A big “thank you” once again to my long suffering betas, Liz and Lyn, for their help and encouragement and for keeping me at this one. To Rita for allowing me to “borrow” Lt. Chris James and Riley’s Flying Sub lessons plot. And to all of you Voyage writers out there whose stories kick started me into writing in this fandom.
by Fidelma C.
It was those famous last words again.
Did it every time. Were the words themselves the jinx or their origin?
“It’s just a simple little In And Out.”
Innocuous enough – the words.
But when the writer was Admiral H. ‘Hunter’ Beckett, CIC of the Office of Naval Intelligence, then the innocuous words took on a whole new meaning.
Which was how Lee Crane, captain of the SSRN Seaview and sometime ONI agent, found himself holed up in a damp, storm lashed cave in hostile territory accompanied by his Senior Rating and probably ONI’s most reluctant recruit.
12 hours earlier aboard SSRN Seaview
“Skipper, message for you, sir.” Sparks handed the slip of paper to his captain and staged a tactical retreat, almost scurrying back to his radio shack – which didn’t go unnoticed by the COB who began an inspection of the control room stations in a manner designed to bring him closer to the observation nose where Crane was completing paperwork at the large table, his back to the huge windows which gave Seaview her name.
It was well known that the skipper had little tolerance for foul language. Therefore it was with some degree of shock that Chief Sharkey - and the duty technicians within earshot, including Patterson on radar and Kowalski on sonar – heard the quietly controlled litany of curses that their obviously perturbed captain allowed himself indulge in. The two senior ratings traded an apprehensive glance before straightening their postures and concentrating zealously on their stations, not wanting to be caught napping by either the audibly disturbed skipper or the XO. Although, each silently acknowledged, had Morton been there he would have already caught the millisecond exchange. Nothing, but nothing escaped his notice.
The clatter of familiar footsteps on the metal staircase called a halt to the soft voiced profanities. But not before the stocky figure of the russet-haired admiral had come to a dead stop at the bottom. Crane raised his head and angry amber eyes locked with calm sapphire blue ones.
“How did you know?”
“Sparks had orders to contact me immediately if anything came in for you from ONI.”
Crane crushed the slip of paper in his fist, bringing it down to bang hard on the table, causing the papers he’d been working on to jump and one or two slid unnoticed to the floor.
“Don’t they ever learn? Why do they keep sending rookies on these missions and then have to deploy experienced agents to extricate them when they can’t do the job?”
Nelson’s grin was humourless as he reminded his captain, “You were a rookie once, Lee. As was I. We all have to start somewhere, lad.”
“Yes, but just lately, Admiral, it seems as if all I’m good for is going in to clean up messes these new, supposedly highly trained, agents have created. I’m getting just a little tired of it.” Seaview’s captain was tired; exhausted was probably a better word for it. He’d been pulling double duty this cruise without Morton aboard. Not that Bob O’Brien wasn’t an admirable officer and a fine exec. He just wasn’t – Chip!
And Crane knew he was being somewhat unfair to the young Lieutenant; watching over his shoulder, checking every course correction, feeling the need to be in the control room even when he wasn’t officially on watch. Like now. Usually he would have retired to his cabin to complete his reports, leaving the conn in Morton’s capable hands. But here he was in the Observation Nose, surreptitiously keeping an eye on things and close to hand should he be needed. He didn’t usually have this problem! He trusted his officers and crew implicitly. They were all well trained, seasoned men. There was no need for him to hover the way he was doing. He knew he was distracting them, worrying them. Hell, he was worrying himself! He just had this nagging feeling that all Hell was about to break loose and he needed to be alert and ready. And he trusted his sixth sense – it had served him well in the past. Too well for him to ignore it now.
But he was torn. He was being asked to contact ONI to effect a rescue mission for a downed agent which meant leaving his beloved Grey Lady in – OK, yeah – very capable hands! But not Chip Morton’s hands – and Chip was really the only one he could truly trust with his Lady.
Chip had the same affinity toward the submarine as he had – perhaps, if truth be known, more than her creator – after all they drove her, staffed her, stocked her and saw to her endless needs on a daily basis.
Lee sighed, clasping his hands together, elbows resting on the table and forehead touching his clenched fists. He had no choice. Duty – and sometimes it WAS a four-letter word – called and his training, his innate morality, would not allow him to ignore that call. An agent was down and needed assistance. He and Seaview were in range to facilitate the necessary extraction and, despite his reservations, he had to do what he could to rescue the man and negate his country’s involvement in the covert activity.
“You’d rather they called on you every time, Lee?” Nelson’s question was tinged with a slight reproof as if he thought his captain was getting a little above himself but his smile belied the seeming harshness of his words. He knew the younger man too well to imply that Crane thought himself the only one capable of getting the job done.
Lee’s nature was such that he felt he always had to put himself in the line of fire. It wasn’t that long ago that he’d taken a bullet meant for Morton by throwing his friend off balance and catching the round in his own chest. It had been touch and go for several hours as the surgeons had battled to remove the small calibre, close range charge. Crane had fully recovered but Nelson wasn’t sure that Morton had. He was even more solicitous of his friend than before, especially in recent weeks since Cassie Sommers’ trial. Nagging Lee to eat, sleep, monitoring his duty watches and niggling at him to rest when he knew that Lee would prefer to tinker at any machine part that was non-operational aboard the boat – ahead of the DCPs. It was heading for a blow up - Lee being fiercely independent and about at the end of his tolerance towards his friend’s well meaning, but by now annoying, ministrations. Nelson had been poised to talk to Jamieson, the CMO, before this cruise. Morton’s absence had postponed that conversation - but it was still in the offing.
Crane’s frustrated snort, coupled with his hand tearing distractedly through his dark hair, brought Nelson back to the present. “You know that’s not what I meant. I just wish they’d choose their agents more carefully! Or maybe they need to re-evaluate their training methods! Or perhaps their recruitment procedures!”
“You want to tell the director of ONI that he’s out of line, Lee?” Nelson’s comment was droll but a certain sharpness beset his tone and had Crane sitting up and taking notice.
“Sorry, Admiral.” Crane smiled wanly. “I’m the one who’s out of line. It’s just….”
“You’re missing Chip.” Nelson guessed intuitively and placed a hand on the seated man’s shoulder in a gesture of understanding and support. “It’s a tough load to bear on your own, lad. And I haven’t been much help this cruise.”
Harriman Nelson had personally handpicked the men to command and crew his dream, Seaview, and was aware of the close friendship that existed between his two top officers. While this would have been frowned upon in the regular Navy, he was all for it. Over the four years they’d been together he had seen the bond grow stronger and the almost psychic abilities develop between the younger men to the point where words were seldom needed, so deep was their innate knowledge each of the other. It imbued a strength in command almost unprecedented in his memory. And made the absence of one almost intolerable for the other. Sometimes he wondered how one would survive the loss of the other. He didn’t want to have to find out.
But it explained the unusual tirade he had – only half – heard as he descended from Officers’ Country. It didn’t bode well for the following minutes.
“Shouldn’t you respond to that call from Admiral Beckett, Lee?” Nelson suggested, propping a hip on the corner of the table diagonally opposite his captain. He watched the younger man as Crane systematically smoothed out the message slip then ran his hand distractedly through his short dark curls.
“You’re right, Admiral. We do need to go rescue this agent. Even if he should have been better prepared for his mission by the powers that be.” His ire beginning to rise again, Crane ruthlessly cut it off. It served no purpose. Picking up the mic at the side of the table he thumbed the switch, instructing Sparks to place the call to ONI HQ.
Within minutes, Admiral Hunt Beckett’s face appeared on the video screen. The crash doors sealing off the Nose had been shut and Crane had moved to the end of the table to take up position beside Nelson.
“Harry, Commander Crane, thank you for getting back to me so quickly.” Beckett was tall and grey haired, still slender and well muscled despite having more than a decade on Nelson.
“Hunt, you know just the right buttons to push, you always did.” Nelson responded dryly.
“Harry, this is serious. A lot more serious than we were initially led to believe.” There was no amusement in the ONI director’s tone; no room for an exchange of pleasantries and the two Seaview officers sat up straighter, trading concerned glances. “The information this agent was sent in to get is imperative to the security of the western world. We heard from his contact that he was injured on landing and that, Gentlemen, is a consummate disaster.”
Nelson felt like prodding Crane with an elbow in his side as the captain snorted a trifle derisively on hearing this latest information.
“I’m sorry, sir. But I have to ask how prepared this agent was, if he couldn’t manage a simple parachute landing.” Lee’s question was directed to the ONI Chief, his tone slightly scathing.
“He is a data retrieval expert, Commander.” Beckett’s voice was filled with heavy condemnation and both admirals watched Crane’s eyes fall under the reprimand. “His particular skills were vital to the success of this mission. He is only one of a handful of people qualified to evaluate the veracity of the information being passed on. As he was also the only one with any modicum of training, there was no choice here, Commander Crane. Do you honestly think I willingly send men into the field unprepared? Would that all the personnel at my disposal had your skills in survival and your knack of extricating yourself from possibly lethal situations. But others have qualities equally vital to certain areas of operation, Commander. And, by God, we thank our lucky stars that they are willing and brave enough to put their lives on the line time and again.
Now, to business. Our agent rendezvous’d with his contact two days ago. We know that. The contact reported a bad leg injury but managed to stash him safely away. However, the contact has now disappeared. Our man was alive as of several hours ago, as best we can figure; he somehow finally managed to transmit his co-ordinates via a pre-coded homing device. We don’t know whether he was too badly injured to trigger the beacon before this or whether it was inoperable for some reason. We’re guessing here. Crane, we need you to liaise with him, follow his directions in retrieving the necessary information and, if possible, get him out of there.”
“Aye, sir.” A suitably chastened Crane responded, eyes still lowered and glanced at the ONI Chief through his lashes, a look Nelson had come to know well during the captain’s years aboard Seaview.
“Commander, I cannot stress highly enough the importance of this information. It is imperative that it reaches U.S. hands. The safe return of the agent is secondary to the retrieval of the information. Once you have it and he has ascertained its authenticity, you must do everything necessary to bring it back.” Hunt Beckett sighed heavily. “Nothing, and I repeat nothing, must be permitted to interfere with you returning with that vital data, Commander. This information is highly sensitive and affects not only the U.S. Government but also the entire Western Alliance. And if… if it should mean the loss of an agent to accomplish the mission then that would be truly regrettable but within mission parameters and, as such, was made known to the agent when he took this assignment.”
Both Crane and Nelson reacted with visible shock. “Sir…” Crane was incredulous. “Are you saying….?”
“Commander, this agent’s knowledge would be invaluable to the other side. If it’s at all possible to bring him back along with the information he was sent to procure, then I would be one very happy camper. But if his injuries are too severe, or hamper unduly your successful return with the data, then… then, Commander, it will be your duty to ensure that his expertise and the discs don’t fall into the wrong hands.”
“Admiral Beckett….” Crane’s discomfort with his orders was evident in his tone and in the sudden pallor in his usually olive complexion.
“Commander… Lee…. I don’t like this any more than you do. I sincerely hope you can turn this mission around and bring back both the information and our operative. But the truth is, the odds are against you, I’m afraid. The agent is aware that he can’t afford to fall into enemy hands. He’s experienced enough to know where his duty lies. You won’t find any problems in that regard. He’s prepared.” (Translation: he has the requisite cyanide capsule.) Beckett’s face was unusually sombre. “Good luck, Commander. The co-ordinates will be transmitted to you by separate communication.” The ONI Chief appeared to hesitate, his hand poised above the disconnect button. “God speed, Lee, God speed.”
Crane’s expression worried Nelson. He knew the other man had tremendous difficulty with the orders he’d just received. And silently acknowledged that he was about to make those orders 100 times more difficult. He reached forward and turned off the now snow filled video screen.
“Lee! Lad, I know this wasn’t the mission you envisaged. It’s taken on a whole new slant.”
”You can say that again, Admiral.” Crane’s voice was strained. He still sat on the edge of the table but now he leaned back on hands that were clenched into fists. “I’m supposed to go in there and play God with someone’s life. Decide whether I can get him safely back or whether to kill him, or force him to kill himself, to preserve the integrity of the mission. Some choice.” Crane levered himself up and began to pace angrily.
A soft knock to the crash doors preceded their opening and O’Brien brought forward a message slip, hesitating slightly as to which superior he should hand it to. Nelson reached for it and O’Brien thankfully passed it to him, unable to prevent his gaze straying to the obviously distracted captain.
“Lieutenant, I need an ETA to these co-ordinates, immediately.”
“Already done, sir. We can be there in approximately six hours.” The young dark haired officer flushed under the brief glimpse of approval he saw in the admiral’s eyes.
Nelson was impressed. He knew he shouldn’t be – Lee had his crew well trained. But this young officer was surpassing all expectations and would make a fine XO someday. “Thank you, Mr. O’Brien. Set the course.”
“Aye, sir.” O’Brien retreated, closing the crash doors behind him.
“Lee, you’ve got six hours. Son, you need to get some rest.”
Crane snorted derisively. “Rest? You expect me to rest? After that?” Lee raised tortured amber eyes to compassionate blue ones, an entreaty in the golden depths.
Nelson inhaled deeply. Knowing the additional information he had would increase the burden on the younger man, he had deliberately withheld the Intel and had hoped it would not be necessary to impart it before Lee really had to know. But the events of the past few minutes had precipitated his captain’s “need to know”.
There was no way to soften this blow, so he just spat it right out.
“Lee, the agent you are going in to retrieve – it’s Chip.”
“You knew. You knew and you kept it from me.” Lee glared at his superior officer, a bitter, accusatory amber blaze of pure emotion.
Nelson stepped forward to intercept the pacing man, catching his shoulders in a firm grasp, resisting Crane’s attempts to shrug away from him. “Lee, you’ve been wound up tighter than a watch this whole cruise. I know being without Chip puts additional pressure on you and I took the decision not to tell you until I felt it absolutely necessary. What purpose would it have served? You’d have been worrying yourself sick about him on top of everything else.”
“I should have been told! I had a right to know.” Angrily Lee pulled out of Nelson’s grasp. He needed to smash something and better the bulkhead than the admiral.
“Don’t!” Nelson ordered brusquely, as he perceived the younger man’s thoughts. “You break a hand smacking something then you’re no good to Chip!” Crane reacted exactly as Nelson expected, pulling up short at the thundered command, hand mere inches from the metal bulkhead, Naval indoctrination demanding obedience of the tone as much as the order.
“You had no right to keep this from me, Admiral. No right.” Abruptly Crane’s angry posture slumped. “Why, sir? You know how much he hates ONI missions. Why’d he take this on?”
Admiral Harriman Nelson knew the young man standing before him as well as he knew any man alive and easily switched to the new topic. Crane was a brave and caring individual, some would say foolhardy in respect of his own health and safety, loyal to a fault - and the antithesis of stupid! So Nelson had to deal with the fact that Crane truly didn’t know, in fact had no earthly idea. And he was going to have to be the one to break it to him.
Carefully. Very, very carefully!
“Lee, Chip doesn’t hate ONI missions. He’s engaged in his own fair share as asked, like this one.” Nelson hesitated then decided to take the plunge. “He doesn’t particularly like them or seek them but what Chip hates – violently – is you taking on jobs for ONI.
It’s not easy being the one forced to stay behind and wait. Or having to pick up the pieces when you come back seriously injured or in your own private hell. And he’s had to deal with that more times than you probably realise. Oh, he shouts, lays into you; lectures you til six ways short of Sunday. That’s his way of coping, of relieving the stress of having to run the boat knowing you’re out there, alone, maybe wounded or worse and unable to do anything but get to you as quickly as possible, all the time knowing that he might be too late. Having to allow others to execute the rescue while he remains aboard. In the place where he’s most needed – where you need him to be - but not the place he most wants to be, where he needs to be. It’s not easy, lad, for any of us. And especially for him.”
Nelson’s words touched a chord within his young captain. Lee felt – how could he describe it? - twisted up inside, torn apart? Worry for his friend, brother in all but name, vying with fury at Chip for placing him in this position. And absolute terror that he, Lee Crane, would fail at this, the most important assignment he had ever undertaken. Certainly the one that instilled the most fear in him. Almost as deep as the terror that he would fail his brother was the abject horror of what he might face when he reached Chip. What if he was dead? Worse! What if he was still alive but too badly injured to transport back to Seaview? How would he make that call? The coffee he’d drunk earlier – on an empty stomach, not having eaten lunch – threatened to make a reappearance and Lee swallowed convulsively.
God, he’d happily take any lecture Chip could dole out – and the exec could be supremely inventive – if only their roles were reversed. He should be the one out there, not Chip. He had the training. But Chip had shied away from the alphabet agencies, more interested in the latest computer technologies and how they could advance the capabilities of their Lady, than in the murky world of covert activity. Now it looked as if, through his own unique expertise, he’d been involuntarily sucked into the arena he loathed.
“I’m beginning to appreciate that, sir.” Lee moved towards the carafe of coffee always present in the Nose. He now needed the jolt that only Cookie’s caffeine could provide. Nelson noted the slight tremor in the captain’s hand as he poured. Moving quickly, he plucked the mug from Lee’s hand.
“That’s not what you need right now, lad.”
“Admiral! There’s no way I could sleep, or rest, knowing that Chip is out there, facing who knows what!” Crane protested, trying unsuccessfully to re-take the cup.
“Lee, you’re exhausted. Were before we encountered this unwelcome situation. You need some shut eye if you’re to be at your best – which is what Chip needs from you.”
That was one way to gain the man’s co-operation. The hidden ace was Jamieson. Nelson keyed the mic requesting the CMO’s presence in the Nose, despite the thundercloud that descended over Crane’s brow.
Jamie took one look at the scene before him and shook his head. He could sense the palpable tension that radiated from the skipper. He didn’t need to know the cause but was familiar enough with his most reluctant yet most frequent patient and pulled a pre-filled syringe from the bag he’d grabbed upon receiving the admiral’s call.
“No!” From Crane - instinctively.
“Yes!” From Nelson – decisively. “Lee, listen to me! You’ve got to be in top form to have any chance of pulling this off. Chip needs you.”
Jamieson looked from one senior officer to the other. He’d come prepared for all eventualities. Having not seen the skipper for several days he’d still been aware that Lee was pulling more than his share of duty watches in the absence of the XO who, Jamie seemed to recall, was on leave for his sister’s 30th birthday. Not a lot failed to reach Seaview’s doctor. But he missed Morton’s presence aboard – nothing escaped the exec – and if it concerned the skipper then it reached, in whatever roundabout fashion was deemed necessary, Jamieson’s ears. He was clearly missing something here.
“Sir, this is not necessary!” Lee was as angry as Jamie had ever seen him.
“Will, we have a situation!” Nelson’s frustration was clearly evident – at the events that precipitated this conversation and at his captain’s stubbornness. “Chip’s been wounded on an ONI assignment. We are en route to retrieve him and the information he was unable to obtain before his injuries curtailed his mission. Captain Crane needs to be in top shape to successfully complete the operation. I know he’s been pulling more than his duty roster this cruise and he needs to rest before attempting this venture. The information he’s just obtained rather negates any voluntary down time on his part. I need you to give him something to knock him out for about 4 to 5 hours. But I need him ready to proceed with the mission when we rendezvous at the co-ordinates in just short of six hours time.”
Jamieson was dumbfounded. Chip Morton, Seaview’s stoic, impassive exec – on an ONI mission? Voluntarily? The man was positively the most vocal person against ONI he’d ever encountered. Chip groused about the level of Intel the agency provided, the field back up, the undeniably adverse positions their agents were forced into and - most unforgivable – the lack of planning in extricating them plus the deficiency in support after the event, usually where Lee was concerned.
“Admiral, I think you’d better fill me in.”
Nelson gave his CMO a brief, succinct summation. Will Jamieson was expert at reading between the lines. He could readily see the toll this was taking on his captain. When Nelson reached the salient mission details regarding return of the agent being secondary to the safe retrieval of the information, Jamie paled. A lot had been asked of him in his tenure aboard the boat, but this… this was unconscionable. To ask him to sedate Lee, to ready him to possibly have to decide between the success of the mission and the safe return of his brother – for that’s what they were, in all but blood – was… unacceptable.
“No! For God’s sake, Harry. It’s inhuman!” The use of Nelson’s first name bespoke the doctor’s abhorrence.
“Will! I don’t like it any more than you do! But Lee is Chip’s best – only – hope! And he needs rest. He’s had a hell of a lot on his plate these past few days. He’s exhausted. This is not an easy task ahead of him. And he needs to be as ...as whole as he can be…to have any chance at success. We know Chip’s hurt. We don’t know any more than that he injured his leg badly on landing, which means he hasn’t been able to retrieve the data, let alone verify the contents. Lee has to find Chip, recover the discs, have Chip verify their validity and then evaluate whether or not he can get Chip back aboard.”
Jamieson knew his jaw dropped. He couldn’t help it. He’d worked with these men for over four years now. Considered both Lee and Chip fast friends. Knew the bond that tied them. To ask this of one of them was merciless. “Admiral!”
“Jamie.” The soft-spoken intervention came from the least expected source. Crane was rolling up his sleeve as he interjected, extending his arm for the inevitable hypo. “He’s right. If I’m to be of any use to Chip, I do need to get some rest. Just make sure whatever you give me doesn’t leave me fuzzy. And lasts no longer than a couple of hours. I’ll need a clear head and I have to be fully alert when we reach our co-ordinates. I’m no use to Chip doped to the gills.”
For Crane to voluntarily resort to medication of any sort was testament to the torment the man was under and Jamieson hesitated, shooting a stern look in Nelson’s direction. At the admiral’s implacable nod, Jamie substituted the planned syringe for one he drew fresh from a vial. “I don’t like this, Skipper. I’d rather you had 12 hours of decent shut-eye. But I can appreciate what you’re facing. This will knock you out for approximately 4 hours. It’s fairly fast acting, so I’ll walk you to your cabin, see you get to bed, check on you in a couple of hours and again when you should be about coming round. I can promise you it won’t leave you nauseaus or dazed but you should eat something after coming out of it. I’ll make sure Cookie has something ready for you.” Forestalling Crane’s protests, Jamie held up one hand. “Something light, Lee. But you didn’t eat lunch and it will help to have something in your stomach.”
Despite their almost legendary disputes, Lee trusted Jamie implicitly and was prepared to take his advice – if it would help save Chip, he’d do whatever was necessary. So he nodded acquiescence.
“Admiral, can you explain to me why Chip was chosen for this mission?” This from Jamieson who needed to get a clear picture of why their most vociferous exponent against ONI was now working for the agency he professed to despise.
“Will, Chip’s wizardry with computers is, unfortunately, becoming common knowledge amongst the powers that be. We’re lucky that, so far, we have been able to hold on to him.” Nelson sent a quick look in his captain’s direction, anticipating the expected objection.
“Admiral, Chip wouldn’t voluntarily leave Seaview!” Lee was adamant and saw Jamieson nod agreement.
“He may not have the luxury of choice, Lee.” Nelson’s tone was unintentionally grim and had the effect of Crane’s jaw tightening.
“You mean …. No! You can’t be serious!”
Nelson cursed inwardly at having broached the subject at such an inopportune time. For years he’d had to fend off covetous hands for his captain, now it seemed he must fight the same battle for his exec. Morton’s exceptional skill with computers hadn’t been so obvious when Nelson had requested him for Seaview. Chip’s abilities had in the intervening years developed into an all-embracing love of the whole IT genre. Seaview provided the perfect host, allowing him to write and hone new programmes for her. Chip had the exceptional capability of taking shelf products and redesigning them to enhance and evolve Seaview’s unique capabilities. He’d expanded his repertoire upon discovering a useful skill for hacking, finding back doors into programmes and software that were supposedly impenetrable. It was this ability that had saved Seaview and her crew on a previous mission and had drawn the attention of ComSubPac and ONI. But the priority here was to get the man home and deal with any future repercussions if and when they happened.
“Lee, that’s a conversation for another day.” He saw Crane stiffen at the deliberate rebuff but chose to ignore it. “Right now, you need to rest and prepare. I’m suggesting you take FS1 to within a half mile of the shore. It’s deep enough to sit her on the bottom and swim in but not too far to get back to, depending on Chip’s condition. Now, you’re going to need help manoeuvring Chip and maybe treating him so I suggest you take Kowalski with you. I’ll have him replaced on watch and ensure he gets some rest. And maybe one more volunteer to stay with the Flying Sub.”
Crane nodded his agreement to the plan. It made sense. Ski was a trained field medic and was strong enough that he would be useful in helping to get Chip back to FS1. In Lee’s mind any other scenario was unacceptable.
“You know Pat will volunteer.” Patterson had assigned himself the XO’s man since the two became plank owners of the boat and Lee knew Pat’s loyalty to Chip was unswerving. Nelson was shaking his head.
“Sorry, lad, but, after Ski, Pat is the most qualified on sonar and I’ll need him here. How about that new ensign, Donnelly? It would be good experience for him.”
”No, Admiral, this is too important to work with an unknown entity. I’ll take Riley.” The captain’s decision was a pronouncement - with no avenue for argument.
