Communities  

By sherlockette  

 

Thanks once again to my special beta ;- )

****

The sun was barely ten degrees above the horizon but the squawks, squeals and raucous laughter of the gulls and the low chugging of the motor of the deadrise fishing boat made it clear to anyone within miles that another dawn had arrived on the Chesapeake Bay. The boat’s pilot cautiously navigated his low-slung craft around the hedging of the pound net as his two companions checked for damage from the previous night’s powerful storm. It was strenuous work to make repairs but it was not without its amusements. As men and boat moved from one net stake to the next, ospreys and cormorants joined them in an informal procession, occasionally landing on the just-placed poles awaiting an easy meal.

“Hold up, there,” shouted the man standing closest to the bow as he raised his arm. “There’s a big somethin’ in the heart.”

“Shark?” queried the pilot.

“Nah, I don’t think so.”

The boat’s motor was cut and all three men peered into the midsection of the fish trap. One grabbed his dip net and pushed away the section of torn netting to gain a better view. Whatever it was, it was large and half submerged beneath the turbid water. It took a sizeable amount of effort to pull it up, even for the muscular watermen, but they finally worked it free of the nets and dragged it up onto the deck. Gazing upon the object the men couldn’t help but scratch their heads. Roughly cylindrical in shape and nearly five feet long and a little over two feet in diameter, it was a deep red-brown color with a frosted patina.  If not for the enormous size of it, it could have easily been mistaken for a piece of sea glass.

Neva seen anythin’ like that,” said Gary , the youngest of the three men as he reached over and knocked on the side. “Solid.  But not like any rock I’ve evah seen.”

Noticing that the other man had acquired a hammer and was prepared to strike the object, the pilot held out his hand. “Whoa, Jimmy, don’t damage it, it might be valuable.”

Jimmy squatted down and ran his hand over the surface. “Must be real old.”

The pilot nodded. “Maybe, but we gotta get these nets fixed and pull the catch so we’ll see ‘bout it later.  Best stow it next to the cabin.” The men nodded their agreement and rolled the object into position and lashed it down. As the younger men gathered up a set of net poles to make the next repair the pilot stepped into the cabin. Soon both the engine and the watermen’s workday sputtered back to life.

****

After spending just a few minutes scanning the headlines of the local weekly newspaper Chip Morton had to chuckle. He never imagined that he would have nothing better to do than to sit in a diner and peruse the social calendar of the first families of a small bayside Virginia town. As the executive officer of the world’s most advanced submarine, the Seaview, he was used to having plenty to occupy him. What little spare time he did have he spent watching or participating in sporting events, visiting family or reading something much more substantial than the latest gossip. 

Unfortunately for Chip, he had been ordered to take a mandatory month’s leave to recuperate from a partial hearing loss sustained through the course of his duties. Since he couldn’t fly or drive at high altitudes he had hitched a ride east with the Seaview, which was destined for the continental shelf off Long Island for a scientific mission.  Departing the boat at Norfolk with no firm plans except to relax, Chip had visited a couple of friends then rented a car and taken off to the north on a busman’s holiday. A brewing storm squelched his plans to take a rented sailboat out on the bay near the New Point Comfort Lighthouse so he sought out refuge near the town of Port Haywood and there he had spent the night.

After the waitress topped off his coffee, Chip flipped over to the back of the periodical and his eyes were drawn towards the bottom of the page. Below the wedding announcements and latest recipes were ads for several eclectic local shops. If they were typical of the “mom and pop” type establishments scattered around the bay, they would be good places to hunt for nautical gifts both for Lee Crane, Seaview’s captain, and the members of his family who were avid collectors. Lee’s birthday was coming up and he had the time so he decided to make it a point to stop in before moving on.

The tall blond was deep in concentration planning out his day when seemingly out of nowhere someone reached out and grabbed the newspaper and pulled it from his grasp. He was momentarily startled, but upon recognizing the tall, tanned, athletic brunette with a hand on her hip standing next to his table he broke out into a broad smile and rose to greet her. “Chancey Colgate, what a surprise! It’s great to see you!”

The woman returned his smile, grabbed both his hands warmly, then pulled him close and pecked his cheek. “Must have been something really intriguing in there,” she said as she pointed to the latest edition, which was now resting on the floor. “I called your name a couple of times.”

Chip maintained his smile but inwardly he winced at his continued vulnerability. “Not nearly as intriguing as you, Chance. Here, sit down,” he said as he held out his hand.

Slipping into the seat across the table from him, Chancey looked directly into his bright blue eyes. “Chip Morton I haven’t seen you in well… forever. Not that I haven’t heard about you and your career. Dad has made it his job to keep me updated.”

Chip flushed at the last comment. It was at one of the Naval Academy socials that he had met Chancey. Her father, the honorable Harold Colgate represented a district in northern Virginia and the congressman had not only encouraged the pairing of his debutante daughter and the then midshipman, he had actually arranged it. While both Chip and Chancey enjoyed the time they had spent together, both knew that for a while Chip’s priority would be his career. Apparently that didn’t stop her father from continuing to push the issue of marriage.

“So how is your father?”

“What do you think? He enjoys being in the thick of things, that’s for sure.”

“And what about you, what have you been up to?”

“I run a dive charter business. That’s how I ended up here. We had to pull the boat into the nearest port when that storm came through yesterday.”

Chip smiled and shook his head.

“What’s so funny?”

“Whatever happened to that proper young society woman who hated getting her hair wet?”

“Credit where it’s due, you did introduce me to diving and I grew to love it. I got my certifications to dive wrecks and now and then I get hired to do a little scientific diving.  What about you? Why are you here, if I may ask?”

“I’m on leave. Thought I’d spend some time exploring the area. Never had enough time to do it during my academy days.”

Chancey’s neutral expression turned to a frown as she reached over and traced her finger around the fading bruise and fresh scar at Chip’s scalp. He pulled back but offered no explanation for them. The woman knew well what he did for a living so she didn’t press for information he couldn’t give her. The two continued chatting for nearly a half hour discussing old times and old friends. When Chancey suddenly glanced down at her watch and announced she had to leave, the pair rose.

“Will I see you again?” they blurted out simultaneously. Laughing aloud, Chip motioned for the woman to speak first.

“Maybe, if you stay around here a little while longer. I wrap up this trip in the morning, and my next one isn’t scheduled until the end of next week.”

“I think your dance card has just been filled,” Chip said with a wink.

Chancey beamed. “Then I will see you right here, tomorrow, at say, eleven thirty?”

“Sounds like a plan.”

After Chancey left, Chip reached down and picked up the errant paper and folded it so that the back page was facing out. He once again began to scan the ads but soon set the paper down. As much as he tried, he couldn’t wipe the grin from his face. 

