Time in a Bottle…
Jane L. Daffron
The aromatic smell of something being barbequed filled the air as the tall, lanky man ambled up the walkway to the expansive home that sat on the knoll. Looking off to the left, he saw a blue Mercedes sedan and a sand-colored Jeep Grand Cherokee in the driveway. He knew at least one of the occupants was home as he rang the doorbell. Moments later, a dark blonde haired woman dressed in casual khaki slacks and a green polo shirt answered the door.
Seeing the identity of her caller, “You know he’s not here, right?”
“Yeah, I know. Just thought I’d drop by to see if you needed anything. However…” and he took a whiff of air, “Smells like you don’t need my help at all.”
Karen Davis Nelson leaned against the open door and crossed her arms. “Angling for a dinner invite, are you?”
“Well, if you’re asking…” he grinned.
“Might as well. Harriman always said you were a bit of a mooch,” she laughed and moved slightly so that he could pass by. “You know where the beer is. Grab me one, pour it in cold mug – they’re in the freezer – and come on out on the deck. I’ve got some burgers going and I don’t want to leave them or they’ll burn.” She turned and left him as he headed to the kitchen.
Moments later, Anthony Maurice Rennalt walked out carrying a mug full of beer in one hand and a long necked bottle in the other. He placed it on a table near her as she tended to dinner, and then sprawled out in a deck chair at the table.
“Harry get off okay?”
“Yeah, about 0530 or so. Grumbling the whole time, too. Neither of us could understand why in God’s green earth Norwood needs to see him in DC this week. From what he could find out, it’s nothing that couldn’t wait or couldn’t have been handled by videoconferencing, but nooooooo, the CNO wanted him there today for this particular meeting,” she explained, the tone of irritation evident in her voice.
He took a sip from the bottle and his shaggy gray eyebrows furrowed. “I take it he was not pleased.”
She turned and looked at him as an eyebrow rose. “Humph! What do you think? He certainly was not a happy camper when he left here.”
“When’s he coming back?”
“Well, Norwood told him to expect to be there for about four or five days, at the least, so that’s what he went packed for.”
“Hell, I know that pissed him off. He’s not too taken with the current crowd at the Pentagon.”
“You don’t have to tell me that. I had a call from him about 15 minutes before you showed up. The flight was fine; he’s been in meetings the whole day with Norwood, and now he’s finally up in his hotel room. He was on the phone to Angie before he called me and she was getting ready to walk out the door herself…so, no, he’s not pleased, by any means.” She opened the lid of the gas grill and turned the hamburgers over, the drippings sizzling on the lava rocks below as the smoke rose above her. “Do me a favor. If you’re gonna eat here, you’re gonna work for your dinner. I’ve got a tray fixed with the lettuce, tomatoes, onions…all the stuff. It’s on the counter in the kitchen. If you want to do it all out here, fine. Otherwise, I need a plate to put these on when they’re finished. Bring me one and the cheese as well.”
He got up, gave her a mock salute. “Yes, ma’am!” and walked back inside the house, then returned with the requested items. Watching her as she laid slices of thick cheddar cheese on the thick patties, he silently sipped his beer.
A few minutes later, she reopened the lid and carefully retrieved each of the hot cheeseburgers from the grill. Once finished, she turned off the gas and headed into the house with Rennalt following behind her. As they both fixed their dinner from the food she had prepared, they chitchatted about the goings on of the Nelson Institute of Marine Research. After they’d filled their plates, both walked back to the deck and settled in for a relaxing evening.
As Karen took a bite of her meal, she looked over at the head of the Institute’s Electrical Engineering Department. Clad in his usual attire of Hawaiian shirt and faded jeans, he certainly didn’t look the part of one of her husband’s closest friends, nor the fact that the man was independently wealthy from years of his own patents and inventions. He was, for all intents and purposes, a contradiction in terms. Texan by birth and Bohemian in nature, the fact that he and Harriman Nelson were so close was puzzlement to most.
“Okay, so why are you here? I mean, other than to mooch a meal off me,” she asked.
“Why? You mean, I have to have a reason?”
“Oh, come on, Tony. Harry’s not here, you already knew that. So, what do you want? I mean, not that I’m ungrateful for the company, but…”
He took another swig of the amber liquid and shrugged his shoulders. “Actually, I told Harry I’d check up on you. So, here I am.”
“Check up on me? Oh, come on…I’m not a child, Rennalt. I don’t need to be checked up on. Now, you want to tell me the truth?” she smiled and picked up her fork to eat her salad.
He leaned back in the chair and looked at her. Sitting his jaw just a bit, he rubbed the stubble on his chin with his hand. “Okay…actually, I wanted to talk to you…alone…about how he’s doing. He had a bad time of it this last time.” Rennalt was referring to the Grey Ghost incident and the fact that Nelson was almost killed. “I mean, I know he’s healed, but he almost bought it, Karen.”
She became silent, then pushed away from the table and walked over to the railing. There was a slight breeze that September evening and the sun had almost set. “He’s doing okay. At least from what I can see and what little he’ll tell me, he is. Jamie’s cleared him medically but he’s also been on his back about cutting back on some things. And Caitlin’s pissed off as hell at him because she feels he took chances when he didn’t have to.”
There was a moment of silence, then she took a deep breath and slowly exhaled. “Well, I’ve already said my thanks to the Man upstairs that He brought him back to me. This time. I don’t want to think about the next one right now.”
Tony sat back up straight and then propped his arms on the table, looking her straight in the eyes. “Why in the hell did you ever let him do such a hair brained thing as go out there in the first place?”
“Do you really think I had any choice, Tony? Yeah, I could have grounded him. I had the authority to do it, you know that. But if I had,” and she shook her head sadly, “He would have given Chip Morton a direct command to train him. And Morton would have had to obey. I didn’t want to, but if he was so damn hell bent on doing it, then I wanted to make sure things were right and done the way they were supposed to be done, not the way he wanted them done.”
“You didn’t trust Chip?” he inquired as he chewed his food.
“You don’t understand…it’s not that simple, Tony. I would have trusted Chip, no matter who it was. But with Harry, well, Chip’s one of the senior staff, the XO of the boat. I’m not. I’m a mission specialist. I can do and say things to him that Chip can’t because of that very fact.”
“Goddamn military,” he casually cursed. “Course, the other aspect of that is that you are his wife. That gives you a bit more latitude…”
“Yeah, well…that’s the way it is. And you’re right about the second thing. I am his wife. But in this incidence, I had to put that fact aside.” She grimaced just a bit. “You don’t know how hard that was to do. I swear before God, I wanted to just up and smack him for demanding this. Part of me really wanted Jamie to stick a hypo in his butt and put him out. But I know why he wanted to do it…why he felt he had to do it. It just wasn’t the best thing in the world for him to do.”
“You know he takes a few things very personally at times...like responsibility,” he reminded her.
“Oh, I know that,” she sat back down in frustration. “Sometimes, too much so.”
“Hell, hon, he wouldn’t be Harriman Nelson if he didn’t. That’s a big part of who he is.”
She sighed. “I know that, too… I guess that’s one of the reasons I fell in love with him…among others.” She started to pick at her food and then took a long drink from the cold frosty mug. They continued eating, mostly in silence, until she looked up at him. The weathered face before her had seen a lot of her husband through the years and she finally had to ask. “Tony…what was he like? I mean, after Katherine’s death? I’ve heard some things…”
A shaggy eyebrow rose. “Like what?”
