By R. L. Keller



It was an all-too-infrequent occurrence aboard the giant submarine Seaview, this quiet, relaxed dinner in front of the boat’s most unusual feature – her front windows.  Dr. Will Jamison, Seaview’s CMO, pleasantly stuffed on Cookie’s 5-star entree of seafood lasagna, with its accompaniment of crisp green salad, stir-fried vegetables, and crusty french bread, pushed his chair slightly away from the table, savoring the last of the fine sauvignon blanc served with the meal, and listened to the light chatter of the officers around him.  Seaview’s designer/builder/owner, Admiral Harriman Nelson, was in one of his rare ‘storyteller’ modes, and had spent most of the meal entertaining the boat’s captain, XO, and most of the junior officers, not to mention Will, with tales of his early naval service.  The current tale revolved around one of Nelson’s shipmates on his first assignment upon graduating Annapolis, and the man’s propensity for practical jokes.  The stories were easily being carried into the Conn and, from where Will was sitting with his back to the port bulkhead, he saw soft smiles on many of the Duty crew’s faces.  Seaview was almost home from a two-week charting mission for NOAA, everything had gone remarkably well, and everyone was looking forward to having a couple of weeks off before Seaview’s next scheduled cruise.  Even Seaview’s workaholic Skipper, Lee Crane, had mentioned taking a few days off.  Will had nearly gone into shock hearing that since he was constantly haranguing the man to even get him to not take work home over a weekend.  Seaview’s XO, and Lee’s best friend and Annapolis roommate, Chip Morton, had started teasing Lee about the fact that Becca must be in town for a few days.  It had not gone unnoticed by the whole table that Lee had neither confirmed nor denied Chip’s assumptions.  But no one had questioned Lee further.  While their Skipper was always interested in each member of his crew’s lives, he kept his own fairly private.  Will considered himself fortunate that Lee thought the doctor a close enough friend that he felt comfortable sharing what little he did on occasion.  Of course, Will had also met the Portland-based psychologist in question, as had both Chip and the Admiral.  Will knew that while Nelson would respect Lee’s privacy, Chip could be counted on, when it was just the two men, to needle Lee into being a bit more forthcoming.


If Will hadn’t been looking directly at the two men in question, as Nelson continued on with his current story, he might have missed the little vignette that started – and stopped – in a breath’s length.  Nelson was relating something to do with a night spent pub-crawling in Singapore – at least Will thought that’s where it was.  He had to admit to himself that his woolgathering had made him lose track of all the details.  He heard Nelson mention several names of apparently more shipmates among the rabble-rousers, and almost instantly a pained expression crossed Chip’s face, but just as rapidly disappeared.  Lee apparently saw it as well, and an absolutely wicked gleam of glee hit his face.  Immediately he jumped slightly from what Will suspected was a swift kick from the blond.  Neither actually looked directly at the other, and both faces returned to their more normal expressions as they continued to listen to Nelson’s story.


Will figured that Nelson must have caught the interchange as well because, as his story wound down, everyone laughing at their usually so staid boss’s antics as a young man, Nelson raised an eyebrow at his captain and XO.  “Your turn to share an adventure?” he asked, his eyes sparkling.


As Lee started to open his mouth Chip interrupted.  In as deadly serious a voice as Will had ever heard Chip use, he said, “Crane, not one word,” each syllable firm and succinct.

Lee glanced ever so briefly at his long-time friend.  Noting the glare Chip was sending – fortunately only into his coffee cup – he just smiled softly at Nelson and shrugged.  “Guess not tonight,” he replied, obvious disappointment in his voice.


“Perhaps another time.”   Humor was clearly evident in Nelson’s voice.


“Over his dead body,” Chip muttered, still into his coffee, but heard clearly by everyone around the table.  The JO’s were all looking a bit undecided at the others, not sure exactly what to do.  But Lee sent them a grin and asked Nelson what became of his shipmates, effectively changing the subject.


