Loloa Fononga:
The Long Journey

 

 

 

Chapter Two

 

 

Harriman continued to try Lee’s home phone and finally left a message.   He looked at his watch and began calling Washington, knowing that Angie would pick up on any calls from Lee or Chip.  He looked down at the incriminating medical report and felt his anger rise.  While waiting for a response, he buzzed Angie. 

“Yes, Admiral?” she immediately answered. 

“Get Dr. Jamieson and have him report to me immediately,” he ordered. 

“Yes, sir.”

Several minutes later, he put the phone back on its cradle, fuming.  No one seemed willing to do more than offer excuses why their particular bosses couldn’t talk to him.  He looked down at the signature of the doctor who had been in charge of the physical.  No one he knew but maybe Doc would when he came in.  Nelson didn’t have long to wait. 

Jamieson came in without preamble, his face a mixture of rage and shock.  He had a document clutched in his fist.  Nelson had the fleeting thought of oddness that he, Morton and Jamieson had received their notifications exactly twelve hours after Lee had received his. 

“What the hell is the meaning of this?” Doc roared.  “And why wasn’t I included in the determination.  Why wasn’t I consulted for Lee’s medical history?  As CMO of a civilian ship, I still have some rights as the captain’s doctor!”

“Sit down, Jamie and let’s try to make sense of this calmly.”

“Calmly!” Doc retorted, still standing.  “Does Lee know about this?”

Nelson nodded and indicated a nearby chair. 

Jamieson sat down but he wasn’t done fuming.  “What did he say?”

“I haven’t had a chance to talk to him.  Apparently Lee received his notification last night and he cleaned out his cabin and left.  I doubt seriously that he was in any frame of mind to realize that this is all highly irregular.”

“As well as being against all protocol,” Doc added redundantly.

Nelson sighed lustily.  “Little ways and big ways, the government seems determined to have their fingers in the operation of Seaview, if not the entire research facility.” 

Doc could find nothing to say that wouldn’t be preaching to the choir.  The admiral got up and poured him a cup of coffee.  The last thing he needed was a cup of coffee, but he couldn’t think of one constructive thing he could do, so he simply took it and then set it down on the desk in front of him.

The admiral put his mug on the desk and lit a cigarette.  Doc wasn’t about to say anything to Nelson about it.  This was one of those times, in fact, when he wished he could join him.    Finally the long silence was too much.  “So they dropped this on him and then waited overnight to contact his CMO and exec and boss.”

“And replacement,” said Morton woodenly from the door. 

The two older men jerked up in surprise.  “Did you find him,” the admiral asked, already knowing the answer from the look on the exec’s face. 

Chip shook his head.  “From what a neighbor said, he had left only a short while before I got there.”  He paused in thought.  “Admiral!  Meeka!”

Harriman galvanized into action, reaching for the phone like a snake striking a mouse.  Morton was back out the door.  “Mrs. Brody?” Nelson asked.  “Is Meeka there?”  There was a pause.  The admiral frowned and then sighed.  “Well, thank you anyway.”  There was another pause.  “Yes, Karla, but I will explain a little later when I’ve spoken to Captain Crane.”  He hung up and looked up at the CMO.  “I getting genuinely tired of all of this.  If I didn’t know better, I’d think some vindictive gremlin had planned the timing on all of this.”

“What?” Doc asked.  “Missed again?”

Harriman nodded.  “He took Meeka to her summer school class, telling Karla Brody he’d be away on leave for a while.  She seemed to think his demeanor was somewhat odd.”

“No kidding!” Doc replied acerbically.  “I suppose Chip was going to try and cut him off at the pass again?”

“I believe so, but I doubt he’ll succeed.”

Doc sighed.  “I suspect you’re right.”

“You want to make that an Irish coffee?”  Although Doc usually declined drinking liquor during duty hours, this time he accepted.  The admiral pulled out a fifth of whiskey from his private store and poured a finger into the mug.  There was a knock at the door.  Nelson smiled grimly.  “Come in, Chief.”

Doc looked at him in astonishment and the admiral shrugged.  “The chief always knocks in exactly the same way.”  Sharkey came through the door and the admiral indicated an empty chair. 

“Sir, what’s going on?  The skipper comes on board in the middle of the night, packs everything and then leaves.”

“Did he tell you anything?” Nelson prompted.  

“Showed me some cock ‘n bull tripe about being relieved of command because of health issues.”  Sharkey’s face darkened.  “One lousy bad physical.  Hell, Admiral, he’s been through the grinder lately.  Couldn’t they have seen that and cut him some slack.  I bet if he did miss some of the guidelines, it wasn’t by much.  And I’ve seen the captain in much worse shape.”