“Well, I know basically how you two met and I know what happened to her. Some he’s told me and then Jamie told me a good portion of it before we went out on the Monterey. But what was he like, Tony? I know that he’s always blamed himself for her death…”
The tall Texan leaned back in the chair and swiveled on the back two legs. “He, ah…well, hon, let’s put it this way…he’s always felt his arrogance in wanting to handle the situation his own way was the cause of her death. He and Walt Evans came up with a plan to rescue her after she’d been kidnapped. It worked for the most part…”
“Until they killed her in revenge…”
“Yep. Actually, it was only one guy involved with that part of it. The guy was a rogue…even Evans said that. They got finally caught him, but it took the CIA to do it. I don’t pretend to understand these people and quite frankly, I don’t want to, but I’ve been told that what he did was against the ‘unwritten code’ the spooks have…or had at one time…you just don’t take things personally. This idiot did and he killed Katherine to make it personal. I, uh, understand that his own side apparently didn’t condone what he did and ours, well, let’s put it this way, I heard there was some pretty pissed off folks in the intelligence community.” He took a final drink from the bottle and got up. “The asshole didn’t last long once he managed to get back home, though. Seems the other side took care of their own ‘problem’ in that respect.” Rennalt disappeared inside the house and then returned with two ice-cold bottles of beer, one for her and the other for himself. As he sat back down, he unscrewed the top and took a long drink.
“And that’s where the Institute’s association with the CIA comes in…” she nodded.
“Yeah, that and he was running out of money for Seaview’s construction. Hell, he’d sunk most of his own money into this place just to get it started. When those two guys showed up at the yacht, he decided to make the deal with the devil. And the rest, as we say, is history.”
“And one of those devils was Michael Briggs. Funny, isn’t it, how things get all tangled up sometimes,” she commented and sat back in her own chair.
“Yeah, well…this is true. But you gotta remember, I didn’t really meet up with him until about a month or so after her death…”
It was sultry Thursday night, just after sunset, when Tony Rennalt walked into Bennie’s Bar in Gaviota, just north of Santa Barbara, California. There was the usual smell of sea air mixed with stale beer and it assaulted his nostrils as his eyes adjusted to the dimness of the room. There weren’t many patrons that night, one or two sat the unkempt bar as cigarette smoke enveloped them while they drank their beers and watched Hawaii 5-0 on the TV above the bar.
He slid onto one of the barstools and motioned to the bartender for a beer. He reached over and dipped his hand into a large bucket of peanuts and pulled a whole handful out, placing them in front of him. As he picked up one, then another and cracked them, the shells fell to the wooden floor. The glass of beer was placed in front of him and as he and the bartender exchanged pleasantries, one of the waitresses walked up and motioned to the darkened back of the room.
“He wants another bottle,” she stated.
“Shit! He’s gone through that one already?”
“Nope, not yet…but he said to bring him another.” She made a sympathetic face, one that showed an ounce of pity for their topic of conversation.
“Wonder what’s wrong? I mean, he’s been coming in here the last few nights…”
“Don’t know…he won’t talk. I’ve tried to see if he’d say anything, but it’s like he’s a man possessed. Like he’s drinkin’ to forget something. What should I do?” she asked.
“Serve the man another bottle,” he shrugged, “As long as he don’t get behind the wheel of that car out there, his money’s as good as anybody else’s. I guess we’ll just call him a taxi and have them take him home, just like the other night.”
Rennalt slowly glanced over and back toward the solitary figure sitting at a small table against the wall. He then turned his attention back to the bartender. “What’s his problem?”
Ray Dumont, owner of the bar, scowled. “Damned if I know. He’s been coming in here just about every night for the last week. Sits down at that table and won’t hardly say nothing to nobody. Just sits there and nurses a bottle of Glen Livet Scotch. A couple of times we’ve had to call a cab to come and pick him up. Comes back the next day and picks up his car. I sure as hell don’t need no drunk sailor getting me sued cause I let him walk outta here and get behind the wheel.” He picked up a couple of glasses and put them up in the holder above the bar. “Even Elaine there can’t get him to talk and she can usually get the life story outta anybody.”
Tony swiveled around and casually drank his beer as he watched the man in the back. There was something about him that seemed familiar but he couldn’t put his finger on it, at least not in this light. A sudden blast of country music from the resident jukebox started to blare and he continued to watch.
This guy doesn’t belong in here. He’s not the type. Glen Levit’s a high class drink and these bozos here wouldn’t know good Scotch if it stood up and slapped’em in the face. Then all at once the realization set in. Jeez! What the hell’s he doing here? And like this of all things?
Once he’d figured out who the mystery man was, he turned back around just as Elaine started back around with the opened bottle of Scotch. When she was within arm’s length, he reached over and grabbed the bottle off the tray. “Darlin’, don’t bother your pretty little self. I’ll take it over.”
She sidled up to Tony and grimly looked at him. “You don’t know him, Tony…he might not appreciate the company.”
“Yeah, well…looks like he could use a friend. Besides, it looks like he’s getting pretty well soused. A good Scotch like this needs to be savored not guzzled.”
She playfully shoved his arm away. “Yeah, right, Rennalt, like you would know what good booze tastes like. All I ever see you with is the cheapest beer that Ray can find, you cheapskate.”
“Looks are deceiving, darlin’. Never, ever judge somebody by what they drink.”
The waitress, a dark haired woman in her mid-thirties but looked older beyond her years, glanced at the man in the back and then at Rennalt. “Sure…okay. Your poison,” and she handed him the bottle.
Rennalt ambled on back and stood in front of the middle-aged man sitting at the table. He looked up and two pair of blue eyes met in a steady gaze. Tony pulled out the chair, set the bottle on the table and uncorked it, then poured the man half of a glassful.
The man was dressed in khaki colored docker slacks and a dark blue polo shirt. Taking a sip of the smooth, amber liquid, he finally said, “You’re not the regular waitress. And I didn’t invite you to sit.”
Tony leaned back and rocked back on the two back legs, then placed one foot in a nearby chair. “Right on both accounts, friend. However,” and then he leaned forward just a bit, “You look like you could use one…a friend that is. Good Scotch like this ain’t for guzzling down. For that, you need some good ole Texas rock gut whiskey.” His Texas drawl was becoming more prevalent now. “At least with that, you don’t give a shit if you get drunker than a skunk.”
“And just how would you know about this Scotch?” the auburn haired man asked as he downed the entire contents of the glass in one drink. He studied his intruding companion closely, noting his frayed, holey cut-off shorts and the half opened green Hawaiian print shirt. The tall man was wearing flip-flop sandals and had at least a five-day grown of beard. He apparently hadn’t had a haircut in months and it hung well below his collar, tied back in a ponytail. The man was, without doubt, an extremely scruffy looking individual, not at all the kind of people he was normally used to dealing with.
“Had it before, that’s how. Personally, I like Chivas myself,” Tony drawled.
“Humph!” grunted the man as he poured himself another glass.
Again, Tony watched as the man silently sipped on his drink. “Think that’s going to solve whatever problem you got on your mind?”
“I don’t know, it just might,” the man answered. “At least I won’t feel anything while it’s doing it.”
“Yeah, but it’s gonna pound your head like a sledgehammer in the morning.”
“Maybe so, friend, but right now, I really don’t give a shit. So, why don’t you take that Southern accent of yours and just leave me the hell alone?”
“For your information, that southern accent is from Texas. As to the other, friend, you look like a man who’s trying to bury his troubles in the bottom of that bottle. And that ain’t gonna make’em go away.” Tony took a toothpick out from his shirt pocket and stuck it in his mouth, slightly chewing on one end. “No matter how bad things are, that Scotch ain’t the answer.” He locked eyes with the man across the table and refused to relent.
“And just what the hell would you know about it?”
“Oh, I know a lot…as the old saying goes…been there, done that,” he drawled.
“Yeah, well…I bet you never killed anybody you cared about before,” came the sarcastic retort.