 

****

Lee Crane stood over Seaview’s communications officer, unconsciously tapping the eraser end of his pencil on his palm. Sensing his presence, Sparks turned and looked up at him.

“Sir?”

Lee ceased his tapping and held up the pencil. “ Sparks , has Mr. Morton checked in today?”

“Yes, sir,” he responded as he retrieved a folded piece of paper from the message tray and handed it to the captain. “Not long ago. Said he was staying at that address and he would be there for several days. Is there something you would like me to relay to him?”

Lee took the slip and glanced at it. “No, but when he calls tomorrow, let me know. I need to speak to him.”

“Aye, sir.”

Unable to dissuade Chip from traveling alone, Lee had ordered him to check in daily. He was relieved to hear that Chip was staying busy but he was feeling the absence of his efficient XO and friend whose skill with running the boat allowed him to move about freely and whose dry wit made even dull cruises a little less tedious. Seaview’s current mission, to study the bottom currents in the area where the Hudson River emptied out into the Atlantic , was a worthy one and their plan to deploy a set of sensors that would move along with the currents and send back data was solid. It was, however, very routine.  

Lee slid the paper into his shirt pocket and walked slowly back to the plot table.

“Something I should know about, Lee?” asked Admiral Harriman Nelson, Seaview’s designer and owner, as he peered over his coffee mug.

Lee patted his pocket and broke into a grin. “Chip’s contact information.”

“What’s he up to today?”

Lee hesitated because he really didn’t know. Chip had bristled at some of the restrictions that were placed on him by the doctors and Lee and since leaving the boat had followed only the letter of the law by leaving a message with Sparks each day rather than speaking with Lee directly. “He apparently met up with a friend. At least now he has someone to look out for him.”

The admiral chuckled at the irony of Lee’s words. “Lee, why don’t we check out the telemeter circuits one more time?”

Lee knew the admiral was trying to distract him and he conceded he was probably overly concerned about his friend. After all, he thought. Chip is a big boy. He can take care of himself.

****

After leaving the diner, a decidedly more upbeat Chip Morton headed out for several hours of sailing. Upon his return he steered his catboat into one of the public berths, grabbed his duffel and hopped up onto the dock to tie off the craft. Taking in some of the local color, he strolled slowly past the myriad of fishing boats that had arrived to unload their daily catches. Most of the boats were of a style unique to the Chesapeake , with a sharp “v” shape to the forward hull that allowed them to handle the chop in the bay’s shallow water. Averaging forty feet in length and resting low in the water, some were rigged with an apparatus to pull in nets while others had an open deck style and were stacked with crab pots. The fishermen who owned the boats, known locally as watermen, were busy wheeling and dealing with buyers from regional fish markets and restaurants. Next to the pier, a line of delivery trucks were backed into place with their rear doors open, much like baby birds waiting to be fed.  

As Chip approached the end of the row of trucks he saw that a small group of watermen had gathered around the back of a large old pickup. One of the men was holding up the corner of a canvas sheet that covered most of the bed and the others were taking turns reaching in to examine whatever was inside. When Chip came within twenty feet of the truck the man quickly dropped the cover and the entire group turned to glare at him. With no desire to cause a confrontation, the officer nodded politely then averted his gaze and walked on past the men towards his sedan. As he reached to unlock his door, he could feel five sets of eyes boring into his back.

After getting a quick bite to eat nearby, Chip returned to the dock. It took only seconds for him to realize that his sailboat was now floating free some four hundred feet off shore. He quickly kicked off his shoes and dove in, reaching the boat in just minutes.  After he pulled himself up and in he shielded his eyes from the sun and looked back towards the shore. The pack of burly watermen he had encountered earlier stood on the dock, arms crossed. If their looks could kill he would surely be a dead man.

****

Not allowing a few odd characters to intimidate him, Chip returned the rental boat and made his way into the historic town of Mathews for a couple hours of shopping. Upon arriving at a small curio shop whose ad he had seen in the paper he was disappointed to find it locked up tight. Cupping his hands he peered into the front window and through the mesh curtains he could see a man and a woman having an animated discussion. He rapped on the window to attract their attention but the pair ignored him and soon disappeared into a back room. Determined to get some shopping done, and perhaps purchase something for Chancey, Chip stepped across the narrow street to another shop. As he approached the stoop he saw the curtains being pulled and a hand reach through them to hang the closed sign. In frustration he twisted the knob anyway verifying that the shop was indeed closed.   

Whether he was dealing with a case of mistaken identity or had stumbled onto some nefarious activity that the townspeople wanted kept secret, Chip was feeling persona non grata. As he walked towards his car he weighed his options. Had he not made plans he would simply leave the area and avoid any further problems. Finally he decided his best course of action was to limit his contact with the locals by returning to his room at the inn. 

Wham! As Chip rounded the corner of the building adjacent to the parking lot he was slammed face-first against the wall and his arms were yanked behind his back. He was unable to break the vise-like grip or to get a good look at whoever was holding him. He could feel someone reaching into his back pocket and believing he was being robbed he offered up what cash he had.

 

“We don’t want your money.”

 

Two men continued to hold onto Chip as a third, older man flipped open the wallet and pulled out his identification card and driver’s license. It didn’t take long for the man to reach the conclusion that the blond was not who, or what he expected.

 

“Let him go,” he said quietly.

 

The two captors looked at their leader skeptically but he repeated his order. “I said let him go!”

 

Chip shook off their ape-like grip and whirled around to face the trio. “What do you think you’re doing?” he snapped in his most strident command tone.

 

The men that had grabbed him were none other than the fishermen who had set his boat adrift. The older man was unapologetic. “We heard you were with that girl and we thought for sure you were one of those treasure hunters.”

 

Treasure hunter?  Girl?  Do they mean Chancey?  Chip narrowed his eyes. “What does she have to do with any of this?”

 

“Can’t we just let it go with an apology?” asked one of the men as he tried to lead the others away.

 

“Wait a minute. That girl happens to be an old friend. What is it you think she’s done?”  

 

“She’s with one of those dive outfits,” growled the older man. “They’re bad news. They bring in big city treasure hunters who pillage the old wrecks and take away our history. What’s in the bay is ours.” For emphasis he thrust his thumb to his chest.

 

“What exactly has she done?” 

 

“Nothin… that we know of.”

 

“Thought so. Last I checked this is America , and people are free to go where they want and carry out their business. Who appointed you the local law?” 

 

The youngest of the men had remained silent, focusing his attention instead on the N.I.M.R. identification card he now held in his hand. “This says you work for that research outfit in California . Isn’t that the one with the big submarine?”

 

“What’s it to you?” Chip asked warily as he reached out and snatched the card.

