By R. L. Keller
(Follows “Dragon Of The Sea)
Dr. Will Jamison paused as he started to enter the hospital room, stopping so quickly that he nearly caused the person with him to walk over him. With a look of apology, and a finger to his lips for quiet, he took another couple steps and silently observed his patient.
Lee Crane, Will’s least favorite patient – and one of his best friends – sat
fairly upright in the bed. He was
dressed not in
Will wasn’t having to work nearly as hard as Nelson was to keep up the act. The CMO had been forced to don scuba gear, leave the relative safety of the big submarine Seaview, and dive down to an underwater cavern to stabilize his seriously injured Captain before the younger man could be moved. Will hated diving. He was firmly convinced that the only safe way to be under water was inside a submarine, and had not been the least bit shy about expecting his CO and XO to use the dive as his re-certification for the coming year. So far neither Lee nor Chip, whose injuries in the original incident were limited to a minor concussion, had committed themselves to that decision. So Will continued to complain, and both younger men were being overly cautious around the doctor.
But neither older man was wasting the opportunity to keep Lee under their thumbs as long as possible, hoping just once that they could get Lee to allow his body to heal for a change instead of ignoring the pain and going back to work. They’d had more than one chuckle over a cup of coffee – among other things – discussing the continuing handling of their impetuous young Captain. Up to this point, Lee’s recovery from two serious knife wounds, not to mention the spear wound he’d not completely recovered from at the time of the more serious injuries, had been fairly routine. And Will would continue to be totally unrepentant about using whatever advantages he could to keep it that way.
Right now he was considering just how much trouble he would be in with Lee if he reneged on his promise to let Lee return to his townhouse this afternoon. Lee was, indeed, sitting pretty much upright on the bed, his legs stretched out, a fairly large book lying across them. But his head was against the back of the bed, his eyes closed, breathing the steady rhythm of sleep.
What Will couldn’t know was that it wasn’t a completely restful sleep. There were no giant man-eating plants, thankfully. No sharks, no enemy agents, no mummies. Just a small bit of leafy seaweed with translucent fins and tiny black eyes. They’d looked back at him wistfully from the pages of the book on marine life that Admiral Nelson had loaned him. Paging through the section of sea horses and their relatives, Lee had stopped when he’d discovered a picture of the yellow-green Leafy Sea Dragon like the one he’d discovered captured in the underground cavern where he’d gone to save Chip, and been attacked himself. He’d momentarily closed his eyes, thinking back on the entire incident, and hadn’t noticed when he’d fallen asleep. What he did notice was that the 18-inch creature followed him into his dreams, not menacingly, but somewhat insistently. It seemed to Lee that the dragon was trying to tell him that they still had unfinished business to attend to. Lee tried to communicate back that he knew the poacher was no longer a problem; that the dragon he’d seen had been released and the one in his dream could rest easy. But he wasn’t having much success.
Suddenly he felt different eyes watching him. He wasn’t sure from where, and was instantly nervous. His head whipped from side to side, but all he could see were more Sea Dragons. One of them, however, spoke softly, calling him, and he tried to focus on the sound until he could understand the words.
“Skipper,” finally made its way through the fog of sleep. “Works better if your eyes are open.”
Will had been quick to catch the head movements, and wanted to stop anything that might lead to any more sudden movements on Lee’s part. While the leg wound was pretty much healed, and the wound on Lee’s left shoulder was mending well, the one on the back of his right shoulder was still very painful, no matter how much the stubborn young man tried to hide it. He walked over to within a few feet of the bed, speaking softly until his voice penetrated whatever dream Lee was having and he slowly opened his eyes.
“Hi, Jamie,” Lee said, getting everything sorted out and sitting up a bit straighter. “I can go home now?”
Will snorted, and Lee gave him an instant, sheepish, grin. “Just keep your tail on, Skipper.” Will tried to sound stern, but knew he wasn’t having a whole lot of success when Lee’s grin broadened. “Don’t suppose there’s any chance of getting you to stay here a few more days.” Lee’s grin instantly turned into a hard frown, and Jamie hurried to explain before his Skipper started ranting, as he seemed about to do. “It’s pretty obvious just how much rest your body is still requiring. With Seaview leaving in the morning, your usual support group won’t be around to help out. I’m just afraid you’ll try to do too much. You can still barely use your right arm.”
“I won’t be doing anything except paperwork, Jamie,” Lee grumbled.
His CMO cringed slightly, in preparation for having to tell Lee the next little bit of news. “Actually, Skipper,” he said carefully, “you won’t even be doing much of that.”
“Excuse me?” Lee said with a hard look.
Will matched it. “Admiral Nelson has already taken a few things over to your place, and Chip added a few more. That’s the only paperwork you’re doing until we get back.”
“NO! I’ve already alerted Security. You are on Medical Leave, and are persona non
grata on the base once you leave
Despite Chip’s assertions that Nurse Hale’s bark was decidedly worse than her bite – and just how the blond knew that Lee refused to speculate about – he surrendered. “Aye, sir,” he answered meekly.
“Good!” came out emphatically, to help cover the snort that threatened to surface at Lee’s use of ‘sir’ to a lower-in-rank officer. It had become a sign between the two that Lee was at least trying to behave around his CMO.
“But I can still go home now?” Will fought a grin at the little-boy quality of the question.
“In a while. I want to get the results back from the blood work we did this morning before I turn you loose, since it’s my last shot at you for two weeks.”
“A little surprised you’re going out on this cruise,” Lee said carefully.
“Skipper,” Will lectured, “as uncomfortable as I am leaving you unsupervised,” he grouched, and Lee had the good graces to give him a sheepish grin, “I do not want to listen to the complaints I’d get from Frank and John if I left them on their own to deal with three members of the House Appropriations Committee, not to mention the members’ spouses. It’s going to be hard enough trying to keep the Admiral from shooting any of them out a torpedo tube without you around to help keep him calmed down. Especially since this cruise is twice as long as the usual yearly junket.”
“You could always let me come along,” Lee offered quietly, with a little grin. “I’d be glad to help.” Will actually growled and Lee lowered his eyes, giving his CMO the shy little through-the-eyelashes grin that rarely failed to defuse Will’s anger.
It worked this time as well. “Behave yourself or I won’t let your visitor come in,” Will said, also finally smiling softly.
“Chip?” Lee asked happily. “I thought he wouldn’t be back until after 0100.”
far as I know he’s still muttering threats at whoever scheduled the computer
training session in
“Detective Sabirin?” Lee couldn’t hide his surprise. He hadn’t seen, nor heard from, the Indonesian Reserse officer since the mess surrounding Lee’s encounter with an old adversary, Nabiel Hardjono.* Pushing the book aside, Lee swung around to face him and carefully held out his right hand. “What brings you to my neck of the woods?”
The nattily dressed detective grasped Lee’s hand firmly, but shook it cautiously as he glanced at how heavily the shoulder appeared to be bandaged, judging by the bulge underneath Lee’s shirt. Then he nodded toward the book, still open to the page of Sea Dragon pictures. “Your little friend, actually.”
Lee’s eyebrows shot up but, before he could say anything, Will interrupted. “If you two will excuse me… Skipper,” and he gave Lee a particularly stern look, “Admiral Nelson said to tell you that he’s got meetings this morning, then an errand to run, but that he’d be by about 1500 to drive you home.” He smiled as Lee’s expression started to turn dark. “And before you start yelling,” Will cut him off, “it wasn’t my idea. He apparently has a couple of projects he wants to go over with you before we leave in the morning, over and above what I’d allowed him to leave at your place already.”
“Oh,” Lee relaxed. He knew that Jamie wouldn’t let him drive himself home, but expected that the CMO would have one of the base personnel run him home. Probably not any of Seaview’s crew, although any of them would have been happy to help out their Skipper. But with Seaview leaving in the morning, he was sure all hands were busy. Lee gave a fleeting thought to how Lt.’s O’Brien and James were handling the prep, in Chip’s absence, and grinned as he remembered Chip’s blistering comments concerning the instructions that he’d left the pair before having to leave for the seminar.
“Now behave,” Will continued, “and enjoy your company. Jackie will be in with your lunch in about fifteen minutes.” Lee made a face, and Will chuckled, but turned toward the detective. “Can I have her bring you something?”
“No, thank you, Doctor. I had a late breakfast.”
nodded and left. As the door closed
behind him, and thinking back on the previous half hour or so, a smile spread
across his face as he headed back toward his office. He’d been as surprised earlier to see the
detective as Lee had been now. Security
had called to say that Sabirin was at the front gate, requesting to see
Seaview’s Skipper. Since Security knew
only too well what kind of trouble that they would be in if they allowed anyone
near an under-the-weather CO without the CMO’s permission, they’d called Will. He’d met the detective at
“My apparent levity surprises you,” he said with a broadening grin.
Sabirin nodded. “The injuries did sound more serious,” he admitted, a still puzzled expression on his face.
Will nodded. “They are. Or were, rather. The Skipper is actually healing quite well – for a change.” He sighed heavily.
Sabirin gave him an almost smile. “I did get the impression, during our previous meeting, that Cdr. Crane could be…difficult… Ah,” he seemed embarrassed by the comment. “I just mean that, a man with his obvious powerful sense of responsibility …” Again he hesitated, trying to find the right words. “I suspect that it might be difficult getting a person like that to slow down long enough to heal properly.”
“Amen,” Will agreed softly with another heavy sigh. Then he smiled again. “Thankfully Lee’s also an extremely self-confident, albeit stubborn, young man. Sometimes a little teasing is just the ticket to help him relax. Several of us have been taking advantage of the opportunity, hence the grin.”
did get the feeling, in
Will nodded. “Harassing a superior officer isn’t usually a wise procedure, I agree. And we all totally accept Lee’s position of authority on the boat.” A private grin briefly crossed his face as he thought back on a few of the ‘discussions’ that had occurred between Admiral and Commander concerning who had the final word over specific aspects of certain missions. But he didn’t try explaining that one to the detective. “But Lee’s authority – and dignity – handles a little joshing quite well, and it helps to relieve the stress on everyone.” He chuckled. “Even me,” he admitted, “which may explain at least part of the reason Lee allows it. Have no fear. The Skipper is perfectly capable of taking whatever is served him, and dishing it right back.”
Now, remembering the short conversation, Will’s grin spread. At the time, Sabirin had just nodded, but Will got the impression that the detective didn’t totally believe what he’d just been told. He’d said nothing more on the short trip to Lee’s room, but Will had a feeling that Sabirin was in for all sorts of surprises, if he hung around long enough.
Back in the hospital room, Lee indicated one of the chairs. “Have a seat,” he said to Sabirin. “How did you get involved with the smuggling case?”
“Accidentally, to be sure.” Sabirin gave him a small grin and sat down in a chair by the foot of the bed, against the wall. “The man you killed, who was capturing the Sea Dragons, turned out to be an Indonesian National. When the Australians asked for assistance in tracking his associates, we got involved.”
“Ah,” Lee nodded, and settled back against the raised head of the bed. Lee saw Sabirin’s inquisitive glance at Lee’s not so smooth movements, and gave him a chagrinned look. “You know about all this?”
Sabirin nodded. “A little. All that I heard originally was that the Americans who discovered the poacher suffered injuries in the process. Dr. Jamison told me a bit more about your injuries just now, on the way up here. ”
“Chip, ah Lt. Cdr. Morton, got a slight concussion. And Kowalski…you remember him?” The detective nodded. “He’s recovering from a spear gun wound to his shoulder. He’s at home with his family. Should be back by the time Seaview’s ready for her next cruise – after this one.” Lee gave a wistful sigh.
Sabirin grinned knowingly. “You will be ready to go as well?”
Lee shrugged, forgetting how painful the simple movement still was, and frowned. “Better be,” he muttered, causing the detective’s smile to broaden. Their earlier encounter had given him a pretty good picture of just how dedicated – and stubborn – Lee could be, even without Will’s recent reminder.
“A spear wound as well?”
Lee shook his head. “Zigged when I should have zagged. Took a knife in the back of my right shoulder, and he got in another, much lesser, swipe on the front of the left one as I was fighting him off.” He didn’t bother mentioning the leg wound – it was almost healed anyway.
“Inconvenient,” Sabirin commiserated softly.
Lee decided to change the subject, “your investigation brought you to
“Once you discovered that your favorite submarine crew was involved?” Will interrupted, just coming in and hearing the end of Sabirin’s explanation. The detective smiled, and Lee just frowned at his CMO’s levity. Will ignored it, as usual, and grinned at Lee. “Just got off the phone with Admiral Nelson. There’s been a slight hitch in his plans.” He raised a hand to cut off whatever Lee was about to bluster. “Just chill, Skipper. You’re still going home. Against my better judgment,” he grumbled, before grinning at Sabirin. Then he turned a stern gaze on Lee. “Your lunch is almost ready, and I should have the lab reports back in about an hour. If you promise to stay out of trouble, I’ll have someone drive you home just as soon as I’m comfortable that the antibiotics I’ve got you on are doing the trick.”
“If it would be acceptable, I would be happy to drive the Commander home,” Sabirin offered.
“You sure you want to be responsible for him, after what he did the last time?” Will asked. Lee snorted and crossed his arms over his chest, albeit carefully.
Sabirin chuckled. “Actually, it was letting him out of sight that caused the problem, I do believe?” There was a soft growl from the bed.
Will laughed. “I do believe you’re right, Detective.” He gave his worst patient a fond smile. “This should work out nicely, Skipper. You have a problem with the plan?”
Lee was forced to grin, returning those directed at him. “That will be just fine, Jamie.” He looked at Sabirin. “If you don’t have to run directly off, I have a spare bed that you’re welcome to.”
“I have no wish to interfere.”
“Actually, you’d be doing me a favor. It will keep Jamie from sending any of his minions to harass me – at least for awhile.” He sent a glare at his CMO.
Will just laughed, causing Lee a moment’s discomfort at just what the doctor might have planned behind Lee’s back. “Sounds like a plan to me,” was, however, all he said on the subject. He did point a finger at Lee. “Eat your lunch – that’s an order,” he said sternly, before his voice once again softened. “I’ll let you know as soon as you can escape.”
As Will turned to leave, Lee said softly, “Thanks, Jamie.” Will just smiled again, rather enigmatically, before he disappeared.
Lee stared at the door a moment before looking at Sabirin. “He’s up to something. I can feel it,” he grumbled.
The detective grinned. “I rather suspect that you keep him on his toes – is that the proper expression? – from what I know of the earlier incident.”
Lee lowered his eyes. “Yeah, well…” He finished the comment with a grin, and the detective returned it, before they got down to the business at hand.
There was a brief pause in the conversation when the nurse, Jackie, entered with Lee’s lunch. She made a production of swinging the bed table into place over Lee and setting the tray on it, all the while giving Lee shy little looks and an inviting smile. Lee tried his best to ignore the twenty-something young woman. When she finally left, he looked up to find Sabirin grinning from ear to ear. Thankfully, Lee’s dark complexion hid the blush that he knew hit his face at the detective’s acknowledgement of the woman’s unwanted attentions. He started to push the table away, noticed Sabirin’s instantly upraised eyebrows, sighed heavily, and pulled it back. It held one of Jamie’s usual invalid meals: sandwich, mug of soup, and sliced peaches. Lee grabbed the sandwich with his left hand and silently thanked the doctor for doing his best to supply Lee with meals that could be eaten mostly with the least injured of his arms.
The two went back over everything that Lee could remember about the whole incident of Seaview’s running, totally by accident, into a smuggling operation involving Australia’s well protected marine species, the not often seen Leafy Sea Dragon. Once the underground cavern had been discovered and permanently closed, with delighted permission from the Australian government, Nelson had told him what officials had passed on; mainly, that immature dragons were showing up in private collections and, until Seaview had stumbled onto the scene, they’d had no idea how it was happening.
Sabirin nodded and was able to supply a bit more information. The dragon poacher’s fatal encounter with Seaview’s crew wasn’t his first brush with the law. He’d already served several years in prison for various reasons, going back to his juvenile years. There he’d apparently spent time in detention with another young man of dubious reputation who had a grandfather well known to half a dozen police forces in the southern and eastern portions of Australia.
From there, information was sketchy at best. It was known that at one time the grandfather had been involved in smuggling goods into Australia by way of New Zealand during WWII, and perhaps even before. The grandfather, now an old man, could have passed the location of the cavern on to his truant progeny. That young man had nearly lost a leg in a shark attack and had never gone swimming or diving again. It was speculated that he’d given the location to his hoodlum friend, but neither he nor his grandfather were admitting to anything.
So the police had started with Yusef Kaliwati, the young man Chip had killed while he was attacking Lee. They searched his police records for current ‘friends’, and gone through his apartment and computer with a fine-toothed comb. That had led to Indonesia, and the Australian officials’ request for assistance.
Sabirin hesitated and lowered his eyes just a moment. “My supervisor, when presented with the details which included Admiral Nelson’s involvement, called me in and asked if I wanted the assignment. He was not overly happy with my less than complete report over the Hardjono incident.”
It was Lee’s turn to lower his eyes. “Sorry,” he mumbled, using the last bite of sandwich to deflect his attention.
Sabirin just shrugged and smiled. “Far be it for me to turn down a paid trip to the United States.” Both men chuckled.
“So the trail leads to LA?” Lee continued.
Sabirin nodded. “Kaliwati had been rather circumspect in his record keeping, but he had several addresses in that area listed in his computer. A check of phone records was no help. We surmised that he could have been using a pay phone to conduct business, but so far the Aussies have been unable to come up with anything more than the addresses. However, two of them are for companies that legally import tropical fishes for private aquariums and retail stores, and a third has done business in the past with the Sea World Aquarium in San Diego.” He gave Lee the names of the companies.
“They mean nothing to me, I’m afraid,” Lee admitted. “But you should ask the Admiral when we see him later.” Sabirin nodded just as Will reentered the room.
“Another reason for coming to visit old acquaintances.” The detective smiled, taking the doctor into his gaze as well.
“You mean you’re not just a glutton for punishment, like some others I could mention?” Will asked innocently. Sabirin chuckled, and Lee did his best imitation of Nelson’s patented ‘Harrumph’. It was followed by a deep scowl as the nurse, Jackie, followed the doctor in, pushing a wheel chair. “Don’t even start, Commander,” Will warned. “As of yesterday you were still barely making it down the hall as far as the visitor’s area and back without collapsing…”
Lee interrupted with a muttered, “Wasn’t that bad,” but he kept his eyes somewhat lowered, still being careful around his CMO. Especially since Jamie had gone back to the formal ‘Commander’. He usually only did that when he was royally ticked. Lee kept his eyes lowered as Jackie parked the wheelchair fairly close to the bed before picking up the now empty lunch tray and once again disappearing.
Will gave the tray a glance as it went by. “You actually eat all of that?”
“Yes, Jamie,” Lee grumbled, before a soft smile crossed his face. “Chip wasn’t here to fob any of it off on.”
Will chuckled. He’d known he was going to have his hands full with those two, the instant he’d been introduced. But he’d also been just as quick to note the camaraderie and caring that the two former Annapolis roommates shared. While he often claimed that they were the bane of his existence, it was even more often that one would be right there helping Will deal with the other. He frequently complained that it was the pair of them who was responsible for his thinning hair. Admiral Nelson would just laugh and say that dealing with the two kept Will young. Will suspected that there was a good deal of truth to both statements. Now he patted the back of the chair. “Come on, Skipper. For once I’d appreciate no arguments.” Lee instantly noted the unvoiced sigh in the doctor’s voice and looked at him intently as he swung his legs off the bed and carefully stood up. Will caught the look and smiled. Nothing much got past Seaview’s young skipper, fully healthy or otherwise. “John just called up from the boat. Seems Cookie was shifting several heavy pots. Instead of taking one at a time he took all three, and ended up dropping one of them on his foot.”
“Ouch,” Lee and Sabirin said simultaneously.
“One broken big toe, which,” Will shrugged, “we doctors can’t do much about.”
“Except live with Cookie’s ranting until it heals,” Lee added. Suddenly he wasn’t nearly as unhappy to miss this cruise as he had been. Couple three Congressmen and their wives on the boat for two weeks with an Admiral whose patience with politicians was highly suspect. Stir in one Premier chef who, at the best of times, could be a crotchety old bear, and who was now nursing a broken toe and was likely to be particularly volatile, and you had the ingredients for a mini-version of Mt. Vesuvius. “Sure you don’t want me along, to help keep ruffled feathers from flying every which direction?” He turned and sank gently into the wheelchair, and glanced over his shoulder at the doctor, a little smile on his face.
Will just shook his head, and his finger, at the younger man. “While it is true, I have to admit, that your influence over both the Admiral and Cookie has been a rather pleasant, and welcome, addition to the boat, it is all too often overbalanced by your penchant for finding disaster.” Sabirin chuckled as he rose from the chair he’d been occupying. “No, Skipper, we’ll just have to rely on Mr. Morton’s authoritative calm, and hope for the best.”
“Abandon ship,” came softly in a little boy voice from the wheelchair, and Will gave the dark head a light slap that had Lee bursting out laughing. “Hey, no fair,” Lee got out between struggling breaths.
“Chip’s not here to keep you in line, so I’m elected.”
Actually, the light cuff had been a surprise to both men. Doc simply did not take such liberties with his commanding officer, limiting his disapproval of the frequently impetuous young man’s actions to verbal challenges only. But Lee’s smile only grew, and he continued to give the older man little humor-filled glances over his shoulder as the three men headed out the door and down the hall toward the elevators. Will relaxed and thoroughly enjoyed the moment. Since Lee had joined the sub, at a ridiculously young age to be in command of such a powerful vessel as Seaview, his life had all too frequently been filled with stress, angst, hardship, and extremely hard work. Not to mention dealing with the volcanic persona that Admiral Nelson all too frequently expressed. His stoic, disciplinarian XO, who was also one of the few people who could get Lee to relax, had been a godsend to the serious young man. And conversely, Lee had been the foil to Chip’s all too serious persona, allowing Chip to show a mischievous side that had not been expressed under Seaview’s first captain, John Phillips. The pair’s occasional hijinks were extremely helpful, and healthful, to both. And the crew as well, as they sat back and watched the pair, totally professional on the job and a supremely effective command team, unbend when circumstances allowed it and occasionally create absolute havoc for each other. Nelson swore that he’d actually heard Seaview herself let out a sigh of relief when the pair relaxed after a particularly grueling mission and got into one of their little ‘discussions.’ Will knew for a fact that the crew responded to the merriment. One of his ongoing research projects had to do with how small groups of people in closed environments – and a submarine sure fit that bill – dealt with the often pressure cooker atmosphere that occurred. Will wished that he could bottle ‘whatever it was’ that Lee and Chip possessed. He’d earn his own Nobel Prize to waggle in front of Nelson’s face, and share a toast with the already awarded Admiral.
As they reached the main floor, Sabirin went ahead to bring his car to the front door and Will, pushing the wheelchair, slowed just a bit, taking his time. He got the feeling, as they waited just outside the front doors for the detective, that Lee had been reading his mind – as he all too frequently seemed to do with the people around him – when Lee said, “Thanks, Jamie,” softly and looked at him openly.
Will locked the chair in place, and walked around to Lee’s left side. “You’re welcome, Skipper.” He gave the younger man a mock frown. “You can thank me further by behaving yourself for the next two weeks, and staying out of trouble.”
He knew Lee had read the frown correctly when he merely answered, “Aye, sir,” before a smile split his face. Will was just considering giving him another slap upside the head, and had even checked around to make sure that there was no one to see him do it, when Sabirin pulled up with the car.
Lee had managed the footrests quite nicely in the room, and Will let him kick them out of the way before gently taking Lee’s left arm and helping him stand. The fact that Lee allowed the help, without so much as a frown, was just another indication to Will that Lee did at least acknowledge his temporary infirmities. Now, if he’ll just let himself heal before trying to go back to his normal overactive lifestyle. Will kept the thought to himself. He was enjoying Lee’s laid back, relaxed demeanor, and didn’t want to mess it up. He did, as Lee settled into the passenger seat of the detective’s rented sedan, tell Lee that Frank would be over that evening to change the bandages. “And I’ll be over first thing in the morning, before I have to report here.”
“Just gotta have your last shot at me, don’t you?” Lee grumbled, but his brilliant smile made an instant appearance. Will returned it, closed the door gently, and watched the two men drive away.
* * * *
Admiral Nelson glanced at the woman he’d just picked up at the airport and smiled. He’d met her on several different occasions, but still didn’t know her all that well – mostly just from stories he’d heard. “I’m so glad that you were free to get away,” he told her as he headed out of the Passenger Pick-up area where he’d asked her to meet him.
“I am as well,” she said with an easy smile. “Your call came at just the right time. I do apologize that the plane was late.”
“Not a problem a’tall,” Nelson assured her. “I know Lee will be so glad to see you.”
“Humm,” was her noncommittal answer.
“We’re just all glad that you were free. With Seaview leaving, we weren’t overly sure how to handle the situation. Lee can be…”
“A handful?” she supplied with a smile.
Nelson returned it. “Lee’s a very special person. We’re very fortunate to have him at NIMR,” he said sincerely. She just nodded, and continued to smile.
They continued to make small talk on the relatively short drive to Lee’s condo on the beach. Nelson had already been advised of Lee’s unexpected visitor so he knew that he needn’t stop at Med Bay. He did see her frown ever so slightly when he mentioned the one quick stop that he needed to make. He’d explained that someone from NIMR had made a grocery run for Lee that morning, picking up perishables as well as a few other things that they knew from previous errands Lee liked to keep on hand. But Nelson had decided that, to keep today as simple as possible, he’d pick up dinner on the way there – chicken & vegetable fettuccini and garlic French bread from one of their favorite restaurants in town.
“No salad?” she asked, causing Nelson to chuckle. He’d heard a story or two about the woman’s tastes in food.
“I think that can be arranged. How does baby spinach with raspberry vinaigrette sound?”
“Perfect.” They spent the rest of the short drive discussing various menu items that the two had encountered on their travels.
When they pulled into Lee’s drive, Nelson left everything in the car for the moment and escorted his guest to the front door. Dinner would need reheating anyway, since it was still fairly early, and the woman’s suitcase and carry-on could wait for a bit. This was one reunion Nelson had no intention of missing!
Lee was resting comfortably in his favorite chair in the living room when he heard the car drive up. From the sound, or rather somewhat from the lack of it, Lee pretty much figured that it was Nelson’s ultra-smooth running Lincoln. He and Makmar Sabirin, who he was now calling Mak, as Mak was now calling Lee by his first name, had continued to discuss aspects of the smuggling case on the short drive home. While Mak was stowing his gear in Lee’s spare bedroom upstairs, Lee made coffee before gratefully sinking into the rocker-recliner. He’d noticed that there were a few things in the kitchen that shouldn’t have been there – bread and milk among them – and knew that someone had been sent shopping for him. But he didn’t bother trying to figure out what to fix for dinner. With the Admiral expected shortly, if he didn’t bring something – and that would be unusual – Lee would order delivery Chinese. When Mak returned from upstairs, they sat drinking the strong brew and continued to visit amiably. Mak had made a comment or two, subtly trying to get Lee to maybe tell a bit more of what had transpired in the warehouse between him and Hardjono, before the ‘posse’ of Mak plus Nelson and company had arrived. Lee wasn’t overly proud of that little venture and would just as soon let it drop, so he just lowered his eyes a bit and repeated the vague answers he’d given at the time.