“Nope, can’t say that I have. But then again, I’ve been all busted up and felt real sorry for myself. Didn’t do any good, though. The problem was still there,” Tony shifted the toothpick to the other side of his mouth.
The shorter man went silent for a few moments and just nursed his drink. Finally, almost as if he were talking to himself, he said, “I should’ve listened. Not tried to do it on my own. I got her killed.” He downed the remainder of the drink and started to pour himself another, but Tony’s hand clamped down on his arm. Harriman Nelson’s blurry eyes suddenly blazed as he angrily looked up at the younger man. Through gritted teeth, “Take your fucking hand off my arm or I’ll break it.”
Tense moments passed before the other man slowly released his grip and sat back. “Okay, if you want to drink yourself into a stupor, that’s fine. But guess what? Tomorrow morning, when you’re nursing that helluva hangover that you’re gonna get, the problem’s still gonna be there and ain’t nothing will’ve changed.”
“At least the pain will go away for awhile,” came a growl. “Now, you can just leave me the hell alone. I don’t need you, or anyone else for that matter, telling me how I’ll feel. I really don’t care what you or anyone else thinks.”
There was another period of silence as Nelson poured himself another half glass of Scotch. The waitress appeared and sat down a bowl of chips with some salsa. When Tony looked up at her, she slightly nodded, placed her hand on his shoulder, and then quietly left. He picked up a chip and dragged it through the chunky mixture, then leaned back in the chair, balancing it on two legs. He watched the older man, most obviously in a personal pain that only time would heal, as he seemed to try to shut out everything and everyone around him.
“So..friend…what’s your name?” Rennalt asked, tho already knowing the answer.
Nelson’s eyes met his as he took another drink. “Harry.”
“Well, Harry, I’m Tony…Tony Rennalt,” and he extended his hand. Nelson finally took it in a firm handshake. “So, Harry…what’s this all about? I mean, you said you killed somebody you cared for. What happened?” He took a long drink of his beer and then signaled Elaine for another.
“I’d rather not discuss it…with you or anyone else. I didn’t ask you to sit down. Apparently, you don’t know when you’re not wanted.”
“Wouldn’t be the first time, won’t be the last.”
“Well, you’re not wanted. I can deal with my problems on my own. Besides, I didn’t come in here to talk.”
“Just drink, huh?”
There was no answer to the question, only stony silence from the man in the chair. Tony kept studying him. He was shorter in height than himself, but what he lacked in that department, he had made up for in a quiet air of power. Even he sensed that. There was an aura about this man in the chair. Somehow, even in the slowly encroaching drunken state that he seemed so blatantly determined to obtain, there was an air of respect about him. Tony hated military people. As far as he was concerned, they had too much of a board stuck up their ass. Following orders blindly – that wasn’t for him.
However, this man, the renowned Admiral Harriman Nelson, US Navy Retired - now this man had a bit of a maverick history to him and that intrigued Tony Rennalt. He’d heard about this man who’d suddenly shown up in Santa Barbara one day and started building this Institute of Marine Research just north of town. The place wasn’t much right now, but he’d heard about the plans, all kinds of plans. He’d also heard about what had happened over a month ago. How Nelson’s fiancée was found dead in the hallway of his home from a gunshot wound. Rumors had sprung up that somehow foreign spies were involved and the police had investigated the homicide and arrested a suspect. The news finally died out after a few weeks, but apparently the man directly involved seemed to be reliving it every day.
Just then, two men walked in and sat down at the bar. They ordered their beers and settled into a conversation with another man seated there. All three exchanged short pleasantries with Tony. And yet, Rennalt didn’t move from the table. The more time that passed, the slower Nelson seem to drink. He was definitely under the influence, but unlike most, he was quiet. And he was angry. Angry at life and angry at anyone and anything around him.
When he finally realized that the man across the table was not going to leave, he casually asked, “And just what do you do for a living, Mr. Rennalt?”
Tony shifted the toothpick to the other side. “Oh, I surf…and dabble in a few things here and there. I sorta like to tinker with things.”
Nelson fingered his glass as he seemed to study his unwanted companion. “What things?”
“Oh, you know, this and that. Electronic type things, mostly. And I got me a nice little twenty-three foot inboard that I’ve working on. I’ve been fiddlin’ with the engine, taking it apart and putting it back, tryin’ to boost me some more power out of it. Things like that.”
The Admiral’s eyes narrowed just a bit. “Boat engine, huh? Humph! Yeah, I know about engines… That’s what got her killed…” and his voice trailed off.
Rennalt took another healthy swig of his beer. “Her? What? Who was it? Girlfriend? Wife? Sister?
Harry closed his eyes and grimaced, then spoke in a slight whisper, “Fiancée.”
“Shit! Hey, I’m not trying to be insensitive here, but man, what happened?” Tony started to gently prod.
With bitterness exuding from his voice, Nelson glanced at the other man. “I screwed up, that’s what happened. I thought I had a situation handled and she got caught in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong… Anyway, it’s because of me and my goddamned ego that she got killed.” He downed the rest of the glass of Scotch and got up from the table. Without another word, he headed toward the back and disappeared into the men’s room.
“God, I don’t think in the years I’ve been here that I’ve ever seen him drunk. Let me correct that just a bit. He wasn’t feeling any pain on a party cruise we took on our honeymoon. Course, then again, neither was I. But, God…nothing like what you’re describing,” Karen Nelson exclaimed. She was sitting at the table, absorbed in the tale that Tony Rennalt was relating concerning his first meeting with her husband. “Harriman’s just not the kind of person…”
“Yeah, well, he was definitely intent on tying one on. And actually had been doing it for several days. But let me clarify something…at this point, he wasn’t falling down drunk… However, from what I got from Ray, he’d been coming in every day for a week before I met up with’em. If you hadn’t noticed, Harry’s more or less a social drinker, not somebody who goes on a binge every time he gets wound out. And even when he does drink, he just doesn’t lose control. That’s just not him. He actually holds his liquor pretty well, if truth be told. ”
“Oh, I know. He does not like not being in control of a situation, particularly when it involves him.”
Tony snorted and stretched. “I think that’s what haunted him for a long time. He thought he was and then somebody up and went and changed the rules on’em, but never bothered to tell’em ‘til it was too late.”
She leaned across the table and looked at their friend as he gazed out over the ocean. The stars had slowly begun to appear now, one by one, and a slight breeze blew in off the Channel. “Well, I know first hand what it’s like to lose someone you love. About the first six months or so after Robert died, Tony, I thought I was going to lose my mind. I really think that if it hadn’t been for the fact that I had my work and Caitlin, I believe I would have. I hated the man that killed him, I hated God; I hated everyone that even tried to console me. For all intents and purposes, I all but shut down.” She got up and walked over to the railing then turned around. “It turns your world upside down. Everything you knew, everything you ever counted on and dreamed of…goes right out the door. And the pain of waking up at night and not feeling him beside me, oh, God! You have no idea.” She crossed her arms and leaned back. “I didn’t hit the bottle, I just applied for any flight school I could. And oddly enough, I got the fighter pilot school. I went head long into anything and everything that was high risk Someone once even asked me if I had some kind of a death wish, particularly since I’d just been widowed.”
A shaggy eyebrow rose as the bottle neared his mouth and he took a sip. “Hell, you two are definitely made for each other. Never really realized how bad it was until now. Damn, woman, what the hell were you trying to do? Kill yourself?”
Without emotion, she blankly replied, “Actually, in retrospect, I really think that was exactly what I was subconsciously trying to do. And the bad thing was…I simply didn’t give a flying rat’s ass. The mere fact that I was solely responsible for Caitlin didn’t even enter into the equation. I didn’t even give a second thought to the fact that I was her surviving parent, not for a minute. I took chances and did things that, under normal circumstances, would have scared the living crap out of me. I just went blank. I didn’t feel anything for anybody. Just…a void. A total, emotional void.”
