I'll Be Home for Christmas--



by Sue Kite





Chapter 8



December 17th, 0300 hours, UTC-8

Crane awoke from his doze, as he did often during the night, to the sound of soft scratching and pattering. He knew what it was and repressed a shiver. Opening his eyes, even though he knew he wouldnít see anything, he followed the progress of the rodent with his ears instead. The rat crept across the concrete floor, sniffed and lightly pawed at the dinner bucket. Lee waited, trying to keep his breathing even, his limbs relaxed. He was ready this time.

The first night the rat had awakened himóthe third night here, he thoughtóCrane had been so tired that he had been fairly sound asleep. The blasted thing had awakened him when it had crawled over him as he lay curled up on the rack. He had jumped to his feet, stumbled in the dark, banged against the wall and tripped over his water container, spilling the little bit he had been saving. The next night he had heard it digging around in the bucket. An idea began forming in his head that he contemplated a great deal the next day. That time he had lain very quietly, even when it crawled up on the rack with him. Only when it sniffed his face, did Lee jerk and the rodent dashed back to the safety of its escape hatch. He had heard the horror tales and there was no way he was going to test their veracity. Still, Lee had lain there, wondering if it would return and what it would do next. For a brief second, he was insanely jealous of the creature that could come and go at will.

The following day, Crane experimented with the food container. His eyes had either become accustomed to the near total darkness, or they had more light in the corridor because he was now able to see vague shapes during the day. He continued to work with the container, laying it in odd positions, trying to make it stay upright. Not knowing exactly how long his efforts took him, it nevertheless occupied his mind and body for some time. In the hours before supper, he tried to pull a string from the bottom of his blanket. He finally managed to pry loose several shorter ones, which he knotted together into a longer string. He threaded one end though a hole near the top of the bucket, presumably where a handle had been, and set it upside down, leaning slightly against the wall. Curling up on his bunk, the other end of the string in his hand, Lee tried to figure how the rat had explored, how long it would take to go from one part of the cell to another and when it might check out the bucket.

After a few experiments, Lee untied the string and hid it back under his blanket. After he had eaten his bland and slightly cloying meal, Lee had felt around the bucket to find the hole in that one. He threaded the string and lay in wait. When it finally came, the rat had knocked the bucket on its side during its explorations and it had scurried off. Despite that, Crane had continued to wait, letting the creature carefully sneak back some time later and check out the interior of the fallen container. Finally it had left and he had untied the string for another try tonight. What he was going to do with the creature when he caught it, he didnít have a clue. Throughout the day, that was what he had puzzled out most in his mindósome way to keep the rat in the bucket after he had captured it.

As his thoughts continued in this direction, Crane laughed softly at the absurdity of what he was doing. But it was action, no matter that it was of no consequence. It was so much better than simply scratching his itchy beard. It was infinitely better than trying to figure the future. The future didnít count, he had decided. It simply didnít exist. To consider the future, Lee figured, would be to plunge down into despair. He was determined not to do that at any cost.

So tonight after he had eaten, leaving a little more of the concoction coating the sides of the bucket than usual, Crane had set his trap, and lain in wait. To stay awake, he did some mental math, figured it was only about a week until Christmas. He remembered how his mother always managed to find an Advent calendar for him the month before Christmas. It had been something she had learned about from an Austrian friend. Lee had been delighted with them in his boyhood. Each day he would open a little window and take out the chocolate piece. She had continued the custom after he had received his captaincy of Devil Fish. She had continued to ship them to him after his assignment on Seaview. Okay, he thought, he would do Advent carols the week before Christmas.

He began with "Jingle Bells," worked through "Away in a Manger" and several other songs he knew. Crane had never considered himself to have a good singing voice, but unlike his father, he could at least carry a tune in a bucket. That reminded him to check his hold on the string. His mother had had a very pleasant alto voice and used to sing along with tunes on the radio, but none of them could read music. Lee mainly sang the melody and would sing under duress, or in the shower when he was in his apartment. On the few occasions he had been coerced into singing with a group, mainly when he had been growing up, he had simply memorized the part he had been given. So it was with pleasure that he was able to not only remember the words to most of the carols, but also some of the parts, mainly tenor, but occasionally bass.

After awhile, he settled down and waited. And waited and waited. He mentally took the Seaview through a variety of maneuvers, took the Flying Sub up in high altitude tests, and dived her beneath the waves. He worked complicated mathematical problems in his head. What had once been the bane of his classroom experience came easier. He did the same with some of the admiralís scientific experiments. That had him remembering chemistry class and he started mentally listing elements in the periodic table, starting with hydrogen and working his way through as many as he could remember. Each time he did so, he remembered a few more.