 

He opened his mouth to answer but was interrupted by the older man. “Okay, boys, go get the truck,” he ordered. The two slowly walked away, leaving the older man alone with the officer. After looking back to ensure the men were out of earshot he looked Chip in the eye. “Tell the girl she’s not welcome here and that we’ll defend what’s ours.”

 

“Is that a threat?”

 

“No, mister, it’s a promise.”

 

****

Prior to Seaview’s arrival in the New York Bight, two ships from the Wellford Ocean Institute had deployed a set of sensors into the mouth of the Hudson River . If all went as planned, as the sensors moved with the currents their path would be recorded by telemeters on the support ships. Seaview’s task, specifically, was to follow the sensors as they traveled into deeper waters down the Hudson Shelf Valley . The knowledge gained would then allow scientists to track the flow of both sediments and pollution all the way to the continental rise.

Once Seaview began to receive data the admiral retreated to the quiet of his cabin to perform some crucial calculations. He made substantial progress before being informed by Seaview’s communications officer that he had a priority call from Washington .  Expecting to hear from a friend at the Office of Naval Research that Congress had approved funding for their latest joint research project, Nelson eagerly flipped on the videophone. He was surprised when instead of viewing his colleague, the sober face of John Hardy appeared on the screen. As special assistant to the President, Hardy served as Nelson’s point of contact whenever Seaview was tapped for a special mission. Revealing nothing of the nature of the new assignment, Hardy informed the admiral he was to meet him at Bethesda Naval Hospital the following morning. With their future plans unknown, the admiral worked with Lee through the evening to salvage what they could of the current study.

****Friday

 

Ten minutes after his return in FS-1 from his trip to Bethesda , the admiral ordered Lee to report to his cabin. When the captain arrived he found Nelson standing behind his desk leafing through a number of eight by ten photographs. The older man glanced up.  “Sit down, Lee. I have some things to show you.” 

Lee pulled the chair up close to the desk before easing into it and leaning forward. The admiral then shoved a photo of a rather glamorous looking young woman at him.

“Recognize her?”

Lee studied the print. “Face is familiar, but I can’t quite place her.”

“Does the name Stephanie Post ring any bells?”

Lee’s eyes brightened in recognition. “The ambassador’s daughter. Didn’t she disappear while on a boat trip some fifteen years ago? I remember it being a big deal. It made the papers at Annapolis .”

“That’s the one.”  He then held up a second photo, one of a young man.

Lee nodded and his expression darkened. “Agent Meade of ONI. Good man. We were told he was lost on a covert mission. What was it…five years ago?”

Next the admiral held out was what appeared to be two morgue photos. Lee looked at one and then the other and grimaced. “It’s Miss Post and Meade alright. What happened to them?”

“Both were in four hundred feet of water off the Virginia coast where the Navy was cleaning up an old disposal site.”

“Admiral, no body could possibly be in intact after being in the water that long.” 

“Normally that’s true, but what I didn’t’ tell you was how they were found.” He reached into his briefcase and took out a plastic bag containing what appeared to be a large brown rock. “Both were found totally encased in that material.”

Lee took it and flipped it over then handed it back. “What is it?”

“That’s the million dollar question. My assignment is to determine what exactly this is. I already have several theories.”

Lee pointed to the sample. “That’s why Hardy pulled you away from your research?”

“In part. This means a great deal to the President since the ambassador and he are good friends. There’s some thought that this was done as some form of retaliation and it’s certainly no secret the President has made more than a few enemies. There’s a lot more to the story, but I’m not at liberty to share it, even with you.”

“I understand, sir, what will be Seaview’s role in all this?”

Nelson’s steel blue eyes fixed on Lee’s amber ones. “To find the rest of them.”

****

“Hi-ya Ethan, what-cha deliverin’ this week?” asked the waitress as she set down a glass of iced tea in front of the tidy young man.

 

“Little bit o’ this, little o’ that. You’re lookin’ pretty as ever Jen,” he said with a broad smile as he looked up at her. “What’s the special today?”

 

The woman playfully tapped him on the head with the menu. “You know it’s fish on Friday, Ethan! You’re in here every week!”

 

“In that case, give me the…vegetable soup!”

 

“Oh, Ethan, you’re so predictable!”

 

With the previous day’s events all but forgotten, Chip stared out the window of the diner watching the passing traffic. The easy banter between the pair at the next table soon had him reminiscing about his few but memorable outings with Chance Elledge “Chancey” Colgate. He had enjoyed their dates but admitted that at the time he had felt pressure being placed on him by the congressman to make the relationship permanent. Chip had no regrets over focusing on his academic work since doing so had allowed him to achieve his goal of attending sub school. Nor did he ever consider not playing football because it had helped him make other important connections. Still, he couldn’t help but wonder how different his career path might have been had he married into the Colgate family.

 

In his reverie Chip lost all track of time and when Chancey finally pulled into the lot it was already approaching 1330 hours. He quickly paid his bill and met the brunette at the door.

 

“I’m sorry for being late. I had an issue with my crewman.”

 

Chip was immediately concerned. “Anything major?”

 

“No, he just has some serious problems taking directions from a woman.”

 

“Why don’t you…” Seeing a frown form on his friend’s face Chip backed off from offering advice. “Let me know if I can help,” he said sincerely.

 

Chancey shrugged, then her demeanor changed completely and a smile lit up her face. “Let’s go do something really fun!”

 

“Such as?”

 

“I hear there’s a dance club down in Portsmouth that is the place to be. I can show you some of the sights along the way.”

 

Chip frowned. Loud noises and places were on his list of things to avoid but he was not yet willing to divulge his infirmity to Chancey.

 

“Don’t like dancing? That’s not what I remember.”

 

Chip shook his head. “It’s not that.”

 

Chancey looked at him curiously.

 

Chip quickly changed the subject by offering an alternative. “Why don’t we do the tourist thing and you tell me everything you’ve been up to for the past fifteen years.”

 

Chancey grinned and playfully poked the blond in the chest. “Just remember, Chip Morton, you still owe me a dance!”

 

****

“It is beautiful now,” declared Chancey, as she stood on the beach and looked out at the white stone lighthouse which sat isolated on a small island. “It no longer functions as a beacon but still has a great deal of sentimental value. I’m so glad they restored it.”

 

Chip glanced over at Chancey and turned back towards the light. “Putting things back the way they were can be a good thing. And she is beautiful, more beautiful than ever.”

 

Chancey’s eyes brightened at the metaphor.

 

The two stood side-by-side, silently watching a group of nearly a dozen kayakers as they paddled towards the lighthouse. “Maybe we could …” The gentle brush of a finger across her cheek caused Chancey to visibly shiver but she turned towards her companion and smiled. Sensing her willingness, Chip reached over and gently tilted her chin and caressed her cheek then pressed his lips against hers. Chancey closed her eyes and leaned closer, resting a hand on Chip’s chest. For several long minutes the old friends were aware of nothing but each other.