Nelson’s arrival was something of a relief. Mak’s last question had been a little more pointed, and Lee used the sound of car doors closing to ignore it. He rose, and was just headed for the front door when it opened. “Mom!” Lee’s jaw dropped open as Helen Crane walked up to him, smiling. As he returned her hug of welcome, he raised an eyebrow at a smiling Nelson just behind her. Nelson just chuckled, told Lee that he’d bring in “the rest of what’s in the car,” and went back out. Lee was a little apprehensive, but relaxed when the ‘rest’ turned out to just be dinner from Visconti’s and his mother’s bags. There was a bit of a mad scramble at that point. As Lee only had the one spare bedroom, Mak instantly said that he’d find a hotel for the night. Helen was just as insistent that he’d do no such thing; that her bags could go in Lee’s room for now, and she’d sleep on the couch. Lee chimed in that if anyone was sleeping on the couch it would be him. He was resoundly put in his place by Nelson’s instant scowl, and Helen’s instant assurance that she’d slept in a lot less convenient or comfortable locations over the years. At which point Lee had to explain to Mak that his mother was a freelance writer who traveled extensively. Somewhere along the line it came up that Lee had been traveling with Helen when the whole incident with Hardjono and the jade dragon had started, and Lee returned to his chair, head shaking and a headache starting to form, as Helen and Mak started comparing notes over the incident at a mile a minute. He eventually looked at Nelson, who was meandering around doing odds and ends. Nelson just grinned more broadly, and eventually Lee was forced to do so as well.
Things did finally slow down. Nelson had busied himself in the kitchen getting dinner ready, and as the smells of cheesy fettuccini and garlic bread started wafting towards the living room, the others headed in that direction. With apologies, Nelson refused to pour Lee any of the wine he’d brought, only the other three. Lee just shrugged – carefully – and sent him a smile. A small frown formed as Helen, noting Lee’s difficulties dealing with the long noodles, large spoon in his left hand and trying to twirl them up on the fork with his right, calmly reached over and cut them into more manageable lengths, at the same time telling everyone what a marvelous time she’d had just recently at a party at a winery in Bordeaux, France. The other two men pretended not to notice what she was doing, and Lee finally relaxed. Other conversation ranged from Seaview’s impending political junket and the Chinese junks that Helen was considering writing a story about, to half a dozen other topics. Lee reminded Mak to ask about the companies he’d mentioned earlier but Nelson, while having heard of them, was of no further help. Frank showed up just about the time the meal was over and, while the other three stayed in the kitchen cleaning up, Lee went back to the living room and endured the corpsman changing the assortment of bandages. Once Frank left, the others rejoined Lee. He and Nelson spent half an hour or so discussing the projects Jamie had mentioned while Helen and Mak sat a bit apart from them talking about Helen’s travels in Indonesia several years back and the articles she had written. Mak gallantly offered to escort her should she ever return to his country. Lee glanced over from time to time, and just shook his head. He did hear them discuss a bit more about Mak’s reasons for his trip to the US, and his headache started to come back. That’s all I need – Mom with her nose in an active investigation. Not likely, he finally decided. She’d be far too busy playing nursemaid to Lee. He saw Chip’s fine hand in this, and was already plotting retaliation!
He had absolutely no idea that he’d closed his eyes until a soft shake on his left shoulder startled him. The Admiral was standing next to him, smiling fondly. Nelson gave a slight tip of his head toward the stairs and Lee, with a sheepish grin, nodded.
“I’ll be up in a few minutes, in case you need anything,” Helen told him, still visiting quietly with Mak.
Lee closed his eyes, and it had absolutely nothing to do with the sharp stab of pain that hit his right shoulder when he tried to help himself stand up too fast. Chip is dead! he muttered under his breath, finally opened his eyes, and gave Nelson a look of resignation. He could see that the Admiral was trying desperately not to laugh – and wasn’t having a lot of success. Lee finally gave him a quick smile and headed for bed.
Once Nelson heard the soft sound of Lee’s bedroom door close, he finally let the chuckle out and turned toward the other two. “I have a feeling that Chip’s going to get an earful when he pops in tomorrow morning before reporting to Seaview.”
“But…” Helen started, puzzled.
“You’re right, of course, Mrs. Crane. Chip had very little to do with your being here. The suggestion was mine alone, and Chip knew nothing about it until after I’d already spoken with you.” His grin broadened. “But I seriously doubt, if I’m reading my Captain correctly, that Lee will believe a word of it.”
Helen grinned, and her eyes momentarily went toward the stairs. “Those two,” she murmured fondly, before turning a fairly serious look on Nelson. “However do you tolerate them, Admiral? I mean, most of the time they’re fairly well behaved young men.” She shook her head. “But I swear they can act more like squabbling siblings than most actual siblings do,” she finished with exasperation.
Nelson struggled to keep his laughter from carrying up to Lee. “They are a pair to draw to, I have to admit.” His expression turned serious before he continued. “But they are two of the most honorable, finely trained officers it has ever been my pleasure to know. Without them, I’m not sure Seaview would have made it home from some of the circumstances we’ve found ourselves in.” He had no idea just how much Mrs. Crane knew about Lee’s little sideline with ONI, and wasn’t about to bring it up. He suspected that Detective Sabirin had a pretty fair idea that Lee was something more than just an ordinary sub driver, however, from not only the look he now gave Nelson, but a few rather pointed observations Sabirin had made during the previous investigation, which Nelson had chosen at the time to ignore as well. Now he smiled. “And yes, they can create a bit of havoc from time to time, I will admit. But it never affects their ability to work together, and to effectively command Seaview and her crew. I feel extremely fortunate to have them both, and I know that the crew does as well.”
“Lee totally enjoys his life with you and the Institute,” Helen agreed. “He’s much more relaxed and comfortable now than he was even in the regular Navy, as much as I know he loved that. I think Lee’s fortunate to have found you as well.” She gave Nelson a knowing look, although the Admiral was a bit uncomfortable at just what she might know. Then he grinned. As much as Chip sometimes expressed the opinion that Lee’s mother might not be the nurturing, expressive kind of mother that Mrs. Morton was, Nelson knew that Lee loved her unconditionally, and had every reason to think that she loved him just as much. He had no problem believing that Lee might have, and probably had, expressed to Mrs. Crane the kind of mentor that Nelson had become to Lee during the Annapolis years, and the strong friendship that they shared now. He decided that she’d just expressed her acceptance of that relationship, and happiness for it, and sent her a soft smile and a nod before heaving a large sigh.
“I’d better be getting home and to bed myself. I have a feeling that I’m going to be in need of all my faculties being in shape to survive the next two weeks.”
“Having met Congressman Keeton’s wife, I wish you the best of luck. Oh, and a bit of advice. Keep her away from the wine at dinner. She isn’t a pleasant drunk.”
“I’ll tell Cookie to hide the bottles we keep aboard until further notice, and limit meal beverages to tea and coffee.”
“A splendid idea, Admiral.” They both shuddered slightly before the return of their previous grins, and Nelson headed home. He was feeling much better now about leaving Lee landlocked while Seaview sailed. Even though it had been his idea to invite Mrs. Crane here during Seaview’s absence, he hadn’t been sure that it would be such a good one, given his somewhat limited experience with her. Her son, he knew only too well! Now, having seen her obvious caring for Lee and the way she was treating him, he was much happier. He also thought, however, having watched Lee closely this evening, that Chip might not be the only one on Lee’s *list* by the time Seaview got back. That thought kept him chuckling all the way home.
* * * *
Lee was still muttering threats at his best friend, and plotting suitable revenge, when a hand once again shook his left shoulder lightly. Just Mom, he thought fondly, and opened his eyes slowly, a smile on his face. He was totally unprepared to see Jamie smiling back at him and the morning sunlight streaming through his bedroom window. “Damn”, he muttered softly to himself. Or thought he did, until Jamie chuckled. “What time is it?” he grumbled at the older man.
Will made a point of checking his watch. “Almost 1000 hours. I came by earlier, as did Chip. Neither one of us wanted to disturb you. But a minor glitch delayed our departure so I came back.”
“What glitch?” Lee demanded, trying to sit up. Will stopped him with a hand still on Lee’s shoulder.
“Relax, Skipper. Nothing to do with your precious boat. The committee members somehow managed to miss their flight last night so they won’t be arriving for another hour or so. I think Chip was glad – gave him a little more time this morning to do both his job and yours.” Lee raised an ever so innocent eyebrow. “Forget it, Commander,” Will said sternly, before they both smiled. Then Lee glanced toward the bedroom door. “Do you ever stop worrying about every last little detail around you?” Will grumbled with a frown.
“No,” Lee answered. But another soft smile crossed his face.
Will heaved a huge sigh before he also smiled. “As I understand it, Detective Sabirin left right after breakfast for L.A. Apparently he told your mother that he’d keep in touch, and hopefully stop back here before returning home. Your mother just left to go grocery shopping.”
“Oh, no,” Lee groaned softly, and Will chuckled.
“Chill, as your XO would say. When Chip was here earlier he left her with a long list of what, apparently, she doesn’t usually fix, but that you’re now more accustomed to eating. I gather that she was still a bit skeptical, but I helped things along by impressing on her just how important it was for you to eat – lots – during your convalescence.”
“Gee, thanks, Jamie,” Lee growled, but not totally without a bit of humor.
“You’re welcome,” Will answered in kind. “Now, suppose we see just how steady you are in the shower. Frank said that he was quite pleased at how well you were doing, so I think we’ll try a bit less bulky bandage. It should work fine just as long as you stay away from the gym.” He chuckled at the glare Lee sent him, but gently helped Lee sit up and turn. He followed casually as Lee headed for the shower, but tried to stay out of the way as much as possible. He felt much more comfortable leaving Lee here after his brief conversation with the Admiral the previous evening after Nelson got home. And the short time that he’d spent with Mrs. Crane on his two visits this morning eased his conscience even more. He still had a feeling that he was going to owe Dr. Alexander a very large steak dinner, along with a fair share of martinis, by the time Seaview returned for having to deal with the stubborn young CO by himself in Will’s absence. But this could work out rather well, he decided.
Lee showered and shaved pretty much unassisted. He’d have preferred his usual straight razor, but settled for the electric one he kept around for quick touch-ups, knowing it would be much easier. He sat on the edge of the bed, towel wrapped around his waist, as Will replaced the bandage on the back of his right shoulder with a smaller one, taking the time first to rub the area gently with antibiotic ointment. The stitches in the leg wound had already been removed, and other than rubbing a bit of ointment there as well, Will could pretty much ignore that one. The smaller knife wound on the front of Lee’s left shoulder was healing rapidly. Will considered taking those stitches out but decided that they could stay a few more days and made a mental note to himself to tell Dr. Alexander that they could come out, and the small bandage dispensed with, at Lee’s appointment in three days. He didn’t bother telling Lee that he’d left a rather detailed list of instructions with Mrs. Crane, along with Lee’s meds and follow-up appointment times. He assumed from the scowl on Lee’s face as Will gave him a long-lasting shot in the hip that Lee had realized to whom the rest of the meds he’d been getting the last two weeks had been given to for safe keeping. Given Lee’s track record, Will knew that Lee would easily assume that the doctor was sure that if they’d been left with Lee, there was every chance that they wouldn’t be taken.
Will would have liked to help Lee do up the last couple of buttons on his shirt as he got dressed, to avoid stress on the still raw wound, but held back. Lee despised feeling out of control and accepted personal help unwillingly at the best of times. Will had had a short conversation with Mrs. Crane, before she left to go shopping, on that very subject. Obviously, she knew her son well, but she’d wanted specifics on just how much he should be allowed to do himself. Will was somewhat glad that he was leaving, and made a mental note to further warn Dr. Alexander not to get too strongly in the younger man’s face. He knew that Lee tried very hard to get along with the other NIMR medical staff. But he also knew that, once back from this cruise and knowing Will was fair game, Lee could, and quite possible would, make Will’s life miserable if all didn’t go well in the interim. It would have been easy for that knowledge to totally tick Will off. Instead, he struggled to maintain a straight face. He knew just how uncomfortable Lee was around medical personnel. A lot of it went back to Lee’s need to be in control of things around him, something that was most definitely not the norm in most medical facilities. It was extremely gratifying to Will that Lee trusted him enough to allow Will latitude that he wouldn’t anyone else. That didn’t keep Lee from harassing Will no end. But Lee would accept harassment right back. Will took great personal pleasure in the small grins that would frequently flick across Lee’s face, even during the loudest of their occasional ‘discussions,’ knowing the friendship between them that allowed it.
Will was just watching Lee settle into his favorite chair in the living room when several car doors slamming preceded Lee’s front door swinging open. Chip charged in carrying several plastic grocery bags, followed by Mrs. Crane with a couple more. Lee spotted him as he headed for the kitchen.
“Who’s minding my boat,” he yelled and started to get back up.
“Chill,” Chip tossed over his shoulder, dumped the bags on the counter, sidestepped Mrs. Crane, and came into the living room. “Had things in order with time to spare. You weren’t awake when I came by earlier…”
“Don’t remind me,” Lee growled sourly, and sank back in the chair.
“…So I left Chris to handle things,” Chip continued with his usual grin. “Got here just in time to help Mother C. haul in her load.” His grin broadened as Lee continued to scowl. “Hey, lighten up. From what I saw in the bags, you’ll be eating quite nicely.”
“Just ‘cause she has all the ingredients, doesn’t mean she’ll get anything even close,” Lee continued to growl, although only loud enough for Chip and Will to hear.
“Then you’ll just have to get off your six and show her how – if not do it yourself.” Chip also spoke quietly.
“I hope you knew what you were talking about this morning, Chip,” came from the kitchen. “I got everything on your list, but…” Her voice trailed off.
“Not a problem, Mother C.” Chip raised his voice to carry into the other room. “Lee can help you with the menus. Afraid I may have corrupted him a little more than you realized.” That got a snort from Will, and a grudging smile from Lee.
“Humm…” was all that came back.
“Think I’ll be leaving now,” Will ventured.
“Me, too,” Chip told him, then turned to Lee. “Sorry I can’t stay any longer.”
“Cowards, the both of you,” Lee offered good-naturedly.
“Yes, sir,” came back twofold, and all three grinned.
Lee shook a finger at Chip. “Not so much as a scratch, or I’ll see that your pay gets docked for the repairs.”
“What’s Jamie got to do with my paycheck?” Chip asked innocently. Lee just closed his eyes. “Bonus points for keeping the Admiral from firing any of the Congressmen out the torpedo tubes?”
Lee didn’t open his eyes, but a small grin formed, and he raised a hand and waggled it at Chip.
Will, despite enjoying the horseplay, was concerned when Lee still didn’t open his eyes. “Skipper?” he asked softly.
The eyes never opened, but the grin increased. “To coin my XO, chill, Jamie.” He finally opened one eye, winked, and leaned back more comfortably in the chair. The other two chuckled, Chip rested a hand on Lee’s leg just long enough to whisper, “Hang in there,” and the two headed back to Seaview.
Lee grinned to himself. He’d been dismayed to discover how tired he’d been yesterday evening, after what little he’d actually done. And disgusted when he slept so long. He’d rather expected Doc to figure out a way to sneak back before Seaview sailed, but Chip showing up had been a bonus. The blond had become, over the years, a very stabilizing factor in Lee’s life. Always there to bolster flagging spirits as well as take Lee down a peg if he got to feeling a little too full of himself. Chip always said that he got the best of the bargain, working on board the greatest sub in the world, alongside his best friend, never having to watch his back because Lee did it for him. Lee was pretty sure who watched whom more, but if it made Chip feel better thinking otherwise, then so be it.
“Brought you some tea, dear,” Helen interrupted Lee’s ruminations and placed the steaming cup on the end table next to the chair, where Lee could reach it easily. “What sounds good for lunch?”
“Maybe just a sandwich, Mom. Not all that hungry.”
“But you missed breakfast. And Dr. Jamison was adamant that you eat, to help get your strength back.”
“Dr. Jamison is adamant about a lot of things,” Lee growled. He had to endure his mother’s frown and her hands placed on her hips, before he finally gave her a sheepish grin. “Sometimes he’s even right,” he finally admitted.
Helen smiled fondly down on her son. “You have good friends, who care about you a great deal.”
“Agreed,” Lee said with a smile and a sigh.
“That should make you feel very proud of the life you’ve lived, to have made such friends.”
“It all started with you, Mom. Couldn’t have done it without your guidance.”
“Then, in the form of further guidance, sandwich, soup, fruit, and one of those awful white chocolate chunk cookies Chip insisted I buy in the deli.”
Lee held up two fingers sheepishly. “Two cookies, please?”
“Eesh,” it was Helen’s turn to groan, but she headed back to the kitchen with a smile on her face.
* * * *
By day three Lee was about to go stir-crazy. While he’d slept a great deal on the day Seaview left, he still managed to finish both of the proposals the Admiral had left for him the night before – unbeknownst to Jamie, he’d said, but Lee rather had his doubts. More likely he’d wheedled until the doctor had agreed to the extra paperwork, and agreed to tell Lee the little fib so that their workaholic captain would think it was a joke pulled on Jamie. The humor of the situation would supposedly help to relieve some of the tension both older men knew he’d be under, having been beached, so to speak. Whatever the reason, he was grateful.
Day two, Lee slept less and worked more. His mom fussed a bit, and swiped the laptop computer for two hours after lunch to make Lee rest his right arm and hand. When she finally gave it back there was an e-mail from Chip, relating the exploits of a certain congressional wife who’d taken a shine to Chief Sharkey. Apparently, it was nothing like Lee’s first encounter with a congressional committee member’s wife trying to make an inappropriate appropriation.** More on the line of picking the Chief’s brain to try and find ways she could tell her enlisted son how he could make advancements faster. But she just wouldn’t let him alone. Lee had ended up laughing so hard at the COB’s antics to avoid the woman that he’d had to show his Mom the e-mail to explain. He wrote Chip back a note to have Sharkey use Lee’s cabin – it had a lockable door – if things got too out of hand.
Lee also couldn’t complain too much about his mother’s cooking. While things weren’t quite up to Cookie’s standards, the selections were a little more varied, and a little more flavorful, than what he remembered her fixing the last time he’d been home.
Lee was almost happy to keep his appointment at Med Bay on the third day for the mere fact that it allowed him to leave the house. He’d tried to walk down to the beach the evening before, but Helen was adamant that he go no further than the back deck. Lee frowned but didn’t argue. He did convince her that all she had to do was drop him off at Med Bay and she’d be free to go shopping, maybe hit several of the little boutiques she’d raved about the last time she visited. As much as he always teased Chip about not letting anyone else drive his little sports car, he was totally unconcerned with his mom taking off in it. She was an excellent driver. He’d get a ride home from NIMR Security once Dr. Alexander was through torturing him. He was hoping that the appointment would be nothing more than a check-up, and removing the stitches in the left shoulder. Couple that with his mother’s tendency to get sidetracked shopping and he might get several hours to himself. He loved his mother. Really he did. And he was willing to admit that having her here, besides the chances they’d had to just sit and visit, kept the Med Bay personnel away. But there was a limit!
It almost went as planned. Dr. Alexander didn’t keep him waiting, only ran a few more tests and checks than Lee was anticipating, and quite willingly made arrangements for a ride home. Lee had never had to deal with the man before, as Alexander had only recently been hired to replace the retiring orthopedist. He wasn’t overly impressed by the man’s somewhat condescending attitude but he just kept quiet and left Med Bay as fast as he could. But once home, plans hit a minor snag – there was a strange car in the drive that it took Lee a second to recognize as Makmar Sabirin’s rental. There was a brief argument before Lee could convince his chauffeur, Davy Jackson, that he didn’t need to come in and make sure that’s who was there; that it wasn’t someone out to harm Seaview’s skipper. Lee gave the conscientious guard an easy smile and let himself in the front door. Not finding the Reserse officer in the house – although Lee had a suspicion that the man could have gained entrance had he so desired – he checked the back deck and found Mak there, waiting patiently
“I was going to give you a couple more hours, then phone NIMR to see if you had been once more incarcerated,” Mak offered with a smile.
“They wouldn’t dare.” Lee snorted, before a smirk replaced it. “There’s not a soul in Med Bay who wants much of anything to do with me, without Jamie around to run interference.” He asked if he could get the detective anything to eat or drink. When Mak declined, he settled into one of the chairs as well. “How’s the investigation going?”
“Slowly,” Mak admitted. “I met with a Detective Bryce of the LAPD, and we checked out the three leads I had. On the surface, all appear to be legitimate. And all three directors were, or at least seemed to be, most willing to aid our investigation.”
Lee nodded. “The true conservationists tend to be a little…ah…determined,” Lee finally settled on, with a small grin, “in their efforts to protect the environment.”
Mak raised an eyebrow. “Bit of a front row seat?” he asked, and his grin spread as Lee’s turned sheepish.
“On occasion,” Lee agreed, with a heavy sigh. Whatever else he was about to say was interrupted by his cell phone going off. He pulled it from its belt clip and glanced at the incoming number before he smiled openly. “Hi, Mom. Checking on me?” There was no animosity in his voice, and he winked at Mak, whose smile broadened.
“Smarty.” Helen answered right back. “Are you home already?”
“Yep. Complete with a surprise. Mak’s here.”
“He’s finished with his investigation already?”
“Ah, don’t think so. We haven’t gotten that far – I only just got here.” He frowned, causing Mak’s smile to broaden further.
“Oh. Well, mostly I called to see if you’d mind starting dinner. I have everything in order, you’ll just have to fix it.”
“I know, Mom,” Lee said with a long-suffering sigh. “I watched you do it this morning, remember? And I’m the one who taught you both recipes. I can manage just fine.” The last came out a little petulantly as Mak tried, somewhat unsuccessfully, to control his mirth.
“Speaking of which, where did you pick up the brussels sprouts one? It wasn’t your handwriting on the recipe card.”
“Remember Annie Hughes? Tim Hughes’ wife? I told you about the Bed & Breakfast they run on the Oregon coast. It’s one of hers.”
“Oh. Okay.” It was Helen’s turn to sigh, somewhat disappointed.
Lee picked up on it. “Sorry, Mom. Not a prospective daughter-in-law.” He raised an eyebrow at Mak, who was having serious trouble controlling his laughter even though he could only hear Lee’s end of the conversation. But Lee was forced to concentrate on the phone as his mother sighed again.
“I haven’t given up hope, even though I know that you’re virtually married to that tin can of yours.” She laughed, and Lee was forced to smile.
“Careful, Mom,” Lee teased her. “I don’t take kindly to anyone, even you, casting aspersions on my gray lady.” But he ended with a chuckle, and heard an answering one in his ear. “Shopping going well?” he changed the subject.
“Actually,” Helen settled down as well, “I walked into a dressmaker’s shop and got to talking to the proprietress about what beautiful silks she had. She offered to introduce me to the couple who import them for her, direct from their family’s business in India.”
“Ah. In that case it was nice visiting with you, Mom. See you in a month or so.”
What started as a snort coming through the phone changed to a chortle. “I’m not that bad.” Pause. “Am I?”
Lee laughed openly. “Well, there was that phone call I got from Cancun, when I was about 11. And the one from London – what was I, about 14? And the one from Istanbul a few months ago, when you were supposed to visit here. And…” He was cut off by an exasperated growl, and he burst out laughing. After several moments, Helen joined in.
“Brat,” she grumbled through the chuckles. “Okay, you win that one. But,” she added firmly, “this time I’ll be back by 6 pm.” Another pause. “Maybe 6:30,” she hedged.
“Have fun,” Lee told her through his own chuckles. “I’ll have dinner ready at 1900 hours. That’s 7 pm to you,” he added.
“I can figure that out,” she huffed. “Although, it would have taken me a few seconds,” she admitted, and they said their goodbyes still chuckling,”
Lee reclipped the phone and glanced at the still smiling Mak.
“Sorry,” the Indonesian apologized. “What I was hearing reminded me very much of similar conversations I have had with my mother.” He lowered his eyes slightly. “My brothers and sister have already given her grandchildren.”
Lee grinned. “At least you have siblings. I’m an only child.”
Lee grinned. “Not a major issue. She’s not exactly ready to stay home and spoil grandchildren anyway.”
“So I had gathered from visiting the other evening.” He continued to smile in the face of Lee’s sudden frown.
But Lee’s expression changed fairly quickly back to a soft smile. “I sometimes worry about her – the places she goes, following a story.” He shrugged, and the smile broadened. “Not sure why – she’s pretty resourceful.” The look he got back – one that told him only too easily that Mak was comparing mother to son – had Lee lowering his eyes and changing the subject. Again. “So. Where do you go now with your investigation?”
Mak acknowledged the re-direction with a grin and a nod. “At one place Det. Bryce and I checked, they mentioned that recently they have been getting most of their incoming stock from the,” and he quickly consulted a small notebook he kept in his jacket pocket, “Birch Aquarium, near San Diego.”
Lee was already nodding. “They’re part of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography on the campus of the University of California-San Diego in La Jolla. NIMR works with Scripps, supplying instructors for the University’s Marine Sciences department. I know that they have a special interest in seahorses. I didn’t realize that it also included the dragons.”
“We learned that they are breeding seahorses, but I wasn’t totally sure if that part of the program involved the dragons or not.”
“It sure would help take some of the incentive away from poaching those in the wild.”
“It is hoped,” Mak agreed. “Det. Bryce was going to check with officials there, to see if anyone had ever heard of Kaliwati. I thought that I would check with anyone at NIMR who might have had dealings with the program.” At Lee’s frown he hurried on. “I would not expect either you or Admiral Nelson, as busy as you are, to know every little issue that your scientists get involved in, especially if they were on loan elsewhere as instructors. It would be very much a long shot, I believe your expression is,” and he sent Lee a quick grin, “if I were to learn anything new here…”
“But the road keeps coming back here, doesn’t it,” Lee acknowledged.
Mak shrugged. “A tenuous thread at best,” he admitted.
“Still can’t hurt to ask,” Lee agreed, and pulled out his phone again. He hesitated, and glanced at Mak. “Something you could have asked with a call instead of a visit.” Lee raised an eyebrow as Mak turned sheepish.
“It was my understanding,” he started quietly, “that you had been banned from NIMR grounds.” He gave Lee a quick look through somewhat lowered eyes. “I just thought that if there was anyone that I needed to interview…”
Lee audibly growled, and savagely punched in numbers on his phone. But his features softened and he sent Mak a small grin as he listened to the ringing at the other end. “Hi, gorgeous,” he said lightly as Nelson’s executive assistant answered.
“Don’t be buttering me up, Commander,” Angie said sternly. “Whatever it is you want me to send you, it’s not going to happen.” She paused. “My annual physical isn’t that far off.”
Lee laughed. “Ah, and here I didn’t think you were afraid of anyone. Another misconception shot down in flames.” He was glad when there was an answering chuckle. “However, all I want is a little information, and possibly a visitor’s pass for a friend of mine.”
“What information, and which friend? You know what will happen if anyone crosses Dr. Jamison’s orders.”
“Down, Angie. Did you hear that there was a detective here from Indonesia, clearing up loose ends on the sea dragon poaching case?”
“Ah, that friend.”
“I need to know if there’s anyone at NIMR who has recently been doing any instructing at UC-SD, who might have had contact with anyone in the seahorse breeding program at Birch Aquarium.”
“Humm,” Angie said, and Lee heard computer keys being typed. “Might take me a bit to check,” she admitted.
“Whenever,” Lee told her. “If you come up with anyone, Det. Sabirin would like to interview them.”
“How can I reach him?”
“You can reach me,” Lee told her firmly, and listened to her soft chuckle.
“Will do,” she told him, and they disconnected.
