A second season story. For Sue, who always makes me smile this time of year. : )
The quiet comfortable sounds of the pleasant road-side diner were interrupted by the loud conversation of the group of men as they noisily entered the roadside cafe.
“Hey beautiful, why don't you come sit on my lap while I figure out what to order?” one said, patting his lap while taking a stool at the counter. The waitress sighed and rolled her eyes, familiar with the loud, obnoxious man making his invitation with no tact whatsoever.
“Give it break, Ralph,” she replied, reaching for her pad to take their order. “Now, what I can do for you?”
“I can think of a few things right off,” he replied tongue and cheek, “but I'll start with a piece of that cherry pie,” he said pointing behind her.
“Right,” Wanda said, writing away on her pad. “What about you, Hank?”
“Cheeseburger, hold the onion!” she yelled over her shoulder to the cook. “And you, Charlie?”
“The name of that brunette over there,” he said, leaning back against the counter and looking across at a booth.
“She's just passing through, now what will it be?” the waitress prodded.
“Same as Hank,” he said distractedly, while studying the young raven-haired beauty as she finished her meal. A quick glance at the table setting suggested she was alone, so Charlie produced a trill and then winked when she reflexively looked up. Recognizing his apparent cat-call and leer she quickly looked away and returned to her meal.
“Here's your burger, Hank,” the waitress announced a few minutes later, dropping off his plate on her way to another table in the nearly empty diner. It was a late summer evening, and since it was a weekday, business at the all-night grill on the edge of the small town was quiet.
“Give it up, Charlie, she's out of your league,” Hank said, turning around to see what was keeping the largest member of their trio so interested.
“Just look at those legs,” Charlie leered, then followed it up with a whistle between his teeth, causing the young woman to visibly shudder.
“She's one fine woman,” Ralph joined in a sing-song voice. “I'd like to get to know her a little better,” he added, elbowing Charlie and biting his bottom lip.
“Me first,” Charlie said, pushing off the counter. “Watch the Master at work, boys,” he goaded, putting on his best, “You-know-you-want-me” smile.
“Hi doll-face,” he greeted, taking a seat opposite her without an invitation.
“Excuse me,” she replied, in a slight, exotic accent. “I was just leaving.”
She stood to leave, but Charlie reached for her wrist, holding it tightly as she tried to tug away.
“Now what’s your hurry, Doll? We were just getting to know one another.”
“Let go,” she urged, feeling very much trapped as Charlie ignored her plea and caressed her hand while still holding her wrist firmly.
“Give it a rest, Charlie, she’s not interested,” Wanda said from behind the counter, only mildly concerned.
“Your hand is so pretty… so soft…” he whispered. “I really think we should get to know each other better.”
She tugged again and this time managed to squirm away, visibly shaken. She took her order ticket to the waitress behind the counter and pulled out more than enough to cover her meal and tip. She had no intention on waiting for her change and turned to leave, but Charlie had followed and was now standing between her and the door.
“Come on baby, stop playing hard to get,” he said, standing excessively close.
“Excuse me,” she said, trying to get past, but he had made sure her way was blocked. She was exasperated, nearly at her wits end when someone tapped on Charlie’s shoulder from behind.
Charlie shrugged his shoulder in irritation. “Not now Hank, can’t you see the little lady and I are getting cozy?”
Another firm tap on his shoulder finally got his attention, as well as the snickers from his friends still sitting on their stools at the counter, alerting him that the tap was coming from an unidentified source.
“I believe the lady said she was just leaving,” he heard from behind as Hank turned to see a tall, dark-haired stranger.
Hank sized him up and decided that not only did he outweigh the stranger, but that the lean, well-to-do had probably never thrown a punch in his life.
“Now listen here, boy,” he issued condescendingly, “if you know what’s good for you, you’ll just step away.”
“Let go of the lady’s hand,” he replied evenly.
“Or, I’m afraid I’ll have to intervene.”
Charlie laughed loudly and rather obnoxiously as Hank and Ralph slid off their stools, ready to back-up their friend; Charlie might be striking out with the gorgeous broad, but a stranger coming into their diner and telling one of them what to do was something they wouldn’t stand for.
“You’re out-numbered city boy,” Charlie jeered, momentarily forgetting the object of his affection as Hank and Ralph took up positions behind the stranger.
“I’m not looking for trouble friend; just let the lady be on her way and I’ll be on mine,” he said with little emotion which was met by Charlie’s thunderous laugh.
“Charlie!” Wanda yelled from behind the counter. “You start a fight in here again and I swear, I’ll call the cops this time!”
The three friends laughed off the threat, closing in on the lone stranger with a decided step forward.
“Are those fancy wheels out there yours, city boy?” Charlie asked with a tilt of his head toward the window and referring to the luxury sedan parked in the lot outside the diner. “Rental car I see,” he continued, noting the rental agency’s license plate holder. “Let me give you a little friendly advice, mister,” he said, in anything but a “friendly” tone. “You don’t come into someone else’s house and tell them what to do,” he said darkly with a push to his shoulder.
The push was hard enough to have sent the stranger back a step, but he stood firm against the bully’s intimidation. He kept tabs on the men behind him, noticing them shift slightly, while quickly noting that the woman they had been harassing was making her way slowly toward the door.
“Get him boys!” Charlie yelled, issuing a heavy fisted swing as the stranger easily dodged the blow and then landed a punch in his side. Immediately, the stranger turned, issuing a side kick into Hank’s gut, and a punch to Ralph’s jaw. He finished the turn in time to block Charlie’s next two swings with his forearms, before delivering his own rapid punches, whipping the large man’s head back in rapid succession. The intensity etched up as Ralph found a nearby chair and raised it over his head to issue a blindsided blow to the back of the stranger’s head, but their dark-haired adversary sensed the treachery and turned, delivering a kick to Ralph’s now vulnerable chest. Instantly, Ralph found himself on the floor next to Hank who was still nursing his side as the stranger turned toward Charlie, whose large frame had kept him on his feet, determined to connect his fist with the city boy’s face.
“Haven’t you had enough?” the stranger asked.
“Get him, Charlie!” Hank yelled, holding his bruised chest and trying to catch the wind knocked out of him.
“You’re going down, boy!” Charlie threatened, attempting to intimidate his opponent as he swung powerfully, connecting only with air as the stranger dodged easily. Another swing produced the same result as a tiring Charlie fell toward a table, his hand floundering till he found a bottle of ketchup. He threw the bottle at his adversary and then ran toward him as the dark-haired man batted the flying bottle away, then easily dodged the large man diving for him. Charlie dove forward with the inertia of all his weight driving him onward, but missed the stranger and instead found his head connecting with the diner’s counter in between two stools with a loud thud.
The stranger turned, assessing any further attacks and finding none as both Hank and Ralph, wisely stayed down, even though both men had long since recovered. The stranger straightened; his business casual slacks and button up shirt not even soiled in the fray. Every strand of his dark wavy hair remained in place as the waitress stood with her mouth agape, clearly impressed with the handsome man and his obvious self-defense skills.
The stranger quickly noticed that the woman who had been the subject of the fight had slipped out sometime in the middle of the excitement as he reached for his bill-fold, pulling out cash for his meal and tip, then placing a hundred dollar bill on top of that.
“This is for the damage,” he said, while pulling a business card out of his wallet and handing it to the dazed waitress, who had instantly decided that the stranger was absolutely drop-dead gorgeous. “If the damage comes to more, you can send the bill to this address,” he offered as she nodded numbly. He smiled, his hazel green eyes melting her pitter-pattering heart, before stepping over Charlie’s legs and exiting the diner.
Wanda watched him leave, appreciating the back view ever as much as the front, and then looked down at the business card, reading it aloud.
“Lee Crane, Nelson Institute of Marine Research… Santa Barbara, California,” she whispered to herself as the cook rang the bell for Charlie’s hamburger.
“Order up!” he announced, having ignored the entire affair in favor of filling his short orders.
Wanda ignored the plate sitting under the heating lamp, keeping a constant watch through the window as her dream man slid into his car and drove away. She blew out a breath, fanning herself with the business card before tucking it away to the safety of her bra, silently wondering if the stranger might just pass by again on his way back from wherever he was headed.
* * * * *
Connie watched the confrontation before her as an innocent by-stander rose to her defense. He was tall and lean, but his bearing was unmistakably bold and confident. There was no hint of fear in his hazel eyes and his resolve was undaunted, even though the man in front of him was larger and bulkier. He seemed completely aware of the men closing in behind him, yet that fact didn’t deter him from his resolve in the least.
The large man turned his entire attention toward the Good Samaritan, leaving Connie free to back away. She had already left her dinner check and cash with the counter and side-stepped toward the door, all the while watching the intensity rising when the stranger wouldn’t back down. She took a deep breath, reaching for the door when all hell broke loose as the confrontation escalated into an all-out fist fight. She watched as the tall stranger dispatched the three men so fast her head spun, employing both his fists and his feet in blows that did instant damage. Two men were on the floor, one unable to rise, the other she suspected, knowing it was best to stay down, while Charlie, the man who wouldn’t take “no” for an answer, charged the stranger. In one swift move the dark-haired hero dodged both a flying bottle of ketchup and Charlie’s large body, as he attempted to gain the upper hand by diving for his opponent. Almost as quickly as the confrontation escalated, it dissipated, with Charlie sprawled on the floor, his head finding it was no match for the counter.
Connie slid out the door quickly, leaving the scene behind as quietly as she could. She couldn’t risk the police showing up to investigate, knowing full well that “others” would be monitoring the police bands. She took a deep breath, biting her bottom lip and quickly glancing from her car to the stranger’s rental car. She knew it wasn’t fair to involve him in her problems, but she was desperate.
She needed to ditch her car, the red T-Bird was too easily spotted on the country back roads, but mostly she needed a protector. If the stranger could handle those three bullies, he could handle Armando. She moved forward, her mind made up and her self-doubts currently put aside as she opened the back passenger door and slid onto the floor board. His jacket was draped over the seat, so she used it to cover herself, hoping that in the dark she would be concealed enough to keep herself hidden.
She was desperate; she needed this to work. She only hoped that she could lose Armando before he tracked her this far; and then maybe, just maybe, she’d be able to make it to an airport and leave the country. She settled in, willing her heart to stop pounding away in her chest, and prayed that the dark-haired stranger was as chivalrous as he appeared in the diner. Her second prayer was for the stranger’s well-being, because if Armando knew he helped her, his life would be in as much peril as hers. Perhaps more so; Armando needed her alive, what he didn’t need was a witness. She put that thought aside for the time being, her desperate situation calling for desperate measures, then sank lower when she heard the car door open and a driver sliding into his seat.
* * * * *
Lee left the diner, taking a quick glance at the cars in the lot. He sized up the pick-up trucks as belonging to the three guys just now scraping themselves off the floor. That left a motorcycle and an orange Pinto for the cook and the waitress. The red T-Bird was definitely out of place, and figured it belonged to the sophisticated woman that had been the subject of the ruckus. He thought it odd that she had stuck around, momentarily thinking that she wanted to thank him, but on second thought dismissed the idea when it appeared the lot was empty.
He opened his car door and decided to drive to the next town; he had originally planned on stopping here for the night, but reconsidered knowing that “Charlie” and his buddies would need time to cool off. He slid into his seat and put the keys into the ignition, then breathed deeply before putting the car into gear and heading back for the Interstate.
His road trip to inspect a possible new vendor for one of Seaview’s many electronic parts had been a calculated move on the part of his boss, Admiral Harriman Nelson; a move designed to force him into taking a vacation disguised as a business trip. Lee played along, knowing full well that Harry and Jamie worked in collusion to bring this trip about, deciding that Seaview’s captain needed a break away from the Boat, and more importantly, from ONI. Harry had purposely scheduled maintenance on FS1, ensuring a road trip, and since the new vendor was definitely off the beaten path, the inspection ensured several days away from the office.
Lee had flown to the nearest airport, rented a car and was on his way to visit the small business owner’s facility, tucked away in the mountain community of the small town of Continental Divide. Just as in the military and the country’s space program, many of Seaview’s parts were subbed out to such quality original equipment manufacturers. These OEMs often brought a high level of both quality and accountability, something both Seaview and FS1 depended on.
Lee hadn’t balked at Harry’s suggestion, recognizing his need to step back from his busy schedule and recharge his batteries. It was more than that, and he was well aware that he needed a change of pace that didn’t require being shot at, tortured, or beat up; all of which was completely possible while on assignment for ONI.