 

“Oh, yuck!”

 

The shrill voice of a young boy standing not ten feet from them startled the couple into reality and they reluctantly separated. Their sheepish grins were soon replaced with broad smiles. “Let’s go someplace a little more private,” chuckled Chip as he reached out for Chancey’s hand.

 

“How about my boat?”

 

“That’ll work.”

 

A short drive later the couple arrived at the riverside dock area where the Chesapeake deadrise boat known as the Second Chance was moored. “Let’s take her out,” suggested her skipper. “I know just the place to take her and later we can watch the sunset.”

 

“Aye, Captain,” Chip said with a perfectly crisp salute and a quick wink.

 

As they laughed and joked, Chip and Chancey made the necessary preparations to launch the boat. Thoroughly enjoying each other’s company, the two were unaware that their every move was being scrutinized. Crouched behind a stack of crab pots on a nearby dock was a subject dressed in the khaki pants, loose fitting plaid shirt, work boots and floppy hat typical of the watermen. A large gear box rested on the dock and completed the ensemble.

 

Once the dive boat was well away from the dock the mysterious subject opened the box and removed a spray bottle. With a quick squeeze of the trigger, a small cloud of mist was released into the air but it quickly dissipated in the onshore breeze. Apparently satisfied with the test, the subject returned the bottle to its hiding place then stood up and stared out at the water.

 

The peaceful sounds of nature and distant small craft were suddenly interrupted by angry shouts as a muscular young man carrying diving gear stormed up to the empty slip where the Second Chance had been. “Where the heck did she go?” he yelled as he slammed his equipment down on the dock.  He stopped his barrage long enough to scan the river but when he was unable to locate the craft or its skipper he again vented his anger. “I’m going to strangle her,” he announced loudly before retrieving his gear and stalking back to his car.

 

Unruffled by the diver’s rants the stranger bent down and picked up the gear box then hustled after him. 

****

After directing the acting XO, Lieutenant O’Brien, to set a course for the southern coast of Virginia , Lee joined the admiral in his lab and the two of them examined the strange rock-like sample. Tests were negative for a number of substances, including amber, copal and even celluloid and sand, a mixture used to create fake amber for the black market. Undeterred by the results of his initial analyses, Nelson prepared samples for both microscopic examination and molecular level testing. He had just loaded the samples into the instrument when Seaview set up station keeping east of Virginia Beach .

 

Leaving O’Brien with the conn, the admiral and Lee were ferried ashore to meet with the director of the clean-up operation. In the confines of his office the officer relayed details of his crew’s discovery and provided the men with a number of photographs of the sea floor as it appeared six months earlier. Photo after photo revealed that huge amounts of metal and other debris from decades of military operations littered the seascape. The admiral and Lee both shook their heads, amazed that the bodies had ever been noticed among the discards. They were also concerned about the numerous hazards to be found within the search area so they plied the captain with questions.  Finally, after nearly three hours of discussion the Seaview officers gathered up their charts and headed back to the boat. Their preparations had only just begun.

 

****

Chancey steered her boat into a quiet cove and shut off the motor and Chip dropped the anchor into the shallows. Taking advantage of a refreshing breeze, the pair sat on the padded benches at mid deck and for a few minutes they chatted and watched the hundreds of resident shorebirds that skittered across the sand of the nearby beach. In time, Chip wrapped his arm around his companion and reached up to run his fingers through her hair.

She returned his affection and pulled closer to him then looked up and smiled coyly. 

“Hey, sailor, how ‘bout that dance?”

Chip cocked his head and nodded then stood and politely took his lady’s hand. After he helped her to her feet he pulled her into a tight embrace and the two rocked with the motion of the boat. 

Later, as the two held hands and stared out over the pink and orange sky, Chancey announced she had worked up a significant thirst and Chip volunteered to retrieve sodas for both of them from the boat’s tiny cabin. When he reached in and lifted the lid of the drink cooler he heard a distinct hissing sound. His first thought was that a compressed air line on one of the dive tanks had sprung a leak so he dropped the lid and turned to locate the source. He was immediately engulfed in a sweet smelling cloud that quickly caused him to become dizzy and collapse in a heap. Chancey heard Chip’s moans and when it was followed by a loud thud she called out his name and at the same time she jumped up and stepped over to the cabin. Without any warning she was grabbed from behind and as two of the intruders held her, a third pressed a rag over her mouth and nose. Soon limp, Chancey was gently lowered to the deck.

With her new crew aboard, the Second Chance was soon puttering out of the cove towards the river. 

****Friday

 

The day had been hectic but Lee decided to take one last tour of the boat before getting some much needed sleep. When he stuck his head into the admiral’s lab he found him still hard at work examining a specimen on his dissecting microscope. 

The scientist stood up and pointed to the scope. “Take a look at this, Lee.”

Lee bent down and looked through the eyepieces. “They look like little flowers.”

Nelson nodded. “Sweet clover, plus a multitude of other plant fragments that I’m still working to identify. And a number of different species of pollen.”

“What will all of that tell you?”

“As with any resin based material the covering contains parts of both land and aquatic plants in a unique mixture. If we locate a region or habitat where all the represented plants grow together we might possibly determine where it was made. Right now I’m still working on the species identities.” He then chuckled and ran a hand through his auburn hair. “I must say I’m a little rusty with my terrestrial botany.”

Lee couldn’t help but smile and shake his head. He had never met anyone with as much broad scientific knowledge as Harriman Nelson. Despite what the admiral had said, he had no doubt that Nelson would solve this latest riddle. Spying a large printout on the admiral’s desk Lee picked it up. “Is this the data from the mass spec, sir?”

“That it is. I had a chance to glance at it but I’m afraid there’s no smoking gun. I’ll probably be up for a while studying it in more detail. Speaking of details, how are the search preparations going?”

“Fine, sir. Sharkey and Panos set up the temporary control panels in the missile room and ran some preliminary tests on the side scan unit. All appear to be in perfect working order. The crew knows this is a critical mission. They’ll be on their toes.”

“Let’s hope you are,” chuckled the older man as he took the printout from Lee’s hands and set it back on the desk.

Grinning sheepishly, Lee held up his hands. “I’m going, sir. I’m going.”

**** Saturday

 

After a fitful night Lee arose early, dressed quickly and headed straight for the radio shack. Knowing Seaview would soon be incommunicado for an extended period and with no word from Chip for over forty hours he ordered Sparks to make contact. As he waited he made a quick check of the status boards and shared a few words with each of the crewmen on duty. He had made it as far as the plot table when the radio officer approached him.  

“Sir, he doesn’t respond to the sat phone and no one at the inn where he was staying has seen him since yesterday.”