Nelson raised his eyebrows, the youngest seaman aboard the boat was an unlikely choice for the gravity of such a mission, but Riley was well versed with Lee’s baby, FS1, and he, Nelson, was not about to countermand his captain’s orders.
“Very well, Lee. I’ll have them both relieved and make sure they have sufficient rest and a hot meal before you’re ready to leave. I’ll have you informed when we’re within range of the co-ordinates.”
“One thing, Admiral. Chip is a damn good parachutist. He’s certainly experienced enough. How come he botched this landing? You don’t know something you’re holding back from me, do you, sir?” On any other boat, Crane’s questioning of a superior officer would have merited a severe reprimand. He visually noted the flare of anger from the sapphire blue eyes but held his own steady, unwilling to back down in the face of the admiral’s evident ire.
Nelson’s words were bitten out between clenched teeth. He knew his captain was irked at him for not revealing Chip’s participation in this mission sooner but he couldn’t allow such blatant insubordination to pass unacknowledged. Part of him recognised that his anger was as much worry for both his captain and XO’s safety as at the verbal challenge.
“No, Commander, I have no further information that would assist you. Now, Doctor, Commander Crane needs to sleep.”
Crane acknowledged the admonition with a lowering of his head as he extended his bared forearm to the doctor. Grimacing slightly at the bite of the needle, Lee tolerated the following swab of the site before pulling down the sleeve of his uniform shirt and buttoning the cuff. His address of Nelson was still distressingly formal to the older man and didn’t go unnoticed by the CMO.
”You’ll let me know if there is any additional Intel, Admiral?”
“Certainly, Commander.” The return was equally stiff and Jamie rolled his eyes theatrically at the Old Navy stance both men reverted to when unable to communicate otherwise.
“Come on, Captain. Bed – before you fall up the stairs!” He chivvied the younger man ahead of him, intent on getting him in his rack before the sedative took effect. If only it was always this easy to have him willingly accept sedation!
Admiral Harriman Nelson was wrong – not often – but very wrong about this one thing. Chip Morton hated ONI missions – all ONI missions – detested and abhorred them. He didn’t know which was worse – being assigned himself or having to wait for Lee to return. Morton considered himself lucky in that he hadn’t been requested for many assignments in the past, unlike his friend. He knew he gave Lee a hard time about accepting those he undertook and groused openly when Crane returned, more often than not injured in some form or another. But the lecture he forced Lee to endure was like the release of a pressure valve for him – a catharsis. After days or, on the odd occasion, weeks of worry, dread and terror, of fearing his friend was wounded or worse and having to take care of business in his absence while anxiety clawed at him relentlessly, he would vent at Lee, ruthlessly tearing ONI to shreds for the poor Intel and poorer extraction plans.
Shivering in the dampness of the cave and grunting with the pain each shift in position caused, he knew he would be facing a ‘Skipper Special’ as the crew termed it – a dressing down in the captain’s own inimitable style – soft voiced (unlike his strident tones when lecturing Lee) but leaving you in no doubt that you had disappointed him greatly.
He hated that he’d had to lie to Lee but ONI had stressed the need-to-know factor in this one, terrified of leaks. And Chip had his own theory there! Nelson had been aware of his annexation by Naval Intelligence and had promised to apprise Crane of the situation as soon as it became necessary. Chip had been comforted by the fact that Seaview and her crew would effect his extraction. He knew Lee would be seriously steamed at him but would be ready and waiting at the appointed time and place. However he hadn’t envisaged that it would involve a rescue – and he knew for sure Lee would be leading that landing party – which placed his friend in potential danger. And that didn’t sit well with Chip.
Morton shuddered again, but this time not from the cold dampness that seemed to invade his bones. He couldn’t help but recall the absolute terror that had assailed him when he’d realised that neither of his chutes were going to open. Being an experienced skydiver, who indulged his passion whenever the opportunity arose – over Lee’s oft voiced objections – he hadn’t panicked when the primary chute failed but when the emergency back up had only partially deployed he’d experienced a lick of the most sickening fear before his renowned implacable cool headedness reasserted itself.
The low level insertion hadn’t allowed for much time to formulate a plan and he’d scanned the swiftly approaching ground for any likely landing site. The sea was out of the question, as Chip knew the coastal waters were too deep and he was unlikely to be able to undo the harnesses before the weight of the chutes dragged him too far under. Sand was a possibility but the coves were too small for him to be able to target the beaches with any real degree of accuracy. Much of the remaining terrain was made up of rocky hillside, which would either kill him on impact or seriously maim him. There was just one acceptable option, as the seconds ticked by in the darkness, and he’d chosen the leafy branches of the only tree big enough to cushion his not inconsiderable weight – given the addition of 44 lbs of parachute along with a hefty supply pack. Decision made, he’d coolly assumed the position, head tucked into his chest, arms crossed and knees bent up, protecting his vulnerable underarm and groin areas where the veins were closest to the surface and, if penetrated by branch or twig, could cause him to bleed to death in a hideously short time frame.
He’d been right on target, ploughing heavily into the tree top and plunging swiftly downwards until the silk and harness had stopped his headlong fall. He now recalled his stunned disbelief that he’d pulled off that most unlikely of landings but knew he had to get out of the harness and away in case he’d been spotted, his gut telling him it was no accident that both chutes had failed.
He’d released the harness and dropped through the merciless branches to the hard rocky ground further below than he’d anticipated. His landing had been rough; the tree exacting its revenge for his unwelcome presence by ripping into him through his clothing, peppering him with whip like cuts and tiny splinters as he’d cascaded through the branches. The pain of the myriad small puncture wounds had distracted him from the upcoming landing and one leg had connected with solid ground before he’d been ready, buckling underneath him and shooting such unbelievable agony through his whole body that he’d momentarily blacked out. Coming to hadn’t been exactly pleasant either as every tiny injury had seemed to manifest itself in all its miserable glory. But he’d had to move as quickly and silently as he could away from the area so he’d crawled and hobbled until he’d put as much distance as he could between himself and the landing site, using his thankfully intact compass to progress him towards his designated meeting place with his contact.
Chip shivered again, this time from both the cold and the memories, indulging himself in a moment of stark fearful reminiscence. He’d splinted his leg as best he could with pieces of wood he’d come across, tied with strips torn from the leg of his dark pants. Over the past two days he’d used all the analgesics in the small First Aid Kit and now had to grit his teeth at the agony any slight movement caused. He had a suspicion that he’d cracked or busted at least one rib too – he could feel the grating and the nauseous pain that ensued from incautious movement. He could just imagine the caustic verbiage he would endure once Jamie got hold of him. Right about now, however, that sounded fine to him.
Tugging the lightweight blanket further around him and using the backpack as a makeshift pillow Chip tried to make himself more comfortable during the enforced wait. But the blanket provided little heat now that the day was turning into evening once again and he could feel his body temperature dropping. The continuing icy rain had invaded the cave and, although Chip had moved as far back into the cavern as he could, the dank dampness and the mud seemed to follow him. He disliked the nights above anything, could hear the cavern’s creatures becoming braver under cover of darkness, and he had a deep-seated pathological dread of rodents.
Plus he was hungry. Not hungry enough for the unappetising MREs which were all that remained in his backpack. But his contact, the girl who’d escorted him to this cave two days since and provided him with bottled water and what food she could scrounge up, had stressed the need for the utmost caution so he hadn’t dared light a fire or even use the flashlight for more than bare minutes at a time. He knew Seaview – Lee – would come for him under cover of darkness, probably using FS1 to get close, which caused in itself more anxiety for the injured exec.
He could only hope that the homing beacon, damaged during his unorthodox landing and which he’d finally managed to repair with great difficulty earlier in the day, had deployed successfully. He knew his contact had reported to ONI that he’d been injured so Seaview would know to send someone with Lee to retrieve him. Chip refused to believe Nelson would allow Lee to travel alone. If, that is, his repair work had held together long enough for his co-ordinates to be transmitted. As the scrabbling of the rats and other creatures became louder, he drew the single blanket higher and curled himself into as tight a ball as his aching body could manage. He couldn’t allow himself to think that the transmission hadn’t been picked up.
Otherwise he was in a hellhole with no visible way out.
Lee re-acted to the hand on his arm with a soft sigh and a slow lifting of his eyelashes. Fully expecting it to be Chip as usual, he opened his eyes just a slit. “It’s not an emergency, nothing’s wrong or the comm. would have it, so why’re you waking me?
Jamieson’s amused voice roused him immediately. “Sorry, Skipper, it’s time.”
Memory flooded back instantly and he sat straight up – or attempted to. Jamie’s hand on his shoulder pushed him insistently back onto the pillow. “Wait up a minute. I just need to check you over.”
Crane groused as the CMO took what Lee considered unnecessary stats. Fully alert – as Jamie had promised he would be – he wanted to return to the control room. Twisting from Jamieson’s hands, trying to get up from the bunk, he was frustrated from rising with the doctor seated on the edge of his rack. “Jamie, let me up.”
“Lee!” Jamieson sighed heavily, not attempting to move, knowing it was hemming in his captain and resigned to the possible fall out. “Just take a breath, huh?
I know you’re mad at the admiral and even madder at Chip, but can you pause and take stock of the situation for a moment? I’ll be honest with you, Lee. I don’t envy you. This is something no one should ever be called upon to deal with. I know how close you and Chip are. And I also know you’ll do whatever is in your power to get him back to us, even risking yourself. Harry knows it too and that’s part of what’s causing his anger – worry for you both.”
Lee opened his mouth to respond. To his total astonishment his vision blurred. No tears fell but he couldn’t hide the brightness in his eyes from one of the small number of men who truly knew him. He ran his hand over his mouth and chin, biding time to compose himself. But his voice was barely above a whisper. “Jamie, what if I can’t do this?”
It was one of the few times Will Jamieson had ever seen any hint of vulnerability in his CO.
And it completely devastated him.
He couldn’t scrabble to find a credible answer.
Because he truthfully didn’t know how Lee was going to come to terms with this intolerable situation. Jamie’s throat closed; he had to swallow hard to enable him to reply. And even then he foundered. He was unable to voice platitudes – Crane deserved better. He shifted on the bunk until he could look the younger man straight in the eye.
“Lee, as God is my witness, I don’t know how to answer you. I’ve rarely known any specific details of the missions you go on until afterwards – sometimes not even then. And mostly all I can do is try to patch you up when you return. But I do know you, Lee Crane. And I know that if there is any realistic chance that this can be pulled off, you’re the man to do it. You are Chip’s best – possibly only - hope. And if you can’t do it, then it probably isn’t feasible. But none of us – Chip included – would want you to kill or injure yourself in the attempt. Just imagine the lecture you’d be in for!” Jamie attempted a little levity to lighten the load on his young friend’s heart. He wanted frantically to rail at the fates that had placed such an odious burden on their overly responsible captain.
As a doctor he had many times held life and death in his hands, too often where the young man in front of him was concerned. Sometimes he’d succeeded, thankfully more often than he’d failed. But he’d never been asked to evaluate a situation such as Crane was facing – to hold the life of his brother in his hands and have to decide whether it could be saved or must be sacrificed for the sake of mission success.
Knowing Chip Morton as he did, Jamie knew the exec would make the process easy for his captain, probably taking the decision out of Lee’s hands - and before Crane could put his own life in danger. Jamie’s heart ached for them both. And his warm compassionate brown eyes pricked with tears of his own as he recalled Chip’s extreme reactions some months ago when Lee had taken a bullet meant for Chip. Lee had come through surgery successfully but Chip hadn’t left the ICU for over two days and then only under the direst of threats, having put his own health unnecessarily at risk, in Jamieson’s opinion and to the medic’s extreme exasperation.
In his heart of hearts Jamie knew Chip’s presence had ultimately benefited Lee who’d recovered quicker than any of them could have hoped. He’d seen it before when either man was ill or injured on the boat. One seemed to have the uncanny ability to comfort and calm the other by their mere presence. It was something he couldn’t either easily explain or dismiss. No matter how deep their unconscious state it was as if one knew the other was nearby and therefore the injured man could rest easy. Jamieson had never witnessed such close and total brotherhood in either his personal or professional life – but he wasn’t about to write off the benefits as he’d seen them work first hand.
He’d heard the story of how the two had been arbitrarily thrown together as roomies at the Academy – the older Morton initially resentful of the underage Crane who’d needed a waiver to gain entry. Nelson had been a captain then, on secondment to teach a class at Annapolis, and had encountered the unlikely and uncooperative roommates some months into their pairing. He’d been impressed by both of them individually – their unique but differing styles had seemed to ping off each other – each inspiring the other to even greater heights, the initial competition between them developing into something more intense during that first year.
He knew Morton came from a reasonably well-to-do close-knit family, although his father had adamantly opposed his son’s entry to the Naval Academy and had done everything in his power to stymie his career. Morton’s mother, however, was a loving, caring sweetheart who supported her son totally in his ambitions and, when introduced to the only child that was Lee Crane, she’d quickly smothered him with all that he’d been lacking in his formative years.
Fatherless from the age of five, Lee’s mother had worked to build a successful career in order to support her son. Forced to work doubly hard in a predominantly male arena, she’d lost much of her capacity to show the love and caring she felt for her young son and, while providing every material necessity, she’d failed to meet his emotional needs. Thus he was ripe for Claire Morton’s warmth and all encompassing unequivocal love. She’d adopted the shy, too skinny teenager as her younger son from the moment Chip had brought him home that first time and Jamie knew from both Nelson, Crane and Morton that the acceptance Lee’d encountered from Chip’s mom had developed into a deep mutual love and, on Lee’s part, a closer maternal link than he shared with his own mother whom he respected deeply and loved in equal measure – just differently. Claire Morton, on the other hand, had gained another child to love, smother when allowed, to scold, worry about and chivvy.
Which had led to a closer bonding with a delighted Chip. More than co-incidentally, both men shared a rare blood group, AB negative. Out of the 125 men who served on Seaview only five were of that atypical group, including Crane and Morton. And by the very nature of the business they were in, they’d perforce donated blood for each other on more than one occasion. Sure, Jamieson kept a more than adequate supply aboard, but it was designated for emergencies. And, given the trouble his two senior officers could get themselves into, there had been enough of those. Come to think of it, getting donations from the other three crewmembers while Crane was off boat this time wasn’t a bad idea!
Jamieson came back to the present to find his captain still looking at him unhappily. Unable to offer anything more, Jamie patted his arm and moved off the bunk allowing Lee to swing his legs round. “Why don’t you have a hot shower and change, Lee, then try to eat something.” He indicated the covered tray on the captain’s desk, ignoring the instant scowl. “It’s only light soup and a sandwich. Nothing heavy. Ski and Riley are ready and waiting. I’ve packed a medical kit with everything I can think of that Ski might need.”
“Thanks, Jamie.” Crane got to his feet, beginning to unbutton his shirt as he walked towards the small head. The doctor collected his bag from the foot of the bunk before moving towards the door. As they passed, Lee put a hand on the older man’s arm and squeezed lightly. “For everything.”
Jamie’s voice was gruff as he retorted. “Just bring everyone back, yourself included, in as close to one piece as you can manage, Skipper. Otherwise I’ll have to ask the admiral for an extension to Sick Bay during the next re-fit!”
Lee strode, outwardly confident, into the control room dressed in black fatigues and hiking boots – his standard covert activity attire. Every single crewmember he’d passed in the corridors had stopped him to wish him luck or express their belief in him. Scuttlebutt being the life of every seagoing vessel, Seaview was no different. It shouldn’t have surprised him that word of his mission had spread throughout the boat. Seaview’s crew was the best and most effective – at everything! Unfortunately it only served to increase the pressure on Lee Crane – his expectations of himself were high; his crew’s seemingly even higher.
Nelson looked up from the plotting table, where he was reviewing co-ordinates with Lt. O’Brien, as Lee walked towards the open access hatch to FS1. Crane looked pale but determined as he handed a medium sized backpack off to the young fair haired Riley to stow aboard the small craft and accepted his black flight jacket from Kowalski, shrugging into it as he joined the two men at the charts.
O’Brien looked like he wanted to be elsewhere. Nelson’s piecing blue gaze critically assessed the captain then nodded in silent acceptance of his appearance and demeanour. While Lee looked a little more rested and seemed outwardly calm, Nelson knew that he hadn’t yet been forgiven for his lies of omission. He could see the tell tale signs of tension around Crane’s mouth and noted the obvious effort the younger man was expending in trying to keep his fists unclenched.
“Are we at station keeping, Admiral?” The formality was still in his tone too and Nelson sighed.
“Yes, Lee. Just outside their territorial waters, depth 200 feet. We’ll remain here until we hear from you when you’ve rendezvous’d with Chip and can update us.” He indicated a spot on the chart and Lee leaned closer to verify the co-ordinates. “This is where you need to leave FS1. There’s scuba gear and a zodiac on board.” He didn’t have to add that the latter was in case Morton was too badly injured to use the diving equipment. “There’s a cove just here you can swim into.” Nelson indicated a point on the chart. “And these are the co-ordinates the beacon is transmitting from.”
“But there’s no guarantee that Chip will still be at those co-ordinates. He’ll know that if we can track him then it’s likely so can they. He’ll have taken precautions.” Chip would have factored in all the permutations and Lee knew it was likely they would have a search on their hands.
“If he’s able, lad. If he’s able.” The admiral reminded him heavily. “But Chip is aware that Seaview is his mode of extraction. He didn’t take on this mission lightly, Lee. He knew we badly needed the information those discs hold but he’s also learnt a thing or two from the outcome of your assignments, son. And the poor Intel and poorer planning, at times. He made sure that there were proper procedures in place to get him out. He just didn’t count on being injured before he could retrieve the data and get to the pull out point.”
Before Crane could respond they were interrupted by a hail from Sparks - the radio operator looking extremely unhappy. “Sir, we’ve lost the transmission from Mr. Morton’s beacon.”
Crane moved swiftly to the radio shack. “When?” His tone was unintentionally terse, betraying his concern to all station hands in the control room. He missed the look that passed between Jamieson and Nelson as the former handed off another bag to Kowalski to stow aboard FS1.
“Just a moment ago, sir.”
“Can you get it back?”
“I’ll keep trying, sir, but I doubt it. It’s like someone just shut it down, sir.” Sparks looked the picture of misery as if he, personally, had let the skipper down. Crane’s sympathetic hand on his shoulder did a lot to ease the stress of the moment for the young lieutenant.
“You’ll do your best, Sparks.” The voice was soft, the tone flat, but the comfort warmed the young communications expert who attacked the panel with renewed vigour. He could see the tightening his news had caused in Crane’s already taut features but it was typical of the captain that he would take that extra moment to imbue confidence in his crewmember. It was just one of the reasons every man aboard went that extra mile for their skipper.
“Lee.” Nelson’s sympathetic tone recalled the captain. “Chip could have shut it down himself to avoid detection.”
“Aye, sir. But if, as I suspect, he’s not at the location of the transmitter then that presumes he’s ambulatory. If that’s the case then why hasn’t he contacted us in the prescribed manner and requested extraction?”
Nelson sighed softly and wished for a cigarette, but he had a rule about smoking in the control room and couldn’t handle the disapproving looks he knew he would get from Crane, Jamieson and Sharkey if he lit up just now.
“I don’t know, Lee. I fear you’re right. FS1 has had her pre-flight and is ready for launch, Captain. Hopefully we’ll see you all return within 24 hours. Just get back here as soon as you can. You’re equipped with trackers and radios, Lee, but they’re low frequency to avoid enemy interception. Only FS1 will be receiving you so we’ll co-ordinate and update each other through Riley. Be sure he’s at the top of his game.”
It was the closest Nelson had come to criticizing his captain’s choice of operative. And he was well aware that he was pushing it with Crane. Lee knew his men thoroughly but Nelson was now sorry he had refused him Patterson. He would have preferred the older experienced rating to Riley’s young, somewhat brash approach. But he’d been right, for Seaview’s sake, to keep the senior man aboard – they couldn’t afford to drift into enemy waters or fail to detect any potential threat. However he couldn’t help but wish that Lee had a second pair of more experienced hands with him.
“Riley will be fine, Admiral.” Crane’s voice was firm, confident of his choice and reluctant to make a substitution at this late stage.
Unwilling to add to his captain’s stress, Nelson held up both hands in surrender. Riley, already aboard the Flying Sub stowing the additional gear, was unaware of the slight conflict but Kowalski heard the query in the admiral’s voice and determined that the skipper wouldn’t have any reason to question his choice for back-up on this mission. Ski considered it a personal privilege that Crane had requested his presence on what he knew the captain regarded as one of the most important tasks he’d undertaken since coming aboard. And if Riley had the sense he was born with (which Ski sometimes doubted!) he would too. In any case he would personally make sure the skipper had no call to regret their inclusion.
Heavy rain lashed the two divers as they reached the shore. Quickly stowing the scuba gear and the deflated zodiac they soon changed from the dark wetsuits into the dry clothes they’d packed in waterproof carriers. Donning slickers to keep off the worst of the relentlessly pelting rain, and night vision goggles to enhance their chances of spotting any clue as to Morton’s whereabouts, they hefted their backpacks and set out for the beacon’s last transmission co-ordinates.
The going was rough, winding uphill from the beach in blinding rain and without many obvious foot or handholds. They climbed upwards in as straight a pattern as they could until they reached a fairly level plateau, then stopped to catch their breaths and survey the newly revealed terrain through the still sheeting rain. Ski had accompanied the skipper on several missions in the past and knew when to keep silent. He took his signals from Crane who indicated that they should proceed cautiously and as quietly as possible. Underfoot the rocks were sharp and the driving rain had turned what soil there was into mud. It was nearly impossible to remain silent as stones skittered and rolled as they pushed ahead. There were few bushes or shrubs, virtually no trees to shield them from enemy sight or aid their ascent, and progress was slow. At one point Kowalski lunged for Crane, grabbing hold of the captain as Lee slid in a particularly bad patch of mud and only Ski’s grip saved him from a nasty fall among the rocks. He saw Crane shake out his arm and resolved to take a look at it as soon as he could, knowing the skipper’s propensity for hiding, even denying, injury.
It seemed as if they were alone in the inhospitable territory but Lee was too well trained to take chances so, using hand signals, he indicated to Ski that they were close to the co-ordinates of Morton’s last transmission and should separate to double their chances of finding the exec but not go far enough as to lose sight of each other for long. Lee gave a low trilling whistle like a birdcall, which Ski knew would be the signal if either were to come across the missing exec.
Lee guessed Chip couldn’t be far away – and set out to search for an opportune cave or dense undergrowth where his friend would likely hole up. There was no betraying glow of light to aid him; Chip was too good for that. Although not a trained agent, he’d successfully pulled off a couple of ONI assignments with Lee and Crane prayed that his friend had absorbed enough to at least keep him alive.
Luck played a major factor in finding Chip’s hiding place, for the exec was secreted in complete darkness in the third cave into which Crane crawled to investigate. He might have left this one too without discovering Chip, so still and silent was the man, but the scurry of rodent feet caused an almost soundless inhalation of breath from the rear of the medium sized cave. Most searchers would have dismissed it but Lee, knowing Chip’s revulsion for vermin of all types, swung around to peer into the depths of the cavern. The night vision goggles revealed a blanketed, mud coated figure braced against the rear wall; an automatic pistol held steady in his hand targeting Crane at chest level.
“Took the scenic route tonight, did you?”
Chip’s voice was raspy and low but Lee had never heard a sweeter sound. As Morton lowered the weapon, Crane leaned forward and clasped his friend’s hand in silent re-assurance. Without speaking he returned to the mouth of the cave and emitted the low but carrying signal whistle. Within minutes Kowalski was scrambling up the rocky incline and crawling into the cave. He gave the exec a quick glance before lowering the packs he carried and, without a word, turned to secure the entrance. Pulling a tarp and a large staple gun from the backpack, he quickly set to work driving the heavy duty staples into material and rock alike, blocking the entry from the wind, rain and all but the sharpest enemy eyes. He pulled several small low voltage lanterns from one of the packs, moved towards the back of the cave and placed them close to the rear wall. The soft glow was sufficient to light the cave without being seen from outside and Crane and Kowalski removed the goggles and took a quick look around their temporary quarters.
The cave was large enough for them to sit upright and move around comfortably but not high enough for standing. The walls were damp and slimy to the touch and much of the ground was covered in slippery mud. The very air was dank and musty and they could hear the persistent scurry of tiny rodent feet, but the lanterns ensured the vermin kept their distance. As one, their attention turned to the exec. Lee allowed a low chuckle to emerge at the sight of his usually pristine XO and, keeping his voice down, allowed his relief to show.
“If the crew could see you now, Mr. Morton, your reputation would be in shreds.”
Chip’s response was equally low but the growl was very much in evidence. “Who’d you leave minding the boat?”
“Hope you warned him not to scratch the paint!”
“Actually, I was a bit distracted and forgot.” Crane confessed with a twitch of his lips.
“He messes my boat….”
“Your boat? Since when?”
“Since forever! I was there when they laid the keel, remember?”
“You never let me forget!” But there was no rancour, just relief, in the familiar banter between the two senior officers. “Now let’s get a look at you. What’ve you done to yourself this time?”
