzzled expression on his handsome face. “The bruises are beginning to fade,” she observed gently.
He nodded. “They’ll need to be pretty much gone before I can walk out of here.”
“Have you made plans for your escape?”
“Not really. Right now, I’m more concerned with being able to walk across this room without falling on my face but....” He broke off, falling into contemplative silence.
“What is it, Lee?” she asked, using his given name unconsciously.
He smiled, though he did not look at her now, his long, dark lashes lying like thick feathers against his skin.
“There will be... visitors at Sister Grace’s Clothing?”
“Yes, quite a few, I expect,” she began speculatively, then nodded, understanding more quickly than he might have expected. “It will be eleven days from now, Captain. Is there any chance at all that you can be ready by then?”
“I’ll be ready. I’ll have to be, won’t I,” he said quietly. “Something you said... before... makes me think you are acquainted with Metzer. Am I right?”
“You are, to be sure. I went to school with his mother, Zara, and when I was a very young nun, when the convent school was still open, Anitol was in my class....”
“You taught school?
“Not completely. When the communists gained full control of the government the school was closed and there was no longer any real need for us not to follow the inclination of many of the community at that time. We still exist simply because we are Enclosed.”
“And no threat to the government with your subversive teaching,” he said, nodding.
“What is it that you want to know about Anitol Metzer that I might be able to tell you? He has greatly changed since he was that child in my class.”
“Anything... anything at all. You never know what might be important until the need for it arises. His family is local, I take it?”
For nearly an hour Lee listened intently while the Abbess related every detail she could remember about Metzer, his family, his education and his rise to power. On the surface it confirmed what had been in the ONI/CIA dossier, nothing seemed important or particularly meaningful. Even his marriage to Anicha, the daughter of General Bochari, seemed to have been one of love not entirely of political ambition.
He lay quietly in the dark of the cellar room long after the Abbess had departed for her own bed, his mind merging her picture of Metzer as a more human-seeming man, with the two-dimensional image the dossier had given him. In many ways, Metzer’s career mirrored his own, he realized, the outstanding years in the military, his being singled out to join the Secret Police force and making his way to the rank of captain in an astoundingly short time, even before marrying Anicha Bochari. Whether it was at his own request to return to Shëvin, or some sort of reward or punishment, was revealed in neither the CIA information nor by Abbess Celeste’s knowledge. That his marriage was a strong one, marred only by one possible infidelity, was evident throughout Celeste’s recitation. It had been the first year after his appointment to Shëvin when Anicha conceived for the first and only time. It had been a boy, but stillborn, and she had taken the child’s death very hard, withdrawing from her husband and from Shëvin for nearly a year. During that time it was reported that Metzer took a mistress, a girl from a neighboring village, but the affair had been ended when Anicha returned. Nothing more was known of the girl, except her name, Tava Patchik, which may or may not have been her real one.
He closed his eyes, knowing that sleep would be a long time coming. Slowly he cleared his mind, shifting the direction of his thoughts to the Seaview and the troubling realization that members of his crew were likely now ashore, undoubtedly creating some diversion on his behalf. It sounded like a plan Chip would come up with, cautious but effective. He knew Chip would not leave the bridge of the Seaview unless he thought he could take a direct hand in Lee’s rescue and nothing about this assignment was clear cut; but who else? Kowalski, most likely, and perhaps Sharkey.
He opened his eyes once more, his gaze drawn irresistibly to the vents in the outside wall. A faint, passing glimmer of light could be seen through the foliage outside as an occasional vehicle drove by. Or was it a sentry, walking guard duty with a light of some sort?
Eleven days until he had to be able to not only walk out of
“Davalos!” he gasped aloud, suddenly knowing without doubt who was being mistaken for him, either intentionally or not. “Oh, Laddy,” he groaned involuntarily, envisioning the tall Security Chief with his classic Greek looks.
Tomorrow morning he would try to reach them, he vowed, confident that they had not come ashore without some means of contacting either himself or the Seaview. They would doubtless know the time he and Nelson had agreed upon for radio contact and hopefully would be waiting.
And there was a woman with them; that could only be Denise and he was torn between gratitude and anger. He knew why she had returned, of course. He had been able to tell, even though he was not terribly coherent the whole time she was there, that she had been more than just reluctant to leave him behind. It was an unwritten rule with all clandestine agencies, not to leave an injured man behind if there was a possibility that he might betray the mission or his fellow agents. If he could not be extracted alive, he should be left... dead. So far in his career he had not been required to exact that ultimate salvation and he doubted Denise had been forced to it either. But, like any good agent, she had been prepared to either pull him out or ensure that he suffered no more. He wondered if any one of the men with her had any idea of what she might be capable. How he wished she had never been forced to become involved in this mess.
If wishes were horses... he thought, beginning to lose his fight with sleep. Sea... horses... Yes. Seahorses and white dogs and women like penguins, and.... He yawned mightily. Tomorrow would be a hard day; the first of many, at least eleven, he knew. Eleven days, to recover his strength, for his knee to heal enough to walk on.... It was a big order. But one he was determined to obey.
ó ó ó ó
Lee broke the connection between himself and the shore party, then laid aside the tiny radio and reached down for the crutches leaning against the bed. Had he deceived them into thinking he was better than he was? He doubted it. Chip knew him entirely too well and after ten days of hearing the strain in his captain’s voice, Lee realized that he was undoubtedly fooling no one.
He straightened, arching his back against the stiffness he could not seem to abolish. His hand went tentatively to his side at the persistent twinge of discomfort that would not allow him to forget the healing stab wound. He shook his head in disgust, knowing it was not the wound that had nearly cost him his life that might well prevent him from escaping. Slowly he flexed his right leg, feeling the sandy grating of torn cartilage beneath the kneecap and silently cursed the cat that had tripped him nearly as vehemently as he cursed Metzer and his viciousness. Damn thing was like an impacted tooth, he thought miserably, and as impossible to deal with.
He levered himself to his feet, pulling the crutches into place and wincing as he put his full weight on his right leg, using the crutches to steady himself. There was still pain but that was inevitable. He shifted the position of the crutches and hobbled forward another few feet. Another effort and he was at the table, breathing hard, tears of pain starting in his eyes and his teeth clamped fiercely into his lower lip. Desperately he dropped into the chair and, in an outburst of temper and frustration, he hurled one of the crutches as far as he could across the room. With a muttered oath he slumped forward, burying his face in his arms folded atop the table. It seemed he had spent more time in this position the last ten days than he could ever remember having done before. And tomorrow....
Tomorrow was Sister Grace’s Clothing. Tomorrow was when he needed to be able to walk out of the visitors’ door of the chapel without a trace of a limp and he could not even make it across this small room without the benefit of the crutches. Tomorrow Chip and his team would arrive in Shëvin and he had no hope of being able to get to them and he didn’t deceive himself that they would leave without him. He was out of time and he was out of luck. The plan they had come up with was not clean, though it was workable, but only if he could make his way out of the convent and to the car waiting in the street.
There would be a large number of visitors attending the Clothing, he had been told, both local and from out of town, and there would be dignitaries among Grace’s family and friends coming from Tiranë. The Reverend Mother had assured him also that even Colonel Metzer, with his obsessive need to find his escaped prisoner, would refrain from creating a disturbance while they were there. Lee had been depending on that, had been working as hard as he could to strengthen his knee, but it stubbornly insisted on giving way beneath him without warning and without the benefit of the crutches, he would have spent a great deal of time stretched across the cellar floor.
He heard the solid clump of the oaken hatch-door as it closed but he did not look up. Whoever it was he could not face them at the moment with his failure so prevalent in his mind. He recognized Sister Monika’s light footsteps crossing the stone flooring, felt her bird-quick touch on the crown of his head and, cursing himself for a coward he straightened, forcing a smile to his lips.
“Did I wake you?” she asked timidly.
“No, little one. I was....” His smile widened, touching his eyes, remembering when he had accused her of just what he had been guilty of. “I was just wallowing in a big mess of self pity. Don’t pay me any attention.”
She returned his smile. “Your leg?”
“Oh, it’s not so bad anymore,” he lied glibly, “but it isn’t strong enough to hold my weight for more than a step or two.”
