The drive to the wine country was a welcome change of pace for Chip Morton, executive officer of the SSRN Seaview. Relaxing was the word which came to mind.... easy and relaxing...doing a simple favor for a friend. Well, maybe not so simple....
A few days earlier, an accident had happened which made this trip necessary for Chip. Lee Crane, captain of the boat, had been making his bi-weekly inspection of the aft store lockers. He and COB Francis Sharkey had gotten as far as the third locker, when the boat shifted sharply on her moorings. Losing their balance, the two men tumbled toward the rear bulkhead. At the same time, one of the racks of storage shelving, torn loose by the violent shift, fell on the two of them, knocking both unconscious and effectively trapping them. When help arrived, both men had been taken to Sick Bay. Thankfully neither man had suffered life-threatening injuries: Sharkey had a concussion and sprained shoulder...the captain, a concussion along with a badly sprained and torn knee. Crane was allowed on crutches and Jamison had cleared him for limited duty with the stipulation he was forbidden to leave the boat. That meant his upcoming mission was either doomed to failure or it had to be placed in someone else's hands. Lee had sought out Chip's help...help which the XO had offered gladly.
The assignment was simple enough: Go to the Cintas Winery in Santa Ynez, meet a contact well known to both him and Lee and get some information. Once the material was obtained, he was to return to the boat, give it to Crane, and that would be that. The information had been passed from the People's Republic and was a list of names eagerly sought after by ONI, the FIRM, and other government agencies...a list which held the key to several moles at work in the government.
Chip pulled his red Jeep into the driveway of the Cintas Winery. Lloyd Cintas had been a classmate at Annapolis, who'd left the service after six years to run the family winery. After graduation, Chip hadn't thought much about the man, but the fact Cintas had kept his hand in ONI work didn't surprise him. Even at the Academy, he'd been busy in covert activity events, although, at the time, his covertness had more to do with drinking and women than with national security. Lee had distanced himself from Cintas as much as possible, disliking intensely his one-time classmate's attitude 'the end always justifies the means.' Chip just flat out didn't like him. "Still, he seems to have landed on his feet...."
As he drove down the dirt road, the blond officer looked at the acres of vineyards and wondered if someday, when he retired....
The main house came into view and Morton was at once struck by the unnatural quiet of the place. The hair on the back of his neck rose and instinctively he felt for the gun he wore under his flannel shirt. Finding its reassuring presence, he smiled grimly. Already, he sensed something was not right!
Refusing to let his unease show, he pulled the Jeep to a halt, turned it off and walked to the doorway of the house, checking again to make certain his service revolver was secure and out of sight in its specially designed holster. Alert for any sign something was amiss, he cautiously rang the doorbell. There was nothing obviously wrong yet nothing felt right either. He shifted uneasily from one foot to the other, his sneakers making squeaking sounds which seemed extremely loud in the surreal silence. After what seemed like an eternity, there was movement behind the antique windowed door and it slowly opened. Lloyd Cintas stood just inside the shadowed entry, looking around Chip rather uneasily.
"Morton! You're early! ONI said 1750 hours."
"Good way to catch the bad guys off guard! Or so my Skipper says!" Chip graced him with a faint, somewhat uncomfortable grin. "How about inviting me inside, just in case we're being watched." He knew his words sounded abrupt, but he still didn't like this man and he trusted him even less than he liked him.
Compared to Crane and Morton, Cintas was a small man. He was no taller than 5'8" and because of his slight build, he looked even smaller. He was fair, like Chip, and had hooded, dark brown eyes, which gave no clue what was going on inside his head. His nose was fairly short and while not unpleasant to look at...he exuded an air of dissoluteness, which added to Chip's feeling of disquiet about the whole affair.
"Yes, of course...Come in, Morton. Follow me, we'll go into my study...I'm here alone today." They walked through the large house to a room at the rear. The book-lined den was spacious and sported chairs and sofas of well worn leather. The luxurious appointments and attention to detail evident in their surroundings bespoke an easy wealth, a familiarity with money far from where it should be for a small winery. Chip looked around with guarded interest as the operative spoke to him. "My , uh, companion, Eva is in San Francisco for the week. Knowing the contact was coming, I sent her off since I didn't want her snooping. She does too much of that already."
Chip's internal radar went on the alert at Cintas' words. He took them to mean there had already been some activity here ONI wasn't aware of. Choosing his words carefully, he asked the man, "Did you put her on the plane yourself?"
"One better... I put her on my private jet. The crew all owe me big time and therefore, I own them...and their loyalty."
"You, more than anyone, should know you can't buy people or their loyalty."
"Morton, you, Crane and all those like you need to realize the real world, the world I live in, doesn't operate by your rules...doesn't do the 'right' thing. The only 'right' thing in this world, is the best thing money can buy. So far, the U.S. has paid me well to stay with them. And I do have a reputation, on either side, my word is good."
"Then, before you change sides, let's transfer the information so I can get out of here! " Chip was becoming more and more uncomfortable with the man's easy duplicity.
"Yes, of course. After all, national security is the only reason you would ever associate with someone like me, right? Never mind...Is there a piece of jewelry you wear regularly we can put this microdot on? Something like a watch, a medal...dog tags...I believe it would be safer that way."
Chip nodded and handed the man his watch. Cintas took it, examined it carefully, grunted, and sat down at the desk. As he worked on the timepiece, Chip looked around, carefully examining the study. Four large French doors opened to the outside, revealing a vista of the vineyards. He could see the pressing facility and the buildings where wine was made, bottled and stored. It was an impressive panorama, even if it was quiet. The fact there was no activity was disturbing Chip more and more and he admitted to himself he was ready to leave. Turning back to Cintas, he was enormously relieved when the man finally looked up and held out the watch.
"Here it is, Morton. Give this to your superiors, they will know how to retrieve the dot."
Chip took the watch from him and fastened it about his wrist. "Thanks..." he said curtly. "...I'm sure you will be well paid for this."