“Busted my leg, pretty much. Other than that I’m fine.” Morton’s tone was defiant and Crane’s eyebrows rose in sheer disbelief. If there was one person equal to him in hating to admit physical weakness or injury, it was his exec. Jamie threw his hands up whenever the XO appeared in his Sick Bay. Not only was Morton a most reluctant patient, he’d forced Doc on several occasions to threaten to throw his medical dictionaries out the escape hatch, being allergic or resistant to many of Jamie’s traditional treatments.
“Yeah, you look it. Ski, why don’t you give the exec a quick once over and let’s see just how “fine” he is.”
Couched, as it was, in a slightly sarcastic tone, it was none-the-less an order and Chip allowed Ski to move in and tug the blanket gently away. Both men sucked in their breath at the sight that greeted them. Most of Chip’s torso was covered in dried mud and blood, the almost shredded turtleneck failing to conceal the ripped and torn flesh. Beneath the mud on his face was a deep gash over his left eye, the blood congealed now but not diminishing the severity of the wound. His left leg was awkwardly splinted, the pieces of wood held in place with strips of cloth cut from the leg of his pants.
“Jeez, Chip, when you do it, pal, you do it!”
Ski immediately moved to take his pulse and, re-assured that it was steady, reached for the comprehensive First Aid kit Doc Jamieson had packed. Ski was undoubtedly the best field medic on the boat and, as such, was trusted with medications Jamie wouldn’t have been comfortable sending along with anyone else. Before beginning to treat the exec he unfolded a new, clean tarp and blanket.
Addressing Crane he suggested, “Sir, I think Mr. Morton would be more comfortable off the ground. We should get him onto this. He’ll be warmer and cleaner and it’ll be easier to tend to him, sir.”
Crane didn’t disagree. He could see Morton trying to disguise the shivers that wracked his body. Despite his leaner build he easily and gently levered Chip up sufficiently to allow Ski slide the tarp under the injured man. Even those gentle movements caused Chip intense agony as he fought to subdue the groan that sought emergence.
“Easy, pal.” Lee knew his friend wouldn’t admit to the misery moving him had caused. “Ski, can you give him something for the pain?”
“Soon, Skipper, soon. I need to know how bad he’s hurt before I can give him anything.” The senior rating pushed one torn sleeve up and slapped a blood pressure cuff onto the exec’s bicep. He frowned at the reading and traded the cuff for a stethoscope, baring Morton’s chest and shaking his head at the result of the exam. His gentle fingers probed the XO’s ribs and he allowed a distressed hiss to emerge as Morton grunted involuntarily. Ski used an ear thermometer to scan the exec’s temperature, unsurprised to find it elevated despite the XO’s cold and clammy appearance. “Sir, you’re borderline hypothermic. We need to get you warmed up. I’m going to clean the worst of the cuts on your chest and arms and the injury over your eye. Can you tell me what, if any, medication you’ve taken so far, sir?”
“Just the analgesics that were in the First Aid kit, Ski.” Morton shifted uncomfortably under Kowalski’s probing fingers. “Ran out yesterday, I think.”
“You took all of them?” Crane was startled. Chip could hardly be persuaded to take a headache pill when his head was about to blow clean off.
“It was only Ibuprofen, Lee.” Chip defended. “And besides….” He cut off the end of the sentence decisively.
“Besides, WHAT?” Crane repeated, worry for his friend colouring his tone more harshly than he intended.
“I needed them to keep me moving.”
“Moving?” The captain’s tone grew even quieter and, if anything, more dangerous.
Morton refused to meet his eyes. “Yeah, moving! As in how do you think I got here?”
“You walked? With a broken leg?” Crane practically spat the words out between gritted teeth.
“Like I had a lot of choice, Lee!” Morton’s tone was becoming defensive.
Ski interjected swiftly, knowing how health issues could rapidly stir up both his stubborn superiors. “Sir, you’ve got a lot of cuts that may be slightly infected and possibly a couple of broken ribs. I’m not sure about the leg, I don’t particularly want to disturb the splint you’ve put on but if we’re gonna have to move you then I think we need to bind it a bit more securely. But it ain’t gonna be comfortable, sir.”
“Do what you have to, Ski.” Morton’s voice was the implacable XO’s, calm and steady. “Came down in a tree. Not my preferred landing site but not a lot of options right then.”
Kowalski donned latex gloves and took a packet of antiseptic wipes from the kit. He gently began to clean the cut over Morton’s eye. While he worked he gave Crane a running commentary on the exec’s injuries. Of most concern were the ribs and the leg. It would take X-rays to determine if the ribs were merely cracked or broken – Ski suspected the latter. He could bind them but either way moving Morton would be risky and, coupled with his injured leg, downright awkward.
Crane decided to shelve their previous conversation for later – but he would come back to it! His anxious eyes roamed over his friend as Ski cleaned him up as best he could. Hardly an inch of Chip’s arms, chest and back had escaped injury, ranging from scrapes to deep lacerations to dark, ugly bruising and several imbedded splinters courtesy of the tree. Morton endured the ministrations stoically, a brief tightening of his lips and a clenched fist the only outward manifestations of his pain. When Ski had finished and administered a light painkiller – not what he’d wanted to give the exec but all Morton would allow – Lee helped Chip into a clean warm sweater and covered him with blankets. He didn’t miss the groan Chip was unable to conceal when they manoeuvred his left arm into the sleeve and a quick check had Ski cursing fluently at the exec’s reticence – his shoulder was either dislocated or separated, only examination under more appropriate conditions would tell. And Ski was neither equipped nor confident enough to attempt a reduction if the former was the case. It made moving the injured man all the more difficult as Ski bound it securely across Morton’s chest.
Ski produced a flask and poured some of Cookie’s hot soup into the small metal cup for the XO. Hungry beyond belief, Morton inhaled the aroma and welcomed the hot liquid into his chilled body but after a couple of sips had to relinquish the cup, his depleted system unable to take on more than a token amount. Kowalski took back the container, trading anxious glances with his skipper. This wasn’t good. His field training told him that Morton’s injuries, while not life threatening, were serious enough that the extraction procedure would likely be more than the exec could handle in his present condition.
Ski also realised that he hadn’t had a chance yet to update the skipper on what he’d found while he’d been searching the area outside. His revelations would have to wait, however, as Crane began to query the exec on his mission.
Lee had barely opened his mouth when Chip cut across him. “How much did ONI tell you about this assignment, Lee?”
“Very little, really.” Crane’s tone was clipped, a measure of his distaste at ONI using his friend – a relatively untested and very reluctant agent - for their own purposes. “Just that the Intel you were to retrieve is vitally important to the western world and that I’m supposed to secure it, have you verify it and get us all back aboard Seaview asap.”
“That’s not quite the truth, is it, Lee?” Morton’s blue eyes were calm as he met turbulent amber ones in the dim lighting cast by the low voltage lanterns. Ski had moved back to the entrance to the cave, as much to offer his superiors privacy as to protect their backs. Both men clearly heard his outraged hiss of breath at the exec’s next words.
“You were told to regard me as expendable. To return with the data at all costs, even if that meant leaving me behind.” Crane couldn’t hold his friend’s gaze, dropping his eyes to the ring on his left hand that he hadn’t been conscious of twisting. “Lee! You know it’s going to be too difficult to get me back to Seaview like this. You don’t have a choice! You have your orders. But there are a couple of things you need to know before you go.”
“NO! We’ll get you back.” Crane’s voice was determined and brooked no opposition. Chip knew that tone only too well and chose to ignore both the words and the intensity. He too had his orders and he wanted – needed – to get his friend and the data discs out of here and back aboard the submarine as soon as possible. Then he would do what had to be done.
“Lee, listen to me. There’s a mole in ONI.”
“WHAT?” Crane’s eyes shot to his, the low voiced words incredulous.
“There’s no other explanation. And he or she is highly placed. This was a strictly need-to-know operation.” His voice equally low, Chip filled his friend in on the circumstances of his landing and the meeting with his contact. “It wasn’t co-incidence that both chutes failed, Lee. You know how rare that is. Somebody went to a lot of trouble to make sure I wouldn’t reach those discs. It was just pure luck that I managed to get that transmitter working earlier today and Admiral Beckett was able to send the co-ordinates to Seaview. I haven’t heard from Li Wu, my contact, in over two days since she got me here and I’m worried about her too.”
Chip groaned involuntarily as he shifted position and Kowalski moved quickly back to his side. “Easy, Mr. Morton.” He took the exec’s pulse again despite Chip’s attempts to shake him off. Time was of the essence now – he had to get Lee out of here. “Sir, your contact? She about 25, kinda small with long dark hair?” At Morton’s nod, Ski glanced swiftly at Crane and shook his head. “I’m sorry, sir.”
Chip was moved to using a rare expletive at the shocking waste of the young life. “Damn it anyway!”
Crane was preoccupied with more immediate matters. “Where’d you find her, Ski? Close by? Accident or design?”
“Not too far, sir. I’d take a guess she was on her way here.” The rating looked sidelong at the exec. “Her throat had been cut. And not too long ago either.”
Morton swore again, low and fluid. “You two have got to get out of here now!” He reached one handed for the backpack he’d used as a pillow of sorts, grunting at the exertion, and pulled out a slightly battered laptop. “It survived the landing, surprisingly enough, but the battery’s out now. I managed to verify the discs before it went and everything seems to be here. Take them and go quickly.”
Crane was stunned. Badly injured and with minimum training as an agent, his friend had managed to pull off his assignment! “How, Chip?” His amazement was evident in the incredulity of his voice.
“Hey, I learned from the best.” Serious blue eyes met astonished amber ones and Morton managed a wry grin. Almost three days without shaving had given him little more than light blond stubble and he looked to Lee a lot like a disreputable kid rather than XO of the greatest boat in or out of the Fleet. “Now it’s going to be up to you to complete the mission, Lee. You need to get going.” His voice and face changed, becoming solemn. He could see the struggle in Crane’s expressive eyes and the stubborn cast that appeared on his features. His friend was not going to make this easy. “Lee, you don’t have a choice, pal.” He pressed the package of discs into the skipper’s hand, his own suddenly shaking.
“My bad luck it ends here. Been my honour and privilege to call you friend and skipper, buddy. Tell the Admiral thanks for everything. And say goodbye to Jamie for me.” Chip’s voice cracked at the end and he cleared his throat valiantly before continuing, sensing Crane’s inability to speak. “Ski, take care of the captain. Make sure he gets back to Seaview OK. And tell O’Brien that if he so much as scrapes the paint on that boat, he’ll….” He was unable to continue.
Lee couldn’t speak. Couldn’t look at Chip. Words formed but the lump in his throat prevented utterance. His thoughts reeling, he couldn’t comprehend the magnitude of leaving his friend to die in this cold and unfeeling place. Alone. He stored the discs in his backpack, buying time, hoping – praying - that he would come up with something, anything, resembling a plan to get his brother out of here.
Kowalski was equally choked. The bravery of the man in front of him was unsurprising. He’d seen Morton in action many times. But that was usually in the heat of battle or faced with mortal danger to the boat and crew or to his officer brother. This… this… senseless, selfless sacrifice was something else. And Ski knew that Morton was willing to forfeit his own life to ensure the safety of the skipper and the success of the mission. The chances of getting the three of them out of here and back to FS1 were not good. He knew that. But maybe it was better to try than observe the beaten look he’d never before seen on his captain’s face. It was entirely possible that the skipper wouldn’t survive either if they played out the scenario that Mr. Morton planned.
Without waiting for orders, Ski assembled a syringe of high octane painkiller then began to pack up the contents of the First Aid kit, doused all the lanterns bar one, laid his rifle at the ready and prepared to exit the cave.
Fumbling in the right hand pocket of his filthy pants, Morton pulled out a small packet containing a single tiny plastic coated capsule. His left arm was almost useless, numb, as Ski had bound it so tightly across his chest. He watched Lee surreptitiously, concerned at how Crane was taking this. He knew it was killing Lee, preparing to leave him. And he had one more request of his brother, one that was going to be supremely difficult for Lee to carry out, but one that he couldn’t entrust to any other.
Chip’s eyes were dry – barely – as he sought out the tortured amber ones in the light of the one low lantern left burning. “Lee, can you give Mom and Dad, Katie and Sari all my love. Don’t tell them the situation as it is – they don’t need to know. Just tell them it was quick and that you were here with me – that will comfort Mom. I know you’ll take care of her for me. And tell Angie – well, tell Angie that circumstances conspired against us having that dinner.” Morton smiled in gentle reminiscence at the thought of Nelson’s pretty, petite assistant, recently promoted to Deputy Director of NIMR. They’d tried so hard to develop a relationship but the constraints of duty and long sea voyages, coupled with unplanned illnesses and injuries, had prevented the dinner they’d planned before the Cassie Sommers’ incident, as Chip had christened it. He’d begged a dance with her at the Institute party several weeks ago to formally announce her new position but she’d been in great demand that night and he hadn’t managed more than that one dance - although he’d wanted to. Thoughts of Angie and unfulfilled dreams caused a heartfelt sigh and he fingered the plastic packet with growing dread.
He had to get Lee out of here. NOW. He jerked his head at Kowalski and the senior rating nodded his understanding, knowing how difficult this was for both the exec and the skipper. Crane’s eyes shone in the dim lighting and Morton’s held a similar brightness.
“Go, Lee, please. I can’t do this in front of you. And you know I have to. Ski, for God’s sake, get him out of here!” Morton’s tone was tense now and somehow defeated. It was intolerable to have to do this but his choices were limited. He was damned however if he was going to put Lee through the torment of seeing him die.
Lee was equally determined that he wasn’t about to let his brother do this alone. His heart was breaking as he reached for Chip’s arm, grasping it in silent support. He squeezed his eyes tightly closed to avoid spilling the traitorous tears that stung behind the lids. Tears wouldn’t help Chip now but Lee couldn’t find the words to say goodbye. Crouched beside his best friend for more than half his lifetime, anger flared – at himself. He couldn’t form the words! He had no time to say all the things he wanted to say! Damnit, it couldn’t end like this. He reached out shakily to rip the tiny plastic package from Morton’s hand but the intervention, when it came, was unexpected.
Kowalski, avoiding Morton’s accusing glare, swabbed the exec’s arm and administered the loaded syringe without requesting permission. “That’s a heavy duty painkiller, sir. We’ll give it a few minutes to take effect and then we’ll get moving. We’re all getting out of here.” The determined rating locked eyes with his senior officers, two men he respected more than any others in his life – except perhaps Admiral Nelson.
“Ski! NO! Take the skipper and go! I’ll slow you down too much. They’re out there and you haven’t a chance with me along.” Morton was equally resolute.
“With all due respect, Mr. Morton, sir, shut up!” Lee’s eyebrows rose in silent amusement despite the gravity of the situation. He hadn’t heard quite that degree of stubborn insolence in Kowalski’s voice since the night he’d first sneaked aboard the Seaview in his role of temporary captain to test the boat’s security. “I was a Navy Seal, sir, and we don’t leave men behind. Now, that dose I just gave you should be good for several hours, so I suggest we get started right away. If you’ll take the rifle and bring up the rear, Skipper, I’ll take Mr. Morton piggyback style. Your ribs might complain a bit and you’ll have to hang on one-handed but it’s the safest way, sir.”
“You seem to have it all figured out, Ski.” As he spoke, Crane eased the capsule out of Chip’s clenched fist and pocketed it, almost without the XO realising the fait accompli. “We’d better contact FS1 and have Riley standing by to receive us and alert Seaview that we’re on the way.”
“Taken care of, Skipper. Riley’s watching out for us; he’ll surface as soon as he spots the zodiac in the water. And he’s already alerted the Admiral and Doc Jamieson that we’re on the way.” Moving swiftly, Ski extinguished the remaining lantern then ripped away the tarp he’d used to cover the entrance. Both men carried Morton to the mouth of the cave, Ski having abandoned both their backpacks; the less weight he had to carry the better. He stuffed some small items into his pockets as Lee picked up the rifle, checked the chamber and, donning the night vision goggles, moved outside to reconnoitre the terrain. His silent nod back to Kowalski had the rating easing the exec outside and then, with Lee’s help, lifted Chip into position on his back where Morton, in a floaty painless haze, held on with his one good arm as best he could.
The descent was extremely slow and positively murderous in places for the three men, with mud oozing over the rocks and lodging in shallow crevices, as the rain beat ever steadily and icily down, soaking them thoroughly.
Kowalski was a strong, well-muscled and extremely fit young man but the XO was taller, huskily built and no lightweight. Plus his mass was unevenly distributed due to the immobilisation of his injured limbs. Ski tried to keep his gait as smooth as possible under extremely difficult circumstances, conscious of Morton’s possibly broken ribs – should one puncture a lung it would be all over in minutes for the exec, there being no way to treat such an injury in this bleak and relatively open expanse.
Crane brought up the rear with increasing vigilance. Although he couldn’t spot anyone or anything out of the ordinary, his survival training – coupled with his well-honed instincts – told him they were not alone. He was still deeply affected by the scenes in the cave but forced himself to push it all to the back of his mind right now. He couldn’t afford the distraction – it was best dealt with when – if – they reached Seaview. And, knowing Chip as he did, he knew there would be hell to pay for his actions this night.
Morton’s body was relatively pain free but his mind was in turmoil. He knew his very presence was risking not only the mission but also, more importantly, his best friend’s life and the life of one of their crewmembers - that was absolute torment for Chip and would be for Lee too. He knew Ski was very close to the skipper. While Chip recognised that he himself was liked and respected by the senior rating, both personally and professionally, the younger man revered Lee. It hadn’t been for Chip’s sake that Ski had proposed the current arrangement, Morton knew, but for Lee’s. Ski had known the skipper would be devastated at leaving his friend behind. The harder the descent became, and Chip could hear Ski’s acutely laboured breathing with each new downward step, the more Morton’s guilt increased. Any discomfort not alleviated by the strong painkiller was quashed by the burden of responsibility he shouldered.
When Kowalski slipped and almost fell, righting himself and Morton only with considerable luck, Crane called a brief rest stop. Chip knew this was his last chance to make Lee see reason. He had a backup pill sown into the lining of his left trouser pocket but, with that arm strapped across his chest, he had no chance of reaching it undetected.
“Lee, you have got to listen to me. I can sense them, buddy. You know and I know they’re here. They can pick us off anytime they like. You have got to go on without me.” Chip kept his voice low but his tone was intense. Crane just shook his head, refusing to meet Chip’s eyes, his gaze behind the night vision glasses constantly scanning the hillside above and around them plus the cove just now becoming visible below.
“It’s not much further. We can make it to the scuba gear and the zodiac.” His voice was both insistent and dismissive of the argument he didn’t want to hear.
Chip played the only ace he had left. “Lee, you are disobeying a direct order. And you are also endangering a crewmember’s life. Even if you survive this, they’ll have you up on charges! Now, give me the pill!”
“The orders were to get you back if at all possible. And that’s my call! They’ll have nothing to charge me with if we make it and if we don’t….” Lee allowed his voice to trail off but still wouldn’t meet his friend’s forceful gaze.
“And what about Ski?” Chip demanded, unable to believe his friend could dismiss the rating’s chance of survival so cavalierly.
At his words, Lee raised the goggles to sit on his short curls and finally brought his tortured amber eyes into contact with glacial blue. Before he could speak Kowalski, in a complete departure from protocol, broke in decisively.
“This was entirely my idea, sirs. I gave you the painkiller without instructions, Mr. Morton. And if I’d had to disobey the skipper’s orders, well, I’d have just gone and done it. Sirs.” The last was added as an almost afterthought. “Told you, Mr. Morton, Seals don’t leave anyone behind.”
There was a very slight amusement in the amber eyes that locked on Ski’s. “If we make it back to Seaview, Ski, consider yourself on report!”
“Aye, sir!” But it was taken in the same vein with which it was delivered.
Morton groaned and raised his eyes heavenwards. There were two of them! And he wasn’t going to win this argument. “So help me, Lee, if you get so much as a hangnail I’ll kick your butt from one end of the boat to the other!”
“One legged? In your dreams, Mister! Now let’s go. Ski, I’ll carry the exec – you take the rear.”
“No, sir, with respect. You’re more valuable on guard duty, Skipper. Plus you have to protect the discs. I can manage Mr. Morton.”
“I swear, Ski, we get him back to Seaview and he’s going on a diet!” The banter, though a tad forced, did them all good. Chip’s snort of derision and Ski’s snicker, as he mock-groaned hoisting Morton onto his back again, brought a small smile to Lee’s sombre visage as he hefted the rifle and replaced the goggles before signalling the rating to move off ahead of him.
Nelson’s pacing brought him back to the radio shack again. Sparks looked up from his instruments and shook his head once more. “Sorry, sir, nothing since that one transmission from Riley.”
The admiral sighed and nodded dejectedly – he’d known anyway; Sparks would have notified him immediately of any incoming traffic from FS1. He turned as footsteps descending the spiral staircase caught his attention, grinning slightly. Jamieson was as anxious to hear from the landing party as he was. Nelson gestured towards the Nose and poured coffee for them both when the medic joined him.
Jamie accepted the cup willingly enough but commented lightly as he took in the admiral’s worn appearance. “Probably the last thing either of us need right now is coffee. No further word, I take it?”
“Nothing since Riley’s report that they’d found Chip and all three were proceeding back to the rendezvous point. And that was hours ago!” Frustration evident in his plaintive tone, Nelson sipped the fresh coffee Cookie had kept the Nose supplied with since the captain had left the boat, well versed in his boss’s needs – and usually the XO’s – when Crane was on ONI business. “It’ll be dawn soon. If they don’t make it under cover of darkness they’ll be forced to hole up and wait until tonight.”
Jamie’s lips twitched with amusement. About the only times he ever saw his commanding officer – and friend – so agitated involved their errant captain. Add the exec to the mix and Nelson was practically bouncing off the walls. “Harry, it’s barely 0200, there are several hours left til dawn. They’ll make it. They have Chip and the data. That, in itself, is a result in the time they’ve been gone. You expected this to take close to 24 hours, they’ve hardly been gone half that. Why don’t you go to your cabin and get some rest. Sparks can notify you if there’s any news.”
The gaze Nelson bestowed on his CMO was a mixture of incredulity and pity. “Will, there’s no way on earth I could rest right now, so don’t waste your time or energy suggesting it. Besides, you’re a fine one to talk!”
The tall, lean, slightly balding doctor drew himself up to his full height. “Admiral, I know my skills are going to be needed once we get them back aboard. We’re already aware of some of Mr. Morton injuries – and I’d wager any amount you like that they’ll exceed what we know. And far be it from me to second guess our good captain, but the chances of him returning in one piece lie somewhere between slim and none - given his past performance! So I’ve sent both my corpsmen to get some rest, prepped Sick Bay for any and all eventualities I can conceivably think of, and am sensibly going to hit my rack having left instructions for Sparks to call me as soon as he has anything concrete on their return ETA. I respectfully suggest you do the same and if you need any encouragement, it can be arranged.” Faint exasperation in his tone, Jamie mimicked depressing the plunger on a hypo as Nelson began to grouse.
Knowing he’d won, Jamieson allowed the admiral check the status of the control room stations one more time before leaving Delta Watch’s OOD in charge – Nelson admonishing Sparks once again to contact him the minute he heard from FS1. Doc overrode him by requesting that only emergency calls should be put through to the admiral. The glower Nelson sent the CMO was offset by the lively twinkle in his blue eyes before he grew serious and sighed heavily.
“I just want them both back safely, Will. I can’t help thinking there’s more to this than we’ve been made aware of.”
Stuart Riley was four months shy of his twenty-third birthday, the youngest seaman aboard Seaview – albeit by only a few months – a fact that irked him ferociously sometimes. He took a lot of ribbing from his older friends, especially Kowalski and Patterson - his best friends. He’d been on the boat for over two years now and considered himself a seasoned campaigner. He’d for sure seen more than he ever would have had he stayed in the regular Navy. Which suited him just fine. He certainly wouldn’t have had the opportunities he’d had since joining Admiral Nelson’s outfit – against the advice of his rather orthodox CO at the time. Who’d have believed that he, Stu Riley, surfer dude, would be allowed to command the (baby) pride of the Nelson Institute, the Flying Sub? And on a mission that meant so much to the skipper. To rescue Mr. Morton, the very straight-laced, but – Riley acknowledged – extremely fair XO, the skipper’s best friend. He felt inordinately proud to have been chosen over more senior colleagues to accompany Ski and the captain.
And he was determined to prove himself worthy of his CO’s selection. Thus he’d monitored the controls meticulously since his two companions had left FS1 so many hours ago. He’d recently become itchy. Couldn’t say why but, since the one transmission he’d received from Ski, he’d diligently scoured the boards - alert for any and every eventuality. FS1 was so totally acknowledged by the entire crew as Captain Crane’s baby that there were a privileged few others certified to fly her; Admiral Nelson, for sure as her designer, the exec, Chief Sharkey, Ski, Pat and Seaman Stuart Riley – and the last at the captain’s own request.
