By R. L. Keller
But he forced a small smile on his face and greeted Lee the way he always did before a cruise. “Good morning, Skipper. All crew checked in and either on board or at work on the dock. We’ll be ready to sail at 0830 as ordered, sir.”
“Good,” was the quiet reply as the dark, curly-haired head bent over the clipboard holding the navigation parameters for the cruise. One-word replies definitely not being the norm, Chip found himself half holding his breath, surreptitiously studying his long-time friend. He finally relaxed a bit as Lee let out a deep sigh and looked at him, his expression softening somewhat. “Sorry I’m late.”
Chip made a point of checking his watch. “Not so you’d notice,” he said with a grin. “Get hung up in the office?” Any last minute glitches could have triggered the near-explosion by his occasionally temperamental Captain.
“Didn’t even get that far,” Lee admitted, almost shyly. “Running late and came straight here.”
“Things are under control. You’ve got time to run up there if you want.” Chip watched as Lee hesitated, then shook his head.
“Can’t be anything pressing or you’d already have gotten a call, asking where I was.”
“True,” Chip agreed, and forced his grin to broaden, trying to convey a sense of peace to his still all-too tense friend. He was tempted to just come out and ask what was wrong, but held his tongue. If Lee wanted him to know, he’d tell him in his own good time. And if he doesn’t want me to know, I’ll needle it out of him later, in someplace a little more private than the Control Room. But he didn’t think a little polite conversation would be out of order. “Called you last night,” he mentioned casually as he and Lee continued to look over the reports.
Lee hesitated, but finally answered. “Went for a walk,” he said quietly. “Didn’t see the light on the answering machine until this morning, and knew you’d already left home. Sorry.”
“Nothing important,” Chip assured him with a shrug of his shoulders. He didn’t add that from the way Lee looked, he probably hadn’t seen the light because he hadn’t gotten in until this morning. The closer Chip examined his friend, the more Lee looked like he’d spent the night on the beach instead of in his bed. While his uniform was as neat as ever, the man himself seemed rumpled. His hair was more untamed than Lee usually allowed it to become, and his eyes didn’t have their usual sparkle. “You get a chance to grab breakfast?” he asked as casually as he could. Lee just shrugged, continuing to study the report. “Everything’s under control. I’m sure Cookie…”
Lee never looked up, but the two words stopped Chip as effectively as a punch in the gut. He rarely heard that particularly low, deadly quality in Lee’s voice, devoid of any friendliness at all, and could count on one hand the times it had been directed at him – thankfully. He quickly busied himself with pre-departure routines.
Almost immediately Lee’s stiff posture relaxed and he gave Chip half a smile. “Sorry,” he apologized.
Chip shrugged it off. “Just part of an XO’s job – putting up with his Skipper’s flack.” He gave his friend a huge grin, and finally relaxed himself as Lee just closed his eyes and shook his head slowly for a second. When he opened them again, he reached out a hand and laid it briefly on Chip’s shoulder, giving it a small squeeze before returning once again to the report. Chip gave him a nod and another grin, and got back to business as well.
controlled a private little chuckle.
While it was true that a good XO insulated his CO from as much of the
mundane as possible Chip had, over the years, turned the statement into a joke
between the long-time friends. For as
long as Chip had known him – back to their first day at
What he couldn’t ignore was how appreciative he was that he and Lee had ended up roomies in the first place. For all his reticence about his own personal life, Lee was the first one in line to help anyone – with anything. Chip could admit quite easily that without Lee’s help he never would have passed French. And that was just one example. Lee “pushed” no one but himself. But he’d “help” anyone who asked. Even sometimes when they didn’t ask. He just seemed to see things in people and, without seemingly doing anything, encouraged them to higher standards. There had been plenty of successes. And one rather spectacular failure, Chip muttered to himself as a fist momentarily clenched before he could get himself back under control. But his grin returned as he acknowledged one of Lee’s most successful accomplishments – one Charles P. Morton.
Chip had entered
That was before Admiral Nelson, who obviously also saw something other than a desk jockey in Chip, coerced him out of the regular service, into the Reserves, and settled him in as Seaview’s XO. He still remembered how surprised he’d been, and how excited Lee had been for him. And Chip had to admit, that first year with John Phillips at the helm had been great. A little weird at times, but good nonetheless. But then Phillips had been killed, and who should show up to take his place but Lee. Chip had been thrilled to once again have his old buddy by his side. A little worried maybe, if he was totally honest with himself, remembering how Lee’s curiosity could lead to all sorts of misadventures, but thrilled just the same. Lee had turned into a confident, if still occasionally all too quiet, CO, and Seaview and her crew had thrived.
It wasn’t until several months later that Chip realized something else was thriving. Well, some one else – Me! Phillips had been a great Captain. He knew his boat’s capabilities, as well as her crew’s strengths. But Chip slowly came to realize that Lee was, as quietly as always, letting Chip spread his wings into more of the management and leadership areas than Phillips had allowed. While he still never saw himself with his own command, he became confident and comfortable during those times when he was required to command Seaview – something up until then he never would have thought possible.
His fist suddenly clenched again. And if I even so much as thought Lee continued to take ONI assignments so that I was placed in command, to further my confidence, I’d knock him senseless and fire his sorry six out a torpedo tube! But he relaxed and chuckled silently to himself. No, not Lee’s style. He’s just encouraging me to be the best that I can be, in all areas. Another slight grin escaped. And being there just in case I stick my foot in it too badly. Just like always. Chip sent a quick glance at Lee’s dark head, bent over one of the clipboards scattered on the chart table. He blessed whatever lucky star had placed him within Lee’s sphere of influence, and got back to the duty log he was supposed to be working on.
Damn! Lee chastised himself silently, trying to keep his eyes focused on the sheets of paper in front of him and not turning inward to the turmoil threatening to overwhelm him. Concentrate. You have a job to do, and people depending on you to do it correctly, not wallow in your own problems to the point of causing trouble for them. Get yourself under control, he ordered himself, or you’ll have Chip watching your every move this whole cruise. He frowned. Probably will anyway, he muttered. He realized that that last hadn’t been totally quiet when Chip turned toward him with an upraised eyebrow. He acknowledged his longtime friend’s concern with a small sheepish grin. “Bad night,” was all he said. It was, however, enough.
“Already had that part figured out,” Chip answered quietly. “Anything I can do to help?”
“No.” It wasn’t said sharply, but with finality, and both went back to their duties. Lee did add a somewhat belated, “Thanks, anyway.” Chip just smiled. They both were comfortable that their friendship was strong enough to handle a little occasional ill temper.
pair worked in amiable silence, following long-practiced routines, punctuated
occasionally as one or the other issued pre-departure orders to one crewman, or
accepted information from another. As
crewmen came back aboard from last minute details topside, hatches closed and
the dock detail prepared to release Seaview from her moorings. Lee picked up the mic to start issuing
departure orders just as voices were heard at the top of the spiral stairs, and
he hesitated until Admiral Nelson entered the
But even concentrating on getting Seaview into open water couldn’t settle Lee’s inner turmoil. The commands needed, given to highly trained seamen who knew this part of the routine nearly as well as Lee, were so ingrained that he could practically have given them in his sleep. It allowed far too many other thoughts to take over. Lee managed to keep himself together until the course was laid in before abruptly grabbing up the current Duty assignments and heading aft. He noted Chip’s surprised look, all too quickly covered with the ‘XO on Duty’ expression Chip usually maintained, but shrugged it off. What he did miss was the raised eyebrow pointed at his back by Admiral Nelson, who had turned from talking to Dr. Evans just in time to see Lee’s rapid exit. Chip didn’t miss it, however, as it was turned in his direction. But all he could do was shrug his shoulders. And then cringe inwardly ever so slightly at the expression that crossed the Admiral’s face before he turned back to his companion. They headed shortly back up the stairs, leaving Chip and Lt. James to keep Seaview on course.
* * * *
Chip didn’t see Lee until much later. But he’d had reports, mostly via Chief Sharkey, of his friend’s activities. Drills were run in so many different departments that Chip was amazed Lee had time to finish one set before he initiated the next. None involved placing Lee even remotely in the area of the Wardroom, at least at mealtimes, so Chip spent lunch and dinner with the Admiral and Drs Evans and Jamison, the latter Seaview’s CMO. Nothing much was said about the absent Skipper at lunch. Dinner was another matter, when Cookie asked quietly if perhaps the Skipper wasn’t feeling well; that he’d neither appeared in the Wardroom all day, nor requested a tray in his cabin. Chip cringed again slightly as the look he’d seen in the Observation Nose reappeared on Nelson’s face. But the Admiral took a moment to swallow half his coffee before saying – patiently for him, Chip thought – that Cmdr. Crane had been kept busy all day. Chip did wonder for a moment if Nelson had already tried to corner his suddenly elusive captain, but wisely kept his mouth shut. As Cookie started to walk away, Chip finally spoke up.
“Cookie, tell you what.” He made himself sound conspiratorial, knowing it would be picked up as a joke by everyone else in the room with the exception of Nelson and Jamison, who knew their Skipper far too well to be fooled by a little misdirection. “If he hasn’t called down by, say, oh, 1945 hours, could you whip up something? I’ll take it to him when I give him his 2000 hours report.”
Cookie’s face lit up immediately. “No problem, Mr. Morton,” he said with a grin, and hurried in the direction of the galley.
“Mr. Morton, the peacekeeper,” Jamie muttered quietly into his coffee cup. Evans had a perplexed look on his face, but Nelson snorted softly.
“You’d rather have Cookie all in a dither because Lee isn’t eating properly, Doc?” He scowled. “You’d think it was Lee who signed his paychecks, the way he caters to the man.” But he couldn’t hold the scowl in place as both Chip and Doc cracked up. Evans continued to look confused, and Nelson finally took pity on him. “Sorry, Merle. Old joke around here, as you’ve probably figured out.”
“Was beginning to get that drift,” the microbiologist answered. “I’ve heard rumors to the effect that your cook takes his duties far too seriously where Capt. Crane is concerned. Didn’t actually believe them. Until now, that is,” he amended rapidly.
Nelson chuckled. But his next comment was directed at Chip. “Any idea what’s kept Lee so… industrious all day?”
“Not a clue, sir,” Chip answered. “He was a little… well… when he came aboard this morning, he just seemed to have a lot on his mind,” he finished tactfully. Noting both Nelson’s and Jamison’s immediate interest, he continued. “He probably just discovered something amiss at the condo, and with having to leave this morning, can’t wait to get home and straighten it out. You know how he hates unsolved problems.” Nelson and Doc both nodded.
a little surprised that he didn’t at least mention it to you, however,” Nelson
observed with an expression of mixed humor and curiosity. The Admiral was the first to admit that his
command team was a bit unorthodox, and probably wouldn’t have lasted very long
in the regular Navy scheme of things without some serious soul searching and
changed attitudes. CO and XO had been
roommates from their first day at
However, Chip had never lost the knack for treating Lee like a little brother and, while it absolutely never interfered with his job as Lee’s XO, could harass Lee unmercifully at times. Lee, for his part, accepted the harassment for what it was – an expression of the strong friendship the two shared. It didn’t stop him from occasionally threatening to keelhaul Chip and promote Lt. James to XO. But that, too, was just part of the strong bonds of friendship. Seaview’s entire crew was familiar with the hijinks that could occasionally break out between the senior officers, and any new crewman was quickly made aware that even if things aboard the submarine were a little unusual at times, there was never the least bit of doubt that Lee was firmly in charge, Chip his extremely competent XO, and between the two they would bring Seaview and her crew safely home from whatever madness her missions occasionally turned into.
for his part, considered himself extremely fortunate to have snagged the pair
away from the regular Navy and into NIMR.
An occasional instructor at
That thought now made him give his XO another grin. “Just make sure you don’t get carried away,” he said, the grin belying the warning. “Think I’d rather have a preoccupied Captain than a slaughtered XO.”
shook his head. “Never happen,” he
assured the Admiral. He stood, preparing
to leave, and added with a grin of his own, “I can run faster than Lee can.” To chuckles from the others, he headed back
when he called Cookie at 1930 hours and found that Lee had still not requested
a dinner tray, Chip’s unease returned.
Lt. James reported that Lee had floated through the
Chip wasn’t at all comforted by the brusque “Come” that greeted his knock, nor the scowl on Lee’s face as he first glared at the tray in Chip’s hands, then at Chip himself. “I didn’t ask for that,” he growled, tried to dismiss Chip with a wave of his hand, and went back to staring at his computer screen, apparently what Chip had interrupted.
But Chip had far too much practice dealing with a ticked off Lee to let it bother him. He just shut the door behind him and continued on to Lee’s desk. Making a place among the folders laying open all over the top, he set the tray down and settled quietly into the visitor’s chair. Crossing his arms and stretching out his long legs, he prepared to make himself comfortable until Lee acknowledged him – in one way or another. Chip was happy to keep things amiable, but was prepared for any and all contingencies.
For his part, Lee knew that it was hopeless right from the start. Too many years of dealing with the blond told him that. But he tried anyway. For several minutes he totally ignored both the man and the tray, and concentrated on inputting data into the computer from the various tests and drills he’d tried to keep himself occupied with all day. That, he knew, had been a total waste of time as well because, while today had been kept under control, there was very little to keep him from dwelling on his inner turmoil for the remainder of the cruise. Why did it have to come the day before a cruise? He finally surrendered to the inevitable, closed his eyes, and laid his head against the back of his tall desk chair. “Report,” he muttered softly. Never opening his eyes, he listened as Chip calmly and factually caught him up on the day’s activities over and above what Lee himself had been involved in. When the narration ended, Lee opened one eye and finally looked at Chip. “I suppose it’s too much to ask, now that you’ve given your report, that you’ll just leave quietly.” Chip crossed his ankles. “Thought so,” Lee muttered, closed the open eye, gave a huge sigh, and opened both of them. “Orders?” he asked, waving a hand at the food tray.
“Only my own,” Chip answered. “But strictly in the cause of maintaining a contented crew. You worry Cookie any worse than he already is, and nobody will be getting a decent meal around here.” He grinned broadly as Lee just shook his head. But he was also pleased when a hand reached out, however half heartedly, and gathered up the bowl of peaches. The other hand settled on the sandwich, the two friends remaining silent until both food items had disappeared. When Lee put the empty bowl back on the tray, Chip raised an eyebrow.
“Don’t push your luck,” Lee growled at the gesture.
Chip grinned. “Flip you for who eats the cold slaw and who eats the pie,” he offered, then laughed openly at Lee’s instant scowl. But even Lee’s expression softened as he pushed the pie toward his friend, and reluctantly started on the slaw.
The frown returned as Chip poured out a cup of the hot chocolate. “One of Doc’s special blends?”
“As far as I know,” Chip answered openly and honestly, “Doc hasn’t been anywhere near the galley.”
Lee wasn’t sure he wanted to believe that. Doc was all too creative in finding ways to slow down his, as he put it, “hyperactive, workaholic, Captain.” Although, in this case, Lee wasn’t too sure that he wouldn’t welcome at least a few hours of drugged nonexistence. The cruise was a simple one, everything was under control, and it sure beat dealing with the mental chaos the last twenty-four hours had been. He picked up the mug and took a tentative sip, savoring the rich, creamy mixture before swallowing half the mug in one long draw. He closed his eyes as he slowly worked on the rest of the drink, trying to focus on pleasant memories: evenings with friends, downing a few beers at BZ’s; diving on tropical reefs surrounded by a plethora of colorful fish; a quiet dinner with… He shook his head as the face across the table, originally appearing as his current lady friend, transformed itself into an angry admiral. He knew his expression must have changed because Chip’s voice suddenly broke through the image.
“Lee, what’s wrong?” Chip couldn’t help himself from sounding worried. Lee had seemed almost at peace – finally – when his features hardened, becoming angry and brittle. Chip leaned forward in his chair, starting to reach out a hand when Lee abruptly re-opened his eyes, staring at him almost blankly. “Lee, what can I do to help?” he asked, his voice filled with concern.
Lee gave his head a shake and forced himself to relax, sending as genuine a smile as he could muster across the desk. “Already did it, buddy,” he said simply.
Chip continued to just look at him a moment, but finally leaned back in his chair. “It might help to talk about it.”
Lee knew the caring in Chip’s voice was genuine. His old friend might badger him unmercifully at times, and harass and torment Lee to the limits of Lee’s patience – and beyond – but he was always there when Lee needed him. Now he sent Chip another small smile. “No,” he said softly. “My problem. I’ll deal with it. But I do appreciate the offer.”
“Any time, junior,” Chip answered lightly. They both recognized the old line as Chip’s way of easing the tension that had so suddenly filled the room. But Lee’s frown returned as Chip reached over and refilled Lee’s mug with the rest of the cocoa. It deepened as Chip continued with a grin. “You about ready to call it a night? Maybe make up a bit for the sleep you didn’t get last night?” He knew he’d hit his target when Lee’s eyebrow went up and his expression turned to a faux-menace. Chip grinned wider. “If you finish all this stuff tonight,” he waved a hand at the jumble of folders still scattered across Lee’s desk, “there won’t be anything left to keep you from getting bored tomorrow.” He laughed outright as Lee just closed his eyes and gently shook his head.
Never one who could sit and twiddle his thumbs, Lee acknowledged and accepted his workaholic reputation. Boring cruises regularly drove him to distraction, and had him looking for ways to release pent up energy. But both men knew Chip was referring to one such cruise in particular, when a combination of miscalculations and small problems culminated in a slightly damaged captain and a very apologetic CMO. Lee still hadn’t let Jamie totally off the hook for that one, although he was fairly sure that the doctor knew perfectly well Lee wasn’t as angry about the incident as he sometimes tried to sound. Now he smiled softly, re-opened his eyes, and drained the mug. Frowning at Chip’s smug expression, he put the mug deliberately back on the tray. “Dismissed, Mr. Morton,” he said in his best command tone. Chip rose immediately, picked up the tray, and headed for the door. Just as he opened it, Lee added softly, “Thanks, Chip.” The blond sent a smile over his shoulder as he left.
* * * *
Doc had fiddled with the cocoa ingredients, or simply because of the calming
effects of Chip’s visit, Lee couldn’t say for sure; maybe it was just the
culmination of too many hours under too much internal stress. Whatever the reason, Lee slept fairly
peacefully. Waking at what he thought
was his usual time he showered, shaved, and dressed, amazed that he found
himself back in some semblance of control.
Far from gone, the problems of yesterday were, for the moment at least,
being held at bay by familiar habits. He
was a little surprised when he didn’t find Chip waiting for him in the Wardroom
and, just figured that he was a bit earlier than he sometimes was, having
managed to complete his morning ablutions in record time. Not particularly hungry, he nonetheless
heeded Chip’s warning from the night before and managed to eat what was for him
a fairly substantial breakfast of toast with peanut butter and a little jam,
scrambled eggs, and several strips of bacon.
He did smile as he caught Cookie keeping a watchful eye on him, albeit
from a safe distance. With still no sign
of any of the other senior officers, Lee refilled his oversized coffee mug and
headed for the Control Room, sure he’d find Chip there by now. Oops, he groaned into his coffee as he
passed the boat’s chronometer on his way from the aft hatch forward to the
chart table. Only 0600 now. Must have misread the one in my cabin when I
got up. Explains why Cookie gave me a
funny look. He finished walking up
to Lt. Keeter, who had the
Keeter grinned. “Works for me. Gives you time to double-check a course correction I made at 0245 hours to avoid some heavy weather topside. Better you pointing out if there was something I should have done differently than Mr. Morton doing it later.”
Lee leveled one of his better Command glares at the lieutenant. “You think you can get away with less than competent performance easier under me than the XO, Mister?” he asked firmly.
“No, sir,” came the instant response. There was a slight hesitation before Keeter continued softly. “But you’ll sit me down with navigation charts and show me how to do it right the next time. Mr. Morton will point out where I screwed up, lecture me on how to avoid doing it wrong again, and then assign me to inventorying the Admiral’s lab specimen food for failing to get it right the first time.”
“There’s always the option of both scenarios,” Lee replied, then couldn’t help himself as his stern expression crumbled and he grinned. Whatever he was about to add, however, was interrupted by footsteps on the spiral stairs. Lee turned, still grinning, expecting to see Chip. Admiral Nelson appeared instead and Lee instinctively stiffened. It was all well and good to crack a few well-meaning jokes about how tight a boat the XO ran when it came to disciplining junior officers, as well as any crewman caught in an infraction of established policy. But the turnabout was Lee being lectured to by Admiral Nelson. He knew his actions the previous day had been a little over the top, and fully expected to be landed on.
his part, Nelson was extremely pleased to see the uptight Lee of yesterday
replaced by the more normally relaxed one.
He’d stayed busy the previous day getting Dr. Evans settled into the
lab, and going over the schedule once they reached the thermal vents. But a worried Chief Sharkey had kept him
apprised of Lee’s activities. The COB
didn’t like anomalies aboard his boat, and the Skipper’s sudden desire to run
performance drills in every part of the boat except the
seeing Lee straighten up into almost ‘Attention’ mode, Nelson carefully hid a
grin. It always fascinated him how, in
quiet moments unencumbered by command duties, Lee could occasionally still come
across as the underage plebe Nelson had first encountered at
“Went to bed earlier than usual, sir.” Lee couldn’t keep the underlying grumble out of his voice; if Doc had spiked the hot chocolate, Nelson would surely know about it. But there was no clue one way or the other in either Nelson’s face or voice as he continued.
“Perhaps there’s a lesson to be learned there, don’t you think? Something about drills that would normally be accomplished over several days not being crammed into one twelve hour period without sufficient reason.”
There was reason, all right, Lee muttered internally. Just not one I care to discuss. And especially with you. At least not right now. Outwardly, however, all he said was, “Yes, sir. You’re probably right.”
Nelson wasn’t overly thrilled with the response. He’d caught the flash of anger that had ever so briefly crossed Lee’s face. There was definitely something going on here, and he seriously doubted that it had anything to do with a problem at the condo, as Chip had suggested. Although, it was typical of Seaview’s XO to step in and do whatever he could to deflect any and all heat being directed at his CO, from whatever direction it happened to be coming. Even nosey admirals. Nelson hid a grin. Sometimes especially from nosey admirals, he could admit easily to himself. Lee had been, from the time Nelson first met him, a very quiet, serious, introspective person. Nelson had at first taken it to be shyness. But a trip together, taking Lee to see his injured Mother, had changed that. Oh, there was definitely a bit of hesitancy on Lee’s part to open up to strangers. But it wasn’t shyness. That came from a lack of self-confidence, and Lee B. Crane was anything but lacking in confidence. What he did do, however, was internalize everything. In that respect, Chip and his boisterous family had done wonders to bring a young Lee out of his shell. But Nelson knew that Chip realized only too well that Lee was still vulnerable at times, and instinctively did whatever he could to insulate Lee until he could get matters straightened out. Nelson had on occasion heard Lee mutter darkly at Chip, after the blond had made one of his “just taking care of my Skipper, as any good XO does” speeches, but knew that Lee did appreciate the gesture. Just another of the multitude of reasons those two make such a great command team, Nelson nodded to himself. Then had to give himself a mental shake as he realized Lee was still standing all too stiffly in front of him. Back to business, you old fool, he blithered at himself, and at that finally let a smile appear on his face. “See that you remember that, the next time you decide to run my crew through the ringer.” He bluffed being angry, knowing the expression on his face would dispel the tension in his voice. The grin spread as he watched Lee pull himself even straighter and send him a steely glare.
“I believe they are my crew, sir. And I need them prepared for whatever chaos your missions turn into.” But by the end of the short speech Lee’s eyes were sparkling, and he also grinned broadly.
Nelson chuckled openly. This was an old joke between the two, and it pleased him no end that Lee would resort to it. Whatever the problems of yesterday had been, Lee had himself firmly back under control today. “I rather think we need to seriously talk about who gets whom into and out of trouble, Captain,” he grumbled nonetheless. As Lee grinned even more broadly, Nelson punched him lightly on the shoulder. “What say we discuss it over breakfast?”
Lee lifted his coffee mug. “Already ate, sir. But as it’s still early, I’ll keep you company if you’d like.”
“I’d like that very much,” Nelson replied easily, and the two headed toward the aft hatch.
* * * *
Chip was confused. He was the first to admit that that wasn’t a totally unusual occurrence on his part. While he was perfectly competent keeping the boat running smoothly, there were any number of times that he wasn’t totally sure why they were going where, and what they were going to do once they got there. After years of dealing with the genius that was Admiral Harriman Nelson, and the often erratic and eccentric characters he brought aboard, Chip sometimes felt that he’d rather not know everything that was going on.
But this was different. Personal. His best friend was acting uncharacteristically and Chip had no idea why. Oh, after the first day of this cruise things had gotten back to semi-normal – if there was such a thing aboard the giant submarine. Lee was back to taking his meals at regular times in the Wardroom, and going about his days in typical Lee fashion. Meaning, he spent mornings mostly in the Conn, afternoons doing reports in his cabin or wandering around the boat visiting with crewmen, and evenings a combination of all three – if someone didn’t snooker him into a poker game in the rec room, or he didn’t have his hands in the machinery somewhere, helping Maintenance with whatever they happened to be puttering with at the moment. Chip kept tabs on Lee’s cabin lights and they seemed to be going out at reasonable hours. Something, however, was still very, very wrong.
had to give his friend credit; Lee was hiding it – whatever ‘it’ was –
well. If Chip didn’t know Lee so well,
hadn’t seen the little slips that he was sure only he would have picked up on,
he’d have said that whatever the problem had been that first day, it had
totally disappeared. But Chip was a
master at reading Lee – had developed the knack at
admired Lee greatly for his ‘handling’ of the Admiral. At
onboard Seaview, the relationship changed subtly. Lee still showed respect – for both the man
and the rank. But an older, more
confident Lee had quickly made it clear that, where Seaview and her crew were
concerned, Lee was firmly in charge.
Orders were followed instantly and accurately, just as long as Lee
didn’t feel that Nelson was putting undue risk into a mission. And he wasn’t afraid to back up his opinions
in words as loud and angry as those of the Admiral. Happily, Nelson had enough respect for Lee
that he’d listen to the arguments, and most often a compromise could be amiably
worked out. The few times it hadn’t
been… Well, that was the stuff Seaview
legends were based on. More than once
crew and officers alike had abruptly changed directions when hearing angry
exchanges in front of them down whatever corridor they happened to be
headed. And the crash doors between the
Observation Nose and the
Something had changed. Somehow, for who knew what reason, Lee was looking at Nelson differently. Chip decided quickly that it wasn’t anything to do with Seaview, her mission, or Lee’s faith in Nelson’s scientific genius. But something about Lee’s attitude toward the man himself had been shifted slightly out of sync. Something had happened that last day before the cruise that had momentarily sent Lee into enough of a tailspin that he’d spent the night on the beach, probably trying to sort it out. He’d obviously not managed it all that well, hence the problems the first day. He’d admitted to Chip that “it was my problem,” although Chip was quick to note that Lee made any problem, no matter whose it was, his problem, so that in itself didn’t mean anything. By way of a few cautiously asked questions to Sharkey, who always seemed in possession of whatever information pertaining to the Admiral anyone might have need of aboard the boat (and Chip wasn’t even going to speculate about how that came to be, except to acknowledge Sharkey’s utter devotion to the man) Chip learned that Nelson had shown up early at NIMR the morning before the cruise, had hastily dictated several letters to Angie, and then spent the rest of the day in meetings with the research staff. Lee, on the other hand, had spent the entire day in his office, starting the work on several proposals from companies wanting to hire Seaview. Chip had dragged him out long enough to get lunch in the cafeteria, but had then gotten busy with supply orders for the next two cruises, as well as the several small refit projects planned when Seaview got home from this cruise. Everything had seemed perfectly okay at that time. By the time he’d stopped by Lee’s office to see if he wanted to go grab dinner at the new Italian place in town, Lee had left for the day. Whatever was causing Lee’s shift in attitude hadn’t been caused by something directly between the two unless it had happened after Lee left the office. And with Nelson apparently blissfully unaware of anything not normal between the two, that didn’t seem reasonable, either.
But Chip had to put his ruminations on hold for the time being, as Seaview reached the first of the thermal vents Evans wanted to take samples from. Too deep for divers, the samples would be taken using FS1 and her retractable arm. Admiral Nelson had made several design changes over the years to the arm, and had also developed half a dozen different devices that could be attached to the tip, depending on what the current job required. The tip was accessible through a panel in FS1’s flooring, allowing devices to be changed easily even during a dive. In this case, the arm would hold a collection container that could be filled, brought aboard, and replaced by another container so that multiple samples could be kept separate from each other. Chip was extremely glad to reach this point in the cruise. For the next several days Lee would have something other than what was troubling him to think about. Nelson often kidded Lee about FS1, calling her Lee’s baby. In truth Lee knew as much, if not more, about the little yellow craft than her designer, Admiral Nelson. And no one disputed the fact that Lee was the absolute master at being able to maneuver her. He seemed to almost become one with her controls, and could get her to do things no one else could manage.
