Chip Morton put down his chopsticks, pleasantly content. Not only with the excellent meal he’d just consumed but also, surprisingly, with the company he’d kept. He grinned softly to himself as he thought back on the last several hours.
Expecting to have lunch with a friend, he’d been disappointed when Lee’s head poked through his open office door mid-morning with the news that he’d been asked to handle a small project, and wouldn’t be back until that afternoon. Chip had just shrugged his shoulders philosophically and gone back to the paperwork that he was trying to sort out, figuring he’d run down to the cafeteria later for a sandwich. On second thought, he stopped and pondered, I’d better have Gwen bring me up a tray. If Jamison sees me eating by myself he’ll be all over me about why I’ve been postponing the physical he thinks all the officers need semi-annually. I’ve already put him off for over two weeks. But geesh, its such a stupid waste of time.
He was buried in supply orders a short time later when his boss, Admiral Harriman Nelson, walked into his office, after tapping lightly on the open door. Chip immediately bounced to his feet. But Nelson, an enigmatic little grin on his face, just waved him back down, and settled himself into one of the visitor’s chairs on the other side of Chip’s desk.
“Up to your ears, as usual, I see,” the older man said lightly.
Chip was at something of a loss as to how to respond. He’d worked for the Nelson Institute for Marine Research for four years now – from just before the keel was laid for NIMR’s huge research submarine, Seaview. And he’d known Admiral, then Captain, Nelson from his Annapolis days. But he was still a little cautious, a little awed, in the man’s presence. And he certainly was not on this kind of casual terms with him. Oh, he got along just fine with Nelson. That wasn’t the problem. But Nelson, whether Captain or Admiral, was usually all business. This lighter side was a whole new kettle of fish and Chip hesitated, not sure how to respond to it.
“Trying to get a little ahead of the game,” he finally answered. “Thought I’d stock up on as many of the non-perishable items I can that we use aboard Seaview, and save having to re-order before each cruise.”
“Excellent.” Nelson nodded his approval. “I knew coaxing you away from the Navy and making you Executive Officer would pay immediate benefits.”
“Not so immediate,” Chip corrected, still carefully. “I should have thought of this two years ago.”
Nelson chuckled. “Takes awhile to get the hang of things. You’ve had your hands full, learning to run a whole new type of boat, and all that entails.” He paused. “And now, having to adjust everything to a new Skipper.”
Just over three months ago Seaview’s original captain, John Phillips, was killed in an attack aimed at Nelson, to stop his plans for thwarting an attack by enemy agents intent on taking over the world. In Phillips’ place came Commander Lee Crane, in many ways his predecessor’s complete opposite. The transition had been, well, interesting.
“That hasn’t been such a big problem,” Chip now assured his boss.
“Oh, really,” Nelson retorted with a raised eyebrow.
Chip immediately backed down, but still went along with Nelson’s unusually lighthearted attitude. “Well, at least it hasn’t been, once the entire crew quit threatening to throw Lee overboard.” It caused Nelson to chuckle softly.
Commander Crane had come aboard under less than ideal circumstances and had not, to say the least, enamored himself to Phillip’s very loyal crew on that first mission. Chip had a slight advantage – he and Crane had been roommates their entire four years at the Academy, and had remained friends. Gradually everyone else had come to realize that the new skipper, while differing in command style, still held Seaview and her crew in highest regard, and had only their best interests at heart. But those first few weeks had been tumultuous for everyone.
Nelson smiled. “Change is always hard. But all in all, I’d have to say that this has been good for everyone, no matter how painful the circumstances were which precipitated it.”
“Have to agree with that one, Sir.” Chip nodded seriously. There was a moment of silence between them before Nelson gave himself a small shake, and the strange little grin Chip had noticed earlier reappeared on his face.
“What say you and I go grab some lunch? There’s a new little Japanese restaurant downtown that I’ve been hearing good things about.”
“Sir?” came out before Chip could get his surprise at the sudden invitation under control. “Ah, I mean, I’d like that, Sir. Thank you. I know the place you mean. Lee and I had dinner there the last time we were in port.” He hesitated again. “A little pricey, but the food is excellent.”
Nelson chuckled again. “You can tell me about your new plan to keep ahead of the supply orders and we’ll call it a business expense.” He pushed himself out of the chair, and again Chip bounced up as well. “Oh, and if you wouldn’t mind,” Nelson continued, “could I meet you there? I have a meeting afterward on the other side of town, and it would be more convenient if you could drive your own rig. Say, 1200 hours?”
“Not a problem, Sir. And…thank you for the invitation,” Chip added, almost hesitantly. Nelson just smiled and left.