“She’ll check and get back to me,” Lee told Mak. The pair spent the next hour visiting on half a dozen topics of mutual interest, ranging from diving in Indonesia’s beautiful marine areas to eating some of the area’s more unique menu items. As the sun settled lower in the sky, Lee glanced at his watch. “Speaking of eating, guess I’d better go start putting dinner together.” He sighed heavily. “It’s early yet, but it will take me a little longer than usual,” he admitted, with a glance at his right shoulder. “You will stay, of course.”
“I would like that,” Mak replied with a smile. “And could I help, especially since I also plan to ask if I may have the use of your couch tonight?”
“You’ll have to fight that one out with Mom,” Lee said with a broad grin, rose carefully, and headed for the kitchen.
Helen had indeed organized the evening meal before she’d dropped Lee off at NIMR and gone shopping. But there remained things to do before the two main dishes could be put together. Two potatoes had been peeled and quartered lengthwise, and left in water in the fridge. Lee set Mak to peeling a third one while he started on a large onion, peeling it and slicing it very thinly. As long as he was careful, and didn’t make any large arm movements, his right shoulder didn’t overly bother him. When Mak had the potato done as the others, Lee showed him how to use the vegetable slicer, and Mak quickly had a bowl full of thinly sliced potatoes. Lee took a medium-sized baking dish, flat and not overly deep, and layered in the potatoes and onions, topping each layer with a sprinkle of thyme. Once everything was in, he opened a large can of vegetable stock and poured two cupfuls over the mixture, dotted the top with butter, and covered the dish with aluminum foil. Setting the dish on top of the stove, he started the over before turning to Mak.
“If you’d like to make some coffee, I’ll just putter with the other dish. I can put it together while the potatoes are baking.”
As Mak turned to the coffeemaker, Lee started pulling things out of the fridge. By the time that he had what he wanted laid out on the counter, the oven was preheated and he popped in the potato dish. Taking another onion, he peeled and diced it and put it in a large skillet along with some butter, and set the skillet on the stove but didn’t turn on the burner. He was about halfway through peeling a large apple when Mak placed a mug of coffee at his elbow. Lee sighed heavily after his first swallow. While not quite up to Cookie’s high-test version, it was extremely welcome after all the tea that his mom had been insisting he drink. Mak laughed when Lee explained the sigh. He took over the apple, which Lee had him also dice and put into a small dish. Mak just continued to stand, watching Lee expectantly, and Lee finally leaned back against the counter and gave Mak directions.
A couple pounds of brussels sprouts were rinsed and placed in a saucepan with lemon juice, a little salt and just enough water to cover them, and were put on a burner. As they were brought to a boil the onions were sautéed. Lee checked the potatoes but left them in the oven, this time without the foil. As the sprouts came to a boil, the heat was reduced and the pot covered, and they were allowed to simmer while the onions were brought to almost a caramel color. Lee put his coffee down long enough to take several salmon fillets out of the fridge, rub them with olive oil and coat the tops of each with black peppercorns that his mother had already crushed. As Mak drained the brussels sprouts and put them at the back of the stovetop to keep warm, Lee put the salmon on top of the potatoes, put the foil back on, and returned the dish to the oven.
To the now almost caramelized onions Lee had Mak add apple juice, crushed garlic and a little sugar, and stir until everything was well mixed and the browned particles were loosened from the bottom of the pan. Next in was the diced apple, and Lee set the table while they cooked for several minutes until they were tender. As he recognized the sound of his car in the driveway, Lee opened a can of water chestnuts and they, along with some raisins and a few spices, were added. The front door opened and closed, bags were heard being dropped in the hallway, and Helen entered the kitchen just as the brussels sprouts were dumped into the onion/apple mixture and tossed to mix, and Lee took the potatoes and salmon dish out of the oven.
“Good timing,” Lee told her cheerfully, and pulled the foil away from the dish, the salmon now opaque and flaky.
“I see Lee put you to work,” Helen told Mak.
“A fair trade for the use of his couch tonight,” Mak told her, with a smile that swiveled back and forth between her and her son.
“Humm,” was her only comment. As Lee refilled his and Mak’s coffee cups, and poured one for Helen, she and Mak filled plates directly from the cookware. Then all sat down, the discussions while they ate covering how each had spent their day.
* * * *
Lee was still chuckling when he awoke the following morning over the “discussion” the night before between Helen and Mak over who was sleeping where. He stayed out of it, mostly because he had rarely won out against his mother’s gentle strength of will. He always figured that he went into any disagreement with her with an unfair disadvantage. It was rather gratifying to see someone else, not so encumbered, still lose without Helen once dropping the smile on her face. He just shrugged his shoulders as he and Mak made their way upstairs shortly before 2200 hours, and sent Mak a small grin of condolence.
Angie hadn’t gotten back to him the previous afternoon, but Lee’s phone went off a few minutes before 0800 as the three sat at the table polishing off the last of the waffles Lee had requested for breakfast. With both Chip and Jamie mentioning Lee’s need to eat, Helen had pretty much acquiesced to Lee’s food requests, although she tended to integrate a few of her own ideas about proper nutrition along the way. Like dinner the previous evening. Lee would have preferred just a simple salad to accompany the potato and salmon dish, and saved the brussels sprouts for tonight when he planned to grill a couple of small steaks. But he was also enjoying the chances he was having to gently needle her, hence his request for waffles, which he smothered in butter and maple syrup before inhaling.
Glancing at the incoming phone number, Lee answered with his usual, “Hi, gorgeous.”
“Both Doctors Clarington and Frasier,” Angie started without preamble, “in the Marine Resources Dept. have recently lectured at UC-SD. Neither had anything to do with the seahorse breeding project at Birch, but Dr. Frasier said that he’d toured the facility. He also mentioned that one of his lab techs, Carla deMann, did part of her internship at Birch and kept in contact with several friends there.”
“Terrific. We’ll be over after a bit so that Mak can talk to them.”
“We?” Angie challenged.
Lee frowned. “Hey. I’m just going to bring him over and introduce him. Figured that it would keep everything a little more official.”
“I’ve already explained to Dr. Frasier, so he understands that we are cooperating totally with Det. Sabirin’s investigation.
“Angie, give me a break here.”
“I already am, by not reporting your intentions to Security.”
“Geesh,” Lee muttered disgustedly.
“Sorry, Lee, but your tendency to “just check on this or that” is far too well known. And not just by the command staff. Everyone breathed a huge sigh of relief when you didn’t try any little side trips yesterday after your appointment at Med Bay.” When Lee didn’t say anything, she continued in a softer voice. “Lee, you scared a lot of people this time.”
“I know,” Lee admitted reluctantly.
“You are far too important, to too many people, for anyone to risk doing anything, no matter how outwardly innocent it may seem, that could lead to you doing anything to hamper your recovery.”
Lee was extremely glad that neither Mak nor his mother could hear anything other than his end of the conversation. While he knew what Angie was trying to tell him, it was still somewhat embarrassing. But he had a feeling something in his voice or expression was giving him away because the other two rather pointedly turned away and busied themselves cleaning up from the meal. “Understood, Angie,” Lee acknowledged.
“Good. Now, I’ll alert the front gate that the detective is expected, and Security will take him to Dr. Frasier’s lab. Anything else I can help you with?”
“Nothing you’ll do,” Lee grumbled, but ended up chuckling. He was relieved when Angie did as well, and they broke the connection amiably. Mak raised an eyebrow. “Still beached,” Lee grumbled, before giving himself a shake. “You, however, are expected at NIMR at your convenience. Dr. Frasier has lectured at the University and toured the seahorse breeding facility, and one of his lab techs interned there and still has friends who work within the program. Not sure what they’ll be able to tell you.”
“Anything is more than I have now,” Mak told him.
“Any restrictions on my going along?” Helen asked innocently.
“Help,” Lee breathed. Helen glared at him as Mak chuckled softly.
“I’m just interested in seeing a bit of your precious Institute,” Helen defended her request. “I’ve seen very little of it.”
“And whose fault is that? I’ve offered to show you around. You’ve always been running off somewhere else.”
“Yes, dear. But I’m here now.” She gave him a bright smile. “I’m just curious.”
Lee gave her a tight grin. “I’m all too familiar with your curiosity, Mom.”
“Brat,” she said, albeit fondly.
Mak grinned. “Would she be allowed in?”
“Don’t see why not,” Lee admitted.
“Then by all means, I would enjoy your company,” he told Helen.
Lee sighed heavily. “I’ll call Angie,” he surrendered, and reached once more for his phone.
* * * *
Once Helen and Mak were gone, Lee made the most of the first quiet moments he’d had since Seaview had entered Australia’s waters all those weeks ago and walked down to the beach. From the moment of the first attack coupled with the bad air in his tank he’d been on high alert, not letting himself relax. The tension only continued to mount as Seaview’s crew struggled to comprehend what was happening around them, culminating in the anxiety-ridden confrontation when Lee feared that he might be losing his XO and best friend, Chip, and he, himself, was nearly killed. While he’d certainly had enough rest after that – enough to last a lifetime as far as he was concerned – it hadn’t been all that restful. Lee hated the confinement of Sick Bay. And if anything, Med Bay was even worse with its wider array of personnel that he was forced to tolerate. Lee was no hermit – he enjoyed being around people, listening to them, encouraging them to talk about their interests. But in Med Bay the focus was always on him, not something that he’d ever been comfortable with. Those closest to him did their best to make the occasional confinements at least tolerable - visiting as often as they could, bringing him as much paperwork as Jamie would allow, so that he could focus on something other than his own frustrations. This time, however, even that had been severely limited. Due to the injury to Lee’s right shoulder there wasn’t much that he could actually work on.
Now, in these first free couple of hours that he figured he’d have, he walked the short path down to the beach and his beloved ocean. It was a very pleasant day, with clear skies and only a soft breeze. He waved to the few neighbors he saw, either in their yards or also enjoying the day on the beach, but didn’t stop to talk. From long practice he knew how far an hour’s walk would take him, and planned to be back at the house well before the others. He smiled as he remembered the delight in Angie’s voice when he called to have Helen added to the visitor’s pass. There were many who would enjoy meeting her, thinking that they would gain insight into the very private Lee. That they would be disappointed, Lee had no doubt. He knew his mother well. Helen would be far too interested in what they were involved in to want to talk about anything else.
Lee was spot on, as usual. Once at NIMR and taken to the Marine Biology labs, she kept half an ear on Mak’s conversation with Dr. Frasier while wandering around checking on all the research being carried on in the immediate vicinity, and asking questions of the various technicians present. One of them turned out to be Carla deMann, and when Dr. Frasier called her over to talk to Mak, Helen trailed along.
As expected from Angie’s comments, Frasier wasn’t all that helpful. He’d only toured the seahorse research and breeding facility, in conjunction with his own research on reef corals, which the aquarium was also involved in propagating.
Ms. deMann was a bit more helpful, having worked within the program for six months during her senior year at UC-SD. As she started by giving them a bit of background, Dr. Frasier tried to tell her that that wasn’t what the detective was there to hear. But Mak immediately told both that he was quite interested in any and all background, since at this point in the investigation he had no real idea of what was important and what was not. With a bit of a smug look at her boss, Carla made the most of her ‘center stage’ position.
She explained that the whole project basically got its inspiration from the discovery, back in 1962, of a species of seahorse long thought to have disappeared from the California coast part of its territory. Hippocampus ingens, the largest of the thirty-two known species of seahorses with an adult length that could reach 30cm, or about 1 foot, was known along the Pacific coast as far south as Peru, but basically hadn’t been seen in California’s waters for nearly 100 years. The specimen was donated to the Thomas Wayland Vaughan Aquarium, also a subsidiary of Scripps.
The actual breeding program was started in 1994 at Birch, and thanks to a very generous private donation in 1995, special breeding facilities were constructed. They started with H. ingens, but when they had success with that species, had branched out to others. The last figures that she heard were that they’d been able to raise nine different species to adulthood, and had shipped specimens to about 45 different aquarium facilities worldwide, thus lessening the demand for and helping protect the wild varieties.
“Was the Leafy Sea Dragon one of the varieties they were breeding?” Mak asked as Ms. deMann started to wind down.
“No,” she told him. “As far as I know they were only working within the hippocampus species. Dragons are closely related, but a different family.” As Mak started to ask something else, a thoughtful expression crossed the young woman’s face and she held up a finger. “There was something Mikey was telling me, however. Something to do with dragons.”
“And who is Mikey?” Mak asked patiently.
“Oh, sorry. Mike Haley. He’s Dr. Cateman’s assistant.”
“And what was it that he told you,” Mak prodded gently.
She thought for a second, but then shrugged her shoulders. “Sorry. Afraid I wasn’t paying all that much attention.” She grinned. “It was the same day I was notified that my application to NIMR had been accepted.”
“A job that I would suggest you get back to,” Dr. Frasier said sternly, before glancing at Mak and Helen. “If the detective is through with you, that is,” he amended.
“Yes,” Mak acquiesced. “I believe that will be everything.” He turned to Ms. deMann. “I will be speaking to this Mr. Haley about the incident, so you need not worry about the parts you cannot remember. However, I do appreciate what you have been able to relate. Thank you.”
“You’re very welcome, Detective. And a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Crane.” She looked ready to add something else, but Dr. Frasier cleared his throat and she ducked her head and took off.
Frazier just raised his eyebrows and shrugged. “I’m afraid, Mrs. Crane, that both your son and Lt. Cdr. Morton attract their fair share of hero worship, among other kinds, from the impressionable younger generation at NIMR.”
Helen laughed. “So I’ve been let to believe, Doctor,” she told him. “I do have to admit that they are both quite handsome young men. Although,” she grinned broadly, “I could be just a tad prejudiced. At least toward one of them.” All three smiled.
Helen then asked a question about some of the experiments she’d seen while wandering around the room, and Dr. Frasier offered to give her and Mak a brief tour. Helen hesitated as Mak gave a quick glance at his watch. “Perhaps not at this time,” she offered. “I don’t want to hold up Mak, ah, Det. Sabirin.”
Mak smiled. “Not a problem. I had not planned on driving back to Los Angeles until after lunch anyway. I, too, would enjoy the tour.”
“Well, to do the whole place would take a couple days,” Frasier admitted. “But I would be more than happy to show you my little part of it.”
Which explained why they didn’t get back to Lee’s place until almost 12:30. Helen was instantly dismayed not to find Lee there, and called his cell phone.
“Look out the back door,” Lee answered, not without humor, and Helen spotted him just coming up from the beach.
In actual fact, Lee was rather disgusted with himself. He’d been so enjoying the sunshine, as well as the sights and sounds of the beach, that he’d walked farther than he’d originally intended to without even noticing. Halfway back he realized that he was going to overtax his reserves. He continued walking but at a much slower pace, and was just making his way up the path to his house when his phone went off. He actually wasn’t all that surprised that the pair was later than expected as well – not with his mother involved. In fact, he’d been expecting for the last hour to get a call that they were going to eat in the cafeteria, still involved in their ‘investigation.’ He’d been counting on it, in fact, so that his little miscalculation wouldn’t be discovered.
He tried to act casual as he came in the back door, but apparently not casual enough as both Mak and Helen instantly expressed worry. With Mak it was just his facial expression. But Helen started fussing at Lee to sit down, and chastised him for obviously overexerting himself. He settled somewhat heavily into one of the chairs at the kitchen table, only to have his mother switch gears and practically order him to bed.
“Make up your mind, Mom,” Lee said with a smile on his face as well as in his voice. “Either I sit here and rest – as well as eat the lunch I’m sure that you’re about to fix – or I use more energy to walk up the stairs and lay down.” He sent a wink towards Mak, knowing full well that Helen could see it.
“Smart-aleck brat,” she muttered, but finally had to smile as both Lee and Mak chuckled at her. “But the instant you’re done eating…” She didn’t finish the threat.
“Yes, Mother,” Lee acquiesced. As Helen started putting together sandwiches and heating soup for lunch, Lee listened as Mak called Det. Bryce in LA and passed on what little he’d learned from Ms. deMann. Once off the phone, Mak told Lee and Helen that Bryce said he’d call the Aquarium and arrange another meeting for the following morning. The original meeting that he’d had that morning had focused only on finding out if anyone there knew of Yusef Kaliwati or had had dealings with him. Now they had the name of specific employees and could delve a little deeper. Although, as Mak had admitted to Bryce on the phone, it was still a long shot.
“But sometimes it’s the longest shot that pays off,” Lee told the detective, who nodded.
“It was actually a long shot that brought me back to NIMR in the first place. I really did not expect to learn as much as I did.”
“Sometimes you just don’t know where a lead will take you,” Helen said from the stove as she stirred the soup. “I remember once, when I was working on an article about the current fashion craze coming out of Paris, I ended up in Africa learning weaving techniques and patterns from several different tribeswomen.” The three spent the meal comparing notes over the weird twists and turns an investigation of any kind could take.
Mak left shortly after they finished eating, to drive back to LA. Ignoring his mother’s disapproval for not laying down in his bed, Lee settled in the big overstuffed chair in the living room and put his feet up on the footstool. He intended just to close his eyes for a few minutes, then grab the laptop and e-mail Chip to see how things were going. But when he opened his eyes it was dark outside, there was a blanket over him, and his mother was sitting across from him reading a book.
“No I-told-you-so?” he grumbled as she looked up.
“I believe that the point has been made,” she answered, refusing to let him goad her.
Lee just sighed a surrender. “S’pose so.” He gave her a sheepish grin. “But it felt good.”
Helen chuckled. She knew her son only too well. “Hungry?”
“Actually, a little,” he admitted, but held up a hand as Helen started to put the book down. “Just relax – I’ll find something.” He gave her another sheepish grin. “Need to get up anyway.” He headed for the kitchen to the sound of her chuckles.
* * * *
Lee knew that, having slept away the entire afternoon and well into the evening, when he did finally let Helen urge him off to bed just after 2200 hours he wouldn’t be able to sleep. He was therefore totally unprepared for the bright sunshine streaming through his bedroom windows the next time he opened his eyes. “Damn,” he muttered softly, and headed for the shower.
Helen was sitting at the kitchen table, an empty bowl pushed toward the center of the table from where she sat, and working on a cup of tea as she read the newspaper. Lee cocked an eye at her. “Hit the store already this morning?” Since he was rarely home, he didn’t bother with a paper delivery.
“You used the last of the milk last night, and I decided that I wanted oatmeal for breakfast.”
“Sorry,” Lee mumbled, and headed for the coffee pot.
“Learn your lesson yesterday?” Helen asked oh so innocently, and smiled softly.
Lee stopped and hung his head. “For the moment,” he admitted. With his head still lowered, he turned and gave her a quick grin.
“Should I tell Dr. Jamison that he’d avoid a lot of frustration by just letting you fall on your face, and picking up the pieces later?”
Lee laughed outright. “Been there, done that,” he told her, and headed once again to start a pot of coffee. “Do I take that to mean that you have something planned for the day and you’re leaving me on my own good behavior?”
“What good behavior,” Helen muttered into her cup of tea. But she joined in with Lee’s laughter. “Actually, Dr. Frasier offered to show me more of NIMR if I had some free time.”
“Single, good job, fairly decent looking,” Lee observed, before Helen threw the newspaper at him and they both laughed again. “NIMR is really a fascinating place if you’re into all that stuff,” he acknowledged, folding up the sheets of paper.
“Kind of hard not to be, at least a little bit. Although, I’m far happier being involved with gathering information than analyzing it.”
“Humm,” Helen said softly, with a knowing look on her face. She knew, and Lee knew that she knew, that sometimes the ‘information’ Lee went after had nothing to do with marine biology. It wasn’t something that they talked about – at least very often. But there had been a shared story or two, veiled in generalities, as they compared notes over how his work compared with her research into an idea for a new article.
“Enjoy yourself,” he told her as the aroma of strong coffee started to fill the room.
“Behave yourself and I might take my favorite son out to dinner tonight. I passed a Japanese restaurant the other day that, from all the cars in the parking lot, must be pretty good.”
Lee nodded. “Know the one you mean, and it’s great. Don’t think I’ve ever had any better tempura shrimp and veggies.” An almost evil grin crossed his face. “I’d offer to call for reservations, but just in case you get tied up with Dr. Frasier…”
Helen’s tea mug nearly followed the newspaper as Lee cracked up, and she gave him a quick swat as she put it in the sink instead. “Just for that you can fix your own breakfast as well as clean up all the dishes.”
“Not a problem.” Lee continued to chuckle. “Enjoy your day,” he added.
“I plan to,” Helen said just as lightly, grabbed Lee’s car keys and her purse, and headed for the door.
Lee continued to chuckle as he watched her from the kitchen window get into his little red sports car and back out of the driveway. He knew that she’d enjoy the tour. NIMR did a lot of extremely interesting and important research. And Helen Crane had a tendency to be totally fascinated with whatever she was focused on at the moment. Chip had often harassed Lee during their Annapolis years about how easily Lee could get sidetracked if he heard or saw anything out of the norm. Lee knew exactly where his nearly insatiable curiosity came from. Over the years it had been tempered by it all too often getting him into fixes he couldn’t easily get out of. But he still enjoyed life’s infinite variables.
After a quick breakfast of toast with peanut butter and jam, he cleaned up the kitchen and checked his e-mail. He had to smooth a few of Chip’s obviously ruffled feathers over what ‘these stupid civilians” were doing to his normally ordered routines. At least so far Admiral Nelson was holding on to his rather infamous temper. But Chip had suspicions that it might have something to do with the ‘special’ coffee being brewed each evening on the CMO’s hot plate. “Whatever it takes,” Lee wrote to Chip. They all knew that the yearly junkets were a necessary evil if they wanted to keep their government contracts. When particularly annoyed, Nelson had been known to mutter about what Washington could do with those contracts; that he had plenty of work to keep both Seaview and NIMR afloat without them. But so far he’d never carried out any of his threats. Lee had been known to mutter – but never in Nelson’s presence – about how boring life would be aboard Seaview if all they ever did was chart ocean bottom and count sea lions. Chip would just laugh and remind him that boring wasn’t all bad.
Lee continued to putter around the house until he knew that the restaurant would be open for the lunch crowd, and called in reservations for that evening. Then he grabbed half a dozen cookies and headed for the beach. He only walked a short way along the shore before finding a likely drift log to lean back against, and settled down in the warm sand. The sun and surf helped to ease his frustrations over what he couldn’t yet do. He was almost embarrassed over how little he’d done the day before and how totally it had drained him. His next appointment at Med Bay was in two days and he was hoping to be able to talk Dr. Alexander into letting him at least go into the office for part of each day. From there he could smuggle enough work home to keep him occupied the rest of the day. To do that he had to be able to show the doctor that he was regaining his strength, and yesterday’s little adventure forced him to admit that he’d have to do an awfully good acting job to be able to fool the man. With Jamie he wouldn’t even try. He might argue until he was blue in the face, but Jamie knew him far too well for Lee to ever fool him that much. With Alexander he had at least a chance of pulling it off. After all, Jamie couldn’t expect him to stay totally inactive the entire two weeks Seaview was out.
Lee kept hoping all afternoon that Mak would call, to let him know how the interview had gone that morning. But his phone still hadn’t rung when he returned to the house shortly before 1700 hours. His mother hadn’t called, either, so he assumed dinner was still on and headed upstairs to clean up and change. Helen breezed in shortly after. Once they were comfortably seated at the restaurant, her light chatter was full of the people she’d met and the wonderful conservation and preservation work that NIMR was involved in. Lee listened patiently, as he always did when his mom got wound up on a subject. At least this time he was able to add a few bits and pieces of his own to the conversation while they enjoyed wonderful sushi and tempura, accompanied by lots of green tea. What frustrations he might have been feeling earlier over his forced inactivity were washed away by Helen’s enthusiasm and exuberance.
The next day went much as the previous one. Lee accompanied Helen to the grocery store – he was out of cookies and wanted to check the bakery section – then he walked down to the beach while she went off to visit some more with the couple who imported the silk. There was still no word from Mak. Lee thought about calling him but didn’t want to interfere, or interrupt if Mak was in the middle of something. He did make amends of sorts to his mom for the cookies by fixing fresh cod cakes and hot fruit salad for dinner. He’d picked up the ingredients for both as they prowled through the grocery store, but hadn’t explained how they were going together or even that they were for two separate dishes and not one. Her only comment was “Another of Annie Hughes’ recipes?”
Lee just grinned and shook his head. “Not this time,” was all he’d admit to.
Helen got home just as Lee was putting the canned peaches, pears, chunky applesauce, dried apricots and dried cranberries into the crock pot, along with sugar, butter, cinnamon, and nutmeg. While that heated up and sent wonderful smells through the kitchen, he started in on the cod cakes. When she would have helped he merely frowned, and Helen set up her laptop on the kitchen table and answered e-mails. He did notice that his shoulder mildly objected to his peeling a couple potatoes, cubing them, and putting them on the stove to boil until they were soft, but he just ignored the minor inconvenience. He grinned as he grabbed an onion to chop, thinking that if what he’d heard was true about onions having minute amounts of opiates in them, it explained why he’d been able to palm all of Jamie’s painkillers his mother had tried to give him the last two days without noticeable ill effects. The antibiotics, he’d continued to take without argument.
Lee crisply fried several strips of bacon, set them aside, and sautéed the chopped onion in the drippings until they were tender before setting that aside as well. He was in no hurry to put things together since the fruit would take about two hours for everything to be heated through. Next, he got out the fresh cod and poached it until it was flaky. While that was cooking, he took out mayonnaise, yogurt, lemon juice, and chili powder, and mixed that up as a topping for the cod cakes. Again his shoulder objected to the extra movement of stirring the ingredients together. He wondered for a second if his mom had caught something amiss in his movements as she watched him intently for a bit. But he just smiled and finished the mixing, and put the topping back in the fridge. By that time the fish was done to his liking, and he drained it and broke it into small chunks before adding it to the potatoes, mashing and blending them well with the fork held in his left hand. To that he added the crumbled bacon, onions, a couple slightly beaten eggs, and a few seasonings before stirring everything thoroughly and forming the mixture into cakes about half an inch thick. Those he covered and let sit until he was ready to fry them. He noted that Helen was still tracking his progress, and suspected that while she was answering e-mails she was also writing down what he was doing, for future reference. He grinned to himself and made a mental note to tell Becca.
While the fruit dish continued to warm, Lee sat down and visited with Helen about how her day had gone. She pulled several small samples of silk out of her bag and showed them to Lee, describing how each had been woven to set up the different patterns. Lee made her laugh when he started comparing each to a different variety of fish that he’d encountered over the years; how the patterns and colors imitated each other, and teased her that she’d have to run them past Dr. Frasier. Helen remembered that Lee had an appointment the following day, and said that she’d go visit the marine biologist while Lee was occupied at Med Bay.
On that note Lee got up, checked the crock pot, poured Helen a glass of wine from the bottle Nelson had brought over the night before Seaview left, and started the frying pan to fix the cod cakes.
“You know,” Helen observed as the cod cakes were beginning to send out wonderful smells of their own, an interesting blend with the fruity ones coming from the crock pot, “I do find it strange that you can be such an excellent cook and yet, every time I see you, you’re skinny as a rail.”
“I am not skinny,” Lee growled, but he gave her a quick grin as she chuckled. “And I stay so busy that I don’t have the time to do much cooking.”
“There are other things in life besides working,” Helen said casually.
“So, when are you going to retire? I happen to know that you’ve got a nice, fat, retirement account all nicely stashed away.”
It was Helen’s turn to growl, before she grinned. “Point taken, brat,” she said fondly, stood up, and wrapped an arm around his waist as she stopped next to him, giving him a squeeze. “And you’re still skinny.”
“Healthily lean and muscled,” Lee corrected her.
“Humm,” was her only response. “Are those about done? The smell is driving me a little crazy.”
