By R. L. Keller
leerish wolf whistle echoed down the darkened hallway as Chip hurried toward
his office in the
eyes looked his former
Chip’s face broke into a wide grin. “None of the above.” One of Lee’s eyebrows rose, his expression inviting a further explanation. “Michelle, if you must know.” Chip’s voice was smug, causing Lee’s other eyebrow to go up.
But all he said was, “And you’re here instead of with your lady because…?”
Chip’s expression turned sheepish. “Slipped my wallet into my desk drawer before I went down to fix Angie’s computer. It took longer than I planned, and I scooted out of here so fast that I didn’t remember until I was changing.”
Lee’s grin returned. “That would have looked good – the quintessential gentleman, Chip Morton, having to ask his date to pay the dinner bill.”
Chip straightened into almost attention mode. “That, Commander, would never happen.” His face broke into a wide grin. “We’re going to the Cottage Inn. I’d have just put it on your tab.”
It was Lee’s turn to straighten up, and a frown crossed his face. “I don’t have a tab there,” he growled.
“Because you don’t have a life,” Chip retorted right back.
Lee’s smile returned and he relaxed. “Ah, now that just ain’t so,” he drawled. His head nodded in the direction of the sub pen. “Just have a very jealous girlfriend.”
“Not one that you can snuggle up to on a cold night.” Chip sent his friend a knowing grin.
“Ah, see, now. That’s where you’re wrong. She wraps me in her ‘arms’ every time I go aboard.”
“Until she tosses you on your head.”
“But she’s always there to rescue me and keep me safe.”
“But she’s not someone you can wine and dine,” Chip insisted.
“I can have a wonderful dinner in the Observation Nose, have the best view in the world, and don’t have to worry about forgetting my wallet.” Lee smirked at that little jab.
Chip was stubborn enough that he didn’t want to lose this round. “But she can’t really…warm your cockles, as the saying goes,” he insisted.
Lee shrugged. “I don’t know. There’s been a time or two, while I was crawling around the ventilation shafts…”
“Crane, you dipstick,” Chip cut him off with a yell.
Lee laughed as his friend’s light complexion turned bright red. “Enjoy your evening,” he said lightly.
Chip glared at Lee for a moment, finally grinned, and headed to get what he’d come for. He’d get Lee for this, he told himself. But at the moment, with Michelle waiting… He walked a little faster.
* * * *
Admiral Harriman Nelson, USN (Ret.), founder and head of the Nelson Institute of Marine Research, slammed the phone down with a resounding clunk. He muttered a few less veiled threats than the barely polite ones he’d just yelled at Admiral Jones, head of ONI, the Navy’s Intelligence Agency. While ‘officially’ retired, Nelson, as well as his research submarine, Seaview, was still called into service occasionally. It didn’t help at all that Seaview’s captain, Cdr. Lee Crane, USN Reserve, still ran ‘errands’ for ONI. It just gave the Agency more latitude in including the rest of NIMR’s staff in ONI business from time to time.
In a way, that’s what prompted Jones’ call this Sunday afternoon. He’d misplaced an agent and was trying to contact Lee to go track the person down. Not having any success reaching Lee at either his house or cell phone, he’d called the Institute. Nelson had made the mistake of letting the switchboard operator know that he was in his office for a couple of hours, so the call had been transferred to him.
Now, he reached for the suddenly offensive instrument and called Security, asking if they knew Lee’s whereabouts. It was rare for Lee to be totally unreachable. With a chuckle, Security reported that Lee had quietly come in and was on board Seaview. He hadn’t explained why, only that he “had something to take care of,” and wanted to do it while things were quiet. Nelson chuckled softly, himself, and thanked the guard. Knowing Lee, there was no telling what the workaholic man had decided needed doing ‘right now,’ no matter it was Sunday and he was officially off duty. With a sigh that acknowledged he was almost as bad as his captain in that department, Nelson headed down to the boat.
aft by one of the anchor watch, who also had a bit of amusement sneaking around
the otherwise proper expression of respect on his face, Nelson headed for the
Missile Room. Entering, he spotted a
pair of legs lying on the deck, sticking out of an access panel to one of the
maneuvering plane control systems. When
Seaview had docked three days ago Lee had taken great delight in harassing his
XO, Chip Morton, for bumping the dock harder than usual. Chip had insisted that it wasn’t a delay in
his orders that caused the problem, and tried to blame it on the helmsman.
Apparently not by Lee, Nelson chuckled to himself silently. At least the legs were clad in jeans and not khaki. What little he could see of them. Lee had crawled so far into the access area that he was only visible from the knees down. With a slightly evil grin, Nelson walked silently across the room and gave the bottom of one sneaker-clad foot a gentle kick.
The reaction was instant and loud. The legs jumped, something inside the hatch hit something else inside the hatch with a solid thud, and what were apparently oaths were shouted at sufficient volume that Nelson was glad that he didn’t understand in what language they were uttered. He figured that Lee assumed his smart-aleck XO had caught him because Chip was about the only person Lee ever let see – and hear – him get this ticked off. Oops, he said silently as the prone figure at his feet slithered backward. Once free of the hatch Lee turned and looked up, his expression angry. It melted instantly as he realized who had disturbed him. “Oops.” His carried a bit more volume.
Nelson instantly grabbed his handkerchief, squatted down, and pressed it against a small gash over Lee’s left eye, apparently the result of the thud he’d heard. “Sorry, Lee. Didn’t mean to startle you that badly.” His expression turned decidedly sheepish.
Lee’s response was in much the same tone. “I’ll live.” He reached up and replaced Nelson’s hand holding the makeshift bandage in place over the wound. “Didn’t expect anyone else around on a Sunday afternoon except the anchor watch, and they knew that I was just puttering with something and didn’t need any help.” He gave Nelson the slightly shy, through-the-lashes look that always reminded his friends of a little boy getting caught with his hand in the cookie jar.
Nelson had to smother a chuckle. Doing the best that he could to put a stern expression on his face, and knowing that he wasn’t managing it well, he looked at his boat’s captain and raised an eyebrow. “Care to explain what you’re doing here?”
Lee almost smirked. “At least I’m not in uniform, sir,” he said quietly, nodding slightly to Nelson’s choice of attire.
undid Nelson’s quazi-frown, and he chuckled.
“Point taken.” He held out his
hand. “Let’s get you over to
“Why?” The word came out hard.
Nelson just smiled at Lee’s oh-so-typical reaction. “Because, Commander, you’re bleeding all over the deck.”
“Need to finish this first. I’m almost done,” he added hurriedly as he reached into the toolbox beside the hatch and came up with a roll of duct tape. Nelson just shook his head as Lee ripped off a strip, used it to plaster the handkerchief against the cut, and quickly slithered back into the hatch.
Nelson wasn’t holding his breath at the timetable, but it actually didn’t take Lee more than five minutes to finish whatever he was doing. While Lee worked he explained, to Nelson’s faux-stern question, that he’d been fixing a faucet in his bathroom at home and suddenly realized that he knew what had caused the minor mishap when they’d docked. Nelson chuckled openly when Lee admitted that he wanted to get it fixed before Chip found out. Nelson didn’t even bother asking Lee why he hadn’t just called one of the technicians to check out the problem. He’d beaten that dead horse so many times that it was no longer worth the effort.
“Surprised that Security didn’t call him the instant you showed up on an off day,” Nelson commented once Lee had finished whatever it was he was doing and crawled back out of the access hatch. He just laughed at Lee’s instant frown.
Lee put the tools he’d been using carefully back in their places in the toolbox. He finally grinned up at the once-more-standing Admiral. “He was headed for a hot date Friday night. He may still be recuperating.” Nelson returned the easy grin, but it faded as Lee stood up and had to place a hand against the bulkhead to steady himself from the sudden pain that hit his head. “I’m fine,” he told Nelson.
Nelson’s grin partially came back at that typically automatic line. “Nothing a couple of stitches and a tetanus shot won’t take care of,” he agreed amiably.
Lee gave him the bashful, through-the-lashes look again. “Current on my tetanus vaccination,” he admitted softly. “Jamie makes doubly sure of that one.” He started to reach down for the toolbox but Nelson beat him to it. Lee judiciously decided not to argue the point.
“Don’t suppose you had a date,” Nelson asked offhandedly. There was a standing joke between his two senior officers around the fact that, because of their schedules, neither could keep a steady girlfriend. Nelson knew that Chip always found a supply of company, frequently from among NIMR’s unattached female employees. Lee had a circle of close friends he occasionally went out with. But Lee kept his private life just that – private. And he tended to be more of a homebody in port than his gregarious XO. “Or a call from an old friend,” Nelson added.
“Sir?” Lee gave him a surprised look. This was an unusual conversation for Nelson to engage in.
As he stowed the toolbox in its proper cabinet, and the two headed forward to leave the boat, Nelson explained. “Just had a call from Admiral Jones. NO,” he added sharply, “you’re not being commandeered.” He sent Lee a pointedly raised eyebrow. Lee just nodded. “He was trying to locate Ms. Ortiz.”
“Micki?” Lee used the ONI agent’s nickname.
Nelson nodded. “Apparently she was out here on an assignment of some sort, and hasn’t called in for a couple of days. Knowing that she was a friend of yours…” He snorted as Lee muttered something undecipherable under his breath. “He tried calling you to see if you’d heard from her. When he couldn’t reach you at home or by cell, he called here.”
“Turned my cell off,” Lee admitted, “since Security knew where I was.” He stopped walking and a grin hit his face. “When I talked to Chip Friday evening he said that he was headed out with a Michelle.” His grin broadened. “That would explain the look he gave me when he said it.” He reached for his cell phone, clipped to his waist. Nelson’s hand stopped him.
“Time enough to disturb Chip’s weekend after we see to your head.”
“Aye, sir.” Lee sighed heavily and they made their way across the compound to the domain of NIMR’s CMO.
as it turned out, was also spending his Sunday afternoon puttering with a few
things that he hadn’t yet gotten to in his office. Much to Nelson’s amusement and Lee’s
disgust. The receptionist at
Nelson burst out laughing. “Actually, Will,” he interrupted whatever the doctor was about to growl back, “he’s right for a change. I…ah…sort of caused this one.”
Will pointed a totally disbelieving eyebrow at Nelson. “The man does not need any help mutilating himself,” he grumbled, causing both Nelson and Lee to give him sheepish looks. Will took a bit of personal satisfaction in ripping off the duct tape, but his touch was gentle as he examined the small gash. Lee admitted that he’d had his mind on something entirely different than the valve spring he’d been replacing when Nelson tapped his foot, but didn’t divulge what that had been. It took the doctor only a few minutes to place three tiny stitches across the gash, and cover his handiwork with a flesh-colored piece of tape.
“Now go home – both of you,” Will ordered, pulling off his gloves and giving both men a stern look.
“Still have a couple of reports I should look at,” Nelson grumbled. While he knew the doctor’s motivation, he still didn’t take orders well – from anyone!
“And I have an XO to track down,” Lee added with a smile.
Will glared at him. “What? You’re not content to ruin your own days off, you have to disturb Chip as well?”
Lee just laughed. “Down, Jamie. If it will make you happy I’ll invite him over for steaks and beer. Ah,” and he looked at Nelson, “unless he’s already otherwise occupied.” Both men smiled. When neither chose to enlighten Will to the little joke he put both hands on his hips and glared at them.
“Okay, okay, we’re going,” Lee said easily. “Why don’t you take your own advice and go home. Let Lu Tsi give you a back rub. You seem a little tense.”
Nelson laughed out loud at the look Will shot Lee, but the doctor almost immediately backed down. “I’m here because she’s got half of the NIMR wives over for a ‘tea’,” Will admitted. “Why she had to do that while Seaview is in port I have no idea.”
clapped his old friend on the shoulder.
“Come along, then. I’ve got a
fine bottle of
“You’re on, Admiral.” Will’s mood lightened rapidly, but he still took the time to point an eyebrow at Lee.
“I’m gone,” Lee told both older men and made a rapid, but still grinning, exit.
But his plans to track Chip down were almost immediately foiled. There was no answer on either the blond’s home or cell phones. While it was unusual, and against protocol, for Seaview’s XO to be totally out of communication range, it wasn’t unknown – especially as the boat wasn’t due to leave port for almost two weeks. Lee just shrugged his shoulders. He thought about driving over to Chip’s and checking on him. What stopped him was the thought of what Chip would do to him if Lee did happen to interrupt Chip at an inopportune time…so to speak. Lee smiled to himself. He knew that Chip and Micki Ortiz had made more of a ‘connection’ than either had openly admitted to. As Lee finally allowed a piece of a headache to announce itself – normally he just ignored such things – he took himself home, popped a beer, put his feet up, and peacefully enjoyed the rest of the day. He figured that he’d call Chip about 2000 hours, and grinned that his friend had obviously found a relaxing, enjoyable way to spend the weekend. But the next time Lee opened his eyes it was after 2300 hours. Too late to call Chip now, Lee gave himself a shake and a chagrinned smile, and took himself to bed.
* * * *
Angie Pierce, Admiral Nelson’s personal assistant and generally accepted head of NIMR in the Admiral’s absence, looked up expectantly as footsteps rounded the corner into her domain – the open reception area in front of Nelson’s office door. Unfortunately, she couldn’t stop the look of disappointment that crossed her face when the steps turned out to belong to Seaview’s captain, Lee Crane, instead of her XO, Chip Morton. She covered it quickly with a smile, but not before Lee noticed.
“Obviously not who you wanted to see, Angie?” he asked lightly, his eyes sparkling. “I’m crushed. All this time I thought that you liked me.” He faux-frowned at her, the deception obvious to the woman from the way the corners of Lee’s mouth were trying to twitch into a smile.
Angie sent the expression right back, before they both burst out laughing. She pointed to her computer. “Was just hoping that Chip was with you. My computer fritzed out again and he usually has better luck getting it going than the techs do.”
Lee turned palms up and shrugged his shoulders. “Sorry. Can’t help you there. I haven’t seen our inimitable XO since Friday evening.”
“Is that when he bashed you over the head for still being here working?” Angie hadn’t missed the bandage.
“Afraid that was my doing,” Admiral Nelson interrupted, walking in and catching that part of the conversation.
“And how did you know that I was working late Friday?” Lee’s frown this time was for real.
Angie smirked. “Have my ways,” she told him.
“Good morning, Admiral.” Lee tried to steer the conversation back into more acceptable channels than his momentarily distracted klutziness. He should have known better.
“You bashed him over the head for working late?” Angie’s voice was incredulous. “That’s a bit of the pot calling the kettle black.”
“Amen.” It was Will’s turn to walk in on the conversation. “And it was yesterday, not Friday night.”
Angie put her hands on her hips. “Sunday?” She frowned. “The two of you couldn’t find anything better to do than come in to work? Geesh!”
Will chuckled as both Nelson’s and Lee’s expressions turned slightly sheepish, before the Admiral ‘harrumphed’ and the three men headed for his office for their usual Monday-morning-while-in-port strategy session. They poured themselves coffee from the pot Angie started every morning, and sat a bit waiting for the fourth member of the group to appear. But fifteen minutes later, and still no Chip, had Lee reaching for the phone.
“Nothing unusual when you spoke to him last night?” Nelson asked Lee as he dialed.
“Never reached him,” Lee admitted. “There was no answer when I called after getting home from here. Then I fell asleep, and by the time I woke up it was too late to try again.”
“You – sleep for longer than a few hours at a time?” Will blustered. “I’d better take a closer look at your head.”