Everything went well the first day. Chip held Seaview in station-keeping mode 200 yards off the West side of the vent area, and 500 feet above crush depth. FS1’s revolutionary design allowed her to go much deeper. With Lee as her pilot, Nelson and Evans went along to work the arm and collect samples. Chip had a momentary attack of unease when he thought of Nelson and Lee in that close confinement. But Lee didn’t seem the least bit upset when Nelson choose last minute to go along instead of sending Sharkey, who had quite a knack himself for working the arm. Expecting Sharkey to want to go along anyway, just in case, Chip was gearing himself to find something suitable to keep the man occupied. But surprisingly enough the COB was perfectly happy with the change in plans. Chip found himself being somewhat disappointed, and had to quickly get himself back in control.
Lee had a remarkably fun day. He thoroughly enjoyed putting FS1 through her paces, and showing off what she could do. Nelson and Evans spent most of the time chatting away about this test and that, what discoveries they might make, and how many more laurels would be coming NIMR’s way. There were the obligatory requests to move FS1 to one area or another, but that was pretty much the only time the two acknowledged Lee. It gave him time to secretly observe Nelson; to acknowledge once again what a brilliant, creative thinker Nelson was, and be amazed at how well he still maintained a relatively down-to-earth attitude about himself and his accomplishments.
Lee half-chuckled at his little joke. Down to earth indeed. He even let his sense of humor get the best of him at one point, and while Nelson was squatting down to help Evans with a sample container shifted FS1 just slightly, but enough that Nelson fell back onto his well-padded backside. Nelson sent him a glare, but Lee pretended to be busy stabilizing the little craft from some sudden turbulence. He also began to wonder if he might have been blinded by the aura of the man all these years, to not see him totally for real. Or, am I doing that now, not giving him the benefit of the doubt. Lee shook his head. He really did need to sit down with Nelson and have this out once and for all. But not now. Not until I have a few more answers, he promised himself.
* * * *
Three more days and two more collection sites, and Seaview was ready to head home. Everything had gone remarkably well, with the exception of a minor glitch in the hydraulics of FS1’s arm on the very last collection. It hadn’t caused any serious trouble. The collection had been made and, after a little fiddling on Nelson’s part with the controls, brought safely back aboard. Everyone chuckled the next morning over breakfast as Lee mentioned casually “he thought he’d just go putter with things and see if he could figure out where the glitch was.”
and Nelson weren’t chuckling several hours later as they watched Lee, sprawled
flat on FS1’s deck, slowly regain consciousness. Sharkey had been down in the craft with him,
“just keeping an eye on things,” when a loose wire had shorted out, giving Lee
a substantial shock and sending him flying back against the opposite control
panel. Doc was alerted, and Chip came
flying down into the craft. Nelson
showed up scant moments later. But Lee
was already showing signs of coming out of it by the time Jamie came down the
access ladder. It was obvious fairly
quickly that both the knock to his head and the slight electrical burn on his
arm were minor. There was the usual
argument between CO and CMO about spending a little time in
Lee would have been perfectly happy to let the doctor put salve and a small bandage on the burn, and then let Lee go rest in his cabin for a few hours. But no, Jamie insisted that Lee rest on the exam table until the fuzziness Lee wouldn’t admit to having went away. Unfortunately, that gave Lee time to let unwanted thoughts start running through his mind. Thankfully, Jamie walking over and laying a hand on his shoulder interrupted them. He hadn’t realized he’d made hard fists of both hands until Jamie nodded down at them.
“Looks like its time for me to prescribe a few days of R&R when we get home,” the doctor said quietly, and waited for the expected argument. Pretty much the only way anyone could get Lee to take an actual vacation was, about twice a year, for Jamie to threaten him with forced medical leave if he didn’t “get his workaholic backside off NIMR property.” The doctor was nearly made speechless by Lee’s equally quiet answer.
“Actually, Jamie, I was planning on asking the Admiral for some time off.”
Both of Jamie’s eyebrows rose as far as he could push them before his face changed to a look of decided determination. “Obviously I need to take a better look at that bump on your head,” he muttered.
Lee got a pained expression on his own face and closed his eyes briefly, before turning a sheepish smile on the doctor. “Guess I deserve that, huh?” he admitted.
“Guess you do,” Jamie responded firmly, before suddenly smiling. Given the current circumstances, Jamie had no misconceptions about what was causing the abrupt departure from norm. Obviously Lee had things on his mind, and just as obviously the last thing he would likely do was rest on his days off. Rather, he’d be off somewhere scratching whatever itch was tormenting him. At the moment, Jamie didn’t particularly care. He smiled more broadly and crossed his arms. “Just whatever you do, when you admit same to Chip and the Admiral, please do it carefully? Don’t want to give the poor men heart attacks.”
* * * *
It turned out to be Jamie, himself, who brought it up. He had wheedled Lee into resting all afternoon, and then walked with him down to get dinner. They’d been there only a few minutes when Chip walked in, followed shortly by Nelson and Evans. Lee immediately demanded a status report from Chip, and talk was mostly work related until there was a momentary gap in the conversation. Into which, Jamie casually mentioned that he’d had a rather pleasant surprise that afternoon.
what was that?” Nelson asked all too innocently, his eyes straying toward Lee
with a twinkle. Lee stuck in
“I suggested to the Skipper that he might want to take a few days off when we get home. Oh, just because its been awhile,” he added quickly, seeing the worried look that crossed Chip’s face. “And he admitted that he was already planning on talking to you about it,” Jamie finished, looking back at Nelson.
“I never have looked into getting that portable MRI unit you want, have I,” Nelson said thoughtfully. “Obviously it’s about time I did.” Lee sent his boss a hard look as there were instant guffaws from Chip and Jamie.
Chip almost instantly had a different take on the statement. “Blonde, brunette, or redhead,” he asked
Lee. “And don’t tell me mottled
gray. We both know Tim and Annie are in
“They took the dog that far? Didn’t trust leaving her home?”
Lee finally got a word in before Chip could reply. “The wedding is a big outdoor affair, and neither family had a young girl to be the flower girl. Annie suggested Lacey walk down the aisle carrying the handle of a small basket filled with flowers.”
“Tim promised to send pictures,” Chip added, before turning back to Lee. “But you didn’t answer my question.”
special,” Lee answered casually. “Just
haven’t seen Mom for a few months.
Thought I’d stay with her for a couple days before she takes off to
taking her to
“Not totally sure, sir,” Lee admitted. “Something to do with the opal mines is all she mentioned. I’m sure I’ll find out more when I see her.”
“Well, give her my best,” Nelson said. “How long do you plan to be gone?” The question was casual enough. And Lee’s reply was in kind. But Chip, once again, caught the almost imperceptible flinch before Lee spoke. “Seaview is scheduled to be in port for ten days. I thought perhaps you’d let me take most of that.”
“No problem at all. You’ll have those project proposals I gave you done before we dock?”
“Already finished. Just wanted to give them one last look before I gave them back to you.” The last few comments were ones that could have, and had, happened any number of times between the two men. But Chip heard, and by everyone else’s reactions was the only one who did, the ever so slight edge in Lee’s voice. It made Chip decidedly uncomfortable.
* * * *
Lee closed the
condo door behind him, tossed the small bag of items he’d brought back with him
from Seaview on one of the living room chairs, and poured himself half a glass
of scotch. The last few days had been
pure torture. He’d been forced to lie to
people who were as much family to him as anyone else in his life had ever
been. He wasn’t even sure if it was
necessary that he’d done it. Unfortunately,
there was just too much – about too many things – that he didn’t know about to
feel safe taking the risk. He needed to
sort out his emotions before tackling that possible can of worms. And to do that he first had to find more
answers than he was in possession of at the moment. It was just possible that Admiral Nelson
could have supplied some of those answers.
But Lee hoped that after their years of friendship, if Nelson knew
anything about the intel Lee had been made privy to the day before this last
cruise, he’d have told him long ago. It
was also possible that Nelson, like Lee, had been kept in the dark. If that were the case, and Lee tackled him
about it, Nelson would demand to be involved in the investigation. Lee didn’t have enough pieces to the puzzle
to know which side of the fence Nelson was on.
He wanted desperately to believe that the Admiral would never keep this
kind of information from him, but… Also,
while Lee had time to pursue the problem, Nelson didn’t. At least right now. NIMR was on the cutting edge of several major
projects, with both military and civilian ramifications. Seaview had barely been snugged against the
dock when Nelson, with Dr. Evans in tow, debarked and headed for NIMR’s
research complex. Lee knew his schedule
for the next ten days, while Seaview was home, was filled with long days of
meetings both here and in
Settling down in his favorite chair, Lee took a long swallow of the strong drink he’d poured, picked up the phone, and dialed an extremely familiar number. Time for round two of the lies. Although, he chuckled to himself, I didn’t start this batch. Can’t knock the timing, however. His musings were interrupted by a very pleasant female voice saying “Hello” in his ear.
“Hi, Mom,” he responded. “Catch you at a bad time?”
“For you, it’s never a bad time. How’s my favorite son?”
“Your only son,” Lee grumbled, but he knew the laughter in his voice was plain through the phone lines.
“Details, details,” Helen Crane chided.
“I’m a sub
driver, Mom. My life depends on
details.” Mother and son chuckled over
the old joke. “Still leaving tomorrow
Helen admonished. “Keep your voice
down. My publisher thinks I’m going to
“No running water, no air conditioning, too many bugs…”
“You will not spoil my fun.” Helen cut him off, and they both laughed. “Besides, over the years I’ve put up with far worse than the photo-safari lodges built specifically for the rich and privacy hunters.”
“You got me there, Mom.” Very little had ever slowed down, let alone stopped, Helen Crane from following a story to whichever corner of the world it took her, once she set her mind on getting the details. “Can I ask a favor before you run away?”
“Of course. Anything for my favorite son.”
Lee exaggerated a heavy groan and they both laughed again before Lee continued. “Could you tell the Leonard’s not to call the cops if someone stays at your place for a few days?” Helen’s neighbors across the alley kept tabs on her small house when she was out of town.
“You tick off Admiral Nelson and he throw you out?”
“Not yet. You want to help?” Lee knew his mother would misread the sigh in his voice, and treat it like a joke.
“Absolutely. What do you need?”
“Pretty much the same thing you do – a little time to myself.”
“Sure you don’t want to come with me? I’m sure I could squeeze you into my luggage.”
Lee laughed. His mother’s upbeat, undefeatable attitude had always been infectious, never failing to lift him out of whatever doldrums he found himself in. “As much as I’d like that, not this time, Mom. Have to be back at work in just over a week.”
“They work you
too hard, Lee,” Helen admonished her son, but there was still humor in her
voice and they both chuckled over another of their long-standing jokes. Helen knew her son well – knew that nobody
pushed Lee except Lee himself. “Maybe
next time,” she now added. “I really am
going to do that story on
“Let’s see – excessive heat, poisonous snakes and spiders, man-eating kangaroos…” He was cut off by an obviously faked scream and they both burst out laughing. “But I’ll keep it in mind,” he promised.
“See that you do,” she chided him before her voice lightened again. “You need me to do anything here? I’m afraid the shelves are pretty bare at the moment. I could make a quick grocery run before I leave.”
“Don’t bother, Mom.” Not only didn’t he want her spending the time, he’d gotten used to, with Cookie’s help, somewhat different menu items than what Helen usually prepared. “I’m a big boy, now. I can take care of myself.”
“Humm,” came back through the phone line. “Not according to Chip.” She laughed as Lee muttered a few not very complimentary things about his best friend.
“It’s definitely time to smack him upside the head again.”
“Boys,” Helen growled before laughing even louder, and Lee chuckled as well.
“I’d better let you go, Mom. You’ve probably got a hundred things to do before you leave.”
“A few dozen, anyway. Take care, and I’ll call you when I get back.”
“Sounds good, Mom. Have fun.”
“Plan to,” and the two rang off.
Lee adored his mother, and the conversation had helped to relieve some of the tension he’d been under. But it didn’t last long, forcing Lee out of his chair and back into action. He had a lot to do himself.
* * * *
later Lee opened the back door to his mother’s house in
It took him a bit to find it, mostly because he was surprised at how small it actually was. As a child, sitting on the floor with it between he and his mother, it had seemed to hold all the mysteries of his young life. Now, once again sitting on the floor in the living room, carefully sifting through the mementos, he thought about what would be left of his own life after he was gone. Would it, also, fit into a small box? Probably. He’d never wanted much beyond his career with the Navy, and now NIMR. Of course, his father had never had the opportunity to live beyond his career. What kind of life would Lee make for himself once he could no longer drive a sub – assuming that ever happened? Admiral Nelson, while not at all old, was still going strong. Lee shook his head. He didn’t want to think of anything beyond what his life was right now – captaining the greatest sub in the world, working for the greatest boss in the world (most of the time) and having his best friend standing at his shoulder. Even if he was going to smack Chip good and proper for ratting him out to his Mom!
the photographs, Lee found his parents’ wedding picture and finally, totally,
understood his mother’s comment; Lee looked remarkably like his father. There were subtle differences, mostly around
the eyes. Those were definitely
Helen’s. While it was hard to tell for
sure from the faded black and white photograph, his father’s eyes appeared to
be a simple, dark brown. Lee looked at
the picture for a long time. Helen had
been beautiful back then. She still
was. She’d always taken good care of
herself – and Lee. And while Chip might
rag on the ‘healthy’ foods Lee had been raised on, Lee had never thought
anything about it until he’d been introduced to his junk-food-aholic
Finally laying the picture aside, Lee sorted through the rest of the contents. Besides the small bunch of pictures there was only his father’s accumulated service medals. These Lee vaguely remembered. What he didn’t remember was the folder laying flat in the very bottom of the box, and Lee lifted it out and opened it. He leafed his way through the small sheaf of papers inside, finding his father’s commissioning papers, promotions from Ensign up through Lt. Cmdr., and letters of commendation for several different missions. At the very bottom were a copy of the death certificate, and the official notification of death from the Navy. It was what he hoped he’d find, but it still caused a moment of trepidation. With suddenly shaky fingers, he pulled these last two items out.
The DC was standard issue, and listed the cause of death as resulting from a plane crash – Lee’s dad had been a Navy pilot. The letter was a little more informative – but not much. Lt. Cmdr. Crane and his wingman had been returning to the carrier from an over-flight and photo op to check enemy arms buildup. The report stated that his plane had taken flack damage, but that Crane figured he could still get back safely. Unfortunately, almost back, the plane suddenly developed a serious problem and dove toward the water. Crane’s last radio transmission indicated that his ejector control was damaged, and he was hoping to skid on the water and stay afloat until rescue from the ship could reach him. But something went wrong and the plane flipped. It did stay up long enough for rescue personnel to reach him, but he was already dead. There was a separate page to the effect that the Navy, to facilitate returning the body, had had it cremated and only the ashes returned.
Lee leaned his
back against the couch behind him and closed his eyes, the pages still in his
hand. He had no memories of the funeral
service. He did remember going with his
mother to the cemetery every Memorial Day and placing flowers on the gravestone
that bore his father’s name. Helen had
chosen to have her husband buried next to his parents instead of at
stood up and took the several sheets of paper into the room his mother used as
an office. On her combination copier/fax
machine he made copies of the death certificate and official notification
documents, then returned all the originals to the folder and repacked the
box. He held his father’s medals for a
moment, reverently, before finishing the task and returning the box to the
attic. While he couldn’t do anything
about the disturbed dust, he’d been as careful as he could to leave everything
else just as he’d found it. Hopefully
his mother would never know what he’d done unless he chose to tell her. And whether or not he did that depended on
how accurate those ‘official’ documents turned out to be. Returning to the living room Lee picked up an
envelope he’d brought with him from
You don’t know me,
and by the time you read this it will be too late to track me down. I’m told that it’s just a matter of time,
now. But I know the lies you’ve been
fed, and I feel compelled to set the record straight. Only for you, as even after all these years I
Thirty years ago I
was a weapons expert with the Navy SEAL team sent to
The team HALO jumped
in with no problem, landing just off the coast.
We were carrying only local weapons, a few supplies, and dressed in
native clothes. If anything went wrong
there was to be no indication of
Lt. Corcoran was a great CO, and for all my carping, even though he outranked him, Stark pretty much followed his lead. Everything went okay at first. We made land, liberated a truck, and made the meet just fine, with Stark’s help - he hadn’t even told the Lieutenant where the meet was – and we headed back for the coast. Lt. Corcoran had a small transmitter so we could make contact with the zodiacs coming in to pick us up.
Apparently we commandeered the wrong truck because it wasn’t long before we were being chased. They caught us about 10 km from the coast. The lieutenant had made another quick call as soon as we realized we had company, and an F-11 Tiger came out of nowhere and laid down enough cover to spring us. Man, that guy could fly. Just when the guerrillas would get a bead on him he’d dodge, and still manage to hit them first. We got our tails out of there in a hurry while he was keeping them busy. Unfortunately not fast enough. The lieutenant caught a ricochet right in the head. DAMN. Still hurts. He was a really great guy. Two of the team grabbed him, even though there was no doubt he was dead. You know the code – SEALs don’t leave their own behind. The pilot, he stayed behind us, covering our retreat.
We got to the coast and the pick-up craft had just landed when we heard the plane sputtering overhead. It was smoking something fierce – no way was the pilot going to make it back to the carrier. We watched as he ejected just off the coast, and the plane exploded about the same time it hit the water. Obviously he had orders to leave no trace of American involvement, like we did. The pilot settled in the water just off the coast.
Well, this is the part that’s hard for me to write. We all wanted to go pick him up. We were well off shore by then, but it wouldn’t have taken us that long. Unfortunately, when the CO went down, Stark took over command. Stragglers from the guerrillas that had followed us were laying down fire, but we still could have made it. I know we could. Stark ordered us to keep going to the rendezvous with the sub picking us up. We saw the pilot give us a puzzled look, then swim toward shore, away from where the bad guys were. It didn’t look at that point that they’d seen him. To give the guy credit, you could see that Stark didn’t want to leave him. But no matter how much we argued, he just kept saying that our job was to get the locals out safely.
Man, we were ticked. The guy may not have been one of our team, and not even a SEAL. But the code’s the code. Not to mention that the guy had saved our bacon. Stark said he’d send rescue. But we were rounding the point, just going out of sight, when the guy made land. We got one fast look at him, in local clothes like us, before we saw him spin down, and an instant later heard the delayed sound of a rifle.
Commander, I can’t tell you how many nights after that I woke up to the nightmare of seeing the pilot’s face staring at us. I can tell you that there wasn’t one of my team that gave Stark more than a grunt if we could help it the whole way back. And word spread, especially after we learned how Stark got a commendation for “his bravery and resourcefulness, etc, etc.” Bull !! Friend of mine told me later that there wasn’t a SEAL team in the country that wanted to have anything to do with the guy. But we had one of our own to bury. We got on with our lives, and other assignments. We had our share of victories, and tried to put the failures behind us.
Haven’t been able to do much except lay around for the last couple months. Don’t mean to sound sorry for myself; just wanted you to know why I happened to be thumbing through magazines. Man, I liked to have messed myself when I saw a face staring out at me from the past. Couldn’t believe it at first. The guy hadn’t aged. I mean, there looking at me was the pilot we left behind all those years ago! Finally got myself under control and read the story that went with the picture, about the Nelson Institute doing some sort of research – can’t say I remember reading much except to identify the face. Your face, Commander.
believe it, so called up one of my old teammates that I’ve kept in contact with
and he confirmed what I’d thought, that you are the spitting image of that
pilot. Called a couple friends still in
the loop, and they’ve been able to confirm that your father was a Navy pilot
killed in action around the right time period, although the ‘official’ story
sure don’t match ours. They were also
able to track down a few more bits and pieces of our mission. We still don’t know what the connection is
with the family that we retrieved, name of Pinera. The father’s first name was
Not sure what you’ll do with this information, but your Admiral Nelson sounds like a resourceful man. And I understand that Stark is a close friend of his. And, maybe this letter is just a waste of my time and you already know about everything I’ve been telling you. One of my buddies said that he understands you’re pretty resourceful yourself. I just know that I owe your daddy big time. He surely gave his life saving the bunch of us, Stark included.
Lee closed his eyes. When he’d read the letter the first time, all he felt was rage: at losing his father; at his mother losing her beloved husband; at having been lied to all his life by people around him who surely knew the truth and never told him. A night spent on the beach had modified it to a smoldering fury. Controlled, but only because too many ONI missions had taught him that anger was his worst enemy. A man couldn’t think straight when he was angry, and made stupid mistakes.
Damn, he muttered to himself as he refolded the
pages and put them back in the envelope.
Every part of me wants to
believe that if the Admiral knew any of this he’d have told me. But could his long friendship with Stark have
kept him quiet? I just don’t know. I want
to trust our own friendship, but… He folded his legs against him, hugged them
with his arms, and laid his head on his knees.
I wonder if I might be able
to get any info from Admiral Jones. Not
that I want to ask outright. I can just
tell him that NIMR is suspicious of some local activities causing oceanic
pollution, and Nelson wants me to go down quietly and snoop around. Valparaiso is, after all, the main shipping
“Admiral Stark’s office,” came the officious reply, after Lee got through to the proper extension.
“Hey, Joe,” Lee teased, “you’ve been working for Stark so long, you’re beginning to sound like him.”
“Bite your tongue,” came back in a whisper.
In the background Lee heard all too clearly, in Stark’s typical bellow, “Is that Admiral Whyte?”
“No, sir,” Joe answered his boss. “Just a call to let me know that the personnel updates are being faxed.”
Lee heard a “Harrumph”
that would have put even Nelson’s patented one to shame. He chuckled, wondering if that used to be
something taught at
“Could we make it
dinner instead? The Admiral is leaving
“He’s not dragging you with him?”
“No – thank heavens,” came back the emphatic answer.
Lee laughed. “I’ll give you a call after that. We can compare notes about dealing with admirals over a drink at the Officers’ Club.”
“Actually, I have somewhere else in mind. Too many busybodies with busy mouths at the “O” Club.”
Lee chuckled again. “Good point. See you tomorrow.”
“Looking forward to it – it’s been way too long,” and they both rang off.
Lee got what
sleep he could and took the commuter flight to
“Hey, Lee, what brings you here?” The two had met when Midshipman 1st Class Lee B. Crane was Brigade officer, overseeing Orientation for the incoming class, including one Midshipman 4th class Roger A. Andreas. A bit of a practical joker, Roger had made his presence stand out from the rest of the squad when he managed to switch out the uniforms of his battalion midshipmen officers. With no time to round up their correct uniforms, his victims had presented a decidedly “off” appearance at inspection. When Lee had figured out, but couldn’t prove, who the culprit must have been, he finally had an inkling as to how Captain Nelson felt after he and Chip pulled something and got away with it. While needing to take appropriate actions to squash any further disruption to regs, Lee had nonetheless been impressed by the young man’s intelligence and inventiveness, and as much as his own senior year activities would allow, kept tabs on the plebe. Years later, walking into Admiral Jones’ office one day to debrief after a mission, he was pleased to again run into the man, and to discover that Roger had also kept tabs on Lee’s career. There hadn’t been time that trip, but on Lee’s next visit to DC he’d had dinner and drinks at the Army-Navy Club and the two caught up on each other’s activities.
Now he greeted Roger warmly. “Just passing through,” he said, shaking Roger’s outstretched hand and parking himself on the corner of the man’s desk. “The Admiral in?”
“Over at the Pentagon. I don’t expect him back for hours.”
Lee rolled his eyes. “One of those meetings.”
Roger nodded. “Anything I can help you with?”
“I’m headed to
Roger laughed. Lee’s penchant for finding trouble was well known in ONI’s inner circle. The first time he’d accidentally stumbled into the path of an ongoing operation, the resulting debrief could be heard three corridors over. About the only thing that saved Lee’s six that time was the fact that, because of Lee’s quick thinking, a totally blown mission had been salvaged with better results than had originally been anticipated. As Lee gave him a sheepish grin, Roger laughed harder and gave Lee a friendly slap on the leg. “To the best of my knowledge, there’s nothing special going on in that area. However, I’ll send out the word that you’re on your way. That’s bound to get something started.”
“Smarty,” Lee scowled, but finally chuckled along with his friend.
“What’s Nelson got you tracking down, if it’s not too scientifically over the head of a lowly Lt. Cmdr.”
“Nothing all that technical,” Lee hedged. “Just heading down for a few days to check on some interesting intel that came in. Admiral Nelson tends to get a little…zealous when it comes to reports of pollution.” Lee kept a straight face as he uttered those last two sentences. Each was a totally correct comment. The fact that one had nothing to do with the other, in the context that he’d used them, he kept carefully to himself.
Roger accepted the statement at face value, as Lee intended, and sent him a curious look. “You actually understand all that techno-biologic babble?”
Lee shrugged. “Long enough exposure inevitably leads to some of it sinking in. Don’t panic. I’m still just a sub driver.”
“Yeah, right,” Roger teased him.
“Hey, it’s not my fault I just seem to find myself where all the action’s taking place,” Lee defended himself.
“Yeah, right,” Roger repeated, and both men chuckled.
Lee stood up in preparation of leaving and then said casually, as an afterthought, “Don’t suppose the name Gonzalo Rosas means anything to you.”
Roger pondered the question, but eventually just shrugged his shoulders. “Afraid not. Reason?”
It was Lee’s turn to shrug. “Just someone it was mentioned that I might want to interview. Apparently he’s pretty heavily involved in the import/export business and would have a good line on shipping practices – guess they thought he’d know who to ask about what kind of pollutants are being found.”
“I’d think there would be better people to ask than him.”
Lee shrugged again, then gave Roger a wicked grin. “Hey, I’m used to strange leads, after all the screwy intel I get for ONI missions.”
Roger frowned, but finally chuckled along with Lee. “Well, his name doesn’t ring any bells. But then, I’m just a lowly aide.”
“Yeah, right,” it was Lee’s turn to say, and they both chuckled again. “Well, I’ve got a plane to catch.”
“Sorry I wasn’t much help. You want me to ask the Admiral when I see him?”
“Nah, don’t bother. Good to see you, anyway.”
“Same here.” Lee left, not seeing Roger jot the name down on a small piece of paper before getting back to what Lee’s visit had interrupted.
* * * *
Lee headed for
the airport with a lot on his mind. He
may have unintentionally avoided gaining the interest and attention of ONI’s
director, but he knew full well that he’d still answer for his actions at some
point. Lee was perfectly aware that this
venture could cost him his career, and not only with NIMR. Neither good career servicemen, not good
agents, went off on their own and expected to be welcomed back with open
arms. The perfect conclusion would be
for him to find the answers he sought and be home before anyone realized that
he had gone. He was realist enough to
not be holding his breath waiting for that conclusion. But the answers he wanted were far more
important to him at this point to not go.
He just prayed that, once the story of what he was doing came out,
others would understand his need to set the record straight once and for
all. At least in his own mind, as well
as for his mother. The letter had warned
After booking his
The flight to
A quick call to Joe got him the address of where his friend had chosen to have dinner. Lee was in the bar half an hour later, nursing a scotch, when Joe slid onto the stool next to him and ordered a double.
“That bad?” Lee asked casually.
Joe grimaced. “Stark’s a bear at the best of times,” he grumbled, then gave Lee a quick grin. “But you know, I really like the guy. Wouldn’t have put up with him all this time if I didn’t.” The two shared a chuckle. “He’s a masterful tactician, knows how he wants things done, and doesn’t take flack from anyone who tries to stop him. It’s actually kind of fun, sitting back and watching him work – especially since I’m not directly in his line of fire.” Lee raised his eyebrows, and Joe smiled. “Well, what I mean is, I’m just the one who makes sure his orders get passed on, not the one catching heat for issuing them in the first place. Stark has always made it plain to everyone that he’s the one responsible for his actions, not his staff. While I have to deal with him, I’m not the one dealing with the fallout from his decisions.”
Lee cringed slightly. “Wish I had it that easy sometimes,” he said softly. “Nelson issues the orders and he expects me to make them work, no matter what the consequences.”
“You haven’t done too badly, from all accounts,” Joe teased him, and Lee smiled. “Even Stark, for all his muttering when you first went to NIMR, has had to admit you’ve made a fine account of yourself.”