The man grinned, "Suffice it to say I already have been. My coffers overflow with the good intentions of the U.S. government." He came around the desk and stood looking out the window. Dropping the facade for a moment, he murmured, "It's a beautiful view, isn't it? My father and my grandfather spent all of their lives here. I love this place, but sometimes, can't tolerate the loneliness. That's why I went into the Navy, to the Academy. And where do I end up...here... alone....it's a curse, Morton... a curse...." Turning toward Chip, he opened his mouth to speak again when a loud pop echoed in the silence. Cintas grabbed at his chest, then, as if in slow motion, he fell to his knees. Giving the man standing before him an almost puzzled look, the vintner pitched forward and lay still.
Chip quickly knelt, turning the man over, aware immediately he was dead...a single, well-placed bullet to the heart doing the job quickly and efficiently. Hugging the floor of the room, Chip did a quick survey to see where the bullet had come from. A single pane of glass, in the door to his left, had a hole in it, the result, he surmised, of a high velocity bullet fired by a sharpshooter on the grounds. Obviously, there had been a betrayal. The only questions were who and how?
Staying close to the floor and well away from the expanse of glass, he moved to the doorway of the room and down the hallway to the entry. Slipping from the house, he ran to Jeep, staying as low and inconspicuous as possible. From the floor on the passenger side, he inserted his key into the ignition. Turning it, he tried to start the engine, but the motor didn't kick. Nothing... he tried a second time and still finding nothing, he left the key where it was. Knowing he was now the target of the people who'd shot Cintas, he raised his head cautiously and looked around, seeking any sign of pursuers. Taking the gun from the holster under his arm, he checked to make certain it had a full clip of ammunition. Reaching into the glove compartment, he retrieved another. That would give him a fighting chance if he got close enough to engage in a standoff. Thinking for a moment, he removed his watch and the chain he wore the failsafe keys on, tucking them under the seat of the jeep. If he were caught, at least he wouldn't have the micro dot on him. Then, easing out of the vehicle, he moved back to the house.
Inside the front door, he sat on the floor, trying to formulate a plan of action. He knew he had to get back to the main road then to the nearest town in order to contact the boat for help. Lee had given him directions to the winery and told him to proceed as he saw fit. He was to return to the boat as soon as possible, but at what point Crane would feel he was overdue and send help was only a guess. Chip figured at least a day's time. So not only would he have to make it though the next twenty-four hours but he would have to be in a place he could be found. He ran a hand over his forehead and sighed in frustration.
Never an easy mission!!!!! Someday..... someday it will be easier!! Yeah...Right...Someday!! C'mon, Morton! Get a move on!!! Get going!
Returning to the study, he eased open one of the doors and slipped out onto the veranda, checking the entire area for any sign of life. Seeing none, he ran for the vineyard, keeping low to the ground. He was heading toward the bottling building; if it was as deserted as it seemed, he believed he could hide there, at least for a while, then after dark, make his way to the road.
As he crossed the short open space between the house and the vines, several shots split the air, raising dust as they struck the ground. He ran in a low, crouching, zigzag pattern down the row of vines to the mid point then dove into a cluster of vines, burying himself in them...hoping his darker clothes would camouflage him. The shooting stopped and he gained hope he would make it to the now much closer building. After five minutes, he took a deep breath and resumed the running pattern he had adopted. A renewed hail of bullets followed him in a steady path, creeping closer and closer. Fearing he would be hit, he made his pattern more erratic. Unfortunately the gunman, or gunmen were very good and their shots adapted to match his path. Somewhere in his mind, it registered the person or persons shooting at him were encouraging his pattern rather than following it. He cursed himself for underestimating his enemy, whoever they were. The bottling building loomed closer and finally the doorway came within reach. Chip crouched low and waited, catching his breath for the final leap to assumed safety. Finally he rose and ran forward into the doorway. Shots scattered at his feet as he dove in and rolled to a corner of the deep archway, making himself as small a target as possible. He lay there, curled in a tight ball, for a few moments...waiting, just waiting, When all remained quiet, he slowly straightened, heaving a sigh of relief at the release of tension. He carefully checked the doorframe and, satisfied it was safe, he moved to it... careful to stay in the shadows. Crouched in the corner, he reached for the handle, and found it unlocked. Surprised but pleased, he opened the door and slowly got to his feet. Remaining as hidden as possible, he hugged the entry, easing himself through it. Finding nothing but darkness, he fumbled in his pocket for his lighter. Striking the button, he held it away from him, watching it flare into brightness. His eyes were just adjusting to the murky dimness illuminated by the small flame when a blow to the back of the head sent the lighter flying and pitched him to the ground.
Consciousness returned slowly, accompanied by a steady pounding in his head. He was assailed by the deep, fruity odor of mashed grapes. It surrounded him so much so he felt enveloped in it.
"Welcome back, Mr. Morton...." a sultry voice purred.
Warily opening his eyes, he tried to move, becoming immediately aware of his immobility. At the same time he began to focus on his surroundings.... the voice he'd heard was new and, while feminine, sounded deadly.
"I would suggest you move slowly and refrain from any heroics... not that you would be able to do to much, considering your present position."
"Where...? Who...?" he questioned, licking his dry lips.
"Where? The bottling building you so valiantly headed for, of course. Who? I can scarcely see where it matters, we've never been introduced anyway. Besides, you aren't going to live long enough to care."
"Cintas' companion Eva, I presume." he stated flatly, already convinced of the answer. Eva Gebhardt stood beneath a window in the brightly lit stone chamber. She was 5'6", with short, white-blonde hair and piercing eyes which were a startling shade of almost lavender. When Chip looked at them, he saw no warmth and momentarily wondered what Cintas had seen in her.
"Very good. It appears the reports on your astuteness haven't been exaggerated. Now, one simple answer and you can avoid a lot of discomfort."
"The information my dear, departed uh...companion slipped to you. Where is it, Commander?"
"Couldn't say..." he replied, knowing full well the answer would bring unpleasant repercussions for him. "I hate to disappoint a lady, but...."
"Mr. Morton, you don't disappoint me at all. You are everything your dossier lead me to believe you'd be."
Chip was aware, tied as he was...spread-eagled on the large, wooden bottling table, he had no way to defend himself.
"Oh well," she sighed, wearing an evil smile, "I'm sure we'll find a way to ummm.... convince you. I wonder...I've heard pain doesn't affect you military types. I'll ask one more time, nicely, before I let my friend here test that theory. The microdot, Mr. Morton ...Where is it?