Finally he dozed, but woke up immediately when he heard the almost silent footfalls of the rat. It pattered softly across the floor, stopped, then moved forward again. He heard it near the bucket, which was against the wall and propped, barely, by the edge of the water container. He could hear it moving inside the bucket. A little more, just a couple of minutes. Let it get complacent, engrossed in its meal. A few more seconds. It was thoroughly enjoying its meal. Now!

With a jerk, Crane pulled the string and then rocketed out of the rack. He had practiced that during the day, too. Before the rodent could push out from under the bucket, Lee had pinned it to the ground. He heard it squeaking and scrabbling around inside the bucket, but he wasnít going to let it go. Some night when he would be tired enough; it would be hungry enough and then it would go for him. There was no way he was going to let that happen. The lice and other vermin had enough fun with him. There was nothing he could do about that. But the rat? There had never been a doubt in his mind that eventually he would catch it.

Reaching over with one hand, Lee grabbed his blanket. He continued to hold down the bucket, but when he had the blanket in the right position, he lifted the bucket slightly and shoved part of it in, then some more, effectively denying the rat its freedom. "Letís see how well you get away now," he told it in triumph. He practically sat on the bucket throughout the night, listening with a cold and determined heart as it clawed at the bucket. When morning came, he turned the bucket over, keeping the blanket well over the top. There was no movement from inside. Still he kept the blanket secure; wadded up with even more pressure.

He lamented the loss of his blanket, because he had no illusions about the guards giving it back. On the other hand, if they wanted to keep their American prisoner alive for some reason or another, they would give him another one. Either way, he had done something constructive. It wasnít a better mousetrap, but it had worked. It was the only thing that had worked in the week or so that heíd been here. And he wasnít going to take the chance that the rat was dead. They were tenacious and could be vicious creatures, so he left the blanket wadded and stuffed on top of the bucket.



December 17th, 1000 hours, UTC+8

Tomarin Kovitch sat in the prisonís interview room, waiting for them to bring in his client. He mentally cringed at reference to the American spy as his client. Such an assignment certainly was no feather in his cap. It was always the green lawyers who got such odious assignments, too. He sighed. It was his luck that he had just joined his first law cooperative. Oh, well, he thought as he heard the outer door open and two guards escorting, none too gently, the American.

He almost started. This was supposed to be an American Navy man of rank? The man was bearded, filthy and totally unkempt. He blinked and wiped his eyes on his sleeve. Then again, Kovitch thought, that was only as it should be. The note on the file said that heíd been kept in total solitary confinement in one of the highest security cells, to prevent any attempts at suicide or escape, and in keeping with his crimes. Alleged crimesónot that Kovitch doubted any of them. He had skimmed through the file that had arrived at his apartment early this morning. This wasnít the Americanís first time in the Republic. Much of this manís past dealings with his countrymen had resulted in either embarrassment or worse, loss of property and life. Then there was the murder of the Security undersecretary, Wu-jin. Kovitch continued reading the file even as the prisoner was shoved into a chair. The jangle of the manacles was in jarring contrast to the relative silence of the room, but he ignored it the best that he could.

Kovitch finally looked up to see the spyÖ. This was Captain Lee Crane, he reminded himself. Despite the fact that this was a pretty open and shut case, he would have to remember that a client had a name despite the crime. Regardless, the spy was studying him as though he, Kovitch was the one on trial. He drew in a deep breath and then began in English. "Captain Lee Crane," he read from the first page. "Born in Rhode Island, United States. Commander in the United States Navy."

Just as he was about to continue, the American spoke. "Reserve."

Kovitch blinked in surprise. "I beg your pardon?"

"I am Commander Lee B. Crane, United States Navy Reserve."

"What is the difference?"

"The difference is that I am not under direct jurisdiction of the United States Navy, but can be called into active duty at any time." There was no bluster, just a statement of factómaybe a bit of prideóbut no arrogance.

And it was disconcerting, but the man continued to study him. "I am Tomarin Kovitch, your legal counsel."

"I assumed as such."

"I will be representing you at your trial tomorrow. I wantedÖ."

"Tomorrow?" His surprise was brief, then Crane gave a brief smile. "Damn, donít waste time, do you?"

Kovitch just shrugged. "Why? That is something that we seem to be able to do much more quickly than your countryís clogged and overburdened court system."

"Maybe, but when there is only one outcome and itís pretty much decided beforehand, a trial wouldnít take long," Crane stated matter-of-factly.

Kovitch only shook his head and wished that they had given this man a bath before he was brought in. "I will do all I can, but the charges are serious. Just the fact that you were in our country illegally is a serious enough crime."

"All right, tell me what the crimes are and perhaps we can discuss this so-called trial tomorrow."

Kovitch sighed. "I donít think you realize the seriousness of your position."