“They should be by the time you get the table set.” He grinned down at her, she gave him a quick swat on the backside, and they both burst out laughing.
Conversation during the meal revolved around Seaview’s next several cruises, Helen’s next several story ideas - unless something came along in the meantime to sidetrack her, as Lee was quick to jibe her about, causing more chuckles. The dishes were cleaned up quickly, they enjoyed a pleasant evening listening to the stereo and visiting quietly, and both crashed early.
* * * *
Jamie’s gonna pay. I don’t know how, or when, but I will get him for this. To say that Lee’s plans for the following day didn’t go the way that he wanted them to was a gross understatement. First, Dr. Frasier wasn’t available to entertain Helen – his sister was having some minor surgery in San Francisco and Frasier had been volunteered to keep her husband from making a nuisance of himself – so she came along with Lee to Med Bay. Happily she chose to wait in the front waiting area, but that didn’t help much. Lee had hoped that, even if Alexander didn’t allow him back on light duty, that he’d just wander over to his office while he claimed to be waiting for Helen. That part of the plan down the tubes, he was going to have to do a sell job on Alexander.
Obviously Jamie had done an even better sell job. Either that, or he’d threatened to have Alexander fired if he so much as believed one word that came out of Lee’s mouth about how well he was feeling. No matter what Lee said, Alexander just reiterated that Lee was on total medical leave at least until Jamie got back. No negotiations. No exceptions. And to add insult to injury - literally - when the nurse took Lee’s temperature as part of the standard exam, Lee was running a slight fever. Nothing significant, but enough that Alexander ordered blood work done to determine if the antibiotic Lee was taking needed to be changed. Lee was incarcerated in the exam room until the results were back, leading to Helen being notified about what was taking so long, and she instantly appeared in the room. She took one look at the thunderstorm brewing on Lee’s face as he lay on the exam table, the head raised so he was half sitting up, and a soft smile spread slowly over hers. Lee almost immediately lowered his eyes from the piercing glare that he’d been directing at the doctor. He crossed his arms over his chest and, while keeping his eyes lowered, re-directed the much-toned-down glare at his mother. She just continued the small smile as she walked over and stood next to him, and listened as Alexander explained the problem. Besides the fever, he was marginally concerned that the main wound on the back of Lee's right shoulder looked slightly irritated. Helen’s smile momentarily wavered as she related seeing Lee wince a time or two as he was preparing dinner the night before.
Totally ignoring Jamie's warning not to get into a spitting match with Seaview’s stubborn, strong-willed young captain, Alexander scowled at Lee. “You were told, were you not, to totally rest that shoulder.”
“All I was doing was stirring a few things together,” Lee sniped back. “I should have started physiotherapy already.” Lee was back to glaring at the doctor.
Alexander didn’t back down. “You should have had that arm totally immobilized. I warned Jamison that this would happen. Your track record for following orders precedes you, Commander.” The doctor crossed his own arms over his chest and practically smirked at Lee.
He was left sputtering as Lee launched himself off the exam table. Not only was Lee not going to tolerate that kind of attitude from anybody, Alexander had made the fatal error of criticizing Jamie. Lee was totally aware of what a rotten patient he was. And while he may yell at and argue with Seaview’s CMO, Lee was only too aware of what an outstanding physician Will Jamison was. And yes, he might allow Lee privileges that he wouldn’t another man. But it was only because the two men had developed a strong understanding of each other, based as much as anything on friendship and trust. Nobody badmouthed Jamie in front of Lee and survived unscathed.
In this instance, however, Lee was prevented from saying what he so desperately wanted to by the presence of his mother. In deference to her, he held his tongue and merely glared Alexander into silence. “I'm leaving,” he growled, and reached for his shirt. “You can listen to his garbage if you want to,” he told Helen in a barely more civil tone. “I’ll wait for you in the car,” and he stomped out.
The slight smile on Helen’s face, while it had momentarily disappeared, returned as Alexander turned from staring at Lee’s back to face her. “Good job, Doctor,” she observed. “I haven't seen him that ticked off since a new volunteer with the Sea Scouts program Lee was a member of excused Lee from a navigation lecture the man was giving because Lee kept correcting the man’s obvious mistakes.” Helen smiled sweetly. “The next day, after hearing about the incident, the Admiral of the War College where the program met came by to apologize to Lee that someone with so faulty an education had been allowed to instruct.” Helen looked directly at the doctor and continued firmly. “The volunteer was never heard from again.”
“You have to make him get back here,” Alexander returned to his blustering, completely ignoring Helen’s implied warning and expecting compliance to his orders.
Helen’s smile only increased. “Nobody makes Lee do anything. I would have thought that you’d know that.” Alexander started to sputter again, but Helen just continued on. “Now, if you’d be so good as to let Dr. Jamison know the results of your tests, I’m sure that there’s someone here who can bring over any changes in the medications that might need to be made.”
“He needs...” Alexander started.
Helen didn’t even raise her voice; the intensity alone silenced the doctor. “Commander Crane needs, Doctor, to be treated with the respect that his position at NIMR deserves. Obviously you don’t understand that.” She shrugged. “Too bad.” Her smile brightened. “For you, that is,” she added lightly, and followed her son.
Lee was slouched in the passenger seat of his little sports car when Helen reached it. She’d half expected to find him behind the wheel, although she had the keys in her pocket. She sent him a little grin as she got in. “Feel better now?”
Lee’s frown turned decidedly sheepish. “I’ll pay for that one,” he admitted.
“Humm,” was all Helen said. She started the car and headed for the main gate. “How are you feeling?” she asked.
Lee opened his mouth but, for a couple seconds, nothing came out. Finally, “A little sore,” he admitted reluctantly. “And tired,” he added as he sent his mother a shy little glance.
“When we get home you’d probably better e-mail Dr. Jamison and let him know what happened. No telling what that arrogant a..... will tell him. At least this way he’ll have both sides of the story.”
At his mother’s description of Alexander, Lee straightened in the seat. “Mother,” he admonished her.
She grinned. “I suffer fools barely more tactfully than you do.” Lee just shook his head. “What will Jamison do?”
Lee went back to slouching in the seat, and lowered his head. “Send Nurse Hale after me,” he mumbled. “Gunnery Sgt. Esther Hale, US Marine Corps, retired.” He visibly cringed. Helen laughed but said nothing as they left NIMR grounds and returned to the house.
Lee did as Helen suggested and e-mailed Jamie to admit what had happened, before settling into his big chair in the living room while Helen fixed a light lunch. Back in the chair after eating, he was just about to doze off when a car in the drive straightened him up. He came to attention - or as near as he could get to it while still sitting - as Nurse Hale marched into the room, and he started to rise.
“Sit,” she ordered, put the bag she was carrying on an end table next to the couch, and put her hands on her hips. “You have managed, once again, Commander, to stir the Med Bay staff into a frenzy.”
Lee put his head down and watched her through his eyelashes. “Sorry,” he mumbled.
Unexpectedly, the diminutive nurse laughed. “The entire nursing staff is celebrating. We’ve been trying to figure out a way to get rid of that disgusting...” she hesitated and glanced back at Helen, who was standing in the doorway, “doctor,” and she managed to make the title sound like a dirty word, “ever since he got here. We’ve got a pool started on how long he lasts.”
Lee’s head had popped up as Ms. Hale was talking, but he just stared at her. It was Helen who commented casually, “Can anyone enter?”
“Absolutely. A buck a guess.”
“I say, gone before Seaview gets back,” Helen told the nurse.
“No way,” Lee interrupted, but his voice was purposely soft so as not to contradict either woman too strongly. “He knows that no one has the authority to make him leave until Jamie and the Admiral are back,” he explained. “He’s too big a jerk to leave on his own.”
Both women nodded at the logic. “One hour, then,” Helen said.
“Been taken,” was the nurse's no-nonsense response, before a grin hit her face. “By me.”
“Fifty-five minutes,” Helen amended.
“I’ll put you down.” Hale turned back to Lee and the smile disappeared. “Now, Commander...”
“Yes, Ma’am,” Lee said respectfully. Helen headed in the direction of the laundry room at the other end of the house.
“I just got off the ship-to-shore phone with a decidedly irritated Dr. Jamison.” Lee hung his head again. “Let’s see what we can do,” she continued with a smile in her voice, and Lee’s head came partway back up, “to un-irritate him.”
It turned out that, once Will got the lab reports faxed to him, he merely changed one of the antibiotics Lee was taking, and requested that the nurse draw another blood sample in 48 hours. Lee bristled just a moment at that news, but Ms. Hale silenced him with a look before telling him that if everything stayed under control Lee needn’t return to Med Bay; that she’d come to his house. She did lecture him, and made a point of telling Helen when she reappeared in the doorway, that Lee was not to use his right arm for anything more strenuous than lifting an eating utensil. Then she reached back into her bag and pulled out a thick manila folder. “There was also a suggestion made,” she explained, although she didn’t say by whom, “that you’d be less likely to do something you shouldn’t if you were otherwise occupied. Admiral Nelson had Angie pull several reports that need to be read and dealt with. If,” and her voice returned to the authoritative one that had Lee ducking his head again, “you can manage these without putting undue strain on your shoulder, others may,” and she emphasized that word with both voice and eyes, “be provided.”
“He’ll behave,” Helen assured the nurse.
“That would be a first,” Ms. Hale muttered, causing Helen to burst out laughing and Lee to duck further. But he was forced to smile as the nurse also started chuckling, and held out his hand for the folder. She glared at him until he realized that he’d held out his right hand, reached with his left instead, and she relented. “I’ll be back sometime tomorrow morning to check on you.”
“I thought Jamie said 48 hours,” Lee all but whined.
Nurse Hale crossed her arms over her chest and glared down at him. “For re-doing the blood work. Not for checking on you. That has now become my daily duty.” Lee opened his mouth, she sent him a look that sent a shiver down his spine without him totally understanding why, and he quickly closed his mouth. “Now that we have that straight,” and she turned to Helen, “when are his next meds due?”
“Just about now.”
The nurse nodded and reached once more into her bag. “He gets one of these,” she handed Helen a bottle of pills, after removing one, “3 times a day in addition to the two he’s already getting.”
“I’ll get them, as well as some juice,” and Helen headed for the kitchen. When she returned she handed Lee the antibiotic he was already on, as well as the pain pill, and a small glass of orange juice. He accepted the additional pill from Ms. Hale, and downed the antibiotics but once more palmed the painkiller. When he looked up, the nurse was glaring at him.
“And how long have you been pulling that little stunt?” she demanded. At Helen's puzzled look she quickly reached out and took Lee’s hand in hers, just staring at him until he opened his fingers, revealing the pill.
“Lee Benjamin Crane,” Helen chastised him.
“You are ashore, Commander,” Nurse Hale growled. “On medical leave.” Her voice softened briefly. “I know that pain meds can take the edge off your concentration.” The glare came back, in voice as well as face. “But there are no crises that need your immediate attention. Those reports do not come with a time limit for finishing them. It is more important that you allow your body to get the rest it needs to heal properly than to keep a clear head every instant of the day. And pain is not restful. Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes, Ma’am,” Lee said quietly. Throughout the short lecture he had kept his gaze on her, acknowledging her correct call of the situation. It was a habit formed so many years ago that he did it now almost without conscious thought. It regularly drove Jamie up the wall, although Lee was getting a bit better about letting the CMO have his occasional victories as long as there was no current disaster brewing. He quietly downed the pill with the last of the juice.
“Bubbleheads,” Ms. Hale muttered disgustedly, grabbed her bag, and left. Helen just continued to glare at Lee. Keeping his eyes down, Lee opened the folder in his lap and started to read the first report.
* * * *
With no awareness that his mother had moved from the doorway, a hand on his shoulder startled him. As he looked up at her, she lightly tousled his curlier-than-usual hair. “Dinner’s ready, sleepyhead.” She grinned at him, then turned and headed toward the kitchen.
“Arghffl.” His disgruntled mutterings all the way to the bathroom included the fact that he was obviously overdue for a haircut. But he had himself back under control by the time he entered the kitchen. “Dinner smells wonderful,” he announced honestly.
“Humm.” Helen was just checking something in the oven. “Actually, that’s tomorrow’s lunch, or at least the beginnings of it, in the crock pot.” She pulled a baking sheet out of the oven and set it on hot pads before continuing. “I just made tofu nuggets and herbed brown rice for tonight. A good cleansing meal since you’re back to fighting a bit of infection. Rich in protein but easily digested.” As she turned to pour the rice into a semi-shallow platter, and top it with what was on the baking sheet, she missed Lee’s shudder. But he had a smile – forced though it was – back on his face by the time Helen brought the platter to the table.
Actually, he had to admit that the meal wasn’t all that bad. It was something he’d eaten fairly often as a child and thought nothing of it. Extra firm tofu was drained and blotted dry, then cut into bite-sized cubes and marinated in a mixture of teriyaki and soy sauces, brown sugar, sesame oil, garlic powder, and ginger. Drained again, they were rolled in breadcrumbs and baked until they were lightly browned. If Lee tended to go a little heavy on the sweet and sour sauce that usually accompanied them, Helen never mentioned it. Tonight, especially hungry for some reason – perhaps because the crock-pot was sending out very interesting smells of its own, he even had seconds – although it was mostly the rice, cooked in chicken broth and flavored with garlic, thyme, rosemary, sage, and chives.
As they were finishing up, the phone rang. Lee started to get up to answer from the extension on the kitchen wall, but Helen beat him to it. Lee grinned as he listened to her deal with, from her end of the conversation, someone from her publisher’s office who apparently wanted to know how much longer she was going to be in California. Helen reminded them, firmly, that she’d already told them she wasn’t sure how long she’d be on vacation, and to kindly not bother her again.
Lee raised an eyebrow as she returned to the table and started gathering up the dishes. “Sorry, dear. I gave them your number, in case they needed to reach me in a hurry for some reason.”
“I didn’t realize that, as a freelance writer, they could say much about how you spend your time.”
“They think that they can get pushy because of all the nice, fat checks they give me.” She smiled what most people who didn’t know her well would have called a ‘sweet’ smile. Lee knew better. Behind his mother’s gentle façade lay a will of spring steel. Stressed to its limits on occasion, Helen always came back stronger for the experience. He all too easily read the glint in her eyes that the smile on her lips didn’t totally mask. “Mostly they just e-mail me,” Helen continued, “so they’re easy to ignore. For some reason I relented and gave them the number here.” She shrugged and gave Lee a genuine smile.
He returned it. “Not a problem. But why don’t they just call your cell phone?”
The ‘sweet’ smile made a return. “Because I flatly refuse to give them the number.”
Lee just grinned. But it also reminded him of something. “Don’t suppose Mak called while I was…” He frowned, not finishing the sentence.
“Napping?” Helen offered with an all-too innocent smile. Lee’s frown deepened. “How about recharging your batteries?”
“Better,” Lee grumbled. “Sort of.”
Helen chuckled. “No, he didn’t. And while I know that it shouldn’t be worrisome…” It was her turn to not finish a sentence. Lee raised an eyebrow, and Helen sent him a sheepish look. “After I got the crock pot going, I tried calling his cell phone.”
“No answer. Well, actually, I got the ‘Out of Service Area’ message.
“He could have been in a bad reception area, I suppose,” Lee offered.
“It bothered me, nonetheless. He really is a very nice young man.” Lee nodded an absentminded agreement, thinking more about where the Indonesian could have been, in the greater Los Angeles area with its plethora of cell phone users, where Mak would be out of touch. He brought his attention back to where he was as Helen continued. “So I tried calling Det. Bryce.”
“Do you have any idea of how many detectives there are in LA with that last name? Must be the family business.” Lee gave her a quick grin. “I don’t suppose Mak happened to mention a first name?” Lee just shook his head. “Well, the person I talked to with Public Affairs said that she’d check around to see if anyone knew anything about a cooperative investigation with the Indonesian Reserse.” She shrugged. “I’m not holding my breath.”
“I’m not even sure if he was dealing with LA city, or county,” Lee admitted.
“You’re just a barrel of helpful information.”
Lee chuckled and got up. After giving Helen a hug, he ambled over to the crock-pot and lifted the lid half an inch, taking a deep whiff. “You sure this isn’t ready now? Not that I’m still hungry,” he hurriedly added, with slightly lowered eyes.
Helen just grinned broadly. “Nope. Although you can turn it off. That’s mostly just the chicken broth I need, as well as the chicken.”
“They do make perfectly adequate canned varieties, you know.”
“Humm,” was Helen’s response. She walked over, lifted out the crock-pot insert and set it on hot pads on the counter, settling the lid sideways so what was inside could begin to cool. “You know Paul Newman?”
“Not personally.” Lee grinned at her as he poured himself another cup of coffee. He’d been a little surprised that she’d made it, instead of plying him with more herbal tea, and wasn’t about to waste any.
Helen threatened a light backhand, but she also smiled. “Then it’s a safe bet that you also have never met his daughter, Nell.” Lee just smiled at her over his mug. “Met them both a good many years ago at the Le Mans 24-hour car race.”
Lee nodded. “I remember the story you wrote, about taking that special tour one of the travel agencies offered to LeMans. Getting marquee accommodations, tours of the track with some of the drivers, helicopter overflights, access to the garage areas where you got to see the mechanics work on the cars, and talk to them about what they were doing. It was a great article. You really sounded like you had a blast.”
“I did,” she told him with a smile. “After the race was over, Paul let me drive his car around the course a few laps.” Obviously fond memories put another smile on her face. Lee started having second thoughts about letting her continue to drive his car. “Anyway,” Helen got back to the story at hand, “Nell is really a good cook, and very conscious of healthy eating.” Lee switched his thoughts to reassessing what his nose had so far been telling him. “You’ve seen the ‘Newman’s Own’ brand of foods in the store?”
Lee nodded. “Now that you mention it. Mostly in the salad dressing aisle, I think.”
“That, and other stuff as well. That’s Paul’s doing. Nell started there, and then formed her own section, called ‘Newman’s Own Organic.’ It’s now a separate company. She concentrates on produce, dried fruits, some snack-type foods.” Helen grinned. “She makes the best cookies – calls them ‘Fig Newmans’.” They both chuckled at the play on words with Fig Newtons. “I’ll see if I can find you some. Oh, and she also does popcorn, called ‘Pop’s Corn.’ Let’s see. There are other things, too, I know. Even dog food…”
As his mother got more and more sidetracked, Lee pointed to the broth. “Please don’t tell me this is something for Tim and Annie’s dog, Lacey.”
Helen’s hands landed on her hips and she glared at her son. “No, smarty.” They both ended up chuckling. “That’s the base for chicken soup that Nell made while I was there. It’s Paul’s favorite. Well…” she amended, “Nell says that he’s happiest with a hearty soup, a can of beer, and a bag of popcorn.” They both laughed again. “That’s a cut-up chicken, some coarsely cut carrots, celery, leeks, and onions, and a bunch of seasonings. Now that the chicken’s pretty much done I’ll let it cool thoroughly so the chicken absorbs as much of the juices as possible, then debone the chicken, break the bigger pieces up into bit-sized ones, and put them back into the strained broth and refrigerate overnight. In the morning I’ll skim the fat off the top and put it all back in the crock-pot with more celery and carrots. When I’m in the mood I also add peas and corn, and sometimes whatever else I happen to have around, and just let it simmer until everything is done. Paul prefers it with just the basic veggies, of course.”
“Of course,” Lee said with twinkling eyes. He was all too aware of how Helen liked to tinker with recipes.
“Anyway,” Helen continued with a grumble in her voice, seemingly having read her son’s mind, “Nell serves it with a separate bowl of cooked wide noodles. Other people I’ve given the recipe to have topped it with dumplings. It’s good either way.”
“Sounds wonderful,” Lee admitted.
“You sure you wouldn’t like more nuggets and rice? You still seem to be hungry.”
Lee very carefully controlled his face. “I’ve had quite enough, Mom. Just, the smell is very enticing. Guess I’ll go see if I can read more than two paragraphs of that proposal I was working on before falling asleep again.” Voice and expression were both disgruntled.
Helen just smiled. “You run along. I’ll clean up here from dinner and join you. There’s an old movie starting in about half an hour that I’d like to watch.”
“Which one is that?” Lee asked, merely by way of making conversation as he finished off his coffee and started to head back for the living room.
“It’s called ‘The Enemy Below.’ A World War II flick about a battle between a US Navy Captain and a German U-boat one. Have you seen it?”
Lee had stopped dead at the mention of the U-boat, thankful that his back was already to his mom. He had his face carefully under control by the time he turned around. “Don’t get much time to watch movies,” he said noncommittally as he slowly turned. “Why do you want to watch that?”
He was totally amazed at the slight blush that hit Helen’s face. “You’ve caught me,” she said, mimicking her son’s rather patented habit of glancing at people almost through his eyelashes. “I must admit to being something of a Robert Mitchum fan.” Lee laughed out loud, covering the release of the breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding. It just caused Helen to turn redder, and she sputtered semi-angrily, “What? I can’t have a crush on an actor?”
“Sorry,” Lee apologized, getting his laughter under control. “Just never thought about you like that before.” But chuckles kept bubbling out.
Helen’s hands landed on her hips again and she glared at him. “And I suppose you’ve never had a crush on anyone in your life.”
“Only a long, gray boat called Seaview.” Lee grinned.
“Watch it, brat, or I’ll have you swabbing the floors,” Helen threatened.
Lee lifted his right arm a few inches. “Nurse Hale wouldn’t like that,” he said, still grinning broadly. Helen threatened to throw a coffee mug at him and he retreated, both of them laughing.
As the movie started a bit later, Lee kept his nose firmly buried in the report he was reading. But as the story switched back and forth between the two main characters he found himself watching more and reading less. He totally surprised himself when he realized that he was actually identifying more with the German than the American. Analyzing it, he decided that it wasn’t just the fact that the German was in a submarine. The captain of the U-boat didn’t want to be there; didn’t want to engage the enemy. He merely wanted to complete his mission and go home. When it became apparent that the US vessel was going to engage him in battle whether he liked it or not, and he couldn’t escape a fight, he did everything in his power to protect his crew and try to bring them safely through the ensuing battle. Not that the Mitchum character didn’t have the same devotion to crew and duty. But even he ended up respecting the German. All in all, Lee found it rather an enjoyable tale.
His only complaint was that, a bit over halfway through, during a commercial break, Helen brought him his pills and a small glass of juice. Out of pure orneriness, he contemplated palming the pain pill. But one look at his mother’s expression as she waited to take the empty glass back to the kitchen had him downing everything quickly. Because of it, by the end of the movie, he was feeling his eyelids start to get heavy even though he’d not been aware that there was any pain keeping him on edge. Of course, he also had to reluctantly admit that he was so used to ignoring pain that he probably wouldn’t have been aware of any in the first place. Softly berating himself, he allowed Helen to send him off to bed while she headed for the kitchen to finish taking care of the now cooled chicken and broth.
* * * *
An extremely disgruntled Lee muttered his way downstairs the following morning a good two hours later than usual. The grin Helen gave him as he entered the kitchen didn’t help, but he relaxed a bit when he realized that the coffee pot was already full. Neither said anything until he was starting to pour out his second mug.
“Better now?” Helen teased her son fondly.
“Getting there,” Lee admitted, and nodded toward the crock-pot, already sending out smells similar to the night before. “Lunch?”
“Should be ready by 11:30 or so. It’s rather an open-ended cooking process - just, whenever the veggies are as done as you like them. In the meantime, what would you like for breakfast?” Lee held up his coffee mug, then grinned and lowered his eyes as she glared at him. “Sit, smarty,” she ordered, and reached for the refrigerator door.
As Lee was finishing the last of the cheese omelet Helen had quickly fixed, she asked, “Think you can stay out of trouble the rest of the day?”
Lee grinned. “Off to do more silk research?”
“Humm,” she answered noncommittally. “Research, anyway,” she added.
Lee let it go. Sometimes it was safer not to know exactly what was occupying his mother’s thought processes. “With reports to work on, and lunch already in the works, I can manage nicely, thank you.”
“Not to mention Nurse Hale keeping tabs on you.” Lee shuddered and Helen chuckled, reaching down to hug his shoulders gently from behind. “Be nice, and maybe I'll bring you a present.” Lee momentarily closed his eyes at the teasing, and let out a low growl as she went to get his pills, placing them and a glass of juice in front of him. But he ended up chuckling as he watched her gather up her purse and the car keys from the hall table, a reaction to the expression of delighted anticipation on her face. Wishing her “Happy hunting,” he cleaned up his few dishes – she’d already tossed everything else in the dishwasher - and headed for the living room, wondering how many pages he’d get through before once again falling asleep.
Chip kept him occupied for a while with a long e-mail relating the exploits of a couple of Seaview’s more enterprising crewmen. Seems an underground betting pool started over the exact timing of Admiral Nelson’s infamous temper totally blowing. There had been a couple of near misses. One of the Congressmen insisted on knowing why it was that Seaview’s crew wasn’t required to salute. The Congressman, a retired Army Major, was of the opinion that the lack of saluting showed total disrespect and a lack of discipline. With Seaview carrying military munitions, military protocol should be required at all times to avoid what would inevitably lead to a breakdown of command. Chip said that Nelson had noticeably counted to ten, gave the man a look that Chip had only ever seen Lee be able to stand up to, and asked the Congressman stiffly if he’d seen any sign whatsoever of the crew lacking discipline. When the Congressman, backed into the corner, had admitted that he hadn’t, Nelson had just grunted and walked away.
Another challenge was leveled at why, when the Navy required a mere corpsman on their submarines, Seaview carried not only two board-certified EMTs but also a Surgeon/Internist, who seemed to spend most of his time reading mystery novels. Apparently that had been uttered in the presence of at least one of the corpsmen and the resulting chortle, before the corpsman made a hasty retreat, hadn’t helped the situation at all. Nelson had calmly, for him, explained that medical personnel were paid for within NIMR’s budget, totally separate from government contractual restraints, and it was therefore none of the Congressman’s business how he, Nelson, staffed his boat.
Chip said that his ‘official’ money was on Nelson keeping control until they returned to the dock. But he also said that he had a side bet with Doc that at least one Congressman wouldn’t make it back alive, and then complained that Jamie was trying to sway the outcome of the bet by feeding Nelson ‘doctored’ coffee every evening. Lee wrote back and asked Chip to put $20 down for him on Nelson keeping his cool the entire trip. While admitting that it didn’t sound too promising, it should keep the crew from doing anything covertly that might lead to their skipper losing the bet.
He surprised himself and stayed awake all morning - what there was left of it - and was just finishing up his evaluations on one project proposal and e-mailing it back to Angie when a car in the drive caught his attention. Since he wasn’t expecting his mother until late afternoon - if then - he closed the computer and headed to the door to admit Nurse Hale. He was somewhat taken aback as she looked up at him and demanded, “When did you last take your meds, Commander?”
“When I got up,” came out somewhat hesitantly, and he stepped back to let her through the door. When she merely stepped past, turned, and looked at him, he sent her a glare. “And yes, I took them all,” he grumbled as he shut the door.
Her stern look softened minutely. “Not what I meant. You look flushed, like you’re still running a fever.”
Lee shook his head. “Don’t think so.” He paused. “Was just laughing at Mr. Morton’s latest e-mail.” She started to say something, stopped, and took a sniff. “Lunch,” Lee translated, and led the way to the kitchen.
Once there, the nurse walked over to the crock pot, grabbed a pot holder, and lifted the lid with one hand while the other picked up the wooden spoon laying in a dish and stirred the pot’s contents, before sending another hard look at Lee. “Could have sworn you were told...”