“Then why does he keep sending me updates on Command openings?”
Joe laughed openly. “I think you spoiled his plans for you, boyo.” Lee’s eyebrows went up again. “I’ve heard a comment or two – wasn’t eavesdropping, mind you,” he hurriedly added and Lee grinned, “to the effect that he’d been watching your career, and liked what he saw. Seems he had you headed for greater things than piloting Seaview.”
“There isn’t anything greater than piloting Seaview,” Lee assured his friend with conviction.
“Well, anyway,” Joe continued, “let’s just say that he wasn’t overly happy when Nelson swiped you away from his chain of command.” Lee just smiled. His complaints notwithstanding, he’d heard pretty much the same thing from Nelson.
Their table was called, and the two settled into a back corner of the dining area for a good meal and catching each other up since their last meeting. They were most of the way through excellent steaks, with accompanying baked potatoes and asparagus, when Lee sent his old friend a conspiratorial glance. “Mind if I ask you to confirm or deny a bit of scuttlebutt I heard recently?”
“Go for it,” Joe answered good-naturedly. “I can always tell you where to stuff it if I don’t want to answer.” They both chuckled.
“Nothing earth shattering. Just a couple SEALs running Stark down. Sort of surprised me. I mean, yeah, Stark’s old Navy, and a hard nose most of the time. But everyone pretty much respects him.” He stopped as Joe got a pained look on his face and lowered his eyes to his plate, seeming to concentrate on cutting another bite of steak. Lee didn’t push.
Joe put the meat in his mouth, and sent Lee a couple glances while he chewed. Finally, after swallowing, and washing it down with some of the wine that both men had switched to with the meal, he looked directly at Lee. “I know the answer. At least part of it, anyway. But only by accident. And at the time I thought it was going to cost me my head,” he added emphatically.
Lee sent him a quizzical look. “Why?”
“You gotta promise that it goes no further. Not even to Chip.”
“Geesh. What happened?”
“No further, Lee. I mean it.”
“Done,” Lee promised his friend. This was getting too weird. Already knowing the answer – sort of – he’d only wanted to see if Joe knew any more about the mission that prompted it. Now he was beginning to wonder what he’d stepped in.
Joe took another swallow of wine before starting his story. “It was right after that time when Admiral Nelson went missing, and Stark went aboard Seaview to help look for him. You remember?”
“How could I forget,” Lee answered with emotion. “You heard what happened – about the drug reaction, and what I did?”
“Not common knowledge, but yeah, I heard. You made points with Stark, I can tell you,” Joe said with admiration.
“Didn’t think so at the time,” Lee answered sheepishly, and attended to what was left of his own meal as Joe chuckled softly.
not too long after Stark got back, I walked into his office to return some
papers to his file cabinet. There was an
open folder lying on his desk – he’d gone to the head, and wasn’t there – and I
sort of glanced at the top sheet as I was fiddling with finding the right
folders I needed to put the papers in.
Didn’t really see much at that point, just something about a SEAL
“Not one of my areas of expertise,” Lee admitted.
“We were both far
too young,” Joe smiled at him, “and they didn’t cover much of it at the
academy. But I had a history professor
in high school that had this way of drawing you in…” He stopped and gave Lee a little smile. “Got me hooked, especially on his area of
expertise: South American history. He
“Oops,” Lee murmured.
“No joke! But to make the story a little shorter, once he got done yelling, and let me get enough words in edgewise that he knew I was in there on business, he apologized.” Lee’s eyebrows went up as far as they would go, causing Joe to grin. “Well, sort of,” he amended. “Said that it was his own fault for leaving the folder open in the first place, that he’d been called out of his office in a hurry. Between you, me, and the wall I think it was the latrine calling, in response to his having eaten the Tuna Surprise the “O” club served at lunch.” Both men chuckled. “Instead of just sending me out he hesitated a second, then told me a little of what the report was about.” Joe looked at Lee. “It was almost like he wanted to talk about it to someone, and must have figured I was safe since I was pretty much under his thumb anyway. Kind of weird. First and last time in the years I’ve known him that he acted like that.”
“Remnants of the Tuna Surprise?” Lee asked with a grin. Joe just shrugged and continued.
“The mission was
classified, and Stark intimated that even having the file in his possession
wasn’t a good thing, if certain parties ever found out. He said that he kept it to remind himself to
stay away from SEAL operations. Not sure
what my expression was at the time, because he just gave me this funny look and
continued. He said that as a Lt. Cmdr.
he’d been assigned to accompany a SEAL team into
“That would definitely tick off the SEALs,” Lee said. “And it’s been my experience that that’s not a good thing.”
“They are a dedicated bunch.”
“That’s one way to describe them.” Lee grinned. “I’ve heard them called a few less complimentary things.”
“Yeah. Me, too. Whatever happened, it apparently had a profound effect on Stark. He told me it was one of the worst days of his entire career.”
“Wow. He actually admitted that?”
“Yeah.” Joe shuddered slightly. “Then he threw me out of his office with the warning that if I ever repeated that story to anyone, he’d have my six hung from the flag pole – minus the rest of my body parts.”
“Ouch,” Lee commiserated.
“Anyway, that’s the roundabout way of answering your question about why the SEALs don’t like him.”
“Seems like an awfully long time to hold a grudge.”
“We are talking SEALs here, Lee.”
Lee chuckled. “Point taken.”
Joe got thoughtful over the last of his wine. “Funny you should ask about that now.”
“Why?” Lee knew the word came out more sharply than he’d meant it to, and tried to cover it with a casual glance at his friend.
“I had to re-book
Stark’s flight to D.C. to include a stop in
Lee covered his sudden tension with a shrug and a grin. “Hey, I gave up trying to explain admirals ages ago.” He joined Joe in a chuckle, and changed the subject.
He had time to
kill the next morning since his flight didn’t leave until 1345 hours, so Lee
spent several hours at an Internet café.
No matter how often Chip touted the advantages and abilities of the
Internet, Lee was always amazed at what information was available to anyone
with the tenacity to look for it. A
little creative digging and he found enough background intel to fill in a few
blanks. In 1973 General Augusto Pinochet
bombed the presidential palace, ousting Salvadore Allende, a socialist elected
in democratic elections, and creating his own military dictatorship. Pinochet declared what he called a “war on
terrorism”, perceived by him and his allies as “anyone infecting their country
with the alien cancer of Communist revolution.”
What wasn’t stated openly, but widely alluded to, was Pinochet’s backing
wasn’t content just to clean up his own country. He created a secret alliance with
While the CIA
certainly knew what was going on, they apparently deemed the threat from
Communism to be far greater during those years than the death squads, and
merely sat back and watched. It wasn’t
until Orlando Letelier, General Pinochet’s most prominent and effective
opponent in the
Lee just shook his head. Working for ONI had gotten him involved in all sorts of political situations, fighting against threats to world freedom. He could almost see both sides of the story. But when he thought about the death squads wandering around, killing anyone they ‘thought’ was a threat, it made him feel sick and dirty. And where did Stark’s mission fit in to all this? Was the family he extracted Communist sympathizers fleeing the assassinations? That made no sense whatsoever. Lee wished that he could just sit down with both Admirals Nelson and Stark and calmly get the answers he sought. But knowing that if Stark had kept quiet all these years, “calm” would be about the last adjective used to describe any attempt to bring it up now. Add to that Nelson’s volatile temper, and Lee decided that he was much better off trying to find the answers on his own. Safer, definitely, he muttered to himself as he headed for the airport. Not sure I’d survive that conversation.
* * * *
Not quite twenty
hours later, Lee stepped off the plane in
Lee used the
It took him a while to notice that, as he watched Rosas, Lee was in turn the object of someone else’s attention. Humm, he murmured to himself as he returned a smile sent his direction, perhaps the lovely Senora Marin isn’t as very married as the waitress seems to think. Lee had to admit that she was a fine looking woman. And definitely interested in Lee. He was flattered. Either that, or she likes hers on the younger side, he grimaced into his slowly emptying cup. He was saved from continuing that train of thought as one of the waiters brought her meal, and she stopped watching Lee to focus on her plate. But Lee wasn’t so unaffected that he didn’t keep sending small glances that direction, and several times caught similar ones being returned. Finally, as he noticed Rosas was nearly finished with his meal, Lee paid for his and walked casually around the corner, stepping into the first shop and busying himself studying a display of hats close to the window as he watched Rosas and his cronies, whom Lee had instantly decided were bodyguards, walk back to the office building. That could be a problem, he admitted, trying on a couple of hats as he casually watched out the window. Separating Rosas from them could get messy. He was turning several scenarios over in his mind, trying to come up with something that would give him a head start before too many alarms were raised, when he became aware that Senora Marin was casually walking past on the sidewalk outside, having apparently decided to do a bit of window shopping on the way back to her office. While the next display over from where Lee stood held a nice selection of scarves and mantillas, Lee got the distinct impression that that’s not the item she had on her shopping list. Made somewhat uncomfortable by the attention, he pulled the brim down on the hat he had on at the moment and lowered his head to scan the display. It kept his eyes shielded from hers, but did nothing to keep him from noticing her swaying slowly past the window in front of him before she turned and crossed the street back to the office building. Deciding that the hat might come in handy, for several reasons, he made the purchase and returned to his hotel.
directories were no help as far as a home address for Rosas, so 1800 hours
found Lee parked around back of the office building, trying to keep tabs on
vehicles exiting from the underground parking garage while ostensibly looking
at a street map of the city. By 1930 he
was beginning to admit to himself that he had either missed seeing Rosas, or
he’d already left before Lee set up the surveillance. Either way it was going to cost him a day
that he wasn’t sure he had to spare since he was still hoping that he could get
home before anyone noticed and his absence became somewhat unauthorized. Chip calling his Mom’s place, as he was
perfectly capable of doing for any number of reasons, and not getting an answer
wouldn’t raise any immediate red flags.
He’d just assume that they were out on some errand or another. Lee didn’t come by his innate curiosity –
about everything – by accident. Helen
could easily have dragged him off to check out anything from the local Farmer’s
Market to reports of a bomb scare at the
Lee hung around a bit longer but there were few cars still leaving the building, and in the growing darkness Lee wasn’t sure he would be able to recognize anyone anyway. He was just about to start his car and go find someplace for dinner when two cars started out of the garage. There was just enough light from a car passing in the other direction to recognize the driver of the first car as being one of Rosas’ bodyguards. Unfortunately, Lee was delayed momentarily from following by the second car. He didn’t want to be observed obviously starting the car and turning on the headlights, leaving immediately after Rosas, and the second car turned in the same direction as the first. Therefore Lee was forced to wait a few more seconds before pulling out. Traffic was fairly quiet so he waited until the first intersection to turn on his headlights. He’d lain back as far as he dared but, since there was no obvious reaction from the second car, casually closed the distance. At first he thought that maybe Rosas used the second car for added security, but he quickly determined the driver to be female. Not that women can’t be just as deadly, Lee muttered, remembering a few he’d run into over the years. Then, at the next intersection, both cars in front of him turned left, and from the streetlights Lee was able to identify the woman as Senora Marin. Geesh. I can’t seem to get away from her, he groaned.
After two more turns where one car followed the other, Lee was also starting to wonder just what was going on. At the first one he’d backed off, turned off his headlights just as he faked going straight, then quickly turned, put his headlights back on, and gradually caught back up. He was seriously planning the maneuver again, to make it appear that the same car hadn’t been trailing the other two all this time, when Senora Marin slowed and turned right, into what was apparently her driveway. The house itself was somewhat obscured by high shrubbery along the street. Rosas’ car continued on to the next intersection, turned left and, at the second driveway on the right, turned in. As Lee drove slowly past he watched high gates slowly opening to admit the car into what, from the outside, looked to be a well-secured compound. They never make it easy, Lee sighed as he made note of the address. He drove around the block on a bit of a reconnaissance check just to be sure, then a short while later, over dinner in the hotel restaurant, checked the street map. He decided to wait until he could be sure residents had left for work the next day, and take a walk through the neighborhood. Maybe something would strike him in the light of day to base a plan of action on. In the meantime, he headed for his room to try and catch up on at least some of the sleep he’d lost lately, not totally sure when he’d get another chance.
* * * *
When Admiral Jones returned from his meeting at the Pentagon he was just short of breathing fire, and Roger Andreas judiciously waited until an opportunity presented itself the next day to show him the slip of paper with Rosas’ name on it. “Mean anything to you, sir?” he asked respectfully – and carefully. The Admiral was still muttering dark threats at various Army generals.
“Not offhand,” Jones said gruffly and started to hand it back. “What is it in reference to?”
nothing,” Andreas admitted. “Cmdr. Crane
stopped by yesterday…” Before he could
continue, Jones snatched back his hand before Andreas could take the paper and
stood glaring at him, obviously waiting for the rest of the explanation. “He said that Admiral Nelson was sending him
“Said he had a plane to catch so I gathered that he was on his way when he stopped here.”
“Harrumph.” Jones glanced at the paper again, and with a wave of his hand dismissed his aide. Andreas had no choice but to leave the inner office, hoping that he’d not gotten Lee into any more trouble than the man always seemed capable of getting into himself.
* * * *
fitfully, Lee showered and dressed in casual clothes, including his new hat,
and took a drive. He wanted to acquaint
himself with the area around Rosas’ house, mentally marking out where there
were residential areas, noting parks and such, and just getting a feel of the
territory. There were a couple of roads
that seemed to lead out into undeveloped areas surrounding the city and he
checked them both out, finding where they went and what was along the way. One was especially promising, going out of
town through a heavily wooded area with the few roads turning off of it only
going to family farms, and ending at a small village in the
His reconnaissance of the actual Rosas compound was restricted to looking at tall concrete walls and quick glances through two metal gates. The one the car had gone through the previous evening was apparently a back one leading to the garage. The compound covered most of a block, with two houses side by side along the fourth side of the block, obscuring Lee’s view of that portion of the fencing because of an abundance of shrubbery. There was a wide drive and gate on the opposite side of the compound from where Lee had seen the car enter. Along the side street there was nothing but solid wall. One of the other two houses had a tall tree in the backyard that lent itself to several possibilities. But Lee didn’t think that if Rosas went to this much effort to protect his house either he, or more likely his security, wouldn’t recognize the tree as a possible approach route and take some sort of measures to neutralize it. Just once I’d like a mission to be easy, he complained to himself, and headed back for his car. He decided to get some lunch, then possibly lay down for a few hours. While it was becoming pretty obvious that he’d be better off snatching Rosas from somewhere other than his house, he wanted to come back about 0200 and scope out the wall behind the two houses. He’d be protected there from the eyes of anyone driving by, and he wanted to at least check out all the options.
* * * *
Stark was not having a good day, although he’d brought most of it on
himself. He knew going to the funeral of
retired Master Chief Carl Miller wouldn’t be easy. An admiral showing up at the mostly private
Stark had great respect for any man who could complete the rigorous training every applicant had to pass to be called a SEAL. Only about 40% of those applying to the all-volunteer force ever made it through training. Those that did were highly skilled, highly intelligent, highly motivated, and highly dedicated. It was a powerful combination, and SEALs were respected not only within the Navy but also throughout all branches of the military, including those of other nations. But whenever Stark had to deal with any mission involving SEALs he tried to go through their commanding officers, not the units themselves. There was an undercurrent of dislike towards him among the force, one that went back 30 years, and apparently kept alive by scuttlebutt from older members to new to this day. Stark did his best to stay out of their line of fire, knowing that while he was justified in his decisions all those years ago to bring it on, he was still uncomfortable enough with what he’d had to do to not incur any more wrath. Showing up at the funeral was, he knew, not going to go over well with those SEALs in attendance. But Miller had been one of the team members with him at the time of the incident and, for his own well-being, Stark felt a need to be there to honor the man.
As he’d anticipated, his presence wasn’t well-received. Stark kept to himself, not intruding any more than he felt he needed to. He sat in a back pew at the church, and stayed in the background at the graveside services. None of the other uniformed men came anywhere nearer to him than they could help, and several times Stark caught bits of angry conversations, particularly between the older ones. Mostly he just caught words here and there, like ‘took a lot of gall’, and “sent a letter to the…” There were also a couple expletives Stark chose to ignore. He recognized two other faces, the only survivors from the original team. Stark had been unable to attend the funerals of the other four, all buried at Arlington National Cemetery. He was a bit surprised that Miller wasn’t being laid to rest there as well, but learned from a nephew whom he did speak to briefly that Miller had requested burial next in the family plot. The nephew was obviously curious about why Stark was there, but he’d accepted Jiggs’ short answer of “I knew him many years ago,” and eventually returned to stand with the other family members present. After the service Jiggs stayed back until everyone else had left, then walked up to the casket for a silent prayer before once again heading to the airport. To put a cap on the otherwise unpleasant experience, he found himself on the same civilian flight to DC as two of the SEALs who had attended the funeral. Jiggs was in first class, simply because his substantial frame didn’t fit well in the regular class seating. He did his best to ignore the angry looks he got from the two men as they passed through to their own seats further back, but it put a further damper on his mood and he was glad he could exit the plane and be long gone before he had to face them again. To put an even more perfect exclamation point to the day, when he got to the Pentagon not only was Admiral Whyte not there, no one could or would tell him where exactly he’d gone, or when he’d be back. Jiggs gave the admiral’s aide a few things to ponder, and headed to the Army-Navy Club for a small room and a large drink.
* * * *
0145 found Lee exiting a taxi several blocks from his destination. The mainly residential area hadn’t offered any place to park his own car without risk of it being spotted and its being there questioned that late at night so Lee had had the taxi pick him up from a busy restaurant, and intimated to the driver that he needed to be dropped at a friend’s house. He casually walked toward the nearest house, putting his wallet away after paying the driver and pretending to search his pockets for something until the taxi was out of sight, then walked hurriedly away. He kept to the shadows as much as possible until he was alongside the house with the interesting tree. Both houses skirting Rosas’ compound were dark but Lee progressed very carefully nonetheless, watching for any movement. He’d not seen any signs of dogs on his mid-day stroll but he listened for them just in case. He hated going up against watchdogs. Not that he had anything against people having pets. But he could disable alarms and sensors. He’d yet to figure out how to silence a guard dog without either killing it, which he hated doing, or using tranquilizer darts, which he didn’t have with him. He also scanned ahead of him as much as possible for motion detectors but he reached the base of the tree without incident. Climbing it proved to be another matter altogether. The lower branches were all trimmed off, and a quick flick of his penlight showed barbed wire guarding at least the lowest limbs. So much for that bright idea, he muttered, and continued along the wall behind the second house checking on any other egress into the compound that he’d not yet spotted. Zilch! Rosas took his security seriously.
Since he was now on the back side of the house, Lee walked along the wall until he came to the gate that led to the garage. The compound was dark, like the two houses, and Lee gave the gate a long look. Between two strands of barbed wire across the top there was a third, smooth one, that ever so lightly hissed at him with electricity, and he decided that there had to be a better way to get to his target. He worked his way carefully along side streets until he was several blocks away, in the general direction of a small restaurant he’d spotted during his drive that morning. A pay phone outside brought a taxi fairly quickly – thankfully not the same one from earlier, although he had a ready excuse if it did turn out to be the same one – and he returned to his hotel, slightly discouraged.
* * * *
Admiral Harriman Nelson wasn’t having a much better day today than his old pal Jiggs Stark had had the day before, although neither so far knew about the other’s woes. Nelson had flown in early that morning on an overnight, hastily booked civilian flight. FS1 had developed a hydraulics leak that, so far, the mechanics had been unable to track down. Nelson had momentarily wished Lee were there. The man had an absolutely uncanny knack for knowing what was wrong with the little yellow craft. One look at Will’s face when he absentmindedly uttered the thought in the CMO’s presence had Nelson quickly retracting his words. The workaholic commander took far fewer days off than the doctor liked as it was, and his instant black look at Nelson possibly interrupting this vacation left no doubt about his thoughts on the matter. As Nelson gave him a suddenly sheepish look and called Angie to book him a flight Will stomped off, headed for a few days of fishing. He wasn’t about to not take as many of his vacation days as he could squeeze in.
Once in DC, Nelson had meetings scheduled with members of the House Appropriations Committee in the morning, which he dreaded. They always wanted him to explain, item by item, his expense reports for any military missions Seaview undertook. The more nitpicky they could get, the better they seemed to like it. Nelson was sorely tempted to pull out copies of the committee members’ expense accounts, filled with perks and unnecessary junkets, and make them explain themselves to the taxpaying public. He’d been promised a working lunch to make time for everything on the agenda. When that turned out to be half of a chef salad with non-fat dressing – seems the ladies were all on diets and the men were watching their cholesterol – Nelson was doubly irritated. He didn’t keep a gourmet chef on board Seaview without good reason! Unfortunately, by the time he got away from that meeting, there wasn’t time to grab something more substantial before he needed to be at the Pentagon for a meeting with General Coatsworth. While Nelson could at least converse with the man on a level playing field, his empty stomach didn’t make reining in his temper any easier when Coatsworth got particularly obtuse over a sticky security issue. Finally settling all the points of contention Nelson could leave, return to the Army-Navy Club, and settle down in the restaurant for a thick steak and a tall scotch. He was halfway through the latter, waiting for the former, when Jiggs walked in. Each surprised to see the other, Jiggs sat down at Nelson’s table and placed his own order.
Nelson gave his old friend a quizzical look as Stark’s drink arrived, and half of it disappeared in one gulp. “I know why I’m in a lousy mood,” he observed dryly. “What’s your excuse?”
Jiggs grunted. “A holdover from yesterday, actually,” he answered, and paused for another swallow. “Had a funeral to go to.”
Nelson raised an eyebrow. “Must have been someone important. You hate funerals.” His expression finished the thought – if it was someone that important, why didn’t he know about it.
Jiggs gave him a chagrinned look. “No one you knew, Harry. At least,” he added, “I don’t think so. A retired SEAL.”
Both eyebrows went up. “You hate SEALs.”
Jiggs drained his drink and signaled for another. “To be precise, they hate me,” he told Nelson. “I just…needed to pay my last respects to this one. Owed him that.” As Nelson’s expression invited an explanation Jiggs continued, albeit reluctantly. “Don’t think I ever told you how the animosity all got started.”
“Well, you intimated a few things, too many years ago for me to remember much. And after too much bourbon on both of our parts.” Nelson sent his friend a small grin. “As I recall, we were on the back side of trying to drink each other under the table.”
Stark chuckled. “Yeah, that part I remember, too.” His drink arrived and he took a much more controlled sip. “Goes back a lot of years – not a particularly crowning moment in my career. For several reasons. Even if it did earn me a commendation.” He took another sip. “Especially because it earned me a commendation,” he muttered, causing both Nelson’s eyebrows to rise again. “Tried to wiggle out of it. Knew I didn’t deserve it.”
“You know the rules, Jiggs,” Nelson said softly. “Shut up and take whatever pats on the back come your way. Too many times it’s a boot in the rear, instead.”
Jiggs nodded his agreement but his expression was still disapproving. “All the brass saw was the successful completion of the mission, and they didn’t want to know about what happened to get there.”
“Typical,” Nelson agreed. “I vaguely recall something about losing a man?”
“Two, actually,” Jiggs admitted. “I didn’t have much to do with the first one. Lucky shot by the bad guys. Unfortunately, it was the leader of the SEAL team assigned to me.”
“Damn.” Their meals arrived, and Nelson attacked his with gusto while noticing that Jiggs uncharacteristically didn’t. Nelson didn’t push, just sent an occasional smile of encouragement, and was relieved when Stark finally put down his glass and picked up his silverware.
After several bites Jiggs continued. “As the ranking officer I took over command of the team.” Nelson choked on the forkful of peas he’d just put in his mouth, and several launched across the table. As both men cleaned up the small mess, Nelson finished swallowing what was left, and then sputtered at his friend, almost in a whisper.
“You stepped into the middle of a SEAL team? As an outsider? What the blazes were you thinking?”
“Completing the mission,” Jiggs blustered loudly, but he dropped his eyes to his plate before continuing in a quieter tone. “I know it was wrong. Now, anyway. At the time…well…”
Nelson leveled a glare at Stark. “Surprised the SEALs are just ticked at you, and haven’t strung you up by your…”
“Harry,” Stark cut him off. Nelson’s voice had risen beyond conversational levels, as it was wont to do all too easily without him realizing it. Or caring who was listening. Stark snorted at both of them as Nelson grabbed his drink and downed half of what was remaining. Admiral’s privilege notwithstanding, he muttered to himself, before continuing out loud. “Harry, it was a bad situation, but we’d already pretty much completed the mission. We just needed to get the hell out of there and back to safety. The SEALs knew that.”
Nelson concentrated on his meal for a bit, finally continuing at a more controlled volume. “You said you lost two men.”
Stark’s eyes went back to his plate. “We lost another man getting away. The SEALs wanted to go back for him but I didn’t think we had time.”
Nelson barely breathed. “You made the team leave one of their own behind? Good God, Jiggs,”
“I know, Harry. I know. Believe me, I’ve run the scenario through my brain a million times during the intervening years. If I had it to do over…” He shrugged and looked at Nelson. “I know I screwed up. On top of everything else, the second man we lost… Well, it’s had some rather farther-reaching and longer-lasting effects than I could ever have imagined at the time. But at that moment, all I could concentrate on was getting everyone else out safely.”
“I assume that the funeral you went to was for one of the original team?” Stark nodded glumly. “Don’t imagine your presence went over too well.”
“Understatement of the century,” Jiggs agreed. “Needed to be done.” He paused. “I needed it done.
Nelson gave his old friend a sympathetic look. “Did it help?” he finally asked softly.
“Sort of.” Stark shook himself. “So, what’s got your six in a knot?” he asked, effectively changing the subject.
“Nothing quite so traumatic,” Nelson admitted, with a chuckle at himself. “Got stuck taking a domestic flight because FS1 had a problem the mechanics can’t seem to find, and I didn’t have the time to try and figure out.” He chuckled again, causing Stark to send him a curious look. “Nearly got my head chewed off by my CMO when I made a comment about wishing Lee was there to fix it.” Stark raised an eyebrow. “I’ve told you before, while I might have designed her, Lee knows more about her, I swear, than the men who built her.” He shrugged. “Don’t know why I’m surprised. He’s the same way with Seaview. Just seems sometimes to become one with the equipment, and ‘feel’ where the problem is.” He gave Stark a self-conscious little grin. “Anyway, Doc wasn’t overjoyed at the thought that I might interrupt Lee since he’s always on Lee’s case about using all of his days off anyway. Then, I get here,” his voice changed to a growl, “and my ‘working lunch’ turns into half a chef salad.” He speared a piece of meat and stuffed it into his mouth, chewing savagely.
Stark sent him a grin, knowing full well how Nelson liked his food: well prepared and generously proportioned. “So where is Crane?” he asked conversationally.
Nelson finished chewing, swallowed, and washed it down with a sip of scotch before answering. “In Newport, spending a few days with his mother.” If he hadn’t been looking directly at Stark he’d have missed the look of pain that flashed briefly across the man’s face, then was gone just as fast. He started to ask what it was about, thinking perhaps Stark wasn’t feeling well. But Jiggs changed the subject again, to meetings they both had at the Pentagon the following day, and Nelson all too quickly forgot the incident.
* * * *
Lee pondered his options on the ride back to the hotel. Getting to Rosas at home was low on the list. The office building didn’t look much better. Separating him from his bodyguards on either the drive to or from the office would be tricky since the drive never left well-populated areas. He didn’t have enough time to follow the man for several weeks, hoping to catch him in a place more convenient to his plans. He supposed he could make contact with the couple of operatives in the area who would recognize his name and/or his face. They might be able to offer more background on Rosas; if he was in fact tied to illegal drug running, the agents might know of places Rosas frequented that would offer a bit more privacy. But probably even more security, Lee admitted to himself. Damn! He pondered further, and finally gave himself a wry smile. There’s always the option of simply calling him up and asking for a meet. I’d still have the bodyguards to deal with, but I might be able to make it in a place better to my liking. He shrugged. It was as good a plan as anything else he could come up with, given his time restraints.
A thought suddenly hit him as he was paying the taxi driver, and he ran the scenario through his mind while returning to his room. Has possibilities, he considered and, entering his room, grabbed the phone directories again. Checking listings against his street map, he scooped up his car keys and headed back out.
