A Matter of Time
Lt. Commander Chip Morton
Admiral Jiggs Starke
“You have it put together, Admiral,” Morton breathed softly as he looked over the admiral’s shoulder. “You did it! It’s perfect!”
“Thanks, Chip, but I won’t know that until I test it.” Nelson carefully lay the timepiece down and took a deep breath. Even that was difficult; he was so tired. His back ached, his head ached and his eyes burned. Doc had been eager to say for the past three months, that Harriman wasn’t going to do Lee Crane any good if he collapsed from total exhaustion. Right now, he was willing to believe it, but right now, he was also feeling the satisfaction of having accomplished step one in the rescue of Captain Crane.
What was frustrating, though, was the fact that it had taken so long to do it. Despite his memory of the steps in dismantling the watch, despite notes, sporadic at best, due mainly to the fact that he had never dreamed he would be putting it back together again; and he certainly hadn’t wanted anyone else to be able to, either—but despite all of that, he was intensely irritated that he couldn’t get it together as fast as he had taken it apart. Harriman had been forced to stop to think numerous times about what he was doing, to measure, to record his thoughts, use the computer, sketch, pull out the few photographs of the device, take the watch apart and put it back together again and again. He couldn’t afford to make a mistake, because he most likely wouldn’t be able to duplicate some of the parts if he did. At many points in his quest to rebuild the timepiece, he had cursed and doubted that he would ever succeed. It was only his fear of leaving Lee alone in a past or future time that spurred him on.
And of course, Chip Morton. Chip was relentless in his belief that the watch could be rebuilt. He had offered suggestions, placed pieces together when Nelson’s hands shook from exhaustion, taken down the admiral’s thoughts and theories, even been a gofer at times. Chip had been an unabashed cheerleader in his belief that the admiral could do the job. Not only that, the executive officer had kept the boat running for the past three months, as well as spending most of his free time helping him in the lab. While Nelson had instructed Angie and the rest of the staff at NIMR to refuse any more assignments for Seaview, the submarine’s docket had all ready been pretty full these past months, made more full by Pem’s interference before Lee’s disappearance. So for all practical purposes Chip and the rest of the crew had not only run the boat, but also overseen all of the research and experiments. Research! He was beginning to wonder if he would ever be able to just do pure research again. Maybe when this was all over…. He took a deep, tired breath and gazed at his exec. He saw what he already knew—that as exhausted as Harriman felt right now; Morton had to be more so. Chip wiped his hand across his tired eyes.
“If we find Lee, it will be totally due to you, Chip,” Nelson said quietly.
“No, sir. You got this thing together,” Morton said with a smile. The blue eyes were dark with fatigue. “When do we test it?”
The admiral couldn’t help it; he chuckled softly. “Not now, Mr. Morton. As much as I would like to, we have to prepare and we can’t do it in the shape we’re in right now.”
The intercom crackled to life. “Admiral, we have visitors,” Lt. Rojas told them from the control room.
Chip and the admiral looked at each other. “You know about this?” Nelson asked.
Morton shook his head. “No, Admiral.” He reached for the mike. “Who is it, Miguel?” he asked.
“Admiral Starke requesting permission to board, sir.” There was a pause and a little unrecognizable background noise. “Admiral Starke on board, sir.”
Nelson cursed under his breath. “Just what we need. And this was the one time I was willing to follow Doc’s orders.” He looked into Morton’s tired face and then shrugged. “Well, let’s go and see what the man wants.” He locked the timepiece into a foam-padded safe.
“You haven’t told him what happened to Lee, have you, sir?” Morton asked as they walked out of the lab.
“No, Chip. I haven’t even told him about Pem.”
That was an understatement, Nelson thought. There was more packed into that one sound than in the entirety of his last doctoral thesis. The only people who knew about Lee’s disappearance and/or about Pem’s activities were the men on the Seaview, a few trusted personnel at the Institute, and Admiral Johnson, the head of the Office of Naval Intelligence. The last had been a necessity when ONI had wanted Lee to do an undercover job for them a month ago. Otherwise, they had been lucky and had not had to make too many excuses. Now, though, it seemed that everything was going to hit the fan. Despite the fact that the admiral was one of Nelson’s closest friends, Jiggs Starke was like a ferret. He admired not only what Nelson was doing with the Seaview, but also the young captain who had once had the temerity to defy not only Starke, but also a very sick Nelson during a more than mundane mission several years ago. And if Jiggs thought something was being hidden from him, he would dig until he found out what it was. Oh, well, Nelson thought as they climbed the ladder that led to the control room. Starke could also be the best ally the Institute and Harriman had when the political fires heated up unbearably. When Nelson and Morton reached the control room, the tension was palpable. Admiral Starke was standing by the periscope island in stiff fury, while the crew was tensely and silently waiting for their boss to rescue them from the promise of certain death.