“Your weight.... Your Dr. Jamieson will not be pleased with you... or us... when he sees how thin you have become. You are little more than skin and bones,” she admonished sagely. “Reverend Mother has feared that without the kind of food you are accustomed to, the kind a man needs, and better treatment, your strength would be lacking. She sends this to you....”
From the folds of her dark gray habit Sister Monika produced an elegant ebony walking stick, topped with an antique-silver knob. It was a beautiful piece of work, he knew at once, even before his fingers touched the fine-grained wood with its soft patina of glowing age or traced the grooves in the old silver. It would help, he was positive, and would certainly be less conspicuous than the crutches. Still, he knew Metzer would be on the lookout for anyone who might display difficulty walking.
“Thank you... and tell Abbess Celeste....”
“She will be here before long, with Sister Rebecca and Sister Grace.”
“What?” he gasped out, alarmed. “How many know, now?”
“Don’t worry, Captain. Your secret has belonged to us all this entire past week. Reverend Mother discussed it with the Council and it was decided that everyone should be made aware... if they were to be put at risk.”
Lee sighed wearily. “That’s the last thing I wanted... to endanger any of you,” he amended quickly but she had obviously understood his meaning. She smiled. “Why are they coming? I would think Sister Grace would be busy preparing for her Clothing.”
“There is time for that, Captain. Grace is much more inventive and devious than I would ever have suspected. It will be her goal that when you leave our confines that you will not look as you do now." She smiled again and reached out, twisting her index finger into one of the shaggy curls of his inky hair. "Even your own friends may have difficulty recognizing you when she is through with you."
He grinned boyishly. "Now I'm really alarmed." His smile faded as quickly as it had come. "Has there been any luck obtaining a suit of clothes? I can hardly attend the Clothing dressed like this." He waved his hand down his body, indicating the threadbare shirt, and too short trousers, both of which would have been a better fit for Chief Sharkey, Seaview's CPO, than himself, he thought wistfully. He shook his head then, banishing even those poignant thoughts.
"That is Sister Rebecca's chore," Monika had continued, unmindful of his scattered thoughts. "The Extern Sisters have acquired a suit for you but it may need to be taken in somewhat to look right. She is an excellent seamstress and has offered to help."
Lee's fleeting smile returned briefly. "Seems like I'm becoming quite the group project." His despondency surfaced and he spoke without thought. "They must really want me out of here...." He looked up at her as soon as the words were uttered, his eyes begging forgiveness. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean anything...."
"It's all right, Captain. None of us can truly appreciate how difficult this has been for you."
"But I know I've been a real problem for the lot of you."
Monika reached out to him, her fingers just brushing his lips to still his protests. "Do not speak so. Reverend Mother has said it... you were sent to test our strength of spirit.”
“Someone’s strength of spirit anyway,” he mumbled, then shook his head, disgusted with himself and his recurrent negativity. He knew he could put it off to the weeks of pain and frustration, of worry and dread, but he refused to continue to take it out on this girl who had done so much for him. “You... you’ve... changed... since I first met you,” he floundered, not quite sure of what to say to her to convey his gratitude and to acknowledge her increased maturity.
“So I am told.” She smiled broadly. “It is the general opinion that it is much more likely now that I will one day take my solemn vows. I think I have you to thank for that.”
He shook his head. “Hardly, little Sister....”
“Don’t call me that!” she cried, her tone unexpectedly vehement. Lee blinked back a start of surprise. She wheeled away, striding toward the stairs hotly.
“Wait!” he called urgently. “Forgive me. What did I say?”
Monika turned back to face him, her face a picture of remorse. “Forgive me, Captain. It is just that... Colonel Metzer called me that and it made me feel... afraid!”
Lee pushed to his feet, limping forward to take her hands in his, unconsciously using her to stabilize himself. “I’m sorry, Sister Monika. He must have frightened you very much.”
“Frightened? Yes. But more than that. It was....” She shook her head, turning her hands so that she could grip his wrists, feeling him already begin to tremble. “I felt as though something... unclean... had touched my very soul. That, if he could, he would make sure that I would never become an avowed nun... that he would destroy us all without a single qualm.”
Lee nodded solemnly. “I think you’re quite right, Monika. And if not for me you might never have been--.”
“Do not take the blame for Colonel Metzer’s interest in
He smiled, faintly at first, then with more enthusiasm. “You have matured, Sister. Two weeks ago I don’t think you’d have spoken like that.”
She returned his smile, obviously pleased at what she took as high praise. “I will miss you when you are gone, Captain Crane,” she whispered then.
“No, you won’t,” he corrected, his smile boyish once more.
She laughed brightly, gaily. “Oh, but I will.” Then, more seriously, “I have learned so much from you.”
“Oh, I hope not,” he replied, still smiling.
“But it’s true. I have learned what real selflessness is and courage and loyalty....”
He chuckled. “You make me sound like a downright boy scout.”
“A what?” she asked innocently. She blushed beneath the full force of his
smile. “You will write to me when you
are safely back in the
“You know I will. If I get out all right I’ll write often.”
She swallowed sharply and abruptly tears started in her eyes. “You’re not certain you’ll be able to get away, are you.”
He released his grasp on her wrists, freed himself from her hold and hobbled away, sinking down onto the narrow bed. “I won’t lie to you, Sister Monika. There’s every reason to believe that I don’t stand a chance of getting out of Shëvin alive.” She inhaled painfully, but remained silent. “But I have to try. You know that, don’t you?” She nodded, a slight bob of her head. “Every moment I stay here increases the danger of discovery. Tomorrow will be the last time there’ll be a crowd here for... some time... and...." He shook his head, as if to banish his own dread. "If I stand any hope of freeing the Abbey of any connection with me... it has to be tomorrow, Monika. It has to be.”
She stood in the center of the room staring at him, her hands twisting together suddenly, then she wheeled and moved toward the steps. “I must speak to Reverend Mother.”
“Monika,” Lee called, as abruptly as she had moved. “Tell me....”
She paused as he hesitated, but she did not turn. “Tell you what?”
“What was your mother’s name?”
“Talia Papolous. Why?”
His puzzled frown sounded in his voice. “I’m not sure. It just seemed important all of a sudden.”
“Sister Grace and Sister Rebecca will be here before long, Captain. I will return... later.”
ó ó ó ó
Crane had been surprised by the two women who descended next into his cellar sanctuary. One of them was of middle age, slightly stooped, her dark eyes blinking myopically from behind thick glasses. The other was young, only a few years older than Monika, and he would have identified her at once from the girl's descriptions. Grace was exactly that, her every move as smooth and elegant as the sweep of a swan's wing. She was as lovely as Monika was plain, her complexion creamy, her lips and cheeks naturally rosy and her eyes as dark a blue as the sea at sunset, he thought, looking at her. That was what he felt like he had been doing since she arrived, a peasant admiring the perfection of a princess.
She had assisted Sister Rebecca in taking his measurements, then the two women set to work on his hair and beard. He had thought to shave the beard, but they voted him down, saying that after they were finished it would only add to the disguise. Slightly embarrassed, unaccustomed as he was to anything more than a quick haircut and shaving himself, he had leaned back in the chair and let them have their way. He had dozed off at last, rousing only to follow their directions and, identifying the smell of hydrogen peroxide, he drowsily wondered how he would look with his olive skin and as blond as Chip.
"Captain?" Sister Grace's lyric voice interrupted his reverie and he looked up into her smiling face as she stood before him. "Sister Rebecca has gone to fetch the Reverend Mother to see our handiwork. It has come out quite satisfactorily, I think."
"Can I see?" he asked, curious.
"There is no mirror... had you not noticed?"
He grinned amiably. "I guess I had but didn't give it much thought. Just have to trust your creativity then, I guess."
"Sister Monika is bringing a mirror and shaving supplies, too. If you merely trim your beard it will go far to create the impression of the distinguished gentleman. I think your hair will be fine... the length it is. It must have been very short when you arrived."
He shrugged. "A little shorter than regulation , I guess."
“It is quite curly.”
“That’s one reason I keep it short,” he replied with a grin but bit it back when the young woman blushed deeply. “I want to tell you how grateful I am for your assistance, Sister Grace,” he said then, slightly nonplussed. “I understand what an imposition this has to be just before your big day.”