"I don't know." he said grimly, aware of what his refusal would mean.
Studying her nails, she shook her head. "Your choice. Lars...if you please...."
At Eva's command the giant of a man stepped forward and buried his fist in Chip's mid-section, smiling as his blow forced a cry of pain from the captive.
Nodding with enjoyment at the scene being played out before her, Eva laughed as Chip wheezed, but stopped the large man from landing another punch. "No. Let the good Mr. Morton catch his breath..." She grabbed the collar on his shirt. "So, my friend, did that jog your memory any?”
"No!" he gasped, breathing heavily...struggling to recover from the pain.
"Tsk, tsk...so stubborn..." She traced light fingers down his cheeks. "...but then again, I've always liked that in a man. However, personal feelings aside..." She drew her hand back and slapped him. "...I really do need the information."
"Go to hell!" he hissed quietly.
"Very likely. Very likely indeed. But I think you'll be going first...." Raising her eyes, she nodded and Lars hit him again; this time the ham-like fist angling upwards into the bound man's rib cage.
Chip couldn't control his groan of pain....he felt like a two by four had hit him in the chest.
The blonde woman once again appeared in his field of vision. "Where is it, ONI man? The vineyard? The house? The car? You can save yourself a lot of pain here..."
Chip remained silent. Beads of perspiration formed on his forehead as waves of pain from the recent blow radiated through his stomach and chest.
"What's the matter, Mr. Morton, not feeling very well? One simple answer and we'll put you out of your misery...quickly and painlessly."
"Don't...think...so!" he gasped.
The sandy-haired giant bent over him, this time choosing to deliver a blow to the bound man's face...a blow carefully controlled to create pain but prevent unconsciousness. Chip' s head snapped violently to the side, an indicator of force behind the open-handed impact.
Once more, Eva touched his face lightly. "My, my, my, that must have hurt. I'm so sorry...." She bent close, the smile on her face contradicting her syrupy words. "So, while my colleague's unique...shall we say, 'talents' are fresh in your mind, let's start again, this time beginning with the simplest of questions. Did you leave the information in the main house somewhere?"
As a thin line of blood trickled from the cut that had opened below his eye, he replied, "I don't know!"
At the woman's signal the giant's hand descended on the other side of Chip's face. "I think you do, Commander, and I really must insist you tell me. The information in question doesn't belong to you and was never intended for the United States government. I think...."
"Don't hurt yourself with all that thinking...."
As her mind registered the insult in his whispered words, Eva buried her own small fist up to the wrist in his groin.
Chip gasped as stars and blinding pain ripped through his body in the wake of her unexpected attack.
"You should really choose your words more carefully," she hissed. "After all, this is nothing personal. I have no like or dislike for you. Like myself, you are simply a player in the game." Grinning down at his writhing, pain-wracked form, she bent close. "Had enough? Simple question...simple answer, and the pain stops forever. Then again, if you don't tell me what I want to know, the pain could last for an eternity. Your choice! And so, we're back to the big question. Where did you put the information Cintas gave you?"
"Don't...know... " The words were wrenched from his throat, "and can't say...as I...much...care...."
This time she chose to hit him in the face. Watching impassively as another welt flamed across his fair skin, she sneered, "Lloyd used to brag about being an officer and a gentleman. You are not a gentleman, Mr. Morton."
"I am when in the presence of a 'real' lady."
Her face livid with anger, she turned to Lars. "Make him pay for that comment and when you are done, call me. Hurt him, but don't kill him...not yet. We still need to find the micro dot!"
The giant man grinned obscenely, and nodded. "Yes, ma'am."
After watching her leave the cold, stone room, Lars turned back towards the man lying helpless in the center of the room. Lumbering around the table, he pulled the bonds on each of Chip's limbs tighter, making the blond officer feel like he was slowly being torn apart. Oblivious to anything but the task at hand, the simple-minded hulk continued to smile, alternating between humming a low, mindless, off-key tune and mumbling out loud. "Miss Eva said to make sure you don't get away...she wants you to answer her. You should be nice to Miss Eva, you know. Miss Eva is always nice to me. But you were mean to her...wouldn't tell her what she wants to know. I have to fix that.... There...now...." Raising a hand, he brought it down hard on Chip's face.
When reality crashed in on Chip, it brought with it a massive wave of pain. Somehow, his muddled consciousness registered he was no longer stretched out on the table, but his first abortive attempts at movement brought such agony he decided to lay still. Opening his eyes, he found himself lying on a cold stone floor in a dirty room which also reeked of wine. Weak light filtered through high, dirty windows.
Joints stretched far beyond normal bounds screamed in protest with his slightest movement, but he knew his position left him little choice. He had to test the limits of the new bonds...the limits of his endurance. He had to get to the Jeep, get the watch and the micro dot. He had to get it to the boat, or die trying. Eva must have been watching for the right opportunity to retrieve the information and rid herself of her 'companion's' company for good. Chip had no intention of making it any easier for her to get the information now.
He shifted slightly, groaning again as his body protested his actions. Lars had known exactly what he was doing.... how to deliver the most pain and do the most damage without totally incapacitating his captive. The beating had been relentless, delivered without any trace of feeling, and oblivion had been a welcome respite. But now he had to force his protesting body to work and cooperate. Although his fingers numb from lack of circulation, he picked at the heavy ropes binding his wrists. As full consciousness returned he realized his ankles were also tightly fettered and his wrists were somehow bound to them. Although lying on his side, the position his bonds forced him into was akin to a kneeling position, making any type of movement very difficult. Every ounce of training and self-control took over as he began the attempt to free himself.
Sudden movement at the door of his 'cell' drew his attention away from his seemingly fruitless task. A harsh light was turned on, flooding the tiny room with artificial brightness. Eva and Lars entered, the giant moving quickly...pulling him roughly to his knees. Eva stood in front of him, staring down, as Lars held him steady.
"I hope you have used the time I've given you to think about your position, Commander." Eva said with false sweetness, running her fingers of his bloody and swollen face. "You really should know better than to withhold information from someone who has the means to get it...and who can make the experience either a pleasant or an unpleasant one. Now, where is the micro dot?” She grabbed his hair, jerking his head upwards.