Lee cut her off with a raised hand - albeit the left one. “Mom started it before she left this morning.” He grinned softly. “Join me? It should be ready.”
The lid dropped back with a noticeable clink. “I don’t eat health food,” she snarled. “No matter how good it smells.”
Lee laughed outright. “I see that my mother's reputation precedes her.”
“Heard stories,” she admitted.
“To the best of my knowledge that’s just homemade chicken broth and the meat from the chicken she made it with, and fresh veggies. Just needs to have some noodles cooked to pour it over.”
Nurse Hale gave the pot another quick stir, and another appreciable sniff. “Where do you keep your noodles?” she demanded, and Lee headed toward the small pantry.
While the noodles were cooking, Lee sat at the kitchen table and let the nurse complete a quick exam. She’d been right and Lee still had a slight fever, although no worse than it had been the previous day. She wasn’t, however, overly thrilled, and asked where Mrs. Crane was. From the frown that formed at being told Lee’s mother was out for the day, Lee knew that she was even less thrilled that Lee had been left unsupervised. But she said nothing as Lee rose and began setting the table after reaching into the fridge for what was left of a loaf of crusty french bread. The pair ate mostly in silence, the excellent soup occupying their thoughts. She did send him an appreciative smile after her first taste, which Lee answered with a grin of his own.
Once done eating, Lee got up and reached for the potholders to take the crock insert out of the heating unit and transfer the soup to the fridge. The sound of a flat hand hitting the table stopped him and produced a shy little smile, and he merely cleared the table as Ms. Hale took care of the still fairly full pot. She made sure Lee took his next meds before leaving, and advised him to rest. Lee muttered that he’d slept enough the night before to cover the next three days, but he finished the complaint with a small grin, and Ms. Hale left just shaking her head.
With every intention of finishing another project proposal, Lee was perturbed when the ringing of the phone woke him up. Glancing at the clock as he reached to answer it, he was even more ticked to discover that it was nearly 1700, and answered with a decided growl.
* * * *
Helen hadn’t exactly been honest with Lee about her plans for the day, knowing that he’d lobby to come along. Mak’s continued silence bothered her sense of well-being, and she had every intention of making the easy drive down to Los Angeles and, if nothing else, tracking down the correct Det. Bryce. Directions to Parker Center, LA’s central police administration building, in hand, she was prepared to be insistent until she reached her objective. She ended up with both good luck and bad. On the plus side, she was directed to the correct department fairly quickly. She had to wait for the detective and his partner, in the field on another case, to return to the office, and there her luck turned bad. Det. M.R. Bryce, whose partner called him Manny, verified that he’d been assigned to provide Mak with whatever assistance the Reserse officer needed. By way of introduction, Helen supplied what she knew of the Indonesian’s movements.
Bryce nodded. “The next morning...let’s see, that would have been three days ago, I started to go with him back to the Birch Aquarium to question this Haley kid. Just as a formality, since Sabirin doesn’t really have ‘official’ status in this country.”
Helen nodded. “And was he able to add any information to Mak’s...ah... Det. Sabirin’s investigation?”
“Ah,” Bryce started.
Helen smiled. “I know. You can't give me that information.”
“Actually, I don’t know. At the last minute we,” and he indicated his partner, “got hit with two new cases. Since Sabirin was already known at Birch he didn’t really need me along, so he went alone. I haven’t talked to him since. If you’ll give me a number, I’ll let you know if I hear anything,” Bryce offered, by way of apology. He gave Helen one of his business cards so she could reciprocate. On the back of one of her own, identifying her as independent journalist Helen Graham Lee, she wrote Lee’s name, title, and home phone number. When Bryce glanced at it, he raised an eyebrow. “That Helen Graham Lee?” he asked. Helen just looked smug, thanked the detective again, and left.
Area map in hand, Helen headed south. She was perfectly aware that she was going to be later than she’d planned getting back to Lee’s but, as long as she was this close, decided to go have her own little chat with Mike Haley at the Birch Aquarium. Something that the young man had said must have given Mak a lead. Apparently whatever it was, Mak decided to handle it himself without bothering Bryce. Helen could understand Mak’s not wanting to interfere with Bryce’s own cases. She didn’t figure that fish smuggling ranked very high on Bryce's interest list. Bryce did seem genuinely concerned that Mak had somewhat disappeared. But not enough to have started his own investigation. So, it looked like it was up to Helen to see if she could figure out why, suddenly, Mak was unaccounted for.
At the Birch Aquarium Helen presented her card to the woman she was directed to in the Publicity office. She explained that she was merely following up on a story idea, and asked to speak to an employee named Michael Haley.
“He’s a popular young man lately,” the woman said, raising an inquisitive eyebrow.
Helen smiled ‘sweetly’. “Really? Well, my son works at the Nelson Institute in Santa Barbara, and I have to admit that at least one young woman there gets a sparkle in her eye when she mentions him.” She gave the woman a knowing grin. It was also a bit smug. The woman chose to believe that the ‘him’ in her second sentence was Haley, although the way Helen had phrased it left the statement a bit open to interpretation. Helen hated telling outright lies. But a little subtle subterfuge had, over the years, netted her all sorts of interesting information.
The woman just smiled back - as Helen had intended. “Well, that, too,” she admitted. “Or so I’ve heard. But there were a couple of policemen here the other day asking questions, and one of them came back and asked specifically to speak to Mike.”
“Oh, dear,” Helen feigned worry. “He’s not that kind of young man, I hope. Surely you’d have no one working here...”
The woman hurriedly cut her off. “Oh, no. Nothing like that, I assure you. At least, that’s not what I heard,” she amended. “The policeman was merely asking him some questions about the seahorse breeding program - something to do with smuggling in Indonesia, as I understand it. Although what that has to do with us, I have no idea...”
Helen let her blither on, defending the aquarium’s reputation, as she quickly settled on a line of questioning. She’d been a bit worried since, knowing something the young man had said had set Mak off, she’d wanted to ask questions without setting off any alarms. The woman had given her the perfect in with her intrigue over the police visit. Helen merely needed to follow that same line.
And it worked brilliantly. She started out simply, just telling Mr. Haley that she’d been introduced to Carla deMann on a tour of NIMR, and she’d said that if Helen wanted to learn more about the seahorse breeding program, that Mr. Haley was the person to talk to. She grinned conspiratorially and said that Ms. deMann had indicated that Mr. Haley was much nicer to talk to than the stuffy old biologists, and she’d laughed as Mr. Haley grinned bashfully. As the young man started the tour, Helen pretended to listen attentively, but waited for an opening to lead the conversation in her chosen direction. It proved extremely easy. She had merely to mention offhandedly that she’d heard the police had been there, and Haley was all too happy to tell her all about it.
Of course, it took him forever because first he had to explain that the policeman was specifically interested in a shipment that Mikey (he’d quickly told Helen to call him that - everyone did) had picked up at the airport. He’d gone to send off a shipment of half-grown Hippocampus ingens to the Vancouver, BC aquarium, and then got sidetracked explaining how live specimens were packaged. Helen stayed quiet and just listened to the chatter. Many years of practicing her craft had taught her infinite patience. It was extremely rare for people who were trying to impress her with their knowledge to be able to relate facts without a certain amount of embellishment. Mikey eventually got around to explaining that the airport people had told him that there was an incoming shipment for Dr. Walton waiting for pick-up, and did he want to take it back since Walton hadn’t yet arrived. The airport personnel were used to dealing with live shipments, and knew that specimens shouldn’t be left sitting around too long. Mikey, of course, was happy to oblige, although he was a little confused since he hadn’t been made aware of anything due in. And especially for Dr. Walton, who was only interested in sea dragons, and they weren’t part of the breeding project at Birch. Mikey figured that Walton must be getting in new specimens either to study, or for the exhibit, and headed back with the box. On the way he’d called in and had someone go track Walton down to let him know that Mikey was bringing the shipment back, so that the biologist could get it unpacked as soon as possible. Mikey very seriously told Helen that one thing he’d picked up was, the dragons were even fussier to handle than the regular seahorses; that was one of the reasons that Birch had not even tried so far to incorporate them into the breeding program.
Mikey hesitated at that point, and Helen elevated an elegant eyebrow. “Dr. Walton must have been most grateful that you were there to pick up the shipment, since he’d obviously been detained.”
The twenty-something young man got a pained expression on his face. “You’d think so. Instead he nearly ripped me a new one.” As soon as the words were out, Mikey turned bright red. “I’m so sorry…”
Helen chuckled and sent him an easy smile. “I assure you, Mikey, that I’ve heard much worse.” Her smile softened. “But why ever would this Dr. Walton be so upset?”
Mikey shrugged. “That’s what the policeman wanted to know. But I don’t have a clue. Walton met me as soon as I got back, grabbed the box, told me in no uncertain terms to never touch one of his shipments again and stomped off, probably back to his lab.” He shrugged. “Trust me, I made sure I stayed out of his way.”
“Humm.” Helen nodded, seemingly agreeing with the young man’s actions, but thinking hard on how many questions simple curiosity on her part could be asked before young Mr. Haley started getting suspicious. She decided to play on his so far talkative need to fill the gaps, and said offhandedly, “So, I assume that this policeman then went off to talk to Dr. Walton.”
“Tried to,” Mikey confirmed. “Walton went home sick the day before and wasn’t back yet.” He shrugged again. “As far as I know, he still isn’t.”
Helen feigned further disinterest in the whole topic. “Oh, too bad you weren’t able to help the policeman as much as you’re helping me today.” She gave him a brilliant smile.
“Well, he acted like I helped him, when I told him where the package was from,” Mikey said proudly.
“Really,” Helen mumbled, and started looking around her.
“Yeah.” Mikey tried to regain his status. “See, I got a good look at the return label – had the box sitting right next to me all the way back from the airport. The name sort of stuck in my mind. I guess for a couple of reasons.” Helen gave him an indulgent smile before once again glancing around. “See, it was from this place called Fra-Tech, in Ventura. First, I’ve never seen a package – of any kind – either coming from or going to that place. And on top of that, Ventura isn’t really that far away. I mean, these little guys,” he pointed to a unit with maybe a hundred tiny seahorses inside, doing whatever it was baby seahorses did, “are pretty fragile. Someplace that close we would have shipped by ground, not air.”
“Ah,” Helen nodded, acknowledging the young man’s greater knowledge in these matters, and immediately became fascinated with the little seahorses, effectively changing the subject.
* * * *
“The reports won this round?” came through the phone in his mother’s humor-filled voice, and Lee relaxed back in the chair with a long sigh.
“Haven't a clue,” he confessed. “Fell asleep three paragraphs into the first one.” As disgusted as he was, he still couldn’t stop a grin forming as he listened to Helen’s soft chuckles. “Oh, and I gave Nurse Hale your soup recipe.”
“What recipe? Despite Nell’s instructions I just start dumping things in, and quit when it looks good.” They both chuckled. “I gather that she showed up about lunchtime?”
“Uh huh.” There was a slight grumble to his voice as he added, “She put the leftovers in the fridge – wouldn’t even let me lift the pot.”
“Good for her.” His mother’s approval caused a momentary unintelligible mumbling, which only made her chuckle again before getting serious. “Can I trust you to eat a decent dinner? I’m not going to make it home in time to fix anything for you.”
It was Lee’s turn to chuckle. “Ah, research going that well.”
“Humm,” was Helen’s answer. She’d been somewhat forced, after starting her line of questioning, into finishing the tour at Birch. By that time there was no way she’d get back to Lee’s much before 7:30, even without the problems of getting through LA’s rush hour traffic. As it was, she’d be lucky to make it home by 10 pm. “Sort of got hung up,” she added, and listened to Lee’s gentle laughter.
“I’ll manage,” he told her easily, then grumbled again as he added, “I’ll have chinese delivered, assuming that I can stay awake long enough to pay for it.” But he joined in as Helen laughed openly at him.
“Ah, my always resourceful son,” she teased him, but easily read the subtle worry that accompanied the growl in his next comment.
“You’ll be home in time to tuck me in?”
She chose to play down the worry by playing up the growl. “I’ll even read you a bedtime story,” and laughed louder at the exaggerated groan that came through the phone. But she also heard something else. “Sorry I’ve left you alone all day,” she said softly.
“You’d have just sat around watching me sleep,” Lee growled. “At least you’ve been enjoying yourself.” Lee chose not to get too detailed about what was occupying his mother’s time. Sometimes it was better not knowing. “I’ll try and stay awake long enough to welcome you home,” he added, still grumbling, and earned another chuckle from Helen.
“I won’t hold it against you if you don’t,” she told him with a smile in her voice, and they both broke the connection amiably. But a subtle undertone in Lee’s voice caused Helen to almost immediately dial another number.
Despite his grumbles, Lee hung up with a smile on his face. He stretched lazily and almost admitted - only to himself - that the extra sleep was a welcome respite from his usual frenetic schedule. Almost. Until he looked at the folder open on his lap, and his workaholic nature once more took over. He made a quick trip to the head, stopped in the kitchen for a glass of juice - having slept all afternoon he wasn’t hungry, and would figure out something to tell his Mom when she didn’t find chinese take-out cartons in the trash - and returned to his chair and the assorted reports.
He was actually making pretty good headway - after realizing that he didn’t have a clue what he’d read right after lunch, and having to start all over - when the doorbell rang. Frowning, he once more laid the reports aside and went to see who was there. One glance through the peephole had him closing his eyes, shaking his head slowly, and finally opening the door with a heavy sigh. “Thought I got rid of you for the day,” he grumbled as he looked down on the diminutive Nurse Hale.
She lifted the square pan covered with aluminum foil that she was carrying. “Thought I’d return the favor and bring you dinner. Or tomorrow’s, if you Mom’s already started something,” she added as Lee stepped to one side and let her enter.
Closing the door, he said to her back as she headed for the kitchen, “Actually, Mom called a little while ago and said that she’d be late. I was just going to order chinese, or maybe a pizza.”
“Posh,” Ms. Hale waved off those suggestions as she placed the pan on the counter, and turned toward Lee as he stopped in the doorway. “My version of comfort food - four-cheese ravioli, chicken, and mushrooms in alfredo sauce. Needs to finish cooking in the oven. I seem to remember that there was still some of that crusty bread left.” Lee nodded, and headed for the fridge. “Anything in there to make a salad out of?”
Lee gave her a grin. “I think I can probably come up with something suitable.” He tossed the bread on the counter as the nurse pulled the foil off of the pan and turned on the oven. As he went back in for red leaf lettuce, green onions, radishes, and a green pepper, as well as a bottle of rice wine vinegar, she sliced the bread, wrapped it the aluminum foil, and tossed it in the oven along with the ravioli. From the pantry Lee produced a small can of mandarin orange sections as well as shelled sunflower seeds, dry chinese noodles, and salad oil. The nurse looked askance at a few of the ingredients, but took over the job of cleaning and chopping the vegetables as Lee pulled down a salad dressing shaker, poured in one part oil to two parts vinegar, capped it, and shook it vigorously - with his left hand, and grinned broadly as he did. She just frowned, double-checked the ravioli pan in the oven, and went back to chopping.
She finished up about the same time as Lee did setting the table, and had him sit so that she could do a brief exam. She frowned again when she read the thermometer but said nothing, merely setting out Lee’s pills. He rose, poured himself another glass of juice and downed them under her watchful eye, then busied himself finishing putting the salad together. To the fresh veggies he added the drained oranges, along with a handful each of the noodles and seeds, gave the dressing another couple shakes, and poured just enough over the salad to dampen everything. He put it on the table as Ms. Hale put the ravioli and bread there on hot pads, and they sat down to eat. Conversation revolved around the trivial as opposed to anything NIMR-related.
Until the table was cleared and the dishes were in the dishwasher. They’d cleaned up the salad; the leftover ravioli went into one of Lee’s smaller ovenproof dishes, covered with the foil, and placed in his fridge. As she turned from washing and drying her pan she gave Lee a stern look. “Dr. Jamison is not overly happy that your fever isn’t responding to the meds.” At Lee’s instant glare she added, “What? You think you’re the only one who has access to e-mail?” Lee dropped his eyes - barely. “Sit,” she ordered, and pulled a small blood-draw kit from her purse, that she’d left on the end of the counter. “He decided to re-do the blood work tonight instead of waiting until tomorrow.”
Comprehension dawned on Lee’s face. “So, dinner was a bribe.”
She shrugged. “Whatever works,” and she set about doing the simple draw.
Lee grinned. Nurse Hale had obviously been hanging around Jamie a little too long. That was one of the CMO’s favorite sayings - especially any time he had to deal with Seaview’s Command crew. The nurse gave him a quizzical look but it was his turn to just shrug - albeit carefully as she still had a needle stuck in the curve of his elbow. “Nothing,” he mumbled, but the soft smile stayed in place.
He so appreciated Dr. Will Jamison’s presence on Seaview, as well as here at NIMR. It might appear to the casual observer that the two men totally disliked one another as their usual conversations were more harassment than friendly chatter, and could get downright threatening on occasion when discussing a certain commander’s attitudes toward his own health issues. Anyone who looked closer, or was around them for any length of time, came to realize the strong bonds of friendship, respect, and trust that allowed the all-too-frequent ‘discussions’ to take place. Lee could acknowledge the reasons behind his intolerance for the medical profession in general, over and above his strong sense of duty that they always seemed to totally ignore and try their best to keep him from. He’d even shared a few with Jamie in moments of quiet companionship. It had been Jamie’s willingness to at least try to work with Lee, allow him some say in his own treatment, that had let Lee slowly relax and allow the doctor through his years of built-up defenses. It didn’t stop the ‘discussions’, nor did it stop Jamie getting downright sneaky on occasion, and not always playing fair with Lee. Hence Lee’s present smile. But the trust that had developed between the two extremely strong-willed men allowed them to build a friendship, an understanding of each other, that permeated all of their interactions and allowed the bond between the two to grow steadily stronger.
Nurse Hale continued to give him sideways glances as she finished up, put a bandage on the collection site, and put everything back in her purse. “Don’t suppose I could convince you to go to bed?”
Lee’s grin spread. “Told Mom I’d wait up for her.” Even the nurse grinned slightly at the teasing quality in Lee’s voice.
“I’ll drop this off at the lab on my way home. Be back first thing in the morning with the results.”
“Think I heard Mom say something about fixing muesli for breakfast.” He laughed outright at the look that drew from the no-nonsense Marine.
Once Lee had seen her to the door, a slight twitch finally appearing on her lips, he settled into his chair. He’d given half a thought to taking a short walk down to the beach, but with a heavy sigh admitted that he just didn’t feel up to even that gentle an exercise. The constant fever was finally making inroads on his usual ability to ignore infirmities of any kind. Instead of the crankiness that something like this would normally cause, Lee instead felt an unusual listlessness. That in itself was somewhat unnerving and sent Lee quietly back to his chair, contemplating the reaction. Could he actually be starting to accept his limitations? Did the weeks at his friends’ B&B on the Oregon coast after the incident in Chicago*** set the stage for a more accepting attitude toward forced convalescences? A sly grin crossed his face. Not a chance, he told himself, and reached for the report Ms. Hale’s arrival had interrupted.
It was therefore again unnerving to open eyes he’d been unaware that he’d closed, and discover his mom just settling a blanket over him. “Oops,” she said with a guilty grin. “Didn’t mean to wake you.”
Lee just smiled as he stretched, and glanced at his watch. Almost 2130. “Must have been some research.”
“Had its moments,” Helen agreed. As Lee pushed the blanket aside in preparation for getting up, she pointed to the bandage on the inside of his elbow. “Nurse Hale strikes early?”
Lee nodded. “Apparently she’s stayed in touch with Jamie via e-mail, and he wasn’t happy that the fever won’t go away.” He frowned as that comment caused Helen to lay a hand on his forehead. “They decided to re-do the blood work early,” came out with a grumble. Helen just smiled at him, and he finally smiled back. “She did come complete with bribe,” he brightened. “Sort of a ravioli-chicken casserole. Leftovers are in the fridge.”
“I stopped for soup and a sandwich, thank you. About ready to head for bed?”
“Mom, I just woke up,” he complained. Helen’s hands hit her hips and she frowned down at him. He grinned sheepishly, but there was still a grumble in his voice as he acquiesced. “Okay, okay. Geesh.” But he gave his mother a hug before heading up the stairs.
* * * *
Even Lee, who routinely ignored his own health issues, knew he was worse when he woke up the following morning. It didn’t stop him from getting up, hitting the shower, and wandering downstairs at almost his normal time. Helen obviously recognized the problem the instant he appeared in the kitchen, but other than ordering him to immediately sit down, even before he could pour himself a cup from the full coffeepot, she didn’t push the issue. He’d been joking when he’d told Ms. Hale about the muesli, and grinned his thanks as Helen set a plate of scrambled eggs, bacon, and a small waffle in front of him. But he was just picking at it, not making much progress, when the nurse arrived.
The next few minutes were not some of Lee’s finest. He knew that he was disagreeable, whiney, and frustrated, and didn’t particularly care. The two ladies ganging up on him, each in their own way, merely raised Lee’s level of frustration. The three were, however, able to reach a somewhat amiable solution to the problem. Once Jamie had been faxed the test results, he’d decided that Lee needed to be on an IV infused with two more powerful antibiotics than he was currently on, and that the IV should be continuous for at least 24 hours; possibly longer, depending on how Lee reacted to the new meds. He knew Lee would fight being returned to Med Bay, but obviously the current treatment wasn’t working.
Lee had, as expected, gone just a tad ballistic. Having escaped the one place he detested even over Sick Bay, aboard Seaview, nothing short of an Admiral’s order – or a certain blond relentlessly nagging him – would get him to go back. And especially as it would put him once more into the hands of the insufferable Dr. Alexander. It was Helen who was able to offer a compromise, stopping what was about to become a shouting match between Navy Reserve and Retired Marine. She wondered aloud if, the IV being the only restriction, Lee couldn’t remain at home. He’d be tethered to the IV stand, but at least could otherwise move freely around the house. Ms. Hale countered that it would require either her, or at least someone from Med Bay, staying to monitor the treatment, not to mention that it would totally torque Alexander who had somehow, unfortunately, heard about the problem and was already gloating. But as Helen started to grin, a most unnursely one crossed Ms. Hale’s face. Lee wisely kept his mouth shut, and the deed was done.
Once Ms. Hale returned from a quick trip to Med Bay to retrieve what supplies she needed – and reported with infinite pleasure her brief interchange with the obnoxious Alexander – Lee lobbied for Helen to go continue her research. He was stuck with the nurse not letting him out of her sight. The sudden thought of both women hovering around him almost – but not quite – had him second-guessing his reluctance over returning to Med Bay. Helen was at first adamant about not leaving. When pressed by Lee, she admitted that she felt bad about being gone so much the day before. Nurse Hale got into the act and told her, in no uncertain terms, that her presence would have made absolutely no difference in Lee’s condition worsening. Lee gave his mother a little smile and said that if she didn’t want to go that far away, she could always go and get the rest of her NIMR tour from Dr. Frasier. Helen knew that with Nurse Hale in residence she wasn’t really needed. She also knew her son well enough that she had a pretty good idea of why he was trying to get rid of her. And, if truth be told, she still had that nagging little puzzle of the missing Mak tickling her curiosity. She decided that Dr. Frasier might just be a good person to ask about the two open pieces of the puzzle: Dr. Walton and the company young Mr. Haley had mentioned, Fra-Tech. She stayed just long enough to watch Lee win a brief but heartfelt skirmish with Nurse Hale over where he was going to spend at least the next few hours, and hid a grin as Lee settled into his chair instead of bed, where the nurse would have preferred. As Ms. Hale started setting up her equipment, Helen gave her son a quick hug and a kiss on the cheek, and left.
Unfortunately, Dr. Frasier was unable to give her any help with her puzzle. In fact, he added to it. Recognized at the main gate, Helen had no difficulty making her way to his lab. But once there she was told that the marine biologist had never returned from San Francisco. Carla deMann, whom she did speak to, said that no one had heard from Frasier; that the lab people were all a little ticked, having to cover for him. “Humm,” Helen said, mostly to herself. “I hope things didn’t go badly for his sister,” she said aloud.
“To the best of my knowledge,” said a new voice behind her, and she turned to find a distinguished looking man of about her own age, wearing a lab coat, walking into the area, “the good Dr. Frasier,” and this was said with a disgusted frown, “doesn’t have a sister.”
“But...” Ms. de Mann started to correct whoever he was.
He raised a hand, cutting her off. “I know what he told you.”
“Mrs. Crane,” Carla remembered her manners and made introductions, “Dr. Merle Evans.”
“A pleasure,” Helen told the newcomer pleasantly.
“Well, that explains why the woman I saw Dr. Frasier with in Santa Maria a couple weeks ago,” said one of the other lab techs, until now his head down over a collection of petri dishes, “sure didn’t act like his sister despite how he introduced her.”
“Mr. Palmer,” said Dr. Evans firmly, and the young man bent once more over his work. Evans sniffed and returned his gaze to Helen. “That would also explain, however,” his voice expressing his displeasure, “why he’s lately been using one excuse after another, usually involving his nonexistent family, and leave others to do his work.”
“Sir...” Carla tried again.
“Ms. de Mann,” he cut her off none too gently, “it has not gone unnoticed that the only work that seems to get done around here lately is by you and Mr. Palmer there. I took the liberty of having a little chat with Personnel yesterday, what with this latest episode, and they show him as having no siblings.” He turned to Helen. “NIMR has a policy of full disclosure for all its employees,” he explained in a more pleasant voice.
“I know,” she told him with a smile.
“Cdr. Crane is her son,” Carla added helpfully.
“Ah.” Evans finally made the connection. “I’d heard that you were visiting. My apologies for not realizing sooner.”
Helen’s smile broadened. “It’s a common enough name.”
“Well, there’s nothing common about your son. He’s a remarkable young man.”
“I think so,” Helen said rather smugly. Evans smiled back. A brief thought flashed through Helen's mind concerning NIMR’s hiring practices, having to do with whether or not they only hired extremely handsome marine biologists. But with a quick, secret grin she gave herself a shake and got back to what had brought her here this morning. “Well, since I’m not going to be able to speak with Dr. Frasier, I guess that I’d better get on with my errands,” she said lightly. She gave a brief thought to asking Dr. Evans a few questions but, since he wasn’t on the list of people identified as having personal knowledge of Birch, she let it drop. As he graciously offered to walk her back to her car they made small talk about his responsibilities at NIMR. Helen learned that he was a microbiologist studying bacteria and other substances found in the ocean, hoping to find more effective cancer-curing drugs. While Helen didn’t want to take the time now, she filed that bit of information away for future reference. It might make a wonderful article. And if she timed her stay right, she’d also get to spend more time with Lee.
However, as she started to slide into Lee’s car, after Dr. Evans opened the door for her, she did pose one question. “I don’t suppose that you’ve ever heard of a company called Fra-Tech?”
“Humm,” he said thoughtfully, puzzling on it as Helen settled herself and he gently closed the car door. With the pleasant weather, Helen had been greatly enjoying the little convertible. “I seem to recall Admiral Nelson getting some electronic components from a company by that name. He and I were working on developing some self-sufficient collection equipment...” He hesitated. “But I’m boring you.” He smiled pleasantly.
“Not at all, Doctor. I would enjoy learning more about your research. Just, I’m afraid that I have other things on my mind at the moment.”
“Another time, then,” and they nodded their good-byes.
As Helen backed out and headed for the gate, she was acknowledging to herself that an electronics company probably wouldn’t have anything to do with an obscure fish species. But as she had the time she thought she’d make the easy drive to Ventura. She’d just check around, see if she could even find the company, and be home in plenty of time to fix Lee’s dinner. Although, it didn’t sound like he’d fared too badly the night before, thanks to Nurse Hale.