“My day will be made even grander if you can return to your people safely, Captain. Even in Tirenë Colonel Metzer’s unsavory reputation is known. My family is not one of those who cheer his methods.”
“What did you tell them? How did you get them to send the cane?”
“Don’t worry. They know nothing about you. I merely told them that there was a man in town who could use Uncle Chavik’s old walking stick, if no one else was using it.”
“And they just sent it to you? Like that?”
“But it’s exquisite! And very old!”
Sister Grace patted his cheek benevolently as if she was vastly older than he. “Then you will have something besides ugly scars to remind you of us when you are home.”
He nodded, accepting her gift graciously. “Well, if I’m lucky I won’t need to use it again but it’ll hold a place of honor, that’s for sure. Now, hadn’t you better get some rest? You don’t want dark circles under your eyes for the ceremony, do you?”
“I doubt I’ll sleep much anyway. But you’re right. There, see, it must be Monika and Reverend Mother,” she said, glancing away as the trap door was eased open from above.
Lee rose slowly, stiff from long inactivity, and turned to face the Abbess and Sister Monika. He saw shock register on the girl's face and satisfaction on the Reverend Mother's, and he frowned, wondering at their reaction.
"You have done well, Sister Grace," Abbess Celeste said quietly. "Once his beard is trimmed he will be the picture of a distinguished gentleman."
"Distinguished?" he muttered, his confusion growing.
Did having blond hair make that big a difference in him, he
wondered. He knew he possessed an air of
authority; it had been pointed out to him often enough since before
Monika walked toward him, the mirror clutched against her, then she stopped and raised the mirror before him. He stared into the starred glass and, for an instant, he was glad he was not holding the antique object himself, for he felt himself stagger backwards a single step. Sister Grace was behind him, as though she had expected his response, and she steadied him, her hands gripping his shoulders.
Lee stared at the reflection in the glass, stunned. "I... I can't believe it...." he stammered.
The face in the mirror was obviously his, and yet it wasn't. He knew he had lost weight. It was inevitable, as ill as he had been, and his appetite was seldom good after an injury but the face of the man in the mirror was not just lean, it was gaunt, the hollows beneath the high cheekbones and at his temples were shadowed. His eyes seemed darker, almost sunken and they too were darkly shadowed. The marks of torment that marred his face had faded to spidery white lines. That would have been shock enough, to see such a drastic change in himself in just three weeks, without the alterations Sister Grace had created.
"My God," he gasped, momentarily oblivious of the nuns around him. He raised one trembling hand to his face, touching the stark white hair of his beard, the white curls tumbled across his forehead, the salt and pepper brows. "I... I look... eighty years old."
"And what would be more natural than for an elderly man to have difficulty walking," Abbess Celeste said, her tone pleased.
Lee turned his haunted gaze upon Sister Grace once more. "This is why you kept using the word distinguished, isn't it." He inhaled slowly, managing a weak smile. "Well, at least I know what I'm going to look like in forty-some years," he conceded.
"Still a most handsome man, Captain," the Abbess said, a twinkle in her blue eyes. "Perhaps it would have been wise for us to do this when you first came. It might have saved us some anxious moments...." Her smile widened and she glanced at Monika, who was still silent and now blushing fiercely, but the Abbess's expression was warm, even loving.
Lee stepped away from Sister Grace, grabbing the back of the wooden chair for support as he did so.
"I knew you would be shocked, Captain. But the change is remarkable. Tomorrow, if you could... perhaps... slouch just a little? Your bearing is still much too... commanding...."
Lee grinned and purposefully rounded his shoulders, slumping, losing a good three inches in height as he did so. "Like that?" he asked, almost chuckling. "I've become a fairly good play-actor over the years."
"So I have heard, Captain," the Reverend Mother commented. "The word I have from the Extern Sisters is that the people of the city are concerned that Colonel Metzer arrested such an innocent-appearing man, a simple fisherman who had lost his boat to the sea...." The Captain inclined his head, but his humor had been restored and the Abbess continued. "Sister Grace, to bed with you, child. You will want to be at your most lovely tomorrow, not drawn and tired...."
The Abbess broke off as Grace looked quickly at Crane then both of them were smiling, the young woman smothering a giggle behind her hands.
"So Captain Crane told me just before you came, Mother. I will go happily to my bed now, for I feel that tonight's work has been well done."
"You did an excellent job, Sister Grace. My thanks," Lee told her gently. "If I don't see you again, just know that you have my utmost gratitude for your help... you and all your Sisters."
"I will make sure they all know that what we have done
has most certainly been the will of God, Captain Crane. Colonel Metzer is a blight
"You sound as if you speak from first-hand experience, Sister."
"Not my own, but living in Tiranë one sees much."
Lee nodded. "Thanks again, and my best wishes for your future life as an
avowed member of
She dipped her head then moved regally away, as lovely in her own right as the Abbess. Crane watched after her until the trapdoor closed behind her but his smile was fading rapidly.
"Do not worry about her, Captain. She appears tender and vulnerable but she is cast from strong metal. Her uncle, the one whose cane you now possess...."
"Chavik," Lee recalled.
"He was an actor of great renown. But he was also very outspoken and died mysteriously about ten years ago. The family believes that he was murdered, to silence him. This is what Grace has grown up with... that and a natural talent for theatrical arts. Her uncle was a great purveyor of illusion...."
"Then this... alteration... was her idea?"
"Hers and Monika's. Earlier this week Monika mentioned how much your appearance had changed with the growth of your beard and she and Grace later approached me with their idea."
"Then, thanks to you, too, Sister. I think...." His joking tone was met with a shy smile.
"Your suit will be ready for you by morning."
The Abbess walked toward him, her regal bearing making Lee want to drop to his knees before her but he knew she would not approve, nor would his injured knee permit such behavior. Instead he merely lowered his head, accepting her blessing in silence as she rested her hand atop his head for a moment. There was an almost tingling sensation where she touched him and, unaccountably, he felt tears prickling behind his lowered eyelids.
" It has been a privilege to know you, my son, " she said then, a note of extreme sorrow in her voice. "I hope there will be a day when my country is once more open and accepting of visitors and you may return to see us. Our gates will always open for you."
Impulsively, Lee caught her hand as she withdrew it and held it between both of his own as he leaned forward, kissing the air just above the back of her hand.
"Very gallant, Captain, and done exactly right. Did they teach you that in your
"If I make it home, Reverend Mother, it will be because of your courage and kindness," he whispered. "And that of your valiant ladies."
"Goodbye, my son. May God be with you...." she replied, her own voice trembling with emotion.
The tall, majestic woman freed her hands from his and turned, then paused with one foot on the bottom stair.
"Sister Monika has something to discuss with you. But... you should know that I have given her my blessing on what she would do."
Without another word the Abbess retreated, closing the door securely behind her as Lee turned to face Monika.
"What was that about?"
As he had become accustomed, she began to pace, much as he did on occasion in the control room of the Seaview when times were unnerving. He waited as patiently as he could for her to speak, granting her time to find her own words.
"You are not convinced that you will be able to avoid Colonel Metzer, even with the disguise?"
"I don't like to deceive myself, little one. It's very likely he'd recognize me... even with no hair at all."
She hesitated, swallowing with some difficulty. “He is less likely to be expecting a couple."
Lee's hand shot out and gripped her wrist, drawing her to a complete halt, pulling her around to face him as he sagged back against the table. "Don't be foolish! You can't leave here now!"
"I can leave!"
"No! I won't let you get any more involved than you already are! If he arrests me... he'll take you, too! I.... I just won't let you do it!"
"I will not be stopped, Captain! The only way to prevent me from accompanying you is... is for you to knock me on the head with the cane and tie me up! I don't think you're capable of that... even if you believe it would save my life."
"But you can't just throw away your life on a long shot! It's unthinkable!"
"Reverend Mother has agreed to my plan."
"Then she couldn't understand the likelihood...."
"She has lived in this country all her life, Captain. She knows, better than most of us, what evil men are capable of doing to their fellows. I feel I owe you...."
"No!" he rejected hotly. "I'm the one...."