* * * *


1600 hours the following day found Will exiting the boat at her dock at NIMR in Santa Barbara.  She’d arrived home nearly two hours precious, and normally Will would be fairly quick to get off and head up to his office in Med Bay.  But today he’d stayed behind.  Seaview had sailed with only one of her two corpsmen this trip, Frank having traveled to Arizona to help out after his father had some fairly minor surgery.  He and John would usually take care of securing Sick Bay and making sure that inventory reports were ready for the office so that supplies could be ordered for the next cruise.  While John assured his boss that he would handle it, and in no way implying that the junior of the two corpsmen couldn’t deal with it quite competently, Will reminded him that it would go faster with two.  With a grin he observed that surely John could think of a better way to spend his first evening back in port than dealing with inventory reports.  His eyes twinkling, John said that he could probably come up with a way or two, and they both dug into the work.


Which meant that Will was leaving at the same time as Seaview’s two senior officers after they’d completed their after-cruise reports.  No one bothered to ask Nelson why he was also late in leaving the boat.  It was usually safer not knowing.   Whatever had caused the Admiral’s delay hadn’t ignited his fiery temper, and he visited pleasantly with Will as they stood for a minute by the boarding hatch.  Captain and XO had just joined them when a flatbed truck loaded with corrugated metal pipe in various diameters ranging from about six inches to well over a foot, and all twelve feet in length, rumbled down from the main gate.


“Great,” Chip muttered.  “The new drainage system supplies are just now getting here.  That means we’ll be falling all over each other when Seaview’s supplies need to be loaded for the next cruise.”  All four men were only too aware of the problems that NIMR’s groundskeepers had been having recently.  Every time there was a heavy storm, the system that was supposed to carry the extra rainfall away ended up flooding Seaview’s underground dock instead.  Not that they used it all that often anymore.  But it still needed to be maintained.  The inspectors called in had made any number of suggestions for what would essentially be temporary fixes.  But Nelson had been determined that it be done properly.  The problem was, it was supposed to have been done while Seaview was gone on this last cruise.  “Why weren’t we told of the delay?”


“Probably to keep you from going ballistic,” Lee told his friend amiably.  Chip transferred the glare that he’d been aiming at the truck toward Lee.


“Easy, Chip,” Nelson sidetracked his perturbed Exec.  “We’re home for at least two weeks.  The engineers have assured me that it will take them no more than seven to eight days to lay in the new pipes.  You’ll have plenty of time to see that Seaview’s properly prepared.”


“And when does anything get done according to the engineer’s timetable,” Chip continued to complain.  “They’re already two weeks overdue.”


“Chill,” Lee ordered, but still smiled.  “Barnes is just coming down from the Admin building.  I’ll go see what the hold-up’s been.”  He headed down the gangplank and towards the truck.


Nelson laid a hand briefly on Chip’s shoulder.  “Why don’t you take the rest of the day off,” he suggested.  “It’s late anyway, and I can’t think that there’s anything very pressing that can’t wait until tomorrow.”  Will joined in by nodding vigorously.  Chip wasn’t nearly as bad as Lee about taking time off, but he still worked harder than the doctor thought prudent.


Chip immediately started backpedaling, and was assuring both men that he’d just run up and check on what had collected in his ‘In’ basket, when there was a strange sound that came from the direction of the truck.  All three turned just in time to see the whole load of pipes break free from the flatbed and start falling off both sides.  They got only a glimpse of Lee’s dark head beside the bald one of Nolan Barnes, NIMR’s head of grounds maintenance, before both disappeared under the pipes.


“Lee!” Chip screamed, and went flying toward the truck, Nelson and Will silent but right behind him.  Dockworkers came running from all directions as well.  As all of the pipes finished falling they could see Lee and Barnes laying, unmoving, under the flatbed.  It still took what Will thought of as way too long for the pipes to stop rolling enough that it was safe to crawl under the truck toward the men.  Will noted that Chip had an obviously different definition of safe, and was already checking on both.


“What the…” Will could hear Barnes start to growl as men corralled the pipes enough that Will could duck under the truck after Chip.  The swearing that continued unabated for the next full minute would have made a master chief blush.  But at least Will figured he couldn’t be hurt that badly.  Lee, on the other hand, remained unmoving and silent, and Will focused on him.


“Nolan,” Nelson barked, and the engineer finally seemed to take stock of the situation.