Helen smiled softly. She’d had time this trip to reflect on all that her son had become. Had she told him often enough how proud she was of him? Probably not, in so many words. Their conversations, the last bunch of years especially as Lee matured, tended to take on a teasing tone, each using the other as a safe outlet for relaxing and forgetting what chaos real life could become. Helen had caught herself several times starting to apologize to the young man Lee had grown into for not always being around. The first time she’d done it, a few years previously, Lee had immediately stopped her. He’d reminded her that she’d made a safe, comfortable home for them both after the death of Lee’s father, that she’d taught him to be independent, to trust his instincts, and ‘been there’ in every way a boy could need. Lee had hugged her, told her never to be sorry for what was in the past, and they’d pretty much not mentioned the subject again. Still...
Helen knew that Lee’s childhood hadn’t always been easy. She’d taken her husband’s death extremely hard and, while not pushing Lee away, had not been overly demonstrative toward him, either. She had originally used her part time job at the local newspaper to help fill the time during her husband’s deployments, and for a little extra spending money. When her husband had died so suddenly, she’d buried herself in her work to try and cope with the almost overwhelming emotions. Lee’s grandfather, her widowed father, lived nearby, and he became Lee’s foundation until his death when Lee was twelve. A year or so before that, new neighbors had moved in next door. An older couple, she was the ultimate grandmother type, he a retired commercial fisherman and a man of infinite patience. Starting with Lee’s simple act of offering to mow their lawn when he did his own, the relationship grew. When his own grandfather passed away, it was to them that Lee turned for support during Helen’s more and more frequent absences as her career was taking off.
Helen sighed heavily. Lee had never complained about her business trips. As much as possible she tried to pick subjects and topics that could be researched close to home. During breaks from school she took Lee with her when she could. But it became evident fairly quickly that, while Lee enjoyed seeing new places and meeting new people, the traveling took him away from his beloved Sea Scouts program at the naval War College’s marina just a few blocks from their home. Helen never blamed her husband’s career choice for his death. While she might have preferred that Lee choose a different path, there was no way that she was going to openly disapprove of his love for anything nautical. She applauded his excellent grades in school; she accepted the congratulations she received on raising such a fine young man from the officers and staff who volunteered with the Sea Scouts program. And, through her connections as well as ones Lee had established, she saw to it that his application to Annapolis didn’t get ‘lost in the shuffle’ just because he was underage. Although, she had a feeling that the Admiral at the War College wouldn’t have allowed that to happen anyway, after a few of Lee’s more intrepid exploits.
A grin crossed Helen’s face. She’d had few misgivings about her barely 17-year-old son entering the Naval Academy. She knew that Lee had the maturity, not to mention the academic and athletic skills, to handle the challenges. What no one had even considered was a tow-headed, exuberant plebe named Charles Philip Morton. Lee’s first letter home - well, forwarded to her by the neighbors because she was on an assignment - described his wisecracking, prank-pulling roommate. Lee hadn’t been overly enthused. Things had changed rapidly, however. When Helen attended Visitor’s Day between Plebe Summer and the official start of the academic year, the two were fast friends. She did get the sense that Lee was a bit overwhelmed by Chip’s equally exuberant family. While Lee had grown up with friends at school, sports, and the Sea Scouts, there was about Lee always a seriousness, an attention to details and duty, that didn’t leave a lot of time for just being a boy. It was one of the things that Helen regretted most - that Lee hadn’t had siblings. She’d quickly squashed any indications that Lee might develop a greedy, selfish attitude that so many only-children seemed to get. But in actual fact there had been almost none, so levelheaded had Lee always been.
Helen knew that it had taken Lee a bit to get used to not only Chip but Chip’s gregarious family, who rather immediately seemed to assume that Lee was just part of the gang. That first Visitor’s Day Helen, while she was secretly pleased, could see that Lee was acting a bit shell-shocked. Oh, he handled it with his usual calm, but Helen noticed him subtly backing off and watching the Morton family with a look of almost bewilderment.
Helen would admit to herself years later that once Lee had been so easily enveloped by the Morton clan, she immersed herself even more into her work. She was beginning to gain national attention for her in-depth articles. With Lee safely immersed into the structured life of a Midshipman and rather obviously invited, if not expected, to be included in Morton family activities, she was more free than ever to expand her areas of interest. She did feel bad about so often being unavailable during Lee’s infrequent leaves. He’d joined her on assignment during a couple of summer breaks and she tried, although didn’t always succeed, to be home for Lee’s Christmas breaks. Lee’s third year at Annapolis - what Lee insisted on calling his Second class year, and while Helen did understand why, still had trouble keeping it straight – she’d even been able to join Lee at the Morton’s for Thanksgiving. By that time Lee was firmly ingrained into the Morton clan, and Helen spent most of the weekend marveling at the changes they’d made to Lee’s overly serious attitudes. She could admit to a few moments of jealousy at how easily they included Lee in their joyous antics. But it vanished as quickly as it came, seeing how happy Lee was. She’d shared her feelings with Chip’s mom, admitting that she hadn’t always been there when Lee needed her. Mrs. Morton had just laughed, told her that whatever else she’d done she’d raised a level-headed, conscientious young gentleman who never for an instant forgot that she adored him, was extremely proud of Helen’s accomplishments, and had become a major part of Chip’s settling down and becoming such a success at Annapolis.
For several years after the boys graduated, Helen knew that they didn’t see much of each other. Nor did Helen see much of Lee. And when she did, it was usually because he was recuperating from whatever ‘incident’ had happened on his latest TAD assignment. She’d finally sat him down and got him to explain why he didn’t seem to have very stable duty assignments, as she remembered that her late husband had had. Lee hadn’t wanted to tell her, but for one of the few times in Lee’s life that she’d ever been forced to resort to stubbornness to gain his cooperation, finally got him to admit that most of his TAD missions were for ONI, the Navy’s Intelligence branch. Helen had been less than thrilled, and thoughts of that conversation now caused her to frown and her hands to grip the steering wheel tightly for a few seconds, until she got herself under control and a wry grin replaced the frown. Even as she started lecturing Lee about why couldn’t he just have a normal service career, she could see that Lee was serious about his commitment to ONI. She saw in his face and heard in his voice the pride that Lee took in his accomplishments for the agency no matter the inherent risks involved, and was forced to admit that she knew that same pride when one of her articles was brought to fruition despite the risks she sometimes took to get all of the facts. She’d let Lee off the hook that she’d put him on, gave him a hug, reminded him that a little caution was not a bad thing, and they’d both pretty much not brought the subject up again.
Throughout Lee’s Annapolis years Helen had heard tales from Lee about Captain Harriman Nelson. The man had even driven Lee home when Helen had been injured in a car accident Lee’s first year there, although she hadn’t been in any condition to meet him and he was gone by the time she was. Lee was impressed with the Captain’s already accomplished exploits as well as his innovative ideas for the future of submarine service. Lee had never really expressed an interest in the underwater part of the Navy. But Nelson had ignited a fire in Lee. As well as Chip, apparently. Over the years there had been the infrequent remark in Lee’s even less frequent letters about Nelson and his projects. Lee had been overjoyed when he’d told Helen during a visit home that Nelson had begun to make his dreams come true; that he had retired from the Navy and was in the process of setting up his marine research facility and building his futuristic submarine. Lee was also thrilled that Chip had transferred to the reserves after agreeing to become Nelson’s XO on the new submarine. Helen had questioned Lee about whether he, too, wouldn’t want to work for his mentor. She was only too aware of the strong influence the older man had become in Lee’s life at Annapolis, and continued when Lee was assigned briefly to the submarine Nautilus while Nelson was still in command. Lee had just shrugged, said that it wasn’t likely to happen, and changed the subject. Helen hadn’t pressed. After their little talk about Lee’s ONI involvement the pair had begun to keep their conversations more on the lighter side.
But then, just a few years ago, suddenly Lee was commanding Nelson’s unusual submarine, Chip at his side. Helen had rarely seen a happier Lee. She privately applauded the move, however it had been arranged, assuming that with Lee now in the Reserves and involved in Nelson’s scientific studies he’d have less involvement with ONI and more time to relax. Maybe even settle down to a family of his own. Helen shrugged with another wry smile. So far it hadn’t happened. And from a few grumbles she’d heard from Chip, wasn’t about to happen any time soon as Lee continued to run ‘errands’ for ONI. But whatever was keeping Lee busy, she had only to see the sparkle in his eyes and hear the excitement in his voice when he spoke of that crazy submarine Seaview and his work with NIMR to know that he’d found his nitch in life. For that, Helen was thrilled. She was perfectly happy supporting her son in whatever venture he chose, just as long as Lee was happy. And there was absolutely no doubt that he was. This visit had also shown Helen, in any number of little ways, how respected Lee was at NIMR with obviously more than just the submarine’s crew. More reason for Helen to be extremely proud of her son.
She had, in the last couple of years, finally been able to meet Admiral Nelson on a few brief occasions and had easily recognized the charisma of the man; the intelligence, the dedication, and understood why Lee had been so drawn to him. And she had seen in Nelson an almost shyness when he spoke of Lee. He tried to mask it in platitudes of how fortunate he was to have Lee working for him; how exceptional an officer that Lee had become, how good he was with Seaview’s crew. But while it was sometimes hard for Helen to express her own emotions, she had a knack for reading them in others. Nelson was extremely proud of Lee, although reluctant apparently to show that softer, caring side, to others - even her.
Helen grinned, thinking back on the phone call that had brought her here. Nelson had sounded almost nervous as he explained the problem and wondered if Helen might be able to help out. While worried about Lee’s injuries which, until that moment she’d known nothing about, she could still easily hear the hesitancy in the Admiral’s voice to ask. She realized that she needed to sit down with this person who had become such an important part of her son’s life and have a good, long talk about what Lee meant - to both of them. “Men,” she chuckled. While she knew that she carefully controlled her own emotions - had struggled hard to do so after her husband’s death, and learned in the intervening years how beneficial that ability could be in her chosen profession - it never ceased to amaze her how difficult it was for most men to admit that they cared deeply for others. Just the short time that she’d spent with Nelson on the ride from the airport she could hear the concern he felt for Lee, easily detect the fact that Lee was more to Nelson than just an employee. She knew that Nelson had no family except a rarely present younger sister. As Lee talked the last couple of days about the reports he was finally allowed to work on, Helen began to see that Nelson was leading Lee into more of the running of the Institute than just captaining Seaview. That in itself spoke volumes. Lee didn’t seem to notice anything unusual about it, and Helen wondered if Lee was even aware of the opportunities Nelson was laying at Lee’s feet for the future. She grinned again. Yes, Lee would be totally aware of what was happening. But typical Lee, he would say nothing more than he was just helping Nelson deal with daily necessities, and not totally acknowledge future possibilities. “Men”, she muttered again, and laughed out loud. “Humm.” While she, herself, didn’t tend to run in upper society circles, she had friends who did. Perhaps I should have a little chat with Admiral Nelson’s sister. Helen had heard a comment or two that Edith, despite her connections, was a very sensible, down-to-earth kind of person, easy to talk to, and devoted to her brother. Maybe I’ll make a point of tracking her down, Helen now thought. That could be a very interesting conversation.
Reaching Ventura, she stopped at a pay phone and checked the book for any listing of Fra-Tech, realizing that she’d failed to ask Dr. Evans where the company was that he referred to. Maybe Lee will know, she thought, as the phone book failed to yield an answer. It did give her the numbers for the Ventura Business Association and the Visitor’s Center, both of which she called. The latter was a long shot, and as such Helen wasn’t all that disappointed when they weren’t helpful. The VBA had information to give her but she wasn’t overly enthused about it. There was no company listed in Ventura called Fra-Tech. They did confirm that such a company existed in Santa Maria, up the coast from Santa Barbara, so Helen assumed that was the one Dr. Evans had referred to.
While she was talking to the receptionist, Helen had been leafing through the phonebook and ran across the name Fraland Importers. She asked about it, but the woman had no listing. A little hesitantly, it seemed to Helen, she said that some businesses in town were so small that they opted not to belong to the association, and suggested that Helen might want to call the Better Business Bureau, to check on any complaints lodged against the company. Helen just thanked her and hung up. She did, however, call the BBB just for the sake of doing it, but they hadn’t heard of the company, either. Her curiosity now tweaked, Helen wrote down the address listed in the phone book and headed off to track it down.
She almost gave up. Even with the address, she drove by the place twice without seeing it. But by that time more than her curiosity was tweaked - Lee didn’t come by his tenacity accidentally - and she found a place to park the car around the corner from the block that the address had to be on. She quickly put up the top on the car and locked it, and walked back. The address turned out to be in a small alcove with another door. The one she wanted was locked so she tried the other and found herself in the office of a small, local, package delivery service. When she asked about the business next door, the young man behind the counter just shrugged.
“Ain’t never seen nobody there, either comin’ or goin’.” He reluctantly unplugged himself from the earpieces attached to a boom box. The music - at least Helen assumed that’s what it was called - was still audible to a point that she had to raise her voice to make sure that he heard her, even coming out of the headset.
“How do they stay in business?”
The young man shrugged. “Maybe they work at night. The guy that owns it, he gave my boss a key to the place. Once a week or so they get a delivery and I put it inside the door. That’s all I know.”
“Where do the packages come from?” The guy just shrugged again, totally disinterested. “Do you know the name of the owner?”
The man had a blank look for a second, got a slightly more coherent expression, and scratched around in a lower drawer for a bit, finally coming up with a business card that he handed to Helen. It was about as much help as the office. “Mathew Frazier, importer of fine fabrics” was all it said, plus a phone number. Humm, just my luck - another Frazier, Helen thought quietly to herself. At least this one spells it the traditional way. She started to drop it in her purse when the young man came to life.
“Hey - you can't take that,” he half yelled, and reached out to grab it. “It’s the only one I have.”
With the counter between them, Helen easily moved her hand out of reach. “Any objection to my writing down the information?” Helen asked sweetly. She had instantly realized that the phone number on the card was different than the one in the phone book.
“Guess not.” The young man relaxed, but kept a close watch on the card as Helen took a small notebook out of her purse and added the information to where she’d written what she’d found in the phonebook. As she was writing, she noticed that the number for the delivery service she was in, listed on an upright counter poster, was only one digit off from the one in the phone book for Fraland. Humm – maybe they distribute phone numbers like addresses around here, she mused to herself. As she closed the notebook, the young man snatched the card back and tossed it once again into the drawer. Helen just smiled sweetly again.
“Thank you, Mr…” She gave him an expectant look.
“Ah, Day,” he finally mumbled.
“Thank you, Mr. Day. You’ve been a great help.” Helen gave him a bright smile, turned, and left.
Back at the car, she used her cell phone to call both Fraland numbers. The one listed in the phonebook went to an answering machine. “This is Fraland Importers. Please leave a message,” was the no-nonsense missive. Helen didn’t leave a reply. The number from the card was equally informative, and even less polite. “Fraland. Leave a message.” Helen snorted indelicately and closed the phone. Well, that was a total waste of time, she grumbled, and headed home.
* * * *
Lee was having a weird day. On the one hand, his fever was enough worse to be affecting his ability to concentrate. And the stronger meds in the IV were making him even that much drowsier. Once Ms. Hale got him settled she’d prowled through his selection of CD’s, finding several that were soft classical music with nature sounds – waves, birds, trickling streams – in the background, all gifts from Chip. She put them in Lee’s stereo and adjusted the CD changer to continuously loop through them. Lee just smiled when those were the ones she pulled out. Hard to keep a secret around NIMR. He figured that everyone knew Chip used them to calm down during periods of stress, and had coaxed his CO to use them as well.
But then the nurse disappeared out to her car for a few minutes, and returned with a large tapestry bag that turned out to hold her knitting equipment. Lee raised an eyebrow. “What?” she demanded. “Marines can’t knit?” Lee lowered his eyes sheepishly, and she finally smiled. “Never married, myself. But I have brothers and sisters. Been keeping the nieces and nephews supplied with sweaters and afghans for years. Now I’m into the grand nieces and nephews. Helps keep the fingers nimble.” Lee just nodded. The one she was working on was an Aran pattern – he recognized it from one that Mrs. MacDonald, the next door neighbor when he was growing up, had on the back of one of her couches. There was a different one on the back of the other couch, but Lee couldn’t remember anymore what it was called. He watched the needles move this way and that, and the thread shift to match, and almost shyly told the nurse about the two he remembered.
“The other one sounds like a ‘Stained Glass’ afghan. Granny squares anywhere from four to six inches across, sometimes bigger, in multicolors, bordered and put together by black.”
Lee nodded. “Now that you say that, it sort of sounds familiar. It’s been a long time.”
“The prettiest ones I’ve seen have used mostly light pastel colors for the interior of the blocks. Makes them stand out that much more from the black.”
“That’s how hers was. Captain Mac – that’s what her husband wanted to be called…” He smiled, remembering, and Ms. Hale smiled back. “He would flip it over himself when he took naps on the couch. It wasn’t solid, like that one…” He pointed to the Aran she was working on.
“Granny squares aren’t. But if they’re made right, they’re still heavy enough to be incredibly warm.”
Lee nodded. “That’s how I remember it.” But the soft music and the almost hypnotic clicking of the knitting needles soon had him closing his eyes. He drifted off to dreams of summer days spent mowing lawns, drinking iced tea, and eating freshly baked bread that Cap’n Mac had taught him how to make.
A different smell invaded his dreams some indeterminate amount of time later, and he opened his eyes to find that Ms. Hale was no longer sitting across from him. Instead, her voice came from the kitchen. “If you’re awake, Commander, your lunch is here.”
“Here?” he puzzled not quite to himself, rose and, bringing the IV stand along with him, headed in that direction.
“Here,” the nurse said, meeting him in the doorway. “It won’t hurt anything for you to be detached for a bit.” She disconnected the IV line but left the port in place on the back of Lee’s left hand. “Lunch is on the table, but it will wait until you make a quick trip to the head.”
Muttering not quite under his breath about certain people’s mind reading capabilities, he returned to the kitchen a few minutes later to a double meat pepperoni, sausage, and green pepper pizza. He raised an eyebrow at the nurse as he settled into a chair and reached for a slice.
“Figured if I had it delivered for lunch, we’d have plenty of time to hide the evidence before your mother got back.”
Lee choked on his first bite, but finally got it down and chuckled. “She really isn’t all that bad. While she still tends to eat a bit differently than I’ve gotten used to, I actually have seen her eat pizza.”
“What kind of pizza?” the nurse demanded.
Lee grinned sheepishly. “Veggie with extra tomatoes,” he admitted, and laughed out loud when the nurse snorted. “I have to admit,” Lee continued between mouthfuls of the meaty, cheesy, treat, “that she has always stuck mostly to simple, healthy foods. Lots of fresh vegetables and fruits. Mostly fish for protein, but some chicken or turkey dishes. But they were also cheaper than beef when I was growing up. While we were comfortable, there wasn’t a lot extra, if you know what I mean.”
Ms. Hale nodded. “I grew up on a farm. Fresh milk and eggs, raised our own pigs and cows. My dad was pretty much a ‘meat and potatoes’ kind of guy. We had a few fruit trees and a large garden. All of us kids were brought up doing our share of the work around the place, and eating hearty meals from our labors.”
Lee sent her a small grin. “What made you join the Marine Corps?”
“Lost a brother towards the end of the Korean War…”
“Sorry,” Lee sympathized.
She shrugged. “Happened to a lot of good men.” Lee nodded. “But his letters home were filled with how proud he was to be serving his country, fighting for freedoms that we took mostly for granted.” Lee nodded again. “I wasn’t much to look at – hadn’t caught any man’s eye, or seen any I could stand thinking about spending the rest of my life with.” Lee had choked, and she grinned, waiting until he got himself under control. “Hey. Around my house you learned to tell it like it was.” Lee just nodded. “No money or inclination for college. The day after I graduated from High School I stuck one of my brother’s letters in my pocket for courage, and headed to the nearest recruiter’s office.
“Your brother was a Marine?”
She nodded. “Once through basic I applied for nurse’s training.” She flipped a hand. “The rest, as they say, is history.”
“I don’t think that I ever heard how you came to NIMR.”
Ms. Hale sent him a stern look. “Met Dr. Jamison when he was taking continuing education classes at the base hospital in San Diego. Heard him tell stories about his impossible patients. Figured I could be of assistance.” Lee choked again, and buried his head in his meal. But as he gave her the occasional sideways glance, practically through his eyelashes, he could see her lips twitch.
Once the pizza was gone Lee went back to his chair – and his tether – and opened up the computer to catch up on the latest news from Seaview. Today it was mostly about FS1. Seems that it hadn’t taken the women long to get bored, and they requested that the Admiral send them back to Santa Barbara. Chip said that ‘request’ wasn’t quite how it had been framed, and he started looking for the pool sheet to see who had the closest time for Nelson’s explosion. But Chip said that Nelson had just turned to them, politely told them that their husbands had been quite vocal about how NIMR was using taxpayers’ money, and didn’t think that they’d approve of using the little yellow machine to send the three ladies off on a shopping expedition. There had been rumblings among the guests, but things had stayed relatively amiable.
Then this morning, without notifying any of the guests, Nelson had sent FS1 out on what Nelson explained later was a top-secret mission. The Congressmen all demanded to know what it was, since they had security clearances. Chip said that from their strong reactions it appeared, to him at least, that the ladies had been waxing not over poetically to their husbands about being stuck on board Seaview. Lee could read Chip’s snickers through the printed words. Anyway, Nelson had just smugly told the lot of them that just because he’d said it was top secret, that didn’t mean that it had any military connotations, and refused to say anything further on the subject. Chip didn’t say what FS1 was actually doing but, knowing Nelson, Lee figured that the Admiral was using it to do some sample-taking or sensor-checking for whatever research project they were anywhere in the vicinity of. Nelson hated wasted trips, and ferrying officials around definitely came under the heading of waste! Nurse Hale wanted to know what Lee was smirking about so he let her read the e-mail. But Lee’s eyelids were getting heavy again, and he let her close the computer and tuck a blanket around him. Jamie, he muttered under his breath, I don’t know how much more of this I can take.
* * * *
Irritated with her lack of success, not to mention the fact that the grocery store she stopped at didn’t have Cornish game hens and she’d had to make do with chicken breasts, Helen didn’t arrive back home in the best of moods. Her brain had nagged at her all afternoon that she’d picked up a vital clue and was ignoring it. But when she finally pinned down what was bugging her, it was merely that young Mr. Palmer had told her that he’d seen Dr. Frasier in Santa Maria, and the lady she’d spoken with at the Ventura Business Association had said that there was a Fra-Tech located there. Big deal, she’d told herself, and mentally ran through Lee’s cupboards, making sure that she had everything else for what she was going to fix for dinner.
But she’d no more gotten back, finding Lee sound asleep in his chair and Ms. Hale making steady progress on a beautiful Aran afghan, when a car pulled into the drive. Hoping that it was finally Mak, she hurried out. While it wasn’t the detective, she did recognize the young man getting out of his car and reaching into the back seat for a small overnight bag as one of Seaview’s two corpsmen.
“Ma’am,” he said politely. “Don’t mean to intrude. But the Skipper needs to be kept an eye on, as long as he’s on the IV. Doc Jamison figured that he’d be more comfortable with me around than someone from Med Bay.”
“I’m sure he will. Do come in. I was just starting dinner.”
The commotion had awakened Lee, apparently, and he sent the newcomer a glare when he walked into the living room. The man, who Helen learned was named Frank, had to go through the simple explanation all over again, and Lee settled back into the chair.
“At least,” he shrugged, “that explains FS1’s ‘top secret mission’ this morning.” He explained for Helen’s benefit.
“John and I drew straws as to who came,” Frank continued the explanation. “Things are real quiet, and if need be, Kowalski can help cover Sick Bay.”
“I take it you lost,” Lee said good-naturedly.
“Oh, no, Skipper, I won.” Both men smiled. “Although, I have to admit, watching the Admiral ‘handle’ the Congressmen has been a blast.”
“Just so you don’t mean that literally,” Lee replied, and both men chuckled.
Helen went back into the kitchen to start supper, leaving Ms. Hale to get the corpsman caught up on Lee’s treatment. Once the chicken breasts were laid in a shallow, oiled, casserole and brushed with a mixture of applesauce, lemon juice, sage, pepper, paprika, and garlic powder, and tucked into the oven, she glanced at her watch. Only 4:30. Ms. Hale had just left, and the men were busy catching up on everything Chip’s e-mails hadn’t included, so she reached for her own laptop.
But instead of reading her e-mails – although she did glance at the list briefly just to make sure that there wasn’t anything from anyone she really wanted to talk to – she googled Fra-Tech. It wasn’t an extensive site but she did discover that they were an electronics firm, that they didn’t build everything themselves, but what they did import they guaranteed 100%. Scanning the site, she stopped dead at the point where the owner’s name was listed: Mathew Frazier. Logic told her that it was a common name. Instinct told her that running across it twice in the same day, following the same trail, was no coincidence.
Shutting down the computer she got up, brushed the chicken with the rest of the applesauce mixture, and set the table. She also heated a can of green beans and tossed together a salad. She was going to quiz Lee a bit over dinner, but one look told her that the fever was causing her son some problems. Her worried look had the corpsman quickly assuring her that the fever was no worse, and the wounds were actually starting to look better. Lee was muttering under his breath, about overprotective doctors for the most part, but there were a couple of references to a certain blond XO as well that Frank snickered at. Helen wisely chose not to ask Lee to repeat whatever it was, loud enough for her to hear. She also didn’t bother him with her suppositions – he didn’t need anything else to disturb his rest and keep him from getting better.
What she did do was sit back and enjoy watching how the corpsman cajoled a grumpy, feverish Lee into eating a meal that he obviously wasn’t in the mood to eat. Frank didn’t beg, didn’t threaten; in fact, he spent a lot of the time visiting with her. Nothing overly specific, nothing detailed; just odds and ends, genuinely interested in meeting his CO’s mother, but leading the conversation into generalities as he kept a surreptitious eye on what his patient was eating. Or in this case, wasn’t eating. Each time Lee would act like he was done Frank would, seemingly by chance, say something that would include Lee in the conversation. He would take a big bite of his own dinner while Lee was responding, and then make an innocent little remark about how good the chicken was, what kind of dressing was on the salad, was that really applesauce Helen had used to baste the chicken – anything that, included with little looks between Lee and Helen, seemed to get Lee to go back to eating. Helen was impressed.
Apparently she let it show on her face because Lee gave her a strange look when he finally pushed his empty plate toward the center of the table. “Yes, dear?” she asked innocently. “Would you like something else? I picked up some more of those chocolate cookies you like so much while I was at the store.” The corpsman smothered a snort behind a cough.
Lee sent a frown his direction, but just shook his head. “No thanks. I’ve had enough.” He sighed heavily. “That was really good.”
“Nothing much to the recipe. I’ll write it out for you and leave it in your recipe file.”
“Thanks.” Helen carefully controlled a smile at the somewhat under-enthusiastic response.
“If you don’t mind, Mrs. Crane, could I have it as well?” Frank asked.
“Of course. Happy to share.”
“Bet Cookie would like it as well, don’t you think, Skip?”
Lee muttered something that sounded like ‘don’t press your luck,’ but he smiled and nodded an affirmative.
Frank suddenly got serious. “Looking kind of tired, Skip.”
“Only from sitting on my six,” Lee grumbled.