Nelson chuckled, but only half-heartedly as Lee was obviously not getting an answer. Lee finally hung up, and dialed Security to ask if they’d had any word from Chip or if he’d come in the gates yet that morning. Getting a negative, Lee again hung up, worry beginning to show on his face.
“It takes, what? About half an hour to drive here from his place?” Nelson asked.
Lee smiled. Almost. “The way Chip drives, about twenty minutes most mornings.” It was Nelson’s turn to reach for the phone.
With NIMR’s connections to the community, within five minutes the three men knew that there were no unusual traffic problems that morning, and no accidents so far reported. With still no sign of Chip, all three men piled into Nelson’s car and headed for Chip’s apartment complex. Lee originally was going to go alone but Will chimed in that he’d grab his bag and go along, just in case. Nelson didn’t give a reason, he just went. And since all three wouldn’t fit in Lee’s small sports car, they took Nelson’s sedan.
But the trip only deepened the developing mystery. Chip’s SUV wasn’t in his assigned parking spot, or anywhere else in the complex. When they checked the apartment, using Lee’s spare key, there was no sign that Chip had been there since showering and changing for his date Friday night. Saturday’s mail was still lying on the floor where it had fallen when pushed through the mail slot. Minor worry turning rapidly into serious concern, Will called the area hospitals while Nelson once more contacted Security. By the time the three were back at NIMR’s front gates they knew that no one of Chip’s description had been admitted to any of the three local hospitals. Local and state police had been notified to be on the lookout for the SUV. Lee had remembered where Chip had said he was going for dinner and Security had passed that on to the locals, but a quick check of the parking lot hadn’t turned up anything there.
Standing in NIMR’s parking lot, Nelson finally noticed Lee’s expression had turned black and hard. “Lee?” he asked carefully. Seaview’s captain, normally very much under control, could display a volatile temper given sufficient reason.
“If she’s gotten him involved in a mission…” Lee muttered darkly, but didn’t finish the thought.
“She, who?” Will asked Nelson, casting anxious glances at Lee. Will was thankful that there wasn’t anything handy for his obviously ticked off CO to drive a fist into, that being Lee’s usual reaction to frustration.
Nelson, also keeping an eye on Lee, answered. “Michelle Ortiz. She was apparently out here on a case. But Lee,” he steeled himself to not react to the black look Lee turned on him, knowing that he wasn’t the focus of Lee’s temper, “Jones indicated that she was done with whatever she’d been sent to do. That’s why she had the time to have dinner with Chip.”
“Then where are they?” Lee growled, oblivious to whom he was growling at. It caused Will to send Nelson a raised eyebrow.
Nelson gave Will a briefly raised palm and a slight shake of his head before returning his gaze to Lee. “Suppose we give Admiral Jones a call and find out just what Ms. Ortiz was here working on. That, hopefully, will give us a clue as to where to start looking.” His only answer a mutter too low to understand, he led the way back to his office.
But ONI’s Director wasn’t
much help. He confirmed that Michelle had
completed her mission and transmitted the information that she’d been sent to
get. At the same time she’d relayed the
message that she was taking a few hours for herself, and she’d report in when
she returned to
“Where was her target?” Lee demanded. Nelson had put the call on the speaker. Both he and Will raised identical eyebrows at the tone of Lee’s voice, and that he’d not properly addressed his occasional boss. But both kept silent. This didn’t seem like the time to challenge Lee over the point.
Jones, after a soft, “Ah…”
didn’t say anything further for long enough that the three waiting for his
response started to think that it wasn’t coming. Finally, “We had reason to believe that a
major player was using one of the hotels at Avalon on
“And whose brilliant idea was that?” Nelson wanted to know. “Since when do you go around helping the IRS?” All three NIMR officers had reason to challenge any kind of interdepartmental cooperation. They’d had too many examples of there being no such thing – with occasionally disastrous results.
Jones again hesitated. “They made a request for certain intel,” he finally said. “We felt it prudent to go this route.”
“In other words, you were trying to cover your own tail. By gathering the intel yourself, ONI could sensor what parts trickled down to the IRS.” Nelson’s voice wasn’t accusatory – it was just how the game was played.
There was a grunt through the phone lines. “And that’s all I dare say on the matter, Harry.”
“Admiral,” Lee asked, his voice a good deal more under control than it had been. Nelson and Will could still see, however, that his expression was hard. “What part of it went wrong?” Will sent his eyes upward as Nelson snorted. They’d also all had first-hand experience with the fact that rarely did an ONI mission go off without a hitch of some sort.
Jones snorted as well. “You’re far too young, Crane, to be that cynical.”
Before Lee could respond, Nelson did. “He’s far too experienced to let you snow him, Robert.” Despite the growl in his voice, he sent Lee half a smile.
It actually caused Jones to chuckle. “Everything went remarkably well. For a change,” he added, allowing a soft sigh to enter his voice. “And turned out, we didn’t even need to edit the material Micki found. That was a nice surprise.” The last sentence was said almost to himself, but still audible to the others. The next sentence was much more firm and authoritative. “And you didn’t hear a word of any of this – especially from me.”
“You’re the one who originally called for help,” Nelson reminded him.
“And you got what you did because I trust the security of your phone lines.”
“Understood, Robert,” Nelson acknowledged.
“Where was Micki, ah, Ms. Ortiz, the last time your office heard from her?” Lee asked.
“NO,” Nelson answered that one succinctly before Lee could even open his mouth, “you can’t.” Lee sent his full-time boss a brief grin.
“Didn’t think so,” Jones admitted.
“But we will be making some discreet inquiries here as to her activities since Friday evening, sir,” Lee told Jones, purposely not looking at either Nelson or Will. “We’re fairly sure that she had dinner Friday night with my XO, Lt. Cdr. Morton. Who’s now also UA,” he added, the dark look returning to both voice and face.
The word that came through the phone lines was short and explosive. “You’ll keep me in the loop,” Jones added, a bit more under control. It wasn’t a question.
“Yes, sir,” Lee told him. “When there’s something to report,” he added. It caused Will’s eyes to head upward again, and Nelson to send his captain an ever so slight smile. Ms. Ortiz wasn’t the only person who could, and would, speak their mind. At least Lee had used a ‘sir’ with his comment, somewhat mediating its bluntness.
“I’m afraid that you’re on
“Understood,” Lee told him.
“We’ll keep in touch,” Nelson said, and broke the connection. “Lee,” he added, just as Lee turned to him and said, “Sir.” Again Nelson sent him a soft grin. “Go,” he told Lee. Not that he’d have had a chance of stopping Lee at this point anyway. Nelson was only too familiar with that particular glint in the younger man’s eyes. “But you will,” he ordered firmly, “keep in touch.” Lee gave him a brief nod before starting to turn on his heel. “And you will,” Nelson added, momentarily stopping the exit, “let us know if there’s any way we can help.” Lee had an all too irritating habit of trying to take care of matters by himself.
“What did you and Chip have planned for the next few days? As I recall, there wasn’t much.”
“No, sir. Chip had Fit-Rep’s to do, and supply orders to get started for the next couple of cruises. I’ve got a mound of paperwork, as usual.” He sent Nelson a slightly chagrinned look. “But nothing pressing. It’s been quiet – for a change. Mostly why I didn’t think too much about not hearing from Chip all weekend.” Nelson nodded, and Lee left.
“I don’t think that I like this,” Will said.
“I know that I don’t,” Nelson confirmed. He sent Will a raised eyebrow. “But I also don’t think it wise to get in Lee’s face right at the moment.” They both shuddered.
* * * *
Lee’s first stop was
home. He changed into casual clothes,
packed an overnight bag just in case he didn’t immediately get back, and
another bag with odds and ends of things he’d found useful on previous ONI
assignments. The last two pieces of
equipment came from his gun safe: a Walther 9mm that snuggled comfortably into
its shoulder harness, and a 7 oz Kel-Tec P3AT that rested in its ankle
holster. Relaxed-fit slacks hid it quite
nicely, and a light jacket took care of the other piece. He hoped that he didn’t need either
weapon. Wish my phone would ring and it would be Chip calling to say that he
and Micki had a wild hair, spent the weekend in
By the time he got downtown, the restaurant Chip had intended to have dinner at Friday night had opened for lunch, and that was Lee’s first stop. The owner’s wife was manning the cash register, and gave Lee a brilliant smile as he walked in the door.
“Good morning, Commander,” she greeted Lee, and looked expectantly behind him to see how many more of NIMR’s handsome officers were going to grace her restaurant for lunch.
“Just me today, Mrs. Carstairs.” Lee sent her a forced smile. “And I’m not staying. Just wanted to talk to anyone who might have been working Friday night.”
“Oh dear,” the proprietress started talking rapidly. “I just knew that I should have called to see how Cdr. Morton was. But it couldn’t have been anything he ate here. We’ve had no other complaints.”
Lee instantly frowned as she started talking. When she finally stopped for a breath, he jumped in. “What are you talking about?” He tried to keep his voice under control, but wasn’t totally successful.
“I’m sorry. I just assumed that you were here to complain. Cdr. Morton started feeling poorly towards the end of the meal. I heard him tell the young lady he was with… Ah, a very lovely lady, if I may so.” She gave Lee a knowing grin.
“About 5-6, longish black hair?” Lee asked.
Mrs. Carstairs’ smile broadened. “I believe that I heard him call her Micki.” Lee just nodded. “He tried to shrug it off but I could tell that he wasn’t feeling well at all when he didn’t order dessert.”
That got an almost genuine smile from Lee. “Do you remember about what time they left?”
“I do, actually. Had a grumpy couple waiting for a table, and was able to seat them a bit more quickly because of Cdr. Morton’s table coming available. It was just before 8:30.”
“Don’t suppose that you happened to see what they were driving, by any chance?”
She just shook her head. “I’m sorry. Even at that hour it was really busy.” She shrugged again. “Friday night, you know. But Commander, what’s the problem?” She sent him a querying look.
Lee tried to shrug it off. “I’m just trying to track him down. He’s off-duty,” he said, keeping it light, “so there was no reason for him to check in.” Civilians had no need to know NIMR regulations. “Something has come up. But if he’s holed up with Micki…” He sent Mrs. Carstairs a smirk.
She practically giggled. “I can truly understand him turning off his cell phone. Especially with that young lady playing nurse.” Lee gave her the expected grin, thanked her, and left.
“Now what?” he growled to himself as he got back into his car. It was a measure of his mood that, when his cell phone went off and, recognizing the incoming number, he still answered with a hard, dark quality in his voice. “Checking to see if I still have my phone on? Sir,” was definitely added as an afterthought.
It was a measure of Admiral Nelson’s caring for and understanding of his young captain that he refused to take offense. “Lee,” he said carefully, “you’re not the only one who is concerned.”
Lee took a deep breath. “Sorry, sir. I know that.”
“Where are you?”
“Just leaving the Cottage Inn. It’s where Chip and Micki had dinner Friday night.”
“Yes, sir. Mrs. Carstairs said that Chip started not feeling well partway through the meal. I asked if she happened to notice what they were driving but it was too busy.”
“The State Patrol has found
Chip’s SUV down an embankment just outside
“But that makes no
sense. Why was he headed south, further
“It’s being treated as a suspicious disappearance by the authorities, and NCIS had already been notified. If the rig has anything to tell us about what’s going on, they’ll find it. Why don’t you come back here to await developments?”
Lee was already shaking his head. Aloud, he answered, “Chip headed south, I’ll do the same.”
Nelson’s sigh could be heard clearly through the phone. “Unless somebody dumped it there to throw us off the track.” He tried to sound reasonable, knowing at the same time that it was probably hopeless. He was right.
“Got a feeling, sir,” Lee told him almost bashfully. “That’s where I need to head.”
Nelson surrendered. Lee’s ‘feelings’ had on too many occasions been the only thing that brought he and or Seaview safely back to port. “Okay, lad,” he acquiesced softly. He stopped just short of reminding Lee to stay in touch. It was his turn to shake his head when Lee seemed to read the request in his boss’ voice anyway.
“Understood, sir. I’ll pass along anything I find.”
“You’d better,” Nelson grumbled, but the threat was softened somewhat by the underlying caring in his voice, and they both rang off.
Several official cars from several different agencies, as well as a tow truck, easily marked the spot on the coast highway Lee was looking for. A State Patrolman tried to wave him around as he parked at the tail end of the line of vehicles, but he already had his ID out of his pocket and was allowed to walk forward. He actually recognized the NCIS investigator standing at the side of the road just above where Chip’s Suburban rested about fifteen feet below them down the embankment.
“Agent Harcourt,” he addressed the 40-ish woman. Lee knew her from half a dozen debriefings they’d both attended at the San Diego Naval Base.
“Commander Crane,” she replied amiably.
“You got up here fast,” Lee observed, raising an eyebrow.
She obligingly answered the question in his voice. “We’d already been alerted to Ms. Ortiz’ disappearance. I was actually headed up to talk to you.”
“Why?” Lee knew that the word came out hard and lowered his eyes slightly, although still able to see the slight smile on Agent Harcourt’s face.
“We were notified yesterday of the disappearance. I got the distinct impression that someone from NIMR was probably the last person to have seen her, and also that apparently Admiral Jones was a bit more forthcoming with Admiral Nelson than he was with us.” Her grin spread ever so slightly. “I was on my way up with my team when we intercepted the call about Lt. Cdr. Morton’s rig. I was hoping that the Admiral would reciprocate with us. It’s a little hard to find someone with one hand tied behind your back.” She looked at Lee. “So to speak,” she added.
Lee nodded, watching down the embankment as several technicians crawled around and through Chip’s SUV. “I doubt that we know much more than you. Micki, ah, Ms. Ortiz, apparently contacted Lt. Cdr. Morton sometime Friday, after completing her assignment, and they arranged to meet for dinner. Things are quiet, so Chip wasn’t missed. When Admiral Jones called yesterday afternoon we checked – not hard, mind you.” He finally grinned. “Just figured that the two of them found a private way to spend the weekend. But when Chip didn’t report to work this morning…” He paused and looked again down the hill. “I had just checked with the restaurant where they had dinner when Admiral Nelson called and said that the rig had been found.”
“And?” the agent prodded.
“It’s a place we go to fairly often. The owner remembered the two of them being there. Said that Chip seemed to not be feeling well towards the end of the meal, and they left about 2030 hours.” He shrugged.
“And what brought Ms. Ortiz to this area?”
“She’d already completed her assignment and reported in,” Lee told the agent, not sure what the Naval Criminal Investigative Services had been told, and unwilling to say anything more. “She asked for and was granted time off, and must have chosen to spend it with Chip, ah, Cdr. Morton.”
“Friends, I gather.”
Lee smiled. “We’ve…had dealings with her,” he answered noncommittally.
“Humm,” was Agent Harcourt’s response.
They were interrupted as both of their cell phones went off almost simultaneously. Lee turned his back and walked off a couple of steps before answering.
“Lee,” he easily heard the
tight control Nelson was keeping, even in that one word, and unconsciously
stiffened and held his breath, “we just got a call from the Coast Guard. Chip’s been found on
Lee had turned around to face Agent Harcourt as Nelson was talking, and realized that she must be getting the same piece of information. She was already getting the attention of one of the State Patrolmen, and Lee grinned – although there was absolutely no humor in the expression. “Don’t think that will be a problem, sir. Looks like I’ll be having a police escort.”
“Harrumph,” Nelson muttered, and the line went dead.
