by Sue Kite
Author's Note: Takes place sometime during the time frame of the
Lee Crane heard music floating in and out and through his
consciousness. There were also voices-- melodic, caring, but nothing he
could understand. Somehow it seemed as though Tiny Tim, the Velveteen
Rabbit and Santa Claus all wove through his dream-like existence. Soft
hands caressed with concern and warmth. It reminded him of when he was a
little boy and the way his mother would lovingly care for him when he
was sick. Lee wondered where he was, but could never break through his
barrier of somnolence enough to do more than briefly wonder.
Finally, he woke to drug-muted messages of pain that his body
was sending him—and to bells and soft singing voices he had been dimly
aware of before. It all confused him and he almost betrayed his
wakefulness in his bewilderment. But his ONI training kicked in and he
simply lay there, ignoring the pain as best he could while trying to
remember what had precipitated his present circumstance and trying to
deduce where he was. It was easier to figure where he was not. He
certainly wasn’t on the Seaview. Some of the voices he heard,
speaking and singing, were female, some sounded like children.
The smell of the place told him ‘hospital’ and he mentally
cringed. But where? Then he dug into his most recent memories and things
began to slowly slip back into place. He had been driving from a
conservationists’ convention that had been held in Yellowstone
National Park. The admiral had insisted that Lee attend with him and
indeed, considering where it was, the captain had been only too happy to
accommodate his boss. All was smooth sailing, the area was gorgeous in
snow-covered beauty and the convention went well. Admiral Nelson had
even received promises of several hefty donations toward some of his
environmental projects. Lee opted to return in a rented vehicle, wanting
to see the Rockies and the Nevada desert in the winter, and assured that
the weather for the next week would be free of storms. The admiral with
more projects on his mind than time on his hands, had flown back to
Crane made it to Reno after the long and desolate, albeit
beautiful drive across Nevada and decided to stop and get one of those
reproduction slot machines for the admiral as a gag gift for Christmas.
It was the nineteenth and he had plenty of time for a stopover. The
admiral was a very savvy gambler when he chose to indulge, but the slots
were something that defied Nelson’s cognitive and deductive skills.
Crane thought the admiral would get a kick out of having one of his own,
so here he was hoping he could find a slot machine quickly. But what had
happened next? There had been a traffic jam just as he got off the
interstate. He sat, frustrated in a long row of cars on the exit ramp.
Then there were the screams in front of him. Some kind of altercation?
Or had there been a wreck? He never found out what had tied up the
traffic. The memories began floating away and he forced himself to
More came back to him…. He couldn’t believe what he was
seeing. Just ahead of him, two men in hooded jackets, with what appeared
to be large caliber pistols, were blatantly robbing motorists of their
cash and valuables. They snatched whatever they could, shoving their
spoils into backpacks. Lee picked up the mobile phone next to him and
dialed the operator. Emergency numbers were pretty standard in
California, but he couldn’t be sure here. When a voice answered, he
immediately told her the situation.
The bandits had chosen wisely. The exit ramp was not readily
seen from the interstate or from the street below. You couldn’t get
away and you couldn’t flag anyone for help. Apparently there was a
bottleneck below that was going to keep him and his fellow victims here
for at least five minutes, more than enough time for them to grab some
of their own Christmas cheer.
The highwaymen were now two cars ahead of him. Lee finished his
conversation with the emergency dispatcher, but what about right here
and now? Another scream. Someone was fighting the robbers and Crane
could only see one outcome for that action. His frustration turned to
anger as one of the robbers pistol-whipped the driver. Carefully, he
slid over to his passenger door, opened it and slipped out. Then he
crouched and reconnoitered. While one robber was in a shouting match,
the one on the passenger side was reaching in for something the occupant
was unwilling to relinquish. Crane ran, still crouched, toward the man
and tackled him before the robber realized someone was on him. Lee’s
fists made short work of the robber and he rolled away quickly, grabbing
the unconscious man’s gun as he did. He dashed to the dubious safety
of the car ahead, knowing that the other man couldn’t have been idle.
He was right. The sharp blast of a gun and the explosive impact of a
bullet into the concrete next to him brought that fact home.