His last undercover mission had landed him in a small Asian country trying to locate a defecting American scientist who was attempting to defect back. No one trusted him, but he had the information needed to locate and neutralize the powerful proton bomb stashed somewhere on the ocean floor.
He’d been sent in to retrieve Dr. Everett Lang after the scientist insisted upon Seaview as his extraction vessel. From there, Seaview would find the bomb, retrieve it and render it harmless. It had been a messy mission from the beginning. Lee had spent hours on his knees, in a disguise designed to make him appear as a legless vagrant, begging for his next meal. He was arrested for panhandling, but was rerouted to the safe house by the Underground Resistance Movement, where he spent the first fifteen minutes trying to massage circulation back into his legs.
It was there that he met Everett Lang; arrogant, self-righteous, and completely unrepentant for not only his defection, but also the fact that it was his genius that built the proton bomb in the first place. The Underground was risking everything to even the odds of their country’s evilly ambitious dictator, but Lang seemed unappreciative of the risk they were taking; his only concern was for his own safety. The extraction turned messy when a patrol boat caught up with them; even the fastest junk in the harbor couldn’t outrun the heavy artillery being lobbed their way. Lee fired back with the mounted machine gun, but it was no match for the patrol boat, which was able to stay well out of range. Eventually, the patrol boat’s aim found the junk as a heavy explosion hit just shy of the hull, the result was a barrage of shrapnel that caught their Underground contact, Su Yin, in the gut.
Lee swallowed hard, this particular memory the crux of the reason he needed a break just now.
Su Yin, the beautiful Asian resistance agent, with the heart of her people and their well-being her greatest desire, perished in order to deliver an unrepentant, defecting scientist to safety. He still remembered holding Su Yin in his arms, her body suffering from the damage the heavy artillery inflicted as their souped-up junk was riddled to pieces in the firefight. She begged him to leave her, anticipating her own death and pleading with Lee to complete the mission. Su Yin died in his arms as Lang callously urged him to hurry, as if the spent life of the brave agent lying on the deck meant nothing.
Lee and Lang successfully escaped, hanging onto the wreckage of the destroyed junk until Seaview found them. Once aboard the Boat, his disgust for Lang was put aside to finish the mission; locate the bomb, disarm it, then retrieve it to the safety of Seaview. But Lang’s treachery continued, as he commandeered Seaview by arming the bomb with a push button ignition and demanding that the entire world disarm; self-righteously putting himself as the only one on earth capable of keeping the peace… admittedly becoming a dictator in the name of Disarmament and Peace and declaring himself a Peacemaker by his treacherous deed.
In the end, the egomaniacal scientist was stopped when Lee and his crew overpowered Lang and Admiral Nelson disarmed the bomb with mere seconds left to spare. It was a happy ending as far as the leaders of the world were concerned. The world was once again safe, while the public went on with their lives never knowing that a nuclear disaster had been averted… or the sacrifice of the Underground agent from a foreign country had made for that cause.
His forehead furled at the last thought. He had only just met Su Yin, but in those few hours he had found a person of high character and quality.
Su Yin was worth a hundred Langs! he thought silently and full of emotion, with the lines on his face tight and his brow crinkled in pain. He barely avoided slapping a disgusted hand on the wheel and breathed in deeply to reset the strong emotions brought on by the inequity of Lang sitting alive and well in a prison cell while Su Yin had perished.
He drew a long breath, not knowing how long it would be before he could close his eyes without reliving the beautiful operative writhing in his arms as she drew her last breath.
He thought he had successfully kept his inner pain private, but apparently, his best friend had seen right through him.
Commander Lee Crane sat at the debriefing with his hands folded in front of him; like Admiral Nelson, he wore his service dress blues for this official report. Seaview had housed Lang in the brig as the submarine limped to port, unable to submerge due to the weakened frames caused by the bomb’s explosives, barely jettisoned out of the escape hatch in time. Fortunately, Harry had removed the proton fuel rods or half the world would have been affected by the blast and subsequent fall-out.
Lang was now in custody of the United States and housed under high security at Pearl Harbor. Every detail of Lee’s mission was currently being explored as the US prepared to make its case to the World Court that Lang was a defector and therefore fell under US jurisdiction. There were some countries however, lobbying to have Lang stand trial under the World Court; a move that the US found disturbing as Lang’s knowledge was too dangerous to trust to the possible politics of whatever country ended up incarcerating him. To this end, Lee was providing the most complete debriefing he could, hoping his testimony would help to build a solid case against the rogue scientist and thereby leaving no room for any technicalities to hinder the outcome.
It appeared to be an open and shut case, as the Disarmament Council could produce sworn dispositions of the demands Lang delivered personally over the video phone. Nevertheless, the debriefing had been grueling. He had been through many such debriefings in his career and he wasn’t sure why this one had been so taxing. That is, until Harry hit the hammer on the head.
After the long day of their testimonies, he and Harry had returned to Seaview. Lee was anxious to check on the repairs to Seaview’s hull and in general, return to his life as a submarine captain. It was he who had volunteered to extract Lang to protect Seaview’s whereabouts from the rogue nation, but he was more than happy to leave behind the espionage world to be a sailor once again. Once back aboard, he busied himself in Seaview’s repairs, dealing privately with the loss of a fellow agent, but as night fell he had found it increasingly hard to find sleep. This night he found himself in the Nose, staring out the windows and lost in thought.
He wheeled about, completely caught off guard by Harry’s greeting, especially so late at night.
“Hello Sir,” he said with a slight chuckle of embarrassment. “I didn’t hear you come in.”
“Oh, I was up late and decided I needed a little walk.”
Lee smiled unconvincingly, very seriously doubting that Harry had just happened to end up here in the Nose at “oh dark thirty” hours.
“Pretty tough day,” the Admiral commented to Lee’s agreeing nod. “I didn’t know that Su Yin died in your arms,” Harry noted, decisively cutting to the chase of Lee’s pain.
Lee ran a weary hand through his hair and sighed, turning to face the window. He really thought he had been successful keeping this private, but somehow Harry had honed in on exactly what was bothering him.
“I hardly knew her, Admiral,” he said quietly. “I don’t why it’s hitting me so hard.”
“Because you’re human,” Harry answered, his eyes offering the wisdom of someone who had been there himself. “As much as we try to shut down our feelings on these missions, we just can’t deny when our hearts have been wounded.”
Lee nodded, and then heaved his shoulders in a long sigh. “You know what bothers me the most, Sir?”
Harry raised an eyebrow, a silent urging for Lee to continue.
“Lang is sitting in a cell right now, and he’s not going to get the death penalty,” he observed with a hint of disgust. “The government is going to keep him around because he perfected a bomb the size of milk carton that knocked us on our sixes from twenty-five miles out,” he said, referring to the test they witnessed in the Arctic. “For that reason, alone, they’ll keep him around, just in case he decides to bargain his way out of a cell, and Su Yin paid the ultimate price just to keep that self-righteous maniac alive.”
“Yes, but she did her job, Lee. Without Lang, we would have never been able to recover the bomb; that threat would have held the world hostage to a foreign regime. Mourn the life of a fallen agent, Lee, but don’t forget that because she did her job, we had a successful outcome.”
“But I know that, Admiral,” Lee replied as he turned, perplexed at Harry’s statement of the obvious.
“Then what I think you’re mourning, is the fact that you couldn’t protect her,” Harry postulated. “She was an agent first; now, I know that your code of honor demands that you protect a woman in need, but Lee, she wasn’t just a woman… she was a highly skilled and trained agent, just like you. You couldn’t have kept her out of harm’s way, because she purposely put herself there for the greater good of others. Her sacrifice is to be commended, and your self-imposed guilt at not being able to protect her is ill-placed.”
Lee nodded numbly. Harry’s words were powerful and he knew deep down that they rang true.
“You’re human, Lee,” Harry continued, placing a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “It’s not wrong for you mourn someone you just met. Give yourself some time, it will all work out,” he encouraged, patting his shoulder before stepping back and allowing his words to soak in before changing the subject drastically. “How are the repairs coming?”
Lee smiled. This is what he needed; a distraction from a pain that he hoped would eventually fade in time. “Just fine, the repairs have been made and we’re awaiting a final inspection. We may be able to shove off tomorrow evening. We should run another inspection once we get back to home port, but I don’t expect any problems.”
“That’s good to hear. Well, I think I’m heading for my rack. What about you?”
“I’ll turn in, in just a little bit, Sir,” he said, his burden a little lighter having talked it out with Harry.
“Very well, Lee. See you in the morning.”
“Aye Sir, and… thank you, Admiral.”
Harry nodded his reply and headed for the spiral staircase, satisfied that the conversation had at least started Lee in the right direction, and confident that Seaview’s captain would weather this storm successfully.
Lee turned back to the window, realizing the wisdom of Harry’s words, and ready to let go what he had no control over. Su Yin was a hero in his book; he wanted to remember her sacrifice and he knew that to do that he would have to let go of the regret that he could not have prevented her death.
So, he had readily agreed to this road trip and had found the drive to be very relaxing. He had plenty of time to think and was on his way to finding the peace he was seeking. Every operative knows to learn to deal with things like this, or get out of the business. The drive had gone a long way in helping to put things into perspective.
Everything was going along just fine until he had stopped for dinner. There was no baggage involved when he intervened on behalf of the beautiful woman being harassed; it was simply the right thing to do. And though he was glad that she had slipped away unharmed, he wished he could have checked on her to make sure she was all right; but he figured he could remedy that situation very soon. He spotted a rest stop, tucked into surrounding pine trees and pulled over, finding a parking spot well away from the other two cars stopped for a break. He put the car in park, turned off the engine and cleared his throat.
“We’ve been driving for about two hours, and I don’t think we were followed,” he announced, looking into the rearview mirror as he spoke to an “empty” backseat. “So, do you want to tell me why you stowed away in my car?”
* * * * *
Armando pulled into the diner parking lot, spotting the T-Bird like a neon sign, especially way out here in the boonies. He parked beside the red hard-top convertible, and got out, taking the time to feel the hood and smiling at the cold engine he felt under his hand.
He walked in, quickly surveying the tables, but finding only a near empty diner with three men sitting at the counter on stools. A waitress was busy cleaning a table in the corner, while a table by the window sat with its half-empty soup bowl sitting next to an empty salad plate.
“Ah Miss,” he said, approaching the waitress. “I’m supposed to meet my girlfriend here. She’s driving that red sports car out front,” he said with a tilt of his head to the parking lot. “She has long black hair and green eyes…”
“I haven’t seen her since she paid for her dinner,” the waitress replied, offering a smile to the debonair looking man with a Spanish accent. His mustache was trimmed and hair meticulously styled, and wore a very expensive fitted business suit with a silk tie.
“She must be around here somewhere,” he said with a smile, trying to coax whatever information he could from the waitress, who at that moment, had decided that the new stranger had the bearing of a matador.
“She ditched you for another guy,” Armando heard, turning toward the voice from the counter.
“Excuse me?” he said, with a furled brow.
“Yeah, like I said, this tall good-looking city fella came in and she cozied up to him. They left together, and she was hanging on his arm like they were old friends, if you know what I mean?” Charlie said, the bright red bump on his forehead broadcasting his run-in with the counter earlier.
“Are you sure about that?” Armando asked, the lines in his face becoming sharper.
“Sure, just ask Hank or Ralph here,” he said as the other two men turned on their swivel stools, their own faces sporting bruises and scuffs as well.
“Charlie…” the waitress tried to interject.
“Shut-up, Wanda,” he replied harshly as the waitress went back to clearing her table, determined to stay out of the whole affair.
“It’s just like he said mister,” Hank added. “This guy comes in here and sees your girlfriend. He cozied up next to her in the booth and must have whispered something special into her ear, because she seemed happy to go with him.”
“Did you see which way they went?” Armando asked, feeling no need to hide his displeasure as the three men seemed more than willing to help.
“Back to the highway; east I think,” Charlie answered. “He was driving a black sedan with rental car plates. Maybe he’s going to bring her back here for her car after they…” Charlie left off on that note with a purposeful shrug of his shoulder and a raise of the eyebrow, painting a picture of her betrayal to her boyfriend in his body language.
“How long ago did they leave?” he asked, his dark mood becoming darker.
“What do you think boys? Fifteen… twenty minutes ago?” Charlie asked.
“Yeah, that sounds about right,” Ralph agreed. “I think you could probably catch them… you know, in the act, if you hurried,” he added to fuel the obvious fire growing in the well-dressed stranger in the dark pin-striped suit.
Armando nodded, reaching into his pocket and pulling out a hundred-dollar bill. “Thanks for your help, boys. You know these women, they take everything you can give them,” he said with a tilt toward the expensive sports car, “and then run out on you the first chance they get,” he added to their sympathetic nods of agreement.