“I take it we have similar
information networks,” Harcourt told Lee as she closed her phone. Lee just shrugged. As the patrolman got close, she pointed at
Lee. “I’ll be riding with him. We need an escort to
That was, however, the limit to the agent’s ability to pull strings. While the officer didn’t bat an eyelash, and led Lee’s little sports car on as rapid a trip down the coast highway as Lee would ever care to make, she got nowhere with the hospital’s security staff. She and Lee were forced to wait outside the Emergency treatment area in the general waiting room. The agent took it calmly, mentally steamed but physically under control. Not so Lee, who paced continuously. The two had spoken sparingly on the trip down, and not at all once they were relegated to the waiting area.
Who did, obviously, have the necessary clout was Dr. Will Jamison when he and Admiral Nelson blew in. He had the right insignia on his collar, at least, and was escorted into the inner sanctum. Nelson, a hard expression on his face triggered as much by worry as by anger, snagged Lee’s arm on his next pass and steered him to an empty chair. “Sit,” he ordered firmly. Lee saw Agent Harcourt grin briefly at the order, sent his boss a nod, and worked hard to control his nerves as he focused a glare on the doorway through which Jamie had disappeared. Nelson took the seat next to him, with Agent Harcourt on Nelson’s other side.
Lee was just beginning to feel the need to resume his pacing when Agent Harcourt’s phone went off. Both he and Nelson looked at her but the call was brief and her end of it amounted to very few words. She did, however, turn to both as she closed her phone.
“Cdr. Morton’s SUV was clean. Your people are there and working with my team. They’ll take it back to NIMR and go over it with a fine-toothed comb, but so far it looks like the inside was wiped. Our best bet is still whatever the Lt. Commander can tell us.”
As if on cue, a nurse appeared and led the three of them into another area of the hospital. Unfortunately, it was merely another waiting room. Lee went back to pacing, and this time Nelson didn’t stop him. It was a shorter wait, thankfully, and led to Will appearing in the doorway. He was immediately set upon by all three. He just held up a hand and waited until the instant demands for information quieted, ignoring the dual glares he was getting from his fellow NIMR officers.
“Chip looks in rough shape,” Will told them once everyone else quit talking. “And he’s not fully conscious. But all things considered, he’s not actually all that bad, physically.”
“What the hell happened?” Nelson demanded. Patience had never been his strong suit, and the near-shout brought almost-smiles to both Will’s and Lee’s faces.
“I actually haven’t asked
him,” Will admitted. “What little he’s
been coherent enough to respond to questions has been dedicated to getting a
clearer picture of his injuries.” He
took a deep breath, but hurried on as Nelson seemed ready to slug his CMO. “This much we know for sure. A couple out for a leisurely cruise around
“But…” Lee started. Will again held up a hand.
“If you will all behave yourselves, we may be able to find out.” Will’s tone brooked no arguments, and both Lee and Nelson took deep breaths. Agent Harcourt was remaining silent. This not being the first time that she’d locked horns with NIMR’s upper echelon, she knew that her best chance at getting answers any time soon would be to keep her eyes and ears open, and her mouth shut. “Skipper, Chip’s a mass of bruises. How much of it is from what looks like a pretty good beating – from appearances probably Friday night or early Saturday morning – and how much from the tide tossing him into the rocks, remains to be determined. Not to mention 48 hours of exposure. Thank heavens the weather was good. There doesn’t appear to be much internal damage but we’ll be keeping a close watch on him – for the next few days especially. I’d prefer that he didn’t have to put up with any kind of interrogation.” This was directed specifically at Agent Harcourt, before he looked again at Lee. “But what little he’s been able to communicate, he’s desperate to tell you something. I’m going to assume that it has to do with Ms. Ortiz. But you will,” he directed one of his better glares at his CO, “keep things calm and controlled, or I’ll have hospital security toss all three of you out on your ears. Is that clear?” The demand dragged quick grins out of Nelson and Lee, causing Harcourt to give them a curious look.
It was Nelson who carefully answered. NIMR’s ruling triumvirate had all locked horns from time to time with their normally mild-mannered CMO. Will usually won. “We need answers, Will,” Nelson said softly.
“I understand. I want them as well. Just…” Will turned to Lee, “keep it under control.”
“Understood,” Lee told him. Will turned and led the others down the hall.
When Lee entered what looked like a trauma treatment room, Chip’s eyes were closed. There were two nurses present, one male and one female, as well as another woman who, from the glare she directed at the newcomers, was one of the unit’s doctors. Will went to her for a quiet word as Lee walked up to the gurney on Chip’s other side from them. Nelson and Harcourt came as far as the foot of the gurney and stood quietly. Lee leaned over and crossed his arms on top of the railing, raised on both sides of the gurney as if they were getting ready to move Chip to another part of the hospital. That told Lee that Will felt Chip was as stable as he was likely to get for the moment. One hand fell lightly onto Chip’s shoulder. Chip’s eyes opened slowly and Lee sent his XO, and best friend, a faux glare.
“A letter of reprimand and forfeiture of two months’ wages for going UA,” Lee told Chip firmly. He wanted a grin from the blond, to defuse some of the tension in the room. What he got was a look so filled with pain that it hurt Lee to see it.
“She’s dead,” Chip told him through a face covered with bruises and small scrapes and cuts.
Lee sucked in a breath, but gave Chip’s shoulder a light squeeze. “Start at the top, Chip. Slow and easy, or Jamie will whine.”
A snort came from Will’s direction, but Chip kept his focus on Lee. “She and I had dinner…”
“At the Cottage Inn,” Lee interrupted Chip’s obvious struggles to make himself understood. “We got that part. Mrs. Carstairs said that she didn’t think you were feeling well by the time the meal was over.”
Chip gave an abbreviated nod, even that minimal movement causing pain. “Couple guys walked by table…while…ate. Didn’t pay any attention. Dumb.”
“Happens,” Lee told him, giving Chip time to take a couple breaths. “Your attention was on Micki.” Chip started to clench a fist and Lee reached out and covered Chip’s hand with his own, giving it a light squeeze. “Take it easy,” Lee told him softly.
“One of the guys, as he passed…laid his hand on my shoulder. Felt a pinch. Didn’t give it a thought.”
“Happens,” Lee repeated, again giving Chip a few seconds to collect himself. “Mrs. Carstairs said she knew you weren’t feeling good when you left before dessert.” Lee didn’t feel much like teasing his friend. But out of the corner of his eye he caught the look of approval for his tactics that passed between Jamie and Nelson.
“Started feeling funny,” Chip
continued. “Micki…” Chip closed his eyes and Lee gave his hand
another squeeze. “She was going to drive
“Been there,” Lee sympathized. He grinned sheepishly as Chip tried to glare at him for that open reference to Lee’s continued ONI involvement.
“Woke up on some sort of boat…hurt like hell. Micki was screaming oaths…mile a minute. Think that’s what brought me back.” Lee nodded. “Whoever she was screaming at slugged her…” It was Lee’s turn to nearly make a fist. But his hand was still covering Chip’s and he kept enough control to not cause his friend any more bruises. “Micki fell back against the bench I was laying on. I didn’t move. It was really dark…we were outside, on the back deck… I could see that the guy had a gun…there was a glint of reflected light from…cabin.” Chip stopped and took a deep breath. “Micki turned…we were close enough…she could see my eyes were open. We only had a few moments, while whoever was in the cabin was talking to the guy with the gun.”
A heavy cough hit Chip, bringing Will up to the other side of the gurney. Between coughs Chip tried to push Will away, but Will caught his hand. “Easy, Chip,” the doctor warned him. “I know that you need to report. Just take it slow.” He offered Chip a glass of water with a straw in it, let Chip take a couple of sips, and set it back on a side table as he once more backed off a few feet.
Chip coughed a couple more
times, concentrated on getting himself back under control, and finally
continued. “Heard a foghorn off to the
west. Micki whispered…Anacapa.” Lee nodded.
There was a lighthouse on the most northeastern of the islands that made
“You were headed south?” Lee asked.
Chip again gave an abbreviated nod. “Micki couldn’t say much…guy with gun…too close.” It was Lee’s turn to nod. “She muttered something…her last case…too easy.”
“Something on Catalina,” Lee filled in. “We got that part.”
“Seemed like…she recognized the guys. The one in the cabin…started yelling something. Sounded like he was on the radio…took gunman’s attention away from us a little.” He closed his eyes and a look of pain crossed his face. Lee didn’t push. “Micki asked…did I think I could swim to the island. From the horn…sounded fairly close. So dark…would work in our favor…we could get off…”
“Understood,” Lee told him. “I gather you were pretty much awake by that time.” Chip gave a pretty good imitation of Lee’s sheepish through-the-lashes look, and Lee sent him a grin. “Been there, too, buddy,” he said softly. A glare, along with a barely muffled growl, came from Will’s direction.
“Thought she was going…over the side with me. Don’t know what happened.” A heavy shudder hit Chip, and Lee increased the pressure on his hand ever so slightly. “The two guys…still yelling at each other. My Spanish isn’t…best. Thought…something about wrong one. Whatever…Micki upset. Guy on deck…turned…little bit…” It was getting progressively harder for Chip to speak. Lee wasn’t sure if it was physical pain, or mental. Most likely a combination of both. Will took one step forward, prepared to stop the interview no matter everyone else’s objections if he felt that Chip wasn’t able to handle it.
Lee reached out his other hand and laid it again on Chip’s shoulder. “Easy, buddy,” he said softly. Chip nodded and took a couple of deep breaths before he continued, a little more under control.
“Micki practically tossed me overboard.” He frowned as Lee gave him a quick grin. From their experiences with the ONI operative, all four NIMR officers – as well as some of the crew – put very little past the strong-willed woman. “Slipped into…water fairly quietly. There was…shout…on deck. Several gunshots. Heard Micki scream…” Chip closed his eyes for a few seconds. No one in the room tried to hurry him along. “Heard something heavy hit the water…boat sped away.” Again he paused, and then sent Lee a look that implored Lee to believe him. “I looked for her…really looked. For...long time…” His eyes closed again, and his voice was almost flat as he continued. “Couldn’t find her. Once boat…far enough away…yelled. Couldn’t…” What came out was almost a sob.
“You did everything you could, Chip. And she did what I’m sure she felt that she had to. She saved you.” Chip opened his eyes and there was a haunted, stricken look in them. “Hurts like hell,” Lee told him honestly. “Sometimes…” it was Lee’s turn to take a deep breath, “you do what you have to.” Chip tried to nod – to show Lee that he understood what Lee was telling him – but the tortured look wouldn’t leave his eyes. All Lee could do was grip his shoulder a little more firmly.
There was a noise from the other side of the gurney and Lee glanced up ever so briefly. Jamie was in serious, although low, conversation with the resident doctor. Lee got the distinct feeling that she was about to throw everyone out. Lee gave Chip a tiny grin, and a nod toward the quietly arguing pair, trying to get his friend to focus on something other than his grief. “What can you tell me about the boat, buddy? Don’t suppose that you caught the name or home port?” Both were almost always painted on the back, where Chip had indicated that he’d gone over.
Chip took a deep breath, glanced at the still bickering doctors, and seemed to understand that he probably didn’t have a whole lot more time before Jamie lost this battle and everyone else would have to leave. “Too dark,” he told Lee. “Running lights off. Cabin light barely lit the stern deck.” He paused for a bit. “What little I could see of the outline, before it sped off…looked sorta like Baxtrum’s Carver 530.” Lee nodded. They’d both admired the Santa Barbara Marina Harbormaster’s sleek new cabin cruiser. “Aft deck a little longer, maybe. Sorry.”
“Nothing to be sorry for,” Lee told him firmly. “You remember that.” He gave Chip’s hand a firm squeeze. “You did the best that you could, and you survived to tell us where to start looking.”
“Get the bastard,” Chip told him with vehemence.
“You’ve got my word on it,” Lee confirmed.
Will clearing his throat announced the end of the visit. Lee still took an extra second and leaned over close enough to whisper to Chip. “Play your cards right, buddy. That’s a fine looking doctor taking care of you – well, when she’s not frowning.”
A brief look of extreme pain crossed Chip’s face as he thought back on the fact that this whole mess started with a date. But he played along with his friend’s attempt at levity. “That means you’d have to take Jamie with you,” he tried to joke. They both knew there was absolutely no chance that NIMR’s CMO would let an injured officer, and in particular one of the ruling triumvirate, out of his sight for very long. Lee gave Chip the expected chuckle, another light squeeze of his hand, and headed for the door.
didn’t surprise him when Admiral Nelson and Agent Harcourt preceded him. He did, however, point a raised eyebrow as
Will followed him. “Chill, Skipper,”
Will told him with an indulgent expression.
“I know better than to subject unsuspecting medical personnel to any of
you without supervision.” Lee just
frowned but Admiral Nelson snorted, and Will turned to him. “I’ll stay here for now. I suspect that it will only be a few hours
before both Dr. Langley and I are comfortable that Chip can be moved. I’ll call
keep him in
Will nodded. “Seventy-two hours, at least.” He sent Lee a smug grin. “I have new earplugs. I was saving them for you, but if they work well I might even make it longer than that.”
Lee’s retort was short-circuited when Nelson reached out and gave his young captain’s shoulder a light punch. “Come on, Lee. Let’s get back to the office.” His voice turned hard. “It’s time to give Jones another call.”
Lee was already shaking his head. “I’m heading for Catalina. We’re already nearly three days behind. Let me know what the Admiral says. We need the name of the hotel, and who Micki’s target was.”
Nelson frowned. “We got what we did because he trusts our security. He’s going to clam up big-time if he thinks I’m going to relay intel by cell phone. They can too easily be intercepted.”
“So, don’t tell him. Sir.” He sent Nelson a sheepish look for the last word being a slight afterthought. Nelson just glared back, and Lee hurried on. “Once I’m settled somewhere I’ll find a nice obscure pay phone.”
Nelson muttered disgustedly. He glared
hard at Lee for a couple moments but, when Lee refused to back down, eventually
surrendered and nodded. As Lee hurried
out, he turned to the NCIS agent. “Care
to ride back to
“I was prepared to insist,” she told him in a no-nonsense tone. It caused Will to snort lightly. As he headed back to his patient, Nelson and Harcourt followed Lee toward the exit.
* * * *
Nelson’s drive back to NIMR was fairly quiet. He and Harcourt made a bit of polite conversation, just to be sociable. But the Admiral’s thoughts were a mixture of worry for Chip, frustration at being unable to corral an angry and occasionally impetuous Lee, and not-a-little anger himself over what had so far happened. Not to mention pondering just the right way to elicit the information he wanted from Admiral Jones. That wasn’t going to be easy. Jones didn’t get his position as ONI Director by Presidential appointment. And he didn’t keep it by being inept. He was highly qualified for the position, and highly thought of by peers and underlings alike.
One bit of good news was
meeting a NIMR ambulance going south just as he crossed the
The agent smiled. “Perhaps he needs to consider carrying a pair with him,” she offered.
Nelson snorted. “I’ll pass that thought on to him.”
Nothing more was said until they passed through NIMR’s gates. “He’ll be fine,” Nelson told the guard, barely slowing down. By now the entire place knew what was going on. Such was the feelings of most staff toward one of their own, no matter where they worked within the Institute, that Charlie would waste no time passing on that bit of intel and it would quickly make the rounds. Nelson offered to drop Agent Harcourt off at the Mechanics shop, knowing that would be where Chip’s Suburban, as well as the other NCIS people, would be. But she’d have none of it. For right now she intended to stick to Nelson until or unless he threw her out. The agent knew Nelson to be a tough, determined man, used to getting his own way. So far he’d been remarkably amiable. But she knew that all that could change in a heartbeat if he decided that he’d had enough of her presence. So she was trying to be as careful as possible not to tick him off, while still gathering as much information as she could manage. The way things were playing out, he was still her best shot at getting to the truth.