Half an hour later he slipped in the back door of a veterinarian’s office. The man advertised that he dealt with wild animals as well as domestic, and Lee figured that he probably did contract work for the local zoo. Works for me, he chuckled to himself. Thinking about dealing with guard dogs had given Lee an idea for dealing with Rosas’ two-legged variety, and it didn’t take him long to find the doctor’s tranquilizer gun and darts. Picking the lock on the drug locker, he helped himself to a couple small bottles of what he recognized as quick-acting anesthetics. Grabbing up a couple syringes to facilitate loading the darts, he was out the door and on his way back to his hotel in less than twenty minutes. Now all he had to do was lure Rosas out on the back road he’d found, disable the bodyguards, and the two could have a nice, quiet chat. He adjusted the dosage on the bottles from 40-pound dog to 250-pound gorilla – Humm, make that guerrilla, he reminded himself seriously – stored everything away carefully in his small backpack, and fell asleep working on the perfect hook to snag his target.
* * * *
Admiral Nelson heaved a huge sigh as he walked down one of the Pentagon’s long corridors. He knew it was important to maintain a good working relationship with the Navy. Not only did military contracts deposit a lot of nice fat checks into NIMR’s coffers, but Nelson also enjoyed being able to dip into active duty personnel rosters for his own personal use. The downside was long hours listening to either empty-headed politicians or bull-headed military brass. He’d just spent the entire day with the latter and was in need of a stiff drink. At least today he’d been able to manage something constructive during the meetings. Instead of taking copious notes, as he assumed the others thought he’d been doing, he’d listened to the drivel with half an ear and concentrated on working out the details of how to adjust the equipment in the diving bell to accommodate some sampling analysis instruments they’d need for an upcoming cruise. It would mean a bit of a tight squeeze for himself and Sharkey, who usually volunteered himself for dives with the Admiral. Nelson grinned at the thought of he and the COB, neither particularly svelte, shoehorned into the small bell, made even smaller with the extra equipment. Humm, maybe I’ll take Lee. He chuckled outright. Or better still, Chip. Do him good, getting his six off Seaview and into the action. He’s all the time complaining about how hard it is sometimes, just waiting around for crew to get back from a worrisome dive. Not that this should be all that dangerous, he acknowledged silently. But it will be deep. And give Chip some much-needed experience with the more scientific aspects of some of our cruises instead of just running Seaview and her computers and crew. He started to add and Lee, smiled, and caught himself. That’s not fair – to either man, he admitted. But there are days…
His chuckling almost drowned out the calling of his name from behind. It eventually sunk in and he turned, expecting to see Jiggs. That admiral had had meetings with, among others, the SecNav, and the two had tentatively planned on getting together for dinner again. Instead, Nelson saw Admiral Jones walking toward him, and instantly frowned. Now what? He growled under his breath, and worked to control his expression. He better not be planning on messing up Lee’s vacation. Especially when Doc wouldn’t let me do it. That thought caused a slight grin, and he greeted Jones fairly pleasantly.
“Hi, Robert. See the brass dragged you out of your office. They seem like they’re trying to stir up everyone, from what I’ve seen these last couple days.”
“And I doubt you know the half of it,” Jones grumbled, “being able to go hide on that submarine of yours.”
“They still find me,” Nelson grumbled right back, and both men smiled. “I’m just headed to meet Jiggs Stark for dinner. Why don’t you join us? We can reorganize the hierarchy to something that makes better sense – at least to us.”
Jones chuckled before the frown re-appeared. “Still have half a dozen reports on my desk that I’ve barely had time to glance at, but thanks anyway. Just saw you and wanted to ask why you sent Crane to Chile on a fact-finding junket. If you haven’t anything for him to do that’s more appropriate to his talents, I’m sure I can think of a few things.”
Nelson turned a totally confused look on ONI’s director. “What are you talking about? Lee, in Chile? He’s off on a few days’ R&R, visiting his Mother.”
It was Jones’ turn to look confused. “According to my aide, he stopped by the office the other day and said you were sending him to check on something about oceanic pollution.”
“Why would he stop by your office?” Nelson’s voice rose, partially in confusion, and partly because he suspected that Jones was pulling his leg and he wasn’t in the mood to be amused.
Suddenly Jones frowned. “He’s with his mother?” Almost, but not quite, under his breath, he growled. “That might explain it.” Nelson pointed a particularly raised eyebrow at him and he continued, somewhat reluctantly. “Two of a kind. End up with their noses in trouble no matter how innocent their intentions.” Both of Nelson’s eyebrows went up. “A few years ago Mrs. Crane blundered right into the middle of one of our operations, following a lead on a story she was researching.”
“Lee never mentioned it,” Nelson observed carefully. Admiral Jones was just about as volatile as Stark. Humm – maybe it’s part of Admiral’s Privilege. He desperately tried to keep his expression neutral in the face of the disgusted one being sent back at him.
“That’s because we managed to get her sidetracked in a different direction before she even realized we were there. Damn near blew the whole operation doing it.” He got thoughtful. “I suppose, though, that the story might have gotten back to Crane, and if she asked him to check something out for her he’d have used your name instead of stirring up that can of worms again.”
“Possible,” Nelson agreed. “Mrs. Crane does have rather…eclectic interests concerning what she writes about.” The only response that generated was a grunt, and Nelson grinned slightly. “Whatever you have going on down there, it will be awhile before she gets there. Lee wanted these few days to visit before she heads to Australia.”
“Why?” came the instant demand, causing Nelson to chuckle.
“Actually,” he answered, with a grin in his voice as well as on his face, “Lee wasn’t too sure. But he thought it was something to do with the opal mining industry.”
“Oh.” Jones visibly relaxed. He sent a scowl towards Nelson as there was another soft chuckle. “We don’t have anything going on in Chile, either,” he said grumpily, then added with an almost sheepish expression, “thankfully.”
Nelson laughed out loud. “Perhaps I’d better relay a warning, just in case?”
“Wouldn’t hurt. Oh, here,” and he reached into his pocket and pulled out the slip of paper his aide had given him. “Crane asked specifically about this man. It might have something to do with what his mother is investigating. I thought at first I recognized the name, but I haven’t been able to put a finger on it.”
“Who is he?”
“As far as I know, an import/export specialist. I was going to ask around, but never had the chance. Now that I know Crane’s mother is involved…”
Nelson chuckled again. “Think I might have Chip call and see if he can wheedle what’s going on out of Lee.”
“Just don’t bother telling me,” Jones said sternly. “After the last time, I don’t think I want to know.” Both men chuckled, and headed off down different corridors.
While waiting a bit later for Jiggs to join him he pulled out the slip of paper, along with his cell phone, and with a grin dialed Chip’s number.
“Morton,” came officiously in his ear, followed instantly by a crash in the background, and a soft “damn” from Seaview’s XO.
“How bad?” Nelson asked, controlling his voice. Even he had a tendency to tiptoe around the blond if things weren’t going well. The fact that Chip had actually used an expletive, something he rarely did, was a definite indication to tread very softly.
“Oh, hi, sir.” There was a long sigh. “Nothing fourteen hours of intensive labor won’t fix – again!”
“Anything I can do to help?”
“Scream at the company who made the new navigation computer cabinets three inches wider than your specs?”
Nelson frowned. “Consider it done. Not that it will help you right now.”
“No, but at least it will give me a little mental satisfaction while I’m redesigning everything to make it fit.”
“In the meantime, take a deep breath and do me a favor?”
“Of course, sir.”
“Call your CO and ask him why his mother has him checking into the Chilean import/export business.”
“Oh no, not again,” came through the line, barely breathed.
Nelson chuckled. “At least, that’s the current theory. Seems Lee dropped into Admiral Jones’ office a couple days ago, seeking information.”
“I knew it was a mistake, letting him out of my sight.”
“Down, Chip. It’s just a theory.”
“I love Mother Crane, sir. I really do. But she can be worse than her son when it comes to following a lead on a juicy story.”
“So I’ve gathered,” Nelson replied dryly. “You’ll check into it – carefully?”
“Aye, aye, sir.” The two rang off, without Nelson noticing the slight hesitation in Chip’s voice.
* * * *
“Now what’s going on,” Chip muttered to himself. “First things first,” he said aloud, and went back to instructing the electronics technicians how to install a 38-inch computer cabinet into a 35-inch space. They almost had it, but the crash had been a bracket not specifically designed for the work they wanted it to do letting go. It took a few more calculations, and a different bracket, to get it back to where the technicians could continue on while Chip backed off and dialed Lee’s cell phone.
Ten minutes later Chip was back to the worried state he’d been in most of the last cruise. There was no answer either at the Crane home or Lee’s cell phone. The latter was particularly worrisome since there were only two reasons Lee was ever purposely out of communication with NIMR and, as far as Chip knew, neither was a viable reason in this case. He dialed a third number, this time an internal NIMR extension.
“Morton. Have you had any contact with Cmdr. Crane in the last few days?”
“The Skipper? Hang on. There was a message.” A short pause, and he continued. “Called, said he’d be out of communication until the day before the next cruise,” and he gave Chip the date.
“No explanation why?”
“None listed. Just assumed ONI had requested his presence.”
“Damn,” Chip uttered none too carefully, and frowned at the soft chuckle that came through the phone. Chip doubted there was a person connected with NIMR that didn’t know Chip’s feelings on Lee’s continued involvement with the Navy’s Intelligence community, and he was perfectly willing to let that assumption stand even though that’s not what was going through his mind at the moment. Thanking the guard somewhat absentmindedly, he ran through what he knew. Lee was uncomfortable around the Admiral for some unknown reason. He’d voluntarily taken days off, something he almost never did. Nelson seemed totally oblivious to whatever the problem was. And, while Lee left Security with the impression that he was on an ONI assignment, Nelson had apparently just talked to Admiral Jones, who didn’t seem to know a thing about it. Not that the man wouldn’t lie through his teeth, Chip growled. Apparently not totally to himself, as all three technicians looked at him expectantly. He grimaced, waved them back to what they were doing, and walked off a few more feet to ponder his next move. As much as he didn’t want to get Lee into any more trouble than he could help, he also wanted to know just what the blazes was going on, and be able to help out in anyway he could. Sighing heavily, he dialed Nelson’s number.
* * * *
Nelson barely disconnected with Chip when Jiggs joined him for dinner. They put in their meal order, and were halfway through their salads when Nelson’s phone went off. He glanced at the number grumpily but, recognizing it as Chip’s, answered instead of turning it off.
“Nelson. What’s his excuse this time?” Chip didn’t laugh as he’d expected, and he started frowning.
“Couldn’t reach him, sir. Called Security and they said he’d left a short message that he’d be out of communication until the day before the next cruise. Security figured he was called out by ONI.”
“Not according to Jones,” Nelson answered, starting to get a bad feeling.
“Wouldn’t be the first time they’ve lied,” Chip responded cautiously.
“No. But I didn’t get that feeling this time. Damn!”
“My sentiments exactly, sir.”
There was silence between the two for a bit, before Nelson continued. “Don’t want to pry, but under the circumstances… Did you ever find out what was troubling Lee the last cruise?”
“No, sir. Sorry. The only thing I could get out of him was, it was his problem and he’d take care of it.” Chip kept quiet about believing it had something to do with Nelson. That was just too tenuous a connection at the moment, since Nelson himself seemed so totally in the dark.
Nelson thought another moment, and then reached into his pocket for the slip of paper Jones had given him. “Does the name Gonzalo Rosas mean anything to you?” He sent a raised eyebrow across the table as Jiggs choked on a bite of salad and turned a few shades paler than his usual coloring.
“Not a thing, sir,” Chip said into his ear.
As Jiggs refused to meet his eyes, Nelson frowned. “Thanks, Chip. I’ll do some more checking at this end and get back to you.”
“Appreciate it, sir,” Chip answered, and they again rang off.
“Jiggs,” Nelson said firmly, staring at his old friend, “anything you’d care to tell me about my apparently missing Commander?”
“Why would I know where he is?” Stark tried to bluster back, but it didn’t quite come out with the force he’d intended.
Nelson pounced on the lackluster response. “Because you nearly had a heart attack when I mentioned the only lead we have to Lee’s disappearance, this fellow Rosas.” When Stark didn’t immediately answer, Nelson’s fist hit the table with enough force to have half the room looking in his direction. The emotion was not lost on his old friend.
“Harry, I know the name. That’s all. And that’s from a long time ago. Might not even be the same man.”
Nelson continued to hold Jiggs in his glare. “This one is apparently an import/export businessman in Chile.” He didn’t miss the flinch when he said the country.
Stark was very aware that Nelson had noticed. “Probably the same man,” he admitted reluctantly.
“Why would Lee be wanting information about him?” Nelson demanded.
“Harry, I have absolutely no idea.” It wasn’t a total lie. Stark was wracking his brain trying to figure out how Crane could have stumbled across the name after all these years.
Nelson wasn’t that easily put off. “What aren’t you telling me?”
Stark flipped a mental coin several times, but it always came down ‘tails’. He knew Nelson wouldn’t back off so he had to say something, and took a deep breath. “Thirty years ago, Rosas led the military unit that the SEALs and I locked horns with. I didn’t know that at the time, mind you, Harry. Found out accidentally years later. Once Pinochet kicked out the communist bid to rule that part of South America, Rosas turned to civilian interests.” He shrugged. “Hadn’t thought of the guy in years. Guess with the funeral the other day, and then hearing his name now…” His voice trailed off, and he just hoped Nelson would let it drop.
He should have known better. Nelson’s voice got very soft and low – something that almost never happened, and something that Jiggs recognized as a signal that Nelson was even angrier then when he yelled. “Jiggs, why would the man mean anything to Lee?”
“Maybe something to do with an ONI mission?” Stark tried.
“Robert Jones was the one who told me that Lee was asking about him,” Nelson said, still quietly. “He had no idea why.”
While Stark was trying to think of something – anything – that would get Nelson off his back, half of a sentence he’d heard at the funeral flashed through his mind. “…sent a letter to…” Oh no, he thought. Could Master Chief Miller have sent a letter to Crane, after all these years? How would he even know who Crane was? He snorted at himself, while still realizing that Nelson was waiting impatiently for an answer. The same way I found out. But it gave him a way to get out from under Nelson’s intense gaze. “Could he have heard the name from a SEAL buddy, and just be curious about the man?” He made himself sound grouchy. “Crane would enjoy lording it over me why the SEALs dislike me so much.”
Nelson practically growled. “You may have your problems with Lee, but you know him better than to believe he’d ever stoop so low.”
Stark sighed. “Yeah, Harry. I do. It was just a thought.” But he was also relieved to see that Nelson was losing interest in further accusing him, for which he was extremely grateful.
Actually, Nelson wasn’t losing interest at all. It was obvious to him that Jiggs knew a lot more about what was going on than he was admitting to. It was just as obvious that Nelson wasn’t going to get him to spit it out without causing a major scene. But he decided that the dining room wasn’t the place to stage it, and sighed heavily for effect. “I can see, however, where his curiosity could get the better of him,” Nelson acknowledged, seeming to back down. “But that doesn’t explain why we aren’t able to contact him.”
“Can’t help you there, Harry,” Stark answered honestly. Their dinners arrived, and conversation turned to other topics. Stark still caught the occasional hard look that Nelson sent him, but the subject wasn’t brought up again.
* * * *
Stretching out on the bed for a few hours after putting his arsenal together, Lee toyed with several options on how to pry Rosas out of his office. He wondered if being a little more noticeable at the outdoor café would cause Rosas to react the way the old SEAL had, but couldn’t be sure if Rosas had actually been one of the men to have seen his father’s face all those years ago, or would even remember. Deciding that the direct approach would probably accomplish as much as any other method, he waited until 0945 and placed a call to Rosas’ office. He used his cell phone, not wanting Rosas to be able to trace the phone call too easily back to his hotel. He did, however, make sure that he packed up all his belongings before he dialed the number. If this went as planned, Lee would not be returning to this room.
“Rosas Importations,” a pleasant-sounding female voice answered his call.
“Senor Rosas, please,” Lee said, just as pleasantly.
“May I tell him who’s calling?”
“We’ve never met,” Lee answered, still keeping the conversation on a pleasant level. “But it’s possible that I’m in possession of information Senor Rosas will be quite interested in having.”
“And this is in reference to…?”
Lee half-smiled. The mission notwithstanding, he did appreciate efficient secretaries. However… “I rather think Senor Rosas would prefer to keep this just between the two of us. But you can tell him that it includes information on a pilot we were both familiar with, who passed away many years ago.”
“Thank you. Please hold,” and there was silence from the other end of the line. So quiet was it, in fact, that Lee became aware of how hard his own heart was beating. No time to get careless and out of control now, you idiot, he warned himself, and worked to rein in his emotions.
“Good morning,” came a cultured male voice in his ear. “I am sorry, but I do not believe that I know this person you told my secretary about.”
“Then why did you take my call?”
There was a small pause. “Call it…curiosity.”
At least I got his attention, Lee commented to himself. Now to keep it. “Thirty years ago a pilot was shot down several kilometers south of Valparaiso. He had been flying cover for a group escaping the tyranny of that time.” Lee knew he was guessing part of this. He just hoped he was getting enough of it correct to keep Rosas’ attention. Apparently he was.
“He was a spy.” It was said with assurance.
Lee responded with just as much assurance. “No, Senor, he was not.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“He was merely doing his job, protecting those he was assigned to protect.”
There was a longer pause this time, but Lee refused to be the one to break it. Finally, “You should come to my office. We can discuss my country’s history.”
“I have a better idea. Meet me on the road to Farellones. I talk better in the open.”
“And if I refuse?”
“I can’t, of course, force you,” Lee admitted. “I just thought you might still be interested in the family who escaped.” Lee almost held his breath, waiting to see if he’d dangled the right carrot.
He had. “You know where they are?” By not answering, Lee wasn’t forced into lying. “You are also a spy.”
“No, Senor Rosas. Just a man willing to trade information that you are interested in, for information you have that would interest me.”
There was an even longer pause this time. Lee was just about to conclude that his carrot had not, after all, been tasty enough after all these years and that Rosas was merely going to hang up, when he came back on the line. “Tonight. Meet me for dinner at…”
Lee cut him off, still keeping his voice calm. “No, Senor. I wish to keep this conversation just between us.”
“Who are you hiding from?”
Lee knew now that he had Rosas. “That is of no concern to you, Senor.”
“Your own CIA, perhaps? Your voice tells me that you are American.” Again Lee remained silent. “Where on the road?”
Lee smiled to himself. “I am familiar with your car. Just keep driving until I signal you. I assume you have a cell phone?”
“I do,” Rosas acknowledged.
“Give me the number. I will supply further instructions as necessary.”
* * * *
Nelson wasn’t thrilled with letting Stark off the hook. He knew perfectly well that his old friend was hiding something from him, but discovered the following morning that Jiggs had made a hasty exit from DC and returned to California. He was, however, able to confirm that Lee’s passport activity placed him in Santiago, Chile’s capital city. He also called an old friend at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., who reported back that Mrs. Crane was indeed gone, no location available. Lee had apparently shown up the same day she’d left, only later that afternoon, but had been gone again by the time the neighbors got up the following morning. Now totally confused, Nelson relayed this latest information to Chip.
“You mean he knew Mother Crane wouldn’t be there, and went anyway?” Chip all but blithered.
“So it would seem,” Nelson confirmed, allowing confusion, and not just a little worry, to creep into his voice. “I ran a check on her passport as well. I don’t have a final destination but did track her as far as London so apparently she is, actually, on her way to Australia.”
“That would be the logical route for her to take, leaving from the east coast,” Chip agreed. “You want me to go do a little judicious digging around at Lee’s place, see if I can come up with anything?”
“Chip, you know as well as I do, Lee is far too good an agent to be that careless. If he’d wanted us to know what was going on he’d have told us outright.”
“I’m going to kill him,” came softly through the phone lines to Nelson.
“Only if you get to him first. And you still have a navigation computer to get operational.”
“Up and running two hours ago,” Chip answered smugly.
“And how much overtime is that going to cost me?”
“All volunteer,” Chip said, still confidently.
Nelson didn’t believe it for a minute, but wasn’t about to question his XO. “Did the mechanics ever get FS1 fixed?” he asked instead.
“No, sir,” Chip’s former smugness turned to defeat. “They just can’t seem to find the problem. They thought they had it, but there’s still a leak in the hydraulic lines…somewhere.”
Nelson sighed. “How fast can you do a crew recall?” He already knew the answer, but asked anyway.
“Twenty-four hours. You want to head south, just in case?”
“Yes, but I’ll fly down. I also have Lee’s credit card activity, so I’ll start at the hotel where he’s supposed to be registered and work from there.”
“You think that’s such a good idea, sir?” Chip asked, ultra-carefully. Not only could Lee get extremely angry at the invasion of his privacy but also, if Nelson was, actually, somehow involved, Lee could go totally ballistic.
“No,” Nelson agreed. “But it’s also not a good idea for my captain to be UA.”
“I know, Chip. Technically he isn’t. However…”
“Understood, sir. You want me to start the call-up?”
Nelson sighed again even more heavily. “No, not at this time. But you might get the alert out, just in case we need to.”
“Consider it done.”
Nelson ended the conversation with a slight grin on his face, despite the seriousness of the situation. Once again he acknowledged his good fortune in being able to acquire the talents of Charles P. Morton as Seaview’s Executive Officer. One of his favorite comments about the man was, ‘Where there’s Chip, there’s order,’ and he chuckled as he rang off, assuring Chip that he’d keep him as up-to-date as he could. It was such a relief to know that, duty assigned, he need never give it another thought because Chip would have it taken care of. He knew it was also a great relief to Lee, and one reason Lee continued to take ONI assignments was because he need never fear about Seaview and her crew in his absence. Nelson chuckled again silently as he acknowledged, too, that Lee very carefully didn’t mention that fact to Chip. Rank notwithstanding, Chip would find a way to make Lee very unhappy. Not that we both might not make him very unhappy for this stunt, Nelson muttered. All I can say is, Lee, you’d better have one very good reason for the subterfuge. He took a deep breath, got himself back under control, and headed for the airport.
* * * *
Turning off his cell phone, Lee sat for a bit. Not for the first time did he wonder what he expected to accomplish. It was a given that he was angry about all the years of lies and half-truths. But what, after all this time, did he really expect to do about it? If all he wanted was the truth, Admiral Stark could give him that. And maybe Admiral Nelson, he admitted reluctantly. He didn’t consider himself a vengeful man. But something inside was driving him – something he wasn’t totally able to control. And once more it goaded him into action.
After an early lunch he took his bags down to his car and left. Although he had no intention of returning, he told the desk clerk that he planned to spend a couple days in Valparaiso and then be back for the remainder of his prepaid week. He quietly accepted the clerk’s directions of the best way to get to the coastal town and then headed in the opposite direction, toward the mountains. He did make himself stop and get a sandwich and water to take with him, then once again followed the route past Rosas’ compound and out the sparsely used, narrow road toward Farellones. He drove slowly, watching the occasional turnoffs. He remembered spotting a small track the other day that looked like it hadn’t been used in some time, and wanted to check it out. Finding it fairly quickly he traversed the dirt track cautiously, happy to see that it led to nothing more than an abandoned house not far off the main road. Parking the car behind the dilapidated shack he spent an hour just walking around, getting familiar with the lay of the land and making sure that he was, in fact, alone. As evening started to settle in he changed into dark slacks and turtleneck sweater, gathered together his small arsenal, and found a place to sit along the main road. He was concealed from view behind a large bush, but still had a good view of approaching traffic. Only three vehicles passed him as he sat quietly, waiting. A fourth, heard coming along the road toward him, turned off prior to reaching his location. He worried about that for only a moment – as Rosas had no idea of where Lee intended to waylay him, there would be no way to know where to set a trap of his own. Nonetheless, he kept all senses on high alert. But his only company were the scattered birds in the trees overhead and a couple of pudu, small indigenous deer. They crossed the road from the other side, got to within a few feet of Lee before they smelled him, and quickly scurried off into the gathering darkness. There were a few other small sounds around him off and on, but nothing that triggered his innate sense of approaching danger. They appeared to be nothing more than the soft sounds of nocturnal animals wandering around foraging.
Almost before he heard the sound of the approaching car, the hair on the back of Lee’s neck started to tingle. He never tried to analyze this sixth sense he seemed to have, merely acknowledging that it had saved his tail on more occasions than he cared to dwell on. Nor did it let him down this time. Lee instantly recognized Rosas’ large car, and quickly dialed the man’s number. Rosas answered instantly. “Slow down, Senor. There is a small track to your right. Take it. It leads to a deserted farmhouse.” The car had slowed as soon as Lee heard the phone ring, and turned where indicated. Lee slipped through the woods and, as the car reached a position about twenty-five yards down the road, sent the first of his darts – one not loaded with drugs – into the nearest back tire. As the tire blew, the car pulled to a stop. Lee shifted his position to lie down on the ground opposite the front tire and quickly reloaded. He wasn’t sure why, but most bad guys he’d run into tended to look toward hiding places behind trees or whatever cover was available, but in an upright position instead of prone. It also gave him the advantage of presenting a smaller target as two burley bodyguards exited the car, one on each side, guns clearly drawn. Lee easily picked off the one on his side, sending the dart into his chest. He smiled a grim smile as the man yanked it out, already realizing that it was too late to stop the injection of the contents as he slowly slid down to the ground. Several shots rang out in Lee’s general direction from the second guard but, as Lee had anticipated, well over his head. Quietly reloading, he waited for an opportunity to take out that man as well. It didn’t take long, and number two was dispatched as easily as number one. Lee remained hidden, not knowing how many others were in the car or if Rosas had another car following. Well aware of the fallacies in his plan he’d gone ahead anyway, praying that he could handle whatever contingencies came up.
There was a small noise as a car window was lowered about two inches, and Rosas’ voice sounded from the back seat. “You intend to kill me as well?”
“They aren’t dead, only sleeping while we have our little chat.” As soon as he spoke he shifted to the left, barely avoiding the two bullets that almost instantly struck the ground where he’d been laying. He’d chosen that direction because it put him closer to where the first guard had fallen. He only had two darts left and was counting on getting the guard’s gun. “Obviously you trust me about as much as I trust you,” he added, rolling another couple feet to his left. That put him opposite the flat rear tire, and he was able from there to see the muzzle flashes from the revolver pointed out the barely open back window. He could only hope that Rosas was alone in the back seat. If there was still a guard in there, things could get a bit dicey in the next few minutes. Actually, they could anyway, but Lee was willing to take that risk. With the barrel of the gun still visible and pointed toward where he’d been moments before, Lee stayed low and moved cautiously toward the fallen guard. He was able to grab the man’s gun and duck directly behind the rear bumper before once again addressing Rosas.
“I promise you, I only want to talk. You can keep your gun – I won’t try to take it away from you. Just holster it, please, and step out of the car.”
“Why should I believe you?”
“Because I could just as easily have killed your guards as tranquilized them.” The pistol barrel disappeared from the top of the window and, after a moment’s hesitation while Lee practically held his breath, the car door slowly opened.
* * * *
Admiral Nelson was getting more and more frustrated, and not too sure of what his next step should be. Inquiries at the hotel where Lee was, indeed, registered, brought the information that Lee had left for Valparaiso the day before. However, there was no record of Lee’s having used his credit card after checking in here in Santiago. That, in itself, didn’t say much since, if he’d only left the day before, it was totally possible that any charges he’d made in the port town hadn’t yet posted to his account so that they could be traced. The desk clerk did say that Lee was scheduled to return and, with a little persuasion on the Admiral’s part, allowed Nelson the use of the room. He hoped that he’d find some trace of Lee, but the room showed absolutely no sign that Lee had even set foot in the place. Once Nelson had satisfied himself of that fact he sat down with a phone book and the telephone, prepared to call as many of the hotels in Valparaiso as were listed. So far Lee had been traveling openly under his own name. If he’d wanted to hide what he was doing, his ONI training and contacts could have, fairly easily, supplied him with an alias. Nelson frowned. Although, that would have meant a few lies over and above the half-truths he’s already apparently managed. Damn, Lee, I wish you weren’t always so tight-lipped with your personal life. We’d all help, if you’d only let us. Nelson sighed heavily. He should by now be used to Lee’s habit of always trying to solve his own personal problems. He wasn’t like that aboard Seaview. There, he was perfectly willing to brainstorm about mission tactics or glitches. But anything to do with himself was kept strictly private. It regularly drove Chip to threats of slapping his friend silly and firing him out a torpedo tube when trying to get Lee to lighten up and let others help. Nelson himself took an occasional hand at breaking through Lee’s silences, but was forced to admit that he hadn’t even tried this last cruise. They were all only too aware that something had caused a fracture in Lee’s normally controlled façade. His seemingly casual acquiescence to a few days off, under the circumstances, should have raised any number of red flags. Nelson again sighed heavily. It was little consolation to him that he knew Chip had tried to get Lee to spit out what was bothering him and had been rebuffed. Lee asks for so little for himself, and I basically just ignored him and wrapped myself up in the mission. Harriman, you can be a royal ash can on occasion. He shook his head sadly. And look where its gotten you this time! He gave himself another mental kick where it would do the most good, and started dialing.