“Sure thing mister; I hope you find them and teach that city boy a lesson,” Charlie added, goading the betrayal on as Armando nodded, indicating he was going to do just that.
He left the diner and sped out of the parking lot with a squeal and a cloud of dust, as Charlie let out a hefty hoot, followed by hearty laughter.
“Now, why did you go and tell him that for?” Wanda asked with a frown, wiping down the counter in front of the trouble-makers who had by now, all joined in the laughter. “You didn’t see her leave with him!”
“It doesn’t matter where she skeedaddled off to,” Charlie answered. “That guy is going to track down that city boy and give him what he deserves,” he said, wiping away his laughter with the back of his hand, his mood turning instantly dark. “Yes sir, that city boy is going to get what belongs to him,” he whispered to his friends.
“What do you mean?” Hank whispered back; while Ralph leaned in close enough to hear.
“Didn’t you see the bulge under his jacket? The guy’s packing,” Charlie said with a sly smile that grew until all three burst out in another round of obnoxious laughter.
* * * * *
Armando squealed out of the parking lot and headed back to the highway in the direction the men said Consuela and her new friend went. All he had was a scant description of a car from the country bumpkins who had obviously been on the wrong end of a run-in with her new protector. His face darkened as much for the man helping Consuela as for her betrayal. He had been tracking her since she broke away from her government bodyguards. Witness Protection. Ha! They had failed her before and paid the price, her new bodyguard would be no different.
His dark brown eyes darkened with his mood as he considered Consuela. He preferred to bring her back alive, but not because of his love or devotion to the woman. It was the simple fact that the raven-haired beauty had betrayed his trust and then walked out on him. Though his first concern was the business he conducted, it was still a sore spot to his machoism, one he would satisfy in due time; but mostly, her “accident” needed to be well-planned to ensure no trace back to either him or Juarez.
Her bodyguards were another matter. He had dispensed of the last one in a most cruel fashion in order to send her a message that anyone she allowed to help would face a similar fate. He needed her alive, in case she had hidden the ring he gave her, but his twisted sense of manhood was also insanely jealous of any man’s attention toward her.
He knew they weren’t too far ahead of him, and if he was careful he’d be able to catch up. Then it was a matter of dispatching her bodyguard and retrieving the contraband intelligence. What he intended to do with Consuela he hadn’t decided just yet; her family was too important for her to just disappear as the other girl had. Perhaps, another lesson for her newest bodyguard was in order, he decided as his cheek twitched involuntarily.
* * * * *
Lee turned around and watched as his stowaway pulled the jacket off, her form still in the shadows, even with the car parked under the street lamp in the rest stop parking area.
“How did you know I was here?”
“You wear a very distinctive perfume, Miss. It was lovely in the diner and even stronger in the car,” he answered with a soft smile.
“You mean you knew I was here all along?” she asked, moving onto the backseat while reaching up to work out the kink in her neck.
“Yeah, I did,” Lee replied. “But I’m curious… who you’re running from? I would have made sure those guys at the diner wouldn’t have followed you,” he added, losing his smile and crinkling his forehead in concern.
“I guess I was desperate,” she replied, sighing and looking out the window.
“Whatever trouble you’re in, it must be big; or you wouldn’t have abandoned the T-Bird,” he noted as she continued to gaze absently out the window. “I tell you what, why don’t you move to the front seat and we can talk,” he offered, noticing her European Spanish accent.
She nodded, and opened the car door, looking around nervously before sliding into the front seat. She sat silently for a few long seconds before sighing.
“My name is Connie.”
“Hi Connie, I’m Lee,” he said, offering a hand of introduction in a friendly gesture meant to ease her anxiety.
She took his hand and shook, then smiled embarrassingly. “I suppose I do owe you an explanation.”
Lee smiled warmly and nodded for her to continue.
“The man I’m running from is my ex-boyfriend, Armando. The car belongs to him; now that I left it, he’ll leave me alone. I just needed a ride out of town.”
Lee studied her face, her eyes betraying her story even as she spoke.
“I don’t think I’m getting the whole story here,” Lee said. “You didn’t just ‘get a ride out of town,’ you hid in my car; and you haven’t stopped looking over your shoulder since we stopped.”
“You don’t want to be a part of this, Lee.”
Lee smiled. “Looks like I became part of ‘it’ when you stowed away in my backseat.”
“You don’t understand, Armando is ruthless!” she exclaimed with another look over her shoulder, watching as the rest stop emptied.
“Then tell me what I’m up against,” Lee stated firmly.
“Look, I’m sorry I bothered you, but all I need is a ride to the nearest airport and I’ll be out of your hair,” she insisted.
“Connie,” Lee called gently. “I want to help you, but I need to know what’s going on.”
She didn’t answer, looking over her shoulder once again, before biting her bottom lip and seemingly changing the subject.
“Where did you learn to fight like that?” she asked quietly.
“Is that why you picked me?” he asked, to her slight affirming nod. “I’m a Reserve Naval Officer, they teach us things like that at the Academy,” he replied with a small smile.
“Not like that,” she answered with a disbelieving shake of her head, before moving on with her plea. “Listen, I’ve got no one else to turn to, and all I need is a ride to an airport, any airport,” she added in near desperation.
“All right,” Lee conceded, “I think there’s more to this than you’re telling me, but that’s all right. I’ll help you get to an airport,” he agreed, seeing the fear in her eyes and knowing he couldn’t just walk away. He smiled, coaxing a small smile from her. “Okay?”
“Okay,” she replied visibly relieved, as Lee nodded and put the car into gear.
Just then he noticed a car speeding down the off ramp towards the rest stop. Instantly, he recognized the danger, but before he could even gas the car into reverse Connie screamed, “It’s him!” opening her car door and fleeing into the pine woods ahead in a panic.
“Connie!” he yelled, but she was already out of the car, forcing him to put the car back into park. The car was closing in fast as Lee reached for his briefcase in the backseat, opening it and pulling out his service revolver and an extra clip. He barely had time to open his door when the first shot rang out, whipping past him and kicking up the dirt ahead of him as he ran into the woods after Connie.
Lee ran to the cover of the trees just as the speeding car whipped around to enter the parking stalls. He fired once, the bullet finding its intended mark in the passenger side headlight, sending a message that he was armed and ready to defend both himself and the lady, then turned and headed in the direction that Connie had ran.
“Connie!” he called in a whisper-yell, spotting a hint of her white blouse up ahead through the dark trees. He poured on the steam, dodging the dense trees and closing the distance with her heels and skirt slowing down her escape.
“Connie!” he called again, but she was fleeing in an all-out panic, completely unaware that she was running from her chosen protector. Lee had no choice, he needed to end her mad-dash and think through an escape plan; so, when he got close enough he dove, catching her at the waist and bringing her to the forest floor. She fought with all her might, kicking and scratching as Lee covered her with his body, one hand trying to curtail her scratches, while placing the other to her mouth to keep from giving away their position.
“Connie, it’s me!” he whispered, holding both her hands over her head with one hand as she bucked wildly under him. “Look at me, Connie! It’s me, Lee,” he said as she finally stopped, looking up and swallowing hard when she finally recognized him. Her breathing slowed, but he kept his hand over her mouth until he was sure she was under control.
“We have to be quiet, okay?” he said, as several drops of blood ran down his face from her wild scratches, she nodded slowly as he released both her hands and her mouth while climbing off her to take stock of where their pursuer might be. As soon as she was free she dove into his arms sobbing into his chest as Lee wrapped his arms around to calm her.
“Shhh,” he whispered comfortingly into her ear, while scanning the forest and listening for their pursuer. He let her cry for a few seconds more before pulling her from his chest to look into her eyes. “Connie, I need you to be strong. I know you’re scared, but you’ve made it this far; that tells me you’re strong,” he said, encouraging her with the confidence in his eyes as much as his words. “I’ll take care of you, but I need you to help me? Can you do that?”
“Yes,” she whispered, willing her shivering to stop and then shuddering when she heard her name echoing through the dark forest.
She gasped as Lee held her shoulders, gauging the sound coming from several hundred yards off their right flank.
“Armando!” she said almost too loudly.
“Shhh,” he warned. “He doesn’t know where we are, or he wouldn’t be calling to you,” he reasoned. “Come on, this way,” he whispered, rising and tugging her by the hand as he led her away from the direction of Armando’s voice.
* * * * *
“Consuela!” Armando called into the forest, his eyes searching for any movement to hone in on. “You know I won’t hurt you!” he called again. “Come to me, Consuela, and I’ll make sure you are protected,” he offered, his dark eyes betraying the intent of his spoken words.
Armando wiped a hand across his mouth, listening intently. He heard a faint sound to his right and started walking, breathing hard from chasing them this far and needing to pick up a trail. He kept moving toward the unidentified sound he had heard earlier, hoping he wasn’t tracking a rabbit, and cursed when he realized that it was just too dark to pick up a trail. His only hope was to scare the already terrified woman into giving away her position; so, he called to her once again.
“Consuela! Do you think this new man of yours is any match for me?” he stopped to listen for any sounds that might betray their whereabouts before continuing. “Remember what I did to the last man who tried to help you,” he stated rather icily. “Do you really wish that for your new friend? Come to me Consuela, and I’ll let him go,” he bargained, suddenly hearing the smallest of whimpers and smiling as he headed in that direction.
* * * * *
Lee and Connie made their way forward, up a steady incline. It was Lee’s intention to circle back to the rest stop, disable Armando’s car and speed away to safety. His plan had a good chance of succeeding, as long as Armando didn’t have backup, that is.
They stopped upon hearing Armando’s call again, breathing hard for the increase in altitude, and listening to determine how far away he was.
Lee watched Connie’s reaction to both Armando’s voice and his words; first promising safety and then threatening her new found protector.
“Remember what I did to the last man who tried to help you? Do you really wish that for your new friend?” he threatened coldly.
Connie shuddered, her eyes full of fear as the vivid memory of Parker flooded back, Blood everywhere… so much blood. She couldn’t let that happen again… not again!
“Come to me Consuela, and I’ll let him go.”
She started to call out to Armando, it was the only way to save Lee, but her yell was suppressed to only a whimper as Lee quickly covered her mouth.
“Trust me,” he pleaded. “I’m going to get you out of this, okay?”
She nodded as he released her from his hold and took her by the hand, continuing to move up the incline. They traveled until they were forced to take a break behind a tree.
“Where are you taking us?” Connie asked in between breaths.
“Back to the rest stop,” he replied, watching for movement behind them.
“Then why are we heading up the mountain?”
“We need to convince him that we’re running deeper into the forest,” Lee explained. “If not, he’ll figure out where we’re headed and double back on us, cutting us off before we make it to the car.”
“How do you know so much about this sort of thing?” she asked, still panting to catch her breath.
Lee ignored her, putting a finger to his lips instead and listening, before determining they were in the clear.
“Okay, we’re going to make a wide arc now. This is where it gets tricky, you’ll have to be extremely quiet,” he coached.
Lee stood, holding Connie’s hand as he led her, only taking a few steps towards his plan to circle back when a shot rang out. Quickly he dropped, pulling Connie down with him and waiting for the next shot and its muzzle flash. A second shot rang out as Lee acquired his target and fired twice, then stood pulling Connie up with him.
“Up the hill,” he urged her, quickly amending the plan of circling around and instead moving deeper into the forest.
They moved up the incline, her feet barely keeping up as he relentlessly pulled her up until they reached a plateau, where he immediately dropped, searching for their pursuer. Both were breathing hard, but they were concealed and safe for the time being, so Lee took her gently by the shoulders, turning her to look directly into her eyes.
“Connie, you need to tell me what’s going on. That’s more than a jilted boyfriend out there,” he challenged.
She nodded, her breathing still fast as she recovered from the exertion, while Lee continued to scan the area below them, his gun drawn and ready.
“Armando works for Domingo Juarez, he is an Ambassador from my home country El Diamante,” she explained. *
Lee nodded, knowing exactly the nation she spoke of, a large island off the Spanish coast.
“I came to your country two years ago, as a low-level aide to the Ambassador. I guess I was young and impressionable,” she said, with a shrug of her shoulders. “I was very taken in by Juarez’s right hand man.”