Chip couldn't keep a groan of pain from escaping, but managed to whisper, "I don't know! "
Lars' large, paw-like hand squeezed his shoulder, forcing another moan of anguish from the helpless man. Eva stopped him with a glance. "Wait, Lars! Bring the commander and follow me. There are people on their way who will want to help us 'interview' him." Lars bent down and released the rope on the captive's ankles, jerking him to his feet. The room spun at wild angles and Chip fought to remain conscious. Winning the struggle, at least temporarily, he staggered, allowing Lars to half drag him from the room, putting most of his weight on the big man. They moved down a corridor into the large bottling room. As they passed the table, Chip shuddered involuntarily and was deeply grateful when they quickly moved past its rough surface, instead gaining the entryway of the small building which had been his prison for unnumbered hours. Blinking as his eyes adjusted, he saw the dusky light of early evening had fallen over the vineyards.
"Come on..." Eva motioned as she started into the vineyard. "...They’re meeting us at the house."
Taking a careful look around, Chip realized he had to make his move now, or be truly trapped. Without much in the way of acting required, he allowed his body to sag limply. Feigning unconsciousness, he fell forward, causing Lars to stumble. Eva had walked on ahead and was completely unaware of the scenario unfolding behind her. As Lars bent over to pull him up by his collar, Chip drove his sneakered foot into the large man's groin, feeling no small degree of satisfaction as his tormentor screamed in pain and collapsed into a writhing heap on the ground. Rolling to his right, Chip pulled himself to his knees and rose, running as quickly as he could down the next row of vines. Lars' screams continued to rend the night, but were soon joined by Eva's loud voice, calling out, "You are only delaying the inevitable, Commander. We will catch you; my men are on their way now and when they find you I promise you will be the worse for this little escapade! There is no escape, Morton. You don't know the vineyards...we do. You are not in good physical condition...my men are. Your arms are still bound! Give up, and I will see Lars doesn't hurt you too badly. You can't get away. We will find you."
Chip stopped, deep in the shadows, to catch his breath and gather his wits. The words the taunting voice was saying meant nothing...he was free and, if he had anything to say about it, he was going to remain that way. The first thing he needed to do was to get the ropes off his wrists and in order to do that, he somehow had to get his hands in front of him. Gritting his teeth against the agony, he folded his torso tight against his legs and began to pull his arms beneath him. Grunting with pain and effort, he slowly...very slowly inched his arms forward. Sweating with strain, he finally got his wrists in front of him and with what now seemed relative ease, released the rope holding them together. Breathing heavily, he slumped to the ground, momentarily allowing misery and exhaustion to wash over him. Giving into the urge to rest, he lay still for a few moments. Then, rolling to one side, he slowly pulled himself to a sitting position. " All right, Morton, enough...it's time to get moving here...The road is on the other side of the house...so is the Jeep. They don't know where the micro dot is, so all you have to do is get it from the Jeep and get to the road." He shook his head, and snorted quietly, "Right, Chip...that's all you have to do!!"
Pulling his battered body to his knees, he rose, keeping to a low crouch. Stumbling along the line of plantings, he fought to remain in control of his pain, finding it helped to stay focused on the task at hand. "Get to the Jeep, Chip...The Jeep and the watch. Get the watch!!"
Scrambling through the vineyard, moving at an angle towards the house, he kept pushing himself to get to his Jeep. Hearing the sound of several pairs of feet crashing through the plants several rows behind him, he stopped, and hunkered down, trying to blend into the vines, hoping the crashing feet would pass. When they did, he realized that while several men were looking for him, they only carried one flashlight. That would work in his favor...the lack of light would help him hide, particularly since there was no moon and only stars lit the sky. He rose and once again headed toward the house and the Jeep. He was working on the assumption his pursuers would not believe he'd head for the Jeep, given it had been disabled.
Finally, after an unknown length of time in the shadows, Chip was within reach of his objective. He had to approach the vehicle from the far side, not the house side, so his chances of being seen would be less. He could still hear the men searching for him, but he'd left them far behind, nearer the pressing and bottling buildings than to him. Eva and Lars were the unknown. Silently waiting, he studied the area around him carefully, seeking a clue to the pair's whereabouts. The rear of the house, housing the study and several rooms adjacent to it was brightly lit. The front of the house was dark.
Chip readied himself to approach the Jeep. It finally penetrated his pain fogged brain he would have to disable the dome light in the vehicle if he was going to get the watch and remain unseen in the process. He had driven in with the windows open and had not closed them when he got out. If everything remained as he'd left, then at least in theory he could get his hand in and turn off the interior light before opening the door. "If!!" Making his way across the patch of open ground, he reached the door and breathed a sigh of relief when he saw the windows were still open. Reaching he groped for the light switch and shut it off. As quickly as quickly as possible, he opened the door, reached under the seat, grabbing the watch and keys and shoving them into his pocket. Quietly shutting the door, he darted quickly to his left and dove into in relative shelter of the vines, breathing heavily with exertion. Sliding further along the row, he crouched down, trying to get his breath. The beating and now the running were taking their toll on his weakened reserves, so he sat, hidden in the vines, knowing he had to rest...at least briefly...or risk passing out. The darkness of unconsciousness pulled at him, but he focused on the pain...allowing his weary body to relax but forcing his mind to remain alert and aware. If he could make the road, make it to the nearby town, he could get away.... get to Lee...contact the boat...the boat. The edges of his world blurred around him as he tried to think and against his will, his eyes closed, and he slept.
Snapping awake, Chip was aware at once, he'd slept too long. He could hear the sounds of pursuit once again closing in on his position. Listening carefully, he waited for them to pass him by, scarcely daring to breathe. As the crashing noises faded into the darkness, he waited for a time until they were far off then carefully unbent his tortured body. Moving quietly to the edge of the vineyard and to the hedgerow separating it from the road, he realized with a start morning was almost upon him. Looking east he saw the lightening of the sky that begins with the false dawn of early morning. "Light!" Usually able to appreciate the beauty of these hours, he knew today the dawn was his enemy. Weakened as he was from the beatings and exhausted by his efforts to escape, he would be no match for his pursuers in the light of day. Right now he had two choices: Find a place to hide and wait out the daylight hours or plod on now...try to get off the property...try to make his way to town...and maybe, just maybe, he could contact Crane and the boat. As much as his body screamed at him to find a place to hide, the logical part of his mind pushed him towards the road, knowing somehow the people looking for him would expect him to hole up on the property because he was hurt and tired.