* * * *
Gonzalo Rosas stepped carefully from the back seat of his car, leaving the door open and resting his left hand on the top of the window. The interior light cast just enough illumination so that when Lee stood up from behind the car and came toward him, he could see Lee’s face in the faint glow. It caused Rosas a moment’s panic and a sharp intake of breath before he realized that he wasn’t, actually, seeing a ghost.
Lee briefly grinned. Apparently he’d had the same effect on Rosas, now that the man was actually thinking of the incident, as he’d had on the old SEAL. “I see your memory is returning,” he goaded softly. He did not point the gun towards Rosas but did keep it in his hand, pointed toward the ground.
“Who are you?” Rosas demanded.
“I rather think you know the answer to that one, Senor Rosas.”
“What do you want?”
Lee shrugged. “Nothing more than what I said. Merely to talk. I want you to tell me about the night in question.”
“That was a long time ago.”
“Not so long that you still didn’t recognize me,” Lee responded confidently. He again sent Rosas a soft smile as the older man stared at him.
“You are not that man,” Rosas blustered.
“Perhaps I’m a ghost.”
To that, Rosas shook his head. “I don’t believe in ghosts.”
“Even when they come back to haunt you?”
Rosas just shook his head. “Tell me where Salvador Pinera is,” he demanded.
“Once I have my answers, I’ll give you yours,” Lee lied, not having the slightest idea where the family was that Stark evacuated, and at this point not really caring. “Tell me about that day.”
“Why don’t you just ask your own CIA?”
“Because, at the moment, you’re handier,” Lee said, almost casually. “And because,” he continued, “I’d like to hear both sides of the story.”
“I was merely following orders.” There was nervousness in the voice that Lee suspected had nothing to do with the gun in his land. It puzzled him, since until now Rosas had maintained the bluster.
“Suppose we walk a bit toward the old house.” Lee gestured ahead, down the drive. “You can tell me all about it.”
As Rosas hesitated Lee took a couple steps in the indicated direction, waiting patiently with a benign expression until Rosas joined him, and the two walked, one down each partially overgrown track of the drive. Lee stopped about fifteen yards in front of the car, where a small clearing in the trees overhead allowed enough illumination from a nearly full moon for the two men to see each other fairly easily. Lee smiled ever so slightly as Rosas stared pointedly at the gun still in his hand, and he casually tucked it into his waistband at the small of his back – still within very easy reach.
Rosas nodded ever so slightly. “You know our history of when Pinochet came to power?”
“Generally,” Lee commented. He was dividing his attention between keeping tabs on Rosas, who he assumed was also still armed, and his surroundings. Even though he’d made himself familiar with the area while waiting for Rosas to come, he was far too good an agent to let himself get so wrapped up in what Rosas might say that he forgot where he was.
“Communism had gotten a firm hold on my country, as well as many others in this part of the world. Pinochet vowed to rid us of the disease, and his followers, of which I was but one, swore allegiance to his ideas.”
Lee very nearly told the man that he might as well not waste his breath, that Lee wasn’t about to buy into any altruistic garbage Rosas tried to feed him. Instead, he just nodded and let the man talk. No telling what might come out if Rosas thought that Lee actually believed him. Time enough before the guards awakened to pin him down if he got too far off the track Lee wanted.
“That morning, my Commandante informed our unit that there was to be an attack on our garrison by Allende supporters. There was still a lot of active resistance to Pinochet.”
“Possibly because he came to power over an honestly elected Allende by military coup, and set himself up as the Dictator,” Lee once again goaded.
“The resistance was being funded by your CIA,” came out with a triumphant sneer.
“Interesting,” Lee commented offhandedly, “because it’s my understanding that the CIA was surreptitiously backing Pinochet to help get rid of the threat of communism to South America.”
“Never,” Rosas nearly shouted.
“And as a lowly soldier, you would know this how?” Lee asked innocently, raising an eyebrow.
“My Commandante was very close to Pinochet,” Rosas continued to bluster.
But Lee detected a bit less assurance in his voice, as if he was coming to realize that Lee might not, after all, be quite as stupid and naïve as he’d originally thought. Lee just let out a soft “Hmmm,” and continued listening.
“We easily repelled the attack and chased the rebels back toward the coastline, from where they had come.” When Lee didn’t respond, he continued, his voice gathering confidence again. “When we neared the coast a CIA airplane started firing on us, trying to help the rebels escape.”
“It’s my understanding that the plane carried no external markings,” Lee said all too innocently.
“We shot down the plane and interrogated the pilot.” Again the voice was filled with confidence, and Rosas stared at Lee. At the word ‘interrogated’ Lee knew he sucked in his breath. He instantly – and firmly – got himself back under control, and hoped Rosas hadn’t heard the breech. No such luck. “He was your father,” Rosas spouted triumphantly.
“Relative,” Lee half-lied, not wanting to totally confirm Rosas’ suspicions.
“And they lied to his family as well, and now you want the truth.”
“It could just as easily be you lying as them.”
“Ah, but I myself heard the man’s confession.”
“As you beat it out of him?” Lee knew his voice was hard, but couldn’t stop the hatred that was beginning to build in him. His father had apparently survived the initial shooting. And while he held little regard for Rosas’ claim of a confession, the mere fact that he’d been alive to interrogate was causing instant anger.
“Not I,” Rosas denied adamantly, before changing tactics. “Now tell me where I can find Salvador Pinera,” he demanded.
The statement instantly raised suspicions in Lee. “Where you can find him, Senor Rosas?” He raised an eyebrow. “Why would a successful businessman, reminded of an incident so many years ago when he claims to be nothing more than a lowly soldier, be so interested in finding a refugee family?”
Rosas’ eyes narrowed briefly, before resuming his merely watchful appearance. “I am still a loyal citizen of my country,” he said. But Lee noticed a change in both his voice and posture, and went on even higher alert than he’d already been. At that point, however, when Rosas did not move his arms noticeably, as if to reach for a concealed weapon, Lee made no move toward his own. “Pinera and his family are still considered enemies, and need to be brought to justice for their treason.”
“You mean, shot down on sight,” Lee muttered darkly.
“They will be given a fair trial.”
“Just like the pilot?”
The briefest of hesitations, and a sinister flicker of the eyes, told Lee that Rosas’ next statement was pure lie. “Yes. Just like the pilot.”
Lee’s gun was in his hand before he even realized he’d reached for it, catching Rosas totally unprepared. “The truth for a change, Senor,” came out low and hard. “Or do you even know how to tell the truth anymore, after all the years of lying.”
Lee took some satisfaction in seeing fear cross the older man’s face when the gun appeared, and Rosas stared more at it than at Lee. Finally he glanced ever so briefly at Lee’s face before once again watching the gun. “What exactly do you want to know?”
“What happened to the pilot?”
“He was taken to…” Rosas hesitated as a branch snapped in the woods behind Lee.
Lee’s distraction at the sound was ever so momentary, but it was enough for Rosas to reach for the weapon that had until now been hidden under his jacket. Lee caught the movement of Rosas reaching for it and threw himself to his left. But he was unable to react fast enough to avoid the instant pain in his right side that accompanied the muzzle flash. He heard more than felt his own weapon discharging, and thought he heard other shots, from further back in the woods. But about the same time his head exploded, and he remembered no more.
* * * *
“Damn!” came from across the Control Room. It was quietly said, despite the vehemence behind it. But it still made Seaman Patterson stop what he was doing and glance cautiously over his shoulder.
“Thought you had that fixed, Mr. Morton. Anything I can help you with?” He wasn’t expecting an affirmative answer. But anything that caused the XO to swear – something he almost never did – Pat figured required a response of some sort.
“Sorry,” the blond called back, frustration evident in his voice. “Thought I finally had the computer running correctly, too, and now it’s telling me its not making a connection. Must have not pushed one of the chips totally into place.”
There was a soft snick of laughter, immediately cut off, from where Riley was calibrating Sonar. “Riley, keep your mind on what you’re doing,” COB Sharkey, who had just walked in the aft hatch, reprimanded the young seaman. The whole room knew it was just a momentary lapse of protocol on the young seaman’s part as Morton shortened the word ‘microchip’. Scuttlebutt had his sister sticking him with the name, instead of his formal Charles, long before computers came into such common usage. They also knew that such a slip on Chip’s part, something he usually managed to avoid doing, would have normally been the start of a five-minute teasing match between Mr. Morton and their Skipper. It was memories of previous ‘conversations’ between the two officers that had triggered Riley’s snickering. Sharkey’s warning got everyone back to business, although Chip did grin slightly, his back firmly toward everyone else, before addressing the Chief.
“Any word on the Flying Sub, Chief?” he asked hopefully.
“Sorry, sir.” Sharkey came forward and stood next to Chip. “Was just bringing the latest report.” FS1 had been moved from her hold in Seaview’s nose, into dry dock, so that the mechanics could work on her more conveniently. Chip also suspected that it was done to keep them that much further away from their uncharacteristically frustrated XO. “The technicians still can’t find the leak. They thought they had it traced to a line that runs from the co-pilot’s controls down to the rudder pedals, but when they pulled the access panel there was no sign of a problem. Ah…”
Chip turned fully toward the Chief, momentarily abandoning his attempt to pull the computer out of its too small cabinet. He’d just spent almost two hours wiggling it into the tight space, and wasn’t in the best of moods. “Spit it out, Chief,” came out a little grumpier than he meant it to.
Sharkey hesitated ever so briefly at the tone, but continued nonetheless. “Any chance you could give the Skipper a quick call? The techs just know that he’d know right where to look.” As Chip frowned, he hurried on. “I mean, I told them that he’s on vacation. But they said that surely a quick phone call wouldn’t hurt anything.”
Chip knew only too well who had suggested the call, and his frown deepened as he stared at Sharkey. The problem was, he also suspected that Lee could have had the problem fixed in nothing flat, and would be somewhat frustrated when he discovered that the techs hadn’t so far been able to. Unfortunately, with Lee slightly UA, there wasn’t much Chip could do about it. That small fact had, so far, been kept out of general circulation, so Chip just sighed heavily. “Not an option, Chief. Doc’s orders.” It was always an accepted excuse to blame Jamie. No one wanted to bust the CMO’s orders for fear of retaliation at the next round of physicals. Not that anyone really believed he’d be so petty. But no one was willing to take the risk, either. “Just tell the techs to keep at it.”
“Aye, aye, sir,” the Chief answered, somewhat deflated, and headed back topside.
This time Chip kept his mutterings to himself, and went back to fighting with the computer.
* * * *
Lee knew that he was dead. He was a little surprised that being dead hurt so much. But he could hear an angel speaking to him, even though he couldn’t understand what she was saying. Then he started to float. Well, sort of. Somehow he was aware that his surroundings were moving, but his body didn’t seem to be supplying the impetus. He was aware of the angel occasionally still speaking, and there was a response or two from God. At least Lee assumed it to be God – the voice was masculine, low and controlled, although Lee was still unable to make out any words.
Eventually the floating sensation stopped. Lee hoped that God would give him a new head – his own was pounding so loudly it was drowning almost every other sound out. He also needs a new chariot, Lee thought as the one he was riding on (when had that happened) was bouncing badly underneath him. Maybe it has a flat, Lee thought, and almost giggled. Just my luck – finally head to heaven and the chariot’s a wreck. That time he heard himself giggle, and he felt the angel take his hand and squeeze. She again said something that Lee didn’t understand, but he accepted his fate and relaxed. At least I won’t have to face the Admiral and Chip. I have a feeling that wouldn’t be a good thing, after this mess. Although, I hate leaving them guessing what happened to me. That was too depressing, and he tried again to find something positive. Maybe I’ll find Dad. I can’t have been totally deserted, if He sent an angel. Although, he reasoned, as well as he was able to, I’ve screwed up so badly this time, maybe this isn’t Elijah’s chariot… He decided that it might be a wise idea to not ever find out, and allowed himself to sink into oblivion.
* * * *
Chip was just taking the front steps to the Admin Building – two at a time, as usual – when he heard his name being yelled by someone off to his right. He turned and spotted Will Jamison approaching from the direction of Med Bay. He stopped and smiled, and said as Seaview’s CMO came within range, “Hey, Jamie. Thought you weren’t due back from your fishing trip for several days yet.”
The older, slightly balding man took the steps at a more sedate pace, and waited until he was even with Chip before answering. “The fish weren’t cooperating,” he admitted, “so I came home early.” He frowned at his XO. “And what’s the first thing I hear when I walk in the door?” He crossed his arms and his voice got gruff. “That its all my fault the Flying Sub is still out of commission, because I won’t allow anyone to make a simple phone call to the Skipper so he can diagnose the problem. And when I tried to explain that I had said no such thing,” he paused and got a sheepish look on his face. “Well, I will admit to a threat to flatten the Admiral if he dragged Lee back to fix it.” He gave Chip a questioning look when the blond didn’t respond with the expected chuckle to the little joke. “But I was told that you were the one to see, that you’d issued the ‘Do Not Disturb’ order, apparently on my behalf.” As Chip continued to look somewhat pained, Will sighed heavily. “What did he do this time?”
That did get a quick snort from Chip, since it was part of the standing joke that Lee never came back from a vacation in one piece. But he quickly returned to his worried expression, and glanced around. “Come on up to my office and I’ll fill you in on what I know,” he said, and led the way to a place a bit more secluded.
Ten minutes later Will was shaking his head. “So the Admiral’s gone down to see if he can find him?” Chip just nodded. “And no idea whatsoever what sent Lee there in the first place.”
“Almost for sure it has something to do with why Lee was so out of sorts the last cruise. But no, no idea at all. We just know that’s where he headed.”
“Unless he’s got one of his ONI buddies using his credit card and ID, to throw everyone off the scent.”
“Damn, Doc,” Chip muttered darkly. After surviving all the craziness that so frequently went on around Seaview’s missions with his vocabulary relatively unchanged, this mini-crisis was somehow putting that oh, so, uncharacteristic word into the blond’s speech pattern. “Didn’t even give that a thought. You really know how to mess things around.”
“Not nearly as well as our illustrious CO,” Will muttered right back, and was pleased to again get a quick grin from the worried Exec.
“But with any luck we can rule that out. We know that he talked to Admiral Jones’ aide about going to Chile. Doesn’t mean he wasn’t just setting the table, but…”
“I hear you,” Will agreed. “Nothing more from the Admiral?”
“Not since he left. I sent out an alert for a possible early call-back on crew; told everyone to stay close to a phone, but just hang loose until I heard anything more.”
“I got no such message,” Doc complained with a hard look.
“Your cell phone was either out of range or turned off.” Chip gave the CMO one of his better command glares.
“Turned off,” Will admitted, and both men smiled briefly. “Here now, though.”
“I’ll keep you in the loop, Jamie,” Chip promised.
“Just try and keep me out of it,” Will growled. Both men smiled briefly again, and got down to the day’s business.
* * * *
Definitely not heaven, Lee muttered. He was too hot, his head was pounding even worse than it had been earlier, and a light kept blinding him, one eye at a time. He tried turning away from it and a stab of pain in his right side almost, but not quite, made him forget about the one in his head. “Ahhhhhhhh…” came out in a long groan.
In answer, he heard Lucifer say something that the pounding in his head, now accompanied by the pain in his side, was still drowning out. Lee didn’t remember Hell having its own version of angels, but almost instantly the feminine voice was back. And obviously knew who he was, as he was able, just, to make out what she said. So much for thinking my good deeds over the years outweighed the bad.
“Commander?” The word got through, just barely, accompanied by something cool being applied to his forehead. He didn’t attempt to answer, thinking that if he ignored her, the angel would go away. No such luck.
“Commander?” came again, this time accompanied by a slight shaking of his shoulder. “You need to wake up.”
“Why?” he heard himself mumble. For some reason that seemed to amuse Lucifer, as Lee heard a low chuckle.
But it was the angel who answered. Grumpily, Lee thought. “Because you’ve managed to destroy over two years of extremely hard work on my part, and I would like to know why.”
Lee was pretty grumpy himself. “Can’t get any peace even when I’m dead.” He sighed, as again Lucifer chuckled. “Suppose I deserve that,” he admitted reluctantly, and tried very hard to go back to tuning everything else out.
* * * *
Admiral Nelson was having nothing but bad luck. All calls to Valparaiso had turned up no sign of Lee, nor had there been any more hits on his credit card anywhere. He’d also had no luck tracking down the man Lee had been asking about. Nelson found a listing for Rosas’ office and called it, but no one there claimed to know where he was. Nelson had spent a bit of time asking around both the hotel and Rosas’ office building, showing people Lee’s picture and asking if anyone had seen and/or talked to him. But the only response that had gotten was from a pretty waitress at an outdoor restaurant across the street from the office building. She admitted to having pointed out Rosas, as well as several other people, to Lee several days ago, but hadn’t seen him since. He’d just returned to the room after forcing himself to eat lunch in the hotel dining room when his cell phone went off. “Nelson,” he all but growled.
“Admiral, it’s Chip. The switchboard just got a rather strange phone call. They took a message instead of transferring it up, so all I have is what the lady said.”
“Lady?” He listened as Chip started obviously reading from the message.
“A Senora Marin called wanting to talk to you. When she was told that you weren’t here, she left a phone number and a request that you call immediately. Sir? I checked the country code for the number. It’s in Chile.”
“Give it to me,” Nelson demanded, and Chip read it off.
“Chip, I’ll let you know as soon as I find out,” he promised, hit the disconnect button on his phone, and started dialing the number Chip had given him.
* * * *
Lee was deciding that he wasn’t dead after all. He had vague memories of some pretty weird thoughts – or maybe dreams, he wasn’t sure. Now, however, when he tried to open his eyes, they worked. Not well. Everything was very fuzzy. But he could make out a softly lit, windowless room, which seemed to be only sparsely furnished. It didn’t look or smell like a hospital room. Nor was the bed he was laying in hospital issue. He had absolutely no idea how he’d gotten here – wherever ‘here’ was – but he was coming to the conclusion that it hadn’t been by divine intervention. Then again… he thought, as there were fleeting images of the short gun battle. “Rosas,” he muttered threateningly, and sat up. Or, at least, made the attempt. His head disconnecting from his body stopped the movement only milliseconds before a physical force did. Lee hadn’t realized he’d closed his eyes until they opened again, and he found himself looking at the fuzzy, wavering image of a husky Hispanic man standing next to the bed, a hand resting firmly on Lee’s shoulder.
“Please do not attempt to move, senor,” came through Lee’s still foggy brain in heavily accented English. “Your injuries are serious, although I think you will recover, in time.”
“Who are you?” Lee demanded. Unfortunately all he managed was a hoarse croak. A straw was almost immediately placed against his lips, and he drank thirstily until it was abruptly pulled away.
“Not too much at one time, senor.”
“Where am I?” This time it came out a little more in keeping with the demand he was attempting.
“You are safe,” was, however, the only answer he received before the light that he remembered was once again checking each eye. Lee realized, belatedly, that pupil responses were being checked.
Head injury, he acknowledged silently, which explained why his head wanted to be detached from the rest of his body, and slowly reached a hand upward. He was surprised when the movement wasn’t stopped, and he was allowed to feel several layers of bandage wrapped firmly around his head just above his ears. He focused on the man – as much as he could anyway – and asked again, “Who are you?”
The man only smiled, and tucked the blankets in around him more firmly. “You rest. Time enough for answers when your people get here. Your boss has been notified.”
Lee closed his eyes. “Think I’d rather be dead.” He didn’t realize he’d actually said that out loud until he heard the same soft chuckle he remembered hearing off and on since the shooting, and knew now that it had been this man. Not God or Lucifer. He kept that thought to himself as he slipped back into sleep.
* * * *
Because Chip had said that a woman had called, a man’s voice answering the phone momentarily startled Nelson, and he hesitated briefly before speaking. “This is Admiral Harriman Nelson. I was asked to call this number by a Senora Marin,” he finally got out.
“One moment, please,” the low, male voice, heavily accented with Spanish, responded. The several moments that followed did nothing to alleviate Nelson’s growing apprehension. He wasn’t even sure why he was suddenly so nervous. But, although he rarely expressed it out loud, Lee and Chip did not have a monopoly on sixth senses.
“Admiral Nelson? Goodness, it didn’t take you long to get my message.” The feminine voice, while there was an underlying accent, was cultured and obviously used to speaking English. “Thank you for calling back so quickly.”
“You can thank my Executive Officer, actually. When he was given your message he checked the country code. As it turns out I’m already in Chile, and he called me immediately.”
“Really,” came back in a surprised tone. “That will expedite matters tremendously. I would very much like to talk to you as soon as possible about a matter of mutual interest. Where are you located?” Nelson told her that he was in Santiago, and gave her the name of the hotel. “Excellent,” was the response. “There is a wonderful little cantina a block away, on Heraldo Avenida, called Tapas. Turn left as you exit the hotel, and right at the first corner. I’ll meet you there in about half an hour.”
“Senora…” Nelson started, but she cut him off.
“Please, Admiral. I would prefer to have this conversation face to face. One can not always guarantee the privacy of local phone lines.”
“Ah,” Nelson acquiesced. “How will I know you?”
“I know you,” the voice assured him, and the line went dead.
Nelson left the hotel immediately, so wound up that he wasn’t able to put off what, from the description, should only be a five-minute walk. The typically later eating clientele hadn’t yet started to amble in so he was able to get a table in a back corner that would allow for a bit more privacy. While not hungry since he’d already eaten, he ordered coffee and an appetizer plate just to keep the waiter from bugging him, also indicating that he was waiting for another person. Not a patient man by any stretch of the imagination, he could only sit and wonder what this person was about to tell him. Not that Lee doesn’t have an absolute knack for attracting females. He half-smiled. And he definitely snagged a looker once again, the grin spreading of its own volition. Nelson had no problem recognizing Senora Marin as she walked in the door, even without the profuse greeting she received from the Maitre ‘d. Nelson watched her eyes sweep the room, and he stood as she started to walk toward him. He was instantly aware that her eyes were also sweeping him. When she reached him she stretched out a hand and greeted him as if he were an old friend, although the expression on her face was much more genial then the one in her eyes.
“So good to see you, Admiral,” she said warmly as Nelson took the proffered hand. Caught off-guard for the second time in less than an hour, he gave her an open smile and waited until the Maitre ‘d seated her and walked away before sitting down himself and shooting her a raised eyebrow. “As you’ve gathered, I’m well known here. As a successful corporate lawyer,” she hesitated and sent him another bright smile in total disharmony with the continued evaluation in her eyes, “and as being happily married.”
Nelson caught on instantly to the mood of the meeting she was setting up, and that if he started anything, he would be the one in trouble since he was the outsider. “Then I shall be very careful to do nothing to disrupt that. I gather that this is supposed to be a business meeting.”
She frowned. “In ways that I would prefer it not to be,” she grumbled. But the smile quickly returned, if only for appearances. “May I ask what brings you to Chile?”
The waiter appearing momentarily interrupted Nelson, and he waited while Senora Marin ordered coffee before answering. “I’m looking for a friend. I discovered that he’d come down several days ago, and when we didn’t hear from him we became worried.
She sent him a measured look. “Friend or employee?”
Nelson didn’t hesitate. “Both,” he answered firmly. “And I have no problems admitting that, as important as he is to me as Seaview’s captain, I look on him as much more than that.”
“Are you saying that you have no idea of what brought him here?” Senora Marin asked, sending Nelson a look that stated all too plainly she was evaluating his response.
Nelson was becoming aware that he was going to have to be open with this woman – that if she wasn’t happy with what he told her, she’d simply walk back out the door and he might never find out what was going on. “He took a few days off, but when we couldn’t reach him where he’d said he’d be, we got concerned.”
“You keep saying ‘we’.”
Nelson gave her a genuine smile despite his underlying worry. “Lee’s only living relative is his mother. Most of his close friends work at NIMR. His best friend is Seaview’s XO.”
“I see.” Senora Marin gave a slight nod, almost to herself, and seemed to consider her next words as she took a sip of coffee.
“I’d like to ask a question or two,” he said into the silence.
“Who am I, being the most prominent I would assume?”
“Actually, yes,” he confirmed.
“Commander Crane drew our interest as soon as he started shadowing a man I was also interested in,” she said carefully.
“I knew only that suddenly I had an outsider messing in my affairs.”
“Was the man named Rosas?” It was her turn to level a glare at him. “Who are you working for?” he demanded.
“That is of no concern to you, Admiral.”
“It is when you have information pertaining to one of my men, and appear to be holding it over my head in a threatening manner. Why should I believe anything you’ve said?”
“Because we could just as easily have left him in the mess he created, instead of getting him out of it and notifying you,” she growled.
Nelson leveled a more calculating glare at her. “Where is Crane?” he demanded.
“We were monitoring his activities, not knowing what was going on.” She paused. “We didn’t expect him to escalate into a face to face confrontation until it was too late to stop it.”
“Where is he?” Nelson demanded again in his best ‘I am the Admiral’ voice. Senora Marin glanced briefly around her, but the room was still fairly empty. Nelson took the hint, and his “Well?” was said a bit quieter.
“In the process of destroying my whole investigation,” Marin said grumpily, then continued a little more under control, “he was injured.” She instantly held up a hand, to stop whatever Nelson was going to say. “That’s why I was contacting you. Even in this country, gunshot wounds draw more attention than we’d like to be involved in. I’m sure you understand.”
“Serious, but stable. My assistant is a qualified field medic.” As Nelson instantly frowned, she raised her hand again. “If he had felt unable to handle the situation, or was overly concerned about Crane’s condition or, if there had been a longer delay in reaching his people, we would have figured out a way to get him to a hospital,” she assured him.
Nelson didn’t respond, just reached for his cell phone instead.
“Morton,” Chip answered after the phone had barely finished its first ring.
Nelson managed a small grin – he rather suspected, since his earlier call, Chip hadn’t let the phone get more than six inches away from his hand. “Is FS1 fixed?” he started in, without preamble.
“No, sir.” Chip sighed heavily.
“How long will it take you to get hold of Will?”
“Lee,” Chip breathed, extreme worry evident in that one, short word.
“It’s my understanding,” Nelson kept his voice much calmer than he was actually feeling, “that he’s stable but in need of attention. I’m just on my way to see him now.” This last was said with a glare toward Marin.
“Actually, Jamie came home early and he’s in his office. I’ll see what kind of flights are available for us and get back to you.”
Nelson buried a smile. He briefly considered, and immediately rejected, trying to make Chip stay home. Not a good idea, under the circumstances, he acknowledged silently. “Good,” was all he said out loud, and they both disconnected. Nelson sent a glare at Senora Marin as he pocketed the phone. “You will take me to him – NOW!”
She took the hint, and drained her coffee cup. “If you would be so kind as to accompany me?” she asked pleasantly.
* * * *
“Commander?” A hand gently shook his shoulder. “Commander Crane. You need to wake up.”
Lee’s head hurt worse than he’d ever felt. “Go away,” he mumbled.
“Commander.” The firm word came with a firm shake of his shoulder. Lee ignored both. He was unable to ignore the knuckle that dug painfully into his breastbone.
“Jamie, just give me a couple aspirin and go away. Okay?” His only answer was a hand touching his forehead. “Jamie, please?”
“Senor, this is a little stronger than aspirin, but I need to give you something for the fever that’s starting.”
Lee felt himself rolled onto his left side, and a needle stab his hip. When an attempt was made to turn him back onto his back, he pushed the hands away and curled up with his arms encircling his aching head. Man, whatever I was drinking, I sure hope I don’t get any more of it. Never had such a hangover. With major effort, he willed himself back to sleep.
* * * *
“Tell me what happened?” Nelson turned in his seat and looked at the woman as she drove away from the parking lot next to the cantina.
Senora Marin glanced quickly at him, but went back to watching the traffic for nearly a minute before she finally answered. “Like I said. Commander Crane showed up out of the blue, and started paying an inordinate amount of attention to my target.”
“Rosas.” She only nodded. “Who are you?” She didn’t answer. “CIA?” he guessed.
That got a snort. “Wrong alphabet soup.”
“Would it help if I told you that Lee occasionally moonlights for ONI? We both have top level security clearances.”
She nodded, as if to herself. “That explains Crane’s… resourcefulness.”
Nelson gave her an honest grin. “That’s one way to phrase it.” The grin increased as she all but growled.