Crane realized that he had to take this guy down quickly before
he hurt anyone. He peered from around the car and saw the driver
motioning behind him. Puzzled, Lee heard another gunshot and then felt a
hot burning in his upper left arm. It went numb immediately. Do I
have a bulls-eye painted on that arm? Another shot plowed into the
body of the car and he realized that there had been three men. Crane
spun, aimed and shot before the third man, much younger looking than the
other two, could fire at him again. With a scream, the third hood, the
lookout most likely, fell to the ground.
“That’s enough, cowboy,” a harsh voice sounded. The
driver-side robber was standing in plain sight, but a pregnant woman he
had dragged from a car shielded him. One arm was around her neck and the
muzzle of the gun to her head. “Drop the gun!” the bandit ordered.
Lee saw abject terror in the woman’s gray eyes, saw her lips moving; a
prayer most likely—and he dropped the gun to the pavement.
Someone grabbed him from behind—the man he had tackled most
likely. Lee felt his jacket jerked partway down, pinioning his arms to
his side. Then came a kick to his side that sent waves of pain up and
down his spine and drove him to the pavement. As he tried to extricate
himself from his own jacket, he heard harsh laughter, voices weaving in
and out louder one second and softer the next. He heard engines revving,
but they seemed distant. Then the world exploded in harsh sound,
terrible pain and then blackness.
“I know you’re awake, Duke. So let me see those attractive
hazel eyes the nurses in intensive care have been telling me about,”
came a pleasant but forceful female voice.
Yes, he was awake, but it was so hard to do what she was
ordering. Finally, he moaned and opened his eyes a crack. The light was
muted and he opened them more. A tall, dark-haired, olive-skinned nurse
was bending over him.
“There you are. You can’t imagine how we’ve been holding
our collective breath, worrying about you,” she said, her voice deep
“Where . . . where am I?” he asked, his voice rough as
though he hadn’t used it for some time. Or perhaps because he had had
a tube down it, he thought sourly.
“Reno. St. Mary’s Hospital.”
That fit with what he remembered. Then he remembered something
else she had said. “Why did . . . you call me Duke?”
“I thought it was more personal than John Doe.” She paused.
Then in a softer voice, she added, “Um, after John Wayne.” He
frowned in concentration. She waited patiently as he struggled to take
in what she had said. “John Doe? But . . . I, uh, had ID.”
“The crooks stole your wallet,” she replied.
Now he was even more confused. It was so hard to concentrate;
even harder to keep his eyes open. “My . . . rental.”
“Believe it or not, even with all the traffic congestion, two
of them managed to get away by stealing a Blazer. I heard they made a
mess of it, though. The police assumed it was yours. They also assumed
the men had fled the state in it. At least the Blazer never showed up
around here.” She stopped abruptly. “Before you fall asleep again,
what is your name?”
“Lee,” was all he could get out before he succumbed to the drugs and his weakened state.
When he awoke again, it was to music similar to what he had been
hearing before. This time he noticed a small, brightly lit Christmas
tree on the nightstand and garlands around a door. He made out a wreath
on the other side of the room and a stocking on the windowsill. Had the
admiral and his mother found out where he was, he thought groggily? But
there was no one else in the room with him. What day was it? Where was
he? Then he remembered the conversation with the nurse.
The same woman breezed into his room; her bright smile as cheery
as the tree near his bed. “You look a bit more alert, Lee. How do you
“Feel fine.” He said quickly, then he hesitated before
asking, “What day is it?”
She smiled softly at his first declaration, but only responded
to his question. “Christmas Eve. You had surgery three days ago and
only came down from intensive care early this morning.”
“Surgery? Intensive care?” Confusion reigned again. He tried
to remember what had happened. The bandits had kicked him. Shot him in
the arm. There was something else, but he could not remember what it
“You don’t remember?” she asked. He shook his head.
“They shot you, Lee.”
“Yeah, my arm.” Lee winced at a spasm of pain that forced
its way through his drug-induced fog.
“They shot you again before they stole your Blazer. Abdomen.
You bled quite a bit before help arrived. It was touch and go there for
a while.” She checked his vitals while she talked. Lee found that he
enjoyed listening to her. It was rather soothing and eased his confusion
and anxiety and helped take his mind away from his discomfort. “A lot
of people consider you a hero for what you tried to do,” she
continued. “I won’t say what the police detective called you, but
anyway, most of us here, especially the intensive care nurses, have sort
of adopted you. They didn’t feel anyone should be alone at
“Adopted me?” he stammered. “But no one has contacted
“You mean asked about you?” she asked. He nodded. “No.