“Of all the shoddy equipment,” Barnes toned down his anger, but only fractionally.  “I was just about to blast the driver on the worn condition of his safety straps when Crane tackled me and threw me under the truck.  Is he all right?”  The last was said to Will, who was doing a quick evaluation of the still silent man.  When the doctor didn’t answer, Nelson sent a query as well.  It was another couple of moments before either got an answer.


“Nothing seems to be broken,” Will finally said, his hands and eyes still examining Lee.


“He’s out cold,” Chip added helpfully, lying next to Lee on the other side from the doctor in the cramped space underneath the truck bed, and earned a quick glare from the CMO.


“Partially my fault,” Barnes admitted, crawling painfully out from under the truck to where several hands helped him stand.  “I think I fell on top of him.”


There was a noise from Chip, thankfully of indeterminate definition.  Will added, more coherently, “Trust me, it wasn’t your doing.”  Seaview’s senior staff was only too aware of Lee’s propensity to put himself in direct line of injury if it meant saving someone around him.


Things finally started to get sorted out.  Workers began to stack the pipes in an area where they were easily accessible but totally under control.  One of NIMR’s ambulances appeared, and Lee was gently transferred to a gurney and into the vehicle, with Will at his side.  Barnes was persuaded to go as well to get thoroughly checked over at Med Bay.  Only Nelson’s restraining hand kept Chip from climbing into the now somewhat crowded vehicle.  Chip frowned, realized who he was frowning at, and the expression changed to a slightly sheepish one as Nelson grinned at him.


“Come on,” the Admiral told him.  “If we get to Med Bay before Will’s had a chance to finish his exam he’ll just start yelling at us.”  A sparkle hit his otherwise worried face.  “We’ll give him half an hour.”


* * * *


Two hours later, neither man had many more details.  Will said that Lee had roused briefly, and was reacting to pain stimuli.  A CT scan showed no serious head trauma beyond a rapidly raised lump on the upper back of his head.  Barnes, who merely had bumps and bruises, said that he was just starting to explain to Lee that the contractor hired to do the job had had to deal with striking union workers, and their new contract hadn’t been ironed out until the previous day, when they’d both heard the sound of the restraining bands snapping.  Barnes vaguely remembered Lee grabbing him and throwing him under the truck.  One of the pipes had delivered a glancing blow to his shoulder and, because of the pain, he hadn’t immediately realized that he’d fallen on top of Lee.  About the time he did, Chip grabbed him.  He started to say something, took a look at Chip’s expression, and wisely didn’t continue with a complaint about the somewhat rough way Chip had dislodged him.  Nelson caught the inference anyway, and gave the engineer a sympathetic nod before sending him off with his wife for a good long soak in the couple’s hot tub.  After the tests Will ordered, Lee was transferred to a private room.  Chip had immediately taken up residence in the chair next to the bed.  Nelson knew that Will wouldn’t be happy having the blond underfoot for who knew how long.  But since he didn’t have the slightest intention of leaving either until he had a better idea of how much damage his impetuous young captain had inflicted on himself this time, just shrugged and rounded up a second chair.


When Will walked in a few minutes later he frowned at both men and shook his head.  “Don’t you two have somewhere else to be?” he asked.  He wasn’t at all surprised at the double negatives that he received, and just shrugged.  “It could be awhile.”


“Why?” Chip demanded.


Several answers went swiftly through the doctor’s mind, all of them guaranteed to further tick off the blond.  Will suspected that Nelson read most of them on his face as Nelson sent him a small grin.  “Chip,” Will all but gritted his teeth, “he’ll wake up when he’s good and ready to.  With a killer headache, no doubt.  He’s got a bruised sternum where it looks like Nolan’s elbow jabbed him.  Other than that and the lump on his head, he’ll be fine.”


“You wanted me to relax, and not be in such a hurry to grab work from my office.”  Chip stretched out his legs and crossed his arms over his chest as he glanced at the doctor.  “So, I’m relaxing.”


Nelson chuckled softly, and even Will was forced to smile.  “Suit yourself,” he surrendered.  He raised an eyebrow at Nelson.


“Nothing’s pressing,” the Admiral told him.  “I’ll hang around for awhile as well…if you don’t mind.”


“Wouldn’t matter if I did,” Will muttered softly, but a small grin crossed his face as he exited the room.