“Yes, he took an interest in me, and began inviting me to official functions. At first, I thought it was exciting, but I soon realized that neither Juarez nor Armando were the men I thought them to be. I had a friend who also worked for Juarez, he would escort her to the functions and she always wore a locket. Never at any other time, just then,” she qualified. “One day she disappeared, the Ambassador said she went back home, but at the next function Armando gave me the same locket to wear.” She took a deep breath and continued. “They used me to deliver secret information of some kind. During the ball, he would send me to the ladies’ room where I would meet another woman to exchange lockets,” she said, clearly ashamed for participating. “I don’t know what was in the film, only that when I objected Armando became very angry. He frightened me, and I had every reason to be afraid. He kept a very close eye on me from that point on. I was removed from my duties as an aide, but was still used to deliver information, and I was too frightened to do anything but what they wanted.”
“One day I was approached by a different woman in the ladies’ room. She said that she worked for the US Government and offered me a way out. At the next function, I gave her my locket, and she helped me escape that night. But Juarez and Armando must have suspected something, because the microfilm had no value, only now I’m marked.”
“They have diplomatic immunity, and the US Government has no proof of their actions. I was placed in protective custody, and moved to a safe house, but Armando found me,” she said, her head hanging in sorrow. “Agent Parker hid me in a secret room, and made the radio call for backup, but it was too late. Armando burst in just as Parker finished making the radio call, but he didn’t find me in the secret room. He killed my bodyguard, Agent Parker… there was blood everywhere,” she whispered, as her eyes turned vacant and distant in response to the horrible memory as the distant sounds of gunfire replayed in her head. “Armando was forced to leave before the backup arrived, but he is obsessed with finding me.”
“Why did you leave protective custody?” Lee asked point blank.
“Someone told Armando about the safe house, Parker told me that Armando must have had inside help when he hid me. That’s all I know, but after what Armando did to Parker, I panicked. I couldn’t trust anyone.”
“The T-Bird?” Lee asked, still watching below, using their current position to keep a keen eye out for any movement below.
“It’s Armando’s. I know it was stupid of me, but I knew where the car was garaged and the keys were always kept in the ash tray. I was pretty sure Armando wouldn’t report the car as stolen, so it was my way out of town. I’ve been driving for four days, I didn’t know where I was going; I was just trying to disappear and I didn’t think Armando would chase me across America.”
“You have knowledge of some sort of espionage, and you can identify him as Parker’s killer; those are reasons enough, but I suspect there’s something more.”
“I don’t know,” she said, shrugging her shoulders. “Armando doesn’t like to lose. I think in some strange way he believes I belong to him; not like love, more like a possession. I think he will punish anyone who tries to shelter me,” she sobbed, worried for Lee and feeling guilty that she had dragged him into this mess in the first place.
Lee placed a hand on her shoulder and drew her near as she cried herself out in silent shudders, still keeping a vigilant watch as he comforted her.
“It was me who intervened at the diner,” he said comfortingly. “And I would have never walked away from any woman receiving unwanted attention, even knowing the consequences,” he assured her.
“Even so, I shouldn’t have involved you,” she said wiping the tears from her eyes.
“Trouble and me seem to be old acquaintances,” he answered with half-smile and a whimsical tilt of the head barely seen in the moonlit night. “Let’s just concentrate on getting back to the car safely,” he said moving their conversation back to their present danger. “I think we’d better keep moving; I may have hit him, but we’re not going to take any chances. We’re taking the long way around; it will take a little longer, but I’ll get us back to the car,” he promised, rising slowly, and guiding her deeper into the forest with the intent of doubling back for the car.
* * * * *
Armando reached for his shoulder, placing a handkerchief inside his jacket and applying pressure. He watched the forest incline ahead of him, spotting a hint of movement and satisfied that he would be able to follow soon.
“So, Consuela, you have found yourself a worthy protector.” He smiled thinly, his eyes narrowing and his brow tightening. “We shall see just how worthy when I cut him to pieces,” he threatened darkly, his smile turning to a deep frown of determination.
He breathed in painfully, swallowing a gasp and applying more pressure. He needed to rest for just a moment; then he would continue up the hill, his mind set on nothing less than complete reparation for the new hole in his shoulder.
* * * * *
The all-night diner’s lights were a like a beacon in a small town completely closed down for the night. A tall slender, but shapely blonde pulled up beside the red T-Bird and scanned her surroundings before exiting her car and heading inside. A quick glance around brought disappointment, as the only patrons were three rather loud men sitting on the counter stools.
“Excuse me,” she said, garnering the waitress’ attention. “Could you tell me where the woman is that drove the T-Bird in? She’s a friend of mine.”
Wanda shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know, she paid and slipped out, probably with the tall dark-headed hunk.”
“Tall, dark-haired? Heavily built with an accent?”
“No. Tall, slender, but fit, if you know what I mean; a real dream-boat,” she added with a starry look of admiration for the memory, as the blonde’s eyebrows tightened at a possible new player in the game.
“Did you see which direction they went?”
“Now don’t you fret little lady,” one of the men said, interrupting their conversation while turning his stool toward the blonde knock-out. “We figure she’ll be back to get the car when they… well you know… finish,” he said, waggling his eyebrows, and biting his bottom lip as he took in her shapely form, accentuated nicely in her tightly fitted jumpsuit.
The blonde shrugged a shoulder, seemingly unaffected by the brass man’s crude body language. “Sorry, but that doesn’t sound like my friend, to just go off with a guy like that. Did she seem to know him?” she asked, seeking all the information she could and ignoring the excitement in the large man for her willingness to talk with him.
“Well now, he headed out east, I think; my guess is for the nearest motel,” he added with an insinuating raise of one eyebrow.
“But the other guy you described,” Wanda said, joining back in the conversation, “you know the Spanish Matador?” she added, using her own description of Armando. “He came in too, looking for her.”
“And I suppose you told him that she left with the other man?” the blonde inquired, trying to get the entire picture.
“Hell yes!” Charlie answered fervently. “He said she was his girl, and you know little lady, it’s just not right for a gal to run out on her man after she’s been sugar daddied,” he finished, to the blonde’s very apparent roll of the eyes.
“How long ago did they leave?” she asked, trying to ignore Charlie’s clumsy efforts of trying to look suave and sexy while wearing old tattered blue jeans over a white V-neck t-shirt, rounded off by red suspenders.
“Your friend’s been gone for about an hour, the Spanish Matador followed about twenty minutes later,” Wanda answered.
“Well, thanks for the information. Here’s a little something for your trouble,” the blonde said, pulling out four one-hundred dollar bills for each of the men and Wanda. “Do me a favor, huh? Don’t tell anyone else the story about my friend, it’s not good for her reputation,” she added, turning to leave, but Charlie slid off his stool and moved to intercept her.
“Now, that’s real nice of you,” he said regarding the cash she left, and reaching for her long blonde hair, caressing a strand between his fingers. “How about you stay and help us spend it? We could hit the liquor store and then go have some fun,” he suggested rather brass and rude in his come-on.
“No thanks, big fella, some other time,” she answered dispassionately, dismissing him and trying to take another step toward the door.
“Leave the lady alone,” Ralph warned from his stool in a sing-song voice trying to be the voice of reason; but Charlie, figuring he was God’s gift to all women everywhere, ignored him and reached for her hand.
“Your hand is so pretty… so soft,” he started, attempting to use the same tired pick-up line he had attempted on Connie earlier; but he didn’t get any further as the blonde’s brow tightened.
“Mister, I’d advise you to let go,” she said softly but firmly, and clearly unintimidated by the size of the man blocking her path.
Charlie stepped in closer, moving behind her as he nuzzled her hair, while still holding onto her hand pulled up to her shoulder.
“Come on, Baby, don’t play hard to get,” he whispered, as Wanda disappeared behind the counter in an effort to disappear, while the cook continued to ignore everything on the other side of his grill.
Without warning, Charlie felt a sudden, decisive shift in the petite blonde’s body posture as she reached with other hand to apply a martial arts move, flipping the large man over her shoulder as she dropped him deftly onto the diner’s floor in front of her in a loud thud.
Charlie moaned, the surprise attack catching him off guard, while trying to a draw breath in after getting the wind thoroughly knocked out of him.
“Didn’t anyone ever teach you how to treat a lady?” she asked, before addressing the other two men at the counter, sitting with their jaws dropped to the floor.
“Anyone else want to play?” she asked, noting by the looks of the guys that this wasn’t their first fight of the night.
“No ma’am,” they both replied in near unison, and with as much respect as they could muster.
She turned to leave, having no time for this foolishness, as the taps of her heeled boots sounded her departure. Charlie could only watch from his place on the floor, wisely deciding not to invoke the blonde’s fury any more than he had, as laughter erupted from his compadres at the counter. He remained on the floor until the door closed behind the blonde beauty and then sighed heavily.
Charlie picked himself up off the floor, shooting a scowl over to Ralph and Hank in the process, and silently wondering just how he was going to live down being bested by a skinny city boy and a petite, blonde ninja-woman all in the same night.
* * * * *
The blonde headed east, knowing full-well that Consuela hadn’t gone to a hotel for a one-night stand, especially when she was running for her life. The trail was going cold, and without the conspicuous red T-Bird to trail she knew she’d have to hone in on Armando’s sedan instead. Her brow tightened, as she focused on the highway before her, continually scanning for any sign of the Count’s daughter. She had no idea who Consuela might have left with, and thought that perhaps she was back in protective custody once again since she had been heading west before stopping at the diner. There was no way to know for sure, so she continued east hoping to pick up the trail once again.
* * * * *
“I’ve got to rest,” Connie said trying to catch her breath, the high elevation in conjunction with Lee’s fast pace, taking its toll.
Lee nodded, slightly winded himself. “Only for a minute,” he conceded, scanning the woods for any sign of movement.
Connie watched Lee’s profile in the scarce moonlight, though he was breathing hard, he didn’t appear to be physically taxed at all. His handsome features suddenly hit her, as if she was seeing him for the first time. Slight perspiration curled several strands of his dark hair on his forehead, but otherwise, every hair was in place, as if they weren’t running for their lives from a maniac.
He doesn’t deserve this, she thought silently, not for the first time wondering why she had hidden in his car. It all seemed to make perfect sense when she saw his able handling of the men at the diner. It was more than the capable self-defense he employed, it was the fact that he had risen to defend her honor. Something told her that she could trust him, and so, her decision was made. She hid in his car, thus dragging him into a struggle for his own life as well as hers. Where his had been a decision of honor, she could only classify hers as something far less.
Her heartbeat began to slow, bringing down with it her over-taxed breathing as she studied him further.
Trouble and me seem to be old acquaintances, he had said. There was far more to this man than a Naval officer, she was sure of it.
He turned toward her whispered voice, the moonlight catching the glint in his hazel green eyes as he focused on hers.
“I’m sorry I hid in your car… I’m sorry I made you a part of this.”
“Connie, I don’t know all the dynamics going on here, but I do know that you’re in over your head. You were very brave to work with the authorities, and what happened to your last bodyguard only goes to prove that you need protection,” he replied fervently. “I’m not sorry you got me involved, and you shouldn’t have to face this alone,” he replied with a resolute shake of his head accentuating his point.
Connie nodded ever so slightly; his chivalry having an effect on her as she recaptured the bravery it took to turn over the locket in the first place.
“It looks quiet down there,” Lee observed, turning his attention back to their pursuer. He stopped to look up and gauge the moonlight, the trees here were denser and their movements were less noticeable. “I think it’s time to cut across and start making our way downhill,” he decided. “Are you ready?” he asked, taking her by the hand and squeezing.
Lee smiled, offering encouragement and then stood, leading her across the hill and taking a large arc to circle around before heading back down the hill.
* * * * *
Armando held his shoulder, trying to curb the pain, though he had managed to stop the bleeding. It seemed darker now that the trees were so thick, and he cursed his luck in having lost the trail as he tended his wound. He rubbed an apprehensive hand across his mouth. Juarez warned him against using the Count’s daughter as a courier, but he had thought he had the girl completely under his control. She was young and impressionable; it hadn’t taken very much to sweep her off her feet, or to convince the young girl that he loved her. She was inexperienced; sheltered in life by her wealth and a noble name, but she was a Countess. She couldn’t just disappear as their last courier had when she tried to contact the Americans for help; not yet anyway. Not until he had secured the ring, after that they could arrange for an accident to explain her death. A twitch of his cheek followed the last thought as he considered her latest protector.
She had been on the run these last days alone, he was sure of it, just where she had picked up such an able bodyguard he had no idea, but clearly, he would have to be dealt with first. Without him, she was a sniveling little brat, out of the protection of her rich father. Without him, she was vulnerable. A small evil grin spread across his face as he considered what needed to be done. These woods were the perfect place to dispose of her new bodyguard, then he would secure the ring and deal with Consuela in a different place; a place that couldn’t be traced back to her dead protector.