Riley had undertaken his initial training with the XO. Their first session together had resulted in the exec barely making it back up the access ladder on foot, once FS1 had docked. Stu hadn’t particularly noticed anything amiss with Mr. Morton, other than the fact that he’d grown very quiet and taken back the controls for the docking procedure. It had been Ski and Pat later on who’d teased him, asking what he’d done to make the exec look so petrified. He had noticed Mr. Morton leaning against the railing surrounding FS1’s access hatch and, thinking on it later, guessed the man had been paler than usual with slightly glazed eyes but Riley had been so buoyed up from his first outing in FS1 that he hadn’t given it any further thought. But Pat and Ski had caught the murderous look the exec had given the skipper - and the gist of the soft voiced comments that had passed between the two officers before Captain Crane had laughed heartily, solicitously asking Mr. Morton if he needed to go to Sick Bay. The exec’s rejoiner, being unrepeatable, had both officers grinning and the control room crew releasing their collectively held breath.
Crane had taken over Riley’s training. Today the young seaman was almost as proficient with the small craft as the skipper – almost. No one could make FS1 hum quite like the captain. She just seemed to perform better for him than anyone else, as if she was happier when he was in command, knew how much he loved to fly her. If Seaview was his lady then FS1 was his undoubted first born.
And Stu Riley was as enamoured of her as was his captain. He loved the little yellow craft with a passion he’d only heretofore felt for surfing. But riding FS1 was, for him, akin to surfing the waves. The vessel was a handler’s dream, versatile both underwater and in the air, and her pilot was as much a part of her as the board was to the surfer.
He set the thermo-scanner once again - as he had every five minutes since Ski’s call - to check the cove and surrounding area for heat signals. There had been no indications for the past several hours but, not knowing how long it would take the shore party to reach the cove, Riley had been overly zealous in his caution. No way was he going to allow them spend one minute longer in enemy territory than they had to – not on his watch!
Thus he almost fell out of his chair when he comprehended the reading in front of him this time. Not only were there the three signatures he was expecting but more than five times that number ranged above the three close signatures already on the beach. His officers and close friend had walked into a trap!
Deciding quickly that he needed expert advice Riley called Seaview, hoping the admiral would be readily available. “FS1 to Seaview.”
“Seaview, FS1. Receiving you loud and clear.” It was Sparks voice – obviously he too was working overtime – and Riley was glad to hear it, Jon was a good friend to the senior ratings and, by association, to Riley too.
“Sparks, is the admiral around?”
“No, Stu, the doc sent him to his cabin a while ago to get some rest. I have strict instructions from Doc to only contact him in an emergency. Is it urgent?”
“Who’s OOD tonight?”
Riley’s heart sank. If there was any officer aboard Seaview who was universally disliked by both JO’s and crew it was Bishop. No one could understand what the admiral and skipper saw in the man. Even before Riley had joined the boat, Bishop had made himself unpopular with the crew, sparking an incident in which Seaview had been propelled into a minefield resulting in her sinking and only the off-boat XO and the previous Chief, the late Curley Jones, had saved both crew and sub. It had been a very close call and many men had been lost. Seaview had been lifted from the bottom – a major expense borne by Nelson – and had undergone an entire re-fit. Despite a serious injury to his person, Bishop’s role in the drama had never been forgotten and Riley now saw any hope of advice from that quarter going rapidly down the tubes.
But Seaview’s crewmembers had long been encouraged to use their own initiative. And if there was ever a time for it, Stu Riley knew that time was now. “Connect me with the admiral, Sparks.”
“Stu, you sure?” Came the dubious rejoiner. Sparks’ already low voice quietened further. “Go over Bishop’s head and you’ll make an enemy for life.”
Riley didn’t hesitate. “I’m sure. I need to talk to the admiral now. Otherwise the boat’ll be lookin’ for a new skipper and exec. And I’ll need a new best friend. NOW, Sparks!”
Stu’s resolution prodded the communications expert into action. He’d managed to avoid Bishop’s attention so far but Sparks knew the OOD could hear his clear voiced call to the admiral’s cabin and would imminently descend on the radio shack. He wasn’t wrong and winced inwardly as the Lieutenant demanded an explanation. He wished fervently for the umpteenth time that either the captain or XO was aboard!
Lee felt the jolt as the high velocity bullet caught him in the upper left shoulder and couldn’t prevent the pained grunt that escaped him. He saw Ski react and rasped out a command for him to continue on towards their stashed equipment. He loosed off a spurt from the automatic rifle, knowing they were probably well outnumbered and outgunned. God, he’d underestimated it badly! Now his only course of action was to ensure that Ski and the discs made it back to Seaview intact. They’d be sitting ducks if they launched the zodiac but there was no way Morton could don scuba gear and swim out to the submerged FS1; his injuries were too severe. And there was no earthly way Lee was leaving him alone to the not-so-tender mercies of the approaching enemy troops.
Knowing by instinct - and a thorough appreciation of his overly responsible captain -what was going through Crane’s mind; Ski acknowledged he was in trouble. The skipper would want him out of here. He swiftly slid the exec off his shoulders onto the soft sand underfoot, propping Morton against the cliff wall they’d just climbed down. “How bad you injured, Skipper?” His tone expected – demanded – a truthful response.
“Glancing shot, upper left side of my shoulder, nothing serious. I swear.” The words were an admission by Lee of his propensity to downplay any injury, the tone - a tacit reminder as to who was in command! His companions both sighed, briefly wondering if they could take his word for it; almost immediately deciding they had no choice as a hail of bullets had them diving for cover.
Lee pulled off his backpack as he ordered Ski to get into his dive gear. Ski gazed askance for a single moment before nodding compliance, indoctrinated as he was into responding to his CO’s orders. Eschewing the wetsuit he shucked his boots and jacket, shrugging on air tanks and buckling the shoulder and waist bands in automatic motions as Lee re-packed the discs into watertight pouches and handed them to the senior rating. Ski hesitated slightly before nodding and securing them inside his shirt.
Just as he was about to enter the water, with a final diffident glance towards the two injured officers he was reluctantly leaving behind, a swirling, roiling mass erupted circa fifty yards offshore and Ski instinctively dove for the beach before belatedly recognising the small yellow craft.
A familiar authoritative voice boomed through the still rain laden night air and all enemy gunfire immediately ceased. “You are surrounded and outgunned. If you require a demonstration of our firepower, we will be pleased to oblige. And I can guarantee that you will not like the outcome. Now, we have injured personnel on your shores and intend to retrieve them. Do not attempt to stop us. You do not have the resources and it will result in the deaths of many of your people. Nobody wants that outcome. Retreat and live to fight another day.”
Crane recognised Nelson’s voice as he scrambled to inflate the zodiac with Ski’s help, not waiting for the reaction from the enemy forces ranged above them. This was their one and only chance. If they could just make it to FS1….
A single shot rang out and he helplessly watched Ski fall. Unable to see where the rating was hit or how badly, Lee instinctively lunged for his rifle - ready to spray bullets to provide cover for his fallen comrade but before he could even bring his firearm to bear, a blinding laser beam shot from the craft riding the waves offshore and hit the rocky hillside behind him, high enough to miss them cleanly but splintering the mountainside allowing a hoard of small rocks and shale to pour down around them. Distraught shouts and agonised screams could be clearly heard over the falling debris and Lee allowed himself a small smile of satisfaction for Riley’s timely intervention even as he pulled the tanks off Ski and bundled him into the dinghy. There was no time to be gentle with Morton and Lee agonised as he shoved – that was the only word for it – his friend inelegantly into the small raft, hearing the anguished groan Chip tried desperately to suppress.
Ski grabbed for an oar and Lee relished the assistance, relieved that if Ski could manage that task he couldn’t be too badly hurt.
“Ski, you OK?”
“Fine, sir, bullet glanced off the webbing in the harness. Big bruise, nothing more.” The Rating responded, ploughing the oar energetically through the water.
Lee saw Chip try to grope for the other oar but his exec was too weak to get his good hand around the wooden paddle. A hail of gunfire saw all three men ducking for cover but return fire from FS1’s laser curtailed the enemy’s enthusiasm and the zodiac reached the yellow craft without further repercussion.
Riley had the upper hatch undogged awaiting their arrival. Conscientious as ever, Lee insisted Kowalski was first into FS1, as he was carrying the precious discs. They had no ropes to tie off the zodiac and it bobbed madly against the small metal craft as Crane boosted Chip with difficulty up the vessel’s sleek side and into Riley’s waiting hands. That strong young man caught the taller, bigger exec under his armpits and hauled him upwards, oblivious of his injuries, just intent on getting all three members of the shore party aboard as quickly as possible before a resumption of enemy fire. As soon as Chip was safely aboard, Lee scrambled up – ensuring he brought the American made rifle with him, pumping a couple of rounds into the inflated sides of the zodiac, leaving no trace of their presence to cause any political ramifications for his country in the future.
Riley was already in the pilot seat and as soon as he saw the skipper dog the hatch he had the craft in motion, sliding it effortlessly under the waves. Lee noted that Kowalski hadn’t tried to move Chip onto the bunk for the short trip to Seaview but had squatted down beside the exec just behind the pilots’ seats. He also saw, as he slipped into the co-pilot seat, that Ski had removed FS1’s First Aid Kit from the storage locker and was advancing on him with gauze in hand.
“I’m fine, Ski. We’ll be back at Seaview shortly. Just take care of yourself and the exec.”
”Sir, you’re bleeding. Just let me put this under your sweater.” Without waiting for agreement, Ski moved aside the seat harness and taped the already prepared pad in place over the entry wound. A quick glance showed him that, for once, the skipper told the truth, it wasn’t a bad injury – but not the whole truth, there was no exit wound; the bullet was still lodged in his shoulder. Lee emitted a grunt as Ski probed the taut muscle, shrugging away from the rating’s attention. He saw the exasperation in the quick glance Ski bestowed on Riley – who decided he wasn’t going there!
Within twenty minutes they were docked with Seaview, the upper hatch opened and Nelson was making his way down the staircase quickly followed, Lee noted with a sigh, by the boat’s lean hirsute-challenged doctor. It seemed he wasn’t to be given a minute to savour being back on his boat.
The admiral stopped just before he hit the bottom of the steps and his mouth opened soundlessly as he surveyed the disreputable bunch before him. One was filthier than the next! Never had he seen his men – not to mention his usually immaculate officers – so dishevelled. Riley was about the cleanest of the group and his strawberry blond hair was plastered wetly to his head, his blue jumpsuit splotched with patches of damp and dark mud.
Next to him sat Lee - a study in wet, bedraggled exhaustion. Nelson’s lips twitched in amusement mingled with concern at the sight of his captain. Talk about looking as if he’d been pulled through a hedge backwards! Lee’s short dark hair was curling riotously; his handsome face coated liberally with mud where he had patently attempted to wipe away the rainwater that spiked his long dark lashes. His clothes were so mud encrusted they could probably have stood up straight without their owner had they not been thoroughly soaked. The admiral’s brows drew together when he noticed the tear in the shoulder of the fatigues plastered to the captain’s skin. It was clearly a bullet hole. Trust Lee not to return entirely unscathed! Clinically he observed Lee’s colour and demeanour – his captain was obviously grimy and exhausted but didn’t appear unduly hampered by the injury. Of course with Crane you could never tell!
Only moderately relieved, his gaze swept on to encompass Kowalski – dripping wet and covered from head to toe in mud but otherwise apparently uninjured. Which brought him to the subject of their rescue mission – the exec. Nelson drew in a swift breath at first sight of Chip Morton – and his heart constricted. Morton leaned weakly against FS1’s bulkhead, his head apparently too heavy for his neck muscles to hold upright. Chip’s wheaten blond hair was darkened to a non-descript brown by mud and water, his abject pallor eradicating his usual light tan. If the others were filthy, the exec could best be described as the epitome of “what the cat dragged in”! He was caked in mud and dirt, his only visible injuries a cut above his left eye and his splinted leg. But Nelson knew Morton well enough to recognise that Seaview’s exec was as adept as her captain at hiding physical damage. He descended the final steps and moved aside as a smothered chuckle-cum-snort accompanied by a slight nudge indicated that the CMO wanted to have at his prey.
“Well, Lee, another mission successfully completed.” Nelson’s raised eyebrow asked the question for him. Crane’s nod confirmed that the discs had been retrieved. “I suggest you use the aft hatch to disembark, Captain. I’m sure you don’t want to drop a load of that mud in your control room. Not to mention the fright the sight of you might give the Chief!” The admiral’s tone was amused but his suggestion was a sensible one. At this moment the shore party wanted nothing more than a hot shower with a gallon of scalding water apiece.
Jamieson, by now kneeling beside Morton and checking his pulse and pupil response, intervened. “I have a couple of stretcher parties by the aft hatch, Admiral. I knew we’d need assistance moving Mr. Morton and suspected the skipper would have his usual difficulty in returning in one piece.”
“I’m fine, Jamie.” Lee’s customary response was delivered in a decidedly downbeat tone that had both admiral and CMO exchanging concerned glances. “Honestly! Just dirt and a couple bruises. And a come down from the adrenalin rush.”
Jamie didn’t try to disguise his snort even as he rigged an IV and supervised his corpsmen loading Morton for transportation. “No dice, Skipper. Sick Bay now! Soon as I’ve looked after the exec, I’m coming for you. I know a bullet hole when I see one! I’ve had enough experience with you!”
Chip raised his head slightly from his prone position, his eyes even more startlingly blue than normal in his muddied but pale face. “I told you what would happen if you got so much as a hangnail, buddy! You’re in real trouble now. But do me a favour?”
Lee still hadn’t risen from FS1’s co-pilot seat and spared a weary but quizzical glance for his friend. “Sure, pal. What do you need?”
”Secure those discs, Lee. Your safe, soon as possible.” Came the serious rejoiner.
Lee’s eyebrow rose and his antenna began to twitch.
“You know what we talked about before.” Chip insisted, refusing to allow the corpsmen to remove him. “Please, Lee, just do it.”
“Okay, Chip, don’t worry about it.” Lee rose tiredly and patted his friend’s shoulder, indicating to the corpsmen that they should take the exec.
“You too, Skipper.” And Jamieson indicated the second stretcher. Nelson nearly lost it at the combination of fury and disbelief in the glare his captain sent the CMO, hastily turning his bark of laughter into a cough. The glower he received from both men in return would have sent a rating scuttling for cover and had Ski and Riley shifting uneasily.
“I am going to my cabin to shower and change, Doctor.” Lee ground out between clenched teeth. “I have a slight bullet crease on my upper left shoulder and when you’ve finished with the exec will be time enough to take a look at it and dab it with some antibiotic ointment!”
Jamie threw up his hands in despair. “Dr. Crane speaks again! Admiral, could you talk to him – please?”
Before Nelson could open his mouth, Lee, voice like cut glass, issued an order that had his crewmembers jumping. “Kowalski, Riley, to your quarters! Get cleaned up, have something to eat and tell the Chief you’re excused from the next two watch periods. Ski, the discs, if you please! And before you hit the rack, check in with Doc to make sure that bruising is nothing to worry about.”
Ski’s soft voiced response, as he handed over the waterproof package, had Crane clenching both fists and earned the senior rating an angry frown. “Aye, sir, but you do need to have Doc check that wound. I only managed a quick look but I think the bullet’s still in there, sir.” Kowalski knew he was skating on thin ice with his captain but he also remembered how often Lee Crane put his men ahead of himself and, while appreciating that Doc rarely took the skipper’s word for bible, would be lacking in his duty as a field medic if he didn’t alert the CMO of all the returning party’s injuries, hidden or otherwise.
Jamieson quickly picked up on the captain’s avoidance of eye contact with either himself or Nelson and sighed gustily, shaking his head. “By your leave, Admiral? I suggest Kowalski accompanies me to Sick Bay for an immediate debrief on the shore party’s status.” His voice hardening in that ‘no compromise’ tone the senior officers occasionally heard from a radically ticked off CMO, the doctor continued. “I further request that you order the captain to IMMEDIATELY hike his tail to Sick Bay. He can shower there and when I’m done with Commander Morton, he should be ready for me to check his injuries. Thoroughly!”
Lee exhaled slowly and, as he thought, with great fortitude. “Admiral, this is totally unnecessary. I can shower and change in my cabin and will….”
Nelson cut him off dryly. “Captain, I don’t think you want to go down this route. Especially in front of Ski and Riley. Riley, your quarters now - and make sure you have a hot meal.”
Riley’s “aye, sir” was spoken with palpable relief as he exited FS1 via the open aft hatch. Ski was more hesitant, he’d dropped his skipper in the mire and was experiencing some faint twinges of conscience, even though he knew it was in the captain’s best interest. Infection wouldn’t take long to set into an untreated open wound and, despite Ski’s perfunctory care, the injury had been exposed to mud and rain, not to mention the clothing fibres the bullet would have impacted. Kowalski chanced an apologetic look at his captain but Crane refused to lift his gaze from the floor. However Lee shrugged one shoulder in tacit reparation to his crewman, silently acknowledging that Ski had little alternative but to report his injuries.
Lee just wished for once he could have gotten cleaned up and, maybe - if his luck held, checked the control room before reporting for treatment. He really didn’t feel that bad. But an under-the-lashes glance at Nelson’s implacable features, not to mention Jamie’s angry ones, had him nodding in reluctant compliance and moving off after the senior rating. He cast a speculative eye towards the upper hatch but, at the clearing of Nelson’s throat behind him, wisely didn’t pursue it. He resolutely refused to even look at the redundant stretcher party as he stomped grumpily out the aft hatch.
It was several hours before Nelson had a chance to catch up with Seaview’s doctor. He had attempted on one occasion to make his way to Sick Bay but the sound of raised voices from behind the closed door had dissuaded him from entering. He really didn’t want to get into the middle of yet another pitched battle between the captain and CMO. So he had quietly retreated to the control room and was now ensconced in the Nose, bringing the boat’s logs up to date on the preceding twenty-four hours’ events and, in the absence of two members of his command crew, tacitly overseeing the new duty watch under the inimitably capable Lt. O’Brien, knowing Jamieson would bring him a report as soon as he felt able.
The soft clatter of Oxfords hitting the metal steps of the spiral staircase had him lifting his head from the paperwork. The tread was too heavy to be Lee, too light for Chip, Bishop or even Chief Sharkey, and he relaxed slightly as the thought quickly crossed his mind that the conscientious doctor must be reasonably happy about the condition of his patients to leave them so soon.
“Coffee, Will?” He asked wryly, anticipating the medic’s need for a swift caffeine hit even as the slightly younger man slumped wearily into the chair opposite. He poured the rich fragrant brew without waiting for a reply and pushed the mug across the table before re-filling his own.
“After battling with those two for the past couple of hours, I need it!” Came the heartfelt response.
“Thought you’d have both of them knocked out for the next day or so by now!” Nelson’s eyes sparkled; the battles between the CO, XO and CMO were the stuff legends – Seaview’s in particular – were made of.
“Don’t I wish!” Jamie groused, gulping greedily at Cookie’s nuclear fuel strength potion. “Having one of them at a time in my Sick Bay is bad enough but the two together….!” His shudder was genuine and Nelson suppressed a grin.
“I take it they haven’t been exactly co-operative?” He questioned delicately, knowing his officers and their combined aversion to Sick Bay.
“Well, Chip didn’t have too much choice.” Jamie’s brows drew together but his grin belied the severity of his tone. “In fact, I’m actually feeling a wee bit sorry for our exec right now! He’s neither mobile enough nor comfortable enough to take me or the skipper on, as it happens.”
Nelson winced – knowing his XO’s renowned reputation for retaliation he didn’t envy Jamieson when Morton was back on his feet – but questioned seriously. “How is he, Will?” Guiltily acknowledging to himself alone that he wanted to ask about Lee – his son of the heart – he forced himself to inquire first about the more severely injured exec – the other of “his boys”.
Jamieson sighed and poured himself another cup of Cookie’s reviver before beginning. “How do I answer that, Harry? He’s got a litany of injuries that would make you cringe when I recite them. The leg isn’t broken but he might have been better if it had been. He’s torn some ligaments and, while they’ll heal quicker than a break, it’ll be a lot more painful for the next couple of weeks – and longer if he doesn’t rest! I put six stitches into the cut above his eye. But it’s going to scar; minimally, I hope – it really needed to be stitched way before now. The concussion he got from the blow is well on the way to healing – although he has a monster headache that he won’t admit to.”
Despite wincing at doc’s descriptive cataloguing, Nelson couldn’t suppress his grin at that last oh-so-typical comment concerning his obdurate XO. Jamieson’s lips twitched in return as he continued his report. “Chip’s left shoulder was dislocated. I’ve reduced that – no fun! We put some ice packs on it to relieve the swelling and it’s a heck of a lot more comfortable than it was. He cracked a couple of ribs – lucky not to have broken any if the bruising is any indication. Couldn’t wrap them though. His arms and torso were pretty torn up, took us almost half an hour to remove the splinters from under his skin – a couple of the nastier cuts are showing some infection so I’ve started him on a heavy dose of antibiotics. He’s also exhibiting symptoms of mild hypothermia and running a low grade fever although there’s no sign of congestion in his lungs as yet – I’ll be keeping a close eye on him for the next few days though.”
Jamieson shrugged. “It’s a definite possibility – he’s had it before. But we may get lucky. He’s also suffering from exhaustion; he didn’t have a lot of sleep for the past few nights – and even before that, if I’m not mistaken. I’ve given him a painkiller to relieve some of the discomfort….”
“No sedative?” Nelson raised a querying brow.
“Not for the moment. Says he’s tired enough to sleep without it. I’ll hold it in reserve – if it becomes necessary.”
The admiral had no doubt about that! The exec would sleep – one way or the other.
“All in all, Harry, he’s been very fortunate. The next few days are going to be pretty miserable – for all of us, I suspect! But he’ll recover from everything but the leg quite quickly. That’s going to need a lot of rest and possibly some physical therapy in the coming weeks. I’ll want him in Med Bay for at least a few days when we reach port. We are heading home?”
“Umm. Should reach Santa Barbara in about thirty-five hours, give or take. How many days?” Nelson mused that now might be a good time to take shore leave – or at least as soon after they made port as was feasible. The exec confined to Med Bay for that length of time would be about as approachable as an enraged grizzly!
“At least three.” Came the CMO’s firm rejoiner – although he didn’t look any more thrilled at the prospect than the admiral. Both men were vividly remembering Crane’s last sojourn in Med Bay. There were still noses out of joint among the Med Bay staff at some of the antics the two senior officers had pulled once Crane became mobile. And one of the nurses still sniffed in disapproval that the captain had been released to convalesce at home way before she thought it advisable. A very, very wicked grin crossed the doctor’s lean countenance!
“What was it they dubbed her, Harry? Sgt. Major McGuire?” Jamie spluttered with laughter.
Nelson’s piercing blue glare sobered him almost instantly. “And you want to live, Will? Siccing her on Lee was bad enough. Do you have any idea the repercussions you’d face if you put Chip into her tender care?”
“You mean the ‘XO’s Payback’?” Jamie shuddered – only semi theatrically.
“Something like that!” Nelson countered dryly. “Plus we have a six week cruise coming up next. You really want to have Chip on your back?”
“You may be right, Admiral, and my annual re-certification dive is coming up. I know it’s the exec’s responsibility to ensure the certification but does Chip have to do it personally?” Jamieson’s tone was wheedling – totally unlike him – and a testament as to how he felt about the torture Chip put him through each year. To hear Morton tell it, he was the one who went through the torture! Jamie wasn’t the strongest of swimmers and absolutely hated diving, Seaview being his first underwater posting, which resulted in frayed tempers and disgruntlement on both sides and usually ensured both admiral and captain made themselves scarce on the day of the evaluation and in the evening took both combatants out for an expensive meal and several large drinks – separately.
“I am not going there, Will!” It was Nelson’s turn to shudder. Morton was singularly the best XO he had ever encountered but the man had a positively evil streak at times, most often directed towards his captain and friend but no one was entirely safe! “I’ll get Lee to have a word with him. Maybe tell him you want him for a week and negotiate back to three days on condition he behaves himself. And talking about Lee?”
Jamieson snorted and sighed in the same exhalation of breath. “To quote our captain, he’s fine. Ski was right; the bullet was still in there. But it wasn’t too deep so I could extract it under a local. He’d already informed me that was all he’d agree to anyway!” Both men knew if Lee’d needed anything other, Jamieson would have won that argument. “There was minimal muscle damage. He’ll be likely sore for a couple of days but it won’t hamper him unduly. He’s ‘resting’ in his cabin. I’d like light duty for the next twenty four hours but, with Chip down, I guess that’s asking the impossible.”
“If you think it’s necessary, Will, I’ll order him to comply.”
The medic shrugged. “Probably not strictly necessary, Harry. He’ll be sore, more from my poking and prodding than from the initial wound if the truth be known. I’ve left him some Ibuprofen for the pain – at least that’s something he will take. And I’ll check him later. If he’s unduly uncomfortable when the anaesthetic wears off, I’ll give him a stronger painkiller – whether or not he objects. He needs to rest. While it was a short mission for him, it took a huge emotional toll.”