Chip and Nelson sat in silence for a bit, each content with their own thoughts.  They both returned the smiles sent their way by one of the floor nurses when she came in briefly to check on Lee.  Nelson was quick to note the touch of color that hit his XO’s face as she turned to leave and sent an especially brilliant smile the blond’s way.  Chip noticed Nelson’s grin and ducked his head, turning another couple of shades darker.


Nelson was well aware of the effect his two senior officers had on most of the female staff at NIMR.  And Chip made no bones about enjoying the chance to wine and dine his way through the unattached female employees.  Over the years there had been a few who had tried to start a more serious relationship.  So far none had succeeded, and Chip continued to ‘play the field,’ as it were.  “Friend of yours?” Nelson now asked him with a grin.


Chip’s reply was interrupted as Lee chose that moment to make a small sound, coupled with a minor head movement.  Chip stood, touched his arm, and spoke his name.  There was no further response.  Chip returned to his chair, and again there was a companionable silence.


The second time it happened, however, Nelson rose as well and poked his head out the door.  Obviously Will hadn’t gone far because he very shortly entered the room and went directly to his patient.  After a brief check he gently shook Lee’s shoulder.  “Come on, Skipper.  Time to wake up.”

Apparently it wasn’t.  Lee did turn his head side to side slowly, and mutter something unintelligible.  But his eyes stayed firmly closed.


Will tried once more.  “Skipper, I can’t get rid of these two until you wake up.  I’d appreciate a little cooperation here.”  That drew snorts from both Nelson and Chip, but only a few more mumbles from Lee.


“What was that?”  Will leaned closer, giving Lee’s shoulder another shake.  Nelson couldn’t understand whatever it was that Lee muttered softly, but it caused Chip to launch himself out of his chair and start angrily pacing the small room.


Will and Nelson just looked at each other, confused.  “Chip?” Nelson asked his disturbed XO.  The blond gave himself a small shake and stopped walking.


“Nothing,” it was his turn to mumble.


This time Lee’s voice was a little stronger, although his eyes were still closed.  “Roland, go…”  His dark head tossed back and forth against the pillow.


But it was nothing compared to the dark expression on his best friend’s face as Chip once more stomped back and forth across the confines of the room.


“Chip?”  Nelson rose.  “He’s just remembering the story I was telling last night at dinner, about my shipmates and me.”


As darkly dangerous an expression as the Admiral had ever seen on the blond’s face glared at him.  “No, he’s not!” Chip said before abruptly realizing who he was glaring at, and he went back to pacing.


Nelson looked at Will, who just shrugged.  They both remembered the short scene between the younger men the precious evening.  As Will settled on the edge of the bed, Nelson took a deep breath and walked over to Chip.  “Chip, settle down,” he said softly, laying a hand on the blond’s shoulder, forcing him to stop his pacing.  “What’s wrong?”  There was genuine concern in his voice.


It wasn’t lost on Chip.  He briefly closed his eyes, shuddered, and reopened them finally, giving Nelson a pained look.  “Sorry,” he mumbled.  He lowered his eyes and tried to turn away, but Nelson’s hand held his shoulder.


“Talk to us,” Nelson said softly.


Chip dropped his head and shook it slowly.  “It’s nothing.”


Will snorted softly.  “Care to try again?”  Nelson and Chip both looked at him.  “Remember, we’ve all had too much experience listening to his half-truths,” and he nodded at the once-again-quiet Lee.  “You’re going to have to do better than that if you expect to be believed.”


Nelson chuckled softly.  He expected Chip to do the same.  Instead, Chip pulled away and took a couple of steps to where he could stare out the window, his back to the others.


Again a look passed between the two older men, and this time Will took a shot at calming down his extremely upset XO.  He got up and walked softly over to the younger man.  Apparently too softly because, when he laid his hand on Chip’s shoulder, Chip nearly jumped out of his skin with a not quite swallowed yelp.  As he just stared through Will, on the verge of hyperventilating, Will grabbed both of his arms firmly and gave him a small shake.  “Mr. Morton,” he commanded.  When Chip finally looked directly at him, Will gave him a smile and led him back to his chair.  “Do I need to sedate you?” he asked.  Pleased at the look of pure contempt that Chip sent him for that suggestion, he walked over, poured out a glass of water, and walked back.  “Drink,” he ordered, and sat back down on the edge of the bed.  Nelson brought his chair over closer and sat down as well.  Chip took several sips from the glass before finally giving both older men a sheepish smile.