"Captain, listen to me a moment, please. I understand that you would prefer to keep me
safely out of Colonel Metzer's reach and I value that knowledge but, without
your influence, I would never have become the kind of woman worthy to become
one of the holy sisters of
“She came right out and said it flatly... that you would have been rejected?”
Monika nodded sadly. “The way I was, it was most likely. I was concerned for no one but myself. It wasn’t that I was particularly selfish, but... remember when we talked about why I wanted to be here? You were right about my reasons and you made me admit them to myself. I was running away but now the Abbess says it is clear that I am running to a life of compassion and the service of others.”
“I didn’t....” he began again but her calm, happy little smile silenced him. “I’m very happy for you, Sister Monika. But that doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice your future just to help me.”
“If I were to allow you to go out to certain imprisonment, probably even a horrible death, when I may be able to help....” She paused but whether for impact or because she could not continue for a moment, he could not tell. “If I did that, I would never be able to live with it. If I did that... I would never be the nun I want to be.”
Lee pushed himself upright once more, towering above the girl. He was frowning as she had expected, his amazing eyes smoldering darkly, then unexpectedly he smiled, his teeth flashing whitely in his olive-skinned face and his eyes became astonishingly tender as he gazed down at her.
“Thank you, Sister Monika. When you retreat behind these walls... God’s getting a real winner.” His smile widened, became mischievous. “Good thing I was trained well.... I don’t go after the Commanding Officer’s women.”
ó ó ó ó
Before she retired to her cell the previous night Sister Monika had helped him hang the mirror in the tiny bathroom, left him the straight razor and shaving soap provided by the Extern Sisters and the pair of small sewing scissors. This morning he had managed to trim his beard to a shorter, neater length. As a Naval Officer he went clean-shaven as a matter of preference as well as old habit and he had only worn a beard a time or two before on assignments for ONI. They had also been disguises, intentionally unkempt and straggly, so trimming one had never been required but, when he was finished, he thought he had done an adequate job. Now, looking in the mirror he wondered what the Admiral’s reaction would be when he saw him again. He looked truly aged, his eyes burning in a face that could only be described as pallid, emaciated. Was it always this bad when he was injured? Or was it the drastic change in the color of his hair? But surely the beard concealed some of the gauntness. He shook his head, knowing he had more important matters to concern him now than his appearance.
Sister Rebecca brought the suit shortly before Lauds, and had insisted that he try it on before she would depart. The white shirt had been ironed to perfection and, although it was too big through the body and at the neck, with the tie in place and beneath the suit coat, it would suffice. She had done a superb job on the suit, he realized, taking in the pants so that they did not hang on him like a sack and making invisible tucks in the jacket that allowed it to fit him almost perfectly. Once she had made a few last-minute adjustments and was satisfied, she left quickly, answering the summons of the carillon bells to Lauds.
He was lying on the narrow bed trying to rest, to steady his wild nerves before contacting Morton, when Dame Sofía paid him an unexpected visit. He rose quickly, hobbling forward to offer her his arm as she descended the stairs, burdened by a breakfast tray. She smiled benignly and put the tray on the table, then motioned for him to sit down at the table while she sank into a second chair
“I wanted to see you one last time, Captain, to bid you farewell.”
“You have my deepest thanks, Sister. I’m well aware of what
“Do you put yourself in that group too, Captain?” He frowned, taken aback by her unexpected question. “I do not think this was the first time you have come to harm because you put the safety of others ahead of your own. What you did, why you did it and what happened to you because of it, has been widely discussed behind the closed doors of Shëvin.”
“Discussed?” he choked out, horrified.
“Rest easy, Captain. It is widely accepted that you must be dead. No one knows you are here, except those of us who are sworn to this Abbey. And, with this new look of yours, I doubt anyone would take you for the young fisherman of a few weeks ago.” She smiled gently. “Eat your breakfast, then when the bells ring for Terce, join the Reverend Mother in her office. It will be almost time for you to take your place in the visitors’ gallery by that time.”
“I’ll never forget any of you and what you have done for me,” he said, his voice rough with emotion. “You saved my life, dear lady....”
“It was not I, my boy, but the prayers of many here.” She leaned forward, her lips brushing his forehead lightly. “Your presence has acted to rouse the hearts of many of us. In an enclosed order it is sometimes too easy to become complacent, to follow the Holy Offices diligently but automatically, without really thinking about what it is you do and why. It is more than Sister Monika’s vocation your coming has revitalized, Captain, and for that we all owe you a debt of thanks.” She patted his hand maternally. “Now, eat your breakfast. You obviously need the sustenance and I do not think you would want to be betrayed by a growling stomach....”
He smiled, feeling her concern, her affection almost like a physical caress. He did not move to restrain her as she turned to go, moving slowly, stiffly, and he realized for the first time how very old she was.
“Thank you, Dame Sofía,” he murmured softly. She did not turn but she hesitated just an instant on the steps then continued upward.
Lee did not change positions for several minutes after the trapdoor closed then at last he turned toward the table and drew the tray over in front of him. Scrambled eggs, slices of homemade bread thickly slathered with butter, instead of the hot cereal he had come to expect. He ate hungrily and only once did the thought of a hearty meal for a condemned man pass through his mind. At last he stood up, resorting to the crutches once more to make his way back to the bed and the radio he had dropped there as he dressed. He sat down carefully and activated the radio.
“We’re approaching coordinates, Lee,” Morton’s voice came from the tiny speaker. “What’s your status?”
“Prepared to dive,” he replied.
They had decided the previous day not to return to the code
phrases but to utilize submarine-speak as much as possible. English was not widely spoken in
“None of that, Skipper,” the Commander interrupted, somehow knowing what he would have said.
“Very well,” he replied but unable to keep his voice steady. “My orders still stand. If this goes badly do not attempt retrieval. Understood?”
“Sorry, Skipper, but... well, we’ve talked about it.”
“Mutiny, mister?” Crane asked trying to put his usual tone of authority into his voice but failing miserably.
“Aye, sir. Guess you could say that.”
Lee remained silent for several long seconds. “Don’t waste your lives, Chip,” he admonished at last and nothing more. He broke the connection and lay back on the bed, his eyes open and staring at the familiar ceiling, waiting for the next tolling of the Abbey bells.
ó ó ó ó
He was ready and waiting when the trapdoor latch was sprung and he climbed the stone stairs slowly, unsteadily, pushing the heavy wooden panel upward as he emerged from the cellar room for the first time since he had arrived. He could hardly recall the tiny cell and the office beyond was little more familiar, but Abbess Celeste was waiting for him as he stepped into her study, smiling as he gratefully sank down onto one of the straight-backed chairs.
“My, don’t you look handsome, Captain.”
“I guess I’ve been looking pretty disreputable, haven’t I,” he said without feeling.
“It’s a good thing you have, I think, even though your existence has only been known to the general community for this week, or there might be more than one novice leaving the Abbey with you today.”
“I’m truly sorry about that, Reverend Mother. She will be able to return, won’t she?” he asked, Monika’s future of premier concern to him.
“She will be a welcome member of our community. Of that I am now certain.”
He nodded, his thoughts still on the girl. “I... I would like to provide a... a dowry.... That’s what it’s called? She told me about it while I was still doped up....”
“There is no need for that, Captain. She will be accepted, no matter her financial backing. She is not buying a partnership in a business here, you know,” the Abbess finished kindly.
“But she feels....”
“I know how she feels, Lee. I suffered from the same insecurities myself when I was her age.”
“You?” he asked in utter disbelief.
Celeste smiled benignly. “Yes, me. I was not a foundling but my parents lost everything when the War started. They were happy to see me enter the convent so there would be one less mouth to feed.”
“I’m sorry. But you’ve certainly carved a place for yourself.”
“As you have done, Captain. As Monika will now do, thanks to your influence.”
“You keep saying that but I’ve done nothing.”
“You have been yourself, and that has been enough. This effort of hers... to help you get away
without notice... it shows a degree of selflessness I would not have expected
of her a month ago. I think I know you
well enough to know that you will always berate yourself for what you perceive
as bringing danger to our community, but the good that has been accomplished by
your being here far outweighs any inconvenience to us. If our prayers continue to be answered, you
will soon be safely back aboard your ship and Sister
Monika will be once more within the protective walls of
“I worry about her in this....”