Crane leaned forward a bit, felt the manacles shift and frowned. He regained his equanimity quickly. "I realize it all right, just donít figure thereís much I can do about it."

"You also realize what the verdict is for almost any of these charges?" Kovitch asked, still feeling disconcerted by the man across from him.

"Sure, if the charges are what I think they are," Crane said quietly. "Iíll be wrung out for any secrets and then shot or hung."

Kovitch figured enough of the Americanís idiomatic answer to understand what Crane was telling him. "If you knew what the consequences were, then why did you choose to be a spy against our people?"

"First and foremost, I am an American serviceman. I am committed to honorable service and duty to my country. I will serve where asked to and fulfill that duty with the utmost integrity and honor." Crane paused and then leaned back, as though understanding how his proximity to Kovitch affected him. "Now, could you please tell me what all these charges are?"

"Of course, Commander Crane," Kovitch replied. "You are charged with illegal entry into the Peopleís Republic. You are charged with espionage and you are charged with murder."

At that Crane started. "Whose murder?" he asked sharply.

"The murder of Shan Wu-jin, undersecretary of security."

"What? I didnít murder Wu-jin. Never met him."

"Perhaps it might be good if you told me just what you did that six days you were in the Peopleís Republic."

Craneís eyes hardened. "You know I canít do that."

"Then how do I know you didnít kill young Wu-jin?"

"Look, Mr. Kovitch. I didnít see more than a few people the entire time I was in your country. I was holed up during the storm, like most everyone else in that part of the country. As to the rest, you know that I canít tell you any of that."

"Even if it would save your life?"

"You making me a deal?"

"I know it would go easier for you if you would cooperate, Commander."

"Are you making me a deal?" Crane repeated.

"No, but I canít even begin to help you if you donít give me some information to go on."

"Mr. Kovitch, I donít think you could help me if I told you every minute of every one of those six days," Crane shot back. "I do have a demand, however."

"You, a demand?" Kovitch almost laughed. How in the world could such a . . . person as this make demands? Then he saw the calm dignity in his clientís eyes. Kovitch suddenly realized that this wasnít simply a filthy, uncouth, degenerate convict. This was a man who commanded, led into battle and fought without flinching. Here was someone who carried his dignity inside, not in his outward appearance. How did he know this, Kovitch asked himself? He didnítóonly that it was so. So he would play along and see what came. "All right, tell me what you would like and I will see what I can do."

"I will not appear in court like this. Granted, I would be going too far to demand a Navy uniform, but I will not go into any court, kangaroo or not, without the opportunity to clean up and look somewhat presentable." He leaned forward again. "No matter what I am accused of, I am a human being and demand to be treated, at least in court, with some shred of human decency."

Kovitch said nothing for a moment. Then he cleared his throat and began, "I will do what I can, Commander, but in light of your crimes, I am not sure how far I can go with your request." Actually, he thought he could grant the entirety of Craneís demand, but he wasnít going to give in too easily. He stalled by looking at the file again. Kovitch hadnít noticed the quickly scrawled note at the end. He sat up and read it again. Then he looked up at the American who was still scrutinizing him. "It says you have been unruly and disrespectful of the staff here."

"When? At the beginning of my internment? I couldnít help that. I was sick as hell and hungry, thirsty and trying to get over that gas they used on me in the mountains."

"No, I mean this morning."

"This morning?" Then Crane began laughing. "You talking about the rat?"

"Yes," Kovitch said quietly. Then his curiosity got the better of him. "They donít have details of the incident. Could you supply them?"

"What in blue blazes was I supposed to do with the thing? It was eating my food, probably would have taken a chunk out of me eventually. I wasnít going to let that happen. So I figured a way to trap it using the dinner bucket and my blanket. When they retrieved the bucket this morning and pulled the blanket from the top, the rat apparently surprised them. Guess it was still alive and scared the hell out of them when it took off. It was hard to hear from the cell so I may be wrong in my assessment."

Unable to stop himself, Kovitch chuckled at the picture the prisoner had presented him. Then with great effort he recovered.

Crane had paused. There was no smile on his face and he took a quick breath. "Mr. Kovitch, I have been consigned to a pitch dark, dank, five by seven room with a hole in the corner for a toilet and a metal rack for a bed. Do you think I was going to magnanimously share it with a scavenging rat?" His eyes were sparking with previously pent up anger.

Kovitch couldnít help it, there was something about this man that commanded respect. No wonder he had been one of the youngest submarine commanders in the United States Naval history as he had read in the report. He found himself drawn to the American and had to jerk himself out of that line of thought.

Crane continued, his voice softer, drained of anger, only tired. "And think about it, that damned rat had freedom that I can only dream about now."



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