Apparently Nelson made it to his office before his comment to the guard did, because Angie stood up so fast she nearly tipped her chair backward as Nelson entered the open area in front of his office. Nelson waved a hand at her. “Bruised, battered, and not looking like our usually immaculate XO,” he told her with an indulgent smile. While he was doubtful that anything permanent would ever happen between his PA and XO, he knew that they still shared a very special friendship. “Angie Pierce, my assistant. Agent Harcourt, NCIS,” he made the introduction as he continued on to his office. The two women gave each other a brief nod. Angie sat back down with a relieved sigh, and Harcourt followed Nelson into his inner sanctum.
Nelson sat down at his desk. He briefly glared at Harcourt before tossing a hand in the direction of the ever-working coffee pot, and pulled the phone toward him. “Black,” he told her, and she poured him a mug full along with her own. “Not a word,” he ordered as his call was answered, and he put it on the speaker. She nodded, sipping quietly as Nelson plowed through the minions to his intended target.
“Harriman,” Admiral Jones answered, sounding rushed, “only have a second.”
“You’d better postpone whatever you’ve got scheduled, Robert,” Nelson growled, his tone broaching no argument. “We found Morton. Beaten, nearly drowned, but alive.”
“Ortiz?” the ONI director demanded with his own growl.
“Dead,” Nelson told him stiffly. “At least,” he softened his voice just a bit, “Chip thinks so.”
“DAMN,” thundered through the phone line. “Not confirmed?”
“Chip was a little busy saving himself,” Nelson growled. He took a deep breath, and relayed an abbreviated account of Chip’s narrative. “I want her target, Robert. And I want it now!”
“No can do, Harry. There’s already an NCIS team looking into it. It’s up to them now. I’m sure that they’ll want to talk to Morton.”
Nelson’s fist hit the desk with a thunder that easily went through the phone. “Lee’s already headed for Catalina,” was, however, all that he said. The word that came back through the lines was neither polite nor controlled. “Got that right,” Nelson muttered in response.
“Stop him!” Jones ordered.
“Yeah, right,” Nelson growled again. “One friend dead, and Chip nearly so.” The same impolite word came back, this time a little softer. Both admirals were all too aware, and knew that the other one knew as well, Lee’s dedication to what he perceived his duty to be, and especially to those few people he had allowed himself to get close to over the years.
There was silence from the other end of the phone lines for so long that Agent Harcourt started to open her mouth, to add her demand to Nelson’s for more information. Nelson raised a hand, as well as sent her a glare, and she wisely took another sip of coffee instead. Finally, a long sigh could be heard.
“Talbot,” Jones said, with a combination of reluctance and vehemence. Nelson sputtered the word Jones had twice sent his way the last couple of minutes. “Got that right,” Jones agreed.
“Thanks,” Nelson told him with feeling. He knew only too well just how hard giving out that bombshell was for Jones. “That explains a lot.”
“I won’t ask to be kept in the loop, Harry,” Jones acknowledged the intel he’d just dropped in Nelson’s – and Lee’s – laps. Passing that kind of information back and forth all too easily led to a premature end to one’s career. “Just…be careful.”
“Understood.” Both hung up. Nelson immediately dialed Lee’s cell phone, but wasn’t totally surprised when there was no answer. He didn’t leave a message, just hung up before turning his chair enough to stare out the window, his fingers drumming on the desk.
“Friend of yours, I take it?” Harcourt said into the relative silence.
Nelson looked toward her without turning his chair, pondering his next move. He didn’t know the agent well, but had had enough contact with her to know that she wasn’t stupid. And he appreciated how, so far today, she’d conducted herself. He took a deep breath. “Nothing I tell you goes beyond that door,” he muttered, waving a hand across the room. “Not even to your team.” She opened her mouth, took note of the glint in Nelson’s eyes, and closed it again. “Totally and unequivocally off the record,” Nelson demanded. He could tell by her expression that she was about as used to taking orders as he was, and almost smiled. “You don’t have the security clearance.”
“No joke,” Nelson muttered. “Your word.”
There was a pause. “You’re not making it easy for me to do my job, Admiral.”
“NCIS has no business in the middle of this, beyond the basics of the attack on Morton and Ms. Ortiz.”
There was another pause. “Understood,” she finally told him, and listened with interest that very quickly turned to anger as Nelson related a shortened version of their first encounter with Michelle Ortiz.*
* * * *
Thanking his forethought in
packing a bag, Lee stood on the deck of the passenger ferry as it crossed the
channel from San Pedro to Avalon, the main port and tourist destination on
He didn’t have a clear battle plan. That was one reason he was standing out on the deck – he always thought more clearly in the open, surrounded by his beloved oceans. Hopefully, when he did call in, the Admiral would be able to give him a lead. But he wasn’t holding his breath. As much as Lee admired Admiral Jones, he had first-hand knowledge of the man’s pig-headed stubbornness when it came to intel.
Lee allowed himself a soft smile. Of course, that trait could also be applied to Admiral Nelson. Lee figured he was just as glad that he was missing that conversation. Nelson’s office was pretty well soundproofed. Lee’s eardrums weren’t!
The best that he could come up with in the hour it took him to reach the island was to check into one of the hotels. He wasn’t totally unknown, this close to home. But as long as he played the casual vacationer, didn’t expect to have any problems even if he did run into someone he knew. Between Jones’ comments, and Micki indicating to Chip that their abduction had something to do with her last case, the hotels were a logical place to start. If he got really lucky he’d pick the hotel that had been targeted. But he wasn’t counting on it being that easy. That done, he strolled down to and through the main marina, keeping an eye out for the type of cruiser Chip had described.
Unfortunately, he found quite a few – seems that was a popular style for those folks rich enough to afford it. He hadn’t gotten halfway around before he counted six possibles. The Harbormaster would be able to supply ownership records – or at least who had purchased moorage permits. But Lee couldn’t think of a good enough reason to ask without making the Harbormaster suspicious and start asking questions of his own that Lee wasn’t in a position to answer.
He started walking back to the hotel, looking down side streets for an out-of-the-way pay phone. He knew that he needed to check in with Admiral Nelson before much longer, or Nelson would send out a search party for him. As he walked, he was approached by a couple of men who had apparently started their evening celebrations a bit early. He quickly sidestepped them, but in doing so bumped into another, slightly older, gentleman. He immediately apologized. The man just smiled. He seemed to be headed in the same direction as Lee, and also in no hurry as he ambled along, glancing in storefront windows. Lee looked to see where the revelers had suddenly disappeared to but didn’t see them. There was, however, a bar one door down, so Lee assumed that that’s where they’d gone. He hoped the proprietor would take note of the fact that they already seemed well preserved for the day, and send them packing before they caused any more trouble.
Continuing to walk, Lee’s stomach started to churn, reminding him that other than the small breakfast he’d made that morning he’d had nothing to eat. Two strikes against you, Crane, he chastised himself, and headed down a quiet side street that looked like it might hold both a small café and a pay phone.
He’d only gone a short way when a headache made itself noticed. Swell, he muttered to himself. Just what I need. He’d no more than acknowledged his error – worry-driven though it had been – when suddenly the two drunken revelers were back, one on each side, grabbing his arms. Lee barely had time to notice the older gentleman he’d bumped into earlier standing directly in front of him when a fist to his gut focused his attention on nothing more than getting enough air into his lungs not to pass out. Through the fog he heard the men speak. “Just a bit too much to drink. Nothing to worry about.” “The right one this time?” “Friend of ours. We’ll take care of him.” Lee assumed that some of the other vacationers he’d seen walking through the quiet streets had noticed the commotion and come closer. But everything was suddenly so fuzzy he could neither fight off his attackers nor make himself understood. The last thing he heard, before everything went black, was the older man’s laughter.
* * * *
“Easy, Chip. Didn’t mean to wake you.”
The doctor’s gentle chuckles filled the room, and he laid a hand on his current patient’s shoulder. “Tell that to someone who hasn’t spent the last half hour listening to you snore.”
Chip tried to glare at his CMO, but surrendered fairly rapidly as Will continued to smile at him. “What’s going on,” he changed gears.
“Just getting you ready to
move back to
“Why can’t I just go home?” Chip wasn’t overly comfortable that his firm command voice failed him and the question came out more like a whine. But he tried to add a glare anyway. Will didn’t even honor the request with a verbal response. He just crossed his arms over his chest and produced a glare of his own. “Okay, okay,” Chip surrendered.
“Is everyone at the Nelson Institute this much trouble?” another voice broke in from behind Chip’s head. As she walked into view, Chip recognized the local doctor Jamie had been working with. The question caused Jamie to chuckle again.
“The regular crew and most of the staff aren’t too bad. You’re getting the least objectionable of the three senior officers.” He paused and glared again at Chip. “But not by much,” he added firmly
Chip surrendered and closed his eyes again. Immediately his mind filled with Friday night’s images and his eyes popped open as a hard shudder hit him.
“Easy, Chip,” Will said again softly, and rested a hand reassuringly on the younger man’s shoulder.
“No, it’s not,” Chip growled, but tried to send his CMO – and friend – a small smile. He wasn’t overly successful.
“Don’t suppose that it is,” Will agreed, and gave Chip’s shoulder a slight squeeze. “I could give you something to help,” he offered.
Chip tried the glare again, but it morphed fairly quickly into a grimace. “Never mind.” Will started to turn back to Dr. Langley but Chip stopped him. “Any word from Lee?”
“Not that I’ve heard. But then, it’s only been a few hours since he left.” He sent Chip a grin. “The Admiral made very sure that the Skipper would stay in touch.” Anyone who worked around Lee for even a short time became all to familiar with the man’s habit of taking care of business – whatever that might be – far too often on his own.
“Understood,” Chip said softly, and tried to get himself back under control.
* * * *
To pass the time, Admiral Nelson walked with Agent Harcourt down to the Mechanics shop where her team was just finishing up their investigation of Chip’s vehicle. They’d lifted about two dozen prints, most of them Chip’s. Several were identified as Micki’s. A couple more were so far proving elusive, but the NCIS team was continuing to run them through all available databases. Nelson tried Lee’s cell phone again, but again his call indicated that Lee had turned it off. Nelson grunted, and got a grin from Agent Harcourt. “It has only been a few hours,” she told him.
“That man can stay in plain sight and get into trouble,” Nelson growled – mostly to himself, but obviously overheard by the agent.
“Heard stories,” she quipped with a grin.
“Harrumph,” was her only answer.
* * * *
“Where did you find him?”
“Spotted him walking through the marina, checking out boats. How did you know he’d show up?”
“We killed his friends, you idiot,” was spat back. “Crane is nothing if not thorough. He’s fiercely loyal to his people. And not just a little vindictive.”
“Sounds a lot like you, boss.”
The chuckle he received was more sarcastic than humorous. “If he’d been even a bit corruptible we’d both still have our jobs.”
“Can’t fault the man his morals, boss. Just too bad we had to lock horns with him.”
“It’s all that know-it-all Nelson’s fault. If he’d stayed out of it we’d have been fine.” He gave a harsh snort. “Well, we got the last laugh. Ortiz is already dead, and Crane soon will be. Let Nelson live with that!”
* * * *
Lee woke up a piece of him at a time. The first thing he became aware of was a jackhammer doing a terrific job of smashing his brains into mush. He lay quietly for an undetermined amount of time, trying to control the damage, until it filtered into his conscious that he was laying down. Intel was still abominably slow, but he was eventually able to determine that he was on his left side. For awhile he wasn’t able to make his arms and legs move, and eventually switched tasks to just opening his eyes. That was when he discovered that his arms were secured behind his back. His legs would only move in unison so he decided they must be tied as well. An attempt to sit up sending the jackhammer into overdrive, Lee wisely chose to lie quietly for a bit longer and ponder his predicament.
He was disgusted that he’d allowed himself to be blindsided so easily – especially after hearing how Chip had been incapacitated. He’s never going to let me live this down. It passed through his still muddled brain that ‘live’ could be the operative word in that line considering his current status. But he chose to go on to more positive thoughts.
There wasn’t much light in…wherever he was. The way his head felt he was actually grateful – he had a feeling that his eyeballs wouldn’t react well to even normal illumination. Directly in front of him was a concrete wall, bare and drab. Very like the cot he finally recognized that he was lying on. He closed his eyes, gathered what strength he could muster, and literally willed himself to roll over.
He never did figure out if the effort caused him to black out again. He did believe that there was a time lag between his body moving and again managing to open his eyes. It didn’t seem to make a difference as the other three walls that came into view were as dismal as the first. He didn’t at first see a door, and sent a glance at the ceiling to see if he could discover the source of what little light there was. There was a light fixture, barely discernable. But the bulb, protected by a wire cage, wasn’t turned on. If it even worked. Lee’s eyes were beginning to function a little better and he thought that he saw cobwebs covering most of the wire.
A sudden subtle brightening of the available light – as well as approaching footsteps – alerted Lee to the fact that there was indeed a door, in the wall at the foot of the bunk. Lee had barely enough time to turn himself back towards the wall, swallowing a groan as he did so, before the door opened. The light bulb did work. Lee was glad that he had his eyes once more closed, and had to suppress another groan as what little light filtered into his eye sockets anyway caused him a moment’s pain. Someone walked in and roughly shook Lee’s shoulder. Lee played dead.
“He’s still out,” his captor yelled to someone else, apparently still outside the room. At least that was Lee’s impression as he struggled not to react to the volume of the yell as it brought renewed vigor to the jackhammers.
“Check his bonds and leave him,” another voice responded, coming slightly closer with each word.
“Why can’t we just kill him now and be done with him?”
“Because the boss wants to talk to him first. As mad as he was when he found out you killed the woman before he could question her, you don’t want to make the same mistake twice.”
“Yeah, yeah,” came in a grumble. “That wasn’t my fault. She…”
“The boss don’t care whose fault it is,” he was cut off. “Now hustle up. We need to get the rest of those crates loaded.” Lee’s wrists and ankles were given a quick yank, the door closed with a slam, and the light went out again. “We still have two trips…” Lee couldn’t make out any more words as the men walked away.
He let out the low moan he’d been struggling to control, and rolled back over. That wasn’t overly helpful, he complained to himself. Or, was it? Trying to once more get the jackhammers under some semblance of control, he thought back to Jones’ abbreviated conversation. Gunrunners, Lee remembered the ONI director saying. That would explain the crates these guys mentioned. Micki, what the hell did you stumble into, and why didn’t you recognize it at the time?
* * * *
As 2000 hours approached with still no word from Lee, Admiral Nelson’s patience – what little he had in the first place – was being stretched to its limits. He was reluctant to leave his office, afraid that he’d miss Lee’s call. Agent Harcourt continued to stay close, she and Nelson having struck a semi-congenial truce. Her team had come up with a name to match one of the prints found in Chip’s Suburban, but it hadn’t added much. The man had been arrested a couple of years previously on illegal weapons charges. The charges had to be dropped when evidence was found to have been tampered with and a witness disappeared. And then, promptly, so did the suspect, and he hadn’t been seen or heard of since. Until now. Nelson was anxious to get this additional piece of intel to Lee – he, too, recognized the connections to Jones’ comments.
Angie sent down to the cafeteria for dinner for both Nelson and Harcourt just before 1800 hours, and hung around until Nelson chased her out an hour later. She went reluctantly, but poked her head back into the office to inform Nelson that Dr. Jamison had just called, and expected to be back by approximately 2000 hours.
