Lee Crane handed his cover to the hat checker and scanned the room, hoping to locate a friendly face with whom he could pass the time. He had been out of the country for nearly a month and upon his return had been greeted with orders to attend a soirée being hosted by one of the submarine Seaview’s congressional backers. As captain of the famous boat he was frequently called on to attend such events; however, he hated the politics and did his best to avoid them whenever possible. In an unusual move he had offered none of the usual objections, catching his CO, Admiral Harriman Nelson, totally off guard. As he recalled Nelson’s expression he couldn’t help but grin.
“Here you go, sir.”
“Thanks.” Still smiling, Lee tucked the ticket into his pocket then waded into the crowd. For the next ninety minutes he made small talk with many of the elite attendees and their escorts. When the conversation once again turned towards the quality of the wine being served at the bar, he excused himself and ducked through the doorway to the terrace. As the breeze tousled his hair he took in the view of the city and the night sky. Though the city lights obscured many of the constellations he was able to make out Cygnus, the swan, one of his favorites. A sudden a tingle up his spine let him know he was being watched.
“Nice evening, Commander.”
Lee turned towards the female voice. His eyes were immediately drawn to those of the slender, poised, figure standing by the doorway. They were dark, expressive and somehow familiar but with much of her face covered by a scarf he couldn’t be sure. He cocked his head. “Yes it is. I’m sorry, have we met?”
The woman chuckled softly. “We have, but it has been a few years since you were in Savsat.”
A twitch of his lip was the only outward sign of
the emotions welling up inside Lee as he flashed back to his first ONI
mission. He had been tapped to join the agency during his first onshore
rotation from sub duty. Fresh faced, unfamiliar to Soviet intelligence
and fluent in one of the local languages, he had been the ideal
candidate to send into the
The woman put a finger to her lips then looked
around. “That was my birth name. It was not safe to keep it or to stay
in that place. I relocated to the capital. Now I am married to a
diplomat and residing here in
“Congratulations. I’m glad that things have turned out well for you.”
“Thank you, Commander. It seems you have done well yourself. Captain of a vessel as grand as the Seaview is some accomplishment.”
Lee responded politely but guilt over the circumstances of his rescue was eating at him. “I’m sorry for leaving you to face those men alone.”
“I would never have risked it without good reason. Those men were a pox on my people. And as you see I survived. But enough of that, it is in the past. What about you, your life? Are you married?”
“No. I’m afraid not.”
“That is unfortunate. There is something to be said for the institution. It provides stability, if nothing else.”
Lee detected sadness in the woman’s voice. He remained silent, uncertain of what to say to a woman who had sacrificed so much. Noting his discomfort the woman again changed the subject. “My husband was in the Turkish Navy and has expressed an interest in touring your submarine. Would that be possible?”
Lee thought for a moment. Unlike visiting
military officials, diplomats were not subject to most
“Thank you for your kind consideration. I really must be going. It has been good to see you.”
Lee nodded respectfully and the woman turned to go. That motion caused a slip of her scarf, exposing a long scar down the side of her face. The hitch in Lee’s breath did not go unnoticed, and she turned back towards him. “You must forget about what happened. I have a new life and you can help best by not drawing attention to my past. And there is something else.”
Lee cocked his head.
“I would ask that you keep this conversation in confidence. I would not want my husband to think I am meddling.”
“Of course,” he replied with a smile. “May I ask you something?”
“Yes, what is it.”
“What’s your name?”
Her eyes smiled. “It is Sibel.”
Once the woman had gone back inside, Lee again looked up at the sky. As he stared at the swan it faded away and he was transported back in time to that fateful mission.
There was no sense in making it easy for the men who were trailing him so after hopping a freight car on a train leaving the town of Akhalk’alak’i in the southern region of the Soviet Republic of Georgia and traveling south, he leapt from the car and rolled into a ditch. When the train was nothing more than a speck on the horizon he rose and slipped into the woods. For the next several hours he climbed over fallen trees and picked his way through the thorny underbrush. Confident that he had finally lost his pursuers he hopped over to a narrow strip of pavement and continued south towards the next settlement. Once he reached it he would be within a mile of the Turkish border, and safety.