“We were having such a hard time keeping up with him that we planted a tracking unit on his car.” When Nelson frowned, she leveled a glare of her own. “If we hadn’t, you in all likelihood wouldn’t be getting him back.” Nelson counseled his expression, and she continued her narrative. “We were merely monitoring his activities – as I said, we didn’t expect him to escalate into a face-to-face confrontation until it was too late to stop it. Although…” She hesitated, and sent Nelson a quizzical look. “We did wonder why he broke into a veterinarian’s office.” Nelson raised an eyebrow. “He took out Rosas’ guards with tranquilizer darts.”
Nelson just shook his head. “Lee hates killing,” he said quietly.
“He wasted Rosas.” Marin did actually growl that time. “Two years – down the tubes!”
“He would have to have had an awfully good reason.”
She sent Nelson another small glance. “One of my associates was following Crane yesterday afternoon. He’d driven once before out into the foothills beyond the city but had seemed to merely be playing tourist. This time he stopped at a deserted farm, hid the car behind an old building, and just stood around waiting. Julio called me. When Rosas also headed in that direction we started getting worried. Julio crawled as close to Crane as he could, without giving himself away.” She half-smiled. “Julio was impressed with how Crane set up the meet.”
“As you say, he’s resourceful.” Nelson sent her a small smile.
“Unfortunately, Julio was unable to get close enough to hear much of the conversation.” She paused as she pulled into a driveway and stopped the car. Turning toward Nelson, she continued. “Julio feels responsible for Crane’s injuries.”
“Once Crane took out the guards he somehow managed to coax Rosas out of the car, and the two walked down the deserted road a ways. Julio said that while the situation was tense, they did seem to just be talking. Crane had a gun that he’d acquired from one of the downed guards, but had it tucked into his waistband. Rosas had taken a couple shots at Crane prior to getting out of the car and Julio figured that he, too, was armed.” She paused and looked intently at Nelson. “Something changed. Julio said that Crane’s gun was in his hand so fast that he could barely follow the movement. Julio was trying to edge closer to hear what they were saying when he caused a noise by accidentally breaking a small branch. It distracted Crane just enough that Rosas was able to pull out his own gun and, even though Crane jumped, was able to wound him in the side.” Nelson’s fist hit the door arm, and she grimaced. “Unfortunately that wasn’t the worst injury, I’m sorry to say. Julio fired two shots, hoping to distract them, but it didn’t work. Both men got off one more shot. Crane’s hit Rosas in the forehead, killing him almost instantly. But, perhaps in a death spasm, Rosas pulled his own trigger one more time. The bullet hit Crane in the head, also. But just a glancing blow,” she hurriedly added, as Nelson sucked in a breath. “There are signs of minor concussion only. His pupils have remained normal, with no signs of internal bleeding either in his brain or from the wound in his side, which went straight through and does not look bad.”
“Thank heavens,” Nelson breathed.
“Anyway, I just wanted you to know that Julio is the medic who has been treating Crane. He felt so bad about it happening that there’s no way he would have allowed Crane to deteriorate without getting him further medical attention. But he has remained comfortable that Crane was getting no worse so we’ve kept him here.” Nelson reached for the door handle and it was Marin’s turn to take a deep breath, and follow him towards the door of the house.
* * * *
“Lee?” The word startled him into wakefulness, causing the pain to return to his head and ticking him off. He gave no thought to the fact that it was the first time anyone had spoken his first name in almost a week. He just wanted to be left alone until the pain went away. No such luck. “Lee,” came this time with a hand touching him gently on the shoulder, and with a groan he rolled over onto his back.
Nelson wasn’t sure if he was more relieved now, to actually see Lee in one piece, or more worried, to realize how close the young man had come to not getting any older. After being led through the pleasant, airy house to what for all practical purposes looked like a closet, he descended into a completely furnished apartment in the basement. They were met by a muscular Hispanic man whom Senora Marin introduced as Julio Taheda, and continued on down a short hallway to a closed door. Upon entering, Nelson had no trouble recognizing the prone figure lying on a bed, body turned toward the wall, and quickly walked over and sat gingerly on the edge of the bed. He wasn’t quite sure how his slightly truant captain was going to react to seeing him, or what he was going to say to Lee. But the instant Lee realized who had awakened him his eyes half-closed into the expression that always reminded Nelson of a little boy getting caught with his hand in the cookie jar, and he smiled. “Took a slight detour on the way to your mother’s, did you?” he asked amiably.
He didn’t think that Lee was going to answer as his eyelids closed even further, to the point that Lee was practically looking at him through his lashes. But finally there was a small twitch of the younger man’s lips and he said quietly, “Small one, sir.”
“Could have sworn you had a better sense of direction than that,” Nelson teased.
“Sort of got sidetracked,” Lee admitted.
“Chip always did say that you weren’t safe to turn loose on your own,” Nelson continued on with the old, familiar joke, and Lee’s lips twitched again. They were interrupted by a loud clearing of Senora Marin’s throat, and Nelson brought the conversation back to a more serious note.
“Lee, we need to know why you suddenly targeted Gonzalo Rosas.”
The look Lee returned shocked Nelson. It was a look that he had seen very infrequently, and never directed at him. Nelson only saw it when Lee was trying to decide if a person – usually a visitor to NIMR or a passenger aboard Seaview – was being incredibly dense, incredibly stupid, or lying through their teeth. It made Nelson extremely uncomfortable to see it directed at him, but he worked hard to get his own expression under control. Lee never, but never, went off half-cocked. He obviously had a good reason for his actions – even if it was only good in his own mind. Nelson trusted the young man’s judgment implicitly. He was just very startled to realize that, in this particular instance, Lee was trying to decide if he could trust Nelson.
Lee wasn’t sure what to think as he ran all the different scenarios through his mind. He was just about deciding that if Nelson had the name and the country and still didn’t seem to have a clue as to the connection, then he really didn’t know about any of it, when his aching head got the better of him. “My flight bag?” he asked, and watched Nelson turn toward Senora Marin.
“We brought his car back here and hid it in the garage. His bags are in the next room.”
“In the bottom…” Lee managed to get out before the lights got to him, and he squeezed his eyes shut.
“You rest,” Nelson told him firmly, and tucked the blankets in around Lee. “Will’s on his way.” He chuckled softly at the frown that news brought to Lee’s face, and decided not to mention that Chip was coming as well. The lights dimmed slightly and as he stood, the man Julio settled into a chair close to the bed. Nelson gave him a nod and a small smile, and left the room with the Senora.
Once the door was closed, she stopped and turned toward Nelson. “We searched his bags. There were clothes only, nothing to indicate any reason for his coming here.”
Nelson only smiled, and indicated that she should take him to the bags. Once there, he grabbed the small one that Lee used for quick trips, or carried with him on longer ones where he’d checked his bigger bag, and opened the zipper. Taking out the few things inside, he ran his hand along the inside bottom edge until he found the almost undetectable latch, and the bottom panel slipped up to reveal a small compartment underneath, just big enough to hold a couple of folders side by side. In this case, all it held were a few sheets of paper and an envelope addressed to Lee. Together the two glanced at the loose pages. Nelson could only shrug his shoulders when Estella raised an eyebrow after they discovered the copies that Lee had made of his father’s death certificate and the notification letter sent to his mother. Laying them aside, he pulled the pages out of the envelope.
By the time they were both done reading, Nelson was mad enough to spit nails. Obviously it showed on his face because Estella said softly, “You knew none of this,” making it a statement.
“No,” was all that came out. He used the time it took to return the pages to the envelope, and put the flight bag back the way he’d found it, to get himself back under better control. “But I know someone who can – and will – supply more of an answer than he ever has.” He glanced at Estella. “DEA?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.”
She nodded. “We know that Rosas is – well, was,” she amended, “ a major link in a much larger chain for smuggling drugs into the US.”
Nelson nodded. “So much attention is focused on Central America as the primary source.”
“It made it easier for this group,” she agreed.
“Lee destroyed everything by taking out Rosas?”
She shrugged. “Definitely set the investigation back. We know some of the other players. It will depend on who takes over for Rosas, and how much trouble we have re-establishing a connection.”
Nelson sighed and let his shoulders, tense with rage, start to relax. “And Jones was worried about Mrs. Crane stepping into the middle of something,” he said softly, mostly to himself, and then just shook his head as Estella raised an eyebrow.
“Why wouldn’t Crane have asked you about this?” she asked instead.
An obvious question, Nelson still wasn’t quite sure how to answer it. He took a deep breath and gave her the easiest one. “Lee has a tendency to internalize everything. He grew up taking care of whatever life happened to set before him, and he’s never changed. Drives a few of us a little crazy…” His voice trailed off, thinking of the one person Lee’s reticence to ask for help regularly fried, and reached once more for his phone.
“That won’t work down here,” Estella said, and led the way back upstairs.
It took Chip nearly three full rings to answer, and Nelson wondered what disaster had now occurred to disrupt his XO’s life. “Morton,” finally came with a rush.
“He’ll be fine,” Nelson said first, knowing that would be foremost in the blond’s mind. “How are you coming with flight arrangements?”
“You can’t get there from here,” came out, surprising them both. “Sorry, sir,” Chip apologized for his flippancy. Nelson just sent him a soft chuckle. “The best I can do is out of LA at midnight to Mexico City, then a four and a half hour layover that gets into Santiago approximately 2000 hours tomorrow night.”
“Let me give Jiggs Stark a call, see if he can’t arrange military transport.”
“You think you can swing that, sir? Ah, I mean, this isn’t a military matter. He’s usually pretty much a stickler for protocol. Ah…” Chip was digging himself deeper and deeper. Nelson could only chalk up the out of character conversation from the usually so under control man to too many hours under too much stress, and let him off the hook gently.
“Oh, I rather think that Jiggs will be more than happy to arrange the ride, once he understands the total picture.” The last part came out in Nelson’s best authoritative measure, and Chip’s respectful “Yes, sir” in his ear brought a grim grin. “Get the two of you to San Diego fastest way possible, and call Jiggs when you land.”
“Yes, sir,” came once again, before both disconnected. Nelson immediately called his old friend.
Jiggs answered, almost reluctantly, it sounded to Nelson. He’d obviously recognized Nelson’s number on the ID screen on his cell phone. “Are you home, Harry?” he tried to sidetrack his old friend. “I need to discuss a joint Navy project with you.”
Nelson chose his words carefully, and said them just as carefully. “No, Jiggs. I’m not home. I’m in Santiago, Chile. I’m in need of my XO and CMO here as soon as possible, and FS1 is still down. I strongly,” and he emphasized that last word, “suggest that you have transportation arranged for them by the time they hit San Diego. And that won’t take them long.”
The line stayed quiet for so long that Nelson had time to wonder what thoughts were going through his old friend’s mind. He took a certain amount of pleasure in the knowledge that he now knew a good deal of what Jiggs had kept quiet about for so many years, and in Jiggs knowing that Nelson would not turn loose his advantage until he had it all. Finally a defeated, “I’ll take care of it,” came through the phone, and Nelson merely grunted before disconnecting. He held the phone out in front of him, staring at it a moment, and then looked at Estella. “Chip’s right. Cell phones have taken all the pleasure out of being able to slam down the receiver.” She grinned at him, and he returned to Lee’s room.
* * * *
Lee listened as Nelson left the room. He was aware that the light dimmed, but left his eyes closed as he felt the man who had been tending to him do another vitals check. He wasn’t looking forward to Jamie’s fussing, but at least Lee would be more comfortable with him than he was with strangers. Who he was mostly concerned about was Nelson. He’d watched Nelson as best as his aching head would allow and saw no deception in the familiar face. If Lee could believe what he’d read in the older man’s expression, Nelson had no idea about why Lee had come down here. Lee was guessing that somehow his misdirection had been discovered, and Nelson had followed him. Lee still wasn’t sure where Senora Marin fit in, but figured he’d better not look that particular gift horse in the mouth. From what he remembered of the last few seconds of his meeting with Rosas, he could very easily have still been out there on the old deserted farm when his picked over bones were found. Unfortunately, that also brought back the fact that he hadn’t gotten all the information he wanted out of Rosas. He was still fuming about that, his fists clenched, when a hand settled on top of his, and Nelson said quietly, “You should have asked.”
Lee barely opened his eyes, even though the lights were still dimmed. “You were busy.” It was the first excuse that entered his mind.
“I would have made time.” Lee opened his eyes just a bit more, but didn’t say anything. “Do you have the whole story now? Were you able to get Rosas to tell you?”
Lee started to shake his head, decided that wasn’t the brightest of ideas, and answered quietly. “No, sir. Not all of it. The only thing I got was that my father survived the initial shooting and was being taken somewhere to be further interrogated.” He hesitated. “That’s when things sort of got out of control.”
Lee was surprised when Nelson’s expression momentarily hardened, but when he spoke, his voice was controlled. “Don’t worry about it, lad. I rather suspect that we can find out all we need to know from Jiggs.”
Lee couldn’t help himself. “We?” came out before he could stop it.
“We,” Nelson confirmed. “You’re not the only person he’s been lying to for thirty years.”
Lee was surprised at the vehemence of Nelson’s reply. “I’m sure he had his reasons.”
“He had no right, whatever the reasons.”
Lee watched as Nelson worked hard to get his infamous temper once more under control, and for some reason the sight amused him. He was perfectly willing to chalk it up to a brain that still wasn’t tracking all that well. Or the fact that he had his instinctive trust in Nelson’s honesty reconfirmed. Or both. For whatever reason, he allowed himself a small smile. It wasn’t lost on Nelson.
“What’s so funny, Commander?” he grumbled. Actually, Nelson had a pretty good idea what was behind it. While he was relieved that Lee was relaxed enough to enjoy Nelson’s little temper tantrum, he still found it somewhat frustrating and momentarily took it out on Lee. “Keep it up. We’ll see who has the last laugh when Will and Chip get here.”
“Chip’s coming, too?” Lee barely breathed, opening his eyes wide before remembering, rather painfully, that that wasn’t the best of ideas, and closed them completely. “Damn.”
“Did you really think that this little…mission…of yours was going to go undetected?”
“Was sort of hoping…” Lee’s voice trailed off as he re-opened his eyes just far enough to see Nelson’s face. “Who saved my bacon?”
“You’re changing the subject,” Nelson observed dryly.
“Trying to,” Lee agreed, with a slight twitch of his lips.
Nelson snorted. He studied the younger man a moment before answering, but finally smiled. “Chip isn’t going to let you off the hook nearly as easily.”
“That’s okay. I outrank him.”
That drew another snort. “Since when has that ever stopped him?”
Lee frowned. Unfortunately, the headache that had abated somewhat came back full force, and he closed his eyes against the pain. “Senora Marin?” he still got out.
“DEA,” Nelson answered. “You managed to blow away their link to a much larger chain.”
“Damn,” Lee said quietly. “Surprised she didn’t leave me out there.”
“I think she’s a little surprised, herself,” Nelson agreed. “Now,” he added much more firmly, “you are going to rest until Will gets here. Actually, I rather suspect that you’re going to rest even after he gets here.”
Lee opened his eyes just enough to catch the expression on Nelson’s face, sighed, and closed his eyes again. “Yes, sir,” he acquiesced.
* * * *
“Who was that man with the stars on his collar?” Will Jamison asked Chip Morton as the two settled into their seats in the six-passenger Learjet 40XR.
Chip gave his CMO a quirky smile. “Well, it sure looked like Admiral Stark. Voice sounded like him. Can’t say that what few words came out were ones he’d normally use, however.”
With some trepidation, no matter what Admiral Nelson had told him, Chip had placed a call to Stark as soon as their plane landed at San Diego International Airport. Lt. Cmdr. Joe Jackson, Admiral Stark’s aide, directed them in a rather puzzled voice to report to the part of the airport that handled private flights, where Stark himself met them. Or, as Will was intimating, someone impersonating the usually grouchy, cantankerous Admiral. Stark said little. He merely led them to the jet, whose letters designated it as belonging to the Diplomatic Corps, told the two Air Force pilots that their passengers had arrived, and immediately disappeared. He did, at one point, almost act like he was going to ask Will a question, but abruptly changed his mind with a look on his face that neither Will nor Chip could remember ever having seen before. Now, the two men just looked at each other, neither having a clue to the older man’s unusual behavior.
“Settle yourselves in, gentlemen,” one of the pilots said congenially. “We have clearance to leave immediately. With a stop in Panama City to refuel, we’ll be in Santiago, Chile in approximately fourteen hours.”
Chip glanced at his watch. “0700 tomorrow morning sure beats 2000 hours tomorrow might. Any idea what strings Admiral Stark pulled? We’re not exactly on a diplomatic mission.” He glanced at Will. “Well, at least I don’t think we are.”
The pilot grinned. “Hey, we don’t ask, we just fly. All we were told was to fly you down, and hang around until you were ready to fly home. That, and there would be four on the flight back.”
“There’d better be,” Will muttered not quite under his breath.
Chip grinned. “That’s the plan,” he told the pilot. “I can’t even tell you how long we’ll be down there, but I’m guessing maybe twenty-four hours.”
“Suits us,” the pilot nodded toward his partner, already in the cockpit. “We’ll give you a number you can call. Just give us an hour’s notice and we’ll be ready to bring you back. Ah, on the return trip, we land at Santa Barbara instead of here?”
“Preferably,” Chip said, sitting back in the luxurious seating. “Hey, Doc. This is the way to fly. Anything to eat on board?” he asked the pilot, to Will’s amusement.
“Sure,” the pilot confirmed. “The cabinets there,” and he pointed out the amenities. “Help yourself.”
“He will,” Will muttered. Chip laughed, and the pilot headed forward.
* * * *
Lee awoke suddenly, momentarily disoriented. It didn’t help that a strange, feminine voice infringed on his already scrambled thought processes. “Easy, Commander. I think you were just having a bad dream. Relax. You’re safe.” He turned his aching head toward the sound, and found himself face to face with Senora Marin. He struggled a bit to reposition himself so that he could see the rest of the room. But she laid a hand on his shoulder, stilling him. “Your Admiral is asleep upstairs. It’s about 1:30 am. He sat with you until just a while ago. There was a call earlier, from someone named Chip.” She gave him a quizzical look. “The message was that they – whoever ‘they’ are, although I gather more friends – would be landing in Santiago about 7 am this morning. Julio and I were finally able to chase him off to bed about an hour ago. Now, does that get you caught up?”
Lee gave her a sheepish look. “Thank you,” he offered softly. “And sorry I messed up your investigation. I did check with ONI before coming down. But since the different agencies aren’t overly fond of sharing intel…” His voice trailed off.
“Tell me about it,” she grumbled. “Isn’t the first time ‘interdepartmental cooperation’ has caused trouble.”
“What ‘interdepartmental cooperation?” Lee asked softly, and they were both able to chuckle. “Anyway… You’ll be able to pick up the pieces?”
She shrugged. “Probably. Depends on who takes over. If it’s who I suspect will, shouldn’t be too big a problem.”
“I didn’t bollix the whole thing?”
“Actually, no,” she said, almost surprising herself. “From what my contact has been able to pick up, nobody knows who you are, or what actually happened. Apparently Rosas never mentioned your name…”
“Never gave it to him,” Lee admitted. “And the guards never saw my face.”
She nodded. “All they knew when they woke up was, Rosas was dead with one of their own guns – ah, carefully wiped clean of prints, in case you wondered.”
“Something more I have to thank you for.”
She shrugged again. “Between Julio, I, and another person, we swept the scene, got you and your car back here, and the guards don’t have anything to say except what they were witness to before you dropped them. Nice touch, that, by the way.” Lee just frowned. She apparently thought that it was from the pain. “You should be resting,” she said gently, and tried to settle the blanket a little closer around him.
“Please,” Lee grumbled, and wiggled around to get more comfortable on the several pillows behind his shoulders and head. “Once Jamie gets here, that’s all I’ll be doing. I’d prefer to stay awake – at least for a little while.”
“That’s a new name,” she observed. “A Chip and a Will I recognize.”
Lee grinned softly. “Lt. Cmdr. Will Jamison, M.D., F.A.C.S., P.I.T.A. Literally!” The continued grin gave lie to the grumble in his voice. “Frequently referred to as Jamie,” he added much more pleasantly.
Estella had laughed as Lee added the extra letters to Jamie’s official title. “I like him already,” she now said lightly.
“Most people do,” Lee admitted amiably.
Lee smiled openly. “I have the utmost respect for the man, and absolute faith in his skill.” He paused, and gave her as wicked a grin as he could manage. “And if you repeat that, I’ll deny every word.”
She laughed. “Familiarity breeds contempt? I couldn’t help noticing all the signs of, shall we say, extracurricular activity on your body.”
Lee felt himself blush a bit that she’d seen that much of his body, but he continued on as casually as he could. “Actually, most of the battle scars are from things that happened aboard Seaview.” He paused, thoughtful for a moment. “And no,” he continued more seriously, “definitely not contempt. As for the familiarity part, I plead the fifth.”
She laughed again. “I gather he takes his job seriously.”
“Way too seriously, as far as I’m concerned.”
“I think that you have good friends,” she observed. Lee lowered his eyes, and she asked more seriously, “Are you in a lot of pain? Do you need me to call Julio?”
“No,” Lee said instantly, his eyes opening wide. Then he lowered them again. “Just…”
“What?” She touched his shoulder, once more serious, gently nudging him to open up.
Lee looked at her, his eyelids half-closed. “Yes, they are very good friends.” His eyes closed, and he added, mostly to himself, “and I’ve caused them a lot of worry and trouble – again.”
“It would seem that there was good reason,” letting him know that she also had seen the intel he’d received.
Lee nodded. “Problem is, there’s always a good reason – as far as I’m concerned, anyway.” He gave her a shy little smile.
“Ah,” she smiled back knowingly. “Then they should be used to your…”
“Screw-ups,” Lee interjected.
“I was trying to come up with something a little more polite.”
“Might as well call it like it is,” Lee said philosophically. He shrugged his shoulders, and burrowed a little deeper into the pillows. “Chip sure will.”
“I think I like him already, too.” Lee just grinned at her. “And you didn’t involve them because…?”
Lee didn’t answer immediately, just stared across at the opposite wall. “Not their problem,” he finally said quietly.
“No, that would be you – their problem, that is,” she said with a grin.
Lee finally grinned softly as well. “All too true,” he agreed. “Was hoping I would be home before they figured out I was gone,” he added. “No such luck.”
“Julio feels very badly about that.”
“Why?” Lee demanded, by voice and expression both.
“It was he who caused the noise that distracted you, trying to get close enough to hear what you and Rosas were talking about. It would seem that without his interference you’d have kept things under your control.”
“Doubt that,” Lee mumbled miserably, then looked at her shyly again. “Had pretty much lost my cool by that point anyway,” he admitted.
“Don’t put too much stock in anything Rosas told you.” He opened his eyes a bit wider. “It has been my conclusion, in the time I’ve been observing him, that he rarely tells anyone the truth. About anything.”
Lee lowered his eyelids again and sighed heavily. “I basically accused him of that very thing,” he admitted. “I just wish…”
“What?” she asked softly. Lee just shook his head. “You think that your father is still alive?”
“No,” Lee admitted easily. “Just wanted the truth about how he died.”
Estella sat back in her chair. “Somehow, I rather think that before Admiral Nelson is through, you will have your answers. He does not seem to me to be a man who is satisfied with half-truths.”
Lee cringed. “And it’s all going to blow up in my face when he gets home and tackles Admiral Stark. That’s one thing I was trying to avoid.” He gave her a small smile. “I’m not Stark’s most favorite person in the world in the first place. This is going to cause a rift between he and Nelson, I can feel it.”
“Tell me about it.” But he sighed again heavily, which turned into a yawn.
Estella reached over and once more settled the blanket more closely around Lee’s shoulders. “You’d better try to go back to sleep.”
“If I’m asleep when Jamie and Chip get here, it might postpone the reaming out I’m going to get – at least for a little while.” He gave her a soft grin, and it was returned.
“You could always fake it,” she offered.
Lee shuddered. “No way. I’ve lied enough already on this little mission. Chip catches me doing any more…well…” He shuddered again.
She gave him a raised eyebrow. “From what I’ve understood so far, don’t you outrank him?”
Lee pushed his head even deeper into the pillows. “Try telling him that. We aren’t on the boat.” He finally smiled, so did she, and Lee closed his eyes.
* * * *
“Chip, sit!” The Learjet had barely touched its wheels down on the runway in Santiago when Will heard the younger man unclip his seatbelt. Chip sent him a harsh glare, but remained in his seat until the plane came to a complete stop – almost. Will had slept a good deal of the flight south. He was pretty sure that Chip hadn’t, although he’d been quiet. Until the last hour, when he’d become increasingly restless. As they gathered up their bags – Chip only had a small overnight bag, but Will had a similar one as well as one packed with medical supplies that he could only hope he wouldn’t totally need – Chip started mumbling.
“Lee had better have a darned good reason for this little escapade,” he uttered darkly.
“He always has a good reason, Chip,” Will responded calmly. “You know that.” He shrugged his shoulders. “Just, sometimes, it only makes sense to him.”
“Well, it had better make sense to me this time, or I’m going to make sure he flies home without benefit of airplane engines,” Chip threatened.
Will laughed. He couldn’t help himself. It never ceased to amaze, and amuse, him how, as long as it didn’t involve Command positions, Chip was perfectly happy threatening his best friend with absolute mayhem. Occasionally he even made good on a threat or two, just to keep Lee on his toes. Lee not only took it good-naturedly, he was perfectly capable of dishing it right back. It absolutely never interfered with the two’s working relationship. But off the boat, well, that could be a different story. And Will loved every minute of it!
Chip gave him a look that had been known to send others running for their lives. Will just chuckled harder, and finally it dragged a smile out of the ticked off blond. “Yeah, well…” he said practically under his breath, took the bigger of Will’s bags away from his CMO, and waited impatiently for the door to be opened.
Apparently the diplomatic numbers on the aircraft also meant that they could bypass Customs because the car waiting for them just a few yards away from where the plane had been directed to stop whisked them out of the airport by way of a side gate and sped into the city. The driver wasn’t talkative, and neither Will nor Chip was inclined to break the silence. From the airport they were driven through the business section, and on to a more residential area before turning into a drive protected by tall shrubbery. Before they could exit the car, the front door opened to reveal Admiral Nelson himself.
“Gentlemen,” Nelson said, nodded inside, and preceded them in.
“Admiral?” Will started. Knowing that he had a patient waiting was now making him a bit impatient.
Nelson held up a hand. “Lee’s still asleep. You both need to see something first, before you see him.” He handed them the copy of the official Navy letter, and when they were both done reading, and raising almost identical eyebrows at Nelson, he handed them the letter from Master Chief Miller.
It was a measure of the hours and days of tension that Chip had been under that a particularly vulgar phrase escaped as he finished reading. He looked up from the papers to discover that they’d been joined by an extremely attractive woman, and he immediately turned bright red. “Sorry, Ma’am,” he said softly.
“Gentlemen,” Nelson started the introductions, “Senora Estella Marin. We have her to thank that we are getting Lee back at all, despite the fact that he single-handedly destroyed her DEA investigation into Rosas.”
“Oops,” Will offered.
“Dr. Will Jamison,” Nelson continued, “and this,” he gave Chip an indulgent smile, “is a slightly peeved Lt. Cmdr. Chip Morton.” Chip ducked his head as she also smiled at him, but it was to Will that she spoke.
“Pepe,” she indicated the man who had driven them there, “will show you to the basement door, Doctor. Julio will meet you at the bottom of the stairs and take you to your patient.”
“Thank you.” Will picked up his medical bag and followed the man out of the room. As Chip would have followed, Nelson gently took his arm.
“Later, Chip. Lee doesn’t need both of you descending on him at the same time.”
“Descending, Admiral?” Estella asked quietly. “I mean, he is in the basement, but…” She smiled at him, Chip snickered, and even Nelson smiled.
“Feeling a little stupid right now, is he?” Chip asked.
“Concerned that he’s upset his friends.” Both Nelson and Chip raised eyebrows as Estella spoke. “He was awake for awhile earlier this morning. He wanted to talk.”
“Wish he’d have thought about that before he took off,” Chip muttered.
“Down, Chip,” Nelson said softly. He didn’t totally understand Chip’s quick grin at Nelson’s inadvertent mimicking of his CMO. “He had a lot of conflicting emotions tattooing him all at the same time. Not the least of which was whether or not I knew about this.” He waved the letter, which he’d once again taken possession of.
“You’d never keep something like that from him,” Chip said immediately.