As Lee was once again disconnected from his tether, Frank asked it he didn’t maybe want to take a short walk outside, get some fresh air. Helen frowned at Lee’s enthusiastic affirmative, but Frank gave her a wink that Lee couldn’t see, and the pair went out the back door as Helen cleaned up from the meal. They weren’t gone long, about the time it would have taken to walk leisurely around the house. She started to say something to Lee as they came back in, but Lee gave a huge yawn and she just smiled.
“I know that it’s early, Skipper, but how about we get you set up in bed. I imagine that you’ll want to sit up for awhile yet, but this way we won’t have to do the IV now, and totally re-set it up later.”
Lee hesitated, but Helen helped the situation along by walking up to him, giving him a hug and a quick kiss on the cheek. “What would you like for breakfast?” she asked innocently. Lee’s frown deepened, but he finally smiled and headed upstairs. The corpsman gathered up his equipment and followed, sending Helen another wink as he passed.
* * * *
Helen had a restless night, and it had nothing to do with the fact that her son did as well. She didn’t get up to check, but off and on throughout the night she could hear the men – or at least Frank – stirring, and heard an occasional soft conversation, kept too low to hear what was said. None of it, in fact, would probably have disturbed her if she hadn’t already been awake. Her sixth sense was telling her that time was of the essence if she was ever going to figure out what had happened to Mak. She’d learned to trust that sense – those ‘gut feelings’ she sometimes got – a long time ago. It had often been the difference in her openly trusting the facts in evidence and writing a simple little story, or digging until she found the ‘meat’ and writing a spectacular one.
Speaking of meat, she muttered to herself about 5 am. I might as well get up and get tonight’s dinner in the crock-pot. Not going to be able to go back to sleep, anyway. At that point all was quiet behind Lee’s closed bedroom door, and she slipped past quietly in her bathrobe on the way to the kitchen. She had a beef roast browning in a skillet, and was chopping vegetables, when Frank poked his nose in.
“Sorry if we disturbed you during the night,” he apologized.
Helen waved it off with a smile. “Quiet now, I noticed.”
Frank nodded. “The fever gave a last stab at causing trouble about 2300 hours…ah…11 pm,” he amended sheepishly. Helen just nodded. “But it finally broke about 3:30. Hopefully that should be the last of it, although the Skipper will need to stay on the antibiotics for several days yet. But he’s pretty drained. Figured that I’d just let him sleep. Once Ms. Hale gets here I’ll roust him long enough to take a quick shower. We’ll make the bed up fresh and hopefully convince him to lay back down.” He sighed. “Not holding my breath about that one,” he admitted.
Helen chuckled as she checked the roast. “Perhaps I can persuade him to be a bit more cooperative.” She turned toward Frank. “I’m not sure that I’ve been much help so far.”
“Not according to the Skipper. Said it’s been great having you here.” Helen raised an eyebrow. “For sure he’s a lot better than I expected to find him. Ah…” He looked at Helen sheepishly.
“What you mean is, with his mother around he’s been less likely to take anyone’s head off.” Frank continued to give her shy looks, but his smile was growing. “Young man, I am perfectly aware that my son can be stubborn and strong-willed, to the point of becoming downright obnoxious.” Frank looked momentarily stricken, but the shy grin made a return as Helen sent him a wink. “Hey, if my being here has been even that much help, I’m glad I came.”
“I know that the Admiral and Mr. Morton are really glad you’re here. Doc Jamison, too.”
“He’s not blaming me for letting Lee’s condition worsen?” Helen wasn’t really worried that anything she’d done – or not done – had created a problem. She also wasn’t worried that the others might think differently. But since the subject had been brought up…
“Oh, no, Ma’am. They’d never blame anyone else for what the Skipper manages to do to himself. Ah…” Helen’s cheerful chuckles cut him off, and he finally grinned. “Another yummy recipe?” he changed the subject by pointing to the roast.
“Found it in Lee’s recipe drawer and it sounded interesting. I’ll get it in the crock pot before…well…” It was her turn to give the corpsman a shy look. “I was sort of planning on running away again for the day. Seem to be doing a lot of that. It’s what I meant when I said that I haven’t been much help.”
Frank shrugged. “Whatever you’ve been doing, it’s working. And I rather think that the Skipper is pretty much going to sleep away the day anyway. Nurse Hale will be here, and I’ll be in and out if she needs anything.” He nodded toward the roast. “I rather suspect that we’ll both be here for supper, if last night was a representative sample. Oh, and that’s another thing. The Skipper almost always loses weight when he’s sick. From when I saw him last, in Med Bay, I could swear that he’s gained several pounds.” From his tone of voice, Helen could tell that he was impressed.
“Well…” she hedged, “Ms. Hale has helped the cause along a couple of times.” They both grinned. Frank poured himself a cup of coffee from the pot Helen had started when she first came down, and watched as she finished getting that evening’s dinner started. Into the bottom of the crock-pot went sliced carrots, onions, and celery. He gave her an odd look when chopped kosher pickles joined the rest, but she just grinned. As the roast finished browning she mixed together red wine, mustard, pepper, and ground cloves. Once the meat was well browned and placed on top of the veggies she poured the liquid over the top, put the lid on, and set the pot on low to cook all day. She just grinned when the corpsman started on his second cup of coffee as she went upstairs to take a quick shower and get dressed.
She heard voices as she left her room, and poked her head into Lee’s. Apparently she interrupted the beginnings of an argument, judging from the expression on her son’s face. There was a noise in the drive, and Frank took the opportunity to leave as they all assumed that it was Ms. Hale. Helen finished walking in and sat down on the edge of the bed. “It’s too early in the morning to be harassing that nice young man,” she chastised Lee. He didn’t look well at all but, when she brushed sweat-drenched curls off his forehead, his skin was cool.
“You’re talking to the wrong one. Frank was harassing me,” Lee grumbled. “He’s obviously been spending too much time around Jamie.” Helen raised an eyebrow, and Lee lowered his eyes, giving her a sheepish look through his eyelashes. Then he frowned as Helen chuckled and tousled his hair.
“Behave yourself.” She chuckled softly as she straightened out the blankets a bit around his shoulders. “There is no doubt that you had a rough night,” she continued, indicating the rumpled condition of the bedding. “The best thing that you can do is get as much rest as possible today to make up for it.” She turned a firm look on him. “Do I make myself clear?”
Lee’s momentary frown was followed by a quick grin and a salute, albeit a sluggish one. “Aye, aye, Ma’am.”
“Brat,” Helen told her son lovingly, and leaned over to give him a kiss on the cheek as footsteps could be heard coming up the stairs.
Lee sighed. “Have something fun planned for today?” He gave her a tired smile.
“Only if you don’t want me to stay around.”
“And watch me sleep?” Lee growled as both Ms. Hale and Frank walked in. “You gotta have something better than that to do.”
“I can think of one or two things,” she admitted and stood up. “He’s all yours,” she told the other two.
“Help,” came softly from the bed. Helen took a half-hearted swipe at his blanket-covered hip, laughed along with Frank as even Ms. Hale let a small grin show, and left.
* * * *
At least today Helen had no trouble finding the business she was looking for – Fra-Tech turned out to be the end unit of a large building in a well-planned industrial park. Unfortunately, the front door was locked. It was early, not quite 9 am, but the sign said that the office should be open. She jiggled the door handle a few times and knocked loudly. Nothing happened inside, but it drew the attention of a man walking toward a similar door across the drive.
“Matt’s not there, Ma’am,” he called over.
Helen frowned. “Do you know why?” She waved a hand at the door. “Usually businesses leave a notice if they’re going to be closed.”
The guy nodded and walked over. “All I know is, there’s been no one there all week. Well…” he amended, “thought I saw Matt’s cousin here a couple of days ago. At least, I think it was his car.”
“So you know them well,” Helen asked, since the man was using Frazier’s first name.
“Actually, used to work with him.” He pointed to the door he’d been headed for, its sign identifying it as another electronics shop. “Then Matt decided to set up his own place.”
“He must be doing okay,” Helen observed conversationally, with a smile.
The guy just shrugged. “Got his cousin to set him up with contracts from the Nelson Institute. Swiped them from us, actually.” The man didn’t sound happy about it.
“At least, that’s what we all thought. Only saw the cousin a couple of times – right after Matt set up shop. But he was driving a car that had a Nelson Institute parking sticker in the window. I told Matt that the guy had the hots for Matt’s wife – seen them together around town – and haven’t seen the cousin around since.” He seemed rather pleased about that.
“Don’t suppose you could give me Frazier’s address or phone number?”
“Which one?” At Helen’s puzzled look, the man explained. “The cousin’s name is Frasier – pronounced the same, but he spells it with an S instead of the normal Z.”
“How unusual,” Helen observed quietly, but with a thought process now running on overdrive.
“Anyway, Matt moved not long after he set up this place. I don’t have the new information. You could call NIMR – get it from the cousin.” He grinned. “Or, you could come over to my shop. What kind of electronics help were you needing?”
“Actually…” Helen hedged, not knowing how much she wanted to tell this man. With a shrug, she decided to play a hunch. “I wanted to talk to him about his other business, the importation of fabric.”
The man just nodded. “That’s Paige’s – his wife’s – business.”
“Really. I didn’t get that impression from his voicemail. Speaking of which…” She reached into her purse for her cell phone. “You have this number, by any chance?” She pointed to Fra-Tech’s door. The man, whose name she still didn’t know, gave it to her, but they could both hear the ring behind the closed door. She just shrugged as she finally closed the phone after ten rings. “Not even an answering machine.”
“Weird. I know he has one.” A car pulled up at his own business. “I gotta go. When you track them down, tell Matt to call Jason – that’s me. I sure hope everything is okay.”
“Me, too,” Helen said just for show. She gave him a nod and got back into her car.
Instead of leaving, however, she drove around the building to see if there was another way in. Turning into the alley she found what looked to be a delivery door, with some sort of notice taped to it. She left the car in idle and stepped over to read it, muttering a bit when all it turned out to be was a notice from a local delivery service that they’d tried to leave some packages the previous day, no one answered, and to call such and such a number to arrange delivery; that they’d hold the packages until they heard back. A thought struck Helen and she jotted down the delivery company’s number. Once back in the car she found an out-of-the-way place to park and dialed.
“Basin Express,” came a pleasant feminine voice in her ear.
“Hi. I’ve been out of town and just saw the notice that you tried to make a delivery to Fra-Tech.” It wasn’t an outright lie.
“Humm,” Helen responded non-committally.
“Mr. Frazier just called and gave us the new address.”
“That’s good,” Helen said, her brain working overtime. “Ah, could you read back what he said? Men…” She forced a conspiratorial chuckle. “He tends to reverse numbers, especially when he’s learning a new one.” Helen practically held her breath.
But the woman laughed. “Oh, lordy, do I know that one. The stories I could tell you. Especially working here.” Helen heard computer keys being punched in. “Just a second – let me pull it up.” There wasn’t much of a wait. “9284 Florencia. How close did he come?” There was another chuckle.
Helen returned it. “Perfect.” She quickly wrote down the address. “Did you give him a delivery time, by any chance?”
“Well, it will be late this afternoon. The truck is just leaving now, and he has a bunch of deliveries north of there before he can backtrack. Will that be a problem? Your husband didn’t sound like it would.”
“No problem at all. I was just curious. Thank you so much for your help,” she told the woman honestly.
“Happy to.” There was a soft chuckle. “Makes a nice change from all the calls from people complaining why their shipments weren’t there yesterday. Like, we have all that much control over that. We can only deliver what gets delivered to us, or that we get called to pick up.”
“I hear that one,” Helen responded, not telling the woman that she was talking about the e-mails she’d get all too often from her publisher, and the two women rang off amiably.
It didn’t take Helen long, checking her street map, to find the address. She had assumed that it would be in another business district, but instead turned out to be a house in a middle class residential area. She drove past, and then drove around until she found a small shopping mall a couple blocks away and parked the car. Lee’s choice of vehicles would be only too familiar to Dr. Frasier if, indeed, this was where he happened to be. There was a car in the small circular drive in front of the house but, from the quick glance she’d gotten, she hadn’t noticed anything in the windows resembling a NIMR parking sticker. Locking her purse in the trunk, she stuck her cell phone in her pocket and the car key into one of the crew socks she wore with her walking shoes.
Hurrying back, she headed down the alley behind the row of houses she wanted, planning on casing the place from a little more private angle. But she’d barely entered her end when a car entered from the other. She casually ducked against a storage shed, glancing around and thankfully not seeing anyone else around. The car pulled into a covered carport behind what she thought was the house she was interested in. She didn’t wait long after hearing the car door slam shut before continuing forward.
She’d been right – it was the house she wanted. And there was indeed a NIMR parking tag in the window of the car that had just pulled in behind it. A very determined look crossed Helen’s face. While Dr. Frasier hadn’t been personally responsible for her son’s injuries, he was no less culpable if he was, as seemed probable, a part of the smuggling ring. Anger built in her as she thought about how easily he had lied to her and Mak. And it was fueled thinking about all the innocent little sea dragons – and who knew what other species – that had been removed from their natural habitats for no other good reason than greed. Greed by collectors to own something they were not entitled to, and greed for the monetary rewards of supplying that otherwise unattainable commodity.
Thoughts of Mak brought back her earlier unease, and she glanced around again. The sides of the house were divided from its neighbors by high hedges. The back yard was open, with a walkway leading to a screened-in back porch. Helen could see window wells along at least one side, indicating a daylight basement. Frasier had apparently disappeared through the back porch into the house proper, and Helen took another glance around the other houses. Her luck was holding and no one was around; being a weekday, she assumed that both familial partners in the surrounding houses were at work, and any children either in school or daycare. That suited her just fine as it also meant that those in the target house wouldn’t be expecting any interruptions, either. She took a deep breath, squared her shoulders, and started toward the back of the house. At the last minute, before shooting across from the security of the covered carport to the back of the house, she reached down and turned off the cell phone. She didn’t need any badly timed ringing giving her away. She considered hanging around in back until the delivery truck drew the attention of those in the house to the front. But that would be hours, and the longer she stayed in the alley the more chance there was of being spotted by well-meaning but interfering neighbors - to say nothing of those in the house. Taking a deep breath, and a last glance at the back porch, she walked quickly across to the back corner of the house.
All was quiet, both inside and out. Carefully she eased along the side of the house until she was close to the first window well. Squatting down and flattening herself against the house as best she could, she risked a peek into the window. The laundry room, from the looks of the appliances. Keeping low now as she approached windows above her, she risked a peek into what was obviously a bedroom before continuing on to the next window well.
Bingo. Half a dozen large aquariums filled the room. Most looked empty, however. A couple had pieces of what looked like seaweed floating around in them. She remembered the pictures Lee had shown her of sea dragons, and wondered if that’s what she was seeing now. But she couldn’t be sure from this far away, and from this angle.
A click behind her caused her to stiffen, but before she could turn there was a sharp pain in the back of her head, and then all went black.
* * * *
Lee was beginning to feel human. It had been a rough night. More than once, as the fever drained him of not only energy but coherent thoughts, he’d caught himself taking out his frustrations on Seaview’s lead corpsman. He could only marvel at how easily Frank countered with gentle humor and patient logic. Once the fever finally broke, Lee lay weak and quiet as Frank straightened out the bedclothes as best he could and sponged off much of the cold, clammy, sweat. Both knew that Lee wouldn’t be totally comfortable until he could manage a shower, and the bed freshly made up. But there was silent agreement that, given the hour and Lee’s drained condition, it could wait awhile. Lee hadn’t really slept after that but he’d lain quietly, not wanting to cause Frank any more trouble than he already had.
He’d loved his mother’s gently teasing earlier. Despite his grumbles, and without actually admitting it, just having her here took him back to simpler times in his life, before the demands and responsibilities of his job pushed his own needs to the background. He didn’t see as much of her as he’d like, both totally involved in their own activities. But despite his antipathy over what had brought her here, he was really enjoying seeing her. He knew that others didn’t understand their sometimes silly banter, and suspected that Helen was enjoying driving his friends a little crazy with it as much as he was.
Once Nurse Hale appeared and Helen left, Frank gently assisted Lee into the bathroom for a quick shower. Lee would have preferred to shave as well, but decided he’d never manage it on his own. Just the shower had been about as long as he could stand without assistance. Frank didn’t say anything; didn’t offer to do it for Lee. He knew that he’d pushed his CO just about as much as Lee was likely to let him over the important issues. The shave could wait. By that time Ms. Hale had the bed changed. Lee gave half a thought to insisting on going downstairs. But with a private smile at his mother’s warning, no matter how teasingly it had been delivered, he settled once more into bed and was asleep even before the IV could be re-attached.
He awoke shortly after noon, and let the nurse coax him into eating some soup and half a sandwich before once again falling asleep. But his strength was beginning to return and, when he once again awakened about 1600 hours, managed the belated shave fairly easily. His two watchdogs ganged up on him, Frank having returned by the time he exited the bathroom, and wouldn’t let him get dressed. But they did let him wrap himself in his warmest bathrobe and go downstairs, both wisely keeping their mouths shut about the red and black plaid atrocity. No one but Lee and Helen knew that it had belonged to Lee’s grandfather. Lee hadn’t even told Chip – just let his best friend snicker on those occasions Lee chose to wear it.
There were some raised eyebrows when Helen hadn’t yet returned by the time the crock-pot meal was ready. But not from Lee. He just smiled, told the other two that obviously she’d found something more interesting to do than watch him sleep – much to his disgust he’d dozed off after getting settled in his living room chair – and talked Ms. Hale through finishing the recipe by cooking noodles and using the juice from the crock pot, once the meat was set aside, to make gravy. His attempt to eat a decent portion was a bit lackluster, but both medic and nurse chose to ignore that fact and concentrate instead on how good it was.
By the time that the leftovers had been stored in the fridge and the dishes cleaned up, Lee’s eyes were getting heavy again. He momentarily resisted returning to bed, saying that he’d stay up for awhile yet and see what had kept his mother occupied. While Frank just shrugged, prepared to allow Lee his bit of rebellion, Ms. Hale wasn’t nearly as sympathetic. She crossed her arms and glared at him, daring him to defy her decision that he return to bed before Frank ended up having to carry him there. It was a short standoff, and Lee surrendered with a shy grin. Out of the corner of his eye he caught the look of astonishment that ever so briefly crossed Frank’s face, and the decidedly smug one that crossed Ms. Hale’s. Smothering a chuckle at the corpsman, who knew only too well how stubborn Lee could be when he chose, Lee levered himself out of the chair and slowly climbed the stairs back to his room. He propped himself up against several pillows and reached for the last report that he’d been working on, laying on the bedside table. But he hadn’t read more than a couple of paragraphs before once again falling into a light sleep.
* * * *
“Mrs. Crane.” Helen could hear the words. She just had no idea of where they were coming from. “Mrs. Crane,” came again, and she tried to turn her head in the direction she thought that it came from. Instantly the blinding pain came back. “Helen, please wake up.” Helen carefully opened her eyes. She tried to move but nothing happened. It took her a bit longer to get a sluggish brain to function, but finally discovered that she was laying on her side on a twin bed, in what was apparently one of the basement rooms. This window, however, had bars across it. Her hands were bound in front of her with the plastic ties that were all the rage these days, but her ankles were free. As she moved her head – carefully – to examine the room more fully, there was a release of air in a huge sigh from behind. “Thank heavens,” came the voice again. Helen rolled over and discovered Mak watching her, sitting on the edge of another twin bed across the room, bound as she was and looking somewhat the worse for wear.
“How long?” Helen mumbled, still getting the separate parts of her body to work as a unit, and managed to sit up.
“They brought you in here about half an hour ago. What are you doing here?”
What turned out to be the hallway door opened abruptly, and Dr. Frasier answered Mak’s question. “Dying with you,” he growled, brandishing a gun. Helen wondered if that’s what had hit her earlier. “How did you find this place?” he demanded.
Helen shrugged. “Just followed the trail of bread crumbs you left,” she told him. “Or, in this case, fish tails.”
“Just like your son, interfering where you have no business.”
“Why, thank you.” Helen gave him as pleasant a smile as she could manage.
“Who knows that you’re here?”
“Well, let’s see,” Helen lied with a smile. “Several people with the LAPD. NIMR Security, of course. But if I were you, I’d be more afraid of my son. He doesn’t take kindly to his mother being cold cocked.” She nodded toward Mak. “Not to mention good friends being detained against their will.”
Frasier’s look was dark and dangerous. “Lies,” he spat out. “If you told anyone what you were doing, they’d have been here by now. Just like your son. Think you can do everything by yourself.”
“Thank you, again.” Helen smiled sweetly. Frasier muttered a particularly vulgar phrase and slammed the door behind him. She and Mak both heard the sound of a lock clicking into place. “Charming fellow,” she muttered a bit herself. “So,” she asked Mak, “what’s going on – besides the mess we’ve found ourselves in? Don’t get me wrong, but…ah…how come you’re still alive?”
Mak gave her a humorless grin. “Dr. Frasier is a coward.” Helen raised an eyebrow. “There are two more people in the house. I hear them arguing. It would seem that none of them have the stomach for killing.”
“I can make a guess and say that the other two are Mathew Frazier, Dr. Frasier’s cousin, and his wife, Paige.”
“Very good. You have been busy.” He dropped his voice to barely above a whisper. “I do not suppose…”
Helen gave him a sheepish apology. “Sorry. I was just following a thread and wound up here.” She suddenly remembered her cell phone and checked her pocket, but it was gone. The car key, on the other hand, she could still feel in her sock.
“You probably followed the same trail that I did, starting with the mystery package that Dr. Walton at Birch received?” Helen nodded and the two spent a few minutes comparing notes. “It ended for me at the Fra-Tech office. I was asking a few simple questions of Mr. Frazier when Dr. Frasier walked in. It got…awkward.” It was his turn to look sheepish. “I was careless, and did not react fast enough,” he admitted. “They brought me here – wherever here is…” He looked at Helen quizzically.
“A residence in Santa Maria, a few miles from the Fra-Tech office,” she supplied.
He nodded. “I was blindfolded and made to lie in the back of a van,” he explained. “They do not tell me anything. They bring me food a couple of times a day, and there is a bathroom behind that door.” He pointed across the room. “They make threats, but they just seem to be waiting.”
“They’re getting a package delivery this afternoon.” She just smiled as Mak raised an eyebrow. “No idea of what.”
“I have gotten the impression that it is a someone, not a something, that they wait for,” he amended.
“Dr. Walton, perhaps?” Mak just shrugged. Helen looked around. “So, no way out except the door.”
Mak nodded. “And while they may be cowards, they are cautious ones. I have not discovered a way to surprise them.”
Helen grinned sweetly. “They say that two heads are better than one.”
“Do not take them lightly,” Mak warned. He indicated himself. “I thought, these are amateurs and fools. I can easily handle them.” He ducked his head bashfully. “I thought, they tie my hands in front and not behind, and they do not even gag me. But there does not appear to be anyone in the next house for me to yell to. Nor were they pleasant the one time I tried.” Helen again noted his rumpled appearance. “And with hands in front, they do not have to untie me to eat, or…” He hesitated, and his eyes went briefly to the bathroom door. “That is the first time only one person opened the door – before there has always been two. And always, the gun.”
“You said that they were cowards,” Helen observed.
“Cowards are especially dangerous, because they are unpredictable.” Helen nodded her acceptance of that logic.
Nothing much happened for the next several hours. Helen and Mak continued to talk quietly, filling in the gaps of what had been happening. Shortly after a soft commotion upstairs there was more movement across the hall, but no one entered their room until well after. The door opened without warning and a man Helen assumed to be Mathew Frazier held she and Mak at gunpoint while a woman, presumably his wife, sat a plate holding several sandwiches on a small table just inside. Nothing was said, and the two quickly disappeared. Helen checked the plate. “And just how do they expect me to eat meatloaf sandwiches without mustard,” she asked seriously. At first Mak just looked at her, but when she winked, he finally smiled.
They had avoided one question all afternoon but, as the sky started turning dark outside their window, Mak walked over to sit beside her and asked softly, “What will happen when you are missed?”
“Besides Lee going ballistic, you mean?” They both smiled humorlessly, before Helen turned serious. “Actually, he might not. I haven’t always been the most responsible person in the world for letting people know my plans,” she admitted reluctantly. “And the fact that my cell phone is turned off…” She shrugged. “It might be a long wait.”
Mak nodded solemnly. He took her hands in his own for just a moment and squeezed them, before returning to sit once more on his own bed.
* * * *
But Lee did go ballistic when he awakened in the morning and discovered that Helen hadn’t returned. With not much sleep the night before, Frank had crashed on the couch just as soon as he was sure that Lee was settled for the night. He took no special notice of the fact that Helen wasn’t up yet when he went to check on his patient first thing in the morning. Lee was just waking up, and Frank stayed fairly close while he showered, shaved and dressed. When they reached the kitchen with still no sign of her, Lee winked at Frank and yelled back up the stairs. “Hey, galley slave. Where’s my coffee?” When that failed to get a response, Lee raised an eyebrow and Frank went up to check. All hell broke loose when there was no sign that she’d returned during the night, and Lee’s car was missing from the drive. Lee started pacing as Frank called NIMR Security. That was usually the first call anyone made. Security worked closely with local, state and Federal agencies, and calling them took less time than dialing 911.
Listening to the corpsman try to explain the problem, however, just raised Lee’s level of anxiety. He paced that much faster, realizing that he had no idea of where to even start looking. He’d been so wrapped up in his own troubles that, especially the last several days, he had no idea of how or where Helen was spending her time.
“Sit Down Now, Commander.” Lee suddenly found his way blocked by the diminutive form of Nurse Hale, her order delivered loudly and succinctly. Lee sent her a glare that would have had every man aboard Seaview – up to and including the Admiral – running for their lives. Unfortunately, it was instantly followed by the living room walls starting to make circling patterns around him, and loud enough ringing in his ears to nearly drown out any other sounds. He barely registered hands on both sides of him taking his arms and forcing him back a couple of steps to sit on the couch. Eyes closed, he did finally hear Frank go back to speaking on the phone while other hands lifted his legs up on the couch and gently pushed his head back to lie on a pillow.
“Really good for your mother to walk in the door and find that we’ve had to haul your tail off to Med Bay from the concussion you gave yourself passing out and slamming into something.” Ms. Hale’s voice had softened considerably. Lee opened his eyes to continue the glare, but the walls once again started spinning and he promptly closed them. “Deep breaths, Commander. Slow and steady. If she’s anything like her son she’ll wander in shortly, totally not understanding what all the fuss is about.”
At that Lee couldn’t stop a small smile touching his lips. He took a few more breaths and, as his ears quit ringing quite so loudly, carefully tried again to open his eyes. The walls stayed pretty much where they were supposed to this time, and Frank’s face appeared next to the nurse’s.
“Dewey will get the word out ASAP on your car, Skipper.” Dewey Caudill was NIMR’s liaison to Santa Barbara’s police department.
“Now,” Ms. Hale’s voice was back in command mode, “are you going to behave long enough for me to go make you some breakfast?”
Lee frowned at the implied threat in her voice, but wisely just nodded. Obviously there wasn’t any way he was physically up to helping with the search. As frustrating as that was, he acknowledged that the only thing he could do was stay here and wait. Damn, he muttered to himself.
Apparently not totally to himself. “Try to relax, Commander. I rather suspect that you came by your tenaciousness honestly.” Lee was forced to give the nurse another small smile and a careful nod. She headed for the kitchen as Frank started to set up the IV.
* * * *
Helen had no idea that she’d gone to sleep until a hand covered her mouth and a whispered “Mrs. Crane, wake up. Something is happening,” shattered the dream she’d been having about eating lunch at an outdoor cafe table in Milan with Paul Newman, Robert Mitchum, Robert Redford, and Gary Grant.