Starke took one look at Nelson and Morton and then raised an eyebrow. With characteristic bluntness, he said, “Harry, you look like hell. Will you tell me what’s going on here?”
Harriman took a deep breath. “If you will follow me to the ‘front porch’ I will.” Nelson turned to Rojas. “Lieutenant, please send someone from the galley with a fresh pot of coffee. And close the collision doors when we’re inside.” Turning back to the admiral, he asked, “Jiggs, can you send your transportation home? When you are ready, I can have Chief Sharkey take you back in the Flying Sub.”
Starke nodded, then looked around. “Where’s Captain Crane?” Again, that gruff bluntness.
“That’s part of what we need to talk about,” Nelson said, settling his aching body into one of the observation room chairs. He gazed out the herculite windows and was shocked to realize that this was the first time he had visited this part of the sub in almost three months.
Lee went farther out this time, probably a half mile before he decided that Diego was going to have six different litters of kittens worrying about him. And to be very honest, he was a bit more tired than anyone this far out had the right to be. This time he didn’t try to test the depth. That would have taken more energy and breath than he needed to expend at this time. Maybe their next trip. The moon was beginning to sit on the shoulders of the ocean horizon as he swan steadily for shore. The captain was helped in his journey by the strong current that carried the waves toward the beach. With his rhythm established, Crane didn’t stop to see how close he was until he could hear the booming of the surf on the northern rocks.
When he could almost touch the bottom, he paused, treading water and listening. Something was amiss. He couldn’t tell why he felt that way, but he did. He kept his head barely above water and continued to listen. He heard the whinny of horses, some clinking and creaking of metal and leather tack. It wasn’t just his horse and Diego’s. There were more people on the shore and if so, they were most likely soldiers.
With cautious deliberation, Lee took a deep breath and then swam underwater further north along the shore, hoping all the while that Diego hadn’t been detained and that the moonlight hadn’t betrayed his own presence in the ocean. He swam for a while and then listened again. The soldiers were laughing loudly. They had confiscated his clothing and were making jokes about how the swimmer was going to be so surprised. Loco and idioso were the words he kept hearing. And Diego? What had happened to Diego? Somehow, he didn’t think his friend would have allowed himself to be caught. That would mean that de la Vega would be in hiding as well. Had he taken his horse, too? It was up to him to figure a way out of this mess. The other thing Lee couldn’t do was allow the soldiers to see his back. Even with the moon slipping below the waves, they would still be able to see the scars of his whipping if he came ashore. Oh, and they would love his twentieth century briefs, too, he thought sourly.
They had called him idioso. So be it, Lee thought with a sanguine smile. Time to test his newfound language skills and since he was supposed to be a servant relaxing after an errand of mercy, he would try to act the part. He swam a bit closer and then stood up on the sand, only his head and shoulders exposed. “Señores, please, what do you do with my clothes?”
“Come out, fool and we will show you.”
“No, no, please. Just leave them and let me dress and return to my duties,” Lee called out, trying to sound properly penitent as well as less than cerebral.
“Duties? What are you doing out here in the middle of the night?” Lee recognized the voice of the very rotund sergeant of the guard, the one who had called himself Sgt. Garcia.
“Oh, señor, I have a large family to feed and as kind as Don Alejandro is to his workers, I cannot feed them all with small pay,” Lee whined, getting into the part.
“What does that have to do with swimming in the ocean? That is foolish any time of the day or night. Come ashore, babozo,” Garcia called out. His men, five in all, Lee counted, laughed with their leader.
“No, no, señor. I cannot. I am . . . uh, please. I have no clothes on.” At this all of the soldiers laughed.
“But why are you out in the ocean?” Garcia insisted.
“Oh, but Sergeant, I have been told about the . . . can I trust you?”
“What? What have you been told?” Garcia called out, blustering. “Of course you can trust me!”
“You will not tell anyone?”
“Me? Never!” The other soldiers tittered and weren’t very discreet about it. Crane was having trouble keeping a straight face, too, despite his irritation. Diego had told him about Sgt. Garcia and his inability to keep secrets.
“Orbe de Oros, Sergeant.”
“You know where it is?” Garcia was practically wading out into the water to hear his answer.
“Somewhere out beyond there,” Lee replied, pointing behind him. “But I have not found it yet,” he said sadly. “I keep trying.”
“Come out, foolish one,” Garcia said, exasperated, seeing his chances for riches slipping away.
Lee pondered this one. Diego had said that the man was as softhearted as they came, but the sergeant obviously wasn’t softhearted enough to simply leave him his clothes and ride away with his men. One last appeal and then he would just have to swim away. “Oh, señor, please. Only my wife and my mother have seen me naked.” The captain was becoming a bit annoyed as the soldier laughed. They must have a quota of arrests to make, he thought irritably, and there was probably a law against skinny dipping, not that he was technically doing that.