“It is your nature, Captain.” He lowered his head, closing his eyes momentarily in reluctant agreement. “It is time for me to go,” she said then and they rose together. “Wait here for Sister Monika to join you.”
He nodded but hobbled forward to stop her as she turned to go. Once more he took her hand, raising it to his lips. “I have no words to thank you, Abbess,” he said then he lifted his gaze to hers. He was taken aback by the tears that brimmed in her intense blue eyes but she smiled, her free hand covering his.
“You are a man of destiny, Lee Crane, and I do not believe your path through this life is to end here. There is much in this world for a man like you to yet accomplish.” She eased her hands from his and backed away. “Go with God, Captain. We will keep you in our prayers....”
He stared after her, stared at the blank unyielding door as it closed behind her, feeling oddly bereft and alone. After a moment he leaned against the desk for support, taking the weight off his already throbbing knee. The chapel bells were ringing, signaling Terce, but he knew that on this day the usual schedule had been altered, that the nuns would be gathering in the chapel for the beginnings of the ceremony of Clothing. The public would not be admitted for another half-hour, he had been told, but he was anxious to get into place, eager to be doing something after so much inactivity.
He heard running footsteps in the corridor before the door opened and Monika burst into the study, breathless, her cheeks flushed. She gasped when she saw him standing before her, her eyes going wide in pleasure.
“You could be... the prime minister!” she stammered.
He flashed a radiant smile at her and took her hands, holding her at arm’s length as he looked at her. She was dressed in a navy dress of timeless styling, its sleek lines flattering her slim figure. She had applied a slight touch of color to her lips and brushed her soft brown hair into a shining, shoulder-length flip, topped with a soft, navy beret. Crane gazed at her and found himself recalling another young girl who had also become involved with Anitol Metzer, Tava Patchik. He closed his eyes, silently vowing to do everything in his power to keep Monika out of harm’s way.
“I’m sorry I’m late, Cap... Lee. I was helping Sister Grace with her gown. She is going to let me wear her dress at my own Clothing.” Her expression as well as her words, were pleased but there was vitality missing in her voice.
“Are you sure you still want to do this?”
Her head bobbed up and down, moving her hair freely to frame her face. She really was an attractive young woman, he decided.
“I’m sure,” she told him firmly. “And we had better go now before everyone is seated.”
“Lead the way.”
Monika slipped her arm through his and guided him slowly down the corridor. There was a long flight of wide stairs, which he managed with her aid, though his face was beaded with perspiration by the time they reached the entrance to the visitors’ gallery. Monika led him to a pew a quarter of the way from the back, slipped into it and allowed him to settle himself on the aisle. Within moments people began to file in from outside, quiet respectful people, friends and relatives of the celebrant, filling in the pews around them. Lee jumped in alarm as a woman of middle age, whose fading blonde hair was tucked beneath a pillbox hat paused for a moment at his elbow, smiling down at him, her gaze flicking from his face to the silver-headed cane, and back to his face.
“It’s good to see you, uncle,” she said softly, then she was moving on toward the front pew.
Crane was only half aware when Sister Grace appeared below them in the main chapel, the decorative grillwork that separated their gallery from the nuns’ enclosure was distracting but he leaned forward expectantly as those around him began to whisper in admiration. Surreptitiously he scanned the gathering, not sure if he should be relieved to find that Metzer was not present, then he turned his attention back to the scene below. Sister Grace knelt before the dark-garbed priest, repeating phrases after him and she was truly radiant. A wistful sigh at his elbow drew his attention back to Monika, her eyes sparkling with unshed tears, and a trembling lip caught between rows of perfect white teeth. He took her hand, clenched in her lap, and covered it with his own, the pressure of his touch comforting her until she could relax.
At last the ceremony was over, Sister Grace now dressed in the ankle-length black habit of a junior nun, and Lee and Monika rose with the visitors and merged with the crowd as they filed from the chapel. It seemed that some in the throng clustered close around the pair and he was certain that there had been at least one unexpected grip on his arm to steady him on the stairs as they descended.
The brilliance of the sun was nearly blinding as they stepped from the somber coolness of the interior. He blinked, raising his free hand to wipe at his eyes as they made their slow way toward the huge gate that stood open in the extern wall. The crowd had broken into smaller groups, some laughing and talking, others moving more slowly even than Lee and Monika, walked with heads bent and handkerchiefs held to their eyes. He spotted the woman who had spoken to him as one of those but, as he gazed at her, her head came up and she looked straight at him, her smile as radiant as her daughter’s. He found himself smiling back at her.
“Sister Grace said that her mother suspected something,” Monika whispered. “She called this morning and they spoke for a few minutes. Grace was very pleased.”
“I’m sure.” He was silent for a few steps, wondering how circumspect Grace had been in her reassurance of her mother. He continued on, his concentration on merely forcing his knee to hold his weight, silently making his own prayers that his strength would last long enough to get him to the street. “I wish I could come back for your Clothing, Monika,” he said almost absently, but she heard the earnestness in his voice.
“You can’t do that. He will never give up his effort to recapture you,” she whispered then she took a new grip on his arm as his steps faltered. “Careful, Grandfather,” she urged, completely in character. “The path is not even here.”
He nodded reluctantly. He looked ahead as they approached the extern gate. “My friends are here,” he told her.
There were several cars standing at the curb, big and black, old but each gleaming with polish and care. Some were empty, some boasted drivers waiting patiently, either inside or standing beside the sedans. Four people walked slowly toward the convent from one of those vehicles, three men and what appeared to be a teenage boy. They approached in twos, slightly separated from each other but Crane recognized them easily and a relieved smile tugged at his mouth.
“I can make it from here. You go on back now.”
“I will walk with you to the car. It would look strange now if I did not. You cannot refuse me, you know. If we argue, it will draw attention.”
He glanced down at her, grinning at her determination. A shadow fell across her face, and Lee felt his muscles tighten.
“Ah, we meet again, Captain Crane.” The hoarse whisper sounded almost at his elbow as Metzer stepped forward from a niche in the stone wall and fell into stride beside him. “It has been a long wait, but I have been patient.”
“So you have,” Lee admitted, his heart leaping into his throat. So close. He had been so close to escape. He swallowed heavily as he came to a stop and turned to face the Colonel, quickly scanning the park for soldiers. He would not... He could not be taken again. Metzer seemed to sense his sudden rush of fear and he smiled, the same cruel smile Lee remembered so well and associated with unbearable pain, and now that they faced one another again Lee fought back the panic rising within him.
“Your illness has taken a great toll on you, Captain,” Metzer taunted, still grinning wolfishly. “I did not recognize you at first with the white hair.”
“That was the idea.” He paused, inhaling slowly. “Where are your men, Colonel?” he asked, relieved that his voice did not contain the quaver he felt it must.
“They are within summoning distance. I do not need them to apprehend you.”
Without taking his eyes from Metzer Lee pushed Monika gently behind him. “Walk away,” he told her.
She nodded, fear closing her throat, but her faltering steps took her only a short distance and she paused beside one of the many tall rose bushes that dotted the visitors’ park.
“I might have allowed the poor old man to pass me by without closer examination, if you had not brought the little nun from the Abbey... Monika, her name is....” Metzer said, and Lee swallowed spasmodically. “I was right all along, wasn’t I. They were hiding you. The girl is an excellent link to bring down this place. Very foolish of you to bring her... for more reasons than one.”
“That occurred to me, Colonel,” Crane replied cautiously, the idea that had flitted about in the back of his mind for days coming sharply into focus. “It also occurred to me that your interest in her seemed pretty odd... and now, you single out this one poor girl and remember not only her face but her name, even when you see her under totally different circumstances. I find that most interesting.” Metzer frowned, seemingly acknowledging the anomaly. Lee hesitated only a moment before he continued, thinking even as he spoke, weighing the risks. “Does the name Talia Papolous ring a bell? Or did you know her by Tava Patchik?” His gamble was rewarded by the sudden paleness that washed over Metzer’s features.
“How did you....” He gasped, revealing himself. Frantically he whirled and stared at Monika, some fifteen feet distant, remembering the first time he had seen her in the Abbey hallway.