Sighing heavily, he continued his flight, deliberately following the path the men tracking him had left. They had come from the driveway so he would head for it. Two things drove him...the need to get to the main road and the need to get to Lee with the information. "No cavalry coming this time, Morton. Lee wasn't even allowed off the boat…gotta do this by yourself..." Forcing down the pain and the overwhelming sense of hopelessness, he stumbled on.
As the day began to brighten, he reached the asphalt highway. Offering a small prayer of thanks, he looked around. The vineyards extended for several miles along both sides of the road and at the far end, he could see a stand of trees. Drawing on his reserves, he began to move in the direction of the trees, knowing they lay along his route and meant shelter. He stayed low along the edge of the vineyard, pulling himself into the shadows of the vine every time a car approached, hoping to escape detection. No one came from the vicinity of the vineyards themselves. He thought it strange, but could only focus on the task at hand. "The trees, Morton, get to the trees...then figure out how to work your way into town from there... Come on, Chip, ole' boy, the trees aren't that far off...get there first...." He pushed himself hard and just as the sky blossomed into full daylight, he managed to gain the shelter of the small stand of evergreens. Standing on the embankment along the edge of the road, Chip checked the lay of the land carefully. There was no sign of pursuit. He was turning to move into the relative safety of the shadowed copse, when his world faded around him and he collapsed, rolling down the steep incline and coming to rest in the gully at its base. As his body struck bottom, leaves and debris settled onto him, effectively hiding him from any one who might be following.
He tried to take a deep breath and choked on what was in his mouth and nose. Slowly he became aware he was lying face down in a pile of leaves and dirt. Pulling his arms beneath his chest, he spit out what was in his mouth and slowly rolled onto his side. Listening carefully, he lay there unmoving, alert for any indication of danger. But he heard nothing, save the sounds from the woods themselves and the occasional car on the road. He felt for the watch in his pocket and was relieved to find it still there. With a groan, he pushed himself to a sitting position, coming to a sudden, sharp realization his body had been further battered in the fall. Getting to his knees, he struggled to stand but as he put his full weight on his legs, a sharp pain caused him to collapse back against hardened soil. Once again dragging himself to a seated position, he probed the area around his right ankle. Just above his sneaker, he came upon swollen flesh and found his lightest touch caused pain.
"Great! At the very least, a bad sprain, at the worst, broken. Dammit!! What the hell else could go wrong?! No, Morton, don't answer that question!! Remember to tell Lee when you get back to the boat these escapades of his are way over-rated...certainly not all the fun and excitement he leads us to believe they are!!! Crane, when I get my hands on you ...."
Gritting his teeth against the pain, he stood, wavering as the pain radiated out from his ankle, traveling up his leg in wave after wave of red-hot jabs. It became immediately apparent he couldn't put any weight on it. Cursing to himself, he sat back down, looking around for something to lean on, which would enable him to walk. Reaching behind him, he finally found a branch large enough to bear his weight and, using it as crutch, he got to his feet and began the slow, arduous trek towards town.
Several hours later, he felt no closer to his goal than before yet, from a physical standpoint, he felt as though he'd traveled at least 100 miles. His aching body was protesting every move, his ankle was numb beyond feeling, his mind beginning to see the 'enemy ' in every play of light and shadow. Wearily, he sat down to rest...trying to regroup his fading strength...to re-focus his rapidly blurring thoughts. He leaned back against a convenient tree trunk and in moments, his body overtook his mind and he fell asleep.
Hearing a faint rustle of needles, he started awake and found himself staring into a pair of curious brown eyes. Alarmed he moved too quickly, slamming his injured ankle into the turf and crying out as the pain rapidly moved up his leg.
"You hurt, mister?" the young voice asked.
Keeping his voice tightly controlled in an attempt not to frighten the child, he answered, "Yes, I am."
"Need some help? Me an' my dad live on the other side of the woods..." the boy offered.
Chip looked at his benefactor closely. He judged the child to be about ten...he was wearing a grey t-shirt and blue jeans, with sneakers. He had brown eyes, brown hair, and wore an expression that was clearly a mix of curiosity and fear.
Seaview's Executive Officer cleared his throat and said softly, "Yes, I do. How far is your place?"
"'Bout a mile or so as the crow flies...Me an' dad live there by ourselves...My ma left a long time ago. It's just the two of us, but we can help, if ya want.... You ain't from the vineyard, are ya?"
Chip shook his head. "No, I'm not. Does that make a difference?"
"Well, kinda...to my dad... He don't like the man who owns the vineyard. Calls him a liar and a cheat. Says he's trying ta steal our land."
Chip smiled at the boy. " I'm not with the Vineyard...believe me. You think you could give me a hand up here?"
"Sure!" the boy grinned.
Chip grasped the boy's extended arm and by leaning heavily on the tree branch and using the boy for leverage he managed to get to his feet. Standing brought an awareness of truly helpless he was. He could only hope he wasn't putting the boy or his father in any danger. Leaning on the stick and on the young man's shoulder, Chip looked down into clear brown eyes. "What's your name," he asked.
"Buddy is what my dad calls me...dunno if there's another. Think maybe the one my mom gave me is too prissy for my dad to use. What's yours?"
"My friends call me Chip. I'm kind of hoping you and I will be friends."
"Sure, Chip. I ain't never knowed anyone with the name of Chip. Kinda like my name, real...but not real."
Chip laughed as they moved through the trees, a part of his mind alert for any sounds out of the ordinary. "Well, if you can keep a secret, my real name is Charles Philip. But my little sister couldn't say that so I became Chip. I'm kind of used to it by now."
"You got a sister?"
"Yep and a brother too. Don't see them much now that we're all grown."
"Wow, mister...er, I mean, Chip.... you’re lucky!!! You got a sister and a brother!" The boy's voice took on a tinge of regret very deep for one so young. "Sure do wish I had one. Sometimes...it can get awful lonely here when dad goes on work away from the house."