With his plans made, he continued up the hill, confident that sooner or later they would make a mistake that he could capitalize on.
* * * * *
Lee and Connie began their descent down the hill, having taken a wide horizontal arc to keep their movements concealed. The descent was almost as taxing as the incline, since Connie had the distinct disadvantage of wearing high-heeled shoes. Lee descended first, reaching back to steady her in the particularly steep areas.
“Only a little further,” he whispered. “It’s much easier down below,” he encouraged as he turned to navigate the next step down.
She nodded with a faint smile of resignation for the fact that she was mountain climbing in heels, then took another step, but her foot faltered and her ankle twisted. Immediately, she found her feet swept out from under her as she fell and tumbled down, taking Lee with her as they rolled down the incline. Unfortunately, her fall had not been silent as she reflexively yelled out in surprise, followed by a series of grunts as she twisted and turned until they stopped rolling where the incline lessened.
* * * * *
Lee was holding on to Connie’s hand, when he felt her lose her footing. He tried to steady her, but the inertia of her impending fall resulted in both of them taking a tumble down the incline. She shrieked in surprise, but then managed to endure the rough ride down with smaller groans.
Eventually, their rolls slowed until their forward motion finally stopped as Lee moved to his hand and knees, shaking the fuzziness away from whatever his head connected with on the way down.
“Are you okay?” he asked, recovering quickly and crawling toward her, while searching for signs that Armando had heard them. He leaned over her, carefully fingering away strands of hair from her face as she lay on her back taking in shallow breaths, momentarily stunned by the sudden fall.
“Just got the wind knocked out of me,” she assured, reaching up to touch the bruise on Lee’s forehead. “I’m sorry, I don’t know what happened,” she offered in self-recrimination.
“It’s all right,” he said, looking up and scanning the woods again. “Do you think you can move?”
“I think so.”
“Good, we need to get moving,” he advised.
She sat up as he guided her with a gentle pull with one hand and a supportive hand on her back to finish the move.
“You think Armando heard… don’t you?” she breathed out, the terror in her eyes visible even in the limited moonlight.
“I think that if he’s out there, he probably heard, but we still have time if we hurry,” he encouraged, helping her to her feet, while offering complete honesty in his reply. “How’s your ankle?”
“A little sore, but I can walk,” she replied bravely, producing a small approving smile from her protector.
“At least we’re past the hard stuff now, it’s just an easy stroll to the car now,” Lee said with a small wink as he took her by the hand and guided her back in the direction of the rest stop parking lot.
* * * * *
Armando was still climbing the hill when he heard a faint, distinct sound of a woman in distress. His head whipped to the distant right and downhill, in the direction of the noise as a twisted smile formed.
“So, Consuela, your protector is taking you back to the car,” he recognized, stopping his ascent and turning to reverse his course. It would be much cleaner to dispose of the protector in the woods, but he would have to hurry since they were much further downhill. His effort, however, was hampered by a bullet hole in the shoulder as he cursed the dark-haired bodyguard who put it there, determining within himself to make sure this one paid dearly for interfering in his business.
He gritted his teeth and kept moving, but each step jarred his shoulder and he feared if he didn’t make up lost time, he would lose them.
“Your protector is a wily one, Consuela, but you will not lose me so easily,” he promised, changing his course from trying to intercept the pair, and heading straight for their destination; the parking lot and their get-away car.
* * * * *
“We made it,” Connie said breathily, as they reached the edge of the lot. The rest stop was empty as many travelers opted to drive into the nearest town rather than stop in a deserted rest stop so late at night.
“Let’s get to the car,” Lee urged, moving hastily across the lot. “Hop in,” he said, rounding the car while she opened the door.
“What are you doing?” she asked as he headed to Armando’s car, parked hastily near theirs.
“I need to disable his car so he can’t follow us,” he explained, pulling out a small pocket knife and slicing a hole in the back tire. He moved the front tire and did the same, ensuring that a tire change wouldn’t have Armando back on their six any time soon.
He stood upright, taking only one step toward his car when he felt the fiery sting of a bullet pass through his back and exit out his front side. The inertia of the silent shot threw him to the ground, as Lee recovered enough to pull his gun and fire into the trees, giving himself enough cover to scramble to his car and jump in. He put the car into gear and squealed out of the parking spot, holding back soft grunts of pain as more shots pinged off the car.
“Get down!” he yelled, reaching over and guiding Connie to lie down on the bench seat as he sped out of the parking spot and reentered the highway.
* * * * *
Armando hurried his approach, catching a glimpse of Connie and her protector under the well-lit parking lot. He was still in the trees and had no chance of intercepting them at this point, so he did the next best thing, stopping and aiming with both hands while the protector messed with his car. He waited until the tall, dark-headed man stood and then squeezed the trigger, his marksmanship sending Consuela’s protector to the ground. He expected the shot to disable his victim, but the protector turned back firing off three rapid shots in his vicinity and forcing Armando to take cover behind a tree. The gun fire ended as he rounded the tree just in time to see their car speeding out of the parking lot.
Armando pursed his lips tightly, gritting his teeth as he made the rest of the way down to his car. He stopped and cursed when he realized that he had two flats on the passenger side, but then smiled as he dropped down to dab his finger in a small pool of blood on the pavement.
“So, you are wounded,” he said aloud, before standing and looking east, though he could no longer see the car in the distance. “I will find you, Consuela… you and your protector,” he promised, turning back to his car to decide how best to fix the current problem of his lack of transportation.
* * * * *
Lee drove for the next thirty minutes with his left hand splayed over his side, keeping a watchful eye on his rearview mirror. Connie had managed to calm herself, the whole shootout bringing back the vivid memory of the murder of her previous bodyguard. She was so shell-shocked that she hadn’t realized Lee’s distress until he pulled over to the shoulder of the highway.
“I need you to drive, Connie,” he announced airily.
It was dark out and she hadn’t noticed his hand, laid protectively across his side until she leaned in closer, expecting to slide into the driver’s seat as he walked around the car.
“Dios mio! You’ve been shot!” she exclaimed, the frightening experience of seeing Parker’s bullet riddled body nearly over-taking her once again.
Lee reached for her hand, squeezing it tight and willing her to look into his eyes as he spoke.
“Listen to me, Connie. I’m okay, and you can do this. I need to come around to the driver’s side,” he instructed.
Connie nodded, realizing that Lee needed her help just now and opened the passenger door, getting partly out and helping to pull Lee across the bench seat. She noted his small grunts of pain as he positioned himself into the passenger seat, then closed the door and ran around the front of the car to take the driver’s side, putting the car into gear and pulling back onto the highway with a slight squeal in her haste.
“Just drive normally,” Lee advised. “He can’t follow us, at least not yet, don’t do anything to get anyone’s attention.”
“Do we head to the nearest hospital?” she asked, making an effort to take control of her fear and deal with the situation at hand.
“No, not until I turn you over to people I trust,” he said, sinking his head further back on the head rest.
“What do you mean?”
“Bullet wounds require the local police to be notified, all they’ll do is call Witness Protection and we still have a mole there to deal with,” he answered, taking a few long breaths to get the entire sentence out. “But I have friends at Naval Intelligence, they’ll know what to do,” he finished, closing his eyes as the blood loss and pain zapped his reserves.
“There’s a town up ahead,” Connie noted, passing a green highway sign indicating the little town with services was only 35 miles away.
“How far to the next one?” he asked.
“Another hundred miles,” she answered, glancing sideways at his silent distress and noting the blood oozing between his fingers on his left side.
“Drive to the second town, we can find a hotel there and make a call,” he replied, closing his eyes and slurring his last word.
“Lee?” Connie called in a near panic.
“It’s okay, Connie, I’m just tired. I just need a little rest…”
“No, Lee, please… that’s what Parker said, but he just closed his eyes and never woke again,” she almost sobbed out.
“All right,” Lee said, recognizing the signs of traumatic stress in the young woman. “I’m going to close my eyes, but I need you to talk to me, okay?”
“Okay,” she replied. “What should we talk about,” she asked with a nervous chuckle.
“Tell me about your home,” he said with a swallow, squeezing his eyes to deal with a sudden pain, “in El Diamante,” he finished.
“It’s a beautiful country,” she started, looking over to see if he was still with her before continuing. “Our villa is on a hill and overlooks the ocean,” she recalled wistfully. “My father is a man of importance, that’s how I got the job with the Ambassador,” she said, trailing off when the thought brought back her current trouble. Quickly she moved on, describing her country and in every detail, she could remember. She eventually ran out of things to talk about and moved on to her favorite vacation getaways in the nearby country of Spain.
“I love to visit Barcelona,” she said, in a nervous chatter. “My favorite place of all is the beach. I have a favorite spot on Barceloneta; down the beach from the high rises and tourist shops… the sunrises are beautiful. I call it My Special Place,” she said with a small chuckle. “Of course, it’s anything but secluded,” she qualified. “The beach is very busy, but when the sun is rising over sea, you can walk along without hardly seeing a soul.”
She glanced over to see a small smile on Lee’s face and continued.
“It’s an exciting city, so much to see and do; my father took me there often as a child.”
She had talked for two hours about anything she could think of as Lee rested, responding from time to time and was relieved to finally see their destination in sight.
“Look Lee,” she said, as the lights of the city lit up the small valley the town was nestled in. “We’re almost there.”
Lee roused himself, grunting as he moved too fast. “Find a hotel in town, not one off the highway,” he instructed as she followed the road to the main business district.
“Here?” she asked, taking several turns until she found a hotel off the beaten path.
“This is good,” he replied as she drove in front of the hotel and stopped. “Ask for a room in the back… bottom floor, and use cash.”
“Got it,” she replied as he handed her his wallet.
“We’re Mr. and Mrs. Crane,” he advised, showing her the address to use on his driver’s license.
“I’ll take care of it,” she promised.
Lee kept careful watch on their surroundings while also watching her movements from the window; a short time later she returned.
“Everything’s all set,” she said, pulling out and moving the car to the lot behind the hotel, where she drove her car directly in front of the door. She got out, and moved to Lee’s side as he was moving much slower, taking his arm and wrapping it over her shoulder to help him to the door. She couldn’t help but notice how much weaker he was compared to earlier when they had run through the woods together. She opened the door and helped him to the bed, where he sat by the nightstand as she closed the door and locked it behind her.
“I really think we should have taken you to the hospital,” she said, walking into the bathroom for a towel to apply pressure to his side, which had started bleeding again with the movement.
“No, it’s better this way,” he said, picking up the phone and dialing a number he knew by heart. It only rang a few times before he was connected to a special line for Operatives reporting in on active missions. “This is Commander Lee Crane reporting; Pass code: Shark Bait,” he said, identifying himself followed by a code requesting immediate extraction.
The operator typed in his name and code into the computer and then paused. “One moment Commander,” she said, putting him on hold. A few minutes later he was talking to the Director of ONI himself, Admiral Gerald Johnson.
“Crane, this is Johnson. What’s going on? I wasn’t aware you were on a mission,” he questioned.
“It seems a mission found me, Sir,” he said with a small gasp, as Connie returned, applying the towel to his side, while holding another to the hole in his back.
“What have you got, Commander?” Johnson inquired, having full trust in his seasoned operative and knowing full-well that if Lee Crane was onto something, it was big.
“I’m with Count Figuera’s daughter of El Diamante, Sir…”
Connie stopped her ministrations; she hadn’t told him her father’s name or title. She hadn’t realized he even recognized her.
“… It seems she was under Witness Protection when her location was compromised. She bolted from protection when her bodyguard suggested that a mole had given up the Safe House; he died shortly after. We’ve been running with an active armed pursuer on our sixes for the last six hours, Sir.”
“Aye, we have a bulletin WP sent to all the agencies concerning the Countess,” Johnson affirmed, demonstrating his uncanny ability to keep track of a plethora of information and recall it instantly when needed. “Can you escort the Countess to a Safe House?”
“Negative Sir… I took bullet in the side and I don’t know how long I’ll be any good, Sir.”
“I can have the local PD there until WP shows up…”
“I’d rather not, Sir, not until the mole has been dealt with, and I’d prefer no locals whose jurisdiction can be over-ruled by Feds. I need people I can trust, Sir.”
“Very well, where are you Commander?”
Lee read the hotel name and address from the complimentary note pad on the night stand.
“Very well, ETA is two hours; can you hold out until then?”
“I think so, Sir.”
“What about your GW?” Johnson asked without emotion.