“No wonder they called you the Ice Queen. Damn, woman! What the hell were you thinkin’?”
She simply shrugged and sat back down in her chair. Reaching for her drink, she slowly sipped it. Finally, “Yeah, well, when you love someone that much, when they’re so much a part of you and it’s ripped away like that, it’s not that unusual. At least for some people.” A few moments later, she asked, “Did Harry ever really open up or did he just go home that night?”
“Not at first. I mean, he’d already consumed almost half of a fifth and was working on the rest of the bottle. While he was out in the bathroom, I thought I’d have Ray start to water it down but he came back before I could do it. He was already getting looped and I was pretty well getting that way myself,” he explained.
“You knew what had happened? I mean, to Katherine…?”
“I’d heard the rumors but I didn’t pay much attention to things like that. Back then, my life was just a wee bit different…”
Nelson emerged from the men’s room and strolled back into the darkened, foul smelling room. He’d hoped that by now, his unwanted drinking companion would disappear and just leave him the hell alone. He didn’t want to talk to anybody, he just wanted to forget. It seemed easier somehow. The more he drank, the more he became oblivious to reality, and the less he had to deal with the pain and remembrance of what had happened over six weeks ago. He just couldn’t get it out of his brain; no matter how hard he tired, he just couldn’t. He hadn’t been able to sleep and concentrating was out of the question. Seaview’s keel was ready to be laid next week and he had to fly to New London for the ceremonies. But even that monumental occasion didn’t stir any passion in him anymore.
Katherine was supposed to have been making this trip with him, as his wife. She would have been there to see it all. Now… He flinched just a moment when he spied Rennalt still sitting at the table. He just wanted to be alone. To forget. Maybe a little more Scotch would make him forget for one more night…
He sit back down at the rickety table and sourly looked at his companion. “Don’t you have somewhere to go, Mr. Rennalt?”
“Nope…not at all.”
An eyebrow rose. “No family? No…wife to go home to?”
“Nope…she left me out a few years ago,” Tony grinned. “Said I needed to grow up.”
There was a strange silence between the two men now. Finally, “She may have been right.”
“Probably, but I disagreed. Felt I already had. And so, she took off. Moved up to Portland last I heard.” He took a healthy drink from the long neck bottle. “So, what happened? To your fiancée, I mean.”
“I told you. I screwed up.” Nelson’s eyes narrowed somewhat and his jaw set. “Look, Mr. Rennalt…”
“Okay, Tony. Look, I just want to be left alone. Just me and this…bottle of good Scotch,” he told him as he picked up the bottle and topped off his glass with the liquid from within.
“Sorry, bud, I make it a habit of never allowing a man wallowing in self-pity to drink alone,” and he took another sip from his own bottle. “Besides, looks like you need a friend.”
“Yeah, well, a friend helped get me into this shit. So, if you don’t mind, I don’t need or want a friend right now.”
Rennalt sat back in the chair and studied the older man. There was a hell of a lot of pain there, more than any one person could bear. For several minutes, the two men sat in uneasy silence as the jukebox over in the corner of the bar wailed out several sorrowful songs about lost loves and cheating hearts. Finally, he decided to change his tactics a little.
“Got me a thirty-five footer Ta
Chaio sailboat with a Volvo Penta
inboard,” he drawled. “Been tinkering with it.
Want to see if I can improve the output of the engine without having to
An eyebrow slowly rose. “How many horsepower?”
Nelson snorted and then started to laugh. “Twenty-five?! Hell! You’re not going to get anywhere with that kind of engine if you’re after speed. Now, if all you want to do is simply putter around the Harbor…”
“Didn’t say I wanted more speed…lest not the way you’re thinking, my friend. Just trying to improve the efficiency of it, that’s all. For your information, I live on it.”
“You live on it?” Nelson sipped on his drink and seemed to try to size up his uninvited drinking companion. “Not much room on a thirty-five footer.”
“Big enough for me. Got all the comforts of home. Besides, if I don’t like it here, I’ll simply pull up anchor and go someplace else.”
“Really?” the Admiral noted sarcastically.
There was another period of silence between the two men. Elaine wandered over and inquired if either of them wanted anything to eat. Tony decided to order a club sandwich but Nelson declined.
“Shouldn’t drink on an empty stomach,” the younger man admonished the other. “Gets you very drunk.”
“Maybe that’s exactly what I want.”
“Hey, none of my business…”
“No, it’s not. Look, I asked to be left alone and you decided to sit your ass down here regardless. Now, if you want to eat, that’s your choice, but I don’t.”
Minutes later, the waitress delivered Rennalt’s meal and sat it in front of him. He nodded his thanks and motioned for another beer. As he bit into the sandwich, he again studied Nelson. Clearly, the man was getting drunk. He’d consumed more than a normal person would have on a drinking binge, yet he was holding it very well. However, another hour or so without food on his stomach and the older man wouldn’t be able to stand up.
A rendition of Unchained Melody drifted through the air as it provided another avenue of noise in the din of the room. The two men sat in silence, Tony watching and Harriman Nelson deep in his own tormented world of self remorse. Tony took a look drink of the amber liquid in front of him and then slid comfortably down into the chair, propping one long leg up on an adjacent chair.
“Ya know, we all have our own demons to deal with. Obviously what happened to the lady was an accident…”
“It wasn’t an accident. It was…deliberate…” Nelson purposely declared. “Look, I really don’t want to talk about this, particularly to you.” He stood up. “I’m sure you mean well, Mr. Rennalt, but what happened to a wonderful woman was entirely my fault and something I’m going to have to live with for the rest of my life. Now, butt out!” And he headed toward the door.
Tony realized where Nelson was going and as he pushed away from the table, he quickly told the waitress to put everything they’d eaten and drank on his tab and that he’d pay it the next day. Following the shorter man outside, he saw him walk toward a black Mercedes sedan. Catching the door with his arm before Nelson could close it, he drawled, “Look, you got no business driving right now since you downed nearly a half bottle of Scotch back there. And unless you ate before I got there, last time I looked, drinking that much booze on an empty stomach ain’t the best thing in the world.”
“And how would you know what I’m capable of?”
“Hell, I don’t. But anybody with any kind of goddamned sense knows you don’t pull that kind of shit. Now, give me the damned keys and I’ll drive you home.”
He first started to protest, but then, for some reason, Nelson complied. He slapped the keys into Tony’s hand, walked around to the other side of the car and reluctantly got in on the passenger side.
There was a slight look of astonishment on Karen Nelson’s face. “You mean he actually handed the keys over to you?”
“Yep.” And Tony Rennalt took another sip of beer from his mug.
“Amazing. I mean, not the fact that he listened to reason, but the fact that he didn’t know you at all.” She got up and leaned slightly over the railing of the deck and looked out over the Channel. The movement of the water and final vestiges of dusk gave the water a shimmering illusion. Karen finally turned around and faced Tony, her hands resting on the railing behind her back. “Grief makes you do some strange things.”
“Yeah, well, I think at this point he was really wallowing in it. Don’t get me wrong, Karen. He had ample reason to be grieving. He felt like proverbial shit. He blamed himself for Katherine’s death and no matter what anyone said, it wasn’t going to change that.”
Quietly, she nodded and then sadly added, “Oh, how I do know that road. That’s why I told him when we first started seeing each other that I really did understand how he felt.”
“Didn’t make things any easier, did it?”
“No, but…I guess…I just wanted him to understand that, well, he wasn’t the only one to ever feel like that.”