He had walked for nearly an hour when the muffled clack of leather soles on pavement warned him that he was not alone. He immediately sought cover behind a large tree and from his crouched position he observed a group of six men making their way up the road towards him. They were dressed in native garb but each man had a Russian-made rifle slung over his shoulder and a mesh bag with a spare magazine wrapped around his waist. It was not uncommon for the inhabitants of the border region to be involved in the trade of illegal arms or just about anything that could be smuggled out of Soviet territory. That made every encounter especially dangerous and every man a potential threat.
As the men passed he held his breath. When they were a good hundred yards away he felt it was safe to stand. At that moment, a bullet zipped by him and splintered the bark of the tree next to his head. In seconds he was surrounded by a larger, more menacing group of men and several of them aimed their rifles directly at his chest. They motioned for him to place his hands behind his head. He was then quickly and roughly disarmed. For several minutes the men questioned him. He was not familiar with their particular dialect so rather than give them anything to use against him he remained silent.
With his hands bound by leather straps he was forced to march out in front of the others. For no apparent reason other than to inflict pain, one of his captors took his rifle and struck him across the backs of his knees. His collapse brought immediate laughter from the entire group. When he managed to make it to his feet he was again struck, this time across the thigh. When he went down again the remaining men joined in on the entertainment, kicking and punching him until blood soaked through his trousers and shirt. After he was dragged to his feet the group set off again.
By the time they reached the men’s encampment he was limping badly and blood from a cut over his eye made it difficult to see. Though weak, he fought against his captors as they stripped him of his outer clothing, dunked him in a tank of foul smelling water then paraded him in front of a group of men seated at a table under a makeshift shelter. The men were taking notes and exchanging stacks of lire. Behind them were a number of long wooden crates that all but confirmed they were involved in gunrunning. He stared warily at several stockades, each topped by razor wire, and wondered what else the men were keeping inside the camp. His question was answered when he was dragged over to one of the enclosures and thrust inside and a set of old clothes was thrown in after him. He found nearly a dozen men from several different ethnic groups either seated or crouched down around the inside perimeter. Though they appeared to have water, their gaunt frames were evidence that food had been scarce. Their unkempt appearance and the strong smell of urine told him they had been there for some time.
Though he lacked experience, he had received
intensive training from both the
“They don’t care who you are or what you are! You were in their way. At worst you are a commodity to be sold or bartered. At best you die here.”
A shiver went up his spine. His prison was off the map. None of the international rules applied, and no one would be looking for him here. It appeared that his first mission just might be his last.
Lee snapped back to the present, embarrassed that the server had caught him off guard.
“The bar will be closing shortly. Would you like another drink?”
With a polite wave he declined. He didn’t want to put something else on his queasy stomach. He stepped over to the door and glanced into the ballroom. The crowd had indeed dwindled to several couples. There was no sign of Sibel or the ambassador. After stopping to thank his hosts he retrieved his cover and departed. On the cab ride back to the hotel he again became lost in his memories.
When crusts of bread rained down from above it was like manna from heaven but the feeding frenzy that followed reminded him of a school of hammerheads. He grabbed his share, but not without sustaining a few gouges on the backs of his hands. He was sympathetic; it had been almost a week since he had eaten but it was probably much longer for the others. As he nibbled on his precious but stale fragments, he walked over and peered through the slats through which he had kept track of the comings and goings in the camp. The sight of a woman in her late teens piqued his interest, not because she was one of only a few women he had seen but because her modest bloomers, known as salvar, long sleeve jacket and headscarf set her apart from the others. She was with an older man and walked slightly behind him, showing him some measure of respect. He suspected they were there to purchase guns. Sure enough when the pair reached the money tent the woman reached into her bag and pulled out a stack of currency. She handed the money to her escort and he in turn handed it to the bankers. The men pointed to the payment and scoffed. Appearing disgusted, the woman removed another stack of lire and tossed it on the table. The bankers snatched it up and directed the buyers to follow them. The group was out of sight for nearly a minute. When they finally re-appeared they stood in front of the adjacent enclosure just long enough for the guard to unlock the gate then disappeared inside.