Now, thinking back on that conversation as he watched Nelson polish off the last of his maki-zushi, sushi made with spicy tuna and cucumber, Chip had to smile to himself. Of all the changes that had occurred since Lee Crane had joined NIMR, one of the biggest ones was obviously with the Admiral.
For as long as Chip had known Nelson, he’d always been a very no-nonsense kind of officer, the kind you automatically respected because he exuded confidence. Intelligent to the point of genius, he never flung it in your face, just allowed it to waft from him as he taught classes or led men into service. Chip had found him instantly comforting to follow in either circumstance, but never someone you took casually.
He’d figured out at Annapolis that Lee had a slightly different relationship with the then Captain. It quickly became apparent that Nelson very early on saw ‘something’ in the underage plebe. Not that Nelson ever favored Crane in any way. Just the opposite – he seemed to constantly challenge the young man, drawing out the quiet, somewhat shy Lee, encouraging him to expand his horizons and stimulate creative thinking.
Chip groaned silently, listening to Nelson compliment the owner on the excellent meal they’d just consumed. At least Chip assumed that’s what the conversation was about – they were speaking Japanese. Not that Lee needed all that much stimulation to think creatively. Something else that had quickly become apparent to Chip his first year at Annapolis was, though quiet and studious, his roomie possessed an extremely quirky sense of humor, along with the ability to think totally outside the box. Lee had gotten them into all manner of predicaments - as well as back out of them, Chip had to admit – during their tenure at the Academy. But he also had an innate ability to make people feel comfortable around him, and to bring out the best in everyone. It wasn’t so much something that he ‘used’ with others as much as it was an inner talent. Chip had watched with some amusement as Seaview’s crew, still mourning the loss of Captain Phillips and still smarting from the brusque manner Lee had adopted that first mission to keep everyone from dwelling on their loss and focused on their jobs, nevertheless start to respond to Lee’s normally easy command style. In some cases, almost unwillingly. And not that Lee ever relaxed performance standards. There was never any doubt that he expected only the best from his crew. Not demanded, and Chip felt that to have been the key. As Lee expected no less than the best from himself, others around him just seemed to naturally follow suit. There came a noticeable calmness to Seaview and her crew, and Chip was just now realizing that it had extended itself to Admiral Nelson as well, seeming to have mellowed his usual all-business attitude. Chip let loose a quiet sigh of contentment. Lee, you done good – as usual, he thought to himself, and toasted his friend with the last of his green tea. Although, he acknowledged, I know perfectly well, given the amount of time it took you to get reservations for this place, the only reason I’m here today is that you scooted out on whatever errand you had. Chip frowned. And if I find out you did this on purpose, to get me a little more up close and personal with the Admiral… He finally noticed Nelson had finished his conversation and had cocked an eyebrow at Chip. “Sir?” he asked, getting whatever expression had apparently crossed his face back into the neutral one he usually kept there.
“Just wondered what that groan was about a bit ago. Eat too much?” Nelson’s voice was full of humor.
Chip nearly groaned again. “Was that out loud?” He gave Nelson a sheepish look, turning even more sheepish when Nelson nodded. “Sorry, Sir. No, just letting my mind wander a bit.” Nelson just continued to look at him expectantly, and Chip was forced to expand his answer slightly. “Thinking back to a few things that happened at Annapolis.” There, that’s as far as I’m going with the explanation, no matter how long he waits.
Nelson didn’t answer for a second. “Hopefully that wasn’t any indication of displeasure that Lee’s now commanding Seaview,” he asked seriously.
“Oh, no, Sir.” Chip worked quickly to dispel that thought. “Not the problem at all, I assure you. Just, having him around on a permanent basis…well…tends to bring back memories at odd times.”
Nelson nodded, then smiled. “Didn’t mean to exclude you, Chip,” and he nodded toward the restaurant owner. “Was just enjoying the chance to use my limited language skills.”
“Didn’t sound all that limited, Sir. Didn’t realize you spoke Japanese.”
Nelson waved off the compliment. “You tend to pick up this and that, attending as many conferences as I have over the years. Speaking of which…” He glanced at his watch. “I’d better be getting on to my meeting. Ocean Industries Corp is beginning some preliminary studies aimed at developing some new hydrograph equipment. I’m meeting with their director to see if NIMR can be of any assistance. I’ve puttered with a few ideas myself over the years, but never put any real time into it. If we put our heads together, we could all come out ahead.”
“Sounds good, Sir. And I’d better be getting back to my desk. Those supply orders aren’t going to take care of themselves.” He sighed heavily, and Nelson laughed. “Thank you again for the invitation.”
“I’ve enjoyed it immensely. You take off. I just want to have a brief word with the chef after I pay the bill. I’ll see you later back at NIMR.”