“You know he was hesitant about startin’ up anything with you, don’t you?” Tony quizzed her.
“Yes,” she almost whispered. “I think he was afraid that I’d get hurt, like she did.”
“Yep…that was a big part of it.” He quirked an eyebrow and as he sipped his beer, he asked, “Remember the Friday night he showed up on your doorstep asking some sort of stupid questions about the appropriations for the teams? You fed him dinner, I think.”
There was a slight puzzled look on Karen’s face and then she remembered. She’d been out on the Vulcan all day, working with the team. It had been after five when he suddenly showed up at her door and she’d just gotten out of the shower. They ultimately ended up having dinner in her kitchen and she provided him with the information he’d come after.
“Yes…I do remember that. But…?”
“Well, after he got home that night, I ended up there. I’d tried to get up with him that whole evening but never could. Then, he finally let out that he’d been here, with you, and had dinner. You know I’ve never been one to pull punches, Karen…not where he’s concerned…”
The last part of the statement brought about a quick laugh from the woman who stood at the deck railing. “No duh, Tony.”
“Yeah, well, somebody’s got to keep his ass straight…I guess I kinda got nominated… However, I think it’s high time I abdicated and handed that job over to you.”
She shook her head. “No thank you. I had it hard enough this last time. No, he needs somebody like you, Tony. I’m his wife. You’re…his conscience… Maybe, between the two of us…”
“Humph!” he grunted and then took a bite of his burger. “He doesn’t need me to tell him…”
“Not to tell him, per se, but to bounce things off of. A sounding board. But at the same time to let him know if he’s really wrong, if need be, and not be intimidated by him or the uniform.”
“Like you’re really intimidated by him? Yeah, that’ll be the day. Besides, damn idiot’s retired anyway.”
“Technically…yes. However, you never really leave… And intimidation’s not the right word here. It has nothing to do with intimidation… It’s more like respect. And for your information, we do talk over a lot of things. And I do tell him when I think he’s wrong…I don’t pull punches either. I never have. However,” she softy smiled. “The rest of the men around him are military oriented. You’re not. And you’ve got a rather unique perspective that you’re able to give him. Besides, if he fires you…which he’s done a couple of times, you and I both know that…you’ve simply told him to shove it and put where the sun doesn’t shine. He knows you’re not going to kowtow to him and be a ‘yes man,’ Tony…that’s why he respects you and values your opinions so much. He knows they’re honest and that they come from both the heart and from your innate, and unique, use of common sense.”
Rennalt shifted in his seat and stretched his long legs out. “Sometimes I wonder about that. Anyway, to get back to what I was trying to say… He’d been over at your apartment and basically, I was giving him a rash of shit over it. You know…razzing him just a bit. I simply pointed out that your apartment was a home and what he lived in was a house. As my sisters and my mother always told me, there’s a helluva big difference. I also told him that he was crazier than hell for taking the attitude that anybody close to him was in some sort of danger. Hell…with that kind of attitude, you might as well roll up in a ball and bury yourself in a cave for the rest of your life.”
There a slight sly smile on Karen’s face as she tried to visualize the conversation between the two men and Harriman getting more than a little irritated at his friend’s interference into his private life. “How many times did he, ah, threaten you?”
“Enough.” There was a crooked grin from the tall man. “Told him where he could shove it, too.”
“That doesn’t surprise me either…”
Rennalt laughed and sat up in the chair, stretching a bit. “I guess I have to admit that Harry and mine’s relationship has been a bit on the strange side ever since I drove him home that evening…”
Tony wheeled the car out onto the dirt road and then headed for Route 101. Ever so often, he looked over at the man in the passenger seat. He was quiet, as if deep in thought, and yet, a man who was obviously in a lot of deep turmoil and most definitely wallowing in self-pity. After about ten minutes of heading south on 101, he finally asked, “Okay, want to tell me where you live? If I keep on goin’, I’m gonna end up in LA and I sure as hell don’t intend to get into that mess.”
There was a slight grunt and then Nelson uttered his address in a voice that Tony could swear was tinged in pain. “It’s off of Verede del Padre.” There was a slight hesitation, then, “I don’t want to go there. Take me to the Harbor. I’ve got a boat there…the Dreamweaver. I don’t want to go to that house.”
“Sure.” And Tony kept heading south until he entered the Santa Barbara city limits. Coming off the Starke Road exit, he turned toward the Harbor and under Nelson’s instructions, headed for a private entrance. Ahead, he saw a large yacht moored quietly to a dock and dwarfing all other boats surrounding it. Wheeling the car into an open parking spot next to the pier, he shut off the motor and waited for the passenger to act.
Silent moments passed as Harriman Nelson continued to look out at the Harbor and then, just as suddenly, he opened the door and headed to the yacht. Rennalt watched as the auburn-haired man walked toward the dock. Noticing the slight unsteadiness of gait, he decided that he’d seen him this far, might as well go all the way. Getting out, he locked up the car and headed toward the teetering man as he found his way to the gangplank. As the two men made their way up the gangway onto the boat, Tony was struck by two things. It was obvious that this man had money. Big money. And the ship, though large and luxurious in appearance, wasn’t lavish; in fact, it was downright sparse. There were utilitarian deck chairs topside, but the deck seemed to be littered with some sort of research equipment. By all outward appearances and from a distance, this was a luxury yacht. However, upon closer examination, he realized this was actually a research vessel in disguise.
There was no answer as Nelson silently walked to the stern and simply stood looking out over the channel.
Tony studied him quietly as he leaned back against the casing of a wench that was located not far from where the other man stood. Finally, “Hey, you got any coffee on this tub?”
Without turning around, “Down below. In the galley.”
Standing up, he headed to the covered part of the main decking and found the hatchway that led downward to the galley. As Tony wound his way through the corridors, he took in the numerous cabins that had been literally turned into laboratories and holding areas. They’d been literally stripped of all the niceties one would have expected of this kind of vessel. Shaking his head, he couldn’t help wondering what in the world processed a person to do this. Why not just buy some kind of a surplus Navy ship and turn it into what was needed? To him that would have made more common sense than taking a multi-million dollar yacht and turning it into a floating lab. But then again, who was he to criticize? After all, he himself could have bought this ship out of simple pocket change if he’d wanted to. If Nelson wanted to do things this way, it was his money to do it with.
Searching further, he found the object of his quest and proceeded to rummage around long enough to find the coffee pot and the can of coffee that the cook kept aboard. Ten minutes later, he filled two mugs full and headed back topside. When he walked back on deck, Harriman Nelson was sitting in a deck chair facing aft, his feet propped up on the railing, a rather large glass of amber liquid and ice in one hand. There was a brooding look on his face and the body language was clear that he wanted no part of the coffee that was sat in front of him.
Standing silently at the railing and sipping his coffee, Tony watched the twinkling of the lights out in the channel. Oil derricks, night fishing boats, sail boats…all enjoying the idyllic summer conditions of what had been called the American Riviera. The man in the chair kept slowly drinking the golden liquid and occasionally, he’d almost look like he had nodded off to sleep. The slightest movement or sound, however, would instantly stir him to awareness.
Off in the distance, a buoy bell clanged and his head jerked upward. Looking around, his eyes zeroed in on the tall man sitting by the railing.
“What the hell are you still doing here? I thought you’d have left by now.”
“You’ve done your good deed for the day and I certainly don’t need your company. So, if you don’t mind…”
“Ya know…” and the Texan got up out of his chair and stood by the rail, “A man who drinks like this is drinking to forget…not because he’s a drunk. You’re no drunk. You’re trying to get drunk. He picked up the nearby bottle and looked at it, shaking his head. “Looks like you’ve got a good head start on it too. Good Scotch like this shouldn’t be wasted like this, though, regardless of how much you’re trying to drown your sorrows in.”