“Monika is eighteen years old... just the age Tava’s child would be,” Crane continued, risking everything on what was mere speculation. His heart pounded furiously, echoing in his ears. “Can you look at her and doubt? The same wide innocent eyes, the hair color, the shape of her face?” Lee fell silent, knowing he should press no further but, knowing too that after eighteen years, Metzer’s memory must necessarily be dimmed and that any young woman of the right age might resemble his one-time mistress.
“Tava’s child....” Metzer stammered and Lee could almost feel compassion for him at the moment; almost. “And mine?” He turned his haunted gaze on the Captain. Crane smiled, knowingly, he hoped. “My wife... No one must know,” Metzer pleaded.
“If I am free to leave your country the girl will return to
the Abbey and there will be no reason for your wife... or her father... General Bochari, to ever know. He has a great deal of power in
“I could have you both killed right here!” the Colonel snarled abruptly, raising one hand as though to summon the soldiers he claimed were nearby, the man Lee had come to know too well resurfacing from his momentary desperation.
“I don’t think you’ll do that. You could, of course, but I have men here also, and they would make sure you were dead before my body hit the ground.” He nodded casually toward the quartet approaching them. “Besides, there are records, documents proving her mother’s relationship with you, found and secured by my associates while I was recovering from... our last encounter,” he lied smoothly. “If anything... anything happens to either of us, or to the Abbey, the documents will be sent directly to the General and a copy to your wife. Do you want that?”
Metzer’s face was white, and for the first time since their first meeting Lee felt that he had the upper hand. Metzer’s frantic gaze went from Crane to the approaching four then to Monika before he looked back at Crane, his expression beginning to harden once more.
“She will still become a nun?”
“She came with me only to try to help me get away. Monika will be a nun, a cloistered nun. As long as she and the Abbey are undisturbed, the records will remain undisclosed and your secret will remain a secret.”
“I should have taken you the moment you stepped out of the church, Captain. None of this would have ever come out then.”
“Oh, I think something would have still stopped you, Colonel. Look around you. These people are tired of your heavy-handed tactics. You should be guiding and protecting them, not subjugating them.”
Metzer’s shoulders sagged and he looked around them, suddenly aware of the clusters of people that had stopped to observe their encounter. Not all of these people had been at the nun’s ceremony, he realized abruptly. A good many of them were locals, familiar faces that he saw nearly every day, including his own cousin, the café owner. And they were all watching him, their expressions dark with animosity.
“Protect...?” he began but broke off, a different man. His gaze drifted toward Monika once more. “Congratulations, Captain,” he said softly, then more loudly, “Forgive me, old sir. I have mistaken you for someone else. My apologies.” His voice dropped again as the groups of people began to move slowly but steadily apart. “If you keep your word, Captain, I will keep mine, and both you and the Abbey will be secure. I grant you safe conduct to the sea.”
Metzer started to pivot away but Crane’s voice brought him up short. “I believe you have something that belongs to me, Colonel. I would like it back,” he said sternly, the command tone back in his voice.
Metzer stared at him harshly for a moment, then shook his head, groping at his own arm for the strap of the watch he had taken from his prisoner. He thrust it at Crane, scowling darkly.
“Don’t push me too far, Captain.”
Lee smiled and nodded, fastening the watchband on his wrist and, seeing the gesture Monika darted back to his side, her eyes questioning as she slipped her hand inside his elbow in support.
“Goodbye, my child,” Metzer said quietly. “May we never meet again.” He wheeled about then and stalked away without looking back.
“I don’t understand, Lee. He recognized you. I know he did!”
“Yes, he did.” He looked up, realizing that the shore party was making its way through the crowd now milling about them, although Metzer had vanished. He allowed Morton to slip his arm around his middle and pull his arm over his own broad shoulders. He grinned, grateful for the support.
“When that guy stopped you, I thought you were a gonner, Lee,” the Exec told him earnestly.
Kowalski stepped nearer, studying him closely. “It is you, isn’t it, Captain?”
Crane nodded, grinning lopsidedly at Kowalski, then sparing each of the others a quick nod of acknowledgement before he looked down at Monika. She stood at his side, staring from one of the Americans to the other.
“These are your friends?” she asked softly.
“Yeah,” he replied, his voice strained with weariness. “Chip Morton,” he nodded to the man who supported him. “Kowalski, Davalos, and... Denise, you know.”
“Denise...?” Monika managed, staring. Denise pulled the boy’s cap off her head, revealing her unruly russet curls, and grinned.
“It’s me,” she confirmed then moved to stand in front of Crane. “Captain, I’m... It’s so good to see you.”
The three seamen echoed her greeting enthusiastically. He nodded acceptance, then looked down at the girl clinging to his arm.
“Monika,” he began softly, smiling. “I have to go now and you have to go back into the Abbey and resume your life. Tell the Abbess that the prayers worked.” He inhaled slowly then exhaled, allowing the built up tension to begin to wane but, with relief came overwhelming exhaustion. “Thank you for my life, Sister Monika. I’ll write to you.”
“I’ll come with you!” she blurted impulsively.
“There’s no reason for that, Monika. You have your dowry now, a gift to the Abbey that only you could bring.” He hesitated, wondering how much he should tell her but, knowing that his silence would lead her once more, to questions and to self-doubt. He had to offer her an explanation. “I allowed him to believe that he might be your father, little one.”
“My... father?” she choked out then flushed rosily. He could see the horror in her eyes and he regretted speaking then, slowly the revulsion began to fade and amusement grew in the dark brown depths. “Well, that would certainly explain a lot,” she said. “I don’t suppose there’s any way we’ll ever know for sure.”
“Probably not. But her name was similar enough to a woman Metzer was involved with once.... I thought it was worth a try.”
“The guilty see blame where there may be none.”
“Exactly,” he replied. “I don’t know any more than anyone else, Monika. It was a ploy, a trick to try and save myself. Can you forgive me?”
“You have given me the greatest of gifts, Captain, and it is not only the safety for the Abbey. All my life I thought my mother little more than a fool to become involved with a man who would not acknowledge her but this gives me a new insight. If it was Colonel Metzer and she continued to hold her silence after I was born, she must have done so for a reason and I do not think it was because of fear. Perhaps, just perhaps, whether it was he or not, my mother loved the man who sired me. Perhaps she did not reveal his identity because of that love.”
She smiled wistfully and Lee nodded his understanding.
“It allows me to think more kindly of them both,” she admitted. “And it is one anger gone from my heart. I may make a nun yet.”
“Reverend Mother thinks you will be a fine nun.”
“Lee....” Morton urged him. “We need to get underway. The Seaview will be lying off shore just at dusk....”
“I’ll pray for you, Captain... you and everyone on your ship....”
“Thank you, Sister Monika,” Denise put in. “The way this man operates he’s going to need all the prayers he can get. But right now, we really have to leave.”
Crane nodded but he still hesitated. “I will write to you, little one,” he promised. He smiled gently and leaning a little more on Morton, he leaned down and placed a brief kiss on the girl’s forehead.
She backed away slowly, then turned and darted back inside the high walls, just as the carillon began its melodic call to Sext.
“I’m going to miss those bells,” Lee murmured and, with Chip on one side of him and Kowalski on the other, Denise and Davalos walking ahead of them, they started back toward the ancient car parked at the curb.
ó ó ó ó
The Seaview control room was as silent as Nelson had ever heard it, or nearly so. He felt as though he should have been topside with Chief Sharkey and the docking crew to welcome the shore party back aboard, but somehow he could not bring himself to do it. And perhaps Will Jamieson felt the same, for the CMO had sent two of his corpsmen in his stead, lingering at Nelson’s shoulder here in the observation nose of the submarine. Only Admiral Jesse Carstairs seemed oblivious to the tension and he was seated at the table in front of the big Herculite windows, leaning back casually, watching the play of the sunlight on the water lapping against the bow.
Nelson knew Lee was alive and free. It had been the first thing he had asked when Sparks had informed him of the call from the shore party, only to discover that it was Crane himself on the radio, thus easing one of Nelson’s abiding concerns. His captain had spoken reassuringly but he sounded so tired that Nelson could not help but continue to worry about him. He was back now, the subtle scraping of the zodiac being brought aboard, a familiar sound to submariners. Even Carstairs stirred himself, following as Nelson and Jamieson moved automatically back into the control room.