“I can hold out until ONI arrives, Sir. I think we have the bleeding stopped,” he replied, downplaying his injury in order to put Connie’s safety first; something Johnson was well aware of.
“What about your pursuer?”
“I disabled his car, Sir. That should keep him on ice and buy us some time.”
“Very well, Commander. Back-up is already in route,” the admiral advised, having keyed in his orders as they talked.
Lee hung up the phone, somewhat clumsily as his strength waned drastically now that he had reported. Even so, he still managed to keep track of his sidearm with his left hand.
“Easy Lee, just lie back,” Connie urged, placing a folded wash rag under his back, adding pressure to the wound as she guided him down onto the king-sized bed.
She unbuttoned his blood-soaked shirt and parted it open to apply a towel on the exit wound; a messy, larger wound than the entrance wound on his back.
“I figured since we were supposed to be married I should get the king size bed,” she explained, a little embarrassed with the fact.
“Good thinking,” Lee complimented with a small smile.
“Should I get your suitcase from the car for a clean shirt?” she asked, not really knowing what to do, her twenty-four years in life hadn’t prepared her for anything remotely like what she was going through at present.
“No,” Lee replied firmly. “Don’t leave the hotel room for any reason; don’t even go near the window.”
“Okay,” she replied with complete trust in his experience, which was proving to be substantially more than a typical naval officer’s, she decided silently. “How about some water?” she asked, trying to help in whatever way she could.
“Okay,” he replied wearily, knowing he needed to replenish his lost fluids.
She helped him take a drink and then lowered his head back to the pillow. “Do you think Armando will find us?”
“I don’t know… I can’t see how, but he’s got a high-stake in you finding you… we’ll just have to be careful. Help will be here in about two hours,” he said, his eyes dropping heavily now that he was in a horizontal position.
“Two hours,” Connie whispered as she blotted his sweat soaked forehead, hoping to ease the pain evidenced by the sharp lines on his face.
* * * * *
The blonde entered the rest-stop, barely taking the off-ramp in time when she spotted Armando’s sedan with a highway patrol car behind it; off to the side, stood a couple with an officer taking their statement. She lowered her window and drove slowly to catch whatever information she could.
“… when we came back from the bathroom, our car was gone…” the husband explained.
The two flat tires indicated why Armando had gone to such lengths as he made what she considered, a serious blunder. The car was registered to the Consulate, and completely traceable back to the Ambassador’s office. Her fear for Consuela heightened, as she figured that the young lady’s life was in serious jeopardy for Armando to take the desperate step of stealing a vehicle. She stopped a few parking spots over and took her time getting out of the car; she needed more information to pick up the trail now that he had changed vehicles.
“… It was a 1976 Grand Prix,” the wife added, “only a few years old… blue…”
The only information the blonde didn’t have was how long ago the car had been stolen, but she couldn’t stick around without garnering unwanted attention and losing precious time in the process. So, she backed out, acting like the scene was just too disturbing to use the facilities and returned to the highway. When she was far enough away from the rest stop, she added a little speed, looking for a 1976 blue Pontiac Grand Prix along the way.
* * * * *
Armando drove around the small town, only thirty miles from the rest stop. There were only two motels and no hospital; a quick drive around the parking lots verified that the protector’s car was nowhere in sight. He didn’t think they would be foolish enough to stop this close to the rest stop anyway, and made his way back to the highway; the next town was two hours away at the speed limit. He could shave a little time off, but not much if he planned on keeping a low profile. His shoulder throbbed, but he took pleasure in knowing that he had hit Consuela’s protector.
Her new bodyguard had been cunning and shrewd to this point, and he was banking on him not involving the local police, but sooner or later they would have to stop and deal with his wounds, so he traveled on figuring that the next town was a real possibility.
“So help me, Consuela, I will make your protector pay,” he promised darkly, remembering with a warped smile how he had placed four bullet holes in her previous bodyguard, one at a time; torturing him with each subsequent shot for her location. The pain spiked in his shoulder, as he determined that her new bodyguard would pay dearly for his part in the cross-country chase.
* * * * *
“Lee?” Connie called, dabbing his head gently to try and curb the fever he was now sporting.
“Yes,” he answered groggily.
“How long did you know who I was?”
He opened his eyes and found her face. “Not until you told me about your father in the car.”
She bit her bottom lip, dabbing almost absent-mindedly. “Most people wouldn’t know me, how did you?”
“I’ve seen your father before… at a State Dinner in DC… you look a lot like him,” he replied wearily.
“A State Dinner?”
“My job sometimes requires some elbow rubbing,” he answered with a smile.
“What is your job?” she asked, hoping to keep him awake.
“I work for the Nelson Institute, I’m a submarine captain…”
“Of course! Santa Barbara! You’re the captain for that submarine with the windows?”
Lee smiled and then coughed, the sudden movement making him grimace. “Yeah,” he finally answered.
“I’m sorry,” she said again, regarding his pain sadly.
“It’s all right,” he slurred, really needing to sleep at this point, but fighting to keep himself awake until back-up arrived.
“Do you know what I’m going to do when this is all over,” she said, changing the subject and trying to be brave.
Lee smiled, appreciating her attempt to be positive. “What?”
“I’m going to take a holiday,” she declared. “Not right away, I’m going home first, but in three months, on my birthday… I’m going to Barcelona to see the sights. Everything I can see,” she said with a hint of girlhood giddiness in her voice. “Do you want to come?”
Lee chuckled. “That sounds nice,” he replied, joining in the light-hearted conversation, before coughing again as Connie’s brow furled in concern.
“Please be okay, Lee,” she pleaded, wiping his brow again, but before he could respond several shots were fired through the window; though a silencer was used the result was flying glass everywhere.
Lee responded immediately by rolling both himself and her toward the far side of the king-sized bed and ending up on the floor with his gun pulled, ready to acquire a target. It was quiet, so Lee reached up and turned off the switch, dousing the only light in the room and hopefully making them less of a target. They had no place to go; it looked like the show-down was going to take place here.
* * * * *
“Consuela,” a deep eerie voice was heard from the outside. “I am here… come to me and I will spare your protector,” Armando bargained from the behind the steel hotel door.
Connie whimpered on the floor as Lee hushed her to keep from giving away their position. His gun was drawn and pointed at the window; it was the only way in with the door still bolted shut. They were in a defensible position, and he knew that ONI would be here soon, not to mention the local cops as the breaking glass would have surely gotten someone’s attention.
“Consuela, it will be just like before… Parker couldn’t help you,” Armando taunted, “and now he’s dead. It’s that what you want for your friend?”
“I have to go to him,” Connie said fearfully, trying to get up.
“No, Connie,” Lee whispered back, trying to keep her safe on the floor. “He has no intention of letting either of us go,” he warned, having to abandon his watch on the door to keep her safe. “Listen to me!” he said, holding her shoulders down with both hands and trying to break through her sudden panic. “Trust me,” he pleaded, but his struggle with the frightened girl had given Armando the time he needed, as he reached a long arm through the broken window to unbolt the door.
Lee heard the click and held all the tighter to Connie’s shoulders until she finally found her senses again, but by then the door was opening. He turned back toward the window in time to hear the ominous sound of the door closing shut; Armando had gained access to the room and was now somewhere with them, hidden in the darkness.
Lee listened intently for shuffling noises, anything at all that would give away Armando’s position. Suddenly he heard it, a thud on the opposite side of the room. Lee shifted his attention, concentrating and trying to find his target when he was suddenly hit from the opposite side by a large man leaping toward him.
Instantly, he realized that he had fallen for the oldest trick in the book by allowing himself to be taken by surprise. Connie moved hastily out of the way as Lee and Armando became entangled in a vicious hand to hand struggle, resulting in both men losing their guns in the initial jolt. Lee’s night vision was good enough to see where to land his hard blows, but Armando managed to keep the fight on the ground where he had the distinct advantage due to his weight. They rolled, trading punches until Armando landed a very intentional and cruel blow to Lee’s injured side.
Lee yelled, the punch sinking deep into injured side as his vision blurred. Don’t black out, he urged himself, knowing he was Connie’s last line of defense just as the lights suddenly turned on. Lee blinked at the sudden illumination, his vision barely registering Armando’s fist ready to deliver another devastating punch to his side, but was spared the blow when Armando abandoned the blow, reflexively turning toward the sound of his name.
He turned to see Connie holding Lee’s gun shakily in two hands.
“Move away or I’ll shoot!” she threatened.
Armando stood slowly, leaving Lee somewhat incapacitated on the floor. “Consuela, put down the gun,” he demanded as Lee used the time to recover, taking shallow breaths and looking for an opportunity to attack.
Connie shook her head, taking a step back as the gun shook noticeably in her hands.
“Put it down!” Armando yelled taking a step toward her, in a clear attempt to intimidate her.
Lee saw his chance and lunged from his place on the floor to grab Armando’s legs, pulling his feet out from under him and yelling as loud as he could.
“Run Connie! Run!”
Armando fell heavily then attempted to kick free, but Lee held on tenaciously, ignoring the pain in his side and fighting back white spots beginning to appear in his peripheral vision. A final kick settled the matter, however, as Lee suddenly went limp; the pain and blood loss finally taking control, even over his will to fight.
Armando stood with fire in his eyes, taking a step toward Connie as she stepped back.
“Stop!” she begged, but Armando took another step toward her, banking on the fact that she wouldn’t be able to go through with her threat.
“You’re too weak to pull the trigger,” he taunted as tears rolled down her face, she was nearly frozen in fear when suddenly an unexpected voice filled the room.
“I’m not!” was heard from the door as the blonde knockout stood with her gun trained squarely on him. “Back-off!” she ordered, but Armando ignored her, lunging instead for Connie in order to overpower her and take possession of the gun. The blonde wasted no time, firing a well-placed shot directly into Armando’s heart. The inertia of the bullet threw him against the wall, his eyes widening at the realization that he had been killed by a woman. He slid down the wall as his eyes fixed on Connie, then fell over dead.
Connie was still standing with the gun shaking violently in her hands as the blonde walked slowly toward her.
“It’s all right, Consuela,” she said soothingly. “Your father sent me to find you,” she explained, reaching as she spoke and taking hold of the gun, gently coaxing it away from the shell-shocked girl.
“My father?” Connie’s small, weak voice repeated.
“Yes,” the blonde replied, checking to make sure Armando was dead before stepping over him and spotting the injured man on the floor. “Lee?” she said completely shocked with who Consuela’s traveling companion had been, while taking a knee to assess his condition.
“Is he going to be okay?” Connie asked, having not move and still very much in shock.
“His heartbeat is strong,” the blonde replied, cupping the side of his face and wondering how in the world they had managed to cross paths yet again. It had only been four months since the Embassy Ball, when Lee’s ONI mission became entangled in her latest job.** They had made a strange truce, one that neither one understood, any more than they understood their strong attraction to one another; an attraction that could never go anywhere. They were like oil and water and they both knew it. Her reflective moment was cut short, however, as the sound of distant sirens caught her attention. She took the time to lean over and place a soft kiss on his lips, before turning toward Connie who was distractedly staring at Armando’s very dead wide eyes.
“Consuela, listen to me,” she urged. “Do you still have the ring Armando gave you?”
“Yes,” Connie replied, pulling her eyes from the dead man and reaching for a chain around her neck with the ring tethered for safe-keeping. She had no idea how this woman would know about the ring, but completely trusted that her father had indeed sent her.
“It’s what Armando was after. Tell Lee about it when he wakes up, he’ll know what to do,” she said standing. “I have to go now, but I’ll be watching to make sure you get home safely. Tell your father that I was here,” she added, the last said to ensure that she would be paid for her services before heading for the door.
“But who are you?” Connie asked, causing the blonde to stop at the door and turn.
“Sabrina… Sabrina Meadows,” she answered, then left silently out the door and disappeared, even as police cars and unmarked cars carrying ONI operatives screeched to a halt outside the door.
* * * * *
Lee heard distant sirens and worked to rouse himself from his foggy existence. He could vaguely hear two women talking and then felt soft lips press against his own. His confusion heightened, but he couldn’t pry his eyes open, the blood loss zapping everything he had left; but as he faded back off, he caught her perfume, a scent he knew all too well.
Sabrina, he whispered, before succumbing to the darkness once again.
* * * * *
Connie moved to Lee’s side as he released an airy moan, reaching for his damaged side and tossing his head in an effort to wake. Her relief that Armando was no longer a threat was replaced with new concern for Lee’s condition, as her shocked senses slowly began to return to her. She was fragile, but in control emotionally when the sound of the door being kicked open startled her. Several uniformed officers entered first followed by plain clothes men, each sweeping their sidearm from side to side to secure the room.