“Not quite the under control reaction you’re used to seeing from me, huh?” he admitted softly.


“We all have our buttons,” Will told him.


“I gather I accidentally hit one,” Nelson told him.


Chip grimaced.  “Not your fault,” he admitted.  He looked at Lee.  “Wasn’t even theirs,” he said softly, and again smiled sheepishly at the double raised eyebrows that caused.  He leaned forward, elbows on knees, glass held in both hands, and sighed heavily before sending a glance Nelson’s way.  “You know the Middleton Tavern, in Annapolis, sir?”


Nelson smiled fondly.  “Tossed down my share of oyster shooters there,” he admitted.


“Good?” Will asked.


“Pretty much the best I’ve ever had,” Nelson told him.


“Humm.  Sounds like I need to be making a trip to the East coast.  Haven’t had a decent oyster shooter in years.”


“Just keep an eye out for the ghost,” Chip warned him.


“Excuse me?”  Will raised both eyebrows as Nelson let out a huff of air.


“Roland,” Nelson said softly.  He looked at Chip, who nodded back slowly.  “I’d totally forgotten about him.”


“Ah, since you two seem to know what you’re talking about…”  Will pointed a look that took in both Chip and Nelson.


“The tavern’s in an old eighteenth century building,” Chip supplied.  “One of the oldest buildings in Annapolis.”


“Been through a lot of hands, but started as a tavern and inn and is back now to just a pub,” Nelson took over.  “Spent many a pleasant evening there.”


“The ghost?” Will got back to what was apparently the point of the story.


“Actually,” Nelson continued, “no one really knows who he is.  Some say he’s old Horatio Middleton himself, the man who started the original tavern.  No one even remembers anymore how he got the name Roland.”


“Scary, I take it?”  Will sent Chip a small grin.


“Not usually.  Everyone kind of likes him,” Chip answered.


“Oh, really,” Will bluffed disbelief.  He figured that it was the best way to keep Chip relaxed.  It had the desired effect on Nelson, who chuckled.  Chip just gave him a nod.


“Really.  Oh, he apparently tosses the occasional chair, or breaks glasses once in awhile.  Knocks things off shelves.”


“What’s known as a noisy poltergeist,” Nelson added.


Chip nodded.  “But mostly people just notice the smell of cigars.  Smoking’s not allowed in the dining room.  Roland seems fond of them.”


“So, why the panic attack?” Will asked carefully, then had to bury a snicker as Chip gave him a very good rendition of Lee’s ‘through-the-lashes’ look.


“Gets a little complicated,” the blond mumbled.


Will took a quick glance at his still quiet CO.  “Apparently we have the time,” he said rather philosophically, with a deep sigh.


“You sure…” Chip started, but Will cut him off.


“The longer he sleeps, the longer it is before it gets very loud in here.”


Nelson’s chuckles rumbled through the room.  “You really don’t have to talk about it,” he let Chip off the hook.


Chip shook his head.  “It’s just…”  He paused and looked over at Lee.  “Never even told him all of it,” he said softly, before his voice trailed off again.


“Who’s ‘they’,” Will asked.  Chip looked at him.  “You looked at Lee a moment ago, but indicated a plural.”


Chip nodded.  He took a deep breath, set the glass down on the table that was close by, and leaned back in the chair.  “One weekend, our second-class year, me, Lee, Tim Hughes and Jerry Levin went out to celebrate mid-terms.”  He smiled shyly.  “Ate our way through a couple places, and ended up at Middleton’s.”


“I thought oyster shooters were supposed to be hors d’oeuvres?” Will asked.


“Well…  Let’s just say that by that time,” Chip admitted, “we were doing more shooters than oysters.”


“Ah,” Will said with a smile.


Chip shrugged.  “One thing led to another…  I don’t remember how the dare started…”  His voice trailed off again.


“I seem to recall a few times like that, myself,” Nelson offered.  “Too much drink turning supposedly young adult males into adolescent idiots.”


Chip looked stricken, but Will snorted.  “Somehow I just cannot picture you that way.”