Nelson pulled his cigarettes from the breast pocket of his shirt, ignoring Jamie’s blatant frown, and lit up. “And I have a very strong feeling we’re not done with this yet.”
Harry acknowledged his need to see Lee for himself before he retired for the night. He’d already stopped by Sick Bay to check on Chip who was sleeping, a little restlessly but Jamie assured him that he would up the pain meds if Chip didn’t settle soon.
Nelson had arranged earlier for a tray to be delivered to the captain’s cabin but was unsurprised to find it practically untouched, except for the coffee, following his perfunctory knock.
He held back the grin that threatened. He should have known the last thing his young captain would be doing was resting. Lee was restored to his usual immaculate self, clean-shaven and dressed in khakis, working at his computer screen. The black sling Jamie had insisted upon was tossed on the end of his bunk. Nelson frowned a little at that and, catching sight of the direction his gaze fell, Lee answered somewhat defensively as he rose to his feet.
“I’m fine, sir.”
“I’ve already received a report from Jamie.” Nelson waved him back to his seat as he lowered himself tiredly into one of the chairs in front of the desk. “And you know you wouldn’t be here if he didn’t consider it advisable.” He indicated the computer with a wave. “Working on your debrief?”
“Care to give me the condensed version?”
Lee’s account was short, concise and stiffly recounted. Nelson sighed inwardly – he was obviously still not forgiven for keeping Chip’s mission from his captain. Part of him wanted to snap at Crane to get over it but the other part – the paternal side – could see the exhaustion and pain that the dullness in the amber eyes couldn’t hide from one who knew what to look for.
“Why don’t you leave that for now and get some rest? You look as if you could use it.” He was startled at the misery that momentarily invaded Lee’s expression before he settled his features into an impassive mask worthy of the XO.
“Maybe you’re right, Admiral.” Crane began to shut down the computer but, far from being satisfied, Nelson experienced a niggle of worry at the unusually swift compliance. A brisk knock at the door, followed by Jamieson’s entry, pushed the thought from his head.
Jamie’s instant take on the scene registered in the black look that descended as his sweeping gaze encompassed the working captain, the untouched meal and the discarded sling. “You’re supposed to be resting.”
“You didn’t put me on restricted duty.” Came the quick retort.
“Because you were supposed to rest! And that can always change!”
“I don’t need to rest. I need to check the boat’s status!”
“NO!” Came simultaneously from both Admiral and CMO.
Nelson got in first. “Lee, we’re on course for home. Lt. O’Brien has the conn once again and he’s done a fine job so far. You have your crew very well trained. If there’s a problem he’ll call either one of us.” He purposely didn’t add that he had instructed the young lieutenant to call him first.
Jamieson got his spoke in. “I want to check the wound again and put some more salve on it. Take off your shirt.”
Lee’s glower would have withered lesser mortals. Facing these two uncompromising individuals, he sighed audibly and began to unbutton his shirt. He shrugged it off, not without a grimace, and stoically submitted to the doctor’s probing touch. For all his talk, Jamie’s hands were gentle as he peeled away the dressing. Nelson saw the pain that contorted Lee’s handsome features and his own creased in concern. A glance from Jamie and his nod from behind Crane’s back indicated that the medic knew Lee was hurting more than he would admit. Jamieson quickly anointed the affected area with a soothing antibiotic cream and replaced the dressing. Both men were conscious of the relieved slump in the taut shoulders when Jamie completed his ministrations.
“Skipper, I’m not entirely happy with just a topical ointment on that wound. I need to give you a longer acting antibiotic. Why don’t you get ready for bed and I’ll administer it when you’re in your P.J.s.” Jamie’s eyes met Nelson’s but his gaze was totally innocent as the captain twisted to glare at him suspiciously. Seeing nothing there to confirm his reservations and, knowing his choices were limited, Lee tossed the shirt unerringly – with his right hand – into the clothes hamper and crossed in silent indignation to the small head.
Returning, clad in his white P.J. bottoms, his glare rebuffed Jamie’s assistance as he pulled back the covers and settled himself into his bunk, wincing as his sore shoulder came into contact with the firm mattress.
Jamieson’s tone was neutral as he suggested. “You’ll be more comfortable if you wear the sling, Skipper.”
Crane’s scowl was thunderous but he allowed the medic to settle his arm into the cloth. “Now, turn over a bit so I can put this slow release antibiotic into your hip.”
Lee shifted marginally, felt the sting and grimaced. God, he hated needles! Before he had a chance to turn back fully, a warm lassitude washed over him and he glared accusingly at the unrepentant medic.
“You want the duty watch tomorrow, Captain, you play by my rules.”
Nelson wisely allowed no emotion cross his features as he watched Lee’s eyes struggle to remain open. As they lost the battle, Jamie pulled the blankets up to Lee’s shoulders and tucked him in competently but gently. “He’ll be out for about eight hours, Harry. And we’ll keep an eye on him through the night. He’ll be the better for it in the morning. Not that he’ll thank me.”
Harry snorted as he rose from the chair. “You got that right! Think I’ll be hiding out in the lab when he comes gunning for you!”
“You’ll probably still hear the fall out anyway!”
He could hear the voices raised in argument from two corridors away as he approached Sick Bay. While that, in itself, was not an abnormal occurrence, one of the voices was not one he usually expected to hear – at least not at that volume. A raised eyebrow at Jamieson, who had accompanied him from the Wardroom, and both men increased their speed, coming to a stop outside the closed door as the, now mostly one-sided, tirade continued.
“There’s only one person the exec would rant at quite that loudly.” Jamieson frowned as he reached for the door handle. “And if Lee woke him, I’ll….
Words failed as he pushed open the Sick Bay door. It was barely 0640 now and when he’d checked the XO scarcely an hour earlier Chip’d been sleeping more or less peacefully, although still running a slight fever. He’d fully expected both men to remain out of it for some time yet, given the medications he’d slipped each of them. He shook his head in self-disgust. Surely after this length of time he should know better!
His jaw dropped as he took in the scene before him. Crane was leaning seemingly casually against the exam table in the centre of the floor, but the tautness of his features, the flashing dark eyes and the rigid posture spoke of a tightly reined in temper. Morton – who should have been prostrate in his bunk, preferably asleep – was on his feet, most of his weight on his right leg, leaning heavily against the bunk, his good hand hanging onto the rail of the upper rack as though it was keeping him upright. Which it probably was! The IV had been ripped from his arm, whether accidentally or on purpose Jamieson didn’t know – but could hazard a guess – and a thin but steady trickle of blood dripped from his arm onto the deck. Chip’s complexion was pasty except for the spots of high colour on his cheeks, whether from temper or fever Jamie couldn’t yet tell. Frank was standing in the doorway to Doc’s office practically wringing his hands in despair. A jerk of Jamieson’s head sent him gratefully back into the small office, closing the door behind him.
Chip’s harangue ground to a halt as he caught sight of the astonished expressions on both admiral and doctor.
Lee, not having noticed their entry, took the opportunity to jump in, his voice tight and angry.
“It was my decision, my choice, my command.”
Both Nelson and Jamieson could practically see Chip’s hackles rise in response to Lee’s words and the glacial glare he bestowed on his captain and friend would have cut lead crystal. A silent communication between admiral and CMO decided to allow the scene to play out – for the moment.
Morton’s tone was clipped as, forgetting the presence of the other men, he reacted angrily to Crane’s words. “You put yourself at risk! And Ski and the mission! And your career with ONI – not that that would be much of a loss!”
“My mission, my decision!”
“And it nearly got you killed!” Both voyeurs knew the anger in Chip’s voice masked his worry and fear for his brother but Crane’s simmering temper failed to note the fact that was so obvious to the others.
“Goes with the territory! My orders were to retrieve the discs and the agent….”
“If possible!” The decibels rose again. “And that doesn’t mean risking yourself and Ski in the process.”
“Like you did when you were injured on landing? Who walked for two days on a possibly broken leg to get the damned discs .…”
A foreshortened expletive had Crane whirling and both men’s looks became rather sheepish at the furious glare Jamieson sent their way. Espying the admiral, Lee came almost to attention and Chip attempted – not too successfully – to straighten.
“Great! Just what I needed to hear at 0650 in the morning! After treating you for most of yesterday! Dear God, you two are really something else! Trouble magnets on legs! Of all the bloody-stupid-idiotically-crass things to do, this takes the biscuit! How in hell did you think you could walk on that leg? For two goddamned days?” Jamie’s colour was now high and he marched across to the obviously unrepentant XO.
“The alternative sucked, Jamie.” The simple statement halted the medic in his stride. A snicker from behind his back caused Jamieson to spin and glare accusingly at the culprit – Nelson.
“He has a point, Will.” The wry tone had the effect of defusing much of the tension in the room. Nelson was often called upon to alleviate the heightened emotions between, usually, CMO and CO. Put the XO into the equation and all hell could break loose. Normally Morton was the epitome of calmness and equanimity but, on the very rare occasion, the three present had been attendees at one of his very atypical eruptions – and they were usually of the Vesuvius variety!
“Do you realise the damage he could have caused? And you can up the week in Med Bay to ten days!” Jamieson wasn’t joking. He was as ticked as Nelson had ever seen him.
“Will, calm down.”
”Jamie, chill, it wasn’t like I had a choice….”
“And you think I’m going to release you on your own recognisance? Not after that little news item, Commander.”
The disgusted glare Morton shot Crane would have melted ice. Lee’s return look was apologetic and somewhat shamefaced. He really hadn’t meant to drop his friend in it but his temper had gotten the better of him – coupled with his concern for Chip who looked like he was about to keel over.
“Thanks a lot, Skipper.” The hostility in the tone directed towards his friend was anathema to the others and they watched as Crane bristled again. The young combatants were akin to two alpha males battling for dominance, squaring off against each other, most uncharacteristically. Nelson’s money was on the captain but he knew Chip could give a good account of himself too. However he also knew that Chip would be the first to cave in – usually. He couldn’t be angry with Lee for long. He’d rarely seen the exec so heated with his captain and friend. Oh, he’d seen Chip rag Lee mercilessly upon his return from an ONI assignment – with or without injuries. But clearly something serious was going on here. And equally clearly it needed to be deferred to a later date. Chip was swaying as he stood and evidently in some distress, his breathing increasingly laboured and his previously hectic colour reduced to a waxen pallor now that his temper had waned.
“Chip, I don’t know what the hell you’re doing on your feet anyway, but lie down. NOW!” Jamieson was prepared to argue the point but suddenly it seemed as if Morton’s legs gave way beneath him and he sank heavily onto the bunk.
“I’m all right. I’m OK.”
Jamie snorted as Nelson moved closer to Lee. “Sure you are. Now lie down and let me re-attach that IV.” As he spoke Jamieson tucked the younger man back into the bunk and grabbed some gauze to wipe at the blood that still trickled down his hand before he re-inserted the needle.
“I don’t need it.” Morton groused, trying unsuccessfully to push Jamie’s hand away. “I need my laptop. I have to write up my report.”
“Not now you don’t. I want to check you over again, re-X Ray that leg, and if you play nice, eat your breakfast and rest for the morning, I’ll have your computer brought to you in the afternoon.”
Chip still didn’t look happy and had just opened his mouth to argue some more when Nelson stepped in. “Mr. Morton, you will follow the doctor’s orders, is that clear?”
All three hid smiles at the grumpy “Aye, sir” that was Chip’s response.
“Captain, I’m about to call Admiral Beckett, he should be in the office by now. Come along to my cabin when you’re finished here.” Nelson’s tone was brisk and he headed for the corridor, Crane following.
“Not so fast, Captain.” Jamieson timed his remark perfectly; Lee had just reached the door and thought he was home free. “I haven’t cleared you for duty yet. As soon as you’re done with the admiral, hike your tail back here til I check that shoulder. Then you will eat something before standing watch. Understood?”
Lee’s shoulders rose in an exaggerated sigh at the doctor’s words but he’d known he had little chance of getting away cleanly. “K, Jamie.”
As he moved to leave, Chip’s slightly husky voice called him back. “Lee!”
Crane turned, his expression impassive but his golden eyes held a mixture of anger and pain.
“Thanks, Lee.” The temper had disappeared from the exec’s face and his tone was conciliatory. “Sorry. Shouldn’t have lost it like that.”
Crane moved back to the side of the rack and crouched down beside his friend. He’d known Chip long enough to gamble that Morton wouldn’t be able to carry on his tirade for too long. Chip’s temper could be incandescent but usually flared hot and brief. Lee grasped his forearm gently, the one with the IV attached – as his other arm was strapped across his chest. “We’ll talk about it later, Chip. You just rest for now.”
“Skipper, why don’t you come back here when you’re finished with the admiral and I’ll have Frank bring breakfast for you and the exec.” Jamieson’s tone was just a tad too innocent. “And when you’re done, I’ll take a look at the shoulder.” He couldn’t help the slight smirk of satisfaction at the captain’s scowl. Lee gave Chip’s arm another small squeeze and rose to his feet, tossing Jamie a glare as he departed.
“And don’t forget your sling!”
“Coffee, Lee?” Nelson asked gesturing, with the hand holding his first cigarette of the day, for the captain to take a seat. Crane frowned at the cigarette and nodded at the offer. He hadn’t yet had his first fix of the day either – caffeine not nicotine. He’d gone straight to Sick Bay to check on Chip and remonstrate with Jamieson but instead had found himself in the middle of an argument with Morton. Problem was he knew in his heart of hearts that Chip was right and he should never have let the quarrel get so out of hand. He’d been spoiling for a fight with Jamie over the sneaky sedation and instead had taken his temper out on his friend as soon as Chip had begun his lecture.
Nelson handed over the steaming cup and returned to his seat behind the desk, pulling deeply on the cigarette and openly studying his friend. For a moment the scene reminded him of the first time Crane had sat in that chair, slightly on the edge and leaning forward, as he was doing now, having just taken over temporary captaincy of the boat. Harry remembered thinking how incredibly young looking the lad was – younger even than his years – and wondering how he would command men who were in many cases older than himself. He needn’t have worried. By the end of the mission, Crane had garnered the respect and admiration of every man aboard. Well, almost every man – it had taken a little more time for Kowalski to come round but then, his first meeting with the new captain had been up close and personal!
Looking at the man now, Nelson thought he didn’t look much older than he had four years ago – except for the lines of strain currently showing around his eyes and mouth and the tiredness and – something else – he could see in the expressive but now hooded amber gaze.
“Want to talk about it, Lad?”
Lee sighed heavily, drained the cup and placed it back on the desk, wincing slightly at the pull on his shoulder.
Nelson caught the moue of pain that crossed Crane’s face. “Shoulder hurting, Lee?”
“It’s fi… - just a little, Sir.” He hastily amended, espying disbelief in the singular raised eyebrow.
“Humph! See that doc has a look at it before you report for duty, Captain.” Knowing that Crane would weasel out of a check up any way he could, it was couched as more order than request. “That was a very heavy sigh, Lee. Something I need to know about before I put the call in to Beckett?”
Lee leaned forwards, clenching his hands together between his thighs, unable to meet Nelson’s open questioning gaze.
“Chip was right, Admiral. I did risk compromising the mission.”
Nelson snorted derisively. “I don’t for a minute believe that, Lee.”
“It’s true, Admiral.” Unable to sit still any longer, Crane surged to his feet and began pacing. “I – I couldn’t leave him there, not like that. He told me to go. To take the discs and get out! He had a pill in his hand. I wouldn’t let him take it. I risked Kowalski’s life to get Chip out of there! And the success of the mission.”
“Lee, you obtained a result! You got the three of you back to Seaview with the discs. You accomplished the mission! You’re being too hard on yourself. Let it go, son.”
“Don’t make me out to be some kind of hero, Admiral! I’m not. Chip retrieved the discs. He did the hard work under extraordinarily difficult circumstances. I’m still not sure how he did it, as injured as he was. Me, I was too much of a coward to face the future having to leave him behind. I’d have done just about anything to get him out of there or, failing that, would have stayed behind with him. And that’s the truth of it.”
Nelson’s irritation at his captain’s singular blindness began to rise. “Don’t talk rubbish, Captain! You had a plan, executed it perfectly and attained the desired outcome. And I’ve conducted Ski’s debrief. He came to me to put himself on report for his failure to await your orders and for actions he undertook that, he considered, were outside the scope of his….”
“It wasn’t Ski’s fault! Admiral, you can’t allow him to take the fall on this one! He saw my difficulty in fulfilling the mission as it was laid down and opted to….”
“Take matters into his own hands?” Nelson’s brief flare of temper had ebbed at the distress in Lee’s voice. “Lee, he would do anything for you. Even take the flack for removing the choice from you. As I told him, I think he made the right decision for all concerned. As the field medic it was down to him as to whether or not the exec could be moved. He was in charge of that aspect of the mission and it was his considered opinion that all three of you had a good chance to make it to the rendezvous co-ordinates. As it turned out he was right. It was the right decision. And later, when you’d ascertained that you had no chance of outrunning the enemy troops, you covered him and sent him on with the discs…”
“And almost got him shot!” Crane countered bitterly.
Nelson sighed and closed his eyes, shaking his head in exasperation at his obstinate friend. “Lee, will you cut yourself some slack? Please! You know that you cannot control every aspect of an assignment – much as you might wish it. You have to roll with the punches and that’s what you did – what you do extremely well! That’s what gets results – your ability to recognise what needs to be done at a certain moment and to do it…”
“Sir, if it wasn’t for your intervention over the loudspeakers from FS1 and Riley’s accurate covering fire, it could have been a rather less than successful outcome.”
“Ah, yes. Well, of course it was your choice to include Seaman Riley in the rescue party, Captain. I must admit I had my doubts but that young man deserves a commendation – and I’ll see that he gets one, as will Ski. A most welcome piece of bi-lateral thinking on Riley’s part, Lee, you have trained your crew extremely well, you and Chip. They are a credit to you both. Now, I have received Ski’s verbal report, which will be combined with my own. I’m sure, knowing you as I do, that yours is already well in hand but I would like to see it before you submit it. And I rather think it will be some time before Chip can formulate his.”
“I wouldn’t bet on it, Sir. When I left Sick Bay he was negotiating with Jamie for his laptop. Admiral, Chip’s report may differ considerably from mine in….”
Nelson’s voice softened. How insecure his capable, confident young captain and friend could sound when it came to inter-personal relationships – even those of many years standing. “Lee, Chip might harangue you mercilessly but he would never do anything to hurt you. He’d rather cut off his writing arm first.”
He saw Lee’s eyes drop and thought he detected a glimmer of moisture in the amber depths but couldn’t be sure as the eyes that rose again to meet his were calm and serene once more.
Nelson nodded his head decisively and reached for the intercom button. “Sparks, get me Admiral Beckett at ONI HQ, please. Pipe it through to my cabin on the video link.”
While he waited for the call to be patched through, Nelson rose and poured them each another cup of the high octane coffee that fuelled Seaview’s crew, courtesy of Cookie. The resident joke on the boat was that it was no co-incidence Cookie’s “other job” was in reactor control – his coffee could re-activate the nuclear pile if it ever proved necessary.
Harry contemplated lighting up another cigarette – he needed the nicotine after the emotional go-round with Crane – but he knew how much Lee hated him smoking, worried for his health, although he didn’t nag like Jamieson - and it stabbed at Nelson’s heart each time he saw the silent recrimination in Lee’s golden eyes when he lit up. He had tried to give up several times but the best he could manage, after over 30 years of the habit, was to cut them to a minimum. And in times of stress that self-imposed restriction went out the window.
He refrained from smoking in his office at NIMR. Angie’s glare was more than he could handle. It must be a woman thing – and she had it down to a fine art – a combination of disgust and disappointment coupled with non-too-veiled hints as to what the nicotine was doing to his lungs and how passive smoking affected those working around him. Now he indulged when he could but it was still a guilty pleasure. As a scientist he knew the dangers and he had found that there was much he wanted to live for – not that he had ever seen smoking as a foreshortener of life. But, like most of his generation, he hadn’t been aware of the evils of the drug and had become addicted before he’d left his teenage years. Now he wished he had the wisdom of these younger men and had never succumbed to the pleasures of the weed. But what was done was done. Now all he could do was attempt to curtail his habit and restrict it to times of dire necessity only. Unfortunately, that coincided in many instances with the absence of his captain from his immediate milieu – most noticeably at the behest of ONI – and that triggered an automatic increase in his smoking! Not that he dared mention that to Lee – or Jamie or Chip!
Sparks voice, announcing the connection to Admiral Beckett, interrupted his thoughts and he turned the dial to activate the video screen. “Hunt, nice of you to grace us with your presence. What time is it now in Washington? 0930? Bankers hours yet?”
Admiral Hunter “Hunt” Beckett appeared unfazed; he’d known Harriman Nelson a long time. “Harry, sorry I wasn’t here to take your call yesterday but my aide gave me the news that Crane managed to complete the mission and return with both the discs and our agent. Good result all round.”
Nelson frowned – at the flippancy of the recognition that Crane had effected a result and at the lack of acknowledgement of Chip’s contribution to the success of the mission.
“Not at inconsiderable expense to both of them, Hunt. You know, I wish you’d leave my officers out of the equation when you’re planning your missions. Give due consideration to the fact that I need them here, doing the job I pay them for!”
“Harry, you knew the deal when you took on Crane. We had first dibs on him. As to Morton, well, we obviously didn’t know how good he was when we let you have him. Your good luck to poach two of the brightest stars this Navy has to offer.” He stopped as Nelson’s growl could be heard distinctly down the airwaves.
“You left Morton to swing out there, Hunt, and I don’t like any of my men put in that position. You had no adequate back up in place to prompt a withdrawal should it prove necessary.”
“Not true, Harry. You and Seaview were in place to retrieve Morton and we knew Crane was aboard and could complete the mission if it proved necessary. Once Morton verified the authenticity of the discs, he was expendable. Regrettable I know, Harry, but unfortunately true. Crane is the insertion and extraction expert and if I could have used him exclusively I would have. But he didn’t have the necessary skills to authenticate the material contained on….”
Nelson’s fist connecting with the desk reverberated within the cabin and a vein throbbed at his temple, causing Lee to lean forward in concern. But the admiral silenced him with a discrete off-camera hand signal. His piercing blue gaze met the ONI admiral’s squarely and his voice dropped to a deathly cadence. “Goddamn your miserable hide, Hunt, and your hard heart. If you could see the state Chip Morton is in right now, you’d rue the words you just spoke. And if I were closer to you, I’d ram those same words down your sorry throat. Yes, Lee Crane and one of my senior ratings managed to retrieve the discs and your untrained and very reluctant agent – and not without considerable risk to them personally! Commander Crane is currently sporting yet another bullet hole courtesy of ONI! Chip Morton has a litany of injuries that will put him out of action for weeks – I’ll have our CMO document it in words of one syllable to be included in my report, lest you have any difficulty interpreting the medical jargon! And you can guarantee that ONI will be footing the bill for this one, Hunt – and it won’t be inconsiderable!”
Nelson was about to break the connection, loathe to speak further with a man he had once considered friend in the face of his seeming disregard for the lives of men Harry deemed precious – Beckett hadn’t once acknowledged either Kowalski’s or Seaview’s crew’s role in bringing home the information or the agents. Beckett then iterated the words that damned him forever in Nelson’s heart.
“Harry, I need those discs in Washington as soon as possible. It’s vital. Can you use your flying submarine thing and get them here straight away? It has to be you – we can’t take the risk of contamination of the chain and Crane and Morton are obviously out of action. How soon can you leave and how long will it take you to get here?”
Nelson’s gaze was remote and just a bit contemptuous as it connected with Lee’s – whose amber eyes hid all emotion. “With my captain and exec out of commission, Hunt, it’s rather inconsiderate of you to demand that I drop everything and head for Washington tout de suite. I also have experiments in my lab; which require my immediate attention. Best I can promise is to leave here mid-afternoon - pending the captain being cleared for duty by the boat’s doctor. I’ll have to get back to you with an ETA. Nelson out.”
Lee could sense the temper simmering under the pseudo-calm façade. The admiral was ticked but good. “I swear, Lee….” Nelson stopped, knowing what he wanted to say wouldn’t address the wrongs perpetrated by the powers that be in ONI and would only place his captain in the invidious position of having to defend the organisation he worked for part time – Lee’s over-developed responsibility ensuring his immediate response to the call of duty, many times at the risk of his own health and well being.
Harry sighed heavily, unhappy with the conversation to which he’d just been party. While he knew Lee was an excellent agent – and sometimes wished he wasn’t so successful that ONI saw fit to call on him as often as they were wont – it galled him that Chip’s role hadn’t been remotely addressed. He was presented with something of a quandary – if he revealed Chip’s presence of mind and perseverance under extreme conditions, he would be exposing Chip’s flair for such assignments and possibly damning him to performing more often, should his particular area of expertise be required.
On the other hand, if he allowed Lee to take all the credit for the mission, Chip would be denied a very worthy commendation and a possible third full stripe. The more Harry learned about the tenets of this assignment, the more scathing he became about the agency and their ability to protect their operatives! He would have to think this one out carefully.