“Everyone, stay where you are!” they demanded as her eyes fought back tears to the added drama of the seemingly never-ending ordeal.
An ONI Operative skirted around the local police to identify their mission objectives, coming across Armando first.
“This one’s dead,” Trey Lansing announced, applying a quick assessment with two fingers to the neck, before turning toward Connie, who was huddled against the wall. The operative then spotted Lee, who had been hidden from their initial view due to the bed. “Miss Figueras?” he verified gently, to her almost hypnotic nod, the excitement almost overwhelming at this point. The Operative holstered his gun and knelt beside Lee. “This one is ours,” he said over his shoulder, identifying the unconscious operative as the rest of the men secured the room.
“Commander Crane?” Lansing called as Lee fought his way back to consciousness.
“Connie!” he called out trying to rise, instantly fearful that he had been unable to protect her.
“I’m okay, Lee,” she assured quickly, squeezing his hand. “I’m fine,” she added tearfully as he managed to open his eyes and see for himself that she was well.
“We need an ambulance,” Lansing yelled over his shoulder.
“Trey, is that you?” he asked, his vision blurring in and out, due to the substantial blood loss and the fact that he had kept himself from much needed sleep in order to protect Connie.
“Yeah, it’s me, Johnson thought you might want to see a familiar face,” he said, lifting Lee’s bloody shirt to look at the wound. “Geez Lee, you managed to get shot up good,” he said, in a light banter meant to ease the seriousness of the situation.
“Got a matching set,” Lee quipped. “One just like it on my back.”
Trey grimaced slightly at the thought. “Just hold on, Lee, the ambulance is on its way.”
Lee swallowed hard. “The Countess?”
“We’ve got it covered, Lee,” Trey said, standing and moving to confer with another operative who was currently explaining ONI’s jurisdiction to the local sheriff.
“Connie,” Lee called, feeling a slight squeeze of his hand in response, but the darkness called once again before he could ask her what had happened.
“Lee?” she called almost frantically, afraid when she couldn’t rouse him as the EMTs arrived.
Trey pulled her away, assuring her that he would be well-cared for, as they watched the EMTs stabilize Lee for the transport. After a few minutes, he was loaded on an ambulance gurney with an IV already inserted and a pressure pack on his side.
“Miss Figueras, it’s time to go,” Trey guided gently.
“Please, don’t make me go until I know he’s going to be okay,” she pleaded, with the memory of Parker’s demise flooding back and clearly visible in her eyes.
“It’s all right, Miss, we’ll all go to the hospital. I’ll take your statement there,” he said, sensing it would be wise for her to be seen by the staff since she was so shaken by the experience.
“Thank you,” she whispered, watching as the gurney was wheeled out hastily for the medical care he desperately needed.
* * * * *
An early morning call roused Admiral Harriman Nelson from his sleep, as he reached for the light on the nightstand and cleared his throat.
“Nelson,” he answered, effectively hiding the fact that he’d just been jolted awake from a deep sleep.
“Harriman, this is Johnson.”
Harry sat up and swung his legs over the bed, ONI’s Director gaining his full attention.
“Harriman, I have some news about Lee…”
“I thought we agreed that you’d have to keep world peace this week without Lee Crane,” Harry interrupted.
“Harriman, listen to me; Crane was shot. He’s holding his own in surgery, but he lost a lot of blood and the GW went untreated for several hours.”
“You pulled him into a mission, even after my CMO warned you that he needed to stand down?” Harry accused.
“Dammit Harry, he wasn’t on a mission! ONI was keeping world peace just fine without him when Crane called out of the blue requesting an emergency extraction!” Gerald deflated slightly and continued. “Crane ran across a lady in distress during that little road trip you sent him on; it turns out she was in Witness Protection, only she bolted when her bodyguard was murdered. She latched onto Lee just before everything hit the fan and the assailant caught up with her.”
Harry blew a breath out, taking in the information and refocusing on the important issue.
“You say he’s holding his own?”
“That’s what they tell me. I have operatives on the scene; the Countess is secure by the way thanks to Lee, but I think you ought to make your way there.”
“Where is he?” Harry asked, taking the information down on the pad beside his bed, usually there for late night brainstorming sessions. “Very well, Gerald; thanks for the call. I’ll be there shortly.”
“I thought FS1 was in maintenance.”
“The scheduled maintenance was minor; she’s ship-shape and ready to go.”
* * * * *
“Admiral Nelson, I’m Trey Lansing,” the blond operative greeted.
“How is he?” Harry asked, taking the operative’s hand in a shake and bypassing the salute as ONI was trying to keep a low-profile while in the hospital.
“He’s just been brought into recovery, the doctor says he’s weak, but will recover. The wound was a straight in and out shot, but it was greatly exasperated when Lee took a direct blow to his side during the struggle with the assailant. But the word from the doctors is all good at this point,” Lansing added assuredly.
Harry nodded, grateful for the news as his eyes shifted toward the young lady standing off by herself and gazing aimlessly out the window.
“That’s the Countess, Miss Figueras,” Trey said with a tilt of his head toward Connie. “She’s been pretty distraught; her last bodyguard was tortured in a failed attempt to obtain her location; she’s carrying around a lot of baggage and I didn’t think it wise to leave without her seeing that Lee was going to make it.”
Harry nodded. “Good call.”
“But Sir,” Trey qualified. “I’m going to have to move her soon. Even though her current threat has been dealt with, if Witness Protection gets word that she’s here, I’ll be forced to relinquish jurisdiction. I’ve got to get her to a safe house until WP gets a handle on their mole.”
“Very well, Lansing, as soon as she’s seen Lee for herself, get her out of here. I’ll run interference if WP shows up.”
* * * * *
Connie was led into the recovery room where Lee was moving in and out of lucidity while his anesthetics wore off. Trey stood near, keeping an ear open for activity in the hall and very nervous about his decision to allow her to stay this long.
“You only have a minute, Countess,” he whispered. “We have to leave soon,” he warned.
Connie nodded, understanding exactly what was at stake, and not wishing to undo what Lee had paid so dearly for, by waiting to receive medical treatment in order to put her in the hands of people he trusted.
She leaned over close and called to him, then watched him pull himself from his drugged sleep to open his eyes.
“Connie?” he whispered, relieved to see her safe.
“Everything is all right now,” she assured, her smile mixed with tears as she finally allowed herself to believe that her chosen protector hadn’t paid for her safety with his life. “You’re in the hospital and Trey is going to take me someplace safe now.”
Lee nodded. “You’ll be safe with him,” he replied in complete confidence.
“Countess,” Trey urged.
Her time had run out, Lansing had allowed her to stay at the hospital far longer than he felt comfortable and she couldn’t risk anymore lives, so she nodded her understanding and leaned close to Lee’s ear.
“Remember my birthday? Meet me at my Special Place,” she whispered, then kissed him on the cheek, lingering for a moment longer to say, “Thank you, Lee.”
Lee reached with a wrist tethered to an IV line, and caressed her cheek, adding a weak smile. “I’ll be there,” he said before Lansing stepped in.
“We’ve got to go.”
Lee nodded, passing unspoken words for Trey to take good care of her, to which the operative nodded back and then guided Connie from the room. He quickly guided her to the back elevators used by the staff, an exit already planned out with fellow operatives waiting in a car ready to whisk her away to safety.
Lee’s eyes drifted shut unwittingly; he had roused himself out from under the influence of the anesthetics to make sure that Connie was safe, but the remaining drugs in his system and the need for rest pulled him back. He returned to a deep slumber, unaware of the sound of the door opening, or that Harry had slid in to watch over his friend.
* * * * *
A small, but controlled wave of pain greeted his first awareness as he woke with a small, unchecked groan.
His eyes were open, currently staring at the hospital ceiling when awareness fully returned and he recognized Harry’s voice. He turned his head slightly to find the Admiral, leaning over the bed with a satisfied smile that his friend had finally woken after hours of much needed sleep.
“Hello, Sir,” Lee said sheepishly, for the fact that his simple road trip had turned into a life or death struggle to survive.
“Good to see you awake, Lee,” Harry said sincerely.
“Thank you, Sir,” he replied, his eyes searching the room.
“She’s been taken to a safe house,” the Admiral replied, answering Lee’s unvoiced question concerning Connie’s whereabouts.
“That’s good, I’m glad she’s safe. I’m uh… a little fuzzy on what happened after Armando and I fought,” he admitted, having passed out before Armando had been dealt with. “I seem to remember someone else there… but I must have been dreaming,” he added, somewhat confused.
“You weren’t dreaming,” Harry replied with a half-smile. “If you’re referring to Sabrina Meadows, Consuela confirmed it,” he said, lifting up a copy of Connie’s debriefing.
“I guess I missed quite a bit,” Lee said with a soft chuckle.
“Only the last ten minutes,” Harry qualified. “Why don’t you tell me what you remember and I’ll fill in the blanks,” he suggested, taking a verbal After Action Report that would suffice Johnson until Lee was able to provide a written one. Lee understood the process, and pressed the button on his bed to raise the head more. He swallowed a small gasp at the pain the movement induced and then began recounting the events that had led to the unscheduled mission.
“I stopped for dinner in what I thought would be a nice mom and pop diner, but three locals came in and started harassing Connie. They wouldn’t take no for an answer, so I stepped in and intervened. I uh… laid all three out on the floor and I guess Connie decided that I was what she needed, a protector, so she hid in my backseat. It didn’t take long to notice her perfume, but I figured she must be in real trouble to ditch the T-Bird, so I drove a couple of hours and then stopped at a rest stop. I confronted her and she admitted she needed help, and asked for a ride to the nearest airport. She wasn’t ready to tell me what it was about yet, but I could tell she was desperate, so I agreed. Armando showed up before we could leave and she panicked and bolted out the passenger door,” he said, stopping to place a hand over his side.
“Is this too much right now, Lee?” Harry asked, his brow furled in concern.
“No, I’m fine. It’s not that bad and I’m not ready for a forced nap right now,” he added with a small half-smile.
Harry nodded his understanding as Lee continued.
“I took off after her, dodging bullets from a silencer until I finally caught up with her. She was absolutely terrified, Admiral. The story started coming out slowly, about the Ambassador and the information she had unwittingly passed. She eventually told me about her last body guard, she was really messed up about it, apparently, he died pretty much in her arms,” he said, stopping unconsciously as Harry raised an eyebrow. “Armando got close enough to fire off some shots and I fired back, I was pretty sure I hit him. I took us further up the hill and then started doubling back for the car. We had just about gotten away scot-free when we had a bit of bad luck. Connie lost her footing and we tumbled down the hill; she yelled out on the way down and he figured out where we were heading,” he said with a shake of his head. “We made it to the car, but I needed to disable Armando’s vehicle. I sliced through a couple of his tires and that’s when I caught the bullet. We drove about a hundred and thirty miles and stopped at a hotel, where I called ONI for backup, but our luck ran out on us when Armando showed up. He shot the window out,” Lee stopped and blew a breath out, remembering the events that had almost ended both of their lives. “I had a good defensible position, but Connie was terrified and thought if she gave herself up, Armando would let me live. Anyway, in the process of keeping her out of the line of fire, he gained access to the room. I was trying to track his movements, but got flanked. We ended up on the ground in a fist fight; I lost my gun and I guess he did too, because we rolled and exchanged punches until I took a direct blow over the gunshot wound. That’s where everything gets hazy,” he said, raising an eyebrow for Harry to continue.
“Apparently, Connie found one of the guns on the floor and pulled it on Armando,” Harry said, picking up the story that Connie had recounted to Lansing as they waited in the hospital. “She was pretty scared, and he advanced on her figuring she was too traumatized to pull the trigger, that’s when Sabrina showed up. Apparently, Consuela’s father hired her when he couldn’t get any straight answers from the Ambassador on her whereabouts. She took him out with a single shot,” Harry said, filling in the blanks as Lee nodded incredulously. “She didn’t stay long, Consuela said the authorities arrived shortly after, but Miss Meadows did enlighten her as to why this Armando fella had been so ruthless in trying to get to her.”
Lee’s brow tightened, very curious to hear what the revelation was.
“The locket that was turned over to the officials was a red herring.”
“That’s why the microfilm in the locket had no value,” Lee realized out loud.