Nelson chuckled.  “You didn’t know Jiggs and I at Annapolis,” he admitted, with a shy grin of his own.


“Perhaps our next dinner story,” Will said.


“Perhaps,” Nelson hedged somewhat evasively, before both older men chuckled.  Nelson looked at Chip.  “For the sake of argument, let’s just assume for the moment that whatever happened to you couldn’t have been much worse than a few things we found ourselves neck deep in.”


“Wasn’t totally what they got me into,” Chip said miserably.  He took another deep breath before continuing.  “I’m guessing that I somehow reacted weird when Roland came up in conversation, and the others started hazing me about it.  The gist of it was, that I got dared to spend the night upstairs – alone.”  He cringed.  “You know – hide out until the place was closed, so that it was just me and the ghost.  Dumb,” he sputtered.


Nelson chuckled again.  “Heard worse,” he told his young XO.


“But what the guys didn’t know, and I was too drunk to think about was, something even dumber.  Well… weirder anyway,” Chip admitted miserably.  He closed his eyes, but opened them abruptly when there was movement from the bed.  Lee sighed heavily, rolled over with his back towards the other three and his arm around his head, pulling the blankets along until he was almost buried before being totally quiet again. 


Will got up, checked him, shrugged, and sat back down facing Chip.  “Told you he’d have a wicked headache.”  He nodded toward Lee with a slight smile on his face.  “Actually, that’s a good sign,” he admitted.  “He’s still out, but trying to get comfortable.”


Chip nodded and closed his eyes again.  The two older men left him alone until a heavy shudder hit him, and Will reached out a hand.  Just before he could touch him, however, Nelson said sharply, “Will!”  Chip’s eyes popped open, saw Will’s hand, and both he and Will gave Nelson sheepish grins.


But it prompted Chip back to his story.  “I was about 9…10, maybe.  Me and some of my friends were just hanging out one evening.  It was summer – we didn’t really have a set time to be in.  Our folks trusted us, and the neighborhood was a quiet one.”  He sighed heavily.  “Stupid dares,” he growled, and his hands fisted and slammed the chair arms.


“I’d say 10-year-olds are about on a level with drunken middies,” Will offered dryly, causing Nelson to snort indelicately and Chip to finally grin.


“Got me there, Doc,” the blond admitted.  “Anyway, there was this empty house a couple of blocks away.  There’d been families in it off and on while I was growing up, but they never lasted long.  My parents said, ‘cause it was old and not in very good shape.”  He shrugged.  “But rumor among the kids said that it was haunted.  We heard that some guy had murdered his wife there years ago.  Well, being bored - and dumb…”  He sent Will and Nelson another sheepish grin.  “We decided that we’d go check it out.


“Everything was fine.  At first.  We just walked around outside.  All the doors and windows were closed.”  He looked at Nelson and Will earnestly.  “I know they were.”  He paused and sighed again.  “But when we came back around, the front door was standing ajar.  And, being the stupid idiots we were,” he sent the two older men a grimace that they both smiled gently at, “we went in instead of hauling our tails out of there.”


He went quiet again, just sort of looking in the space between Will and Nelson, until the Admiral spoke.   “So, I gather something happened?”


“Something,” Chip admitted, still not looking directly at either older man.  “I still don’t know what, for sure.”  He took a deep breath.  “We didn’t hear anything at first.  We were sort of standing around in what must have been the living room.  Ricky was looking a little peaked, and we all started joshing him.”  Chip looked a little peaked himself at the memory.


“As kids will do,” Will told him kindly.


Chip just nodded, but he still looked uncomfortable.  “There was a little noise – sort of sounded like a mouse scurrying around.  We all jumped, then started talking loud – bolstering ourselves up.”  Again he paused.  “I don’t remember whose brilliant idea it was to start daring each other to stay there for the night.  Nobody wanted to.”


“I rather suspect parents might have been a consideration, if one of you hadn’t shown up at home.”


“Not really,” Chip answered sheepishly.  “Would have been no big deal for one of us to stay over at another’s house.  Happened all the time, especially during the summer.  We were a pretty tight bunch.  At least at that point…”  His voice trailed off again as the other two nodded.  “Anyway, we’re all yapping, and trying to talk someone else into staying, and finally Donny says he’s going to stay; that he’s not afraid.  And we were sort of picking on Ricky so he says he’ll stay, too.  Mike says he’ll call both sets of parents and tell them they’re all staying at his place.  His folks were over at my folks, so he could make the calls without them hearing.”