Just as Nelson was no longer
able to control his urge to throw something against the closest hard surface,
the front gate called to say that the ambulance carrying the XO and CMO had
just arrived. He called Security, who
was keeping close tabs on the switchboard, to tell them to transfer any calls
from Cdr. Crane to his cell phone, and he and Harcourt headed for
“Taking lessons from your skipper?” Will asked Nelson sardonically as he caught Nelson pacing. He just smiled in the face of the twin lasers that threatened to slice him in half for that comment, and poured himself a cup of coffee. “Speaking of whom…” He arched an eyebrow at Nelson as he took a swallow.
“Hasn’t called in,” Nelson growled, although somewhat softening his glare.
“Oh.” Will sent a glance toward Harcourt. “Explains a few things.”
“Chip!” Nelson ordered, definitely not a question.
“Was in almost more mental pain than physical,” Will told his boss softly. “I decided that the trip home would be easier if he slept through it.”
“Easier for him or you?” Nelson had his voice – and himself – back under control.
“Both,” Will admitted, totally unrepentant.
“I don’t suppose that he remembered anything more?” Agent Harcourt asked.
Will shook his head. “Sorry.”
“I guess that we should be thankful, after what he went through, that he was as coherent as he was.”
Will nodded. “The benefits of youth, conditioning, and clean living.” The last was a pointed commentary as Nelson lit a cigarette. “I can easily imagine what your office smells like at this point.” He sent a frown his boss’ way.
“I managed just fine the couple of times I’ve been in Chip’s position the last few years,” Nelson all but snarled, and purposely took a long drag on the cigarette.
“Hmmm,” Will muttered, drained his coffee mug, and pointed an eyebrow at Nelson. “Well, kindly do your smoking somewhere else,” he ordered. “With luck Chip won’t wake up until morning, anyway, so there’s no use hanging around here.”
“Harrumph,” Nelson grumbled, turned on his heel, and left. Agent Harcourt quickly glanced between the two men before finally shrugging slightly and trailing after Nelson.
Will smiled softly to himself. It was rare for him these days to tackle that particular subject with Nelson. When he’d first come to NIMR he’d made a serious effort to get the Admiral to stop smoking. He’d rather quickly given up the direct attacks, discovering first hand just how nasty Nelson could be when pushed too far. Now Will limited his disapproval to the occasional sideways comments. He recognized that his own worry and exhaustion had led to his using the NCIS agent as a possible buffer this time, and sighed heavily at the dismal failure of the tactic. He poured himself more coffee, and headed to check his hopefully still sleeping patient before maybe trying to get some shut-eye himself. He had a bad feeling that things were going to get worse before they got better.
* * * *
With his head finally feeling a little less like a rock-crushing factory, Lee was able to sit up. He’d spent some time gently twisting his wrists and ankles, trying to determine just how secure his bonds were. He was pretty sure that his captors had used the plastic, non-slip strips that even the police were discovering made impossible-to-remove handcuffs unless they were cut. He had his thought confirmed when he was finally able to lean over, sitting on the edge of the cot, and see his feet. Swell, he muttered, and looked around for any kind of edge that he could rub against to try and break through the bands.
His options were severely limited. The cot was the only piece of furniture in the room. Even the door was recessed flush into the wall, with only a standard round doorknob sticking out into the room. The metal cot frame offered a possibility. While most of it was made out of tubing, the side struts had a lower edge. It was extremely awkward for Lee to get himself into a position to use it, however. He had to almost lie on the floor, and then raise his hands away from his back until he could reach the rail, and still be able to work the band back and forth against it to try and weaken a spot. Not an easy proposition. He would have liked to flip the cot on its side. But with no idea of how far away his captors were, he didn’t dare take the chance of making that much noise.
As ungainly as his position was, he still felt that he was making progress when, without the warning of approaching footsteps that he’d had before, there was a scratching sound from the door. As quickly and quietly as he could manage, he tried to return to his former position, laying on the cot and facing the wall. He had just barely gotten to his feet when there was a click, and the door started to slowly open.
* * * *
Agent Harcourt was in a bit
of a quandary. As much as she wanted to
get on with her investigation, she wasn’t looking forward to placing herself
and her team in Admiral Nelson’s crosshairs – a real possibility if he happened
to feel that she was getting in the way of whatever he was planning. As the pair exited
Nelson stopped walking to turn and glare at her, almost as if he’d forgotten she was there. He finally huffed, and took a deep breath.
“I’m a little uncertain,” he admitted reluctantly. “I don’t want to do anything to compromise Lee. I’m guessing that he’s found something, a lead of some sort, since he hasn’t called in hoping for further intel.
The agent nodded agreement. “That would be my assessment as well. But I’m also not happy sitting here doing nothing.”
“Harrumph,” Nelson snarled in no particular direction before sending the agent an almost smile. “As much as I hate the thought, I think it best to wait until morning. If Lee still hasn’t called I’ll…” He paused and sent a glare the agent’s direction. “I thought you had a suspect to track down.”
“Who could be, and quite
probably is, on
Nelson’s glare turned momentarily nasty before he toned it down a few notches. “I saw your man give you a mug shot earlier.” It wasn’t a question.
“Yes, you did,” Harcourt agreed.
“So you blunder around, looking for a face in a picture. We already know Talbot…”
“And he knows you,” Harcourt cut in.
“Yes. But my people live close enough that we have a logical reason for vacationing there. The people I’d send in aren’t necessarily familiar to him, and they won’t look like they’re wearing suits even when they aren’t.” Nelson’s semi-grin was smug. “Not to mention that we know how Lee thinks. Sort of,” Nelson added not quite under his breath.
Agent Harcourt couldn’t keep a small grin off her face. “Point taken,” she agreed. “So, divide and conquer. We’ll take the mainland, trying to backtrack the abductions, and let you have the island. However,” she held up a finger, “I would really appreciate being kept in the loop.”
“When we know anything, so will you,” Nelson agreed immediately. From the expression on Harcourt’s face he had a feeling that she wasn’t buying it. Nelson didn’t particularly care. He had plans to make, and didn’t need anyone ‘official’ underfoot while he did it.
* * * *
As Lee started to sit down and return to his former position he heard another click from the door. He nearly held his breath, not knowing what to expect. But there was no further sound and he was able to settle once again on his side, facing the wall. He was just sneaking a peek, and discovering that the door was once again closed tight, when approaching footsteps sounded. Totally confused he lay quietly, waiting for whatever was going to happen next. It wasn’t a long wait.
The door clicked and swung open. “Up and at ‘em, Crane,” a voice bellowed. Lee’s arm was grabbed and he was yanked to his feet. Until that instant Lee hadn’t been sure how he was going to play this; whether or not he was going to continue to feign unconsciousness. But the sudden movement wrenched a groan out of him as his head threatened to fall off. He found himself face to face with his captor, trying to get his balance on unsteady legs. “What’s the matter? Where’s the cocky ONI agent I’ve heard so much about?”
A quick glance was all Lee needed to confirm that he’d never seen the man before. He’d have remembered anyone as beefy as this guy. But he thought that the voice might belong to the second of the two he’d heard earlier – the one who hadn’t entered the room. He decided that remaining quiet was probably his best option. He didn’t really think that the guy was expecting an answer anyway. And he had to concentrate just to stay upright as badly as his head was pounding again, even though the man had maintained a grip on his arm, helping him to keep his balance.
The man bent suddenly and the restraining band fell away from Lee’s ankles. “Move!” The order came with a shove toward the door. Lee fell forward as his arm was released, but he managed to regain his balance from the sheer fact that he slammed into the doorframe. He took a deep breath, straightened up, and stepped into what he now saw was a long hallway. His tormentor chuckled as Lee struggled to walk a straight line, squinting as the stronger lights outside his cell attacked his again-painful eyes. Out here there was a light bulb every ten feet or so, of much stronger wattage. Because of them the jackhammers seemed to ramp up their wattage to match. He only half heard a muffled thump behind him, and was totally unprepared to be grabbed once again and half dragged, half shoved through an open doorway to his left. Stumbling, he was unable to keep his balance, with his arms still secured behind his back, and he sprawled heavily onto the concrete floor.
“That was clever, Crane,” came a new voice, low and sarcastic, and Lee slowly rolled over.
“What the…” came out softly as he recognized the person standing in the doorway.
* * * *
“Just where do you think you’re going?”
Easily recognizing the voice, Chip didn’t even bother looking up. “The head,” he mumbled, and continued to move his legs slowly from the bed to the floor.
“Oh.” Will mellowed his tone considerably. “Let me help you before you fall flat on your face.”
Chip frowned but didn’t argue. “Lee?” he asked.
Will didn’t want to upset Chip any more than he already was, but he also wasn’t about to lie to him. “As of half an hour ago Admiral Nelson still hadn’t heard from him.”
“What?” Chip yelped and stopped his slow, assisted shuffle across the room. “But it’s almost 2100 hours.”
It was Will’s turn to frown. “Trust me, Chip. We’re all well aware of that.” As Chip glared at him, Will continued. “I’ve just come from Nelson’s office.” He shrugged, and urged Chip to continue the short walk. “I was going to lie down, hoping that you would sleep through the night.” He grinned a bit sheepishly as Chip grumbled something under his breath. “But I couldn’t rest any more than you, apparently, and went over to see if there was anything new.”
“And?” Chip prodded when Will hesitated.
“Didn’t stay long,” Will admitted. “The Admiral was yelling – loudly – at someone on the phone. When I poked my head in the door he stopped long enough to tell me he hadn’t heard anything yet, and then glared until I shut it again on my way out.”
“No joke,” Will agreed. Both men were silent until they were on their way back to the bed. “I don’t know who he was yelling at, but I did hear something about him thinking Lee might have stumbled onto a lead and that’s why he hasn’t called.”
“Just happened to hear that?” Chip asked as he settled heavily back into bed.
“It’s not my fault that it took a bit for the Admiral to notice that I’d opened his door,” Will defended himself.
Chip snorted derisively. “Sounds like Lee. Mr. Invincible strikes again.” But he sighed heavily and shuddered as Will settled the blankets back over him. “And this time I’m the one to blame.”
“Just how to you figure that one?” Will growled. “None of this is your fault.”
Chip looked at Will disgustedly. “The last thing I said to Lee was, get the bastard.”
“Oh. Well, it’s not like Lee wouldn’t have done the same thing no matter what you said,” Will reasoned.
“Suppose not,” Chip agreed reluctantly.
“Are you going to stay in bed, or do I have to get the restraints?” The glare Chip gave Will would have sent anyone else running for cover. Will, as usual, just crossed his arms over his chest and glared back until Chip signaled defeat by closing his eyes. “Thank you,” Will told him. “Make you a deal.” Chip opened his eyes enough to see him. “Behave, and I’ll wake you up when I know anything further.” Chip nodded and closed his eyes again, wiggling a bit to try and get more comfortable, and Will left.
* * * *
Nelson wasn’t sure how much of his conversation Will Jamison had heard before Nelson noticed him standing in the partially opened doorway. He was just grateful that it had been Will and not someone else – Seaview’s CMO was a man who kept his own council. Nelson was still a little ticked that Will had chosen today to needle him about his continued smoking. But when he returned to his office he did silently acknowledge that he needed to turn up the air filtration system. It explained a couple of looks he’d gotten from Agent Harcourt earlier.
Over his long and storied career both in the Navy and after he ‘retired’, Admiral Harriman Nelson had made a lot of…if not good friends, at least respected peers. Both within the military and other government agencies. It was to someone in one of those peripheral organizations that Nelson placed his call once he’d returned to his office after checking on Chip and ditching the NCIS agent. Nelson had wanted to place the call for most of the afternoon, but several things stopped him. One was, there was no way that he was going to do it in front of Harcourt.
The other reasons were a good deal more personal. First, despite a tendency to act first and consider the consequences to himself later, Nelson had a great deal of faith in Lee’s ability to complete his mission – in this case, discover who had killed Ms. Ortiz and injured Chip, and bring that person or persons to justice. He was firmly of the opinion that that was why Lee hadn’t called; he’d discovered the connection to Admiral Talbot and was working to bring the man in to face his crimes this time, to make amends of sorts for not being able to do so the last time. Nelson knew that Lee would see it as a just resolution for Michelle Ortiz. The thought that Lee might blow the man to kingdom come in revenge never crossed Nelson’s mind – it just wasn’t Lee’s style. He would want the man held responsible for his actions, something that hadn’t happened after Talbot tried to kill he and Micki when they’d locked horns before.
But to cover all bases, and help assure that Lee wasn’t somehow left hanging out to dry if anything went wrong, Nelson had spent the afternoon devising a little back-up plan of his own.
He’d have preferred to do it face to face but there simply wasn’t time to fly to the east coast.
During Talbot’s tenure at ONI he’d made a lot of friends in interesting places. It was what had kept him out of jail and merely into retirement when certain indiscretions were leveled against him but couldn’t be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt. But he’d also made a fair number of enemies; people who had reasons to distrust him, and therefore reasons to keep cautionary tabs on his activities.
It was to one of those men, highly placed but very much under the radar of public eyes, that Nelson placed his call. It meant putting himself, as well as Seaview and her crew, in the position of having to supply a favor – or two – down the road. But Nelson wasn’t concerned about that at the moment. He knew that, just as he was doing now, any future favors would not be requested frivolously.
It did not, however, keep the
request for information from getting heated and loud – which was,
unfortunately, when Will had poked his nose in Nelson’s office door. As soon as Nelson noticed his CMO’s intrusion,
he dispatched him back to
* * * *
“You’re alive,” Lee blurted, then squinted through still blurry eyes. “Either that,” he continued in an almost under the breath mutter, “or you’re a ghost.”
“Don’t go there, Crane,” Michelle Ortiz threatened softly. “But, one thing at a time.” She scooted back out into the corridor long enough to drag the now-unconscious body of the guard into the room. She closed the door and started immobilizing him with duct tape while sending a glare Lee’s direction. “I would just as soon not be reminded of our little encounter with ‘whatever that was’,” she growled, referring to the last time she and Lee had seen each other.**
“Aw, come on. Jack was kind of cool.” Lee shuddered softly. “Well, most of the time, anyway. And you have to admit that without his help we probably wouldn’t have pulled it off – the mission. It’s only logical to think of Jack right now. Both that case and this one deal with illegal arms.”
“That whole case defied logic, Crane,” she continued to growl. Lee just sent her as good a grin as he could muster under the circumstances. Micki sent him a truly nasty glare and changed the subject. “And, what kept you so long? I sent Chip for help three days ago.”
“Assuming I got what they gave him, you’re lucky he’s still alive to have told us anything.”
“What?” Micki all but screamed. Finishing her tape job with a strip across the guard’s mouth, she turned to Lee. “What are you talking about?” came out only a bit softer.
Lee sighed heavily. “Anything around here to cut the band on my wrists?” he asked instead.
Micki turned back to the guard long enough to relieve him of a pocket knife, and made short work of Lee’s restraints. “Talk,” she ordered.
Lee took the time to sit up, and lean his back and head against some boxes. “A couple out boating this morning… Ah, I assume that it’s still Monday?”
“About 2230 hours,” Micki confirmed.
“Saw what they thought was a body washed up on the rocks on Anacapa.”
“Oh my gosh!” Micki all but collapsed next to Lee on the concrete floor. “But he said…” She didn’t finish the sentence.
“He was fine?” Lee asked with another decidedly forced grin. Micki just nodded. “I’ll be sure to remind him of that line the next time he harasses me for using it.”
“But…” Micki started, and then didn’t go any further.