He was about to dive back into the surf and try his luck up the coast when he heard Garcia tell his men to mount up. As he breathed a sigh of relief, he heard the sharp scream of a horse. In the first of the pre-dawn light, a large black horse was silhouetted at the top of a rise, about where the coastal highway would be. Diego and Tornado!
“Sergeant, you would harass a poor peon?” Zorro called out.
“Zorro!” Garcia called out sharply. “To horse! To arms!” The men raced for their horses and mounted. Lee swam closer to shore, gritting his teeth in frustration. If Diego had only waited a few seconds more, then he would have seen that the men were leaving. He wanted to shout to Diego to take off. This was getting dangerous as the men were not only mounted, but several had pistols and the others had muskets. Still Zorro remained in place. Only when the first soldier started after him, did his masked friend pivot and gallop away. The soldiers were right behind him.
Lee found his peasant’s clothes scattered around the beach and put them on. He looked among the rocks for his gelding, and finally found him tethered far beyond the high tide mark. Quickly, he grabbed the reins and then led his mount toward the open beach. Pausing to listen for the soldiers, he only heard the distant report of a musket. Lee cringed, hoping that the soldier's aim was as bad as he had been told it was. When it was apparent that everyone had left, Crane turned the horse in the direction of the de la Vega hacienda, mounted and then kicked the horse into a trot. It reluctantly lumbered down the road, and the captain, in his anxiety for his friend, kicked the horse into a faster gait. Then he realized that since this was a fairly well used road, he might run into patrols. Even clothed, he didn’t want to chance being caught by any of the soldiers. Added to that was the fact that the dawn was close at hand.
Grudgingly, Lee slowed the gelding and then guided him off of the dirt track, walking the horse roughly parallel to the well-traveled road. It was full dawn by the time he reached the area he knew the secret cave to be in. It was at this time that he understood why Diego had succeeded for the five years he said he had been doing this. He could no more tell where the entrance of the cave was than he could conjure Seaview. Of course, even if he had been able to see the cave, he wouldn’t have gone into it now. Not being familiar with this area, Lee couldn’t risk someone seeing him disappear into a secret place.
He considered his options and decided that the best way was to just return the horse to the hacienda as though he had found it wandering the hills. With that decided, Crane guided the gelding back to the direct trail toward the entrance of the hacienda. He saw the stables on the side and rode toward it. A peon stable hand came out and stared as Lee approached. Pulling the brim of the straw hat a bit lower, Lee nodded and then dismounted. It helped a great deal that he hadn’t shaved for a couple of days in preparation for this latest excursion. “This is one of Don Alejandro’s horses,” he said in a low voice. “I found him late yesterday evening and brought him back first thing this morning.”
“Gracias,” the stable boy said, taking the reins.
Now that Lee had returned the horse, he wasn’t sure what custom dictated next. He didn’t know if he should just turn and walk away, demand a reward, or ask for breakfast. Taking a breath, he did the latter. “It is a long walk back home. Would I be able to get a little breakfast?”
“Oh, of course, señor. Go into to the kitchen, please,” the young man said, pointing toward an open door.
In all fairness, Lee felt his stomach rumbling and having had de la Vega food for the past month, didn’t regret his decision to beg for breakfast one little bit.
“I would have offered,” the young peon added, “But Don Alejandro has been very upset this morning for some reason and, well….”
“I understand,” Lee said, not totally understanding, but not liking what those words might portend.
The cook gestured him toward a table and then handed him a plate with enough to tide him over for some time. It was while he was finishing up that Bernardo rushed in, took one look at him and then motioned Lee to follow. The cook didn’t bat an eyelash. Apparently Bernardo was in charge of the servants and they didn’t question him. Crane murmured his thanks to the cook, got up and followed the manservant.
Bernardo took him into the library and then after closing the door, rushed toward the mantle, pushed the latch that opened the secret door and then shoved Lee through it.
“What’s wrong, Bernardo?” Lee asked when the door had closed behind them. Bernardo made several pantomiming motions and the American felt his heart sink. Diego had been shot. “Take me to him.”
Bernardo motioned that Don Alejandro was with him and shook his head at Crane’s suggestion.
“Bernardo, I am no doctor, but I do know first aid—modern first aid. Maybe I can help,” Lee insisted, sick at what his insistence at getting out might have caused.
Bernardo hesitated, but finally shrugged and led the way down the steps toward the secret cave. In the area where he had lived for the past several weeks, Crane saw Don Alejandro tending to Diego. The younger man was sitting up, but it was apparent that he was in great pain. From experience, Lee empathized.
Alejandro looked up, saw him and barked out an order to Bernardo. “Get him out of my sight!”
|A Matter of Time One|