After the first day, the police assumed that you were from out of town,
but without ID and a car to run a check on…. Well….All they could do
was put out a bulletin on the bandits and the car they stole. They could
only figure that the men had hidden somewhere.”
Lee paled. His mother was, or had flown out to Santa Barbara to
spend Christmas with him and the Admiral. She would be worried sick. He
felt lethargy setting in again, but pushed it away in the growing
despair he felt. To be alone in a hospital far from home. What a hell of
a way to spend Christmas! He had to let Mom know—let the admiral know.
“Please contact….” The pain was now warring with the lassitude he
felt. “Need….” He had to focus. He gulped in a deep breath of air
to clear his head and felt the pain intensify.
She could see his distress and laid her hand on his arm for a
moment, then she put something in his IV tube with a syringe. “Just
tell me your full name and we can get the police to do the rest, Lee.”
“Lee Crane,” he said simply. The room began to waver.
“Good, I’ll pass that information along. You just relax.”
“Nelson Institute of Marine Research.” It was almost more than he could force out. The last thing he heard was her gasp of surprise and he was asleep again.
“Hark, the herald angels sing, glory to the newborn King…”
someone was singing nearby.
This time Lee recognized the voice. It was the nurse who had
spoken to him before. He opened his eyes and saw even more decorations
that had either been recently put up or that he just hadn’t noticed
before. There were cards everywhere, like bright square
ornaments—around the mirror, on the walls, the windowsill. He wondered
at that. She had said that no one had known he was here, so where had
all of this come from?
“Merry Christmas, Captain! Are you feeling better?” she said
cheerfully, her smile bright. She was again taking his vitals, but
didn’t pause a beat as she spoke. Another hospital worker was watching
from the door and wished him a Merry Christmas.
He smiled an acknowledgment, his head clearing even as he
continued to study his surroundings. “Yes,” he said simply to the
nurse, while gazing at the decorations. “What . . . what is all of
this?” Then he took in the greetings. “Christmas?” He felt his
previous gloom returning.
“Yes, it’s Christmas morning. And all of this? It’s from
the nurses and other staff members, including your doctors. There are
cards from some of the people on the exit ramp, too.”
“But why?” he asked, perplexed.
“Partly because some of us are alone at Christmas with no
families of our own,” she said, her voice softer and more serious.
“And we wanted you to awaken on Christmas to something bright and
cheerful. We wanted you to know that you weren’t alone, whoever you
turned out to be.”
He was awake enough now to understand what she was saying and to
be touched by it. “I . . . I don’t know what to say,” he
stammered. “Except thank you.”
She smiled softly and laid her hand on his. “Captain Crane,
part of it was also because you did something that no one else had the
courage or ability to do that day. You cared and everyone wanted to show
the same caring back.”
Again he didn’t know what to say. Everything that everyone had
done seemed overwhelming. “I remember someone reading to me. And
She laughed. It was a musical sound. “Yes, there were several
off-duty nurses who read to you during the past few days, and lots of
cassettes with Christmas music. Everyone hoped you would respond.”
“I guess I disappointed them.”
“Oh, no. You responded; partially woke up at times. You just
don’t remember.” Her hand lingered on his. It was warm in the
coolness that always pervaded hospital rooms. “By the way, Captain,
the police called a short while ago and told me that your vehicle was
finally found abandoned in Oregon.” She had called him captain. That
meant she had contacted the institute. As though reading his mind, she
added, “And from what you told me, I was able to get a hold of your
friends. I was shocked when the person on the other end of the line
turned out to be Admiral Nelson himself. He and several others are on
their way here, including your mother. So you are going to have family
after all, Captain.”
He gazed around the room again, his previous dark mood
completely gone. “Call me Lee, please.” He paused, finding it hard
to express his thoughts at what had been done for him. He glanced at the
wreath on the door before looking back up at her. Finally, softly he
said, “I think I had family here already . . . Nurse…?”
“Just Stephanie.” Her eyes appeared misty.
“I don’t think my friends and family could have done more
than this. Again, thank you.”
“Merry Christmas, Lee.”
“Merry Christmas, Stephanie.”