“The Coast Guard picked him up,” Lee continued into the silence. “He wasn’t too with it, but Jamie said that he’d be okay.”
“Thank heavens,” Micki breathed.
Lee nodded. “Chip said that he’d barely woken up on the boat before you asked him if he could swim to the island, and then you pushed him overboard.” He half-grinned again at Micki’s sputter. “Said he heard a shot, and something heavy hitting the water. He thought it was your body.” They both shuddered involuntarily. “Said he looked for you for as long as he could, and once the boat left the area he yelled for you. He finally made the swim, but he was so done in by that time that he couldn’t move. If the boaters hadn’t spotted him…” Lee didn’t finish that far-too-painful thought.
“Obviously he wasn’t nearly as awake as I thought he was,” Micki admitted.
“I can believe that,” Lee muttered softly, and reached up to rub his eyes. “I gather that there was more to the story. Ah…” a thought belatedly hit Lee. “Any idea how long we have before he’s missed?” and he waved a hand across the room.
“Humm,” Micki pondered. “Can you move?”
“Do my best,” Lee told her.
Micki frowned at that less than enthusiastic response. “Suppose I hide him behind those boxes over there,” she pointed to the corner she meant, “and we tuck ourselves into that corner.” She waved a hand a few feet away, to the corner that would be behind the door when it was open. “With any luck they’ll give the room a cursory glance and go elsewhere. Should buy us a little more time.”
“Works for me.” Lee eased himself in the indicated direction while Micki moved the guard. He watched as she added a few extra layers of duct tape, making sure that even when the guy woke up he wouldn’t be able to move around. He grinned when she also covered his eyes and ears with tape. “Remind me never to turn you loose on me with a roll of that stuff,” he told her once she’d dragged the guy behind some large packing crates and returned.
“He got off lucky,” she muttered, and rearranged a couple of boxes before sitting down next to him. “He’s one of the two guys who grabbed Chip and I. When I get my hands on his boss…” She didn’t finish the threat. Lee raised an eyebrow. “Talbot,” Micki muttered, and just nodded when Lee didn’t totally swallow an oath.
“The short version,” Lee ordered.
“What I know of it,” Micki agreed.
“We called Admiral Jones when Chip didn’t show up this morning. But he left out that little detail.”
“Not surprised,” Micki admitted. “It was only a theory anyway at the point I was sent in. And when I hacked my way into the computer files there was no mention of him.” She sent Lee a quizzical look, and he nodded that he understood. “There were a few little things that didn’t add up, but I just chalked it up to somebody’s paranoia and didn’t push. I got what I needed and got the heck out.” Lee nodded again.
“I didn’t totally put it together until after Chip started feeling bad at the restaurant and we got ready to leave. I’d thought that the one guy who walked past the table looked slightly familiar. But it wasn’t until we were almost to Chip’s SUV, and they grabbed us, that I realized where I’d seen him. In Talbot’s office. And I don’t think that I was supposed to have.” Lee sent her another raised eyebrow. “Talbot always kept our meetings…private, for want of another way to phrase it. I never thought too much about it until he was booted out. But it was like he didn’t want any of his agents meeting each other.”
“Didn’t want the ‘clean’ side meeting the ‘dirty’ side most likely,” Lee told her.
She nodded. “I realize that now.”
Lee glanced at the far corner. “One of the dirty ones, I assume.”
She nodded again. “For sure. At least now, anyway. Who knows how it started?” It was Lee’s turn to nod. “Anyway, his buddy got in a bunch of good licks on Chip before Chip collapsed. This one had a gun – there wasn’t anything I could do. We’d parked over on the edge of the parking lot and I didn’t dare even scream.” Lee nodded again. “They bundled us up in Chip’s rig, and then dumped it later…”
“It was found, also this morning, once the alert was sounded.” Lee gave her a bashful look. “We didn’t miss Chip until then – figured he had a hot date for the weekend.”
Even in the subdued lighting, Lee could see Micki blush. But she quickly got herself back under control. “There was another car following. Took us to the boat. But once there it was just the same two who got on board. They dumped Chip on the aft bench, told me to sit next to him, this guy piloted and the other one held a gun on us.”
“Chip said when he first woke up he heard shouting, and you were pushed across the deck and fell against him.”
“Damn,” Micki muttered softly. She looked at Lee. “I really thought that he was awake before that. His eyes were open, and he nodded a couple of times like he understood.”
“Having had a dose of what he got, I’m in no position to argue with either of you,” Lee admitted reluctantly, and got a quick grimace from Micki. “I gather that he missed quite a bit.”
“Sorry about that. Yeah, he did. Harris,” she pointed over to the guy in the corner, “called in once we were away from the dock. When I heard him say something about, ‘we’ve got her and Crane’, I realized that they didn’t know who Chip was – thought that he was you.” Lee nodded. “I waited until I thought Chip was awake, told him that I’d create a diversion while he slipped over the side and swam to the island. By that time I could hear the foghorn and knew we were coming closer.”
“Chip thought that you were going with him.”
“Damn,” Micki muttered again. “No, I had a different plan. Obviously Talbot was more involved than I’d been able to prove. And obviously he was holding a major grudge against you and me.”
“No joke, Sherlock,” Lee mumbled, and closed his eyes.
“You still with me?”
The oath that brought forth from Micki caused Lee to grin softly, but he didn’t open his eyes. “Still listening,” he told her.
“Humm,” she grumbled.
“Chip said that he heard the one guy on the radio,” Lee continued, to prove that he was paying attention, “say something about ‘the wrong one’. Said that he couldn’t make out the whole conversation, but knew that they’d made a mistake.”
“I got up and started yelling, trying to create a little misdirection and confusion, and got knocked back on my tail.”
“The jostling finally got Chip’s attention.”
Micki cringed. “Then he did think I shoved him overboard. Oops.” Lee sent her a humorless grin. “I figured that as soon as they realized they had the wrong person they’d kill him. I needed to get him off the boat as fast as I could. But I thought he’d heard the rest of the plan so I didn’t worry about it. If I’d realized how much he was still out of it…” She took a deep breath. “I almost killed him myself.”
Lee opened his eyes long enough to reach out and take her hand in his. “I think that he’ll forgive you,” Lee told her softly.
“Not sure that I’ll forgive myself,” she told him.
Lee squeezed her hand before once more closing his eyes. “Give the two of you something to talk about,” he told her, a soft smile on his face.
She backhanded him lightly, but continued. “The ‘something heavy’ he heard going overboard was an ammo box – it was against the bench. It distracted the other guy long enough that I could slug him – get his attention away from where Chip went over. I figured that, since so far they hadn’t drugged me, that they wanted me in one piece for whatever reason. Still can’t figure out why I wasn’t even tied up.”
“Don’t look too closely at gift horses,” Lee advised.
“Yeah. When they left the dock they’d just laid the bumpers on the deck. When I slugged the one guy, and before Harris could get out of the pilothouse, I tossed one of the bumpers over the side. Was hoping that they wouldn’t notice. I went over right after, and then hid up against the side of the boat while they shouted and shot wildly for a bit. Then when they got ready to leave I grabbed the bumper and held on for dear life.”
That caused Lee’s eyes to pop open and he stared at her. “That must have been an interesting ride,” was, however, all that he said.
“Had its moments,” she agreed.
“Harris!” was yelled from somewhere down the corridor, and Lee and Micki made themselves as small as they could in their semi-secluded corner. “Harris,” came again impatiently. Footsteps walked past the door, presumably entered Lee’s former cell, and a string of oaths echoed through the area. The footsteps came back, along with the sound of doors being opened. Whoever was doing it was only giving each room a quick glance before continuing on, including the one they were in, thankfully, and the silence quickly returned. The door, however, had been left open, so when Lee and Micki continued speaking it was in whispers.
“Where are we?” Lee wanted to know.
“Somewhere north of Avalon, on Catalina,” she told him. “On the mainland side of the island. It looks like an old military installation.”
Lee nodded. “I know there were several built during World War II. Not surprised that Talbot would know about them.”
It was her turn to nod. “It took me until the next night before I could work myself up the cliff walk from the dock,” she admitted. She sent Lee a glare for his small grin. “There were guys around, and only scrub brush for cover,” she growled. Lee nodded, but the slight grin stayed on his face and she threatened to backhand him again before continuing. “Couldn’t figure out what was taking the cavalry so long to show up. I mean,” she amended at Lee’s look, “while I hadn’t been able to tell Chip where exactly, I thought that between Admirals Nelson and Jones, they could figure it out.” Lee nodded acknowledgement of that logic. “I prowled around, what little I could, while I waited. They are definitely running illegal weapons.” Lee glanced at the crates. “No, they’re stockpiled in another part of the tunnels. This side is just other supplies – canned food, blankets, and other non-perishables. But snooping around is how I spotted them bringing you here. Sorry I couldn’t get to you sooner.”
Lee shrugged. “Not sure that it would have mattered,” he admitted.
She looked at him, worry on her face. “You okay?”
“Been better,” Lee admitted. “Whatever this stuff is, it has some nasty after-effects.”
“So, when can we expect some help?”
Lee cringed. “Afraid that you’re looking at it.” As she seemed ready to scream, he continued. “Oh, Admiral Nelson knows that I came to Catalina. But I was supposed to call in once he had a chance to tackle Admiral Jones again. I never got the chance. At a guess, I’d say that he won’t start worrying about my silence until morning.”
“Swell,” she muttered. “And from what I could tell, they were getting ready for something big. Maybe even pulling out altogether.”
“Makes sense,” Lee agreed. “If he thought that you showing up meant that his hidey hole had been compromised…” He let the thought trail off as she nodded.
“And especially now, with you snooping around.”
“Lotta good I’m going to be if this stuff doesn’t wear off soon,” he admitted.
Micki grinned evilly. “Maybe we can put a dent in his plans long enough to call in the troops.”
“Going to be more difficult now that they know I’m loose…” It was Lee’s turn to grin softly. “I could always stumble in somewhere. While they’re busy with me you could…” He didn’t finish as she slugged him.
“Chip’s right,” she growled. “You do have a death wish.”
Whatever Lee was going to growl back was cut off by footsteps returning, and a voice they were both all too familiar with saying loudly, “I want this area thoroughly searched. They didn’t come upstairs, and there’s no other way out.”
* * * *
Admiral Nelson checked his
watch for the umpteenth time, and grimaced slightly as he realized he’d been
caught. “We made real good time,
Admiral,” Chief Sharkey told him. The
two were piloting FS1 carefully into the waters of
Chief Hauck, Seaview’s Master-At-Arms, and senior rating Kowalski left their seats behind the other two and came forward to peer over their shoulders at the instrumentation. “Got that right,” Hauck said softly.
“Looks like your intel was straight on,” Kowalski muttered as all watched several fair-sized blips on the sonar screen.
Once the men had been called
in, Nelson laid out his battle plans. They knew already what had gone on that
day, having been informed by other NIMR personnel the instant they hit the
grounds. Nelson had added the details. His informant was fairly sure that Talbot was
staying at an abandoned outpost that had been used during WWII to train
Dividing his men into two teams, they’d armed themselves to the teeth and taken off. Nelson took his three chosen men and headed out on FS1. The other four men, Seamen Patterson and Riley, and Lieutenants James and Keeter, had a different agenda. Nelson waited until they signaled that they were in place on dry ground before he approached the installation from the water.
Nelson turned off all lights and surfaced just enough so that they could see out the windows as they hung at the edge of the little bay and considered their options. “We can disable any of the boats that try to leave with the laser rifle.” Sharkey offered.
“Just watch your aim,” Nelson warned. “Lee could be on one of them. And if they are loaded with armaments…” He didn’t finish that thought.
“Understood,” Sharkey agreed. He certainly didn’t want to be responsible for blowing up his skipper.
“The coast looks too rugged for us to work in close from here,” Hauck said.
“We’ll have to snorkel in along the bank,” Nelson told him. “With the new moon we shouldn’t be spotted. Whatever they’re doing – and it looks like they’re loading the boats – they’re using no more lights than absolutely necessary. Makes it better for us as well.”
“How do we get up the hill to the installation?” Hauck wanted to know. He liked his battle plans as spelled out ahead of time as possible.
This time Nelson couldn’t oblige. “Guess we play that one by ear, Chief. Let’s get going.”
But they weren’t halfway around to the dock when there were small explosions aboard two of the three boats.
* * * *
Lee and Micki were caught in a quandary. She had managed to arm herself but Lee’s weapons had of course both been confiscated. And from the sounds of the footsteps they heard, as well as the occasional voices as one man called to another, it didn’t look like shooting their way out would be an option anyway.
But it also looked like the fact that the door to their room being left open earlier just might work to their advantage. They’d left it open, knowing that it would no doubt be noticed if they closed it. As footsteps came closer they once more curled into as small balls as they could, hiding their faces so they wouldn’t stand out in the subdued light. Lee was thankful that he’d worn dark clothing on purpose. He could only guess were Micki had come up with the dark blue coveralls she was wearing – he didn’t think the outfit was what she’d worn for her date with Chip.
“This room been searched?” they heard Talbot, standing right outside their hiding place, ask.
“Yeah, boss.” Lee thought he recognized the voice of the man who had tried to shake him awake earlier. “When I first noticed them missing. The door’s even still open.”
Lee heard Talbot mutter something, and had a feeling that the underling wasn’t making any points with his boss. A flashlight briefly swept the room, but it didn’t get all the way behind the door where Lee and Micki were hiding. They heard a grunt and the door slammed shut. There was also a click. Lee whispered to Micki, “I don’t like the sound of that.”
In the gloom he saw her grin as she reached into a pocket and came up with a key. “Got it covered,” she whispered back.
“As long as the same key opens all the doors,” Lee warned.
She snorted indelicately, but still grinned. “Has so far – at least down here. Probably saves them time.”
Lee nodded at that logic. They both waited quietly until all the footsteps and voices retreated back in the direction they’d come. When Micki would have moved toward the door, Lee reached out a hand. “Not yet,” he told her. She frowned but held her position. Just over a minute later, one last set of footsteps crossed in front of the door and continued on to where the others had disappeared.
“How did you know?” Micki demanded, although still whispering.
“It’s what I’d have done,” Lee told her smugly. They spent several more minutes in silence before venturing over to the door, and then waited another couple minutes just to be sure. While they waited Lee gestured toward the trussed up guard. “What did you hit him with?” he asked, puzzled that the man still hadn’t budged.
Even in the minimal lighting he saw her smirk. “Wasn’t so much the knock on the head as the needle stick right after.” Lee raised both eyebrows. “Found a stash while I was prowling around. Wasn’t sure what it was, but he seemed like a good guinea pig.”
Shaking his head, Lee walked over on still slightly shaky legs and checked. But the guy was still breathing so he relaxed a bit. “Don’t envy him his headache,” he told Micki when he was once more next to her.
“Serves him right!” she said emphatically, and put the key quietly into the door lock.
Perhaps because of Lee’s continued apprehension she used due caution in opening the door. Lee’s eyes, having finally grown accustomed to the dim light in the storeroom, once more smarted at the brighter lighting of the corridor. Micki noticed and hesitated. “You going to be okay?”
“I’ll manage,” he told her. “Just, no sudden sprints if you can help it.” She nodded. “Where are we going, by the way?”
“How I got in,” she told him. “I saw what looked like a cave when I was prowling outside. Turned out to be a side entrance to these storage areas.”
“They weren’t guarding it?” She shook her head. “And I wonder how come Talbot doesn’t seem to know about it. At least, he indicated that there wasn’t another way out.”