There was no verbal response from the man in the chair, but the look he gave Tony would have cut through steel.
“Look…I know that losing somebody like that has got to hurt. And hurt bad. Question is here, what the hell you trying to prove by this? Huh? Is it gonna bring the lady back?”
“No,” Nelson answered sharply. “I wish to God it would. I’d give anything if it would…”
“Then what in the hell is this gonna get you? Drunk, yeah. But eventually it wears off. And when it does, it hurts that much worse.”
The Admiral got up from the chair and suddenly flung the class into the water with all his might. Leaning over the edge of the railing, he held on with both hands and bent his head. “Don’t you understand?! It’s my fault she’s dead. My fault! If I hadn’t been so goddamned arrogant to think that I could handle the situation myself…she’d be alive…and we’d be married. Instead, she’s dead.” And with that, tears started to flow freely down his cheeks for the first time in weeks. The pain was finally too much.
Tony became silent as he allowed the older man his moments of grief. He could see that the feelings of guilt in this man were enormous. He’d seen his own stalwart father cry silently when his mother died. Fifty years of marriage and two people get so close that they ultimately become one. For his father, it had been as if his heart and soul had been completely torn away. Tony Rennalt had an idea of how much this woman meant to the man in front of him. Men were raised to never cry…to not show their emotions, particularly over something like this. But real men…men who knew what they were really put on this Earth for…real men knew when the pain was too much to bear. His father had been one of those men. He’d known where the real strength had been in their family and without her, he almost seemed lost.
Finally, Nelson composed himself and simply turned and walked away toward the hatchway leading down into interior of the yacht. An hour passed and he didn’t return. Tony decided that he’d better check on the older man, just to make sure that he hadn’t done anything really stupid, like try to take his own life. Opening the door to what apparently was the master cabin, he found Nelson passed out on his bunk, fully clothed.
“He fully blamed himself for her death…” Rennalt explained to Karen Nelson. Taking a sip of his beer, he stared at her. “The only other time I knew him to take on an attitude like that was years later when this idiot Gamma tortured Chip Morton in front of him. I thought we’d lost him for sure after that one.”
“I’ve heard about that,” she whispered. “Matty told me about what happened. I’m surprised that he didn’t break completely after that.”
“Yeah, well…I think a lot of people would have and it did take a while for him to get over it. From what I’ve been told, it’s a lot like what the POWs go through. They had to make sure he got the right kind of counseling and therapy for it…to make sure that he didn’t blame himself or have post traumatic stress syndrome from it. After all…considering who he is and what that sub supposedly doesn’t carry, I think some higher ups with Uncle Sam just wanted to make sure he was okay…if you know what I mean.”
She nodded sadly in agreement. “You know…those three men…Harry, Lee, and Chip…have all been through so much together.” She got up and stood at the railing as a slight breeze moved hair into her eyes. Turning, “Ever since I came here, I’ve watched those three in absolute amazement. They’re so attuned to each other. In the twenty some years I’ve been in the Navy, I’ve never seen a command staff so perfectly in sync. It’s eerie sometimes…it’s almost as if they know what each other’s thinking. And they’d all die for each other…”
“Hell, the whole crew would go to hell and back for’em, ‘cause they know what those three would do in return…” Tony straightened up and stretched his legs. “It’s just like when the Polidor went down years ago. He was driven to find out what the hell happened to her. He was afraid that there’d been a design flaw that he’d missed somehow and that he was responsible for all of her crew. A whole bunch of them had been Seaview’s initial crew under John Phillips.”
“But it wasn’t his fault, was it? I heard it was actually sabotage…”
“Yep…some kind of experimental fear gas that got smuggled aboard somehow. Killed all hands. Harry was on the radio with them when it went down.”
Karen shook her head in disbelief and sorrow. The agony that that had obviously put her husband though must have been overwhelming. It would have been for anyone.
“He was like a man possessed and when the saboteur snuck the damn stuff aboard Seaview, he narrowly escaped disaster there. Luckily, they found out that heat made the gas light and rise to the ceiling…so, they turned up the heat and finally got topside to vent it off. I think once realization finally sat in that it wasn’t his fault, he was finally able to live with himself.”
“And here I thought you didn’t understand the military, Tony…” she sadly chuckled.
“Didn’t say I didn’t understand it…just that I don’t like some of the things that they do. That’s all. A lotta things don’t leave much room for common sense. Besides, hon, haven’t you learned by now that this place ain’t ‘military’?” There was a mark of cynicism in his voice at the end.
“Then why in the world have you stayed around all these years? Surely you could have…”
“Why? Hell, hon, I don’t know. It’s certainly not for the money. Sure, Harry pays me a pretty penny, but you and I both know I don’t need it, so my portion gets donated to charity. Anonymously, of course. Maybe I just like givin’ your husband a hard time…”
She laughed. “Well, that’s definitely something you’re good at.”
“Somebody’s got to,” he winked. “Besides, he’s got you now and from what I see…you’re pretty damn good at it too. Course in a much different way.”
“Yeah, but I can’t get on his case like you can. My way is just a wee bit different.”
“That’s for sure.” He straightened up and gazed out at the channel. “Why do I stay? I guess it’s because for the first time in my life…I saw somebody who really gave a shit and who had the gumption to put their money where their mouth was. Harry risked it all to build this place, Karen. It was his dream…and he made it happen. He’s got guts and he’s got a helluva sense of responsibility. Too many people in this world like to preach the pretty platitudes about what ‘should’ be done and ‘how to do it’, but they won’t get off their damn asses to help make it happen. And then when somebody does do something…well, all they want to do is moan and groan and bitch and complain about how it should have been done a different way. I got no use for folks like that. They’re as useless as tits on a bull.” He took a long draw on the bottle and then sat it on the railing. “Harry’s a doer, Karen, not a talker. Yeah, he can be headstrong and tunnel-visioned at times, and be a royal pain in the ass along with it, but damn…he’ll find a way to get things done…and done the right way, regardless of what it may cost him personally.”
“And you stay to make sure he keeps on track, right?” she gently remarked.
“Yeah…I guess so. Then again, I also get a kick at gettin’ him riled up,” he laughed.
“That’s why you were on his case out in the Marshalls, wasn’t it?”
A somber expression fell over him and he crossed his arms as he leaned back against the deck rail. “Yeah. You and I both know that from the moment that windbag Starke told him about the Ghost malfunctioning, he made up his mind what he’d do. I just had to keep him on his toes after you trained him. Personally, I had the easy part of it.”
Karen slowly shook her head in amazement. A method to the madness. That’s what it had been all along. “You know, Harry’s right. You can be an irritating sonofabitch. Loveable…but irritating.”
“Never said I wasn’t,” came the half retort with a shrug of his shoulders and a slight grin on his face.
“So, when did he figure out who and what you were?” she asked as she sat back down and took a sip of her own drink.
“Oh, that didn’t come until a few weeks later… He slept it off that night and was hung over as hell the next morning,” he remembered, continuing his tale of how he’d met Harriman Nelson.
Nelson slowly stirred in his bunk. His groggy, alcohol ladened brain fought its way back to the haziness of sobriety. Struggling to sit up, he found his head pounded from the aftermath of the amount of Scotch he’d consumed the night before. He caught a glimpse of himself in a mirror as he made his way to the head. His hair was askew, his clothes rumpled from where he’d slept in them, and there were dark circles under his bloodshot eyes.
“Christ! I look like shit!” he lamented to himself, almost in disgust.