Chip Morton was the first to appear, sliding down the ladder and giving out the customary shout of “Captain on the Bridge!” as a second pair of dark-clad legs appeared in the escape hatch and began a halting, one-legged descent, the right leg hanging free, unbending. That it was Lee Crane Nelson knew long before he cleared the hatchway, by the overly lean build, the familiar set of the broad shoulders but, as he reached the deck and turned, everyone in the control room gasped, nearly in unison, staring at the white-haired, and bearded man.
“Y’see, Lee,” Morton was commenting, grinning more broadly than he had done since Lee had left on vacation, all the while casually steadying the other man despite the silver-headed cane he leaned upon. “I told you they’d be speechless!”
Crane smiled, a weary shadow of his normal smile, but sincere nonetheless as Nelson and Jamieson pushed forward, Carstairs holding back, it seemed.
“Lee, for God’s sake what happened to you?”
The Captain chuckled at Nelson’s astonished question. “Well, Admiral, you should try spending three weeks in a convent sometime and see what it does to you!” he answered lightly.
“Lee... Captain,” Jamieson gulped out. “You... you look....”
“Yeah, I know, Doc... thin.”
He was acting; all of the men in the control room knew it. Exhaustion was apparent in every line of his body but he was back and except for the white hair, much as he always was, at least the way he frequently was after an ONI mission.
“Let’s get you to
“I won’t argue with you, Jamie,” Lee conceded. “And I won’t even object to spending a night
“Can you make it on your own, son, or....”
“I can do it, Admiral. I’ve made it this far, remember?”
Nelson nodded, unable to tell the young man before him what he wanted and needed to say to him. Instead he merely moved Commander Morton aside and took his place, slipping his arm around his young protégé, feeling the bones of his ribs too clearly beneath his hand. He swallowed heavily, his gaze seeking, finding Admiral Carstairs.
“Come on, Jess,” he directed. “You need to be there too. And Mr. Morton, with us,” he ordered firmly, but was only dimly aware of the vast sigh of relief the blond officer gave as he momentarily turned away.
“Mr. O’Brien, you still have the CON,” Morton snapped out, his grin removing any sternness from his tone. “Get us battened down and ready to sail. Chief Sharkey,” he continued as he trotted after the others, “pass the word that the Skipper’s back aboard.”
“Uh....” the COB stammered, taken aback to be ordered to do exactly what he had intended to do anyway. “Yes, sir, right away, sir,” he managed at last.
Lee allowed the doctor and the Admiral to lead him through the control room, intensely aware of the smiles of welcome directed at him, the divers’ thumb to forefinger okay signals, the oft-repeated glad you’re back, Skipper.
It took them only a few moments to reach
“I’m okay, Chip.” Morton merely nodded and reached out to rest his hand lightly on Crane’s shoulder.
“You don’t look it, Lee,” his friend commented, patting the other man’s shoulder gently. “Say, I hadn’t mentioned it before but I’m hoping the hair is just a dye job. You haven’t gone prematurely white on us, have you...?”
As he had planned, his jibe seemed to relax the Captain. He could feel the tension ease beneath his fingers even through the heavy suit coat.
“It was just three weeks of worrying about what kind of shape I’d find the boat in when I got back, with both of us ashore....” Crane answered, almost chuckling. “Suppose anyone aboard would admit to having any black hair dye with them?”
“I’ll have Chief Sharkey ask around, Lee,” Morton told him softly.
“Ask Brubaker, Mr. Morton, sir,” Kowalski’s voice came from the doorway.
Lee twisted around on the exam table and extended his right
hand to the other two men of the shore party and the redheaded woman hovering
in the corridor outside
“Admiral Nelson, I want to put the entire shore party up for commendation.”
“Commendation instead of condemnation, Captain?” Carstairs said sourly. “They could be brought up on charges for being AWOL.”
“I gave them leave,” Nelson put in abruptly.
“You ordered them to undertake this rescue mission, Admiral?”
“Nobody ordered us,” Kowalski protested heatedly. “But nobody ordered us not to go! We sure weren’t about to leave the Captain out there alone....”
“Very admirable, Seaman, but...”
“Leave be, Admiral,” Nelson said sharply. “The Seaview is a cohesive unit. We aren’t regular navy any longer and this boat survives on the ingenuity of every man aboard, and their actions are to be applauded, not denigrated. We all depend on one another, from the lowest rating right up to the Captain, even to me.” Nelson turned his gaze toward Crane, feeling the younger man’s intense scrutiny, sensing his gratitude and his agreement. “Don’t you worry, son. I’ll see that everyone in this effort gets the recognition they’re due... even you.”
“But, sir....” Lee began to protest but Nelson smiled, the smile that Crane had come to know as his the king has spoken expression. He lowered his eyes, his thick lashes all that remained as black as before. “Aye, sir,” he conceded, his tone betraying his exhaustion.
“Help him off with that jacket, Commander,” Nelson ordered firmly. “I’m sure Doc here wants to take a look at that stab wound....”
“I’m just fine, Admiral,” the Captain interjected
quickly. “And if I wasn’t, I sure as
hell wouldn’t need this kind of an audience....” He glanced over his shoulder at the small
crowd that had gathered in the corridor outside the
The Admiral nodded then glanced toward Morton, inclining his head toward the door.
“All right, as you were, out there,” Morton yelled in his best command voice. “As you were!”
“The shore party can stay,” Nelson corrected, interpreting Crane’s sudden start correctly.
“I owe them a lot,” he whispered as the crowd rapidly dispersed and the door was closed to the corridor.
He was exhausted, that much was obvious to them all, and the last thing in the world Nelson wanted was to cause him more anguish. But this had to be done.
“Commander, I gave you an order. Help the Captain with his jacket. Doctor?” he continued, motioning the CMO forward even as Morton took hold of the aged fabric of the suit coat and began to ease it off the Captain's shoulders.
“I’ll return to my cabin now,” Carstairs suggested. He started toward the door, pausing at Crane’s side only long enough to pat his shoulder quickly, hardly touching him. “Good job, Captain,” he told him abruptly and moved around the table.
Nelson gave another wave of his hand to two men of the Seaview shore party and they moved closer together, standing shoulder to shoulder in front of the closed door, blocking Carstairs’ exit.
“Not yet, Jesse. These folks need to see just why Crane needed help getting back from this particular mission. And you... you need to see what your simple in and out assignment came to."
Carstairs seemed to know when he was out-gunned and he stepped back, leaning against the bedpost of the nearest bunk.
As he pulled off the tie and laid it beside him on the table Crane glanced to his right, suddenly realizing that Denise had taken up position there and that the two seamen had moved up behind him to stand beside Morton. He smiled distantly, aware that their positioning was more than accidental. He looked up then, his gaze meeting Nelson's for a long moment before it slipped away toward Carstairs.
"How's John?" he asked conversationally. "Your nephew?"
"Uh... oh, he's just fine. Been transferred to a post
Lee nodded slowly. "
"He's just a kid, Crane."
"Yeah. Must be a couple years younger than me, at that." There was no accusation in his tone, no recrimination; merely a statement of fact. He returned his gaze to Nelson, an amused smile playing at the corners of his mouth. It had finally dawned on his weary mind what Nelson meant for the ONI chief and, unexpectedly he was more than willing to play along.
Crane began to unfasten the shirt buttons. Jamieson took note of his trembling hands and helped him pull the tail out of the top of his pants. "You've made it this far, Skipper. Just a few more minutes and we'll have you all tucked into bed, nice and cozy." The Captain nodded. "How's the knee?"
"Hurts like blazes. I figure it's going to need some scoping before we're done."
"Well, that can wait till we've got your strength built back up some," Jamieson continued casually as he tucked the stethoscope earpieces into place and laid the disk against the Captain's chest. "Cookie wanted to know what you wanted for supper. Says he has a nice thick Porterhouse he's been saving."
"Maybe tomorrow," Crane suggested. "I doubt I'd do it justice tonight."
"You been on short rations, Lee?" Nelson wanted to know.