“That’s certainly not like him. Can you get a fix on his phone?”

“Yes, sir, I did that. Here are the coordinates.”

Lee glanced down at the note and frowned. He was aware Chip had plans to rent a sailboat, but a one-man catboat was far too small to take out into the main channel of the Chesapeake Bay . It was a lesson they had both learned the hard way during an Academy exercise. Being out in the bay in the dark was an added danger; the risk of collision with a fishing boat or net was significant. Unfortunately, the coordinates given him placed the blond, or at least his satellite phone, smack in the middle of the bay.

“Are you sure these are correct?” he asked, though he already knew the answer.

“Yes, sir, I checked twice.”

Lee nodded. “Very well, thanks Sparks .” 

“Missile room to Captain Crane. Sir, we’re ready to launch the unit.”

Seaview’s mission was on a tight schedule and Lee had little choice but to temporarily set aside all other concerns. He ordered the communications whip antenna reeled in then he gave a series of orders that moved the boat into the correct position below the surface. Then, after leaving O’Brien with a few last minute instructions he made his way towards the missile room. On the way he met up with the admiral and the two stopped and spoke for a few minutes before continuing aft. Not surprisingly, when they entered through the missile room hatch Sharkey was front and center to greet them.

“Morning, sirs, she’s ready to go on your orders. Uh…Admiral, sir. Mind if I ask what we’ll be looking for?”

Having already discussed what the crew should be told the admiral exchanged looks with Lee before answering. “Some large rocks, about four to six feet long by three to four feet wide.”

“Beggin’ the Admiral’s pardon, did you say rocks?”

“Special rocks, Chief.”

Sharkey furrowed his brow and scanned the faces of his commanding officers hoping there would be a punch line to follow the joke, but he was disappointed. “Rocks, yes, sir,” he replied quietly and walked over to the crewmen at the launch controls. “What are you waiting for? Release her,” he snapped.

The admiral and Lee stood by as the instrument was lowered through the minisub hatch and its tether was reeled out. They then moved to stand behind seamen Kowalski and Garza who were manning the control boards.

“Clear signal, Ron?” 

The rating shook his head. “No, sir, we’re getting interference from other traffic.”

“Lee, I think we need to move down another seventy five feet. Where will that put us?”

“Only a hundred twenty feet keel to bottom. That’s some pretty tight maneuvering, Admiral.”

“It will certainly slow us down but we don’t have much choice.”

With little room for error and roughly forty square miles of bottom to cover the search would likely take several days. Lee passed along the admiral’s order to O’Brien with a warning. “It’s going to be tight and slow, so tell everyone to stay sharp.”

 

**** Saturday

 

Chip was positive he had just spent the night on the hardest mattress ever created but he soon realized he was lying prone on the edge of a small dock with his arm dangling over the side. He managed to roll over and as soon as he shook the arm to restore circulation he noticed his watch was gone. As he sat up and squinted at the harsh sun and he estimated that it was well after noon . Noon ?  I slept past noon ? No way! In a flash, memories of the events of the previous day flooded back. He leapt up and looked around and seeing no sign of Chancey or her boat the typically unflappable officer felt a brief moment of panic. My God, where is she?

As his ingrained training took control Chip took several deep breaths then began a more systematic assessment of his situation. Though he was shoeless he still wore his Bermuda shorts and polo shirt. He didn’t seem to be seriously injured; he simply felt groggy. He was now minus his identification cards, all his money and since the satellite phone had been in his bag on the boat, all means of easily reaching help. Wherever he was, was isolated. There were no other boats in sight and it didn’t appear the dock received much use. His situation was not critical, at least not at the moment.

But what happened to Chancey?  With his friend’s welfare as his overriding concern he shouted her name repeatedly and though barefoot he set out to search for her. He first investigated the immediate area around the dock then picked his way around the many exposed tree roots and other debris that lined most of the shore. To his dismay, he discovered he was on a small island, one that had not been visited in quite a long time.  There was also no sign that Chancey had ever been there.

As concerned as he was about his friend, Chip’s cracking lips and dry throat forced him to focus on his own tenuous existence. Having seen no source of water anywhere on the island, he knew the first order of business was to construct a beach well. He gathered up shells to dig the pit which he then lined with several layers of rock. Once the structure had filled with water he greedily scooped some liquid up to his mouth. Unfortunately, water was only one part of the survival equation. In order to minimize his loss of fluids he sought temporary refuge in the dappled shade of a group of scrub pines. The reality of his situation meant he had to be prepared to spend days or possibly weeks on the island so Chip next constructed a lean-to out of pine boughs and lined the ground beneath it with pine needles. It would serve as his personal shelter from sun, rain and wind and it was also large enough to keep his collection of firewood somewhat dry. He planned to build a fish trap eventually but decided to gather up berries and pine seeds to get him through the first night.    

As the sun set, Chip reflected on the afternoon he had spent on the dive boat with Chancey and despite the circumstances he now found himself in he still managed a grin.  It had been a long time since he had felt so distracted and it had felt great. His smile soon faded. But at what price? He was to blame for their situation, period. He had stirred up the locals. He had failed to follow up on Chancey’s comment about her crewman. He had let her down. At that moment he hung his head and silently vowed to never do it again.

**** Sunday

 

Chip awoke with the dawn, shivering and tired. As he huddled under his pine bough quilt he couldn’t help but notice the cacophony of the local bird life. There was some comfort in the ruckus; it was familiar and it helped crowd out thoughts of Chancey. After a short while the trio of thirst, hunger and cold began to compete with the birds for his attention. Cold nagged at him the loudest so he rose and jogged in place to generate body heat then set out to find some means to start a fire. Recalling one survival lesson where the polished bottom of an old soda can had been used to concentrate the sun’s rays like a parabolic mirror and those rays had ignited a piece of paper, he scrounged through an old trash pit that he had located earlier. He was elated to discover several cans, paper, and an old bottle that could be used to collect and boil the water from his well. Satisfied that things were coming together he made his way back to his campsite. Two hours after awakening he was finally able to sit next to his fire to roast the several small crabs and a fish he had caught by hand.  

At midmorning the stranded officer heard what sounded like a distant motor. With spirits rising he scanned the sky for a plane at the same time he raced for the shore and vigorously waved his arms. Unfortunately, he was unable to catch a glimpse of any potential rescue craft and as the sound faded so did his hopes for a quick rescue. He recognized that if he was going to get off the island sooner rather than later he had to make it happen. After first clearing off a section of the narrow beach next to the dock he set about constructing three separate fire pits arranged in a triangle. Anyone passing overhead should easily see the universal distress sign and come to his aid. And then I can find Chancey he thought as he ran a hand through his hair.