He threw cold water onto his face, trying to revive himself. Looking back into the mirror, he grimaced. Slowly the memories of the night before slipped into his reality. And so did the memories of the events that took place several weeks prior to it. There was emptiness to his soul that he realized he hadn’t been able to fill since Katherine’s death. People had told him it would eventually pass, that the pain would ease after a while. What they didn’t tell him was how to get it out of his brain or his heart his feeling of responsibility.
Picking up a towel from a nearby stand, he wiped his face and dried his hands. Suddenly, the hair on the back of his neck started to stand, as if a sixth sense had kicked in to tell him that someone was nearby. Tensing, he turned and stepped outside the door of the head and came face to face with the tall man from the bar.
“What the hell are you doing here?” Nelson demanded.
“Figured I’d let you sleep it off. You passed out on your bunk last night. Guess you’d finally had your fill of Scotch.” He held out a cup of steaming hot coffee. “Here, might as well start getting this down. Besides, you need to start drinking some water. All that booze does is dehydrate you…” Tony then put the cup down on a ledge and walked out of the cabin.
The Admiral followed him topside and saw him rummaging around near the stern.
“What the hell are you still doing on my boat, Mr. Rennalt?” he demanded.
“Looking for a fishin’ pole. Don’t tell me that no where on this fancy boat of yours that there’s a damn fishin’ pole…? Hell, how do you intend to pass the time on this tub of yours?”
Nelson felt the blood start to slowly rise to his face. “Get the hell off my boat!”
Rennalt continued to rummage through a large tackle box until he found the object of his quest. Quietly, he assembled the pole and line and cast it over the stern, then sat down in a chair, propping his feet up on the railing as he did. A few moments passed and he looked up at the older man, standing just to the side, seething in silent rage. “Hell, if you’re gonna be out here, might as well pull up a chair and set a spell. Do you some good to get out here in the fresh air. Might help with that hangover, too.”
The Admiral couldn’t believe what he was hearing. As far as he was concerned, the man was belligerent and rude. What the hell was it with him anyway? Why wouldn’t he just leave him alone? And yet, for some inexplicable reason, he found himself sitting down across from the intruder. He wasn’t sure why, but this man intrigued him. He had to admit that a lot of what the man had said to him in the last 12 hours made a lot of sense, even if he didn’t want to hear it. But who was he? And what did he want? He hadn’t asked for anything, hadn’t tried to ingratiate himself for any reason. He had just been painfully blunt in his conversations. So what was it about this man’s presence that made Harry want to both want to punch him in the face, yet listen to what he said? Maybe he should give Walt Evans at ONI a call…
The next minutes were spent in grim silence, at least on Nelson’s part. The sun inched higher over the Channel as it burned off the last remnants of the slight fog that had set in earlier in the morning. Seagulls drifted in the air above and an occasional ship’s horn could be heard in the distance. The two men simply sat, feet propped up on the railings, as Tony casually seemed to fish off the aft.
Finally, “So…what’s this ‘Institute’ I keep hearing all over town about?”
“It’s a place where we can do marine research…”
“Don’t they have enough of them already? I mean, hell…you got Cousteau’s bunch, Wood’s Hole, Scripps…”
“There’s never enough, Mr. Rennalt. The ocean comprises nearly seventy-five percent of the earth. We’ve got to learn to live with it and in it. At this point, there’s not much being done about exploration into outer space, so we have to turn inward. There’s too much there to ignore and if we do, we’ll end up regretting it.
“Sounds like you think this is gonna solve all the world’s problems…”
“I didn’t say that. All I’m saying is that we have to search for better solutions than what we’ve been doing. My God! There are countries starving because they can’t grow enough food to feed their own people.”
“And you think this is the answer…”
“No, but if we don’t try, we’ll never know. Look, there’s a lot to learn about the oceans that we don’t know. A lot that can help us now…and in the future.” Nelson leaned forward and gazed out over the Channel. “I wasn’t around when a couple of the big oil spills hit here. But I’ve seen the residual damage it did. And even now, you can’t walk the beaches sometimes because of the oily skim. I can’t stop the oil from being pumped, but if I can help to make it safer and cleaner by coming up with ways to do it, then I’ll have at least accomplished something. Maybe in the process we come up with alternative fuels to oil. Who knows? But if we don’t at least try…we won’t ever know.”
“Hear you’ve sunk a lot of your own money into this…”
The Admiral leaned back into the chair. “Yeah…most of what I have.” He looked around the deck of the yacht. “I chose to live here before we got it all started… Bought the house about a year ago… Katherine and I were supposed to live there after…” and his voice trailed off.
“I’ve already called a real estate agent to put it up for sale as soon as possible. I’ll live here until I can build something inside the compound.”
“So, you gonna hole up inside an electrified fence? What the hell kinda life is that?”
“It’s me they wanted…not her. She…was in the wrong place…at the wrong time…and I’m not going to ever put anyone else through that again.”
“You can look at it that way, but that’s no life. Look, I’m not the one to tell you how to run your life, but wouldn’t it make a helluva lot more sense to do what they tried to stop you from doing and shove it in their face? I mean, come on! If something like that happened to me, it’d only make me mad and even more determined to finish what I started. Sort of a ‘shove it up your ass!’ attitude.”
“Oh, I’ve already resolved to finish what I started. If they think I’ll be stopped by her death, they don’t know me very well…”
Tony looked over at the older man, his face resolute with a mixture of pain, determination and single-mindedness. He’d heard and read a lot about this man and about what he wanted to accomplish. He liked that. He could see that Harriman Nelson wasn’t the kind of man to let something as painful as his fiancée’s death deter him from his ultimate goal. If anything, it now simply made him more resolute and committed to it.
Clearly, this was a man he wouldn’t mind being associated it.
The two men settled back comfortably. There was almost an amiable truce now being drawn between them and for some odd reason, a mutual admiration was beginning to grow.
A few days later, Harriman Nelson walked into his office in the still half occupied administration building. Looking around at the stacks of file boxes that were yet to be unpacked, he realized that his attention had been diverted for too long a time. It was time he dealt with things, with the problems at hand, instead of ignoring them and leaving them to someone else.
“Sir?” a female voice broke his concentration.
He looked up and saw Angie Pierce standing in front of him. “Yes, Angie?”
“Are you all right, sir?”
He looked at her for what seemed the longest time. Finally, he drew a deep breath and straightened as he slowly exhaled. “I’m fine, Angie. Thanks.” Then the tone of his voice changed. “Looks like we’ve got a lot to do. What’s on the agenda for today?”
“Interviews, sir, for the various department heads. Today and the rest of the week. Oh, and this came for you yesterday afternoon. Special courier…” and she handed him a large sealed manila envelope. “It’s from Commander Evans. He called after you’d left just to make sure it’d gotten here and said if you needed to talk to him, you’d know where he could be reached.”
“Thanks…and do me a favor, will you? Close the door on your way out. I’ll be ready in about two hours to take a look at the first applicants.”
Sitting back in his chair, he opened the envelope to see what Walt had sent him. His old friend at ONI was usually very thorough and very quick when he needed something. Besides, after what happened a few months before, Walt owed him a big favor. Inside was a folder marked FYEO and a name was written on the top – Anthony Maurice Rennalt, PhD.
One week later…
Tony Rennalt was elbow deep in the process of dismantling the carburetor of the motor to his sailboat when he heard the door to the workshop open. Without stopping, he glanced up and saw Harriman Nelson standing before him, clad in the full khaki uniform of a four star admiral and carrying a leather briefcase.
“You lost?” Rennalt asked and continued his task.
“Figured you must be to have made your way down here. It’s not exactly the real ritzy part of town…”
The admiral opened the briefcase and withdrew a file folder, then tossed it on the bench, topside up.
Tony glanced at it, noted his name at the top, and shrugged his shoulders. “Got a reason for that?”