“Correct,” Harry replied. “The real intelligence wasn’t passed through microfilm in the locket; it was passed through a highly-sophisticated computer chip embedded in the setting of an emerald ring. A rather large emerald ring, I might add,” Harry said with a raised eyebrow. “Consuela still had it with her, figuring she might use it to finance her return home. At any rate, the computer chip acts as a wireless transmitter, in much the same way we receive our radio photos aboard Seaview. The technology is well-advanced and frankly, our scientists haven’t perfected a device this small, the closest thing we have to it is used to transmit satellite pictures,” he added, clearly enthralled with the idea. “Apparently, all that was needed was for the ring to be in close proximity to the receiving device and the information was digitally transferred. A marvel of technology that I’d love to get my hands on,” Harry admitted.
“So, Armando needed the ring because it was still loaded with the intelligence?”
Harry nodded. “Yes, that part at least went right. She was extracted from the last drop-off before the intelligence could be collected. The device was paired with ONI’s current technology and they were able to receive a facsimile of the documents.”
Lee raised an eyebrow, curious as to what information had been involved in the elaborate espionage operation.
“Floor plans and schematics for a specific nuclear power plant,” Harry said, enlightening Lee with the answer to his unvoiced question. “Apparently, the information was going to be sold for a possible future attack.”
“Any idea who they were working for?” Lee asked, not believing that El Diamante as a nation had resorted to such espionage.
“One guess,” Harry said in a light challenge.
“The People Republic,” Lee added without much thought.
“That’s our first guess,” Harry agreed. “Of course, we’ll know more once we really get a good look at the technology.”
“Whew,” Lee said, blowing out an incredulous breath. “Poor girl… walking into something like that.”
“Which is why Armando went to the lengths he did to find her,” Harry added.
“What about the Ambassador?”
“Already claiming diplomatic immunity at this point,” Harry answered. “But I doubt that will fly once he’s recalled to El Diamante. They aren’t taking this diplomatic nightmare lying down,” he said, with the unintentional pun of his words causing a slight chuckle.
“It’s ironic that none of this would have come to light if Sabrina hadn’t of shown up,” Lee noted.
“True, but you know as well as I do, that she was here for a job. It’s my understanding that she was well paid by Consuela’s father.”
“Point taken, Sir,” Lee conceded. “I know it wasn’t because of any patriotic notion that she intervened, but we also can’t deny the fact that both Consuela and I would be dead right now if she hadn’t of been there.”
Harry nodded. “I agree as well.”
Lee sighed audibly, the conversation beginning to wear his already physically taxed body down. “How was Connie, Sir?” he asked, changing the subject and with a soft sigh. “I’m not an expert, but I’ve seen the signs of post-traumatic stress before.”
“She was pretty upset, Lee. I think she blamed herself for getting you involved and putting your life in danger in the first place.”
Lee shrugged. “But it was me that intervened at the diner, and there’s no way I would have left her to face Armando alone.” Lee shook his head and offered a humorless chuckle. “You know Sir, I lost the advantage when I had to keep her from trying to go to Armando. She actually thought that she could save me by surrendering,” he recalled incredulously.
Lee took a deep breath in despite the pain it elicited in his side, as he considered the unexpected parallel of two unrelated events; months apart, but unmistakably similar.
“Are you all right, Lee?” Harry asked, realizing his friend had turned quite introspective.
“I think so, Sir. You know, the last mission with Lang has been on the back burner with this current crisis, but even so, it’s been there simmering on a slow boil ever since Su Yin died in my arms,” he admitted, able to bare his deepest feelings to his trusted friend. He stared at the ceiling and bit his bottom lip, as he considered his next words. “I suppose it makes as little sense for Connie to think she could have kept me from helping her, as it does to think I could have kept Su Yin from doing what she knew to be right. I’ve analyzed that day in the junk from every possible angle, and I realize now, that the only way to have kept her safe was if she hadn’t been there,” he paused and shook his head at the thought. “She wasn’t just our interpreter, Admiral; she knew exactly what needed to be done… she was an agent… a good one. She wouldn’t have walked away from the high stakes any more than I would have walked away, either then or now.”
Harry nodded with understanding in his expressive blue eyes. “I’m glad you’ve come to that conclusion, Lee, because it wasn’t your choice that put Su Yin in danger. Once she knew what was at stake, there wasn’t anything you could have done to keep her from being there.”
“No more than I would have walked away from Connie in her time of need,” he reiterated almost to himself, before turning toward Harry. “I don’t want Connie carrying around a burden for what happened, and I doubt Su Yin would want me to either.”
Harry’s eyes spoke both agreement and empathy, having had to learn these hard lessons years ago, as a seasoned ONI Operative.
Lee chuckled again, this time without the regret of earlier, as Harry smiled, ready to move from the heavy mood as well.
“You know Sir, the wild card in all this is still Sabrina,” he said with an unabashed smile. “This the second time she’s ended up working on the right side, and if she’s not careful, she may end up being a ‘good guy’ after all,” he said with a hearty laugh that he had to draw back when the pain caught up to him.
Harry chuckled as well, not exactly buying into Lee’s observation regarding Sabrina, but enjoying the fact that Lee had found his ‘center’ once again.
“Oh, that hurts,” Lee admitted playfully, finishing off his chuckle with a hand to his side.
“Are you ready for a booster on your pain meds?” Harry asked now that the verbal AAR was complete and he was sure Lee was okay, both physically and mentally.
“Yeah, I think it’s time,” he conceded with a sigh as Harry pressed the nurse’s call button. “Thank you, Admiral,” he said to Harry’s tilt of the head.
“What for, Lee?”
“For always being around when I need it most,” he replied honestly.
Harry nodded, pursing his bottom lip to keep his emotions in check. “That’s what friends are for, Lad,” he said in his strong baritone voice that brought as much comfort as the words he spoke.
A knock on the door preceded the immediate entry of the nurse as she rounded Lee’s bed with a practiced medical smile that changed immediately upon realizing that her patient was drop-dead gorgeous.
“Well now, Commander Crane, so good to see you awake. Let’s just see how you’re doing, shall we?” she almost cooed while Harry stood, patting Lee’s arm as he rose.
“I’ll check in on you later, Lee.”
“Aye Sir,” he replied as the nurse took note of his monitors before moving onto his chart.
“It looks like you’re due for another round of pain medication, Commander…”
“Just Lee,” he said with a devastating smile that secretly thrilled the nurse, though her professionalism never wavered.
“Very well, Lee…” she replied with her own dazzling smile as Harry left his best friend in the good hands of the attentive nurse.
* * * * *
True to her word, Sabrina Meadows kept Consuela under surveillance until she was truly safe as the ONI Operatives transferred the Countess from the safe house to a military base for transport. She stopped to call the Count, relaying the events surrounding his daughter and arranging for the transfer of funds to her Swiss bank account.
Her business was complete, so it was time to move on. She threw a leg over her cherry red motorcycle and donned a helmet, taking to the highway where she could feel the freedom of the air rushing over her leather clad body. Her exhilarating life had taken another unanticipated turn with running unexpectedly into Lee Crane once again, and wondered not for the first time, how long it would be before she could get Seaview’s Captain completely out of her mind. Why had he affected her so? She questioned silently, before deciding that the old adage of ‘opposites attracting one another’ must be true. He was the picture of integrity; morally upright and always taking the high road; selfless, patriotic and willing to lay his life down for a cause… he was everything she wasn’t, and she couldn’t for the life her understand why he intrigued her so.
She blew a frustrated breath out then accelerated, finding the need to feel the freedom of speed at her finger tips, while concentrating on the road ahead of her. She was already contemplating her next job and turned her attention to planning out the heist and researching the safe she would be cracking to pull off the deal. It was just another job, but it lined her bank account and fulfilled her need for the adrenalin filled life she craved. She leaned over, adding more speed and taking in the thrill of the high-speed bike ride as she sped onward to her next big payout.
* * * * *
Consuela walked the beach in a slightly melancholy mood, the sun would be rising soon and she had hoped that in celebrating her birthday she could finally put to rest the events that had left such a scar on her heart.
She had returned to El Diamante to the safety of her home and her father’s protection. Armando was dead, and Ambassador Juarez had been recalled and immediately detained as the evidence piled up against him. Slowly, her life was returning to normal as she came to terms with what happened during her stay in America. Eventually, she had to accept the fact that it was Armando and Juarez who were responsible for both Parker’s death and Lee’s near fatal injuries, and that she had been an innocent by-stander caught in the middle of something too big to handle alone.
She’d been grateful for Lee’s intervention that day and would have liked to have told him so, but her safety had demanded a hasty retreat. All she had time for was a quick invitation for her birthday in her Special Place. He said he would be here, but then he had just come out of surgery. Perhaps, he didn’t want to see her again, she wondered silently, stopping to look both ways on the beach, scanning for any signs of a tall, dark-haired man.
The ocean breeze blew her sun dress about her legs as she stopped to watch the sun as it filled the horizon with beautiful hues of yellow and pink peeking through the clouds and splashing the sky with its wondrous colors. She gazed at the horizon and couldn’t help but wonder if he had truly forgiven her after all. They hadn’t had any contact since that day; for at least a month afterwards she had been sequestered at her family’s villa until the danger could be fully assessed. It had taken her most of the three months to come to terms with the violence she had witnessed; though it would never be forgotten, she was learning to live with it.
She bit her bottom lip and watched as the sun began to rise over the Balearic Sea and sighed. How long should she wait, she wondered when she heard a soft splash. She instinctively turned toward the sound to see a tall, lean man in a yellow dive suit emerge from the sea. He had removed his flippers and was walking straight for her. Her heart leapt when he removed his mouth piece and then slid the yellow head piece over his head to reveal the dark-headed man she had been hoping to see. There was no boat visible on the horizon, and her smile grew as she realized he had swum from his submarine.
“Happy Birthday, Connie,” he said when he was close enough, dropping a water proof bag at his feet and reaching to detach his breathing assembly with an absolutely dazzling, yet comfortable closed mouth smile that would have melted the heart of any woman with red blood pumping through her veins.
“You’re here!” she exclaimed, both elated and astonished.
“I wouldn’t have missed this for anything. You look wonderful,” he complimented.
Connie blushed and sighed contently, finally allowing herself to believe that she could move on from her horrific ordeal and begin enjoying life once again.
“You look pretty wonderful yourself,” she returned clearly elated to see him looking so healthy and strong once again.
“I’ll need a place to change,” he said, with a nod toward his bag, “and then I’ll be ready to hit the sights with you.”
“That sounds wonderful! There’s a changing bungalow up ahead and lockers for your gear,” she said, linking an arm into his and deciding that her 25th birthday would be one to remember with the handsome, gallant submarine captain to escort her and feeling oh-so-safe with the able Protector on her arm.
* * * * *
The quiet comfortable sounds of the pleasant road-side diner were interrupted by the loud conversation of the group of men as they noisily entered the roadside cafe.
“Hey, beautiful! Why don't you come sit on my lap while I figure out what to order?” Charlie asked, reaching for the waitress’s hand as she walked by.
“Let go, Charlie,” Wanda demanded calmly.
“Or what?” the obnoxious regular customer asked, to which Wanda let out a loud “Ha-yah!” pulling Charlie over her shoulder and depositing him on the ground at her feet in a stunning martial arts move.
Charlie’s eyes widened as he lay on the ground dumbfounded, while Hank and Ralph’s flabbergasted mouths dropped to the floor. Wanda clapped her hands together in a “that’s-that” move and then went on about her work, convinced that she had wisely spent the hundred bucks the blonde ninja lady left on karate lessons every Tuesday night in the big city.
Hank and Ralph whispered amongst themselves, as Charlie made his way to the counter and cleared his throat, while Wanda calmly rounded the counter and pulled out her pad and pencil.
“Now, what can I get you?” she asked as if nothing had happened.
“My regular please, Miss Wanda,” he replied politely with a swallow and a tip of his hat, as the encounter effectively ushered in a new era at the obscure diner on the edge of the small town.
Credits and Notes:
*El Diamante is a fictional sovereign island, heavily influenced by Spain during the exploration and colonial periods
** Reference to my story Spy Games archived at SS
References made to the second season story, The Peacemaker, written by William Read Woodfield and Allan Balter, directed by Sobey Martin, original airdate November 21, 1965
Sabrina Meadows is my original character and has been featured in four major stories and one short story. Her cameo here makes more sense if you understand the dynamics between her and Lee’s evolving relationship. If you are unfamiliar with the Sabrina Meadows Series, check out the series at SS and read in the following order: Compromised (posted 8-4-13), Spy Games (2-28-14), Just Another Job (5-2014), One of the Good Guys (10-24-14), and Victoria's Secret (10-24-14). For continuity sake, this story takes place between Spy Games and Just Another Job.
Copyright 2017, All Rights Reserved
Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and her main characters belong to Irwin Allen
And the respective production companies