Chip glanced at his own watch as he got up to leave, startled that the dining room was almost empty. Didn’t realize we talked that long, he chuckled to himself, discovering it was just after 1400. Obviously mellowing a bit myself. He snorted. Have to watch that. His SUV and the Admiral’s sedan were nearly the only rigs left in the parking lot. Comfortably contented, and chiding himself not to let Seaview’s crew get any ideas about their XO suddenly mellowing his no-nonsense persona he was totally unaware that he wasn’t alone in the parking lot until, as he paused to put his key in the door lock, something like a heavy towel was thrown over his head. He was pushed to the ground on his stomach, his arms behind his back, totally immobilized, before he even had a chance to grasp that anything was happening. Just getting his mouth open to yell what the hell was going on, he heard a soft click, like the safety lock being released on a revolver, and an even softer whisper.
“Not a sound.”
This is ridiculous, Chip fumed silently. Its broad daylight, a busy restaurant parking lot… Well, he acknowledged as his wrists were quickly bound behind his back with what felt like one of those quick snugging, no-release, plastic fasteners that were all the rage these days. Even the police force was using them as cheap, quick, handcuffs. Since its after regular lunch hours the lot was almost empty. Maybe the Admiral will come out and see what’s happening. But his hopes for that were quickly dashed. What felt and sounded like a strip of duct tape secured the towel over his head by being wrapped around his neck, and he was physically picked up and laid in the back of his own SUV. The tape wasn’t tight enough to cause discomfort, but there was no way he was going to be able to dislodge it by himself. Again there was a whispered warning.
“Don’t try anything funny, and you might get out of this in one piece.”
None of this made any sense, and Chip tried reasoning with his captors. “Think you’ve got the wrong man,” he said, as under control as he could keep himself. “I’m…” He was stopped by something poking him sharply in the back.
“We know exactly who you are.” The SUV doors were closed, someone jumped into the driver’s seat, and they were out of the parking lot before Admiral Nelson would have had time to pay the bill, let alone have his chat with the chef.
Chip couldn’t tell if there was anyone else in the SUV other than the driver. He didn’t think so. He hadn’t heard another door open and close. But he couldn’t be totally sure. He’d been so efficiently put to the ground and incapacitated that it screamed of at least two people. And there was the term ‘we’ that the whisperer had used. Chip became aware that he was almost hyperventilating, and worked to get his breathing – and his emotions – under control. Think, Morton. No one’s going to know that there’s even a problem until Nelson finds out after his meeting that I never came back from lunch. Pay attention. You’re on your own.
Years of naval training had taught Chip to pay attention to details, and he logged the turns as they occurred and approximated the distance between each one. He had a feeling that he’d missed at least one before he’d gotten himself under control. But he still figured that he must be down in Santa Barbara’s warehouse district as the SUV momentarily slowed almost to a stop, then continued on a little slower, apparently twisting around several buildings before coming to a complete stop.
Chip’s mind was back to running overtime. He couldn’t for the life of him figure out what anyone would want with him. The Admiral, yes. Tucked away in the OOM’s head was enough classified data to bring the world to a screeching halt – always assuming that anyone could force it out of the tenacious Admiral. But the oak leaves on his collar didn’t look anything like stars, and these guys seemed sure that they’d gotten the right guy.
Maybe he’d get some answers soon. The driver’s door had barely closed when the rear doors were opened and Chip felt one arm being grabbed. Surprisingly, he was rather gently removed from the back of the SUV and urged to walk along side of his captor. They stopped for a moment, and Chip heard a door open. He was led through and it chinked shut behind him. It sounded like he was in a hallway of some sort, from what he could hear through the dark, heavy towel. They didn’t walk far before going through another door, then another, before he was finally pulled to a stop. There was a soft chuckle from a different direction than his captor, and a chill went down Chip’s spine and settled nervously in the pit of his stomach. A stiff ‘something’ poked him again in the back.
But suddenly the plastic restraints fell away from his wrists with a click of being cut, and whatever was holding the towel in place was removed, although the towel itself wasn’t. Hesitantly, Chip reached up to pull it off.
“WHAT THE HELL,” burst out of his mouth as he found himself face to face with NIMR’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Will Jamison, a huge smile on his face, and he found himself standing in one of Med Bay’s exam rooms.
“One Lieutenant Commander,” came in Lee’s voice from behind Chip, and he spun around to find his friend wadding up the duct tape and plastic binder, “delivered as requested. Only slightly mussed and ruffled.” Lee was also grinning broadly, looking not at Chip but at Doc.
Before Chip could do more than sputter, Doc continued. “Thank you, Commander. This will be the first time that I’ve been able to complete the Exec’s physical less than five weeks late, what with all the excuses he always manages to come up with.”
“Happy to oblige,” Lee answered, eyes sparkling with merriment. “Just part of taking care of my crew.”