"The same as what the nuns eat, plus a little extra meat." Lee heard Morton's grumbled oath and his weak smile widened minutely as he shifted his attention back to Carstairs once more. "I've got a list of things I want you to get together to be smuggled in to them, Admiral. Also, I promised a certain café owner a basket of fresh fish. Think you can manage all that?"
"Fish? That shouldn't be a problem. Just give me his name," Carstairs muttered, knowing he had been put on the spot. "What're you wanting to send to the nuns? A side of beef, maybe?"
"Canned will do just fine, sir. But medical supplies, mainly. I used up what little they had, I'm afraid."
"I'm sure you did, Lee," Nelson said softly. "You were pretty messed up when Denise and Jamie first got to you. And even when I saw you...." He fell silent, his voice beginning to break in spite of his resolve.
Jamieson had eased the shirt open just far enough to listen to Crane's heart, but now he stepped back. "Take off the shirt, Captain, so I can get a good look at that stab wound."
Crane nodded reluctantly and eased a sleeve off one arm then the other, then dropped the shirt on the table, not making any effort to grab it when it slithered to the floor. He heard the groans from the men behind him and even a whispered, "Oh, Skipper," from Kowalski, but both Morton and Denise held their silence. As tired as he was, he could still feel the tension level rise in the room and Carstairs began to fidget nervously. Jamieson picked up a pair of scissors and carefully cut away the bandages that encircled his middle. He leaned forward then, examining the four-inch wound in Crane's side.
"Lie down, Captain," Jamieson requested gently. "On your stomach so I can check out that exit wound and get a look at those whip marks...." Slowly, stiffly, Lee did as he was directed, stretching out and resting his forehead against his folded arms.
"Whipped?" Carstairs bleated. "I thought...."
"Take a look, Jesse," Nelson ordered, his voice hard and brittle. "I take it you think it's okay to send men like Crane here out on your covert missions as long as they just get shot or stabbed or killed. Take a look at his back, at his wrists...."
Admiral Carstairs did look and to his credit he did not look away.
"He didn't take all this punishment just to protect
the mission, Jess," Nelson continued, his face red with emotion. "This was to conceal the involvement of
"You're right of course, Harry," Carstairs said softly, but maintaining control. "I've heard of things like this happening but I've never seen it first hand... like this.... I'm just sorry it had to happen to you, Lee."
Crane nodded without moving or changing position. "We've always known the kind of people we're dealing with, Admiral. Sometimes... it just gets a little more personal than others."
"I'll remember that the next time I send someone into the field, Captain," he vowed earnestly. Lee turned his head and managed a tired smile. They both knew that Carstairs would continue to do exactly as he felt he had to do, and Crane could feel no disappointment in the man’s sense of conviction.
Dr. Jamieson straightened, glaring from one of the senior officers to the other, then included Morton and the shore party. "All right, all of you, out. I still have some work to do on Captain Crane, and I don't like working with an audience... anymore than he enjoys having one! So take you off! All of you!"
The seamen saluted, as much toward the Captain, he noted, as toward the other officers then, with a fleeting glance at Morton, they wheeled about and swiftly departed. He could see that there were still off-duty crewmen loitering in the passageway, and he was confident that Crane's condition, as well as what had been done to him, would soon be known throughout the boat. Commander Morton lingered and Jamieson knew that he would remain with the slightest hint of approval, but Nelson nodded him toward the door.
"Get us underway, Chip," he said, his own voice tired. The past weeks had been hard on him, as well.
"Aye, sir," Morton replied. The Commander tousled his friend's once night-black hair gently. "We'll get this mane of yours back to normal ASAP, Skipper. Don't you worry about a thing."
"Never do... with you at the CON... Chip...." Crane murmured distantly. "Thanks, old friend."
Morton made a sound deep in his throat and took Denise's hand. She had, at some point, laid her hand on Crane's arm, just below the shoulder and she seemed as reluctant to leave him as Morton, but he smiled at her and guided her away.
"We'll be back later, Lee," he told the nearly sleeping Captain. Lee moved his head slowly in response.
Jamieson continued to stare at the two admirals for a moment, wanting them to go then he gave up, returning his attention to his patient. Being who and what they were, Nelson and Carstairs would leave when they were good and ready and nothing he could do would hurry them along, he admitted. At the moment he had enough to do. There were still some bits of wool that needed to be removed from the nearly healed scores on Crane's back, the fibers of the sweater he had been wearing when Metzer had had him whipped. He picked up a pair of long tweezers from his instrument tray. He spoke softly to the Captain sure, for the first time since he had met him, that he would not begrudge him the treatment.
"I'll try not to hurt you, Lee, but some of the fibers have worked themselves to the surface now and I need to get them out."
" 'S'okay," Crane answered amenably.
"Is there anything you need, Lee?" Nelson asked, betraying his own need to make the younger man as comfortable as possible.
"I'm fine, A'mril," he replied then flinched as Jamieson extracted the first of the threads.
"Sorry," Jamieson groaned. Crane only nodded.
"Next time you have a job you think only Lee Crane can handle, Jess,” Nelson said, “I want you to remember this... he's first and foremost the captain of this submarine. He's not getting paid enough... by either of us... to go out and endure the kind of treatment he did on this mission. Leave your hands off my captain from now on!"
"'S'all right, Admirals," Lee murmured thickly. "Don't have... ta... fight... over me." He grinned, but the smile became a yawn.
Then, Morton's voice came over the address system, firm and in control.
“Attention all hands! Prepare to dive. Engineering, stand by to answer bells!”
For a moment Lee smiled then slowly his eyes closed, his lashes inky smudges against his skin. He relaxed, inch by inch, the subtle change in the sound of the engines, the slight difference in the feel of the Seaview as she gave a little shudder and slipped beneath the waves, like a balm to her master.
"He'll sleep awhile now, Admiral," Jamieson told them the obvious.
Nelson exhaled deeply, tearing his gaze from his young friend's face and impaling Carstairs with a look of blue fire. "I won't forget this, Jesse."
"Neither will I, Harry. Believe me. Neither will I."
ó ó ó ó
The months had sped by swiftly for Monika after her return to the security of the Cloisters. Few of the sisters even realized that she had left the Abbey even for those few minutes, but she knew, and it had restored her determination to become a nun. The day had finally come when it was she who stood at the head of the long aisle that led to the altar. She felt like a radiant star dressed in the exquisite white satin gown that was literally drenched in tiny seed-pearls, the traditional bouquet of white rosebuds sending waves of perfume whirling about her head. The original surprise of the gown’s arrival had worn off now, leaving the warm glow of happiness behind, and the knowledge that Captain Crane had somehow kept track of her progress. She had received only a single brief note from him, enclosed in a longer letter to the Abbess and at first she had almost resented his silence, even though she knew he was busy and involved with his own important life. Then, when the dress had come, she realized that he truly hadn’t forgotten her.
As the music of the organ began, she stepped forward along the way of so many women before her, walking down the aisle as though floating on a cloud, her heart soaring with happiness. She was so filled with ecstatic joy as she approached the altar and knelt that she did not see the tall, slender man rise in the nearly deserted visitors’ gallery. He watched in silence as she answered the questions put to her and was led away to don the dark nun’s habit she would wear the rest of her life.
But Abbess Celeste saw, from her chair behind the altar and she acknowledged Lee Crane’s radiant smile with a subtle nod of her head. He turned then and went silently from the gallery, fitting tinted glasses over his eyes as he trotted across the grassy visitors’ park toward the sedan that waited at the curb for him, its passenger’s door open and inviting. The Abbey bells chimed joyfully as the car sped away and from behind the gray walls came the sound of the nuns’ voices lifted in song.
- End -
TO READERS: These are generalized explanations of convent terms used in this story. I am not Catholic, and apologize if I have explained anything incorrectly.
monastery - the residence of a religious community
prie-dieu - kneeling bench for use by a person at prayer
Abbess/Reverend Mother - Reverend Mother is alternate address to the Abbess of a convent
Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, Compline - The service of prayers, the seven canonical hours
Dame - title of respect for elder nunsFeedback to Author *sometimes the feedback link will not work. You can email C. Lyn at : firstname.lastname@example.org