After spending the remainder of the morning collecting wood for his signal fires and constructing a fish trap, Chip settled down beneath his lean-to. His fair skin was already a bright pink and he simply couldn’t afford any more exposure to the harsh midday sun. However, he didn’t remain idle. Since the shiny surfaces of the cans could be used for signaling as well as lighting fires he busied himself polishing them to a mirror finish.

It was late afternoon when he once again heard a plane engine and stood to get a better view. Spotting the fast moving craft on the distant horizon he picked up his makeshift reflectors and quickly headed towards the dock. In his haste he tripped on a tree root and from his position sprawled on the ground he could only watch as the low-flying plane passed overhead. He would have cursed another missed opportunity but the sound of approaching jets filled his ears and quickly changed his priorities. His skin began to prickle then a feeling of dread washed over him as he realized just where he was. With his heart pounding he leapt to his feet and raced for the beach.

****Sunday

 

As he set down his mug and slid into the wardroom chair across from him, the admiral noticed the dark circles under his captain’s eyes and couldn’t help but comment. “Lee, it looks like we’re making good progress. O’Brien and I can handle things for awhile. Go get some rest." 

“I’ll second that.”

The words from Seaview’s CMO , Will Jamison, made Lee shake his head and grin. The physician never let an opportunity pass to goad Lee into taking better care of himself.  “Admiral, Skipper. Mind if I join you?” After a nod from both officers the medic set down his breakfast plate and immediately grabbed Lee’s wrist to check his pulse. The captain quickly broke the hold.

“Can’t you find someone else to pester?”

“You give me so much to work with. Besides, it’s on page ten, section four, paragraph two of my SOP manual.”

“To pester me?  I’ve never seen that written anywhere!”

“Maintenance, Captain. Preventive maintenance. For example,” he said as he pointed to the partially eaten bagel in the plate in front of Lee. “Fuel gauge is on E, again. Battery needs charging and you could use a couple of new…” 

“That’s enough, Doctor.”

The admiral couldn’t hide his smirk but after an exaggerated scowl from Lee he held up his hands in a mock apology. “I can’t help that the man knows the manual.”  

Lee soon directed the conversation away from his eating and sleeping habits and towards the various hazards the men might encounter during their current assignment. Regretting they had little information to go on as to what was actually in the dump, the three men finally decided on a strategy to decontaminate and monitor anyone who might come in contact with hazardous objects or materials. Declaring he needed to read up on the signs and symptoms of certain exposures the doctor then excused himself and after a brief stop to drop his dishes in the bin he left the wardroom.    

Though they were alone, Lee leaned in to address Nelson. “Admiral, we have a problem.”

Nelson raised his brows. “The sidescan unit? Why didn’t you tell me?”  

“No, sir, it’s working fine. It’s just…it’s been three days since we last heard from Chip. He checked-in Thursday and we know he left his inn on Friday morning. No one we contacted has seen or heard from him since.”

“I thought he was with a friend.”

“That’s what he told Sparks but he didn’t leave a name.”

“Did you track his phone?”

“Of course, early yesterday morning. That’s actually what has me worried. It placed him in the middle of the Chesapeake before dawn. Now there’s nothing, no signal at all. Sparks checked with the Institute and even had Gordon try to contact him, but no luck. You know if he had been able to he would have contacted us or at least tried to reach the Institute. Something is just not right.”

Concerned but not yet alarmed, the admiral thought for a moment before proposing a plan. “I’m due to report to Hardy at 1130 and you can contact the Coast Guard then.  Have them check his last known position and if they don’t find him there, have the Institute monitor for his signal and keep in touch with the inn manager. Give Gordon the authority to take whatever action might be necessary, including contacting Atlantic Fleet Command. I don’t know what else we can do if we don’t know where he is or who he was with.” 

A call over the intercom informing them that the first two specimens were being brought aboard ended the discussion and Lee reluctantly and quietly acknowledged his orders. With their mission requiring his and the crew’s full attention, locating Chip would be out of their hands.

****

As they were reeled in and decontaminated, the admiral studied the striking yet macabre objects in front of him with a childlike curiosity. Expecting to see the same amber-like coverings as his test samples, he was taken by the deep, almost emerald green color of their latest finds. He had received information from Hardy that there had been reports of a “gigantic unpolished gem” being caught up in a fisherman’s net several years back. It had fallen through the net and had been lost but remained the talk of the Gloucester , Virginia area for some time afterward. He now wondered if those watermen had snagged one of the very same specimens that were now in Seaview’s missile room.   

As he scratched his forehead and paced, the scientist mentally processed the data he had already collected.  Harriman Nelson despised unsolved puzzles and knew the answer to this one was within reach. He would need to push himself harder but for now all he could do was run a frustrated hand through his auburn hair. “Carry on, Lee. Only twenty-five square miles to go,” he said matter-of-factly before exiting through the hatch.  

 

**** Wednesday

 

“Missing? What do you mean, missing? I thought you could take care of her! You stupid…”

Chip winced and held the receiver away from his ear as Harold Colgate hurled a string of decorative epithets and insults at him. The man’s fury was understandable given that his only child was missing and he, Chip Morton, was at least partly to blame. After nearly five minutes of ranting the congressman slowed down long enough for him to get a word in.

“Mister Colgate!” he snapped. “We need to find her. I’ll take my lumps after she’s safe.”

Though still furious, Colgate suspended his comments about the officer and focused in on Chancey and her whereabouts. Using the finely tuned skills of a prosecutor he questioned the blond, and with one exception Chip answered every question honestly and completely. When asked why he had delayed reporting her disappearance, the officer merely told his inquisitor that he had awoken stranded on an island. He had purposely left out the part where he had been dumped within the Navy’s weapons testing area and had spent the last day being interrogated by Marine MPs. By the incredulous look on Colgate’s face Chip was certain his story would be the subject of a future discussion. When Chip finally hung up his head was pounding but he was relieved that at last someone would be looking for Chancey.

The second call Chip made was to retired Lieutenant Commander Jay Gordon, the head of security at the Nelson Institute. Chip was immediately informed that he was currently the subject of a Coast Guard search. It was not at all surprising and somewhat comforting to him that Lee had taken quick action. “Tell them to call it off and connect me to Seaview.”

“I’m sorry, Commander, they’re out of radio contact and might be for several days.”  

“What for?!” Chip knew immediately his tone was overly harsh and quickly apologized. Sorry, Jay. Why no radio?”

“Special mission, sir, in the Atlantic region. I have no further details.”  

When Chip heard the phrase “special mission” he cringed. It was most often used to describe projects assigned to them by the President and meant that Seaview’s officers and crew would be occupied for the near future. With no doubt as to what he needed to do he borrowed clothes, money, a car and a handgun from an old Academy buddy and once again returned to the area where he and Chancey had anchored the Chesapeake deadrise. There was no sign of the boat and little evidence that anyone had ever been there. It was therefore likely whoever was involved arrived by water and that led him in only one direction.