Chip stopped and shook his head.  “Mike and I weren’t halfway to his place when Ricky came running up behind us, scared out of his mind.  He barely slowed down, just screamed that the ghost had Donny, and kept running.”


Chip finally looked at Nelson and Will.  “Mike and I looked at each other and started laughing our heads off.  We figured that Donny had put Ricky up to it, and we ran back to call Donny’s bluff.”  He closed his eyes, and was still so long that Will reached out a foot and tapped one of Chip’s.  Again, Chip jumped, and Will immediately apologized.


“S’ all right, Jamie.”  He shook his head.  “Just…this is the first time I’ve talked about it…what we found.”  He looked at both men again.  “Ricky flat wouldn’t talk about it.  Mike and me, I think we didn’t want to.  And Donny…well, he told everyone he didn’t remember.”  He took another deep breath.


“I’m still not sure who called the cops.  Apparently one of the neighbors heard something.  But Mike and I got back about the same time as they got there.  Donny was lying on the lawn, bleeding.  He had cuts all over him, like he’d gone through a window.”  He shuddered again.  “But when the cops checked the house, all the windows were intact and the front door was locked.  They had to break in, and didn’t find any sign that anyone – even us – was ever in there.  Creepy.”


“Donny didn’t say anything – even then?” Will asked.


Chip shook his head.  “He was out cold.  Or scared stiff.  Whatever.”


“And none of you ever went back to the house?”  Nelson’s voice was soft.


“No, sir!” Chip answered emphatically.


“But something about that night reminded you of Roland?”  There were a lot of people in the world who would have been surprised to find that four-star Admiral Harriman Nelson could put such fondness and caring into his voice.  To the men in that room, however, it was no surprise.


Chip looked at him, a thoroughly bashful expression on his face.  “Totally forgot about the whole incident, until I was upstairs in the tavern, all alone.  The first noise I heard – whatever it was – brought the whole thing crashing back, including the fact that Donny’s last name was Rollins.  R-O-L-L-I-N-S,” he spelled out.


“Oops,” Will said softly.


“It gets worse,” Chip admitted, his head lowered, and giving both older men another rendition of Lee’s through-the-lashes look.  “The second noise I heard was definitely a chair or table or something being dragged across the floor, along with the smell of cigar smoke.  Man, I was out of that place so fast, I’m still not sure which door I went out of.”  Will and Nelson gave him genuine smiles.  “What I do remember was, however, hightailing it across the side street on the way back to the Academy grounds, right in front of an oncoming car.”


“Damn,” Nelson breathed.


Chip just raised a hand.  “She stopped in time, and I just sort of bounced off the hood before taking off running again.  She apparently didn’t recognize me.  At least, I was never challenged about the incident.”


“You knew the driver?” Nelson asked.


Chip gave him as bashful a look as the other men had ever seen on the blond’s face.  “Yeah.  Mrs. Johnstone.  The Commandant’s wife.”  Nelson’s snort cut off the laughter that was all too evident on his face.  Will didn’t even try to stop a chuckle.  “Heard later she’d been off to some committee meeting or something and was getting home really late.  Apparently the incident didn’t do much for her nervous system, either.”


“That would have been interesting,” Nelson observed dryly, although his eyes were still sparkling.  “Finding the number-two-in-his-class second classman running for his life across town in the middle of the night.”


“Yeah,” Chip agreed.  “Got enough flack from that twit,” and he tossed a hand toward Lee’s unmoving form,” when I got back to Mother B.”  He cringed.  “Not that I didn’t have it coming,” he admitted reluctantly.


Will was still chuckling softly.  “Somehow, I rather suspect you held you own.”


“Managed,” Chip admitted, finally with a genuine grin of his own.


“Were you still drunk?” Will asked.  His answer was another sheepish grin and a negative shake of the blond’s head.


Nelson reached out and gave Chip’s leg a small shake.  “What say you and I go toss back a drink or two, in memory of a few best-to-be-forgotten indiscretions?”