“Yes, I do. You’re an interesting character, Mr. Rennalt, and your file is even more interesting.”
“So I’ve been told. Makes no difference to me…”
“But it does to me. You see, I’m currently looking for someone to head up the Electrical Engineering Department for the Institute. And, after reading this…I think I’ve found him.”
“Nope. Not interested. Besides, I don’t need the job.”
“I realize that. But I’m interested in more than hiring you, Mr. Rennalt… You’ve got exactly what I need.”
“And that is?” and he continued to work on the piece, wiping some of the grease from the top.
“Talent…ability…” and drawing a sharp breath, “Guts…”
“You can find that anywhere…”
“Maybe…but the combination I’m looking for is standing right in front of me…”
“Why me?” and he continued his work without looking up.
“Because of what I’ve seen…both on paper as well as in person. The file tells me you know what you’re doing… Your credentials are impressive to say the least.”
“Yep, I know. So?”
“And you don’t mince words with certain situations…” Nelson looked around the old shed and then his eyes settled back on the man in front of him. “You’ve also got an innate sense of right and wrong. I need that kind of person at the Institute…on my staff.”
Rennalt was silent as he continued to work on the piece of machinery. Finally, he stopped and wiped his forehead with a dirty rag that he retrieved from his hip pocket. He locked eyes with the man in khaki. “If I do…I pick my own people. Project managers, instillation crews, R and D….”
“Absolutely. However, considering the work we’re going to be doing…they would have to pass security checks.” Nelson’s jaw set. “Salaries would be within an acceptable range. Anything outside of it…might just come out of your pocket. The department would have a budget, just like all the others. Expenditures would have to be justified…”
“Thought you didn’t have any money,” Tony snorted.
“I’m not taking a salary for some time… That’s how much I’m willing to risk…”
“Humph! Not much for a man who’s got a helluva lot…”
“Not as much as you think, Mr. Rennalt. It’s pretty much all tied up in the Institute…and then some. Our main source of funding would come from the government, specifically the Federal Bureau of Marine Exploration, but we’d also be available for private projects as well. In addition, any patents that result from the research that we do would be owned by the Institute.”
Tony picked up a toothpick from a small box on the bench and stuck it in his mouth. Slowly, he shifted it from one side to the other as he gazed back at the man before him. “I don’t like egos or prima donnas….”
“Neither do I. But there are times we may be forced to deal with them…”
“Humph! I bet.” He walked over to the other workbench and picked up a small socket wrench. “I also don’t take to people who bail out when a project gets rough…”
Nelson walked over to the bench and planted himself in front of the taller man. “Neither do I, Mr. Rennalt. That’s why I want the best people I can get. And that’s why I want you. Now…will you take the job or won’t you?”
The toothpick was shifted to the other side. “I also don’t ‘do’ the military thing…”
“I didn’t ask you to…nor will I require it.”
“Damn well better not or I’ll tell you where you can stick it…”
“Fair enough…” Nelson extended his hand. “Well?”
Rennalt hesitated a moment and then took it, covering it with his other. Harry looked down and saw that both were covered in dark, oily gunk, then slowly looked up and locked eyes with the other man.
“Sorry…” Tony slyly grinned. “There’s some GoJo® over on the wall. Wouldn’t want you to get that uniform all dirty, now would we?”
The Admiral slowly withdrew his hand, now covered in grease. “It’s not the first time and it sure as hell won’t be the last.” He walked over to the canister on the wall, pumped a bit of the gel and cleaned off his hands, wiping them with a paper towel from a roll next to it. He took off his jacket and threw it over a stool in the corner, then proceeded to unbutton and start to roll up his sleeves.
“What the hell you think you’re doing?” Tony asked.
“You did say you were trying to improve the output of that engine, didn’t you?” he replied as he nodded toward an unassembled boat engine that sat on one end of the workbench.
“Maybe I can see where you’ve gone wrong…”
“And I’ll be damned if he didn’t get about a ten percent increase in output out of that damn motor,” Tony declared with a slight flourish as he finished off the last of the dessert Karen had served him. “And that, my dear Karen, is as they say…history.”
She laughed just a bit. “God…it sounds like ya’ll were involved in an old time pissing match there at one point.”
“Guess you might call it that… But the fact that he didn’t mind getting that uniform dirty told me a helluva lot about the man. A person who don’t mind gettin’ their hands dirty knows what it’s like to work hard and believe in what you’re doin’. A lot of people would’ve simply walked out the door and leave me be. Not Harry. We must’ve worked the rest of the day and half the next one on that damn engine before we got it to where he was satisfied with it.”
“My next question to you here is just how long did it take the two of you to put it back together and were there any parts left over?”
Tony threw her a sideways glance and with a hurt look, replied, “Captain Davis, I’m hurt here. And your husband would be insulted.”
“Uh huh…right, Tony. Now…want to tell me the truth?” She was trying very hard to stifle a growing smile.
“Not a part left over,” he swore, jovially crossing his heart. “I swear on my mother’s grave.”
Now it was Karen’s turn. “Why, Mr. Rennalt…I thought you told me one time years ago that your mother was cremated and her ashes scattered near the Rio Grande?”
“Humph! I didn’t say all of her got scattered…”
She broke into a loud laugh. “Ah…now the truth comes out…”
Tony drew himself up to his full six foot height and drawled, “Darlin’, I never claimed…” and before he could finish, his face slowly grew to a smile. “You know, I’ve got a lot of respect for that husband of yours. He knows how to handle himself…even if he’s hard-headed sometimes.”
“Oh, and you’re not?”
“Didn’t say that…” he smirked. “Oh, we’ve had our ins and outs over the years. Butted heads more than a few times on projects where he and I didn’t exactly see eye to eye on a number of things.
“But you’re still here, aren’t you…” she pointed out.
“Yeah…I am, ain’t I?” he nodded. “Been fired and quit so many damn times, I swear I think we’ve both lost count. As I said, Karen, he’s a doer, not a talker. He’s got heart, he’s got guts and he’s got conviction. And he’s not afraid to put his money where his mouth is when he opens it. Now, on the down side…well, I think you know all that already. He’s hard-headed, stubborn and a hot-tempered Irishman at times.” He stood and walked over to the railing and leaned over it. “I guess I just want to make sure the damn fool lives long enough to enjoy what life’s finally given him.”
She leaned back against the railing next to him. “Tony…you sound like you’re trying to save him from himself.”
“No, hon…I’m not. But see, I know what he lost when he lost Katherine. And I know what he found when you showed up here. Now, I guess I’m too old and contrary and stuck in my ways to settle down. Least that’s what my ex-wives tell me. But Harry…now Harry’s the kind of man who needs you, Karen. He needs that fire you’ve got inside. I didn’t know Katherine. Heard a lot about her though…enough to know she must have been a good lady…especially to want to put up with his ass. But you…I know you. And I know him…” And he put his arm around her shoulders, drawing her into a gentle bear hug.
“I didn’t know you cared that much…” she softly replied and kissed him warmly on the cheek.
The tall man laughed loudly. “Hell, hon, don’t go spreadin’ it around. I wouldn’t want to ruin my image.”
Just then, the portable telephone rang. She picked it up and spoke, “Nelson residence.” A warm smile came over her face as soon as the caller spoke. “Well, hello to you, too…again. It’s late on the east coast. I thought you said you were exhausted from all the meetings Norwood had you in…” She glanced over at Tony and spoke, “No…actually, Tony’s here right now. He must have smelled the hamburgers I was cooking for dinner and decided to crash my night alone. We just finished dinner.” She listened to his response and smiled as she softly replied, “Yeah, he mooched another meal. You know how he is…”
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