“No idea,” she admitted. “They use a different one closer to the cliff. Watching them is what gave me the idea when I saw this one. Well…” she sent him a slightly sheepish look, “fell into it, actually. The entrance was all covered up with brush. And this one takes off from one of the back storage rooms and not the corridor. Sort of looked like a back door out in case of problems – maybe during the war. There were enough cobwebs that I knew it hadn’t been used for a very long time.” Lee could only nod at that bit of logic and follow along behind as she led the way.
Their luck was still holding, apparently, as they made their way down a side corridor, into the last room, and eventually outside the installation. Lee would have preferred to head further into the place and hopefully get his hands on Talbot. But he was willing to admit that it was going to take more than just the two of them, especially as it was an effort for him just to walk a straight line with his head still pounding from whatever drug that they’d given him. Micki told him that the boat she’d been brought on was down at the dock in the small bay below the installation so they decided to make their way down and either use the boat as a getaway vehicle, or at the very least call in reinforcements.
Plans took a slight detour when they found that there were two more boats besides the cruiser – heavy duty fishing trawlers. One was riding very low in the water, and as they watched men were carrying heavy crates aboard the second one.
“They wouldn’t be using those to haul arms,” Micki said skeptically.
“Maybe just as far out to sea as a waiting freighter,” Lee theorized. “Either way, they are not leaving the dock.”
“Amen,” Micki agreed. “What say we blow up the munitions a little ahead of their schedule?”
Lee thought about that for a bit, but finally shook his head. “Destroys the evidence.” She nodded reluctantly. “But nothing says we can’t sink them where they sit.”
“I do like the way you think,” Micki told him, then had another thought and glared at him. “Sometimes, anyway,” she added. Lee grinned, and they made their way under cover of the surrounding brush close to the top of the pathway down to the bay below them. They were stymied at that point. It was the only way down the cliff face, but there were just enough men working around to make using it dangerous.
“Any ideas, hotshot?” Micki smarted at Lee.
He grinned back. “Yeah, but you wouldn’t like it.” He didn’t elaborate and she let it drop.
They were startled when a shrill whistle rang out behind them. Peeking out, they saw Talbot standing at the top of the path, signaling his men to come up. Leaving one man on the dock, the rest made their way up the path and followed Talbot back into the installation. “We’re not going to get a better shot,” Lee whispered. “Now, if that one would just cooperate before this bunch decides to come back.”
No sooner were the words out of his mouth then the man left on guard pulled out a pack of cigarettes, lit up, and leaned against the dock railing, looking out to sea. “There’s your chance,” Lee told Micki.
“You’re not coming?” Suddenly she sounded worried.
Lee shook his head. “You can move faster without me.” She hesitated. “Go on,” Lee told her. “And remember – little booms.”
She still looked doubtful. “No going after Talbot without me,” she ordered.
“Wouldn’t think of it,” he assured her. But he only waited until Micki was most of the way to the bottom, to where she could slip back into the bushes, before he climbed higher – from there he had access to the area that Talbot had whistled from. He had no doubt that once Micki set off her fireworks everyone inside would come charging out. He figured that if he could get his hands on Talbot he could control the rest of the pack until Micki could call in reinforcements. He’d have to get a weapon, of course. But Lee didn’t expect that to be a major problem since all the men he’d seen so far were carrying sidearms.
He didn’t consider that what he was planning amounted to actually lying. He’d promised Micki that he wouldn’t think about going after Talbot without her. Cringing only slightly, he acknowledged that if he did think about it, he’d have to admit just how stupid the plan was!
* * * *
Micki had little trouble slipping aboard the more loaded of the two trawlers. The guard had gotten bored with leaning against the railing smoking his cigarette and started walking slowly back and forth along the dock. She had only to wait until his back was turned and quietly make her way across the gangplank. She hesitated only a moment, glancing up at the top of the cliff to make sure none of the others had reappeared.
Once aboard she headed straight for the pilothouse, with its access to the hold. She was hoping to find some C-4 explosive and blasting caps. Strategically placed and banked with something noncombustible they would do a good job of sinking the boats without setting anything else off. What she found first, however, was several crates of hand grenades. They would be a little touchier to get them to do exactly what she wanted them to do, but she couldn’t afford to waste too much time. Lobbing one on the back deck of each boat would hopefully take out the engines. The fuel tanks shouldn’t be a problem – it would take more than a grenade to set off diesel fuel. And if enough of the aft section blew apart, the boats should fill with water and sink before anything else could explode.
At least, that was the theory. Micki had a little too much experience with theory being shot to hell by reality to totally trust the plan. She also didn’t want to take forever to complete the project. She didn’t trust Crane to keep his promise.
She grabbed half a dozen grenades, deciding that a few extra might come in handy, and returned to the pilothouse. Looking around for the guard, she once more timed his walk until she was sure that she had enough time to get back into the scrub brush along the water’s edge. She had to be close enough to accurately lob the grenades, but far enough away that she didn’t blow herself up in the process. With one more glance up the hill, she scooted off the boat.
So far, so good, she told herself. The next problem was how to deal with both boats at once. The instant the first grenade hit the boat it would alert the guard. But while pondering that, the guard gave her the answer. Almost finished with one cigarette he stopped walking, pulled out the pack, and lit a new one with the remains of the old. Busy satisfying his nicotine habit, he neither heard nor saw Micki sneak up behind him. Scratch one guard, she thought as she hauled him to the far end of the dock. Not that she cared all that much about him but she didn’t want anyone to look down and see him lying on the dock. If someone did happen to notice that he was missing, she hoped that they would think he was just off in the bushes relieving himself. She knew also that both Lee and Chip would be ticked if she blew him away unnecessarily. She didn’t take the time to tape him up, but confiscated his sidearm on general principles. She would have preferred to set charges and be back up the hill to help Lee before they went off – another reason for wanting the C-4 or something similar. Instead, she popped the pins on two of the grenades, held them securely until she could take another careful look up the hill, and quite expertly landed one in the stern of each trawler.
The results on the first one were exactly what she wanted. The stern panel blew off, taking part of the decking with it. That allowed water to enter the hold and the boat instantly started to sink. The other boat wasn’t as low in the water so the results weren’t nearly as spectacular. In fact, Micki considered them pathetic enough to warrant another grenade. Her toss coincided with a rifle shot that came a little too close for comfort, so she didn’t immediately see where the grenade landed as she scurried back into the underbrush. The results, however, were unmistakable – within a few seconds of the pop of the grenade, the entire boat went up in a blast that had Micki hearing nothing except the ringing in her ears for the next couple of minutes. Oops, she grinned to herself, working further back into the brush. Think I found the C-4.
* * * *
“What the…” Nelson growled into his snorkel. All three men hung in the water at the edge of the bay, uncertain what was going on. When the big blast came they looked at each other. “Let’s move it,” Nelson told the other two. “I think Lee just announced his presence.” No one needed any more incentive to swim as fast as they could the remaining distance to what was left of the dock.
Their arrival coincided with almost a dozen men flying down the cliff trail. The ensuing battle was furious but brief. Nelson had armed both himself and his men with not only traditional sidearms, but also with ones that shot tranquilizer pellets. It only took a few moments to realize that, however it happened, they had Talbot’s men in a crossfire. Nelson assumed that it was Lee firing from the brush along the bank, and wasted no time laying down a barrage that had the bad guys either wounded or surrendering. Within minutes it was all over but the shouting.
As Hauck and Kowalski got control of the situation, FS1 bubbled up just out of range of what was left of the burning boat. Nelson gave a quick glance around and then yelled. “Lee? Lee, are you okay?” His mouth practically fell open when not his senior officer but Michelle Ortiz stood up and walked toward him. “You’re alive,” he uttered, almost to himself.
“Eesh. What is it with everyone wanting me dead these days?” she quipped back. “You all are going to give me a complex.”
* * * *
With a good bit of satisfaction Lee watched the small explosions aboard each boat. He was just nodding his approval of how well the first one was sinking when men started piling out of the installation. One man got off a rifle shot before there was an ungodly explosion from below. From his hiding place Lee saw the second boat disintegrate in a fiery ball. “Ortiz,” he growled softly, before getting back to business.
Everyone was yelling at once, and most of them headed down the path. Lee was pleased that one who didn’t was Talbot – Lee wanted him all to himself. But Talbot almost immediately headed back inside, leaving one man on guard at the top of the path. His attention on the scene below, he didn’t have a clue that Lee was behind him until it was almost too late. Lee was still several feet behind the man when he turned. He was able to grab the barrel of the rifle the man was carrying and knock it to the side. But just as quickly the man tried to use the rifle as a club and Lee took a fairly good smack to his ribs. He fell but was able to grab the barrel on his way down, and ended up pulling the guard off-balance and down on the ground with him. The mercenary proved no match for Lee’s years of dedication and training, but the effort set Lee’s head once more to pounding and it took him a couple minutes to once more regain his feet. By that time he could hear the gunfire from below, and “Micki” slipped out of his mouth. But a quick glance down the cliff showed several of the bad guys already laying on the ground, and FS1 surfacing just off shore. “Thanks, Admiral,” Lee said softly, grabbed the mercenary’s rifle and pistol, and headed into the installation.
A brief mental image ran through his brain, a flashback to a cartoon he’d watched with some of Chip’s nieces and nephews the last time he’d been at one of the Morton clan’s gatherings. It was the tale of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. The little mongoose had followed a cobra into its tunnel home and all the other animals instantly started mourning him. It was well known that a mongoose rarely survived such an encounter – it was too easy for the snake, which knew where it was going, to come to a wide spot in the tunnel and turn back and bite the mongoose before the mongoose knew what had happened. Like Nagaina, the cobra, Talbot knew where he was going. Logic told Lee that he should wait for reinforcements. The need for justice motivated him forward. Let’s hope that I’m as smart as Rikki, Lee shrugged. That particular mongoose survived the encounter.
Lee hesitated at the entrance for a brief moment, letting his eyes adjust to the stronger lighting inside. Not good, he told himself, took a deep breath, and continued. Wish I’d thought to confiscate Micki’s key, was his next thought as he started coming to doors. But most, he discovered as he carefully listened and then checked each one, were unlocked. This seemed to be the living quarters for most of the men. All were sparsely furnished, and didn’t have anything in the way of personal items. Either these weren’t the type to have such things or they were, as Micki speculated, getting ready to leave.
Lee tried to picture the landscape around the installation. While he was fairly familiar with Catalina, he knew nothing specific about the part Micki had said they were located. Just mostly brush-covered rolling hills, and nothing else. He remembered a few dirt roads that he’d jogged, for something to do on previous visits. It was possible that Talbot had merely passed through the installation to a waiting vehicle and was already making his escape. The thought made Lee hurry his steps, and could have easily cost him his life.
He took a corner in the corridor without really slowing down. A bullet zipping past his shoulder had him instantly changing directions. Back around the corner he flattened himself against the wall. Glancing at his sleeve he spotted the hole the bullet had left in the fabric but thankfully missed skin. Dumb mongoose, Lee chided himself with a small sheepish grin. He was willing to admit that his slightly whimsical attitude was a combination of relief at finding Micki alive and his still pounding head. He laid down the rifle and grabbed the pistol he’d tucked in his waistband before once again moving forward. Happily, this time nobody was there to shoot at him. A quick, cautious look into the first door revealed what had obviously been Talbot’s headquarters. Lee wanted to go through it with a fine-toothed comb. But he’d leave that for later. Right now he had a snake to corner.
As he moved forward there was a shout from somewhere up ahead. Lee thought the voice had a familiar ring to it, but at the same time there came the sound of footsteps behind him. He hoped that it was Admiral Nelson, but didn’t dare take the chance that one or more of Talbot’s men had slipped Nelson’s ambush. He couldn’t take the time to lay a trap for them if it meant letting Talbot get away. Have to strike the head, he told himself. He grimaced at that continued reference to a mongoose after a cobra no matter how appropriate the tactic was for both circumstances, and headed toward where he thought the shout had come from. The next couple doors were locked as he crept toward what looked like an exit to outside so he didn’t even bother checking the last one. The click next to his ear told him just how big a mistake that was.
* * * *
“What…?” Chip mumbled as the bed he was laying in started moving.
“Easy, Chip,” came Will’s voice, accompanied by a hand being laid on his shoulder. “Go back to sleep. We’re just moving you to a different room.”
Chip forced his eyes open and focused on the smile on the doctor’s face. “Why?”
Will momentarily glared at him. “Because I can,” he growled, before the smile came back. “Chill,” he teased. “From what I hear, I do believe that the next time you wake up you’ll like the view a whole lot better.”
“You’re not making any sense,” Chip mumbled back as his eyes lost the battle to stay open.
Will gave Chip’s shoulder another pat as his breathing settled once more into the steady rhythm of sleep. “Let’s hope that Chief Sharkey was when he called in.”
* * * *
“You’re a royal pain in the six, you know that, Crane?”
Lee had stopped dead at the sound, and had no trouble recognizing Talbot’s voice. “I do my best,” he quipped.
A pistol barrel tapped his shoulder. He very carefully reached his right hand around and let the ousted admiral take the one he was holding away from him. “Back up – carefully!”
Lee had only taken two small steps when the order to stop coincided with more footsteps coming from the direction Lee had come from. At the same time sounds of a door opening came from the direction he had been heading. Okay, Rikki, he caught himself thinking, I think I’ve got you topped for stupid moves. He sadly shook his head at himself, and the barrel of a gun poked him in the back.
“Who are you signaling?” Talbot demanded. Lee was standing directly in the doorway of a room looking out, unavoidably shielding Talbot who was just inside.
Lee shook his head again before he could stop himself. “No one,” he told Talbot honestly. “Just trying to think like a smart mongoose.”
Apparently Talbot wasn’t in the mood for levity because the gun jabbed him painfully in the spine. At the same time a soft “Lee” came from the corner. Lee slowly turned his head and sighed.
“Hi, Admiral,” he told Nelson. “Sorry about never getting around to calling.”
“We’ll discuss your lack of following orders at another time.”
“Yes, sir,” Lee told him, and got another jab in the back.
“Nelson,” Talbot called.
“Give it up, Talbot,” Nelson bellowed, still from the safety of the corner. A noise from the other direction had Lee sending a careful glance that direction, and Lt. James peered back carefully from that corner. Lee sent him a small smile. “You can’t get out,” Nelson continued. “We’ve got you cornered.”
“And I’ve got your precious Crane,” Talbot yelled back, punctuated by a jab that caused Lee to cringe, emphasizing his advantage. “You and your men are going to back off and let me get to my boat.”
“Fat chance,” Nelson told him. But Lee, who knew the man so well, heard just the hint of hesitation in his voice.
“You want me that bad, Nelson? You’d let me kill Crane? I go free, so does he.” Even Lee didn’t believe that one. But he was also very aware that Nelson would do everything in his power to rescue Lee, no matter how hard Lee would argue that the greater good came before the single man. They’d been placed, unfortunately, in this situation before.
Someone behind Nelson was trying to get his attention, and Lee had a feeling he knew who that someone was. He decided to get in his own bit of logic before any decisions were set in stone. “It will be better this way, Admiral,” he told Nelson. “And make sure you keep Chip corralled. As ticked off as he is over Micki, I really don’t need him creating any more trouble.” He saw the look of surprise on Nelson’s face, but was pleased when it was almost instantly replaced by comprehension. Because he thought Micki dead, Talbot wouldn’t be expecting to see her. Lee could just see her petitioning Nelson to set up some kind of ambush. But, if Talbot discovered that she was still alive he’d demand that she accompany Lee to whatever prejudicial treatment Talbot was planning.