“Chip?” Nelson looked at his XO honestly. “As tight as you and Lee are, so are Jiggs and I. I would never presume to ask, but I can make the assumption that there are things known to the two of you, that you don’t speak of to protect one or the other of you.” He shook his head sadly. “I can’t honestly tell you that if I’d known about this, and Jiggs had a logical, sufficient, reason for keeping this a secret, that I may not have gone along with it to keep from stirring up a hornet’s nest.”
“And now, sir?” Chip couldn’t help asking quietly.
“Now,” Nelson’s voice turned hard, “that’s no longer the most important issue. Lee will have whatever answers can be supplied!”
“Thank you, sir.” They both knew that he was answering for Lee as well. Nelson just nodded, and Estella led the two men toward the kitchen for a light breakfast.
* * * *
Jiggs Stark saw Lt. Cmdr.’s Morton and Jamison off on their flight – and that had taken calling in a few favors, not to mention setting himself up for one or two others that he wasn’t overly comfortable with – then returned to his office. While never empty, at least most of the staff had left for the day, including his own aide, and he could be fairly sure of being left alone. There weren’t many people who would tackle the Admiral during a normal working day, let alone after hours, without sufficient provocation. Just to be on the safe side, however, he flipped the lock on his inner office door before settling heavily behind his desk and opening the locked lower drawer. First taking out the bottle of scotch and the glass that he kept there, he poured out a healthy measure before reaching for the manila folder lying on the very bottom underneath several blank notebooks. Glass in one hand, his other one ran over the top of the folder as if his fingers could read what was inside. In a way they could. There was little in the folder that Jiggs couldn’t recite from memory, as burned into his conscious as the information had become over the years.
He was all too aware of how dangerous it was, both to himself and to others, for him to have kept the folder. Some of what it contained he’d squirreled away before it could be destroyed by others, some he’d reconstructed from what he, himself, remembered, and a few items he’d tenaciously, yet quietly, recovered from other sources. His original excuse to himself for wanting to keep it close was to remind him of what an awful burden command duty could become, and that he needed to balance that power with a responsibility toward the people he leveled it on. Over the years the memories had blurred a bit, as he learned that there were often times when the greater good had to outweigh the immediate impact. There were many, however, who would be surprised that the gruff, overbearing officer still had moments of extreme remorse over some of the things his duty had required him to do.
Jiggs smiled a grim smile. One of those would not be Harriman Nelson. Harry knew him better than he knew himself, it sometimes seemed. Both strong-willed and determined men, it amazed a lot of people that they could be as close friends as they were. But they shared a history, had come through the years of changes, if not together physically, at least understanding each other’s place in the often turbulent times. When duties allowed they shared dinner, drinks, and conversation, sealing the friendship as they worked their way up the ranks and commands. But there was one thing that Jiggs had never shared with his old friend even though, inadvertently, it was Harry who had been instrumental in Jiggs coming face to face with one of his worst nightmares.
It had all started innocently enough. Jiggs was stationed in DC at the time, and Harry was teaching classes at the Naval Academy in Annapolis. They’d decided to rent a sailboat and get away from real life for the weekend. Jiggs told Harry that he’d pick him up after the last class on Friday and they’d head out.
Jiggs got away a little earlier than he’d expected to so he parked the car and ambled around the grounds waiting for Harry. As classes were released, Jiggs found himself outside the lecture hall Harry was using. He watched the eager young faces filing out, remembering his own years at the Academy. When Harry didn’t immediately follow the middies, Jiggs walked closer to the door.
Harry’s voice came from inside, obviously discussing a point with a late-leaving student. Jiggs couldn’t hear every word, so softly was the young man speaking, but he could get the gist of what the conversation was about. Harry was apparently expanding on a subject that had come up in class, something about submarine attack tactics. Jiggs heard the student ask if perhaps a slightly different tact wouldn’t have worked better. The question had been asked respectfully, but Jiggs still expected Harry to take the man’s head off for challenging proven practices.
Instead, the two inside the classroom spent the next several minutes tossing the idea back and forth, evaluating its various pros and cons. Jiggs crept just enough closer to the door to hear both sides of the discussion without interfering. He was immediately impressed with the younger man’s observations and, while he lacked the practical experience necessary to totally evaluate the simulation that had been established, proved quick to pick up on the small problems Harry patiently pointed out. Finally Jiggs heard Harry bring the lesson to a close.
“Now be off with you, young man. I’ll not be writing excuses for your tardiness to ECAs . At least, not twice in the same week,” was added as an afterthought.
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir,” came the immediate response. Despite the outward seriousness, Jiggs detected a touch of humor in both voices. The fourth class midshipman hurried from the classroom and turned in the opposite direction from Jiggs, never realizing that he was standing there.
But the one, quick, look he got of the middie’s face hit Jiggs like a brick in the pit of his stomach. “Oh, my god,” he barely breathed. “I knew there was a son. He can’t be old enough to be here – can he?” He gave himself a shake. “Nah, has to just be a coincidence,” and had himself under control when Harry walked out half a minute later.
“Sorry, Jiggs. Didn’t mean to keep you waiting.”
“No problem, Harry. From the little I heard, sounds like you have a budding submariner on your hands.”
Harry’s grin was instant and wide. “There’s something special about that one, Jiggs. Bright, intuitive. He’s got a great future in front of him. Assuming he survives his roommate,” Harry added with a sparkle in his eyes that Jiggs rarely saw. He raised an eyebrow as the two headed out, and Harry’s grin broadened. “Remember our first class year, the two fourth classmen, Ratcliffe and Butler?”
“How could I forget,” Jiggs muttered darkly, causing Harry to laugh out loud.
“Now Jiggs, you know perfectly well that they never intended to target you. You just happened to walk into the middle of their little prank.” Jiggs nodded, somewhat reluctantly. “Their hijinks didn’t stop them from turning into mighty fine officers.”
“Very true, Harry. These two remind you of them?”
Harry nodded. “Maybe even worse.” He chuckled again. “Rumor has the pair of them responsible for any number of little, shall we say, instances of minor mayhem. Nothing malevolent or hazardous. Just…a little lightening of the tension the middies are constantly under. Gunny Zitka is absolutely certain that the rommie, Morton, is behind it all.” Harry paused. “I’m not so sure.”
“Well, they’d better be mindful of where they are, Harry. Annapolis isn’t the place for cutups and practical jokers.”
“Don’t you worry yourself about that, Jiggs. The pair of them are natural born leaders, and first and second in their class. I have no doubts that the Navy is going to be very proud to claim Misters Morton and Crane as their own.
Jiggs shuddered, and took a long swallow from his glass. He was never sure at the time how he’d kept Harry from noticing his instant shock at the name. Or how he’d gotten through the weekend without Harry noticing his occasional preoccupation. But back to work Monday morning found him doing some surreptitious checking on Nelson’s inquisitive middie. It didn’t take him long to confirm his suspicions – young Crane was indeed the son of the pilot Jiggs had condemned to a nasty death so many years ago. While keeping his distance, he nonetheless kept an eye on the young man’s career. Harry had been right – both Morton and Crane were on the fast track for advancement. Jiggs was pleased to note that Crane’s lack of a complete childhood family life had not had a detrimental effect on his maturing into a fine officer. Jiggs was tempted on occasion, when assignments came up for discussion, to recommend Crane. He told himself that he wasn’t doing it to, in any way, make amends for his own actions; that it was strictly because Crane was the best man for the job. And he was well aware that while Harry had also continued to watch the young man’s career, he had in no way been responsible for Crane’s being assigned to the Nautilus while Nelson was in command.
Jiggs had harassed his old friend unmercifully when Nelson “retired” to fulfill his dreams of setting up NIMR and building Seaview. He fully expected Harry to come crawling back to the Navy, although he was secretly proud when Harry made good on his promises. Jiggs was a little peeved when the other young man Nelson had been keeping tabs on, Chip Morton, disappeared off of Jiggs’ radar and showed up as Seaview’s XO. Possessing an uncanny talent for organizational skills, Jiggs had pegged the man for an upper echelon administrative post, and was displeased that Nelson had swiped him out of Jiggs’ chain of command.
But that was nothing compared to Jiggs’ temper tantrum when Harry literally commandeered Crane right out from under Jiggs’ nose. He went three rounds with Harry about that one the next time the two met. Or rather, tried to. Harry just sat back, all smug and content, and let Jiggs rag on him while he calmly ate his dinner, an insufferable smirk firmly in place across his face.
Jiggs polished off his drink, and seriously considered having another before he got his anger over that little maneuver on Harry’s part back under control. He finally toasted Harry with his empty glass before putting it and the bottle back in the bottom drawer. The folder remained on his desk, and he sighed heavily. Better go through it one more time, just to refresh my memory. Now that the you-know-what has obviously hit the fan, Harry will rip me a new one if I don’t come clean. He closed his eyes just a moment, another shudder hit him, and he opened his eyes, and then the folder.
* * * *
Lee slowly became aware of someone fiddling with the bandage around his head. It was causing an increase in his headache, and he tried to brush the person away with his hand.
“Easy, Skipper,” slowly filtered through the pain, and Lee made what turned out to be a difficult effort to open his eyes. Somehow the sight that greeted him, albeit fuzzy, didn’t surprise him.
“Hi, Jamie,” he managed quietly, before closing his eyes again. “Sorry to interrupt your fishing trip.”
Will chuckled as he continued unwrapping the bandage. “Actually, you didn’t. The fish already beat you to it by not cooperating.” Lee gave him a little smile, but kept his eyes closed. “I’d prefer you didn’t go back to sleep quite so fast,” Will told him.
“Won’t, Jamie,” Lee promised. “The light makes the headache worse.”
“Oh. Well, in that case, just relax until I get a good look at what you’ve managed to do to yourself this time, then I’ll turn them back down.”
“Works for me,” Lee agreed, and Jamie got down to the actual injury. He heard the doctor suck in his breath. “Cut it a little close this time,” he offered in an attempt to calm down his instantly tense CMO. It had the desired effect of drawing a snort from the older man.
“Can’t be as serious as it looks if you’re still able to tell bad jokes.”
Lee gave him another smile. “Think maybe I won’t be doing any diving on the next cruise.”
“You’ll be lucky to be on the next cruise,” Will warned gruffly, but his fingers were gentle as he examined the groove the bullet had made. “Going to have an interesting haircut for a few weeks,” came out much more pleasantly.
“It will give Eddy a challenge.” Edward Carlson, one of Seaview’s Damage Control specialists, doubled as the boat’s resident barber.
Both men remained silent as Will finished his exam of that injury, applied a topical antibiotic, and covered it with a fresh bandage. As he pushed back the blanket and started in on the other injury, Lee moved carefully onto his left side to give the doctor easier access, and asked softly, “Where’s Chip?”
“Just can’t wait for the dressing down he’s going to give you?” Will teased. He felt Lee shudder softly under his hands. “Easy, Skipper,” he repeated. “Admiral Nelson showed us the letter.”
Lee nodded ever so slightly, but still muttered, “That won’t stop him.”
Will chuckled. “No, but it should tone it down a few decibels.”
They were both quiet again until Will had removed the bandages over both the entrance and exit wounds on Lee’s right side. As he gently probed around each, Lee let out a moan. “Don’t suppose you could be a bit more careful, could you, Jamie?” he asked.
“Sorry, Skipper, but the exit wound is showing signs of infection.”
“Don’t blame Julio,” Lee ordered, and turned to glare at Will. He was immediately reminded of why he’d been keeping his eyes closed, and allowed Will to gently reposition him.
“Wasn’t planning on blaming anyone, Skipper. Except maybe you, for once again running off alone, forgetting that you have friends who would have instantly helped.”
Lee didn’t answer for a bit. “Didn’t forget,” finally came out miserably.
Will laid his hand momentarily on Lee’s shoulder and squeezed. “No, I don’t imagine you did.” He gave the shoulder another small squeeze when Lee gave him a small nod, and went back to examining the wounds. “Skipper, I’m going to postpone Chip’s lecture a bit longer. Not because I don’t think you could keep up your share of the argument,” he added with a smile when once again Lee turned his head and just barely opened his eyes. “But I think I’d better do a little repair work, and you’ll be more comfortable if I knock you out while I’m doing it.”
“Even with the head injury?” Lee’s voice expressed his surprise.
“One, its not that heavy-duty a sedative. Almost more analgesic. And since, despite the headache, you aren’t showing signs of any neurological problems, I can be pretty sure that there’s nothing major going on inside. Satisfied, Dr. Crane?”
Lee muttered something under his breath, but turned back toward the wall with a smile and, shortly after feeling a slight sting in his hip, slipped easily into a light sleep.
* * * *
“I was beginning to wonder if you were ever going to wake up.”
Lee vaguely heard the words. It took him awhile to find the source. He’d opened his eyes to find the room bathed in a very soft glow, much darker than it had been the other times he had awakened. There was no one sitting in the chair close to the bed. Lee blinked his eyes several times, to try and get the last of the drugged fog to clear, and slowly looked around the room. He found who he was looking for over by the door. Lee had the feeling that the person had been pacing the confines of the smallish room, and was immediately hit with an even heavier sense of remorse for his impetuous actions than he’d already been feeling. “Surprised you’re still speaking to me,” he replied softly. The room felt stuffy and warm, and he pushed the blankets most of the way off him.
Chip didn’t move for a bit, just stood where he was, looking at Lee across the room. He never had been able to stay mad at Lee for any great length of time. But that didn’t mean that he had to admit same to Lee. “Surprising to me, too,” he growled, “since you always refuse to talk to me.”
Lee was quiet for a bit, just laying there looking at Chip, who was staring back at him. The thought briefly flitted through his mind to see how long he could keep the stalemate going – he knew perfectly well that Chip was rarely as mad at him as he sometimes acted. Or didn’t stay mad as long as he seemed to. But now didn’t seem the time to play that particular little game. Things were still a bit fuzzy and he blinked a few more times. What he needed was to find a sincere way to express his apologies to this, his oldest and best friend. But everything that came to mind sounded way too trite. Which, in this case, was probably the best way to express himself without ticking Chip off any more than he already was. “I didn’t know what to say to you then, and I’m still not sure even now,” he said with as much honesty and sincerity as he could put into his voice.
“You didn’t even try,” Chip accused him. Lee kept quiet, just continued to watch the man who was as much brother to him as anything else. “Well? Aren’t you going to say anything?” Chip demanded.
“No excuses,” Lee answered softly, still watching Chip. He thought for a second that the blond was going to let loose with one of his better tirades as Chip stiffened and the glare increased. But finally he seemed to deflate, and walked over and sprawled in the chair. It made it much easier for Lee to watch his face, but under the current circumstances Lee wouldn’t have asked.
Chip’s glare changed to more of a disapproving scowl. “How about just one excuse, so I can try and figure out what was going on in that weird brain of yours?”
Lee knew that he didn’t dare smile; that Chip did mean exactly what he asked, and he needed to come up with something that would make sense. It wasn’t easy. Besides the fuzzy vision, his brain didn’t seem to want to concentrate. “All I really had was what could have been just a story from a disgruntled old SEAL,” he tried. “While it sounded for real… I needed to try and get more information, pointing toward the letter being for real…” His voice trailed off, not knowing what else to say.
“Why not just ask Admiral Nelson?”
“What if he’d always known, and never told me?” Lee asked so softly that Chip had to lean forward in the chair to make sure that he heard it.
Chip nodded, almost to himself. “Before all this started, I’d have said that wouldn’t happen. No way, no how.” Lee started to say something, but Chip cut him off. “I still don’t think it would happen, but the Admiral basically admitted the same thing this morning, after we read the letter.” He grinned finally, mostly at the stunned expression on Lee’s face. “Nothing earth-shattering, Lee. Just admitted that, if Stark had been able to supply a sufficient reason for keeping quiet, he might have gone along with it.” Lee closed his eyes and turned his head away. “Lee?” When Lee didn’t answer, Chip slipped over to sit on the edge of the bed, and rested a hand on Lee’s shoulder. “Hey, what’s wrong now?” he asked gently.
“Nelson’s going to have Stark for lunch,” Lee said miserably.
“As it should be,” Chip agreed happily.
Lee turned back toward Chip. “That’s the last thing I wanted to happen.”
Chip shook his head. “Why would you care what happens to Stark, when he’s obviously known all along that everything you were told about your father is a lie, and kept quiet about it?”
Lee shook his head. “Not everything. The basic story is intact, just the details were obscured.”
“Big difference,” Chip sniped sarcastically.
Lee tried again. It was suddenly getting harder and harder to think straight. “Nelson and Stark have always had a special friendship. I look at them, then at us, and I didn’t want to be responsible for messing that up.” His look implored Chip to understand.
It seemed that he did because his expression softened, and he gave Lee’s shoulder a squeeze before suddenly getting serious. “Lee, you feel awfully warm.”
“Stuffy down here,” Lee agreed, and tried to push the blanket even further away.
“Huh uh,” Chip chided him, and snagged the blanket with one hand while touching Lee’s forehead with the other. “Think it’s time for more of Jamie’s magic. You just lie still. I’ll go get him.”
“Swell,” Lee mumbled, and closed his eyes.
* * * *
It turned into quite a crowd who gathered around Lee. Will came instantly at Chip’s news that Lee seemed to be developing a fever. Julio heard the commotion and came from a room down the hall, and Nelson and Estella came as well. After a brief exam, Will was fairly sure that it was nothing to be overly concerned about; just a bit of a reaction to his earlier ministrations. He’d had to open the exit wound on Lee’s back to do a little repair work inside, and post-operative fever was fairly normal. Especially, he’d grumbled, when it concerned Lee. He’d teased a worried Chip that Lee was almost as bad as his exec for having strange reactions to otherwise normal treatments. He got his desired effect when Chip give him the expected sneer, but calmed down nonetheless.
Will had originally suggested to Nelson that they wait twenty-four hours before moving Lee, to let him get a bit stronger before having to deal with the flight home. But with this new development it was decided not to wait. While Chip called the pilots to let them know, Will started Lee on an IV heavily laced with a stronger antibiotic, and also a mild sedative to help keep him comfortable in case they happened to run into turbulence on the way home. As he wouldn’t be able to sit up the whole way, Estella gave them a small air mattress and a couple extra blankets so they could make a bed on the floor of the small jet. The logistics of getting Lee into the car turned into a non-issue as the muscular Julio simply stepped forward and gently picked him up, blanket and all. Will just shrugged his shoulders, grabbed the IV bag, and followed the man out of the room.
There was a little scrambling at that point. Nelson went off to officially check out of the hotel. He give them the explanation that he’d spoken to Mr. Crane, who had decided to stay in Valparaiso until it was time to fly home, and that Nelson was off to join him. Estella returned Lee’s rental car on the way to the private part of the airport. There was a night drop so she didn’t even need to go in. The man Pepe, who Nelson finally discovered was posing as Estella’s husband when the need arose, drove one car, and Chip another, to get everyone and everything to the airport. Chip followed Estella to the rental place, picked her up, and then headed for the plane. By the time they arrived, Julio and Will had Lee settled inside. There was a little consternation on the part of the pilots that Lee would technically not be seat belted in. That only lasted as long as it took Admiral Nelson to get there. Even in civvies there was no mistaking the stars on his collar, especially as Will made the point of addressing him as ‘Admiral’, and the pilots decided that they really didn’t want to know what went on in the cabin on the way home. It was just as well, because Chip solved the problem by settling down on the floor next to Lee and bracing himself against the closest seats during the take-off, as well as the stop in Panama City to refuel.
They landed in Santa Barbara just after 0600 hours the following morning. Will had called ahead and one of NIMR’s ambulances was waiting for them at the edge of the tarmac, along with Nelson’s own car. Chip was all set to jump in with Lee until Will put his foot down and told the younger man to go home and get some sleep; that if he showed his face anywhere near Med Bay for the next twenty-four hours Will would personally strap him to a gurney and sedate him. Chip was just opening his mouth to argue when Nelson loudly cleared his throat and offered to drop Chip off at his condo. It didn’t help Chip’s temper that Nelson was just barely able to suppress the laughter that was threatening to explode across his face. Will reminded Chip that Lee had remained quiet the entire trip and his fever was already abating, and Chip finally surrendered. But not before limiting his abolishment to twelve hours only. Will decided to quit while he was ahead and nodded, before jumping in the ambulance.
He was standing next to Lee’s bed in a private room in Med Bay about 1330 hours, reading the last two sets of vitals that the nurses had recorded on Lee’s chart, when he realized that he was being watched. He made a notation of his own while saying easily, “Welcome back.”
“Can I go home now?” came softly from the bed.
Will had expected something along those lines, so just smiled as he continued to write. “You get yourself out of bed, walk to the nurse’s station and back without falling on your face,” he told his CO as he tucked the chart under one arm and leveled one of his better glares at the younger man, “and I might consider it.”
Lee gave him a sheepish little grin. “Maybe tomorrow.”
“Fat chance,” Will commented dryly before he also smiled, and settled a hip on the edge of the bed. “How you feeling – for real, Skipper?”
“Like I’ve been shot in the head,” Lee admitted freely, and glanced around the room.
“Chip’s been banished until 1800 hours,” Will told him.
“And Admiral Nelson?”
“Has not been seen since we landed.” Lee turned his head away from the doctor and threw his right arm over his eyes. “Are you still in much pain?” Will asked, misreading the signs. “What hurts worst? I was hoping that headache would be starting to abate by now.” When Lee didn’t answer, Will laid a hand on his forearm. “Skipper?”
The sound might have been a snort of laughter, but there was absolutely no humor in it. “Sorry, Jamie. Nothing you can do about this pain,” came out miserably.
Will gave the arm a squeeze, and then a little shake. “Hey, self-pity isn’t your style. On the other hand, however, blaming yourself for every little thing that goes wrong around you is.”
“No doubt who to blame this time,” came miserably from under the arm.
“Could be, Skipper, could be. But you’re the only one around here who’s making a fuss about it. Well,” he paused, “I have to admit that the Admiral’s a little steamed at Stark.” Lee continued rolling until his back was toward Will. “Hey.” Will gave Lee’s shoulder another little shake. “Start a new trend – talk to your friends.”
“Little hard when I’ve just cost the Admiral his best one,” came back gloomily.
“First,” Will started in the lecturing tone that he tended to use when Lee started getting stubborn – usually about his own health – “you didn’t have anything to do with how this started. And second, I seriously doubt that this will make a permanent dent in their relationship. Nelson will rant and rave, Stark will come clean, and things will get back to normal.” A derisive snort was Lee’s only answer. “You don’t believe me?”
“Why? Look at you and Chip. I can recall half a dozen instances when one of you has seriously rattled the other one’s cage over some issue. Mind you, it’s usually Chip ragging about an ONI mission gone cockeyed. But I’ve also seen you so angry with him that you couldn’t even think straight. And has it changed the strong bond that you two have?” He chuckled. “Well, for longer than a day or so, anyway.”
Lee didn’t move for a bit. Will just sat patiently, waiting for him to sort through that bit of intel. It didn’t take him long, and he finally rolled once more onto his back and looked at Will intently. He was just opening his mouth to say something, however, when it was interrupted by a yawn. He frowned as Will smiled.
“Shall we continue this later, Skipper?”
“Do I have a choice?” Lee growled, sending a glare toward the IV still in his left arm.
“Nothing in there except nutrients, antibiotics, and a little pain med.”
“Yeah, right,” Lee grumbled. But as he closed his eyes Will saw the frown turn into a very small grin. He chuckled again and, as he turned down the lights a bit more before leaving, took one last glance at his CO. Lee’s smile had widened, and Will grinned broadly as he closed the door behind him. He had little doubt that Lee was thinking of some instance or another when he and Chip had locked horns over something. Those two, he chuckled to himself as he headed back to his office.
* * * *
Admiral Nelson had had better days. With everyone safe and sound – for the most part – and back home, he’d dropped Chip off and headed for his office. He had no doubts that Will could deal with the two younger men just fine for the time being. Lee would be ensconced in Med Bay for at least the next several days. How long total depended on a combination of how quickly Lee responded to treatment and how good Will’s earplugs worked. That thought brought a grin to Nelson’s face, momentarily replacing the fierce expression that was threatening to become a permanent fixture, so prevalent had it been the last couple days. Lee’s battles with Seaview’s CMO were legendary, and cause for great sport among the crew of the giant submarine. Nelson was also perfectly aware that one of the people who got the most fun out of the game was none other than Dr. Will Jamison. It was one of the reasons Will had survived this long around Lee without resigning and walking away from the man who routinely ignored his own health issues. It didn’t keep the good doctor from getting incredibly frustrated with the younger man. But the two had an extreme respect for each other that kept the battles from ever getting personal. It didn’t keep them from getting loud, but Nelson was pretty sure that that was also part of the game. While Nelson was occasionally forced to step in and dictate a solution to a particular argument, for the most part he tried to not take sides and just stand back and enjoy the show.
That thought broadened his smile, and he actually entered his office in a fairly good mood. It even stayed good as he quickly glanced at the mountain of paperwork on his desk. His talented and efficient personal assistant, Angie, had everything sorted by what it was and how important, with a cover sheet on the top of each stack. Many of the notes, on those things she had the expertise to express an opinion, even had her own evaluations. Nelson was so busy these days he relied more and more on both Angie’s excellent instincts, and also Lee’s, when it came to basic NIMR business. That left him more time to evaluate new projects, and work on his own research. The grin briefly flared higher as he remembered asking Lee to take over more of the military interfacing, and Lee’s reaction to that. If he hadn’t known the younger man so well he’d have thought Lee would resign on the spot. But then, also knowing the younger man so well, Nelson quickly treated the whole conversation like a little joke and changed the subject.
However, thoughts of Lee brought back everything else that had been going on lately, and the frown returned. He did, honestly, understand why Lee had been hesitant to interrupt him with his personal problems. Nelson had been extremely busy of late, and somewhat distracted with other projects. It still stung, however, that look Lee had turned on him in Chile; the one of undisguised distrust. Have to have a long talk with Lee about that one, he told himself. As he’d admitted to Chip and Will, it was just barely conceivable that he might have kept the intel from Lee. But it had startled him to realize that Lee thought it a real enough possibility that, even when faced with the reality of Nelson’s presence, he still had to think hard before confiding in Nelson. He didn’t blame Lee as much as himself, and needed to re-confirm that Lee need never question their relationship.
First things first, however, and he reached for the phone. That’s when the day started to go downhill. Stark wasn’t in his office. Nor was he expected in his office, at least today. Nor did his aide know when he would be in his office. Nelson tried hard to keep his temper intact, knowing that it wasn’t the aide, Jackson’s, fault. It seemed that Stark had left the previous day for Washington, DC without really giving Jackson a definitive reason why, and said that he’d be back when his business was done. A definite breech of protocol for the usually no-nonsense Stark. Nelson told Jackson to tell Stark, the instant that he heard from him, that his six was ‘requested’ in Santa Barbara ASAP. In a voice of one obviously caught in the middle, Jackson acquiesced. Nelson then tried Stark’s cell phone – it wasn’t on. He tried several offices in DC where Stark might have gone – no one had seen him. Or rather, admitted to it, at least. Nelson was considering heading for Washington, tracking Stark down and dragging him back here, before remembering that the technicians still hadn’t figured out what was wrong with FS1. Nelson was most decidedly not in the mood for any more commercial flights any time soon.
That plan of action sidelined for the moment, Nelson went on to what his trip to Chile had postponed – going over with Dr. Merle Evans what his research was producing. Another setback, as Evans had so far found nothing of any particular interest.
Plan C called for tackling the stacks on his desk. Even with all the sorting Angie had already done it was going to take time. Lots of time. Nelson poured himself a large mug of coffee and settled in for the duration. He told Angie that he didn’t want to be disturbed, and she only disobeyed twice. The first time was just after 1230 hours when she appeared in his office with a meatloaf sandwich, pasta salad, and a fresh carafe of extra high test coffee. The second time was at 1800 hours to tell Nelson that she was leaving, and why didn’t Nelson do the same. The first time he’d frowned at the plate of food, then at her, and she’d just smiled and left. The second time was pretty much a repeat, except that when Angie put her hands on her hips and just smiled more broadly, Nelson finally relented.
“Need to finish this one, Angie,” he told her. “And I want to stop by Med Bay. Then I’ll crash.” She raised an eyebrow. “Hey, who’s the boss around here, anyway?” he asked gruffly. She burst out laughing, he chuckled as well, and they said good night. But before he could make good his plans he had one more interruption. The front gate called up at 1840 hours and told him that Admiral Stark was requesting an audience.
* * * *
At precisely 1800 hours and 30 seconds Chip walked through Med Bay’s front door carrying a large, flat box. The pretty brunette behind the reception desk took one whiff of pepperoni, gave him a dazzling smile, and Lee’s room number. Just as he was about to open that door on the third floor, someone beat him to it from the inside and he stopped short to avoid running into Will, who then turned back toward his patient.