Finally noting the curious look Lee was levelling at him, Nelson shook his head, electing not to share his thoughts with the younger man just now. He knew Lee’s report would reflect Chip’s role accurately – what he didn’t want was Lee downplaying his own part, or worse still, allowing the reservations he held about his performance to show.
“I’ll leave for Washington mid-afternoon, Lee.”
Crane nodded. “I’ll have FS1 prepared, Admiral.”
“Hit the Sick Bay before you head for the control room, Captain.” Nelson’s tone warned that compliance was expected and arguments would be unacceptable. Lee inclined his head in reluctant agreement.
Chip appeared to be sleeping when he re-entered Sick Bay and Lee was tempted to sidle quickly out again before being spotted. Only his hesitance to disobey the admiral’s implicit order kept him from bolting for the control room – or any other part of the boat that would save him from Doc’s clutches – and before he had a chance to act on his first instinct, Jamie entered the main room from his office.
“Ah, Skipper, sorry to inform you that the exec has passed up your breakfast date in favour of some solid sleep…”
“Courtesy of your trusty hypo, no doubt.” Lee shot out immediately.
“I’m wounded, Skipper!” Jamie grinned, knowing Crane was still sore from his deception the previous evening and would get his point across any way he could. “No, he fell asleep entirely on his own and it’s the best thing for him right now. I can keep him “fed” via the IV for the moment but knowing our Mr. Morton, I would hazard an educated guess that he won’t be content with that for long. I’d anticipate he’d be a willing, not to mention starving, lunch companion – if you were so inclined.”
Lee’s scowl told Jamieson he’d been sussed – Crane was well aware it was the doctor’s way of ensuring he would eat lunch, by co-opting him to eat with the exec. Although, in the medic’s defence, Lee knew Jamie was aware that Chip probably hadn’t eaten much in the preceding days – possibly even before he’d commenced the assignment. Lee’d noticed that Chip had dropped some weight – while far from heavy, Morton’s build was broader and huskier than his own and Chip’s usual fighting weight was some 10-15 lbs heavier than Lee’s and had been since their early days at the Academy.
But Lee now saw the possibility of sliding out of Jamie’s arena and, with a last quick glance at his sleeping friend, gave in to his doctor’s machinations and turned to leave. “OK, I’ll return around 12.30 to eat with Chip. If he wakes in the meantime, tell him I’ll be here.”
“Ahem. Where do you think you’re going? I told you I want to check that wound again.” Crane began to grouse and, as the volume rose, Jamie cut him short with possibly the only six words that could cut the mustard. “Admiral Nelson is awaiting my report.”
Lee visibly wilted, giving in and trudging to the exam table, perching himself barely on the edge. He impatiently loosened his tie and started to unbutton his shirt.
“Take it all the way off, Skipper, please.” Crane yanked the tie off viciously, thoroughly ticked, wincing involuntarily as he shucked the shirt a tad roughly off his injured shoulder.
“Take it easy, Skipper.” Jamie murmured softly, his hands gentle on Crane’s back as he peeled away the gauze, all too aware that his captain wasn’t in a particularly good mood. “I only want to take a look at my handiwork.”
“Hah! How come very time you say that, I end up getting nailed in the butt with one of your hypos?” As Lee grumbled sourly, Jamieson felt the younger man tense under his ministrations, gentle though he was as he probed the area surrounding the wound for excessive swelling or tenderness but, other than his right fist clenching, Lee didn’t react to what Jamie knew was a painful examination.
“Probably because I know what’s needed to treat you, Skipper! I’m the one with the medical degree here, remember?” But Jamie kept his voice light and non-threatening. Knowing how tetchy his CO was just now, he wanted to keep the situation from escalating into all-out war, as too frequently happened when caring for the oft-injured captain. He watched the other carefully; relieved when Lee relaxed slightly and allowed him to treat the injured shoulder, applying a soothing salve over the stitches he’d placed the previous day. As he taped a fresh piece of gauze over the affected area and moved across to the drugs cabinet, his eyes strayed to the healed but still noticeable scar from Lee’s last major injury, the bullet wound he’d received in what Chip termed the Cassie Sommers’ incident. Jamie shuddered, recalling how close they’d come to losing Lee then. “You were lucky this time, Skipper. No major tissue or tendon damage. Just take it easy for a couple days and give the shoulder time to heal.”
“No restricted duty?” Lee picked up his shirt but Jamieson’s hand on his arm prevented him from putting it on.
“Would there be any point? I know you’re a man down without Chip and are probably itching to get to the control room. But,” and the medic’s voice became authoritative as he poked the captain’s chest with one finger to emphasise his point, “there will be no diving, no climbing around vents or into access panels, do I make myself clear? There’s some delicate stitching in that shoulder and I don’t want to have to re-do any of it. Now despite what you’re not saying, I know that it hurts so I’m going to give you a light painkiller to take the edge off – nothing heavy cos I don’t want you overusing it and I doubt you’ll wear the sling, that would be too much to expect! And no arguments!” As Crane opened his mouth to protest.
Lee shut his mouth with a snap and as soon as the doctor had finished, he donned his shirt and began to do up the buttons. Jamie watched him, leaning seemingly casually against the exam table. “So what was all that about earlier?” Nodding towards the bunk where Chip still slept.
“You don’t want to know.”
“Wouldn’t have asked if I didn’t.”
Crane’s fingers halted in fixing his tie as he recalled the conversation he’d had with Jamie in his cabin before leaving on the mission. He tilted his head back, contemplating the ceiling for a moment before allowing his sombre gaze to connect with the doctor’s. “Chip was angry with me – justifiably. I almost screwed up the mission and got all of us killed.”
Jamieson’s snort of derision had Lee glaring at him. “I don’t believe that for one minute, Skipper. And I’ll take any bet you care to place that that’s not what Chip either said or believes.”
Lee’s voice was barely above a whisper as he dropped his gaze, unable to maintain eye contact. “I couldn’t leave him there, Jamie. I should have, but I couldn’t. Not Chip.”
Jamie’s soft laugh drew a frown from the younger man. “Don’t kid yourself, Lee. You couldn’t have left anyone! It’s not in your nature. It’s got nothing to do with Chip. Well, it does, of course but not just because of what he means to you. You’d have done whatever it took to get whomever it was out – or died in the attempt. So quit feeling guilty and congratulate yourself and your men on a great team effort. From what I’ve heard, everyone played the cards they were dealt most impressively, including the captain.”
Amber eyes held warm brown ones before Crane’s lip twitched in a small but definite smile. “How’d you get to be so wise, Doc?”
“Comes standard with the medical practitioners’ license. Or maybe it’s got something to do with hanging around you lot for so long! Now, don’t you have a boat to run?” As the door swung to behind the retreating figure, Jamieson called out a reminder. “Get something to eat before you go on duty, Captain. And I don’t just mean coffee!”
Lee’s laugh floated back to him and he breathed a sigh of relief – another crisis averted. His captain’s overly developed sense of responsibility frequently proved a challenge. His watchful eyes caught the slightest of movements from the bunk and he re-arranged his features into a mock scowl before addressing his other patient.
“And how long have you been awake, Mister?”
“Long enough, Jamie. You were right, Lee wouldn’t have left anyone behind – no matter what instructions he’d been given.” Chip used the bunk’s guardrail to try hauling himself upright, inhaling sharply as his injured ribs and shoulder protested vigorously. Jamie’s frown failed to deter the stubborn XO, the blue eyes daring the medic to object. Jamieson grabbed some pillows from the other bunk and piled them behind the exec, critically assessing him as he eased the blond into a semi reclining position. “I should never have said what I did.”
“Oh, I don’t need you starting a guilt trip, Chip! Lee came here this morning looking for a fight because I sold him a dummy last night and knocked him out. He was in a mad and he took it out on you – because he knew he could. Knew you’d dish it right back at him. And you didn’t disappoint.”
Chip eyed the lean balding doctor, who had become friend to all of them, speculatively. “Never knew psycho-analysis was part of your brief, Doc.”
“Par for the course around here, Chip. Now let me take a look at you and then I’d guess that you could be persuaded to eat something.”
“Wouldn’t object to anything of Cookie’s right now.” The exec admitted. “Oh and, Jamie?” As the doctor turned back from collecting his instruments with a raised eyebrow, the XO sent him a totally innocent smile. “When can I get out of here?”
Lee spent the morning in the control room, happy to be back on his beloved grey lady. He inspected each of the duty stations and had a personal word for every man on watch. Seaview was running at standard speed, heading for Santa Barbara and Lt. Bishop had the conn. While he’d never particularly warmed to the man – and knew the crew held Bishop almost single-handedly to blame for the incident when Seaview had been sunk some years earlier – Lee acknowledged that the man was a more than competent officer, albeit one who was unlikely to rise higher than his current junior status due to his dogmatic attitude towards the rule book and his sometimes excessive manner in his dealings with the crew. Crane knew Chip, as XO, bore the brunt of the complaints against the Lieutenant – mostly from Chief Sharkey, who liaised on behalf of the crew. Lee also acknowledged that he probably only heard one tenth of the incidents as Chip was a master at soothing ruffled feathers and dealing with the issues before his captain even got to hear of them.
Both senior officers had privately conceded that, while they preferred working with Bobby O’Brien or Chris James, Bishop was more than adequate at his job and they really had no excuse to let him go – which would put a serious blot on his record. While he had been involved in the incident leading to Seaview’s sinking, the subsequent investigation had found that he couldn’t be held entirely responsible, although his handling of the crew had left much to be desired. Thus Bishop more often than not stood Delta watch, limiting his exposure to the more volatile crewmembers who would not lightly accept his high-handed attitude.
The rotation had put him on “A” watch today but, with the captain in the control room, all had remained calm. As midday approached and the duty watch prepared to change over, Crane looked up from the chart table to see Kowalski and Riley entering. As Lee moved forward to have a word, he missed the black look Bishop sent the younger rating and the start of nervousness Riley couldn’t conceal. The intense dislike and promise of retribution on the junior officer’s face wasn’t lost on either Patterson or Sparks, who exchanged an uneasy glance behind their skipper’s back. This would bear close watching.
Chip was awake when Lee returned to Sick Bay at lunchtime. Awake and uncomfortable, if his irritable expression was anything to go by. The blankets covered him only to the waist exposing his bare arms and torso, the myriad scrapes and cuts looking worse than before now that healing scabs had begun to form and the bruising over his mid section was turning interesting shades of green and black. The strapping on his shoulder had been reduced and a black sling supported his arm. The IV was gone and he’d been allowed to shower and shave – with the supervision of Frank, the senior corpsman - so was looking a bit more himself, his hair returned to its usual wheat blond and his skin had a little more colour than earlier. But Lee winced at the sight of the black stitches above Chip’s left eyebrow, which marred the fair skin of his forehead.
“Gee, pal, I’ve seen you look better!”
“No kidding? I’ve felt better! Everything itches!” Came the exec’s complaint. He struggled to make himself more comfortable on the pillows that propped him up. Lee lent a hand and stacked several more behind Chip to allow him sit a little more upright.
“Thanks. And thanks for getting me out of there too. I’m sorry I mouthed off before.” Chip’s expression was a tad shamed.
“Me too. I just….”
“I know.” Chip reached forward to grasp his friend’s arm securely, Lee having dropped into a sitting position on the end of the bunk, eyes lowered to his clenched hands. “Lee, you wouldn’t have done any different had it been another agent. I see that now. Part of it was my own insecurity – I’m not a natural like you are. You thrive on covert assignments. I abhor them! I wish I’d never….”
Lee’s golden eyes rose to see that the bright blue ones were now closed tightly, Chip’s jaw taut with the reminder of all he’d endured in the two days before Lee and Kowalski had located him. “Never what, Chip? Never come to their attention? Never revealed your skills? If you hadn’t, buddy, we’d all be dead, there’d be no Seaview, probably no Institute by now. You had no choice. You wouldn’t have done any different.” He repeated Chip’s words right back to him, knowing his friend needed validation for his actions.
Chip opened his eyes to the honesty he could see in Lee’s amber gaze. “So you’ll go when they call on you. Because they call. Because you’re what they need. Because you can do the job. Despite your inner fears, your trepidation, your insecurities. Despite having to leave Seaview, your friends, your crew, your family. You do it because it has to be done – and because you can make a difference by doing it.”
When Lee finished there was a stillness between the two men – a quiet immobility for several moments, finally dispelled by the almost imperceptible nod of Chip’s head in a calm understanding of what Lee had just revealed of himself – of both of them. Much as Chip hated the need for ONI calling on them, he knew they would both answer the call when it came, irrespective of what it would cost them personally.
Desperate to lighten the suddenly sombre atmosphere, he shifted on the stacked pillows trying to alleviate the ache in his shoulder. “Doesn’t mean I won’t rag on you when you get back, though!”
Appreciating Chip’s attempt to bring their relationship back on track, Lee grinned – a genuine smile that lit the golden depths in his warm amber eyes. “Hey, how come when I go on an ONI assignment, you get to rag me but when you go on one, you still get to rag at me! No fair!”
Morton’s tone was whimsical in the face of Lee’s complaint. “Just a technique I perfected at the Academy!”
Lee’s scowl brought forth an outright chuckle from the blond, followed by a wince as sore muscles protested loudly. “You OK?” Concern darkened Lee’s eyes as he surveyed his friend.
“Fine!” Chip growled but the corners of his mouth twitched at the use of the word patented by Crane in relation to any health issue. “And no – I don’t need Jamie.” Anticipating the phrase Lee was about to utter.
“Where is he anyway? Thought he’d have you under close surveillance.”
“Ha! I’m not the escape artist here!” Came the quick retort.
“No?” There was a lazy challenge in Crane’s voice. “I seem to remember a time or two when….”
“Alright, already!” Chip’s azure eyes sparkled at the return of the banter that was so intrinsic of their relationship. “Jeez! Not that there’s much chance he’ll even let me go back to my cabin before we make port. And then he’s threatened to stick me in Med Bay for a week! Over my dead body!”
“Chip….” The warning note in Lee’s voice went unheeded as he spotted the medic emerge from his office and lean against the door, arms crossed deceptively casually.
“And where’s your sling?” Chip’s tone was accusatory – if he had to suffer Jamie’s over protective mother-henning (as he saw it) then he wanted company.
“Good question, Captain.” The calm manner was illusory and apologetic blue eyes closed briefly in chagrin before meeting acid amber. “I distinctly remember ordering you to wear it today. That just bought you an afternoon in your cabin – resting – instead of in the control room.”
“No can do, Jamie.” Lee managed with difficulty to keep the triumph from his voice. “The admiral is leaving for Washington later today and I need to be there.”
“I’m sure Lt. O’Brien can see him off perfectly well!” Came the instant rejoiner.
Chip started violently at Crane’s words. “Lee, you talked with Admiral Beckett?”
At the other’s nod, the exec’s eyes took on the cool assessing stare that Lee knew bespoke Chip’s quick brain sorting through a mountain of data and computing the necessary actions. “And he wants the admiral to take the discs to him? I need my laptop!”
“I told you, Commander, in the afternoon. If you behave. Now Frank is bringing lunch and you can….”
“Not now, Jamie.” Ignoring the doctor’s splutter, solemn blue eyes connected with amber. “You have the discs?” At Lee’s nod, “Copy them. Get Patterson to give you a hand. Secure the copies in your safe. Say nothing to nobody. Have you informed the admiral about the possible mole?”
“No. That’s your premise so I left that for you to report if you’re ready to include it. Shouldn’t you inform the admiral before he leaves for Washington?”
“I can’t, Lee. I need something solid – more than I’ve got right now - before I can do anything about it.”
Chip Morton whistled cheerfully as he straightened his tie in the hallway mirror, buttoned his jacket and, picking up his cover and briefcase, pulled the door to behind him. Tossing his keys he crossed to his black SUV, the slight ache in his leg hardly bothering him at all and, as long as he changed position carefully, he could only feel a slight twinge from the almost healed ribs. It was his first day back to the office – his first day discharged from Jamie’s clutches. A slight frown combined with a sheepish grin reminded him that the latter was not altogether to Jamie’s liking. He probably couldn’t have been a worse patient if he’d really put his mind to it. For sure he’d certainly given Lee’s reputation as Jamie’s least popular charge a run for its money.
The four days he’d been confined to Med Bay had been unrelentingly frustrating as his injuries - in his opinion - had healed well and the itch from the cuts and splinters had driven him up the wall. Jamieson had finally been forced to release him for the sake of his own sanity – not to mention his eardrums. Unfortunately – or perhaps not (Chip mightn’t have lasted the fourth day) – Staff Nurse Maguire had been on vacation and none of the other nurses could handle the sweetly cajoling exec. They’d been putty in his hands and he’d gotten away with absolute murder. Except with Will Jamieson. Jamie had been mandated into the role of bad guy, curtailing all of Chip’s fun – well, what fun there could be had from an enforced stay in Med Bay. When the exec’s nagging – at progressively increased volume – had eventually worn down the overburdened doctor, Jamie had reluctantly conceded there was no medical reason to keep him there. Jamie’s excuse was that Chip would inevitably try to hasten his recovery by overdoing it and could very easily re-injure the nicely healing ligaments in his leg.
Chip swore blind that he would follow Jamie’s orders to the letter but, then again, he’d have said black was white if it would get him out of there sooner. Jamieson had reluctantly allowed him to return to his condo on the Institute grounds with the proviso that someone – knowing it would be Lee - would stay over for the first few nights and one of the corpsmen would check up on him each day. Of course that didn’t stop Jamieson from dropping in on spec or ordering him in each week for X-Rays – or insisting that he couldn’t drive, or walk any distance, or do anything else that remotely resembled fun! But then again, anything was better than the confines of the dreaded Med Bay – coupled with the threat of the returning Sgt. Major Maguire! Chip shuddered delicately – he’d had a lucky escape there. Of course the warning that the really pretty nurse on the day shift had imparted (that Maguire was due back the following day) had absolutely nothing to do with the final mega-decibel row that ultimately led to his release!
He’d endured with stoic fortitude (in his eyes) the mother-henning, from Lee (who enjoyed it almost too much – the shoe being for once on the other foot!), from Jamieson, Sharkey, Ski and Riley – who had “just needed to stop by to see how you’re doing, Sir” on too many well timed occasions for it to be anything other than orchestrated. Since being allowed home he’d insisted on his secretary bringing his paperwork over each morning and he’d spent the better part of each day ensconced on the deck with his laptop. That had sparked another battle royale with Jamieson – a battle Chip had thought he’d won with reasoned argument, after all he was sitting with his leg propped up and getting plenty of fresh air. Jamieson’s departure had left him wondering if the crafty medic had engineered the entire debacle to allow him to think he’d won. Retribution beckoned.
The one bright spot had been Angie’s visits. While even busier than usual with the boat in port and the admiral firing orders from Washington, she’d managed a couple of visits while he was in Med Bay. Her initial “Hey, sailor, what a guy won’t do to get out of taking a girl to dinner!” had cheered him up no end. He’d been trying to initiate a date with her for several months now but their opposing schedules hadn’t allowed it. That was about to change. They were having dinner tonight, he’d booked the restaurant and who cared that it was Wednesday and his leg probably wouldn’t stand up to dancing the night away, beggars couldn’t be choosers and he’d take what he could get. He knew he’d probably bored the pants off Lee last evening when he’d shown up with take out and a bunch of reports they’d needed to go over. Nothing - but nothing - was going to interfere with his plans tonight.
“You’re kidding, right? It’s a wind up!”
“Sorry, Chip. Beckett’s orders. He wants us – you, me and the admiral – in Washington this afternoon. We’ll take FS1 and a staff car will meet us. We’ll stay overnight, followed by further meetings in the morning and return late tomorrow evening.” Lee knew how much Chip had been looking forward to tonight and felt for him. He determined to talk to the Admiral to ensure that the pair had some time off together before Seaview sailed on her next mission – preferably before the week was out if the disappointed look on his friend’s face was anything to go by. “I really am sorry, buddy.”
Chip shrugged his shoulders philosophically. “Can’t be helped, I guess. Beckett’s timing always did leave a lot to be desired. When do we leave? Did Beckett say why he wants us?”
“Immediately. And no. But I’d guess it’s something to do with the discs you brought back. They’ve had enough time to decipher the information by now. You still have the copies I made?”
Morton’s eyes strayed to the wall safe in his well-appointed office. “Think I should bring them?”
“Can you make another copy?”
“Additional insurance, Lee? Think we need it?”
It was Crane’s turn to shrug, an enigmatic grin appearing briefly. “Can’t hurt. Especially if your theory is correct.”
Solemn blue eyes met direct amber ones and Chip nodded slowly, appreciating the trust and belief that Lee had in him. Morton wasn’t a trained agent but Lee knew him so thoroughly that he wouldn’t dismiss the legitimate concerns Chip had over his last mission. Any more than Chip would ignore Lee’s sage advice. “Give me fifteen minutes. And I need to make a couple calls.”
Lee departed and Chip crossed to the safe and spun the dial. As he slotted the first disc into the CPU, he pulled his wallet from his back pocket and fished out his credit card. His first call was to a local florist whose number was on speed-dial. And who already had his credit card details – unfortunately he’d been this route before. Never had it mattered to him so much.
The second was more difficult. “Angie? I’m so sorry. I hate like hell to have to do this.”
Her tinkling laughter brightened up what had turned into a dark day. “Story of my life, sailor. I’m a Navy brat, remember? So I’m used to this. We’ll just have to re-schedule. You’re not off the hook yet. By the time we have this dinner, I’ll be so hungry it’ll make the famous Morton appetite seem like a myth!”
The flight to Washington was relatively short and uneventful. The same couldn’t be said for the ensuing meeting. Beckett was incandescent with rage; much of it directed Chip Morton’s way. Present also were the deputy director of ONI, Vice Admiral Samuel Todd and Beckett’s aide, Lt. Peter Devlin, the latter known to both Crane and Morton from the Academy, Devlin having been in their year.
Beckett’s attack on Chip was blistering and both Nelson and Crane bristled with indignation at the unwarranted treatment. Morton accepted the scorching dressing down with an impassive expression and implacable stoicism - only his close friends saw the momentary flash of hurt and confusion in his blue eyes before the trademark XO mask descended. The ONI director’s scathing diatribe berated Morton’s handling of the mission from his importunate landing to the verification of the discs.
Lee had opened his mouth to defend his friend at the slur on his parachuting skills but Chip’s almost imperceptible headshake had him swallowing the defence he was about to impart. Nelson’s intimate association with the two saw the instantaneous by-play but allowed no reaction to show, following Chip’s lead – to where he had no idea, but prepared to trust his men. Both his officers, having been invited to sit before the invective began, were perched on the edge of their respective chairs. Nelson was on a slow boil, which wasn’t immediately apparent to anyone but Lee Crane – or so he thought. But Sam Todd had noted the thinning of Nelson’s lips and the flared nostrils indicating an imminent eruption. Todd’s interruption halted the ONI Director in mid flow.
“Hunt, you didn’t bring these officers here just to shout at them, did you? Perhaps it’s time to let Commander Morton speak.” The Vice Admiral didn’t wait for Beckett’s agreement but nodded at Chip to begin. With an irritated “harrumph” – worth of Nelson – Beckett almost threw himself into a chair still staring accusingly at the ultra composed commander.
“May I ask what is the problem with the discs, Sir?” Chip’s voice was steady and respectful, not cowed, no hint of nerves showing. “When I examined them….”
“The problem? The problem is they’re bloody useless, Morton!” The ONI director drew himself upright, slamming both hands onto the desk, his stance and sarcastic tone overtly aggressive. None of the three Seaview officers budged, Beckett’s intimidating pose getting him precisely nowhere – something one of the most powerful men in the US Navy was unused to and which further annoyed the already furious admiral. “The problem is you f***ed up!” Beckett was yelling now, his face red, practically incoherent with rage at his inability to ruffle the blond’s composure. “They told me you were an expert.” His sneer made the last sound like a dirty word. “An expert screw-up!”
“Enough!” Nelson’s bellow, accompanied by a decisive slicing motion of his hand, brought the other man up short. “I won’t stand for my officer being treated this way, Beckett. Your foul language nothwithstanding, you chose Commander Morton for this mission, fully cogniscent of the fact that he has little or no covert training. You insisted that this assignment was on a need to know basis, thus denying the commander any opportunity to further his survival skills. You were the one who sent him in there trusting on Seaview and Commander Crane’s expertise to effect his extraction – without giving us even the rudimentary Intel that we were likely to engage a heavily armed hostile force. It’s a testament to these officers, who have so diligently trained their crew, that they are both alive today and that you have the discs – in whatever form they take. And I think you owe Commander Morton an apology.”
Lee, concern for his seemingly-to-be-hung-out-to-dry friend uppermost, spared a quick glance around the assembled company. Beckett’s complexion was now almost white, the red tide of anger having faded in the face of Nelson’s heated defence. His lean frame shook with fury as he came to the realisation that, although retired, the four-star admiral outranked his two-star category.
Todd, a heavily built greying mid-fifties, looked slightly amused at the carry on of the two combatants and, Lee filed the next away for further review, Devlin sported a decided sneer, which was wiped clean the moment he became aware of Crane’s scrutiny. A quick check on Nelson – in his element – and Chip – supremely composed and in control, only the slight shading in his normally clear blue eyes revealing his true feelings. And only to one who knew him as all but a birth brother.