Lee saw Nelson send James a signal and the lieutenant’s head disappeared. It took a little longer for Nelson to get his contingent under control, apparently, but he finally yelled to Talbot. “You’re way is clear to the dock, Talbot. You won’t be bothered.”
“I know I won’t, Nelson,” Talbot snarled back defiantly. “My gun will be pressed against the back of Crane’s head the entire way. There’s no way you can take me down before I could pull the trigger.”
Talbot made good on his threat. He twisted Lee’s left arm behind Lee’s back with his left hand, and walked half a step behind Lee with the gun in his right hand practically grinding a hole into the back of Lee’s head. It added momentum to the jackhammers that were continuing to annoy Lee. Doing his best to ignore them Lee walked carefully, trying not to give Talbot any reason to get a nervous trigger finger. He could only guess what Nelson was plotting, although he was sure there was a plan of some sort.
Nelson had been ordered out of the building, and the walk back through the corridors to the entrance at the top of the cliff was completed in silence. Talbot signaled Lee to stop just inside the door. Admiral Nelson was clearly visible, standing about halfway between the door and the top of the path. “Where are the rest of your men, Nelson? Remember, one wrong move and Crane dies.”
There was the barest hint of a smile on Nelson’s face as he answered. “You’re only alive as long as Lee is,” he answered dryly. “As for my people, they won’t bother you. You have my word.” Talbot snorted derisively but he pushed Lee, and the two walked out into the open.
Lee kept his eyes on Nelson, looking for… He wasn’t sure. A sign, a signal of some sort to what Nelson was plotting. But he was disappointed as Nelson’s face was a blank mask. Lee didn’t dare try to see what Talbot was doing – he assumed looking around when Nelson again spoke. “You won’t see any of them.”
Talbot sputtered something rude. “I know they’re close,” he told Nelson.
Nelson shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. They won’t be the ones to make the first move.”
Lee got the feeling that Nelson was trying to tell him something with the quiet statement. But for the life of him he couldn’t figure out what. He was perfectly willing to chalk it up to a brain that was still struggling to function properly and prayed that whatever was about to happen, he wouldn’t inadvertently screw it up.
“Where are my men?” was Talbot’s next demand.
“Where they won’t be doing you any good for a very long time,” Nelson answered, still calmly. Talbot muttered something too low for Lee to clearly hear.
But he heard Talbot’s next order and once more started walking. He had his doubts that he could make it down the steep path if Talbot continued holding him in the current position because his balance was still slightly off, and hesitated at the top of the path. “Talbot,” he said with as much sincerity as he could muster, “whatever that concoction was you used on me, I’m not sure that I can make it down the hill with only one arm for balance.” While it was a perfectly honest statement, it also reiterated to Nelson that Lee wasn’t in tip top shape. He wasn’t willing to depend on Micki to have told Nelson, or that Nelson would totally believe her. And if Nelson was counting on Lee to help with his own rescue, well… While he was a master at trying to convince everyone around him he was fine when they happened to think otherwise, he decided on this particular occasion to come clean. He could see Nelson, still visible where he stood quietly to one side, ever so slightly raise an eyebrow.
“One wrong move, Crane…” Talbot didn’t finish the threat. But while the gun stayed planted firmly against Lee’s head, Talbot released his arm.
Lee glanced down the hill. FS1 was nowhere to be seen. Considering the earlier fireworks, the smell of which still hung heavily in the air, the cabin cruiser appeared to be unscathed beyond a few places where burning debris had left scorch marks. Luckily it had been tied up at the end of the dock, as far away from the trawlers as possible.
Lee muttered a few rude comments under his breath when, as he took the first step down the path, he caught the barest glimpse of a familiar looking pair of coveralls tucked down in some scrub brush just to Lee’s right. But at the same time he suddenly realized what Nelson had been trying to tell him when he’d told Talbot that it wouldn’t be anyone from NIMR who made the first move. I’m still going to kill her, he breathed to himself. Always assuming that Talbot doesn’t kill us both first. He took a deep breath and said out loud, in what he hoped sounded like casual conversation as he started down the path, “Talbot, don’t you ever worry that one of these days, someone you’ve gotten killed is going to come back to haunt you?”
“Believe in ghosts, do you, Crane?”
“Yes, sir,” Lee answered honestly.
Talbot snorted. “Well, I don’t!”
“BOO,” came loudly from the right.
Talbot would not have been human if he hadn’t started at the unexpected shout. As the gun against his head swung ever so slightly toward the sound, Lee instinctively dropped to the left. He caught a glimpse of Micki delivering what looked to be a rather spectacular side kick, karate’s strongest offensive kick, to Talbot’s right shoulder. At the same time the rest of the closest bushes sprouted camouflage-clothed men with rifles all pointed at Talbot.
The weapons ended up not being needed. Talbot pulled the trigger an instant too late as Micki’s foot connected, sending the bullet harmlessly into the air. The kick itself proved to be a good deal more effective as it sent Talbot tumbling down the steep path. Lee started to get up, to see where he landed, but two things stopped him. Arms, which turned out to belong to Seaview’s senior rating, Kowalski, gently restrained him. Ski was one of the few people Lee was comfortable enough around to physically assist him when necessary. And Nelson instantly stood over him, glaring him into accepting the help.
“Ski,” Nelson ordered, “check him out,” and Lee watched the seaman reach for a first aid pack. Lee took another look at Nelson’s face and surrendered peacefully.
Micki stood at the top of the path looking down. “Oops,” she said softly as Nelson passed her, following the rest of the men down the path. She gave Lee a quick look.
“Go,” he grumbled, and she headed after Nelson.
“How you doing, Skipper?” Kowalski asked carefully.
“I’m fine,” the standard answer was growled.
“Ah, meaning no disrespect, sir, but…” He stopped when Lee turned and gave the rating one of his more menacing glares. It almost instantly morphed into a sheepish grin.
“I’m a little punky, Ski,” he admitted. “Took a dose of whatever they gave the XO. But it’s wearing off.” He sent the rating a quick grin. “Pretty well, anyway.”
Kowalski grinned back. A lot had changed since their first, rather abrupt, introduction, and the rough weeks following when they were barely polite to one another. There had grown a very close, special friendship despite the difference in rank, based a good percentage on the respect one had for the other. Kowalski knew his place and would never dare push Lee. At the same time, both knew that Lee would grant the rating privileges that he might not so easily allow others. In this instance, with Ski’s first aid training, he was the logical one to keep track of his slightly-the-worse-for-wear CO.
But Lee’s patience and cooperation only lasted so long. He allowed a quick assessment by the rating, but then got stubborn and insisted on following the others down the path. He smiled a private smile as Kowalski kept close but didn’t offer to assist in the descent.
Seaview’s men were scattered along the dock, Lee noticed as he neared the bottom. Nelson and Micki were standing about 20 feet above the dock, where something was covered by a blanket. FS1 had resurfaced next to the dock. “Talbot?” Lee asked as he stopped next to his boss. Nelson sent him a quick glare before directing it at Kowalski. “I’ll be okay,” Lee added quickly, deflecting Nelson’s attention away from the rating and back on himself.
“Harrumph,” Nelson growled, but tossed a hand at the blanket. “I’d have preferred having him alive,” he muttered with a glare at Micki. “There’s a lot of information he could have supplied.”
“Yes, sir,” Lee agreed. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean that he would have. And this way,” he added carefully, “he doesn’t have the chance to slip through official fingers like he did the last time.”
Out of the corner of his eye he saw Micki nod vigorously before she added, “It really was an accident, Admiral. I just wanted to knock the gun away, not send him down the hill.”
“Harrumph,” Nelson growled again.
Lee turned a glare on Micki. “You seem to be having a lot of ‘accidents’ all of a sudden. I succinctly told you not to blow up the evidence.”
“You try taking out a precise target with a grenade, Crane.” She returned the glare two-fold. “I did the best that I could.”
“I was afraid of that,” Lee muttered not quite under his breath.
“I suppose that you could have done better,” she threw in his face.
“I darn well wouldn’t have blown up the boat,” he told her with feeling.
“What about you?” she growled back. “You promised me that you wouldn’t go after Talbot by yourself.”
“I did no such thing,” Lee told her adamantly. He hesitated only a second before adding in a slightly softer voice, “I only promised not to think about it.”
“Children!” Nelson stopped the bickering with the one word, said so softly that they both barely heard it. They got slightly sheepish looks on their faces as Lee heard Kowalski trying to choke off a chuckle.
Chief Hauck chose that moment to walk up. “We’ve got everything under control, sir. Took most of them with tranquilizer darts. The couple with gunshot wounds are stable. The Coast Guard is on their way to secure the place until NCIS and ATF can get here.” The latter was the division of the Treasury Department, Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, who would have jurisdiction over the illegal arms.
Suddenly Micki and Lee looked at each other. “Harris,” they both said at the same time, and Micki took off back up the path.
“Kowalski, go with her. She’ll need help,” Lee said, and then looked at Nelson. “We left one tied up,” he explained.
“Belay that,” Nelson ordered the rating, and motioned to Hauck. The MAA enlisted Chris James, who was standing close by, and the two of them headed after the ONI agent. “You,” Nelson continued to Kowalski, “get Cdr. Crane settled aboard FS1. As soon as Ms. Ortiz returns we’ll get them back to NIMR. FS1 can come back for the rest of our people, and let the other agencies fight over everything else.”
“Aye, aye, sir,” Kowalski answered but didn’t move, sending Lee a hesitant look.
Lee just sent back a small grin and headed toward the bright yellow craft. Now was obviously not the time to tick Nelson off any more than he already was. Lee understood. His boss had had a long day of worry, frustration, and dealing with other bureaucracies – a combination guaranteed to leave Nelson in a foul mood. With things coming to a safe ending he’d calm down fairly fast. But getting in his face before that happened could be extremely hazardous, no matter who did it.
Lee actually thought that he was feeling better. But the instant he entered FS1 the bright interior lights once more set off the jackhammers and he had to close his eyes and reach a hand out to the bulkhead to keep his balance.
“Skipper,” Chief Sharkey yelped, and started to get out of the pilot’s chair.
“I’m fine,” Lee grumbled. That’s all he needed – everyone treating him like an invalid.
Kowalski was immediately at his side. “Might be best if you’d lay down in the bunk, Skipper,” he suggested respectfully.
“Best for me, or for you when the Admiral gets aboard?” Lee teased the rating, immediately getting himself back under control. He was rewarded with soft chuckles from both Kowalski and Sharkey.
“Both, maybe,” Ski told him with a smile still in his voice. “Can’t remember when I’ve last seen him as…” The rating searched for a politically correct word. “Irritated,” he finally chose.
Lee nodded, opened his eyes just enough to make his way across the deck to the small bunk, and hefted himself up into it. He had to admit, if only to himself, that it was a relief to lay on the soft surface and finally relax after his own very trying day. He felt Kowalski settle a blanket over him, but never realized when he fell asleep.
* * * *
Will Jamison was standing
“Relax, Chip,” Will told him with a smile in his voice as well as on his face as Chip awakened and easily recognized the back of the dark, curly-haired head in the other bed. “He’ll be out of here before you are.”
“I told you earlier,” Will said softly, and turned toward the blond, “that you’d like the view better in this room than the other one.”
“Jamie,” Chip muttered, frustrated that the CMO was being obtuse and not explaining what was going on.
“However,” Will continued, knowing what Chip wanted but having something a bit more important to impart before complying, “if you would look the other direction I think that you’ll like the view even better.”
Chip frowned but turned slowly toward the other side of his bed. “Micki,” he shouted and sat up. Or, tried to. He only got his head a foot off the pillow before his body objected to the sudden movement and sent out streams of pain. Will, expecting the dramatics, had already dropped the chart on the bed and gently eased Chip back down.
“I’d greatly appreciate it if you could keep your screams to a minimum, Mr. Morton,” Will deadpanned. “I’d prefer that you didn’t wake up the skipper.”
“Too late,” Lee said quietly. “I’m awake.” He rolled over so that he could easily see his friends. He shrugged and sent Will a sheepish grin since he’d just spent the last 10 minutes convincing Will that he was dead to the world. A chuckle from the doorway diverted Will’s glare at Lee, and he found Admiral Nelson smiling at him from across the room. He sighed heavily and picked up the chart as Chip was raising the head of his bed.
“Just try to get some rest, both of you,” he ordered. He’d already lost his battle with Ms. Ortiz. With another sigh he closed the door behind him, and stood in the hallway next to the Admiral.
“You really don’t expect them to go back to sleep anytime soon, do you?” Nelson asked with a raised eyebrow.
Will chuckled. “Of course not,” he admitted. “But it’s now,” and he glanced at his watch,
“nearly 0600.” It had taken him awhile,
once Nelson got back, to make sure that there was nothing more wrong with Lee
than the after effects of whatever drug had been used on him, and then convince
Lee to remain in
Nelson chuckled again. “Sneaky, Will. Very sneaky.”
“Hey,” Will defended himself, “I’ve had to resort to such tactics to keep ahead of those two. We won’t even discuss Ms. Ortiz.” Nelson threatened to laugh out loud and the two men walked down the hall, further away from the door. “How are things on the official front?” Will changed the subject.
It was Nelson’s turn to get a smug look on his face. “Officially out of my hands,” he told Will. Will raised an eyebrow. “Oh, Agent Harcourt has already been clamoring to interview those three,” and he tossed a hand down the hall. Will opened his mouth to respond, but Nelson held the hand up to stop the comment. “Down, Will,” he told his CMO with a grin. “I reminded her that it will take at least 24 hours, and probably longer, just to get the site sorted out and figure out who is who. I told her that Ms. Ortiz had identified the one named Harris as Talbot’s apparent second-in-command, and one of the men who abducted her and Chip. I suggested that she and ATF pick on him for awhile and let our people recover a little longer.”
“Thank you, Admiral.” Will told him with feeling.
“With any luck, by the time both agencies get done fighting with each other they won’t have much lift to hassle our people about.”
“Did you call Admiral Jones yet?”
Nelson did laugh out loud at that. “At first I just told him that, in rescuing Lee, Talbot had been accidentally killed. I let him rant for a good two minutes, calling my people all sorts of idiots for allowing that to happen; that ONI needed him back in one piece to interrogate as to his activities and contacts. He threatened to have whoever killed him strung up by their…” He chuckled. “Well, let’s just say that Robert was a tad ticked.” Both men chuckled. “Anyway, when he finally started to wind down with the insults and demand to know who the numbskull was who’d killed him, I told him that it was Ms. Ortiz.” Nelson got a particularly evil grin on his face. “Dead silence.” He chuckled again. “I didn’t interrupt.”
It was Will’s turn to chuckle. “Why do I get the feeling that he’s locked horns with her a time or two?”
“Humm,” was Nelson’s response. “He finally asked to talk to her. I just told him that she was sleeping off her ordeal and I’d have her call when she was awake.” He looked at Will. “My people come first. Chip needed to talk to her far more than Robert.”
“Thank you again,” Will told him and sighed heavily again. “There’s a bottle of medicinal brandy in my desk drawer. What say I prescribe a stiff belt for both of us, after everything that’s happened?”
“Thought you’d never get around to that,” Nelson told him with a grin. Now that the younger set was safely back into the fold there was time for these two friends to relax. They both knew that, all too soon the way things happened around NIMR, they’d be off and running again.
*see ‘Mouse’, by R. L. Keller
** see One-Eyed Jack, by Liz Martin
Will Jamison’s wife, Lu Tsi, borrowed with permission from Cris Smithson.