“You call me Mrs. Crane one more time and you’ll join my son under a doctor’s supervision,” Helen told Mak grumpily as soon as he removed his hand. He gave her a sheepish look, in the soft light coming from the partially open bathroom door, the Indonesian once more forgetting that Helen insisted he use her first name. But he held a finger to his lips as she finished waking up enough to hear the sounds coming from outside their prison door. She got up and they both quietly walked over to the door and listened intently. Helen took a glance at her watch and discovered that it was nearly 8 am. She shook her head, surprised that she’d actually slept that long. She couldn’t really make out what was happening outside the door, and no one was saying anything. She and Mak could merely hear that the others were moving back and forth, maybe in the room across the hallway. Occasionally one of them would walk to the end of the hall and apparently go upstairs, only to return a few minutes later.
Helen’s mind wandered briefly to what had happened when Lee awakened to find that she hadn’t returned, and he couldn’t reach her cell phone. Not wanting him to think about anything except getting well, she’d kept to herself what she’d been doing. That now seemed an incredibly stupid thing to have done, but at the time… She supposed that Lee would have the police looking for his car. But how long would it take them to find it, tucked among so many others in the mall parking lot, and in a completely different town than she’d mentioned visiting? On the other hand, if they did find it and check the trunk, this house’s address was the last one written in the little notebook in her purse.
In the meantime, of course, Lee will be worried sick. She gave herself a wry smile at that disgusting pun. Her gentle, loving child had grown into a confident and accomplished – and yes, extremely stubborn, she admitted with a soft smile – young man. And with each promotion in rank, that much more used to getting his own way. Helen had a feeling that, while Nurse Hale could probably hold her own against Lee’s expected tirade, she seriously doubted if Frank could. He was, after all, a member of Lee’s crew, and used to following orders. The two obviously had a rapport with each other. Helen could only hope that it wasn’t totally damaged by whatever Lee did or said, now that he was focused on his missing parent and not on taking care of himself.
Her thoughts were interrupted as whoever had last gone upstairs returned. “That’s the last load,” one of the men said. Helen wasn’t sure which one. “You two get it to the van while I finish down here.”
“You don’t need to do that,” the woman said. “We’ll be long gone before they’re found.”
“Can’t take the risk,” the first voice told her, “since we don’t know what happened to Walton. They obviously don’t know anything about him or we’d have heard them talking about it.”
Helen and Mak looked at each other and Mak mouthed, “The room is bugged?” Helen could only shrug.
“But we can’t wait any longer,” the voice, who Helen thought was Mathew Frazier, continued. “I was willing to hold off, even after what’s-his-name found the office. But now that this place has been found and we still can’t locate Walton, we have to cut our losses and get out.”
“But why do you have to kill them?” The woman was now almost pleading. “There’s no reason…”
“There’s every reason,” he cut her off. “Look. They know who we are.”
“But we’ll be long gone, in South America where we can’t to touched, before they can even be found.” That was Dr. Frasier, Helen was almost sure.
“You don’t get it,” Frazier growled. “We torch the house, and two bodies get found in the rubble. Everyone will assume that it’s me and Paige. DNA will eventually rule that out, but it will give us extra time to get ‘lost’. We know that neither of them told anyone where they were going. If we get really lucky they won’t ever be identified. It will all be one big mystery. Now get going. I have everything set up in the kitchen. There’s a delay switch so we’ll have these last shipments at the express office and be on a plane to Rio before the fire starts. It will all just look like faulty wiring set the fire. We leave Paige’s car in the drive. You drive back to your place and Paige and I will pick you up there. The van isn’t registered to any of us – we just leave it in long term parking at the airport.”
“But…” Paige tried one more time.
“Go!” her husband ordered. Two sets of footsteps were heard walking down the hall. Someone jiggled the door handle to Mak and Helen’s room, apparently confirming that it was still locked solidly. They heard and felt something being shoved under the door handle, wedging it even more tightly in place, before another set of footsteps walked away.
“This is not good,” Mak said softly. Helen decided that that was the understatement of the century.
* * * *
Amid disapproving looks but no outright argument Lee sat up, waited a second to make sure that his head would stay clear, and moved to his chair. The couch, even if he was sitting up, was still a little too close to laying down for his emotional comfort right now. Forcing himself to concentrate, he had Frank bring him the phone once the IV was back in place and called NIMR Security. He told them that he was fairly sure that his mother’s disappearance was connected to Det. Sabirin’s, and told them what he knew of Mak’s investigation, as well as the rental company for Mak’s car. Dewey promised to get that information out as well, and Lee hung up feeling a little less helpless. But not much! Ms. Hale brought him a plate of scrambled eggs, bacon, and toast, and he tried to get as much of it down as possible. He wasn’t overly successful, but neither nurse nor corpsman said too much. Frank left shortly after, telling Lee that he would head over to NIMR and keep Lee up-to-date on what Security was finding out. Ms. Hale settled into the chair opposite Lee and reached into her needlework bag. Lee was so into his own thoughts that he didn’t pay any attention to what she was working on today. Not able to sit still, he finally rose and started quietly pacing the short distance his tether would allow.
It wasn’t long before he once again found his path blocked. “Sit, Commander.” While it was definitely an order, Ms. Hale’s voice was fairly soft. “Here’s your laptop. If you concentrate more on what Seaview is up to, you’ll fret less. Everything that can be done is, and your making yourself worse isn’t going to help.” Lee wasn’t sure that he could even steady his nervousness long enough to type in the commands, but he was very shortly reading the latest chapter in the “Nelson vs. Congressmen” saga.
Seems that, when FS1 returned, the three Congressmen petitioned to be returned ashore – along with their wives, of course. Seaview was already headed back to Santa Barbara by this time. They insisted that they had enough information to complete their reports and recommend approval of NIMR’s contracts for the coming year. But somehow FS1 had developed an oil pressure problem on the way back – from where, Nelson was still not telling his guests – and she was unsafe to fly until the problem was found. Nelson had at that point just shrugged his shoulders, said that the repair team was working on the problem and would let him know when the little craft was again deemed safe to use, and promptly locked himself in his laboratory. Chip’s amusement came clearly through the typewritten lines.
Lee sent a short note back, but didn’t mention his mother’s absence. There was nothing they could do from the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and enough people were worrying at this end, there didn’t need to be any more. When he finished, he finally looked at Ms. Hale long enough to realize that her project today wasn’t the Aran she’d been working on. In fact, it wasn’t even knitting, and he raised an eyebrow.
“Crochet,” she read the question correctly. “Granny squares for a ‘stained glass’ afghan.” Lee watched as she started a square with one color, use another for the next row, alternating until she had four rows, then outlined the square with a row of black. Despite his own problem he was fascinated at how quickly she could finish a square. It seemed to take her longer to change colors than it did to complete a row – and that wasn’t very long. As she finished one square and started another, using the same selection of colors, he sent her another silent question. “I’ll make six or eight squares the same, before changing to different colors.” The ones she was using at the moment were a bright orange for the center, then a bright yellow, a pale yellow, and the orange again before the final black row. “When I get enough blocks to make the size afghan I want, I toss them all out on the floor and haphazardly arrange them into no more of a pattern than I don’t have two blocks the same touching each other. When it looks right, I put all the blocks together with a single crochet line in black, and it’s done.”
“Another grand niece?” Lee asked.
“Nope. This one’s for a friend.” She continued on crocheting, and Lee tried to concentrate on the next report – with minimal success.
* * * *
“Cowards they may be,” Helen observed almost silently, “but you can’t fault their logic.” Mak frowned and she sent him a wry smile. “I say we find a way out of this place before I start to feel like the roast I braised yesterday morning.”
“Easier said than done.”
Helen nodded. “And definitely easier once we know that they’re gone and not listening to us anymore.”
At that, Mak started making a rather systematic search of the room. He kept muttering something to himself – Helen assumed that it was in his native language. She silently wandered around as well, trying to remember all the places that listening devices were hidden in the old movies she liked to indulge in when time permitted. They both stopped at one point as a loud crash was heard upstairs. After a couple minutes, when nothing more was heard, they both went back to searching.
About ten minutes passed. The sounds of car engines outside coincided with Mak sputtering what was in all likelihood an Indonesian expletive and showing something to Helen he’d just found inside the overhead light shade, before he dropped it on the floor and squashed it under his heel. “I did not even consider the possibility, no matter the electronics background.”
“Don’t beat yourself up over it. What’s done is done. Be grateful that they were stupid enough to explain their plan where we could hear, or we could have sat here wondering what happened to breakfast while the place started burning around us.”
With the door being the only exit, Mak started studying the hinges. They were not the normal variety, with a removable hinge pin, and looked more like they had been welded in place. But Mak still made the attempt to figure out a way that they could be released. Helen watched him for a minute or two, looked around the room until her eyes settled on the small wooden table, picked it up, and smashed it down on the door handle as hard as she could manage. Mak, his back to her, nearly jumped out of his skin. Helen just smiled and shrugged. But Mak took the hint, picked up the table, and took a couple of good whacks himself. The table didn’t survive well at all, but they could both see that their efforts were starting to leave the handle with a noticeable list. Mak picked up one of the legs that had separated from the top on the last blow, and kept up a steady pounding until the handle finally fell off. A little digging around inside the hole and the mechanism released. But Mak stopped Helen from pulling the door open. She frowned, but stood back while Mak very carefully pulled it in just enough to make a crack to see through before letting out an expanse of air.
“Wires,” he explained, and went back to studying the problem. “We were very lucky,” he said finally, turning back toward Helen. “If the handle on the other side had fallen during our attempts to release it, we would no doubt be very unhappy.” Helen frowned at him. “If you could perhaps find something to poke in the hole and very gently push, I will attempt to open the door just enough to get a hand through to catch it when it releases. I would prefer to do it myself, but…” He held up his hands, still tightly bound together with the plastic ties. Helen nodded and picked up the rod that held the two parts of the doorknob together inside, which had fallen out when their side had released. She waited until Mak was ready, then balanced her pushing with Mak’s edging his hand through the widening crack. It seemed to take forever.
Just as the handle fell and Mak made a grab to catch it, there was a popping sound from upstairs. “I think, perhaps, that the oven has just been started,” Mak observed dryly. “And a little sooner than Mr. Frazier expected.” Helen nearly smacked him. But as he gently finished pulling the door open, Helen got a good look at the ‘whatever-it-was’ sitting on the chair that had been propped against the door. It didn’t look nice, and Mak treated it with the utmost respect as he gently laid the doorknob next to it and lifted the chair to one side before he would allow Helen to exit. They quickly got their bearings and headed toward the stairs at the end of the hall.
When they reached the top they found themselves in the living room. At least, that’s what little Helen could make out before Mak turned and blocked her way. But at the same instant they both smelled smoke, and Mak reluctantly let her pass. What he was trying to shield Helen from seeing was apparently what had caused the crash they’d heard earlier – the falling body of Dr. Frasier. From the looks of his skull, there was no doubt that he was dead. Helen looked at Mak. “It would appear that Mathew was tired of sharing – both the profits and his wife.” At Mak’s totally puzzled look Helen just grinned grimly, and the sound of another pop sent them both looking for the kitchen.
Once there they found flames just starting to lick out from underneath the table. What looked like a small gas heater was still visible through the fire. The flames weren’t bad yet, but they were going to spread rapidly because of some boxes that had been left in a stack close by. Mak first tried to push Helen past, and out the back door. She instead headed for the kitchen sink, and Mak went to kick the boxes further away from the rapidly spreading flames. Suddenly he was showered with water as Helen turned the tap on full blast and used her thumb to direct the water in the direction of the table. Between the fact that the sink was directly across the narrow room from the table, and the water pressure sufficient to send a healthy spray shooting across the distance, the fire was soon out. Mak sent Helen another puzzled look. “Obviously you’ve never chaperoned a group of overactive Sea Scouts when an outing got changed by bad weather into an indoor picnic.” Mak just shook his head.
They were silently congratulating each other when there was a commotion at the front door. “Santa Maria Police,” someone yelled out. Helen was just turning to go let them in when the back door burst open and she and Mak found themselves surrounded by half a dozen men in full riot gear. “You’re a little late,” it was Helen’s turn to observe dryly. “Anyone have a cell phone I can borrow?”
* * * *
Lee only beat Ms. Hale to the phone because he was once more pacing the floor. He was keeping it to a slow walk so as not to totally tick off the carefully watching Marine. But if he’d tried to sit quietly any longer he’d have thrown something. He’d actually managed fairly well for the first couple of hours. But as the clock ticked close to 1100 hours he finally couldn’t take it any longer and started seriously considering his options for a suitable projectile. The only two easily reached items were the laptop and the IV stand, neither particularly reasonable, so he’d carefully set the computer aside and started his slow, limited walk.
“Easy, Skipper,” Frank spoke in his ear. “Dewey just got a call from the Santa Maria police. They’ve found both Mrs. Crane and Det. Sabirin. They’re safe. It’s just going to take a little bit to get everything straightened out. Davy is already headed up there to expedite things.”
“Santa Maria? What the… What’s going on? Where are they exactly? I’ll drive up…”
“You’ll do no such thing,” Ms. Hale told him firmly in one ear as Frank spoke in the other.
“It’s okay, Skipper. I don’t have all the details, but everything’s under control. I’ve been assured that they are both fine, and will be back at your place in a few hours.”
“But…” He didn’t get any further as Ms. Hale grabbed the phone.
“Who is this?” Lee’s glare at her as she listened to Frank repeat what he’d just said had about as much effect on the nurse as it tended to have on Seaview’s CMO, given similar circumstances. When she hung up, she turned and returned the glare two-fold. But her voice was surprisingly gentle as she pointed toward Lee’s chair. “Sit before you fall, Commander. You’re nearly as pale as you were when I got here this morning. It sounds like everything is under control. Let’s try to surprise your mother and have you in the same controlled condition by the time she gets here. Okay?”
* * * *
Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Helen Graham Lee – otherwise known as Mrs. Helen Crane – was in firm control of her highly defined and cultivated cool. It had been the bane of many an overbearing person who thought that they could pat her on the head and send her off with platitudes, and who had to eventually admit total defeat and give her the information that she wanted.
She totally understood the initial chaos while police sorted out the good guys from the bad. The fact that both she and Mak still had their hands bound helped. But as neither was carrying any identification it still took a while. And the police were further sidetracked by the body in the living room and the explosive device in the basement. Someone who claimed to be from NIMR Security showed up fairly quickly. Neither Mak nor Helen recognized him but he seemed to know them, and apparently had some pull with the locals. He told Helen that Lee had been notified that she and Det. Sabirin were safe, and offered to drive them back to Santa Barbara. That’s when Helen smiled sweetly, planted herself in the face of the local detective who seemed to be in charge, and started requesting information. What was being done to stop the Fraziers from leaving the country? Were they looking for Dr. Walton? Had they stopped the last shipment that the Fraziers spoke of, and were they following that lead to round up more suspects? At that, the detective got a blank look on his face and suggested that she run along home and let the professionals do their jobs. She again smiled sweetly and assured him that she had her own ride home, thank you. She produced the car key from her sock, and told him that she’d leave when she was ready to. She got momentarily sidetracked, glaring one young officer into silence when it was revealed that the police had, indeed, found the house by finding her notebook in Lee’s trunk, but had damaged the latch when they popped the lock to gain entrance. The man from NIMR, who had identified himself as Davy Jackson, assured her that the damage to what he called, “the Skipper’s baby,” could be easily fixed. Helen took a deep breath, nodded her acceptance of that information, and went back to firing questions at the local.
He, of course, was loath to tell a civilian anything about an ongoing investigation beyond taking her statement. As Mak started to explain the magnitude of the investigation, and why it went far beyond the kidnapping and attempted murder of himself and Helen, the locals were even more adamant about getting rid of her and calling for reinforcements. Outside in the back yard at this point, as the house was being gone over with a fine-toothed comb, Helen just increased her smile, crossed her arms, and leaned against the corner of the house. The detective looked at Mak. Mak just smiled softly and shrugged his shoulders. He’d locked horns with one member of the Crane family already and wasn’t about to try it again any time soon. The local next looked at the NIMR man, but he’d planted himself a few feet away from Mrs. Crane, obviously prepared to offer whatever support she might need. The local tried once more, assuring Helen that she should leave, get back to her family, and that everything was being done to aid Det. Sabirin in his extended investigation. Helen’s smile increased. The local tried sending Helen off with one of the other officers. Helen just shook her head. The local might have felt better about surrendering if he’d known how many people had, in the past, caved before Helen’s gentle stubbornness.
* * * *
A car in the drive popped Lee out of his chair with such a rush that he had to momentarily close his eyes against the dizziness. When he opened them, Ms. Hale was standing in front of him. Her look was disapproving but all she did was reach down and disconnect the IV, and Lee headed toward the door. It opened just before he got to it, revealing a disheveled Helen and Mak. It was rare that Lee had ever seen his mother quite that rumpled-looking. As for the usually immaculate Reserse officer, Lee could only shake his head.
Before he could say anything he was enveloped in his mother’s arms. She gave him a strong hug, then backed off half a step and looked up at him seriously. “Are you okay? I am so sorry that I didn’t tell you where I was going. You must have been so worried.”
“I’m fine – now,” he told her with a small smile. “Just…what the blue blazes has been going on?”
“Later,” she told him firmly. “Right at this moment, we both need showers and clean clothes.” Lee noticed that they had driven home in Mak’s rental, and Mak had his overnight bag in his hand. He surrendered and told Mak to use his shower as Helen made a beeline for the guest room. He then headed for the kitchen – it would appear that a large amount of extra-high test caffeine was about to be needed. But Ms. Hale beat him there, and he just grabbed a cookie while she started the coffee and opened the fridge to see what she could whip together for a quick meal.
Eventually Lee ended up back on the couch, but this time sitting up with his fourth – or maybe his fifth – cup of coffee. He was once again attached to his IV tether. But with Helen sitting next to him, Mak stretched out in Lee’s big chair, and Ms. Hale and Frank keeping close watch on all three, things were as calm as they’d been in far too many days. Helen and Mak were just finishing catching the others up on what had happened. Lee had gotten rather overly animated when the story got down to the last 24 hours. Helen had patted him on the leg and reminded him that, while it did get a little crazy, everything was okay now. All Lee could do was shake his head and concentrate on his coffee. He did catch the enigmatic little smile that Mak sent his way. He had a feeling that Mak was thinking of a time when Lee had taken off without telling anyone where he was going, causing a fair amount of panic in those left behind,* and hung his head even farther.
Frank, once he returned, had been able to report that Lee’s car had already been dropped off at NIMR’s mechanics shop to have the trunk lock replaced. Davy Jackson showed up just long enough to drop off Helen’s purse. The Santa Maria police had found Mak’s ID, wallet, and car keys during their search of the house, and had returned them. Mak’s car had been found in the garage. Helen’s cell phone was also found, but it hadn’t survived being stomped on – apparently by one of the smugglers. She had given Jackson the key to Lee’s car once it was settled that Lee had been notified that she and Mak were safe. She was going nowhere until she had all the information from the police that she wanted.
The Fraziers had been apprehended as they were checking in several small packages at the air express office by the airport. Once opened, each package contained about a dozen immature sea dragons. Along with the two almost adults found in the basement, they were all on their way to the Birch Aquarium to be cared for. The addressees on the three packages were being questioned by their respective local police. The express office was being very helpful, once authorities informed them of what was going on, by supplying the addressees of all other shipments that the Fraziers had made, as well as ones they had received.
The missing Dr. Walton had also been located – sort of. When Mak had questioned him after learning about the wayward package from Mr. Haley, the same way Helen had, Walton had been very uncooperative and almost belligerent. Mak hadn’t pushed the issue. Walton had left immediately afterward, claiming illness. He had apparently gone straight home, packed, and headed for the airport, obviously trying to save his own skin and not bothering to notify his partners in crime. His car had been found at the LA airport parking lot. Interpol had been notified but, since tracking his passport had him headed for South America, there was little chance that he would be extradited. The Fraziers were being held without bail because of the first-degree murder charges stemming from Dr. Frasier’s death.
Despite all the coffee Lee felt his eyes getting heavy, and immediately popped his head up. He was met by four identically amused smiles, and frowned. “It’s been a long day for you, dear,” his mother said, and again laid a hand on his leg. “I can only imagine the emotional strain I unfortunately put you through.” As Lee would have just waved it off, she turned and looked at him seriously. “I am truly sorry, Lee.”
Lee got a sheepish look on his face. “Been there, done that,” he reluctantly admitted. There were snorts from Frank and Mak, quickly covered as Lee turned a frown on them. Ms. Hale never looked up from the crocheting she had continued to work on, but there was a decided smirk on her face. Helen just raised an eyebrow. “Tell you some other time,” Lee told her.
* * * *
“You think this is such a good idea? Tackling him as a unit?” Chip made the comment as he, Nelson, and Will climbed into Nelson’s sedan. Seaview had returned to port barely an hour earlier. The Congressmen and their wives couldn’t leave fast enough, and Chip had left the final buttoning up of the boat to Lt. O’Brien and Chief Sharkey after the Admiral made known his intent that the three senior officers go check on their CO. Will had disappeared as soon as they docked, but reappeared in plenty of time to accompany the other two.
“What I think,” Nelson admitted reluctantly, “is that this way he can get all his disgruntlement at having been beached out of his system at one time, and we can get back to normal around here as fast as possible.”
“When you figure out what normal is, let me know,” the CMO muttered not quite under his breath. The other two smiled and nodded.
“What again was Frank’s last message?” Nelson asked the doctor.
“Lies,” Will answered emphatically. Chip snickered and Nelson raised an eyebrow. Will gave his head a shake. “The words ‘Crane’ and ‘cooperative’ have no business being used in the same sentence where his health is concerned.”
“Come on, Doc. You sicced Nurse Hale on him. Lee didn’t stand a chance.”
Nelson chuckled, but still sent the only person he’d ever met who could get an under-the-weather Lee to even semi-behave another raised eyebrow. “I thought you said that Lee didn’t need round the clock watching now that he was off the IVs.”
“But that’s only been the last day. I’m still totally amazed that we didn’t find him in his office, buried in paperwork.”
“You’re not giving Mrs. Crane much credit,” Nelson observed, despite the fact that he had been surprised to not find Lee waiting for them on the dock.
“Just giving our illustrious Commander even more – for being a royal pain in the ashcan.” Both Chip and Nelson burst out laughing at that irreverent observation from the one person who most often came up against Lee’s disregard for his own health issues. Chip, sitting in the back seat, bumped the front passenger seat with his knee, and Will’s frown slowly morphed into a reluctant grin.
When Nelson turned into Lee’s drive they found Mrs. Crane bending over the back of Lee’s little red sports car, seemingly inspecting the area around the trunk latch. There was also a rental car in the drive that Will thought he recognized as the one belonging to Det. Sabirin. Helen straightened at the sound of the car, and smiled brightly.
“Hey, Mother C.” Chip hopped out of the car while the two older men were still unbuckling their seat belts, and walked up to her. “You scratch the paint?”
Helen gave him a mock frown. “Wasn’t me,” she told him firmly, but smiled as Chip bent to give her a quick kiss on the cheek. He took a look himself and could find no damage – thankfully. Lee didn’t take kindly to anything happening to his pride and joy. He cocked an eyebrow at her as Nelson and Will joined them. “It just needed a bit of repair,” Helen told him. “Mr. Jackson, from NIMR, just returned it.” Three sets of eyebrows raised, but she just smiled. “Lee didn’t expect you until this evening,” she addressed Nelson, effectively changing the subject.
The Admiral chuckled and nodded toward Chip. “Someone who shall remain nameless is being seriously considered for a speeding ticket, given how fast Seaview covered the last 50 nautical miles into port.” The younger man dipped his head but his eyes were sparkling, matching the grin on his face.
Helen slipped her arm through Chip’s. “Well, Lee will be happy to see you. Although, at the moment he’s sleeping.”
“Excuse me?” Will blustered.
“What did you hit him with?” Chip wanted to know. Helen harrumphed at him as Nelson chuckled.
“This I have to see,” Will continued, and the four made their way quietly through the front door.
They found Lee stretched out on the couch, covered by a multi-colored afghan that Chip didn’t remember ever seeing before. Lee had his back to them, facing the back of the couch, and appeared to be totally relaxed. A second form, identified as the Indonesian Reserse officer, was in Lee’s big chair, reclined as far as it would go, and also breathing the steady rhythm of sleep. Will just shook his head. Chip grinned, and then gave an appreciative sniff at the smells coming from the kitchen. All three men turned and walked silently back to the driveway, not wanting to disturb either man. Helen followed.
“I rather thought that Det. Sabirin would have been gone by now,” Will observed, and had no idea of why that comment should cause a sheepish grin to cross Helen’s face – a grin that Will recognized as being an almost perfect image of the one Lee would produce on occasion.
“His investigation got a bit…detailed.” Helen answered. “But everything is in the process of getting sorted out now. He spent the last two days helping tie up what loose ends that he could before he flies home tomorrow.” She smiled. She’d noticed Chip’s almost reverent glance toward the kitchen as they all walked out. “Why don’t you all come back about dinnertime? I rather suspect that you’d all like to hear what happened.” She gave a rather self-conscious chuckle. “Dinner is just buttermilk chicken and veggies in the crock pot, and I’ll fix biscuits to pour it over. Nothing special, but there’s plenty for everyone.”
“Yumm,” was Chip’s instant reply. “Count me in.”
Nelson smiled. He did wait for a slight nod from his CMO before also affirming that they would be back as well.
“Who won the betting pool over Dr. Alexander’s departure?” Helen asked. She got puzzled looks from both Chip and Nelson, but a decidedly smug grin from Will.
“Me. But I cheated,” he admitted. “Had Frank put me down for ten minutes after Seaview docked, knowing that it takes me just short of that long to walk up to Med Bay. But I also had him make sure that a couple of Security personnel met me there.” Helen burst out laughing, and then quickly covered her mouth with her hands as she remembered that the front door was still open. Will turned to his two now totally confused friends, and Helen belatedly realized that neither Nelson nor Chip must have known about the side bets. “Something else to discuss over dinner,” Will told them, and they all climbed back into the car.
Helen closed the door quietly as she went back into the house. But apparently not quietly enough. Lee was still lying down, but had turned over and his eyes were open. Helen put a finger to her lips and pointed toward the still sleeping Mak. When he’d shown up back at Lee’s house just before lunch, after another trip to LA, it was obvious to both Lee and Helen that all the activity and anxiety of the last week had finally caught up with him. Lee had that morning, ignoring his mother’s mild disapproval, taken a short walk down to the beach, and had gotten back about the same time as Mak drove in. Still regaining his strength, both men had settled in the living room right after the light lunch Helen had made. Helen had just chuckled softly as, within twenty minutes, both were sound asleep.
“Thought I heard voices,” Lee said softly as Helen walked over and straightened out the beautiful stained glass afghan that Ms. Hale had dropped off that morning. Lee frowned, but made no effort to get up.
“Go back to sleep,” Helen told him. “I have a feeling that it’s going to be a long evening.” Lee raised an eyebrow and started to sit up. But Helen stopped him with a look. She quickly changed it to a smile, bent down to give him a kiss on the top of his head, and tucked the afghan a bit more snuggly around his shoulders.
Lee sighed heavily, but surrendered. Sometimes it was just easier to not try and figure out his mother. The answers would be forthcoming – eventually.
* see Past Imperfect, by R. L. Keller
** see What Friends Are For by R. L. Keller
*** see There Will Be an Answer by R. L. Keller