Lee could tell Chip was badly shaken by the lack of confidence in him. It didn’t show in either his expression, posture or demeanour. But it shrieked its presence to his oldest, closest friend. Chip had confided to Lee, during his stay in Med Bay and after his release to his condo, his apprehensions regarding the mission and they had discussed possible repercussions and how they were to be handled, if Chip was correct in his beliefs – and Lee was convinced he was spot on.
Beckett snorted at the suggestion of an apology but subsided back into his seat. Nelson nodded at Chip to continue.
“May I see the discs, Sir?”
Devlin, mid thirties and fair haired like Chip but there the similarities ended, on receiving his boss’s acquiescence, slid the package of discs down the table towards Morton, who retrieved his laptop from his briefcase, booted it up and inserted the first disc. Silence reigned as they watched the blond officer exchange discs without anything showing on his impassive features. Almost fifteen minutes passed before Chip raised his head from the screen.
“Admiral, these discs have been tampered with. Much of the information has been either wiped or distorted since I last saw them, rendering them entirely useless. It’s not possible that this was accidental.” Morton’s blue eyes didn’t flinch or evade contact with the ONI brass as he delivered the unwelcome news.
“Shit, Morton, I know they’re useless! I didn’t bring you all the way here to have you tell me that!” Beckett’s sarcasm rankled with both Nelson and Crane but Chip took it on the chin. “What I want to know is why the hell didn’t you bloody well ascertain that before we went to the trouble of retrieving you and that…that load of worthless…crap!” A dismissive wave of his hand indicating the pile of discs at Chip’s side, coupled with the open frustration in his voice, indicated Beckett’s extreme displeasure with the whole affair – and principally with Morton’s part in it. “I’m going to recommend a severe reprimand be noted on your record, Mister. Hell, I’d bust you back to Plebe, if I could! Damn time waster!”
“Now just a damn minute!” Nelson’s roar halted the incensed two-star admiral and both Todd and Devlin jumped. The ensuing argument between the two and four-star admirals had the ONI subordinates’ heads bobbing as if they were attending a tennis match.
Crane grinned internally while outwardly showing nothing of the euphoria he felt at his admiral’s defence of his XO. He cast a sidelong glance at Chip who appeared to be taking Beckett’s outburst in stride. Knowing his friend’s expertise at hiding his true feelings, Lee was concerned that Chip would internalise the hurt that this lack of belief in his ability must surely result. Right now, though, Morton exuded supreme confidence and a small niggle of worry wend its way down Lee’s back. Chip was up to something, he could feel it, knowing his adopted sibling as well as he did, better indeed than many true brothers knew each other. He only hoped, for all their sakes, that Chip didn’t intend putting himself in the line of fire.
Lee couldn’t get Ski’s description of Li Wu’s demise out of his head and, if he needed a reminder, the slight ache left over from the bullet wound in his shoulder chose that precise moment to make itself felt. He knew Chip had to be hurting too. His leg wasn’t back to full usage yet and he could tell by the cautious way Morton changed position that the cracked ribs weren’t fully healed and made their presence felt when sitting or standing for too long. Chip tried not to wince or show any discomfort but Lee had been there often enough to recognise the signs.
“Sirs. Admiral Nelson. The discs have been worked on since the last time I saw them. I can assure you that these discs are not in the same condition I saw three weeks ago.”
Chip’s cool response went a long way towards ratcheting Lee’s internal worry meter sky high. Plus it was oh-so-unlike his oh-so-correct exec to interrupt a superior officer. Lee almost groaned aloud. He wanted to shut his friend up before he opened his mouth again but knew, for Chip’s sake, that he couldn’t.
“I studied those discs for two whole days until the battery ran down on the laptop. I know them as well as the programmers’ who wrote them.” Chip proceeded to explain how he figured the deliberate damage to the discs had been rendered before dropping in blithely. “ However, I’m pretty sure I can reconstruct them from memory.”
“How sure?” Beckett’s harsh tone supported his earlier disbelief in Morton’s capabilities.
“100 percent sure, Admiral.” Came the confident reply.
Lee groaned audibly as he realised that his friend had just set himself up as bait.
“I want to know what the hell you two are up to!” Nelson wrenched at his tie and popped his collar button, shedding his jacket as he crossed to the wet bar in the suite and poured a generous measure of the single malt the Four Seasons Hotel stocked for him. Indicating to his two officers to help themselves, his piercing blue gaze refused to let them off the hook. They’d left the Pentagon, ostensibly for Morton to work on the reconstruction of the discs before the following day’s meeting.
“Actually, it’s more him than me, Admiral.” Crane defended himself as he poured smaller tots for Chip and himself, nailing his way-too-innocent looking friend with a glare. “And I’d like to know the same thing! You’re trying to draw him out, aren’t you?” He passed one of the glasses across to the now seated blond who’d opened up his laptop on the coffee table. “Forcing him come after you. Why? Surely there’s another….”
“Quickest way to end this, Lee.” Chip frowned as he pushed a disc into the drive unit, absently running a hand along the healing scar above his left eye. Jamie’s neat stitches had been removed ten days or so ago and the red weal was slowly fading. It still pulled a little when he puckered his brow, reminding him of its presence. There was no concealing it, his military-short haircut unequal to the task. Jamieson had guaranteed him that in six months it would hardly be noticeable. Chip had shrugged off the assurance – he wasn’t vain about his appearance. But it reminded him of the similar scar Angie bore on her forehead, courtesy of the Puppet Master affair, and he thanked God for both Jamie’s talent as a surgeon, her resilience and her feminine ability to hide the now faint reminder beneath a newly adopted hairstyle.
“You might have mentioned that you were planning this.” Lee’s tone was a tad sarcastic as he watched his friend concentrate on the screen, Chip’s fingers flying across the keyboard.
“I wasn’t – not really.” Morton’s response was vague, only part of his attention on Lee’s words. “It just seemed – appropriate – in the circumstances.”
Nelson cleared his throat loudly, reminding his subordinates that he still awaited an explanation. “Either of you care to clue me in here, Gentlemen? I’m feeling rather at a loss just now.” More order than request, Lee glanced at Chip to check if he wanted to take up the gauntlet. Morton’s concentration on the computer indicated that Lee should present their theory. Nelson was suitably miffed at having been left in ignorance and made it known to the XO.
Morton’s apology was a little distracted as his attention sharpened on the screen in front of him. “Sorry, Sir, but I really needed something more before I could move against whoever is running this show. My ‘theory’ alone wasn’t sufficient to make any accusations stick.”
“And you now have that ‘something more’, Commander?” Nelson’s tone was droll, intrigued by the intense expression on his exec’s rapt features. He thanked the Divine daily for bringing Chip’s inordinate skills and particularly his expertise in computers – there was no-one more capable of defending or deciphering Seaview’s increasing dependence on the machines than her XO – to his attention when he had conceived his dream. But his unease grew as he realised what Chip had done – namely hung himself out to dry. He could see that Lee was equally worried.
“I think so, Admiral.” Chip’s fingers continued to fly across the keys, fascinating both his senior officers who were at best proficient with the machines. He glanced upwards and correctly interpreted the almost glazed looks on their faces, powering down as he realised their need for verbal explanation. “All I really had before today was conjecture. Nothing concrete. I knew in my heart that the chute was sabotaged – I wasn’t expected to survive the landing. When I did, whoever masterminded this op had a Plan B. Make sure I didn’t get out with the discs. Without Li Wu I wouldn’t have had a chance. They conveniently got rid of her.” His voice hardened as he recalled Ski’s horrific account of her murdered body. Vengeance wasn’t in his make-up but he vowed that someone would pay dearly for the young woman’s death. “So I’m the only thing that stands between them and success. Or so they think.”
“And are they wrong, Chip?” Nelson’s tone had gentled.
Morton’s gaze connected briefly with Crane’s before he answered. “Yes, Admiral. I took the precaution of having Lee and Patterson copy the discs before sending them to Washington, Sir.”
“You have a copy to hand of the original discs?” At Morton’s nod, Nelson grin was almost evil. “Which is why you were sublimely confident of your ability to reconstruct them. And why you felt the need to withhold that information from all but Captain Crane.” The slight bite now in Nelson’s voice caused both subordinates to wince momentarily.
Recovering quickly. “No, Sir. I wasn’t confident enough in my theory without supporting information to drag anyone else into the fray, Sir.” Correct as ever, the XO outlined his incontrovertible decision. Nelson’s wave of his hand for him to continue allowed Chip to release the breath he hadn’t realised he was holding. “But knowing the NTK of this mission I surmised that the leak must be very close to the top of the chain. Hell, Sir, even Lee wasn’t cleared for the Intel! That in itself screamed a message to me.”
“To me too, Lad. Now that I’m privy to the full story. Or at least I hope I am!” Nelson warned, levering himself with difficulty out of his chair to refill his glass. Holding the decanter out to his officers and receiving their negatives headshakes, he replaced the stopper and reclined again in his chair, iterating rather drolly. “So today you laid yourself out deliberately to trap the mole. And you do have a backup plan in place, I’ll warrant?”
Chip’s gaze slid to Lee. “There’s a further copy of the original discs in my safe back at the Institute, Sir, with instructions. I mailed Debbie to hand it over to Chief Sharkey in the event of anything happening to me. The chief’s instructions are to deliver it personally to Admiral Starke.”
Nelson raised his eyes to high Heaven. Why should he be surprised? That his officers had secured the information before they’d formatted a plan to secure themselves.
Lee correctly interpreted his look and jumped in to defend his friend. “Admiral, there wasn’t a lot of time to formulate any elaborate plan. As Chip has explained, there was an extremely narrow band in the NTK on this operation. The six of us in the mission debrief today are it, Sir. And we can discount the three of us.”
Nelson jerked upright almost spilling his drink, noting that Morton was watching his reaction carefully, waiting for his call on the insult to the Director and Deputy Director of ONI. He settled back, sipping his drink slowly and assimilating the information as would a disconnected observer.
“You suspect the Director of the Office of Naval Intelligence, Chip?”
“No, Sir. Not really.” His first words had Nelson’s brow clearing, his later ones saw the frown re-appear. Morton carried on hurriedly, cheeks flushing slightly. “Unless he’s a darn good actor, Admiral. I saw his face when I was attempting to explain how the discs had been doctored and he hadn’t got a clue what I was talking about. Now it wouldn’t take an expert but it would mean someone with at least a fairly advanced knowledge of computers. I doubt you or Lee could do it, Admiral.”
“Not a clue, son, that’s why I keep you around.” Nelson freely admitted, his grin sardonic at the backhanded compliment he paid his XO.
“It went totally over my head at the Academy, Chip, you know that. I’d never even have passed Basic USDL without your tutoring.” Lee grinned, recalling the nights Chip had sat up with him going over the fundamentals of computer speak. The whole IT genre had been like an accommodating friend to Morton while Crane had struggled to master anything beyond the basics. Language skills had come easy to Lee and he’d reciprocated by helping Chip through the difficulties he’d encountered there. It was what had made them an unbeatable team at Annapolis – their individual intelligence powerful enough to get them separately noticed but their combined strengths, coupled with the close bond of friendship that existed between them, ensured their rise to the top of their year. And in Nelson’s opinion would see both earn flag rank in the future.
Nelson drew them back to the prescient conversation. “So Admiral Beckett is a non-runner, so to speak. Good. I’ve known Hunt Beckett for close on forty years and I’ve rarely known a man more true to flag and country. I’d hate to be proved wrong about him. He can be a royal pain in the a… – posterior – but I’d stake my life on his loyalty.”
“What about Admiral Todd, sir?” Lee queried. “Would you vouch for him?”
“I don’t really know Sam Todd that well, Lee.” Nelson admitted, pulling a cigarette from his ever-present pack and lighting up. He contemplated the glowing tip for a moment before continuing. “He was several years ahead of me at the Academy, from memory, and wasn’t with ONI during my tenure. But his reputation is solid. He’s obviously impressed a lot of people to get to be DD of the ONI at his age.”
“You were younger when you got your fourth star, Sir.”
“Maybe, Lee, but I’d also pissed a lot of people by then too.” Nelson quipped wryly, causing both younger men to laugh. “What’s your read on Todd? You probably know him better than either Chip or I do.”
“I’ve met with him several times for mission briefings and de-briefs, Admiral. He always struck me as a straight up guy, good officer - cares about the men he sends into the field.” A snort from the armchair reminded Lee of the argument between Nelson and Beckett several weeks earlier. “Good tactical planner too, thorough, leaves little to chance but allows the operatives enough rope to play with when things don’t quite go down as they should.” The snort this time came from Morton – it seemed to Chip as if none of Lee’s assignments with ONI went to plan, usually resulting in his friend coming back either physically or emotionally injured and his own recent experience hadn’t convinced him any different. “I find it hard to picture him as a traitor, Sir.”
“Hmm.” Nelson didn’t comment either way, just took a long, unhealthy drag of his cigarette. He chose to ignore the identical disapproving looks he got from his two younger officers, knowing if Jamieson had been around that he would have been more vocal in his censure. “And Beckett’s aide, the lieutenant?”
“Devlin, sir.” He noted the quick glance that was exchanged before Lee answered. “He was in our year at Annapolis but we… didn’t run with the same crowd.”
“What Lee is trying to say, Admiral, is that Devlin wasn’t universally liked at the Academy. In fact, I’m still surprised he stayed the course.”
“That’s not quite fair, Chip. He just wasn’t very athletic, Sir. He had a good brain but he wasn’t up to some of the more physical aspects of the training….”
Chip snorted derisively. “Up to it? He was constantly in the lowest ten percent. He had a hard time getting picked on any teams because they knew he couldn’t pull his weight. And he made himself even more unpopular by complaining about it. The squad leader then decided that he should rotate between the teams – to be fair to everyone. So he didn’t endear himself to anybody. Fact is he didn’t really want a career in the Navy but he comes from an old Navy family and couldn’t get out of it. I think he’d have been happy to have the excuse of flunking out. And I only found that out when I went to work at the Pentagon and met him again.” A shadow crossed Chip’s face – his days riding a desk weren’t the happiest of his life.
Knowing where his friend’s thoughts were taking him, Lee hurriedly moved things on. “Peter went straight to a desk post, didn’t he, Chip?”
Morton shrugged. “Think so. Don’t ever remember hearing that he served anywhere else. But then I didn’t particularly follow his career after we left the Academy. No reason to – we weren’t exactly friends.”
Sensing the exec’s darkened mood – and the reason – Nelson attempted to lighten things up a little. “Unlike the two of you, heh? Although the way you sometimes harangue your CO, Chip, I wonder at his perseverance in maintaining the friendship!”
Chip’s grin almost split his face while Lee rolled his eyes dramatically. “At last! Someone recognises the trial Chip can be!”
“Who, me, Sir?” Morton’s expression was all innocence. “I think I deserve a medal for putting up with you! The times I’ve been tempted to fire you out a torpedo tube! Come to think of it, I probably deserve another medal for my restraint!”
“Hah! Not to mention the one I deserve for putting up with your nagging!”
Nelson pointedly cleared his throat, his ploy having achieved the desired result – both men’s eyes were sparkling – and, while he enjoyed their by-play, there was serious business afoot. “So we are agreed? Devlin is the most likely candidate?”
Chip’s nod was immediate and decisive while Lee’s was hesitant. “Just because he wasn’t the most popular guy in class….”
“That’s not it at all, Lee.” Chip protested. “By a process of elimination, he’s it. If we’re agreed it’s not Beckett….” to positive nods from both. “And happy that it’s most probably not Todd….” an emphatic nod from Crane and an agreeable shrug from Nelson. “Then Devlin is our prime suspect.”
“I hate to think it, Chip, Admiral. Moreover, I dislike accusing him based on our assessment of his capabilities on the PT field almost fifteen years ago. Feels to me like we’re making him the scapegoat here.” Lee was plainly unhappy.
“I swear, Lee, you’d try to see his good side if Adolf Hitler stood in front of you.” Chip’s tone was light but there was a serious background note.
Lee Crane was renowned for seeing only the good in others – until he got his face stamped on. Usually his innate sixth sense allowed him to predict unsavoury situations and had saved his bacon on too-many-to-discount-it times. But he really, really wanted to believe in the goodness of his fellow man and had to be practically yanked back from the brink before he could admit that sometimes his fellow man was fundamentally flawed. Not that Crane was naďve enough to think that all men were honest and true – his career to date had disillusioned him of that - but he had an inherent hope that there was sufficient good in each person he met and had to be proved wrong before he could accept otherwise. It made for a wonderful friend – and a deadly enemy.
Nelson called order before Lee could refute his XO’s statement. “We are agreed – unanimously! Devlin is the most obvious suspect. And he must make his move before Chip can reconstruct any of the missing data. Chip, you didn’t give Hunt any timeline for your amazing recall ability. Which means it’s likely our enemy will affect a strike before we meet with Beckett again tomorrow. He won’t risk you having total recall or want to give you any opportunity to expose him – if that were possible. As he’s privy to the level of Intel this assignment necessitated, he can’t afford to jeopardise his position so he’ll need to act fast. You’re going to be the primary target – much to my dislike – and he will come after you first. Now we have three rooms on this floor, but only our cell phones to maintain contact plus we aren’t armed. Everything we’ve got is aboard FS1.”
It was Morton’s turn to clear his throat. “Not exactly, Admiral. When Lee informed me that we’d been called to Washington, I took the liberty of bringing along a few devices I thought we could make use of. And a sidearm each plus as much spare ammo as I could pack.” Chip began to pull apart the lining of his sturdy briefcase, dispensing a number of appliances familiar to his senior officers along with each of their preferred sidearm – a Beretta 92 Semi-auto for Crane, a sturdy if slightly older model Colt Double Eagle 8 Round for Nelson and his own personal favourite – the Sig-Sauer Pro 9mm with 15 rounds to a clip, like Crane’s Beretta.
As Chip laid the hardware out on the coffee table, along with the accompanying ammunition for each, Nelson shook his head, a hand to his temple in disbelief. “Chip, tell me – please – that you didn’t haul that little lot past Security at the Pentagon?”
Morton’s Nordic complexion flushed a deep red. “Ahh, Sir, it’s a programme I’ve been kinda tinkering with - a… sort of cloaking device for metal particles to confuse the regular scanners we’re using at airports and at risk locations. I.. ah.. didn’t mention it yet cos it’s a bit away from being of any real use. I thought this might be a preliminary test today. Sort of using you, Sir, if it had all backfired, so to speak.” Realising he was digging himself in deeper, Seaview’s exec elected to shut up and await the resulting fallout.
There was a discommoding silence for a few worrying seconds before Nelson’s bark of disbelieving laughter was heard. “Commander, I applaud your chutzpah! You can take it that’s it’s proven! You evaded the sensors at the Pentagon today with your ‘cloaking device’ – and I’d dearly like a further demonstration when we’re on the other side of this mess. I can’t believe that you could keep this from me, Commander. There’s serious recognition in the offing for a discovery of this magnitude.”
Chip’s absolute abhorrence was clear in his facial expression. “Sir, now we’ve proved it works, we need to urgently find a way to counteract it. Can you imagine what could happen if it fell into the wrong hands or, God forbid, if our enemies already have it? I had an idea for a….”
“Hold on, Chip.” Nelson smiled gently, delighted at the younger man’s enthusiasm but needing to maintain their concentration on the issue at hand. “One problem at a time. I’ll be very happy to hear your thoughts on this after we resolve our current situation. But my congratulations, Chip. I’m just glad you’re on our side!”
Lee’s look was both fond and proud; his friend constantly amazed him. He shook his head with a grin wondering where Chip found time in his busy schedule to come up with these innovations. And Nelson and Jamieson called him a workaholic!
Chip tossed his briefcase onto the bed, noting the supremely efficient hotel staff had already deposited his duffle on the ottoman. His jacket followed and he pulled at his tie as he looked around. While not on the scale of Nelson’s suite, the room was large and airy with a king size bed that beckoned alluringly. He admitted to himself that he’d like nothing better than to test its comfort – his first day back on the job officially was proving to be rather more than he’d expected. His leg was beginning to protest and his ribs ached. But he’d arranged to meet Lee and the admiral for dinner in the restaurant on the first floor in twenty minutes so even a power nap was out of the question. Deciding a wash and shave would freshen him sufficiently to get through dinner and the late night activity they had agreed was likely to take place, Chip dug a fresh shirt and his shaving kit out of his bag and entered the bathroom, closing the door behind him.
He whistled in appreciation at the opulent fixtures before deciding that he really didn’t have time to try out the double shower or the Jacuzzi bath. What a waste for a single man on his own! Grinning at the thought, he shrugged off his shirt, splashed cold water on his face before lathering it with foam and drawing a precise path through said foam with the razor.
A moue of regret crossed his face as he recalled his earlier plans for the evening – and they weren’t having dinner with his two senior officers! He wondered how Angie had decided to spend one of her rare free evenings while he buttoned his cuffs as he exited the bathroom.
He was totally unprepared for the noose that dropped around his neck as he entered the bedroom, his hands reflexively rising to prevent the ligature from tightening further even as a savage punch to his left side doubled him up as it impacted the barely healed ribs and he was forced to claw for breath, falling forwards only to be held upright by the same person who had punched him. The man behind him – smaller in stature but equally strong – took advantage of Morton’s diminished strength, wrenching his arms behind his back and tying them together with the remainder of the rope that encircled his neck. He struggled briefly, earning himself a blow to the jaw that snapped his head back and cut off his airway, before realising that every move on his part attempting to loosen the bonds on his wrists meant the constriction of the rope around his neck and the diminution of oxygen in his lungs. He forced himself to stay still, cursing himself for a fool in thinking that they would wait until after dark to attack. He’d under-estimated the desperation of the enemy and he was going to pay for it now.
Chip had been unable to see the man behind him – the one wielding the blows was unfamiliar – but he recognised the voice. “Easy, don’t mark him. This has to look like an accident. Put him on the bed for now. I need to find those discs – make sure he hasn’t worked on them.”
Morton was shoved unceremoniously in the direction of the bed that had seemed so inviting mere minutes ago. He sprawled inelegantly on the plush coverlet and gasped for breath as the hemp bit savagely into his throat almost cutting off his windpipe.
“Careful!” The contemptuous, mocking tone chided his sidekick. “We don’t want to mark him. At least not if we get what we’re here for. You’re dead either way, Morton, you know that, don’t you? But the terms of your demise are in your own hands.”
The blond exec closed his eyes briefly, his only hope lay in Lee and Nelson registering that something was amiss when he failed to show for dinner. Their supposition had been that Devlin would strike late that night. He bit back a savage epithet – he hadn’t even managed to set up the surveillance equipment he’d brought along. Chip mentally castigated himself for underestimating the cunning of this enemy. He’d been well and truly caught on the hop.
Lee forced himself to desist from pacing. It wasn’t the done thing in the up-scale bar in one of Washington’s premier hotels. “It’s not like Chip, Admiral. He’s Mr. anal-retentive Punctual! Always has been. Since the first day I met him.”
“As he’s fond of saying – ‘Chill, Lee.’” Nelson chided, sipping his drink, an amused smile lifting the corners of his mouth. “Remember, it’s his first day back on un-restricted duty. Jamie would probably have a conniption fit if he saw the state Chip’s in right now. More than likely he lay down for a few minutes and discovered how tired he was. He’ll be down any minute now, totally embarrassed. Here, have a drink and – chill!” Nelson pushed Lee’s watered down whiskey into his captain’s hand, urging him wordlessly to relax.
“Maybe I should give him a call. Wake him up if he did fall asleep.”
“Easy, Lad! He’s got a hard night ahead of him, if we’re on the right track. I think we can afford to allow him a few extra minutes before you start in on him for being late!”
“I can’t open it! There’s some sort of code.”
“Damn it. You’re supposedly an expert. You should be able to tap into it without any problems!” Devlin snapped at his henchman.
“He’s got some complex programme securing it that won’t let me access it – even using the usual backdoors.” Chip would have smiled with satisfaction – if he’d had the energy. His head was pounding and his breathing was uncomfortably restricted, both from the bonds that tied him and the new pain in his ribs. He could barely move on the bed without the rope around his neck tightening further. But they couldn’t get into his laptop. That gave him not a little feeling of contentment – both that his newly adapted programme worked and the fact that it was buying him time.
But not enough. A hand buried itself in his short fair hair, wrenching his head back until the rope bit savagely and he was forced to gasp for breath. “Tell us, Morton. The code, we need the code. You can make this easy on yourself. You’re gonna die anyway. Why be stubborn? Just give me the code – NOW!” There was a measure of desperation in Devlin’s voice and Chip took great pleasure – despite the pain that resulted – in shaking his head. He felt the depression in the mattress as the slighter man came closer but was unprepared for Devlin tightening his hold on Chip’s hair and shoving him face down into the pillow, cutting off his airway. He’d had no time to gulp even a breath and was quickly struggling to free himself from the suffocating pressure, the ligature doubly restricting his air intake as the noose tightened.