The scene playing out was unusual, even for the camp, so he continued to watch. When the visitors finally exited the stockade, the older man was leading a scruffy looking man by a tether. The prisoner’s hands were tied and he also wore a leather hobble, making it nearly impossible for him to escape without falling. In an unexpected move the woman marched directly over to his stockade and ordered the gate to be opened. The guard balked, but when the woman became hysterical he relented and removed the lock. She pushed her way past him and entered.
“Who are you? Please tell me who you are.” She repeated the question in several dialects.
Unsure of her intentions, he and the others remained silent. The woman then looked each man in the eye as if trying to memorize the face. When she turned to him their eyes locked. He was sure he saw empathy as well as sadness there. Abruptly she turned and left and the gate slammed shut behind her. In less than a minute she and her party were gone.
Over the next week he became much weaker and sores began to develop on his tongue and around his mouth, nose and ears. Whether it was due to dehydration or disease didn’t matter. He considered himself lucky, though. Two of the men in the stockade had died and their bodies had remained there for several days. In their weakened condition and with no opportunities to escape, it was only a matter of time before all of them met the same fate.
Though he was young, after two more weeks he no longer had the energy to stand watch so when the male visitor from weeks before returned, he and the others were caught by surprise. No one reacted as the older man strolled in and made his selection. The man pointed to him and the guard dragged him to his feet. At first he fought against being bound but something in the older man’s eyes told him to cooperate. He was marched outside and hobbled then by a series of shoves and kicks he was steered towards the footpath at the edge of the camp. When the trio was out of sight of the smugglers he was immediately forced down on his knees. Certain he was about to die, he steeled himself and prayed. Without ceremony, the woman walked over to him and shoved a canteen to his lips. Relieved beyond belief, he drank greedily.
For over an hour neither of his new keepers said a word. Finally, the pair began a conversation between themselves. He couldn’t understand much of what they were saying, but he was sure he heard the word for “knife”. Almost immediately the older man turned towards him. He took his knife and swiftly removed both the hobble and the bindings on his wrists. The woman then handed him a piece of fresh bread. He was shocked but pleased by the developments.
“You have been given…I believe you call
it…a second chance.” The man’s English was quite good. “We have
a car up ahead. We will take you to our
“I can’t thank you enough. Can I at least know your names?”
The two looked at each other. “I am Akar and this is my daughter Sashanda. You need to know nothing else.”
They trudged through the woods for another half-hour before he spied the car, partially hidden by brush. A sudden gasp by Sashanda warned of trouble and they stopped in their tracks. Two armed men were guarding the car. Unsure if they had been noticed he and his rescuers backed up and sought cover.
Akar turned to him. “Leave here! Now!” He pointed west. “Go that way.”
It was against his nature to run from trouble, but he had to keep faith with these people so he quietly crept away. When he was about twenty yards from the car he heard a rifle report and he cringed. When he turned to look back he saw Akar on the ground and Sashanda being dragged into the woods. Though he felt like vomiting, he knew it was his duty to get away.
When he realized the cabbie was holding the door Lee quickly apologized.
“It’s okay. The meter’s still runnin’.”
Lee grinned but he really didn’t feel it. He reached for his wallet and paid the driver. Once inside his hotel room he hung up his jacket and tossed his cover on the shelf. As he sat down on the bed, he scrubbed his chin then ran his hands through his hair. He thought he had put the ghosts of that mission to rest. He certainly never figured they would show up at a party. While he was glad that Sashanda…Sibel, had recovered and was grateful that she had forgiven him, he couldn’t forgive himself. She had made it clear she did not want anything from him but he needed to do something to make it up to her. If nor for her, for his own peace of mind.
He glanced at his watch. Since it would be just
“Admiral, it’s Lee.”
“How did the party go?”
“Fine, sir, just fine. The congressman sends his regards. Sir, I have a favor to ask of you. Would you be willing to let the Turkish ambassador tour Seaview?”
It was small reparations, but at least it was a start.