Chip looked again at the boy. There was a lot of maturity in the youngster. "Don't you go to school?"
"Yeah, some.... when dad is home and working on our place. I can read and write and do my math. When dad is away, I stay at the house and work on stuff from school...some of the kids'll drop stuff off. Dad calls it home schoolin'"
Chip suddenly felt very sorry for him. If he got back to the boat, he'd have to find a way to help this kid. If he got back to the boat... He knew enough about what he'd been through to feel a fever coming on. He knew he was dehydrated and dreadfully hungry. He knew the beating had done some damage to muscle and tendon and was acutely aware a few ribs had to be cracked the way they hurt. And then there was his ankle....Hopefully, Buddy's dad had a phone and he would be able to contact Lee....Lee!!! the boat!!! "The watch...did he still have the watch?!!!!"
Releasing his grip on the boy's shoulder, he felt in his pocket for the watch. Finding it there, he breathed an inward sigh of relief then continued to move along with Buddy. The boy noticed Chip had slowed down and he turned to him, "You ok, Mis... I mean, Chip?"
"Yes, Buddy, just slow...very slow! Are we far from your place?"
"No, It's just a bit more through the woods, an' then you can see the house."
Chip nodded at the boy, hoping he was correct. Truth be told, he was reaching the end of his endurance and would soon need more help than this young boy could give him. He had to make contact with the boat immediately. The people from the winery would be on his trail and his very presence was putting the boy in danger. He didn't want to do that, but he did need the help!
They came to the edge of the trees and the boy pointed to the small house standing in the middle of a field of vines. Chip nodded, suddenly understanding the animosity between this boy's father and his neighbor. The only reason a man like Cintas would want to own a vineyard of this size was not because of the possible competition, but simply because it was there. The fact Chip now had an ally was also evident, even without meeting Buddy's father.
"There, Chip... that's my house... I'm gonna run ahead and tell my dad. Will you be ok for a minute?"
"Sure, Go ahead. I'll follow you. " The boy sprinted to the house, a small, weather worn ranch, which looked to be in need of much repair. He disappeared through the door as Chip continued to move slowly towards the house. The boy burst back outside, this time followed by a man, slightly stocky in build who looked to be as worn as the house. Buddy turned to his father. "C'mon, dad!" he called as he ran to Chip. The man followed at a run and arrived at Morton's side close behind his son. "Dad, this is Chip.
Chip, this is my dad, Justus.... Justus Morgan."
Justus Morgan extended a hand to Chip, who shook it warmly. "My boy says you need a bit of help, and from the looks of you, I'd say it was more than just a bit."
Chip nodded ruefully, " You're right. The name is Morton...Chip Morton. I need to get word to Santa Barbara...to some friends of mine."
The man nodded, silently sliding an arm around Chip's waist for support. Gratefully accepting the man's help, Chip was surprised by how quickly they made it to the small house. Once inside, father and son moved rapidly and Chip found himself being helped to a small bedroom. Over his protests, Justus eased him to the bed.
"No! I can't stay here. You don't understand. My being here puts you and your son in real danger. Just let me use your phone and I'll leave. I can't let you take this kind of risk!"
Justus Morgan was firm. "Look...You're hurt and there's more to it than a fall down a gully. You're not from the winery and you need to get word to someone in Santa Barbara. We don't have a phone, so as soon as you're settled I'll send Buddy to make the call in town. In the meantime, you lie here and rest. I'll get you something to eat and drink then take a look at that ankle." Seeing his guest about to protest, he held up his hand. "Like I said, Buddy will be glad to make that call and hustle back here. Until then there's nothing you can do. My boy seems to have taken a liking to you. He's got good instincts when it comes to people and if he trusts you, then so do I."
Aware of his now overwhelming desire to sleep, Chip rubbed his forehead. After thinking for a moment, he looked into Justus Morgan's eyes. Seeing no deception in their depths, he plunged ahead. "Okay. My full name is Lt. Cdr. Chip Morton, and I' m the XO of the SSRN Seaview. I need Buddy to call the Nelson Institute and ask for Captain Crane. I'll give him a message to give the Captain and hopefully, they can get here and get me out of your way, ASAP."
Justus nodded in approval. "I thought you were military. You have that way about you. Look, I'll get Buddy in here and we can send him on his way."
The boy had been standing in the doorway listening to the two men, his brown eyes growing wider and wider as Chip gave his father the limited information. When his father turned to call him, he stepped into the room. Now in awe of the man he'd helped, Buddy came into the room. Standing at Chip's side he whispered in wonder, "You're on the SEAVIEW!!! ?????"
Chip smiled at the boy. "Yes. And when I get back, how would you like to go on a tour of the boat?"
"Really...WOW!!... Gee, Chip...I mean Mr. Morton..... I mean...."
Chip laughed, "It's Chip, Buddy. And I really need you to go and make that phone call for me, if you can."
"Oh, sure! I'll get goin' as soon as you say! Who do I hafta talk to... who do I hafta ask for...What should I tell 'em."
"Well, if you give me a piece of paper, I'll write it all down then you can get going."
"Okay, ... Chip!" the boy grinned. He ran out of the room returning quickly with the requested pad and pencil. "Here..."
Chip quickly wrote down two numbers and a brief message then explained, "When you get through, ask for Angie, she's the Admiral's secretary. When you talk to her, tell her you are calling for me. Then ask for Captain Crane or Admiral Nelson and give them the message I've got written here. Do you think you can do it, Buddy?"
"Oh, yes, sir! I sure can! I'll go right now!" He shook Chip's hand, "Don't you worry, Chip! I'll take care of it! S'long, Dad! I'll be back real fast." He gave his father a fast hug and ran out of the room.
"I think you have a fine boy there, Morgan."
"Yes, I do. He's been through a lot but he's a good kid. If there's a way to do it, he'll get it done. Now, let me have a look at that ankle...."
When Buddy returned to the house an hour later, he was in a jubilant mood. He had talked to Captain Lee Crane, the captain of the Seaview!