“Remember that conversation we were having earlier, about friendships?” he asked. Chip could see Lee reclining in the bed, head raised enough so that he could look out the window toward the ocean. Lee nodded, and Will continued. “I rest my case.” Both men grinned, and Will lifted the lid on the pizza box, taking a slice. “Toll for entering,” he told both younger men. “And don’t stay too long,” was directed specifically at Chip. “The skipper has pretty much slept away the day, and it’s the best thing for him.” He sidestepped Chip as he took a first bite of the cheesy, double meat treat, and headed back for his office.
Chip finished walking in, pulled the bed table over so Lee could reach it, and deposited the pizza box on top as Lee hit the switch to raise himself into more of a sitting position. “What was that about friendships?” Chip asked. Once the box was no longer in front of him it became apparent that more goodies resided in Chip’s jacket pockets and he pulled out two cans, one beer and one cola.
Lee eyed both cans as he reached for his first slice of pizza. “Nothing special,” he answered Chip’s question. “Guess we both knew you’d show up about now.”
“Mmmm,” Chip replied, his mouth full from his own first bite. As he chewed, he opened both cans. “Didn’t dare bring you a whole beer,” he apologized as he put the cola in front of Lee, then with a grin he handed Lee the other one. “But figured a couple of swallows wouldn’t hurt. Can’t properly eat pizza without beer.” They both grinned, Lee took a swallow of the brew, and handed the can back to Chip before taking another bite of pizza.
Chip was just closing the lid on the empty box when the door opened to admit Will. He was glad that he’d already put both of the now empty cans inside as the expression on the doctor’s face wasn’t pleasant. Before either he or Lee could ask what had ticked off the formerly amused man Admiral Jiggs Stark appeared in the doorway, followed immediately by Admiral Nelson. Red Alert – Battle Stations, Chip mouthed to Lee, his back turned toward the other three. He pulled the table out of the way, turned and, along with Lee, watched the others enter the room.
* * * *
It was extremely rare for Admiral Jiggs Stark to be at a loss for words. Early on in his career he’d learned to bluster his way through whatever situation he found himself in, and it kept getting easier with each increase in rank. But the last few days had been anything but SOP and he was, at this point, extremely ill at ease. The last twenty-four hours had been particularly unnerving. There were a few things that needed to be done, a few people to talk to, before he could come clean about actions that he’d spent thirty years keeping buried. This was not a time when phone, fax, or e-mail could be trusted so he made a quick, quiet, trip East, not even giving his aide a clear explanation. He landed in Santa Barbara on the return trip after getting word that Nelson, et al, had returned. The closer his rental car got to NIMR, the more he was filled with dread. He might be known for having a temper, but it barely registered when compared to that of his auburn-haired old friend, Harriman Nelson. And he was only too aware of the paternal, protective instincts Harry had for Crane. Jiggs knew, no matter how innocently and unknowingly that this whole mess had started, the impact it had had on Seaview’s eventual Skipper would not be easily forgiven. He stopped at NIMR’s security gate almost hoping that Nelson and Crane weren’t available. Logic told him that he’d just be putting off the inevitable, but going out and getting rip-roaring drunk sure sounded more appealing at the moment. No such luck. Nelson was confirmed to be in his office, and Stark was directed to go to Med Bay, that Nelson would meet him there. That bit of information only confirming that Crane’s injuries were serious enough to keep him confined, Stark’s dread closed in even more firmly. It didn’t help at all that Nelson said nothing as the two met in front of the medical building. Jiggs tried to start a conversation, just to break through the wall, but Nelson only grunted and indicated that Jiggs should follow him. They made one stop, to add Seaview’s CMO to the group. Jiggs wasn’t happy to have any more people involved, and his distaste for the coming conversation only increased as the group entered Crane’s room and found Morton there as well. The thought briefly crossed his mind that all this needed to make it a true nightmare was for Mrs. Crane to be here. He gave himself a shake, took a deep breath, and walked up to the bed.
* * * *
While Chip’s warning had been serious in its content, and totally understandable in the face of the three expressions turned on him, Lee still almost smiled. He recognized that his best friend’s use of the comment had a double meaning. Yes, there could be a battle imminent. But Chip was also telling him that, as in any battle, he had around him the support network to weather whatever happened. He flicked a quick glance as Chip turned and positioned himself at Lee’s right shoulder, and the smile almost broke through as Jamie stationed himself at Lee’s left one, facing the two admirals. Lee watched Nelson closely for any indication of how the impending meeting was going to play out. Nelson gave him a quick nod, pushed a chair forward for Jiggs, and took one himself just to one side. Stark sat down, looking at the faces around him, and his face registered the fact that he wasn’t comfortable with what he saw.
Rather than let the tension get any higher, Nelson spoke first. “So you’ll know where we are all at, Master Chief Miller, just before he passed away, sent a letter to Lee telling his side of what happened in Chile. He didn’t know the identity of the pilot at first, but happened to see a picture of Lee and noticed the similarity, and started his own underground investigation. He didn’t have all the information, or all the answers. We want that information – NOW!”
Stark nodded. While he’d guessed something similar had happened he still let out a huge breath, like he’d been punched in the stomach, when Nelson confirmed the presence of the letter. He almost asked to see it, but suspected that Harry was purposely keeping it from him. Without knowing exactly what it said, there was no way to withhold any part of the whole story. He gave Nelson a nod, as much to acknowledge Harry’s holding the upper hand as an agreement that it was time to come clean, then turned to face Crane.
Jiggs easily recognized the positions of protectiveness that Jamison and Morton had instantly taken up, and tried to take in each face, well aware that it was not just Harry and Crane that he needed to placate. It only took one visit to Seaview for him to recognize the level of loyalty and respect that Crane drew from his crew. And while he still thought that the man had risen far too quickly through the ranks, could not deny the fact that Crane had rightfully earned what he had. Jiggs could even admit – but only to himself – to a bit of jealousy at how easily Crane commanded his crew. ‘Command’ was actually the wrong word – gave the wrong connotation to Crane’s leadership style. Jiggs ‘commanded’ the people under him. Men followed Crane because they respected the man as much, if not more, than the rank.
Jiggs took a deep breath. “It was a different time, you know? A different attitude. A lot of people were a little paranoid about how Communism was spreading. Some started to wonder, with so much focus being put on Southeast Asia, what was happening elsewhere. A conference was arranged to strategize and gather as much intel, from as many different sources, as they could get. I went as aide to Admiral Jorgenson, which mostly meant hanging around outside the meeting room waiting to be ordered to go get something or another.” He shrugged. “I sort of got the feeling that nobody in the conference itself trusted anybody else a whole lot – you know how even different departments of our own government won’t share intel.” He didn’t understand the pained look that ever so briefly crossed Crane’s face. It vanished as quickly as it came, and he chose to ignore it. “And this group had delegates from around the world. Anyway, the halls outside the assembly room were pretty well crowded with aides.”
Jiggs took the time to glance around again. Harry had sat off to his right, and he had to purposely look over to him as opposed to just flicking his eyes to the other three. He was surprised that Harry wasn’t showing more impatience that Jiggs seemed to be taking his own sweet time getting to the gist of the story. Instead, Harry was sitting almost casually. Probably just letting me have enough rope to hang myself, Jiggs grumbled silently, and took a better look at Nelson’s face. Jiggs suddenly realized that he’d seen that expression, one of patiently waiting predator, before, when he’d been dragged on a safari by another of his Annapolis buddies. At one point they’d run across a lion, lounging in the shade, keeping one eye on an injured zebra. He seemed to be just casually waiting for it to die rather than actually go out and expend the energy to kill it himself. The guide took pity on the zebra and shot it, putting it out of its misery. Jiggs sort of wished that the guide was around right now. Unfortunately all he could do was get back to the narrative. He occasionally saw Crane’s eyes flick toward Nelson, but couldn’t read the almost hooded expression Crane was maintaining.
“One of the main areas of concern seemed to be South America. It hadn’t been all that long since the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Communism seemed to be getting a pretty good foothold in a bunch of countries down there. Apparently there was a fair amount of military opposition because there were quite a few delegates to the conference. I got pretty chummy with one of the aides, Salvador Pinera, from Chile. Nothing really intense, just…oh, we’d end up running the same errands at the same time for our respective superiors, and just sort of got to talking about this and that, sharing interests and such. After the first couple days we just sort of hung out together. And since we were there for just over two weeks…” He flipped a hand in the air to complete the thought, and took another look around. Nelson was still playing the patient predator. Crane was almost as bad, keeping his expression guarded. At least the other two were easier to read. The doctor was definitely torn between curiosity about the story and concern for his patient. Whether it be from current health issues – Harry hadn’t said anything about how badly Crane was injured but, between the bandaged head and the fact that he was favoring his right side, Jiggs could extrapolate that the injuries were fairly serious – or how Crane would react to the information Jiggs gave him, Jiggs wasn’t sure. Dr. Jamison seemed prepared for the worst, if his worried expression was any measure. On the other hand, Morton was just plain angry. It momentarily surprised Jiggs. He’d always thought the man to be pretty much an automaton – dealing logically and level-headedly with whatever chaos happened to be occurring around him. This was a side that Jiggs hadn’t ever been privy to. He wasn’t sure why it surprised him – the man wasn’t a computer. But somehow it surprised him anyway until he realized that it no doubt stemmed from a fierce loyalty and friendship toward Crane. Friendships, he grumbled to himself. Why is it that some of the best things in life can get you into the most trouble? He knew that he’d not said that out loud, but there was a soft snort from Nelson and he went back to the story.
“The conference finally broke up, and we all got back to our duties elsewhere. I heard from Sal off and on – about as often as I sent notes to him, which admittedly were few and far between. So it was a surprise when, several years later, I suddenly get this really weird message to meet him late one night outside Alexandria, Virginia. He was in DC on an errand of some sort for his CO and wanted to talk to me, but totally off the record.” He paused, but no one else said anything and he went on. “He was really panicky about us being seen together, and I totally didn’t understand – was short with him about dragging me out in the middle of the night…” He stopped when there was a noise off to his right. It wasn’t a grunt, or a snort, or anything recognizable. But after all the years of putting up with Harry’s volatility, he sent a quick nod in that direction. “I’m getting there, Harry.”
“You’d better be,” came almost in a purr, and Jiggs shuddered involuntarily as the image of that blasted lion once again flashed by. Just as briefly, a smug look flashed across Morton’s face, and Jiggs used the instant anger that caused to get himself back to the business at hand.
“Sal had a younger brother, Jorge. Sal hadn’t talked about him much when we first met; just enough that I got the impression that Sal wasn’t happy about whatever Jorge was into.” He paused and sighed heavily. “Turns out, Jorge was part of a Communist cell working hard to promote their cause. They had ties to many government agencies and personnel, and were apparently at least partly responsible for turning the country toward Communism and getting Allende elected. Shortly after Pinochet bombed the palace and set himself up as Dictator, Jorge showed up at Sal’s house one night and gave him a large manila envelope, obviously stuffed with papers. Turns out Jorge was a good deal further up the food chain than Sal realized. But he was also, for whatever reason, becoming disenchanted with the commies. He wanted to get out but was afraid of what they would do to him if he tried to leave. He managed to get his hands on documentation that he hoped would be insurance against anything happening to him.” Jiggs paused again and shuddered. “A few days later his mutilated body was found close to the cell’s headquarters.” He looked over at Harry. “The building was ‘supposed’ to be a secret. Sal was convinced that it wasn’t the commies that killed him. Said he was sure it was Pinochet’s doing – or, at least, the military government.”
“Why?” Nelson asked, surprisingly softly for the predatory expression still on his face.
“Sal said, leaving the body in that condition and so close to the cell’s supposedly secret headquarters was meant as a warning.” Nelson nodded, but his expression didn’t change. Jiggs continued, now dividing his attention between Harry and Crane. “Sal hadn’t looked in the packet Jorge left with him. Jorge had told him that he was better off not knowing, and just asked him to hide it well. Now, Sal looked…and almost wished that he hadn’t. At least, he said, that was his first thought. His second thought was, how to use the intel to his best advantage.”
“Sell it to the highest bidder!” Nelson almost spit out.
“No, Harry. Just let me explain, please?” Jiggs all but begged. He visibly flinched at the glare Harry sent him. But the auburn head finally gave him a brief nod, and he continued. “At first, Sal didn’t do anything. He was terrified that he and his family were being watched. And he didn’t for sure know if it was the commies guessing that he had the missing intel and wanting it back, or the military government trying to decide if, like Jorge, he was one of the reds. Or both. For a year he kept his head down, followed orders diligently, and gave no indication that he’d had any contact at all with his brother since they’d had their original split over politics many years previously. It was a terrifying time to be there as it was, without the added complications, as Pinochet started organizing his death squads and convincing several surrounding countries to do the same, to wipe out the reds.
“Sal never felt comfortable, even though there had been no trouble towards him or his family from the Communist faction. His superiors were giving him assignments as if they totally trusted him. That’s how he happened to be in DC - sent up on a Naval exchange. He knew that he had to be watchful, because he wife and two kids were still in Valparaiso. What he wanted, Harry, was sanctuary for himself and his family, in exchange for the information. He knew that I’d know whom to ask. He didn’t bring the whole packet with him – just a couple pages to prove that what he had was worth what he was asking. Damn!” he blew out with an expanse of air. “Harry, it was explosive!” He took in a big breath, blew most of it out and, as the others just continued to watch him, he went on. “What I say now – about the intel – it goes no further.” He took in all four faces, and waited. The three in front of him all glanced at Nelson, and Jiggs turned to his old friend. He saw Nelson glance at Crane, and a look passed between the two that he couldn’t read. But Crane’s expression finally became less guarded, although still watchful. As Jiggs looked back at Harry he received another barely perceptible nod.
“It was pretty much conceded that the CIA was quietly backing Pinochet in his efforts to rid South America of Communism. Nothing overt, very behind the scenes, but there nonetheless. What nobody realized, but Sal had proof of, was that there were individuals, very wealthy people…mostly in this country, but a couple elsewhere…who were supplying large amounts of money and arms to support the Communists. We’re talking prominent people. Names easily recognized. Hell, Harry, the one name Sal gave me that night, I personally had seen the guy any number of times on Capital Hill hobnobbing with our political bigwigs. The intel wasn’t just explosive, it was extremely sensitive.”
Jiggs stopped and took another deep breath, remembering what he’d felt that night so many years ago. The cold war was in full swing, Vietnam was tearing the country apart, and there were people in this country using our democratic freedoms for mercenary purposes. Jiggs had been outraged; all set to get his hands on the information and start his own personal form of housekeeping. He said as much out loud, and Nelson sent him what was almost a genuine smile. Almost, but not quite, and Jiggs got back to the story.
“Happily, cooler heads prevailed. Sal would only work through me, and arrangements were made to get he and his family safely out of Chile. The one name we did have suddenly started having IRS troubles from an audit he couldn’t quite rectify.”
Jiggs looked at Crane. “I rather suspect that Master Chief Miller told you the basics of the mission to get Sal and his family out.” Crane gave him the briefest of nods without changing his expression. He’s definitely been hanging around Harry too long, Jiggs muttered to himself, but continued. “I’m pretty sure that most of what he said was true – as far as it went,” he added forcefully. “He didn’t know that the intel we so desperately needed to shut down the network of money and arms into South America – from US citizens – had been cut into strips and sewn into the clothes Sal and his family were wearing…” He stopped as he noticed a look – one he couldn’t interpret – pass between Crane and Harry. He looked at his old friend and, almost reluctantly it seemed, Harry took several sheets of paper from his inside jacket pocket and handed them to him. Harry’s expression was once again hard. He was obviously acquiescing to Crane’s wishes, but he was just as obviously unhappy about it. The room was deadly silent as Jiggs read what Miller had said to Crane.
When he finished reading he looked up at Crane just in time to catch a little scene that, for a couple seconds at least, relieved a bit of the tension filling the room. Crane had apparently laid his head back against the pillows and closed his eyes while Jiggs was reading. Jiggs looked up just in time to see Dr. Jamison gently lay fingers on Crane’s wrist, checking pulse. Crane immediately snatched his hand out of reach, and sent his CMO a scowl. Jamison, as well as Morton and Harry, sent Crane a quick grin before returning their gazes to Jiggs, their previous hard expressions returning as well. Crane sent a quick glance around him, and then also looked at Jiggs. Jiggs took a deep breath before continuing.
“We might – might – have been able to make it in, pick up the pilot, and get out of there. I made the decision to complete the mission and get out while the getting was good.” The sound he’d heard before, from his right – not snarl, not snort, but all Nelson – came again, and he turned toward him. “Harry, the intel was just too important to risk not getting it into the proper hands for the sake of one man. Hell, Harry, Admiral Arbermiel’s name was on that list.” He hid a cringe when Harry launched himself out of his chair and took the two steps needed to glare down at Jiggs. Nelson wasn’t the only man from old money to have chosen a military life instead of a cushy civilian one. On top of which, Arbermiel was a legend; a star athlete in Football and Boxing, he’d had a storied military career before becoming an extremely respected coach and instructor at the Academy. He’d inspired a great many cadets, not the least of which was one Harriman Nelson. Jiggs pushed his chair back and stood as well, facing his extremely angry friend. “The mission was much too important, too many lives were at stake, to risk going back for one man.” He was gearing himself for whatever explosion he was about to be hit with when a soft voice stopped Nelson in his tracks.
“He’s right, Admiral.” Jiggs turned and faced Crane, and with only a split second’s hesitation Nelson did the same. “You know it as well as I do – the mission before the man.” Jiggs noted that Crane’s expression was no longer guarded, but totally open as he looked at his employer. Jiggs was perfectly aware that the relationship between the two men was much more involved than just employer/employee, and hadn’t in the past been at all shy about voicing his disapproval to Harry. He was, however, forced to admit that, for whatever reason, and between these two strong-willed men, it seemed to be working. For the most part. While Nelson tempered his anger, he still turned back toward Jiggs with a ferocious anger all too easily written on his face.
“You told Miller that you were going to arrange for a rescue,” he all but snarled.
“And I did, Harry. It took me a couple days, however. Couldn’t exactly ask Miller’s team to go back in – they were without a CO, and we were on our way home by submarine. Had my hands full playing mediator between Sal and family, and the men on board sent to debrief them.” As Nelson seemed set to blast him into the next county, he hurried on. “But I did arrange for another team to go in and try to determine what happened to the pilot.” He sent a quick glance at Crane, who had leaned forward. Morton’s hand rested gently on his upper back, and Jiggs recognized the emotional support being given as well as the physical. “It took them another couple days,” he said as much to Crane as to Harry. “The pilot – all I knew at the time was his last name – was found dead. There were some signs that he’d been beaten, but the corpsman with the team swore that he’d died as a result of the untreated gunshot wound, and probably fairly soon after we saw him go down. It was a bad wound, hit a lung…” Jiggs trailed off as Crane lay back against the pillows. Again his eyes closed, but just a moment before they opened again and he looked at Jiggs. Morton’s hand, having moved to Crane’s shoulder, gave a slight squeeze.
“What happened to the body?” Nelson’s demand drew Jiggs’ attention back to his friend.
“The team got it out, but again there was a couple days’ lag. By that time Mrs. Crane had already been notified with the cover story, and an urn was being returned.”
“Whose ashes?” Nelson’s voice was dripping sarcasm, and it wasn’t lost on Jiggs.
“Actually, bits of several men,” Jiggs admitted. “No DNA testing in those days. The people responsible for the action just wanted to make sure that, if Mrs. Crane chose to spread the ashes somewhere instead of burying them, that there were actually ashes in the urn.”
“And my father?” came softly from the bed, and Jiggs once again turned toward Crane.
“Was indeed cremated and returned home. By that time I was back as well, and worked to have him buried at Arlington. Under a different name, of course, but buried with honors. He earned them.” The last was said with as much heartfelt feelings as he could impart.
“They will be returned.” There was no room for disagreement in Nelson’s voice, but Jiggs tried anyway.
“No can do, Harry. I’m sorry. But even after all this time, nothing can stir up what happened back then. There are still lives dependent on keeping the whole mess – the mission, and what happened afterward – quiet.”
“The urn will be returned!” The words were clipped and hard. Jiggs took one look at the expression on Harry’s face, and the look in his eyes, and backed down.
“It will have to be done extremely quietly.”
Harry’s expression never changed, but “Thank you, Admiral,” came quietly once again from the bed. It also came with a heavy sigh, not lost on anyone in the room.
“Gentlemen,” came in Dr. Jamison’s lecturing voice, “I must insist that any more of this conversation be delayed until at least tomorrow.”
“Just a minute longer, Jamie?” Lee asked. Without waiting for an answer, he turned back to Jiggs. “Where does Rosas fit in all this?”
Jiggs momentarily pursed his lips, but finally gave Lee a small nod. “Back then, a minor officer at Sal’s post. Outwardly he was a staunch Pinochet supporter, but there was apparently some speculation in the ranks that he was an underground Communist sympathizer. There was also speculation that Jorge might have known that, and passed the intel on to Sal. We know that didn’t happen, but he didn’t. A little unauthorized digging a year later pegged him as being in charge of the group we ran into getting Sal out. If he didn’t actually shoot your father, he was no less responsible for it happening. He left the military shortly afterward and dropped out of sight. About ten years later, his name showed up in the import/export business.” He just shrugged, and received a nod from Crane in return.
“We’re done now, Jamie,” Lee assured everyone. Jiggs could hear, now that he had survived his ordeal and could once again breathe semi-comfortably, that the softness was actually exhaustion.
“Are you sure?” Nelson asked, his voice once again soft. Jiggs instantly started to scowl at the obvious caring Nelson had for his young captain, and just as instantly covered it. These four men – and Jiggs had no problems including Jamison in the equation as he knew the doctor had been, on too many occasions, the only thing that kept Seaview’s command crew together – cared deeply for one another. And while in some situations it wouldn’t have worked, here they were one of the strongest teams Jiggs had ever worked with.
“Yes, sir,” Crane responded. He looked almost sheepishly at Nelson. “I didn’t start out to create an international incident.” Jiggs totally didn’t understand the quick grins that flashed across each of the other three faces. “I just needed to know what happened. Admiral Stark has supplied everything I need.”
“Not yet, he hasn’t,” Nelson growled, and glared at Jiggs again, “but he will.”
The glare wasn’t lost on Jiggs. “Just as soon as I can arrange it, Harry. I promise.”
“Lee, when is your mother due home?” Nelson’s eyes never left Jiggs’ face.
“Another couple weeks, maybe a bit longer.” Lee’s voice was filled with the unspoken “why?”
“That’s how long you have to take care of your promise,” Nelson told Jiggs firmly.
Jiggs started to open his mouth to say that he couldn’t guarantee that he could get it done that fast, took a second look at the expression in Nelson’s eyes, and quickly decided not to push the issue. “I’ll take care of it.”
Nelson nodded. “Now get out,” he ordered. Jiggs nodded as well and left, if not hurriedly, at least with no wasted motion.
* * * *
Lee allowed Jamie to fuss over him for a couple minutes after Stark left, knowing only too well that he didn’t stand a drop in a rainstorm’s chance of stopping the doctor anyway. When the brief exam was over, he turned once again to Nelson. Neither he nor Chip showed the slightest sign of leaving, although Chip had backed a step away from the bed to avoid the glare the CMO would have given him if he hadn’t. Once Jamie also backed off a step, Lee told Nelson softly, “He really didn’t have any options, Admiral. He didn’t dare compromise the mission by going back.”
Nelson let out a large expanse of air before answering. “I know, lad.” He paused, and a slow smile crossed his face. “I might even admit that to him, once he takes care of the rest.” Lee returned the grin, then sent a glare Jamie’s way as the head of the bed started to lower.
“Don’t even start, Commander,” Will lectured, and was rewarded with snorts from Nelson and Chip, and a sheepish nod from Lee.
Lee closed his eyes, almost surprised at how much effort it was suddenly taking to keep them open. He was aware of soft voices still in the room, and realized that Chip and Nelson were gently arguing with Jamie about leaving. It was at once comfortable and comforting. He started to fall asleep, a genuine smile on his face for the first time in what seemed like ages. He had enough of the answers to the chaos in his mind, that Master Chief Miller’s letter had created, to finally relax. He’d managed to keep his friendships intact with the three men who meant the most to him. And it sounded like, from Nelson’s quip, that the friendship between the two admirals hadn’t totally been destroyed in the process. All in all, he decided, and sighed heavily, a successful mission.
Will was perfectly aware that he was fighting a losing battle. Either Nelson or Chip, and very likely both, would spend at least part of the night keeping quiet vigil over their friend. Will wasn’t sure why he was being bothered by the prospect – he, himself, had every intention of sleeping on the couch in his office down the hall. But he put up the usual arguments just the same. And got the usual reactions. Ah, it’s nice to have things back to normal. He sighed, and the trace of a grin tickled the corners of his mouth.
The grin almost broke through when Chip mentioned, with total calm and logic, that both he and Nelson didn’t need to stay, and as he had nothing pressing, why didn’t he take the first watch and let the Admiral get some rest. He, Chip, had gotten at least a bit of sleep during the day while Nelson apparently hadn’t, working in his office. As Nelson was getting ready to squash, albeit good-naturedly, his insolent XO, Chip all too innocently added the gem that Nelson would need to be at his best if he was going to try to find the problem with FS1 that had been driving the technicians crazy for the last week. The only thing that stopped Will from laughing out loud was, once again, a quiet voice from the bed.
“What’s wrong with FS1?” Lee asked. The other three shared instant grins and walked back to the bed, Will shaking his head. He had no idea how Lee managed it but the man could be half dead, and stuffed so full of sedatives that he shouldn’t be conscious for a week, and he’d still be aware of any little problems with his ‘gray lady’, as he called Seaview, or her bright yellow offspring, the Flying Sub.
“Chill, Lee,” Chip told his friend firmly. “Just a bit of a hydraulics problem. No big deal.” It was obvious that Lee was fighting a losing battle with sleep, and Chip wanted it to be as restful as possible. “You just rest. She’ll be flight ready long before you are.” He smiled broadly, but wasn’t sure Lee had his eyes open enough to see it.
Lee wasn’t ready to give up just yet. “Where?”
Nelson took a shot at placating his captain. “That’s been the stickler. The techs can’t find it. They know there’s a leak somewhere, from the pressure gages, but they just can’t locate it. Now to sleep with you,” he added in as firm a voice as his returning good humor would allow.
But the order had little effect. With tremendous effort, Lee still struggled to stay awake. “Check the filter…under the floor panel next to the escape hatch,” came out muzzy, but with conviction.
Chip and Nelson shared a puzzled glance. “Lee, what filter?” Nelson asked. “I didn’t design one there. There would be no need.”
Lee gave as good an impression of a shrug as he could. “Found it accidentally…one day…puttering…” He yawned heavily and when he continued, his voice was even thicker with sleep. “Have no idea why…there… Just figured you’d built…redundant…” Yawn. “Discovered…it gets plugged…messes up the gages.” Yawn. Lee’s eyes finally remained closed, and his breathing settled into the steady measure of restful sleep.
Nelson and Chip just looked at each other again and shook their heads. “The techs are never going to live this one down,” Chip observed quietly.
“No reason they should have to,” Nelson defended them. “The filter isn’t in the design schematics. They were looking for a leak. If they couldn’t find a spill, there was no need to open the line.” All three men looked down at their sleeping friend, wondering for the zillionth time at the man’s uncanny ability to scope out a problem and find the solution. Which was in all likelihood how he’d found the oddly placed filter in the first place.
It was Will who voiced the comment heard all too frequently among the crew. “That’s just the Skipper.”
* * * *
One month later,
Cmdr. Lee B. Crane, resplendent in his Dress Blues, walked with his mother
through the cemetery in
Lee had been at
the airport when Helen returned from
The disturbed sod gave testimony to Admiral Stark’s having kept his promises. Privately, with no fanfare, as befitting the need for continued secrecy. But the two people who had been so severely impacted by actions taken so many years ago now had completion and closure. They stood silently, side by side, each content with their own thoughts. Finally, Helen bent down and put the large bouquet of flowers she carried in her other arm against the headstone that finally, after all these years, identified the grave’s proper occupant. As she straightened and once again took her son’s arm, he said softly, “Welcome home, Dad.”
HALO – High Altitude (jump) Low Opening (chute)
ESCs – Extracurricular Activities. Usually attended my midshipmen daily from 3:30 to 6:00, after last class and before dinner.