“And leave me behind with Grumpy, here?” Will complained.  The other two chuckled.


“You’re welcome to come along,” Nelson told him.


Will shook his head.  “Nah.  You two run along.  Just – down a couple for me as well, if you would?”


“You, Jamie?” Chip teased him.


“And that’s all you’re ever going to hear from me on that subject,” Will told him firmly.


Chip started to say something back, but Nelson cut him off.  “Best left for another time.  We’ll have our chance,” he assured his XO.


“Fat chance,” Will told both of them.  But all three were chuckling when the door closed between them.


Will smiled to himself for another few seconds, then reached around and laid his hand on one of Lee’s blanket-covered legs.  “You knew about the earlier incident, didn’t you, Skipper?”


Lee slowly turned onto his back, and pushed the blankets down a bit.  His eyes barely opened, however, and Will got up and walked over to turn down the room lights.  “Thanks,” Lee told him.  “And at the time…no, I didn’t know.  Found out later.”


“Obviously not from Chip,” Will told him dryly as he did a quick exam.


Lee started to shake his head, decided that wasn’t such a smart idea right at the moment, and answered.  “No.  Mother Morton told me – at least the part she knew – a couple years after we graduated.”


Will frowned.  “I know I’m going to regret this, but how did that conversation get started?”


Lee grinned, albeit tiredly.  His head was pounding, his whole body ached - not that he’d admit that to the doctor, however.  He wasn’t stupid enough to think that he could talk his way out of Med Bay until morning.  But that wouldn’t stop him from trying.  “I knew Chip had a couple of weeks’ leave about the same time I got back from a…cruise.”  His pause didn’t go unnoticed, and Will frowned.  “Mom was in Greece, and I wasn’t in the mood to join her…”


“You mean you weren’t in any shape, don’t you?” Will asked him.  He’d heard too many complaints from Chip about what kind of condition Lee tended to be in on returning from one of his ‘cruises.’


Lee wisely didn’t answer.  “Always had a standing invitation to the Morton’s place,” he said instead.  “Chip and his dad went off one morning to run some kind of errand – I don’t remember what anymore – and I decided to just veg at the house.”  Will snorted, and Lee gave him a sheepish look before continuing.  “Ended up going through some of the family photo albums, ran across a picture of Chip and a bunch of other boys, and Mother Morton told me who they were.  Said that was about the last time the four were together.  One of the boys moved shortly after the incident, and the others didn’t seem to stay as close as they had been.  Can I go home now, Jamie?”


Will let out an extremely indelicate snort.  “Fat chance, Commander,” he growled.


“I’m fine,” Lee complained, but a small smile touched his lips as he said it.


“How about I go find Chip and tell him you set that whole scene up?  You won’t be fine for long,” Will predicted.


“Not totally on purpose,” Lee told him.  “Never realized until last night how badly Chip was still affected – haven’t heard that tone in his voice but a few times in all the years I’ve known him.”  He shuddered softly.  “Then, when I woke up and he and Nelson were here…”  He sighed.  “Thought it was worth a try.  Knew Chip would be better off if he talked it out.”  Suddenly he grinned.  “And you don’t dare tell him,” he told Will triumphantly.


Will crossed his arms.  “And just why is that, Commander?”


Lee grinned as broadly as his aching head would allow.  “It’s against your Hippocratic Oath to do anything that would injure me,” he told the doctor.  “And I don’t think I’d survive that ‘Morton Moment’.”


Will finally chuckled.  “Truce” he offered.  “I’ll go get you something for that headache, and you don’t cause me any trouble by trying to escape.”


Lee nodded carefully.  “Agreed.”  He smiled.  “Until morning.”


Will grinned and headed to get the meds.  Never a dull moment.  His grin broadened.  But it does keep things lively around here.  He shrugged, and knew that the nurses didn’t understand his grin.  Humm.  Wonder who’ll have the worse headache by morning – Lee or Chip, and he laughed all the way to the drug locker.


~ finis ~



Note – Middleton Tavern is a real place, located on Market Street in Annapolis, MD.  Its history, including Roland, is related as it appears in the book, “A Ghost in My Suitcase: A Guide to Haunted Travel” by Mitchel Whitington, published by Independent Pub Group, 2005.