“But he’s not had a physical due at the time,” Doc interjected.  “Although I agree that he should have been cut some slack.  And yes, all of where he missed, physically, was only by slight amounts.”  He sighed and finished his now cold coffee.  “What gripes me most is that I’ve always been the medical authority in charge of the yearly physicals and fitness for duty requirements.  Why the hell did they spring this on him in DC?”

Harriman sat deep in thought.  Why indeed? he mused.  Some equally dark and ugly thoughts came to his mind.  Then he thought of Chip and how he had finally been given a command.  But at what cost?  

“I dunno, Doc, but I know what scuttlebutt’s going to say when the men hear about this,” Sharkey said, breaking into the admiral’s reverie. 

“What, Francis?” the admiral said before Jamieson could say anything.

“That someone ambushed the skipper when he wasn’t able to fight back.  That someone had it in for him.”

“Come on, Chief,” Doc said dismissively.  “You can’t be serious!”

The admiral waved aside the doctor’s comment.  “Indeed he can be, Jamie,” Harriman said softly.  “And I think such scuttlebutt makes a great deal of sense.”

“But . . . but why?”  Jamieson was astonished. 

“What did Lee do back in January?” the admiral queried.

“Besides almost get killed?” Doc asked caustically.  “He told those apes in ONI to go stuff it.  He quit the agency.”  Then his jaw dropped.  “Admiral, you can’t mean that someone in Washington would….?”

“Why not, Doc?” Harriman said caustically.  “I have heard of less logical reasons for targeting someone.  You and I both know that up until recently you have been in charge of all the medical certs.”

Doc pondered a moment and then nodded.  An active duty Naval doctor had been doing some of the physicals on the men in more critical positions of the sub, citing tightened Naval regs and security.  “I guess some things are coming more clearly into focus.”

“Indeed they are,” Nelson replied.  He let his thoughts ponder events of the past few months while he poured Chief Sharkey a mug of coffee.  He added a little of the whiskey and handed it to his COB without even asking if he wanted any.  Sharkey nodded his appreciation and sipped at the now more potent brew.  Gazing out the window, the admiral saw different little incongruous things stacking and building up into something much more sinister in hindsight than they ever were before.  Why the devil couldn’t he have been able to operate totally separate from the Navy and the government?  Money.  It all boiled down to funds.  As rich as his estate and his own efforts had made him, as generous as some private trusts and funding had been, he just didn’t have all the capital to build the Seaview, much less run her and the Institute.  Just as he had on previous occasions, he felt he had prostituted his scientific research for increased funding—for his dreams.  Only now it was compounded because he felt that by doing so, he had put one of his employees….   There he snorted.  Employee?  Maybe technically, but Lee Crane was much more than an employee.  Even more than simply the captain of his boat.  Lee was part of his family and Harriman hadn’t been able to protect him.  Where had he gone?  He looked back into the bottom of his coffee cup and saw that it was empty.  Nelson wondered when he had finished it.  It didn’t matter.  His thoughts returned to what Doc had said last.  “Focus?  Yes, now all we have to do is find out who’s behind all this, expose it and rectify it.”

“And find Lee,” Chip said from the doorway.

Harriman, Sharkey and Jamieson jerked around in surprise.  “That was quick,” Nelson said.  He could already see what the outcome was by the look on Chip’s face. 

“It was all I could do to convince Meeka to stay in school.  She was all for coming with me.”

Nelson motioned toward the last empty chair and Morton sat down.  “So you missed him.” 

Chip nodded.  “Barely.  But when I got there, Meeka hadn’t gone to her class yet.  Despite the fact that Lee hadn’t told her much, she felt something was wrong. She only stayed because I promised to keep her informed on what is happening.  Plus the fact that Lee promised to call her when he reached his destination.”

“Which is?” Nelson asked hopefully.

Morton shrugged his broad shoulders.  “He didn’t tell her that.  There’s something inside that tells me even Lee doesn’t know where he’s going.”

“Well, at least he promised some kind of contact.”   Nelson shook his head in exasperation.

Doc suddenly gasped as though something had occurred to him. 

“What, Jamie?”

But the doctor shook his head and looked as though he was disgusted with his own thoughts.  “No, it’s inconceivable.”

“What?” Harriman insisted. 

“Is there a possibility that Lee’s mother . . . her car accident . . . her death was no accident?”