****

“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” shouted waterman Albert Rice at the blond guided missile headed directly towards him. Chip continued his march down the dock until he stood nose to nose with the man he felt was responsible for Chancey’s disappearance.

“Where is she?”

“Back off, mister,” growled Rice as he attempted to shove Chip away. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Chip suddenly realized he was losing his famous self-control and let loose of the man’s shirt. “The girl. Where is the girl?!”   

“We haven’t seen her. Right boys?”

Chip had been so focused on the older man that he had ignored the mob that had come to Rice’s aid and was now surrounding the two of them. He knew he was outnumbered but he didn’t care.

“You’re lying. You threatened her...over a bunch of junk!”

“We didn’t do anything to anyone,” came a voice from somewhere behind him. Chip turned around to face the young waterman he had encountered on his previous visit.  “This bay is our family’s livelihood and has been for centuries. With the productivity of the bay declinin’ we have to make a living somehow and every piece of ‘junk’ as you call it that we can sell gets us through another day.”    

For a few minutes Chip stood quietly looking at the stoic faces of each of the watermen.  He considered himself a good judge of character but admitted to himself that since Chancey’s disappearance anger and concern had been driving him. The anger was now getting in the way, and if he hoped to find his friend he needed to get a handle on his emotions. “When was the last time anyone saw her?” When no one responded he softened his voice. “Any information would help.”

“With you. I think it was…Friday.”

The response was not what Chip wanted to hear. “Anyone see her with anyone else in the last week?” The query was answered by a sea of shaking heads. “The man that she was last seen with, her crewman, have you seen him?”  

“My mother, she runs the Curio-Sea-Tea shop in town, says he was in there just about every day last week. And since they brought in that thing…”

“Shut up, Gary !” snapped the older man.

“What thing? What are you talking about?” The men’s silence galled Chip and his anger flared again. “You mean to tell me that a young woman is missing and you can stand here and refuse to help. You’re hiding crucial information all because of what you think she’s done. What kind of people are you?”

The men grumbled at the insult and wanting nothing to do with the outsider, most turned and walked up the dock and back to their boats. Sensing the blond was only masking his worry with anger the younger man identified as Gary stayed behind. “I know ya think the worst of everyone here but you gotta understand. People, corporations big and small come here to take from the bay. And they never put anything back. That leaves us to take care of her.” He then motioned for Chip to follow him.  Once out of earshot of the men he spoke in a whisper. “We found somethin’…well… weird… out in the bay. Maybe you can help us figure out what it is. In turn, I’ll get them to lay off the lady.”

 

Though somewhat wary of the waterman’s motives, Chip wanted to learn more about the activities of these people and he agreed to go back to the curio shop to at least check out what had been described by him as a huge gem. They eventually made their way to the rear storage room of the business where the object was being secreted. The officer looked it over, ran a hand over the surface, tapped on it and even tried to lift it but in the end he had no idea what it was and told the man so.

 

“What do you think this has to do with my friend?”

 

“I don’t know but she was out at the dock when it came in. In fact she was standin’ behind a truck watching us when you walked by. I’m surprised ya didn’t see her.” 

 

The information hit Chip hard and he left the shop still knowing practically nothing about Chancey’s activities. By the comments of the watermen, he began to wonder if he really knew Chancey.

 

 

 

****

The admiral was standing next to the hatch prepared to take the FS-1 to Washington when Lee walked up, grinning from ear to ear. Upon being advised that Chip had been located and was safe, Nelson returned Lee’s smile.

“That’s great news, Lee. Did you talk to him?”

“No, sir, not yet.”

“I trust that you’ll follow-up and keep me apprised? And oh, don’t forget to check on that missing sat phone?”

“Yes, Admiral, I’ll see to it.”  

“I’ll be back as soon as I have some results. Sorry about the restrictions.”  

“Good luck, sir”

It had been a little after 1700 hours when Seaview had pulled into Norfolk Naval Base carrying a total of nine of the mysterious specimens. The crew had carefully packed each one into its own crate before the lot had been moved onto the pier to be transported to Bethesda . Lee had been prepared to grant the men shore leave when the word had come down that no personal radio messages could be sent and no one would be allowed to leave the boat. Though Lee acknowledged his orders he was disappointed that the men would not be given any time off and he decided to tour the boat to check on them before retiring to his cabin to finish his post-mission paperwork.

Several hours into his task a quiet knock gave Lee a badly needed reprieve and he called out for the party to enter. After hurriedly scribbling his signature at the bottom of the page he looked up to find Chip standing at attention next to the door. Lee was taken aback by the XO’s ragged appearance which, even off-duty, tended towards immaculate. Wearing baggy jeans and shirt, a short beard, and a bad case of sunburn and sporting numerous small cuts and bruises, he looked like he had been in a barroom brawl. Lee couldn’t resist teasing the blond. “Chip, if that’s what vacation does for you maybe we ought to reconsider letting you go. If you want to clean up, I’ll give you a few minutes…on second thought, better make that a half-hour.” When Chip didn’t take the bait, Lee sensed something was very wrong and backed off. “What happened?”  

“Captain…Lee,” Chip uttered in a barely audible voice. “I need your help.”     

 

****

Harriman Nelson made good time and before two hours had passed he was seated outside the Oval Office. John Hardy had arranged for a meeting between the President, Nelson and Ambassador Post, hoping a frank conversation might shed light on Post’s daughter’s disappearance. As the admiral waited, he sat on the couch and removed several papers from his briefcase and began to study them.

“I’m here to see Admiral Nelson.”

Upon hearing his name the admiral slipped the papers back in his case and stood and turned towards the doors. John Hardy entered first and behind him was a familiar face but one Nelson was not expecting to see. He immediately reached out to shake the man’s hand. “Congressman Colgate, it’s good to see you.”  

“Nelson, we need to talk,” responded the man, tersely and without returning the gesture.    

The door had barely closed behind Hardy when Colgate launched his tirade. “Do you purposely hire incompetents, Nelson? Or do you train them to be that way? He was supposed to watch out for her. Now she’s somewhere out in Chesapeake Bay . Mind you, Nelson I’m going to have him busted back to recruit and serve the rest of his life in prison. Get in my way and I’ll own your submarine!”  

The admiral had fire his eyes. “Congressman, I think it best you calm down and explain just what in blazes you’re talking about!”

“Calm down? Didn’t he tell you? No surprise that he’s insubordinate to boot!” Nelson’s confused scowl finally forced the irate father to explain. “Your boy Morton lost my daughter! And after all I’ve done for him.”

“Congressman, I won’t stand here and listen to you denigrate one of my officers. Forget the name calling and tell me what happened.”