As suddenly as it had begun, the pressure lessened as Devlin flung himself away from Chip. “He’s going to play the ‘officer and gentleman’ to the hilt, Dave. We’re not going to get anything out of him. Just grab the discs and then shoot him.”
“Shoot him? You said this had to look like an accident.” The other assailant’s voice was younger, hesitant.
“Fat chance of that now! He’s thrashed about enough so he’s got marks on his neck and wrists, not to mention the damage you inflicted with your punches. I warned you about that! You’re a fool, Morton! I’d planned it to look like a most unfortunate accident with a short in one of the bathroom sockets. Now you’re forcing me to make it messy!”
“Hey, Devlin, there’s two sets of discs here.”
“WHAT??” Chip cautiously turned himself so he could see the two men examining the contents of his briefcase. “Clever, Morton, really clever. You copied the discs before you sent them to Washington. That’s how you were so sure you could re-construct them! You always were a detail merchant, even back at the Academy. And I’ll lay odds that you have another set stashed away somewhere – just in case, haven’t you?” Chip’s continuing silence infuriated him and he pulled a silenced pistol from his waistband, pushing it painfully against Chip’s left temple. “This how you want your friends to find you, Morton? With your brains spattered all over the bed? You think you’ve won, don’t you? Well, you haven’t. Oh, maybe ONI will get the information this time but you’ll be history and my cover’s still intact. There’ll be other opportunities for me to serve my masters. Nothing to say, Chip? No last minute requests?”
Devlin’s tone jeered the bound man who knew he was as close to death as he had ever been. Chip’s heart was pounding even as he continued to stall for time. “Why?”
“Why? Why what? Why did I sabotage your mission? Why do I work for the enemies of our great Nation? Simple, really – the money’s good. And the satisfaction of knowing that I’m getting the last laugh on my sainted father who insisted that I join the bloody Navy in the first place. And I’ll tell you truthfully, Morton, the fact that it was you provided an additional incentive.”
“For God’s sake, Devlin. Just do him and let’s get out of here.” His companion was becoming increasingly nervous as Devlin continued almost conversationally.
“Shut up! We’ll leave when I’m finished. Did you know that I disliked you from the moment I met you, Chip? Crane too, but you more. It was all so easy for you. At the Academy, the studies, the training – everything. And you really wanted to be there. Unlike me. Then your father pulled some strings and got you assigned to the Pentagon. Would my old man do that? Not hardly – stand on your own too feet, boy! That’s what he told me. What’s the use of having a father who’s an Admiral if he can’t use his connections to pull strokes for his only son? Yours wasn’t even Navy! And what do you do? Up stakes at the first opportunity and sign on with Nelson! Never could understand that! Then you team up with Crane again and all I bloody hear is ‘Nelson’s golden boys’! So yeah, when I learnt you were assigned that mission I had a few of my pals arrange a little accident for you. But you managed to survive somehow and….”
The ringing of a cell phone cut him off. The noise came from Chip’s jacket pocket at the end of the bed. Devlin flipped it open and checked the caller identity. “It’s Crane. You better talk to him. He’s probably wondering where you are. Tell him anything you like but keep him out of here. He comes through that door and he’s as dead as you’re gonna be.”
He pushed the answer button and held the phone to Chip’s ear. “Morton.” Chip cleared his dry throat. “Lee, what time is it? Must have fallen asleep. Sorry. No, I’m not really hungry. Give the admiral my apologies and I’ll see you in the morning.” He could have given Lee a coded message that would have had them racing to the rescue but he couldn’t – wouldn’t - put his friends at risk. “Goodnight, Lee.”
Devlin closed the phone with a snap and tossed it aside. “Very convincing. You know, your admiral is oh-so-predictable. Always stays in the same hotel when he comes to Washington. And the staff here are so helpful. Only too happy to tell me your room number and the details of your dinner booking. Made it almost too easy really.
Lee hung up, a pensive look on his face as he ran his right hand in a distracted gesture through his short black hair. “Something’s not right, Admiral. Chip wouldn’t miss dinner like that. And his voice – at the end – he sounded – almost sad.”
Nelson picked up his just freshened drink and took a healthy sip. “A little melodramatic, Lee, eh? Maybe he’s too tired to eat. It’s been a long day for his first day back at work.”
Crane shook his head decisively, his highly attuned sixth sense telling him something was happening with his oldest friend – something that didn’t bode well for his health. “No, Admiral. It’s not that. Chip’s never too tired to eat, no matter how exhausted he is. I’ve got a feeling he was trying to tell me something.”
“Like what? If he’d needed help he’d have used some sort of trigger word, to let us know, wouldn’t he?”
“Not if he knew we’d be walking into something dangerous!” Even before he’d finished speaking, Lee was almost flying out of the bar, throwing the last words over his shoulder. Nelson followed, trusting his young captain’s instincts; which had proved wise too many times to discount now.
Emerging from the elevator, Lee pulled the Beretta from the back of his waist and checked the clip, pushing it firmly back into the stock and thumbing off the safety. Nelson did likewise with his Colt.
A startled gasp had both men spinning in time to see a young Hispanic chambermaid drop the load of bed linen she was carrying onto the carpeted floor at the sight of the two uniformed gun toting men.
Crane raised his hands in the universal non-threatening pose. “No grite.” Don’t scream. He instantly saw a way to confirm his suspicions regarding Chip’s situation – if he could get the young woman’s help. He slowly and carefully bent down and placed the pistol on the floor, straightening up again with his hands back at shoulder height. He took a few cautious steps towards her. “Quizás usted puede ayudarme.” Maybe you can help me. He saw a flash of curiosity and intelligence in her dark brown eyes, as she looked him up and down and past him to do the same with Nelson who had followed Lee’s example and raised his hands while still holding onto his gun.
A low stream of Spanish flowed from Crane as he explained what he wanted her to do.
The staccato knock on the door had all three men freezing. “Housekeeping!” The light female voice in broken English had two of the three relaxing – Chip remained tense. He really didn’t want a female walking into this. Devlin pressed the gun harder against his temple. “Not a word. Get rid of her.” He hissed at his cohort as the tapping resumed.
“Turn down service, sir.” The words were almost sung out.
The younger man walked towards the door. “It’s OK. I don’t need the service, thanks anyway.”
Crane’ eyes connected momentarily with Nelson’s over the head of the young woman holding a pile of fresh towels, stationed as they were either side of the door. That confirmed it. Not Chip’s voice. He signalled wordlessly to the maid to continue. She really was a trooper. Once she’d ascertained that Lee and Nelson were the good guys – the admiral’s title and their uniforms going a long way towards establishing their credibility – she’d entered into the plan with gusto. Crane had given her very specific instructions. If she could, she was to persuade the person or persons inside the room to open the door. Then she was to get the hell out of there.
The man’s voice was becoming irritable as she persisted. “You like some mineral water, sir, or some chocolate?” “No, thank you.”
“I need to change the towels. Please, sir.” She winked at Crane, despite the tension she sensed radiating from him he really was muy hermoso! Very handsome. Her accent became more pronounced. “Please, seńor. I don’t do my job, I maybe get fired!”
There was a short pause, followed by the key turning in the lock inside the room. Crane gently tried to pull the girl aside but she resisted, firmly standing her ground with the mound of towels in her arms. The door opened a scant few inches and, despite Lee’s instructions, she stepped into the space, thrusting the towels into the hands of the man standing there, using her hip to widen the opening.
Distracted by her unexpectedly aggressive manoeuvre, the man stepped back, his arms full of fluffy white cotton. It was the opportunity Crane and Nelson needed. They exploded into the room, Crane high left, Nelson low right, Crane taking down the startled towel bearer with an arm across his neck, using him as a shield while both he and Nelson trained their guns on the other two occupants of the room.
Devlin dug the barrel of his pistol into the short blond hair of the man he held prisoner on the bed. Cruelly he tugged Chip’s head even further back, causing him to choke as the rope caught his windpipe.
“Give it up, Devlin.” Nelson’s resonant voice ordered surrender. Worry for his downed exec didn’t colour his tone as he took in the scene instantaneously. The risk to Morton was significant. Devlin’s gun was jammed tight against Chip’s temple and the XO was clawing for every breath as the rope slowly strangled him. His captor’s eyes were feral, almost hyper as he sought a means of escape. “You can kill Morton, but you won’t get out of here alive.”
Unbelievably Devlin began to giggle, a maniacal gurgling that exited his throat and bubbled from his lips. “That’s…that’s almost funny, Admiral. I’m dead, either way. You kill me or they kill me – what’s the difference. This way I can take him with me. He’s my alter ego, did you know that? He’s what my father wanted me to be. You know how many times I heard it from him? Why can’t you be more like Morton? Get serious, boy. Don’t dawdle. You want to make Lt. Cmdr. like Morton, don’t you? How come Nelson picked Morton for Seaview, what’s wrong with you, boy? Look at Morton, boy, he’s XO of the best sub in any man’s Navy and what are you? A lieutenant and likely to remain one until you die! Shamed the name, boy. This family has a history of success in the armed forces of this country and not one ended their career as less than a four striper. You’re dragging down one of the finest names in this country’s military force, boy. Do something to make yourself known. Something, boy! Anything!”
Devlin’s voice rose at the last and he dug the gun even deeper into Morton’s fair hair while his hand wound tighter into the rope. “Not quite what I think you had in mind, Dad!”
Several things happened instantly. Morton sensed Devlin’s finger tighten on the trigger and with his last ounce of strength he bucked furiously under the slighter man, attempting to dislodge his hold, using his legs to throw Devlin off balance. Several gunshots sounded almost simultaneously and Chip felt an intense burning pain in the top of his left arm followed by the extreme tightening of the ligature around his neck, causing him to almost lose consciousness before Lee’s penknife was there, freeing him, allowing him to gulp in greedy lungfuls of welcome air. A further stroke of the knife released his bound hands and he sat up shakily.
“Easy, pal. You OK?” Lee was supporting him, his anxious voice finding reassurance in Chip’s nod even as Chip attempted to get control of his breathing. Morton swung his legs over the side of the bed as he tried to regain his equilibrium and put some distance between himself and the body of his captor. Devlin lay on his back on the bed, sightless eyes staring at the ceiling, the gun still between his slack fingers.
Nelson immediately contacted hotel security, who took Devlin’s still nameless accomplice under arrest pending the arrival of ONI operatives, the admiral’s second call having been to Beckett.
Lee was applying a towel in lieu of a pressure bandage onto Chip’s upper arm, the exec typically trying to downplay his injuries. Elena, the chambermaid, now that Lee had ascertained her name – and drawn from her most of her life history (she was paying her way through college by working nights as a chambermaid) was assisting him with the trying to appear un-injured exec.
The hotel room was soon swarming with people – police, coroner’s officials, ONI personnel, hotel management and an ambulance crew who were insisting that Chip needed to accompany them to the local hospital for treatment. Just where he really, really didn’t want to go – being less than a full day out of the clutches of NIMR’s medical staff.
Nelson felt for him – he really did. But he knew that Chip needed medical attention. Both for the bullet wound, the re-injured ribs – not that Chip had admitted to that but Nelson and Crane had both detected a reluctance to shift position and the shortness of breath he was experiencing – and the headache that he was downplaying big time but which was patently obvious to anyone who knew him well.
Beckett was demanding explanations – blustering for all he was worth, disbelief that his trusted aide could have been responsible for the near failure of this mission and Morton’s near death (an event that, when it was within mission parameters bore no relevance – which didn’t go unnoticed by Nelson). Todd was the voice of reason – the one to take charge and he rose hugely in Nelson’s estimation as he gently but firmly overrode Beckett’s vocal stress and tended to both his CO and the demands of the situation, ensuring Devlin’s accomplice – faced with his incarceration suddenly a songbird - was taken into military custody and gradually Morton’s room cleared.
Harriman Nelson decided he was taking command of his own staff. Lee was predictably occupied looking after his injured friend who – equally predictably - was irritably trying to brush off his ministrations. “Hunt, I’m out of here and I’m taking my men with me. Morton needs medical attention and I know him well enough to recognise that your people haven’t a prayer when it comes to his co-operation. So, here are the copies of the discs he made before the originals left Seaview. You’ve got our statements, Elena’s statement and all the physical evidence you need against Drummond,” Todd having been able to supply the name of Devlin’s accomplice from another branch of the services (which would in time lead to the revelation of enemy agents within various branches of the military). “So I’m requisitioning a staff car and taking FS1 back to Santa Barbara tonight. And you can like it or lump it!”
Morton howled! That was the only word for it when he discovered that his so-called friend had packed up his belongings, transported him - courtesy of a mild sedative from the MT’s which numbed the ache in his shoulder and ribs - onto FS1 and before he knew where he was, he was being received into Med Bay by a concerned Jamieson.
“No! I just got out of here! No fair!!” He knew in his heart and soul that his complaints were pathetic. Jamieson had examined him thoroughly while totally ignoring the vociferous protest.
“Easy, Chip.” Cogniscent of the frustration in his patient who had so recently endured almost three weeks of his care, coupled with Morton’s need for immediate attention, Jamie coolly attempted a compromise. “Work with me here, Chip. I know you hate to be back in my obnoxious clutches but I need your co-operation for the next twelve hours – no longer, I promise. You give me an assurance of that and I promise you, you can go home then – with Lee riding shotgun! Not that I’d expect anything different.”
“Twelve hours?” Morton was sceptical.
Jamieson knew the patient concerned was almost worse than Crane when it came to anything up to and sometimes including life-threatening injuries. “The bullet in your arm is lodged at an angle, Chip, it’s not deep just obscure. I could do it with a local – if you agree to stay here til tomorrow afternoon (it now being well after midnight California time). The alternative is a full anaesthetic and a mandatory stay of twenty four hours.” The medic in him would have preferred the latter but knowing the individual involved, he guessed he’d have a major fight on his hands as soon as Chip regained consciousness.
Jamie’s voice softened perceptibly. “I’m sorry this happened to you so soon after the ONI mission, Chip. I know what it took out of both you and Lee. And I’ll try to make this as easy on you as I can, if you’ll trust me to know what’s best for you. And for Lee.” Jamieson played his trump card. “The skipper’s so worried about you he can’t concentrate on the upcoming mission. He’s already obsessing on the supply details that you usually take care of and, coupled with his exhaustion after what happened in Washington and then flying you back here, frankly, Chip, I’m worried about him.”
As he’d expected, Morton turned a complete 360! From total wildcat to complete pussy cat – anything to get out of Sick Bay fast and back to supporting his friend. Not that it happened as quickly as he would have liked. Jamieson, having coerced his total co-operation, wasn’t hesitant in using his trusty hypo once he’d ascertained that Chip had suffered no serious head injury. He was concerned, however, at the re-injury to Chip’s healing ribs but, wrapping aside, there was little he could do apart from make the patient comfortable with muscle relaxants - and even that was beyond the parameters the exec allowed when he woke, predictably demanding that Jamieson keep his word and let him go – NOW.
“You can go – as soon as you’ve had something to eat and….”
“I’ll get something at home or Lee can stop somewhere and feed me on the way.” Chip was already trying to get out of the bed, anxious to be off before Jamieson found any reason to keep him.
“STOP! You missed dinner last night and breakfast this morning. You will eat something now, I will check you over one more time and then, Commander, you will go straight home. NO stops on the way. No paperwork or computer work – understood? No lifting anything heavy with that arm and use your voice as little as you can – you’re lucky there was no permanent damage to your larynx. You will spend the next twenty-four hours resting or, so help me, I’ll have your six back here so fast your head will spin! Do I make myself clear?” Jamieson’s expression was a mix of vexation, exasperation and cynical doubt that Morton was capable of following his orders. “You will take the medications I give you as prescribed and you will present yourself back here day after tomorrow for me to check that wound. Under no circumstances will you detour to your office or the boat before I see you again. Now, eat your lunch, get changed – Lee brought some clothes by earlier – and DO NOT attempt to leave before I see you!” The gruffness in his voice belied the fondness Jamieson had for the younger man and his mouth began to twitch at the corners as he viewed the scowl that came over Chip’s face at the list of instructions.
“Sheesh, Jamie, I’m not a baby! I’ve been taking care of myself for a long time now.” He growled, pinning the doctor with the icy blue glare that had seen seasoned sailors reduced to quivering wrecks.
“I’m very glad to hear it! Then maybe you’ll see the sense in following my rules and I’ll be able to certify you fit for Seaview’s cruise next week.” Came the tart response.
Chip glowered darkly. “Don’t even think about it, Jamie. You said yourself it’s only a flesh wound!”
“That’s not quite what I said and I’m more concerned about the ribs right now than the arm. But if you follow orders and you continue to heal as you did before I think you should be fine. However, there are no guarantees – and the final decision will be mine, Commander.” The use of Chip’s rank was a good indication of the gravity of Jamieson’s threat.
A tap on the door stopped whatever protest the blond was about to make but his mutinous expression didn’t change when the door was pushed open to reveal his nemesis – Sgt. Major Maguire with a lunch tray which she deposited on the trolley before crossing her arms and surveying him up and down. “This is the one that eats, right?”
Jamieson almost spluttered with laughter as Chip’s azure eyes turned glacial and his lips firmed into a thin line of intense dislike. The only saving grace about this sojourn in Med Bay was that he’d slept most of it away and hadn’t had to deal with HER! “As opposed to?” Chip’s voice would have cut through steel – if it hadn’t been so croaky.
“The other one. The one we have to threaten with IVs before he shuts up and does what he’s told.” There was a don’t-take-me-on quality to the middle-aged nurse’s posture and tone and Jamieson hoped fervently that Chip would heed it. He should have known better, he sighed ruefully. This could get nasty – not to mention loud. These two had taken an instant loathing to each other when Lee had been Maguire’s patient some months ago. While Will had been tempted to have her take care of Chip during his recent stay he’d been persuaded by Nelson that it mightn’t be the smartest move on his part. Luckily she’d been away on vacation but now he could see that she was almost spoiling for a fight with the blond officer. The best thing he could do would be to keep them apart until he could get Chip out of here. The upcoming cruise was a lengthy one and he didn’t particularly want to have to concern himself with possible retaliation from the exec for almost six weeks.
“Nurse, could you please call the Administration building and inform Captain Crane that the commander is just about ready to leave?” His hasty request forestalled Chip’s opening salvo and he almost sighed with relief as she exited with a last glare for Chip and a rustle of her primly starched uniform. Chip muttered something decidedly uncomplimentary and earned himself a glare – Jamieson would defend his staff publicly. “Eat! Get changed! I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
Grumpily Chip complied, lifting the silver dome from the plate, childishly wondering if the grouchy nurse had maybe spat on it – something his siblings used to do as kids to prevent him from eating anything they’d just made for themselves. The gloopy mess on the plate was unappetising and besides his throat was too sore to make swallowing food an appealing option – not that he would admit that to Jamieson who’d only insist on him staying in Med Bay. He drank the juice and coffee, awkwardly scraping half the food into the trashcan and covering it with a wad of tissue paper. Hopefully he would be long gone before his subterfuge was discovered.
Quickly stripping off the offending hospital gown he’d been forced to wear and dressing as fast as his one-armed status would allow, he had just begun to impatiently pace when the door swung open to admit Lee and Jamie, the latter carrying a clipboard and a small paper sack. Lee smiled at his friend’s obvious relief at seeing him. He had acceded to Jamieson’s request that he stay away from Med Bay until he was called knowing that Chip would have nagged mercilessly for Lee to get him out. He did feel guilty though, the last time he’d been a patient here Chip had refused to leave and complied only under direct order of the admiral. He could appreciate Chip’s frustration at having to stay overnight – he’d have been the same, probably worse. Jamie had been right to keep Chip, Lee knew, in fact the doctor had admitted just now outside that he was still reluctant to release the exec and was only doing so to keep his promise and any hope of co-operation on Chip’s part. He’d given Lee specific instructions on what to allow Chip to do and not to do. Lee had then been forced to divulge his plan for the afternoon and evening, making Jamie laugh softly at the captain’s deviousness.
“Lee, am I glad to see you. Let’s go.”
“Not so fast, Mister! I mean it, Chip, you deviate an inch from my orders and I’ll ground you for the next cruise.” The warning in Jamie’s voice was clear and Chip rolled his eyes to Heaven as he took the paper sack the doctor handed him. “Take the antibiotics as indicated on the label, same for the throat spray and use the painkillers as you need them. And don’t be a martyr! You’ll heal faster the more rest you get and you won’t rest properly if you’re in pain. I’ll see you back here day after tomorrow. Don’t even think of driving. Have a car pick you up.”
“I’ll see that he follows orders, Jamie.” Lee cut in hurriedly seeing the storm clouds begin to gather on Chip’s face. “Come on, buddy, your chariot awaits.”
Flashing a quick grin at Jamie, Lee grabbed his friend’s arm before he could provoke the CMO any further and pushed him out the door. Chip relented now that escape was imminent and tossed a ‘thanks for everything, Jamie’ in the doc’s direction before following Lee a little more slowly down the corridor. Jamieson shook his head with wry fondness. Those two! Great officers both but worse than small boys when it came to health issues.
“I left your bag at your house, Chip, and your briefcase and laptop in your office.” Lee was explaining as he pushed open the glass entrance door of Med Bay turning in time to see his exec come to a complete stop, an annoyed frown furrowing his brow. The clothes Lee had picked for him, beige pants and a deep blue shirt suited his tall husky frame, the colour of the shirt emphasising the colour of his eyes. Eyes that had a decidedly irritated look in them right now.
“What did you do that for?”
“Jamie’s orders.” Came the blithe reply – to a rudely muttered word about pushy CMO’s from Chip – followed by a shrug. “Besides you have other plans for the rest of the day.”
“Uh, huh.” He watched as the frown on Chip’s face changed to a look of astonishment as, instead of the little red convertible he was expecting, a shiny new silver sedan waited at the bottom of the steps. There was no doubt his friend recognised the car and a slow smile split his slightly pale face as the driver emerged. “I said your chariot awaited, just forgot to mention your chauffeur for today. I’ll call you this evening to see if you need anything but I think you’ll find obeying Jamie’s orders not so difficult after all.” With a grin and a light punch to Chip’s good arm, Lee loped down the steps, dropped a quick kiss on Angie’s cheek and, whistling contentedly, pleased with his machinations, strode across the cark park to the Admin Building.
Chip descended the steps at a more sedate pace, his ribs protesting a little but he hardly noticed the discomfort. Angie leaned against the car door, arms and legs crossed in a seemingly relaxed pose as she smiled up at the tall blond. Instead of her usual business attire she was casually dressed in white Capri pants, a pale pink shirt with the sleeves rolled to above the elbows, the warm California sun streaking her dark hair which was pulled back into a high ponytail – the deep fringe camouflaging the slight scar on her forehead. Outwardly composed, she was inwardly ridiculously nervous at seeing him again. This was CHIP – the same Chip she’d know and worked with for years!
“Hi, Sailor. Figured if the Mountain wouldn’t come to Mohammed, then Mohammed should make a concerted effort.” She indicated with a nod of her head the grocery sacks on the rear seat. “Not guaranteed to stun you with my culinary prowess, I’m afraid, just steaks marinating in the admiral’s special sauce – courtesy of Conchita – baked potatoes a la Cookie, salad from the market via Lee and my sole contribution – strawberries and fresh cream.”
Her grin slipped slightly at his continued silence. God, she hoped Lee had been right about this! Turning away from the intensity of his gaze she pulled open the passenger door, backtracking big time. “But if you’d prefer a quiet afternoon I’m sure Lee can grill the steaks and toss the salad later on. I’ll just drop you at your place and leave you to take it easy.”
“Angie.” Chip cleared his throat, cursing mentally at the cracked timbre that was the sum total of his vocal effort. “Thanks. I really wanted to take you out for dinner – somewhere nice where we could go dancing and….”
“Hey. I understand. Navy rug rat, remember? Come on, get in the car and I’ll drop you off.” Her slightly impish grin made it easy for Chip to lower himself gingerly into the passenger seat.
Angie dropped her right hand to engage the transmission only to find it covered by a larger firmer one. Her heartbeat accelerated to a rate that would have had Jamieson calling a code blue.
Chip turned awkwardly in the confines of the car to face her, his ribs protesting violently, although he tried his damnest to keep the pain from showing in his face – not too successfully if the distress that came into her expressive green eyes was any indication. “Angie, I’m glad you’re here. Don’t get me wrong. It’s just not what I’d envisaged for our first date.”
She cut him short, pulling her hand from under his, cursing her impulsive nature that had leapt at Lee’s idea – he’d even coerced the admiral into giving her the afternoon off. “It’s OK, Chip, really. You’re tired and I can see you’re hurting. You need to rest up and, hey, we can do this some other time.” She turned the key in the ignition and the engine fired obediently. “Just not one of Lee’s brighter ideas.”
Chip tucked one finger under her chin and turned her to face him. Her heart stopped. His began to beat loudly enough that he figured she could hear. He leaned towards her, tucking a strand of dark hair that had come loose back behind her ear. He slid his big hand down to gently cup her cheek, bending his head to cover her soft mouth with his.
Before their lips met he murmured softly. “Trust me, it was a great idea!”
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