Sharkey looked aghast.  Chip’s countenance was stormy.  Harriman sat in thought for a few moments.  Then he shook his head.  “I can’t imagine that one of our own government’s agencies could go so far in a quest for retribution.  I can’t believe that of William.  His integrity is unimpeachable.” At least it always had been.  He shook his head.  “I think someone in the organization might have taken advantage, though.” 

“But why?”

“Why indeed.  Maybe someone had to take Lee’s assignments and he was hurt.  Maybe Lee’s sudden departure caused some kind of counter-espionage loss that someone felt could have been avoided if he had stayed.”  He looked at the other’s disbelieving faces.  “I really don’t know, but I think for whatever reason, Lee is being punished by someone in the agency and I intend to find out who and exactly why.  No, I think circumstance played very well into the hands of whoever might have wanted to punish Lee for his temerity.”  He sighed lustily and rubbed his eyes.  It was only midmorning and he was already worn out.  “Let’s put it this way—if anyone even thought of doing such a heinous thing, Lee doesn’t need to know it.  He went through enough hell without adding something like that.” 

“I think the most important thing is getting to the bottom of that bogus medical report,” Chip growled. 

“It was sneaky, but it wasn’t bogus,” Doc said morosely.  Everyone looked at him in surprise.  “The stress he’s been under certainly caused an increase in his blood pressure.  His grief would definitely skew any psych profile.  And the low blood count is probably a sure thing and with everything else, throw his visual tests out of whack, too.” 

“But why the test back east?” Sharkey asked. 

“Think about it, Chief,” Nelson said.  “There was no one to interfere.  It was done and over with before we even knew about it.  Lee was too numb with shock and grief to question the irregularity of it.” 

Harriman thought back to that horrible time last month; first when the word came of Lee’s mother’s death and then when they had gone out to the funeral.  It had hit him hard.  Mother and son had become quite close these past years, since a year or two before his assignment to the Seaview.   There had been times when Lee would open up to Edna Crane and no one else.  That was when she would become liaison to him, Chip or Jamie, depending on the situation.  She had been an anchor after a particularly bad mission, especially the espionage missions.  It had seemed when she had finally reconciled to Lee’s career choice; they had become more tightly glued together than they had been during his adolescent years.  Her death had only been a month and a half after Harriman’s Alaskan adventure.  They had just come back from testing a new navigational device.  Finally everything had clicked back together in Nelson’s mind, there seemed no residuals from his bout with amnesia and he felt normal again.  He was in his cabin contemplating his final report on the North Slope when someone tapped softly on his door. 

“Come in,” he had called out.  No one entered.  “Come in,” he said in a louder voice.  He had just started to get up when the door slowly opened and Lee had stepped in, a paper clutched tightly in his hand.  He had looked like he had seen a ghost.    “Lee, what’s wrong?” Nelson asked, feeling a sudden chill creep up his spine.

“I, uh, Admiral,” Lee began uncharacteristically. 

“Lee, sit down.  Tell me what’s wrong, please.” 

Like a robot, the captain had sat.  Without a word he handed the note to Nelson.  As Harriman read it, the chill spread, coalesced and became a vice around his heart.  It was a terse and emotionless summary of a car accident, which ended in the death of Edna Crane.   The admiral immediately got up and placed his hand on Lee’s shoulder.  The grieving man didn’t even seem to notice.

“I need to go back home.”  The voice was emotionless, wooden.

“I am so sorry, Lee,” Harriman had said.  He had met Lee’s mother, been to her house several times over the past six/seven years and found her to be a wonderfully loving woman who had overcome her fear of the sea because of her deep devotion to and pride in her only child.  “Of course.  You take all the time you need.”  He paused.  “We want to be there….”  His voice trailed off. 

“Of course.”  Lee got up but didn’t leave.  There was silence for a minute.  “My aunt called right before I got this.”  Harriman didn’t know if Lee was going to give him further details or just making sure he didn’t think the rest of his family had been derelict in its duty.  “She said it was quick.  Mom didn’t suffer.”

“That’s a blessing, lad.”

Crane nodded.  “That’s what I said,” he murmured and then left.  Thirty minutes later he was off the boat.  Two days later they got word of the funeral.  A very large contingent of men took their leave time to go to the funeral service.  Lee had noticed their numbers and acknowledged it gratefully with a nod.  But mostly it showed in his eyes.  The Seaview contingent had been larger than his own family’s, Nelson had noticed.   And less than two weeks later, he had been forced away from that same group.  Sidelined a little deeper into his personal hell. 

 

 

 

Chapter Three
Chapter One
Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea Contents
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