He had called the numbers Chip had given him and gotten through to a woman named Angie. As soon as he said he was calling for Chip, he'd been immediately connected to Lee Crane. Crane had been demanding, but kind and had promised he would get to the Morgan home as soon as the Flying Sub could be launched. Even better in the young boy's opinion, he'd promised to take Buddy and his dad for a ride in it once Chip was back aboard Seaview. Everything was settled, Chip was going home and Buddy was excited. The Captain had even promised he could meet Admiral Nelson. Admiral Nelson!!! Buddy couldn't believe his good luck!! He hurtled over the two steps leading to the front door and ran inside.
"Dad! Dad!!! Chip!" Tearing down the short hallway to the bedroom, Buddy suddenly ran into the solid body of a very large man. As he staggered backwards, a large beefy hand reached out and grabbed him, dragging him into the room by his arm. Chip Morton sat on the edge of the bed, his wrists bound behind him. Justus Morgan sat in the straight back chair next to the bed, with his arms also bound. Fear rose in the boy's face as he took in the scene. "DAD!!"
"Take it easy, Buddy. Everything is gonna be okay."
Eva Gebhardt laughed lightly. "Yes, little boy, everything will be ok, once Mr. Morton here gives me what I want."
Buddy struggled in Lars' grip, hitting the big man several times. "Lemme go, you big ox! Lemme go!!!" The big man's on the boy tightened, causing him to cry out. "OW!!! You're hurtin' me!!"
"Let the boy go, Eva!" Chip said softly.
"I don't think so, Morton. He may be my best chance to get the micro dot."
Buddy watched Chip carefully. He was confused at the conversation between the adults but he was smart enough to keep his mouth closed and listen. He looked at his father then stopped struggling against Lars' grip, relieved when he saw his father nod slightly in approval.
"That's right, boy...settle down. Lars won't hurt you, or your father if Morton here complies."
With steely determination, Chip shook his head. "Forget it, Eva. I won't give you the micro dot. NO matter the cost."
"Then you have consigned the boy and his father to a painful death at my friend's hand, Mr. Morton." She smiled evilly at Chip then spoke to Lars.
"Perhaps you should give the good Commander a demonstration of what you will do to the boy, Lars."
Lars nodded and murmured, "Yes, Miss Eva. " He looked at the boy, saddened he had to hurt such a young one, but Miss Eva had given him an order. He took the now terrified youngster and, raising him above his head, threw him violently to the floor. He hit with a horrifying thunk and both of the other men in the room rose to their feet. "BUDDY!" they both cried out. The boy lay still for a heartbeat then moaned and moved slightly.
Breathing a sigh of relief at the signs of life, Chip cautioned, "Don't move, Buddy. Just don't move."
Eva laughed. "Now that you've seen what I intend have you changed your mind, Morton? You seem to be concerned for the boy...even attached...."
"You know I won't give you the information. To hurt the boy and his father will get you nowhere."
"Perhaps, perhaps not... Any way I look at it, I will get the information I need from you. If these two innocents are hurt or killed, I care not, they're simply pawns in the game... although I have to say I do enjoy the twists and turns of the plot. "
"Let them go, Eva. You've got me...so just let them go."
"You know the cost of their freedom, Morton. Tell me what I want to know."
Justus Morgan had been watching his son and listening to the conversation. He hated Eva Gebhardt. He hated Cintas. There was no way he intended to let this man cooperate with them, just as he had no intentions of cooperating. And Buddy understood too. Maybe it was better if the boy was unconscious. Then he wouldn't know what was happening. And he couldn't act on his heart either.
Eva stared at her captives. She despised honorable men...they stood their ground...always playing the hero. And though the boy's father wasn't a professional like she and Morton were, he was strong. Honorable men, pah!!!! Leaning toward the two men, she waved her gun in their faces. "Well, gentlemen, do I get what I want?"
Morgan spoke before Chip could answer. "Me and my boy stand with the Commander here. You people are no good and I wouldn't let Buddy get within any distance of you at all..." He looked at Chip, "I dunno what she's talkin' about, but I do know this...You don't have to tell her anythin' on our account. Me an' Buddy are with you, no matter what they do."
Chip nodded mutely at the man, surprised at his quiet dignity and courageous stand. He had just consigned himself and his son to death at the hands of these agents...and he'd done it freely.
"How noble, Morgan!!! I'm not surprised Lloyd had problems with you... a poor man with scruples....My, my!" She pointed the gun in the direction of the boy. "Well then, I guess I may as well begin with your son. Where should I shoot him, Morgan? The head or the heart... to end it quickly? Or another part of his small body and make him suffer. What do you think, brave little man?" Morgan didn't answer. "No answer? Well then, I think I'll start with the lad's legs." As she took aim at the boy on the floor, Chip launched himself at her. He hit her hard, falling on top of her as they pitched backwards. As the two of them hit the floor, the gun went off. Both lay still and Lars stood, frozen in place, staring at the two bodies.
"Miss Eva! " he whispered, "Miss Eva?"
Eva Gebhardt moved then coughed. Chip Morton didn't. "Get him off of me, you great oaf!" she shouted at Lars. The big man moved to her side and lifted Chip's inert form off of her, dropping him like a rag doll after she'd crawled out from beneath him. Brushing at the blood on her blouse she looked from Morgan to Chip and said, "Too bad, neighbor. Our friend here just put off the inevitable. Now you and your boy have to die. There's no other way. You both know far too much, not to mention having witnessed this unfortunate incident." Reaching down, she pulled her gun from beneath Chip and turned on the bound man. "This is really too bad." Justus Morgan sat quietly, bracing himself for the shot, saying a quick prayer for his son then waited for the end. She began to pull the trigger and a shot rang out.
Morgan flinched, expecting impact but there was not. He saw Eva holding her wrist, the gun now on the floor and the room was suddenly filled with bodies in blue and red jumpsuits as well as Navy khaki. A tall, thin, balding man knelt next to the still form of Chip Morton. Another dark haired man in a red jumpsuit bent over Buddy. A third man, in Chief's uniform walked over to him and untied him. Gratefully rubbing his wrists, the father immediately ran to his son as Kowalski lifted the little boy to the bed. Patterson and Rodriquez hustled a handcuffed Eva and Lars out of the room and out of the house.
A short, stocky redhead in Khakis and wearing stars stood in the doorway. He watched as Will Jamison bent over Chip Morton. After releasing Chip's bonds, carefully rolled him onto his back. After a few moments, the physician breathed a sigh of relief. The exec had taken a bullet in the shoulder; while it was bleeding badly it was not a life threatening wound. He quickly completed the rest of his examination and was working on the shoulder wound when Chip came around.
Groggily, he looked at Jamison. "Will, what? The boy?! Buddy! Eva was going to shoot him... Is he..."
Jamison glanced at Kowalski, who nodded then looked back at the XO. "He's ok, Chip. What ever you did, he's ok."
Justus Morgan spoke up, after finishing a quiet discussion with Kowalski. "Saved my boy's life is what he did, Doc. Threw himself at the woman as she was aimin' to shoot him. My Buddy owes his life to Chip there."
Chip raised his uninjured arm in the air. “Wait a minute there, Justus. Buddy wouldn't have been hurt or threatened at all if I hadn't been in your house. You helped me and I returned the favor by putting the two of you in danger. It almost cost you your lives." He groaned as Jamison put a compression bandage on the bullet wound. Looking at Will with his best Exec glare, he said, "Jamie, I'll be okay. Check the boy, will you? That giant Lars picked him up and threw him on the floor...hard. " He gripped the doctor's arm. "Now, Doc!"
"Fine. You lie there, don't move and I'll go check him out...agreed?" Chip nodded and Jamison moved to the bed, where Justus Morgan held Buddy in his lap. Gently and carefully, Will Jamison examined the boy. Looking at the father, he said, "From what Chip said, he took a pretty hard thump but I can't find any broken bones. He may have a concussion, but until I run some x-rays, I won't know for sure. Let's get you to the boat...to my Sick Bay and I'll check the two of you out, along with our Exec here. "
He rose from the bed, and turned to find Nelson kneeling next to Chip, talking to him softly. The admiral looked up as Jamie returned to Chip's side.
"Is he going to be okay, Will?" Nelson asked, his concern for the young officer clearly written on his face.
"He'll be fine...after a stay in my Sick Bay!" Jamison lightly jibed.
Morton rolled his eyes and Nelson laughed, releasing the tension they had all felt after Chip's disappearance on this mission.
"Just wait til I get my hands on Crane...." Morton muttered as he was carried out.
Several hours later, Lee Crane sat next to the rack where Chip was firmly ensconced, thanks to Jaime. Looking at the man lying there, he felt a great deal of regret for what his exec had gone through because of him. His friend's pale face was covered in bruises from the beating he'd taking...bruises just beginning to fade, his left arm was firmly wrapped across his chest to keep the wounded shoulder immobile, and his right leg was elevated in a support to keep the injured ankle from moving or being moved.
Looking at Morton, Crane said ruefully, "I am sorry, Chip. I never anticipated anything like this. I thought you'd have a nice drive and be back in record time."
Chip laughed out loud, "Yeah, right! I take over one of your missions and I expect it to be a cakewalk. I should have my head examined! If where you go, trouble follows...then I should have expected it!" He paused then asked, "The watch?"
"Got it and the micro dot. The information has already been transmitted to ONI and Eva and Lars were picked up by Michael Taylor and his people about an hour ago."
"How's Buddy? Is he okay?"
Lee grinned. "He's fine and so is his father. They're with the Admiral right now. He's giving them a tour of the boat among other things." He laughed. "I've never seen such a case of hero worship in my life, Chip. If he said you could walk on water, I'd believe it, coming from him!"
Chip smiled good-naturedly. "He's a good kid, Lee. A really good kid. Lots of potential. Maybe we can help him out a bit...."
"I think that's just what the Admiral has in mind. We're all rather grateful he helped us find our Exec. "
At that moment the door to Sick Bay opened admitting Nelson and the Morgan’s. Buddy was wearing a Seaview issue jumpsuit, with the arms and legs well rolled up. He was grinning from ear to ear like any youngster who had just known the moment of a lifetime. He glanced over to the rack and seeing Chip looking at him with a smile, let out a shout, "Chip! You're awake!"
Realizing Crane was sitting next to the XO, he added, "Oh, Captain, I'm sorry! I'm just glad Chip is awake..." Looking at Morton, he asked, "You gonna be okay?
"Sure, Buddy. I'm going to be fine. I've got the best doc anyone could have and I'm back on my boat with my friends. I'm going to be just fine. Are you okay?"
"Yeah. The Doctor said I was okay. Just a con...concussion.... means I'm gonna have a headache!"
Chip laughed. "I've had a few of those myself. The Admiral give you a tour of the boat?"
The boy’s eyes grew wide. "Oh, yes!!! Man-oh-man, this is so great! The windows, and the flying sub, and the mini-sub and..." Morton and Crane looked at one another, smiling at the boy's enthusiasm. Both men knew what it felt like to be on the Seaview for the first time and to be overwhelmed by her. That was part of her charm and her connection to them all... her mystery....
Chip relaxed back into the pillows and, looking at Lee, said quietly, "Looks like we have the next generation of support for the NIMR growing here, Skipper."
"I think you could be right, Chip. I think you could be right!"
I would like to thank some special people here. Rosie Alcott has been a wonderful inspiration for this story. She is the one that suggested that I take a story idea that I had and put it in wine country. I did and this is the result. Thank you so much, Rosie!
Secondly, I want to thank Julie Cayemberg. Julie has helped me in this story by editing this for me. She made it so much better. I cannot begin to thank her enough for all of her hard work, and I have chosen this venue to thank her.
Third, I want to thank Carol Foss for all she has done for me, personally, and for the fandom in general. She works so hard to keep the Seaview Stories page at the high level of quality that it has. She has worked tirelessly to improve the page, and make it only the best that it can be. I don't think she is thanked enough, and I want to publicly thank her for everything that she does for all of us on her pages, and to thank her for all her help and support for Jane and I as we have launched our own page.
Lastly, once again, I want to thank you, all the readers. Your continued support of this page, Carol's page and all the voyage fan-fic pages continue to keep the show and the adventures alive. Your support keeps us all writing...and if all the authors feel like Jane and I do, we will keep writing...and keep Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea alive in our hearts, and minds.... Thank you for all that. Have a good read, I hope...
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