Colgate’s took a deep breath then started in again. “My daughter Chance was on her boat with your officer…on Friday! This morning, this morning, I get an urgent call from him telling me she’s disappeared and asking me to help find her. Gave me some cockamamie story about being stuck on some island. I’ve mobilized my resources and I’m heading down there to supervise the search.”

“If you expect me to be of any help I’m going to need details, not accusations.”

“I don’t want any more of your help, Nelson. She’s my daughter and I’ll find her. I promise you I plan to fix Morton’s wagon and yours, too, if you if you cover for him!” With a loud huff Colgate turned and stomped out the door.

The admiral was angry at the congressman’s accusations but his primary concern was for the young woman who had apparently met with foul play. Though he refused to believe that Chip was somehow involved, the mere fact that he had been present when she disappeared made it crucial that he talk to him. He was about to set out in search for a phone where he could contact Seaview when the ambassador and the President stepped from the Oval Office.

 

****

After a draining, nearly hour-long conversation with his XO, Lee sent him to be checked over by the CMO . The blond barely had time step outside before Lee reached out to his contacts in Washington , hoping that at least one of the agencies that he regularly dealt with might shed some light on the recent activities of Chancey Colgate. Fortunately, after a number of fruitless conversations he finally connected with an agent who provided him with a solid lead.

After signing off from the call Lee began to alternately pace, twist his ring and smash his fist into his palm. He had many concerns but the question that now tore at him was whether or not to tell his friend that Chancey Colgate and her crewman had been brought in by the Coast Guard to covertly investigate the theft of underwater artifacts. Lee had encountered Chancey when he had taught a class for new agents and had been asked by the woman to keep her activities secret. Especially from her father and Chip.  Now that Chancey had disappeared he regretted making that promise.

“Captain, call from the admiral, scrambled.”

Lee let out a long slow breath as he reached over and pressed the intercom button.  “Yes, Admiral.”

“I hear our prodigal son has returned.”

“Yes, sir, he’s in sick bay.”

“Anything wrong?”

No, sir, just a precaution.”

“Good. I need to talk to him, but first I need to fill you in on my encounter with Congressman Harold Colgate. Do you know anything about his and Chip’s past history?”  

Highly protective of Chip’s privacy, Lee thought for a moment before answering. “I don’t know any specifics, Admiral, but he has mentioned that the congressman kept an eye on his career.”

“Hmmm. Well, he certainly came in with guns blazing…”

As the admiral described the incident with Colgate, Lee’s concern for Chip ratcheted up several notches. He had seen firsthand what vengeful politicians could do to anyone who they perceived had crossed them or had not been properly deferential. If actual harm had come to Chancey even the admiral’s significant connections might not be able to stop the congressman from ruining Chip’s career.

“I offered our help but Colgate made it clear he wanted us to stay out of it. Since Chip is a potential suspect in her disappearance, it wouldn’t do well to have us directly involved, anyway. For now he’s to stay on Seaview. No one can get to him there and if the authorities have any questions they’ll have to go through me.”

“I’ve been told the Coast Guard is conducting a full scale search for Miss Colgate. I guess that means we do nothing?”

“Phhhhtttt. Hardly. I have some irons in the fire right now and I suspect you do too. When I know something more I’ll pass it on.  In the meantime, there are a number of calculations still to be done for the current study. Why don’t we have Chip crunch some of those numbers and enter the data into the computer? My notes are on my desk, top right corner.”    

“All right, Admiral, I’ll keep him occupied, but I want him to get some rest first. He’s running on empty.”

“First have him contact me through Hardy. I’m still awaiting the autopsy results and I’ll be back as soon as I have something concrete.  

 

**** Friday

 

“Gerda Bjork. Henrietta Cressdale. June Spradley.”

“I’ve never heard of any of them, Admiral.”

“I’m not surprised,” Nelson then laid out photographic portraits of each of the women he had named and tapped his finger on the bench. “What do you notice about them?”

Lee picked up each photo in turn and studied it. “All young, brunette, attractive, neatly dressed. Nice jewelry. They must have been well-to-do.”

“Exactly. Notice anything special about their clothes?”

Lee looked from one photo to the next. “The styles. These clothes are from a different era.”

Nelson nodded. “Bjork disappeared in 1952. Cressdale, in 49 and Spradley in 39. They’re still trying to identify the rest but I believe we’ll find more of the same.”

“How did they identify these three?”

Before answering the admiral took a swig of his lukewarm coffee then quickly put the mug down. “Old newspaper archives. Missing society girls were always news, at least within their own small communities.”

“And I suppose with so many years between incidents no one made a connection.”

“Though they actually had a lot in common. From the time Stephanie was a preteen the Post family spent summers on the bay. The family had a large sailboat but when she disappeared she was out on her own dinghy. They thought a particularly heavy current might have pulled her out into the open ocean, but couldn’t prove it. Even with a massive search no pieces of her boat were located and obviously they never found a body. Cressdale’s story is practically identical to Post’s. Bjork was an exchange student staying with a wealthy family. Spradley was apparently a poor swimmer and no one was surprised when she didn’t surface after going overboard.”

Lee ran a frustrated hand through his black curls. “Admiral, didn’t anyone consider it odd that they never found anything, no debris? The bay is not all that deep.”

“We’ve learned a lot about how to investigate accidents and disasters in forty years but people still disappear, never to be found.”

Lee nodded. “I suppose you’re right.”

“I’m still curious to know exactly how they were killed. All the tests aren’t in yet but in but none showed any signs of recent injuries consistent with being either in accidents or in the water a long time. While the pathologists and toxicologists run their tests I’ll continue to examine the coverings. It will all come together…eventually.”

 

**** Friday

 

Between Lee’s and the admiral’s assignments Chip had stayed busy but isolated. With no news of the search for nearly two days he decided to work out some of his pent-up frustration by taking a long walk around the boat. As he approached the aft crew’s quarters he could hear chatter and occasional laughter and suddenly realizing that he could actually pick up some of the conversation he managed a smile. Knowing that his presence would disturb the men’s levity he stepped close to the door and leaned against the bulkhead to listen. One voice was unmistakable.

“Don’t you wanna know why they won’t let us off this boat?” asked Kowalski, forcefully. “I tell you, Chief, those rocks we brought aboard were gems, big huge gems and they don’t want us spillin’ the beans about ‘em.  If I had just one of ‘em I could buy a huge yacht, a big TV, a fancy car and still have money left over. The girls would be all over me!”

“Sure, kid, sure. They’d just spend you blind, trust me. Besides there’s no use dreamin’ about something that ain’t gonna happen. Huge gems, who are you kidding?”   

Chip was amused by the crew’s speculation but as he turned to go he was suddenly struck by the word Kowalski had used. Gems.  The term had also been used by the young waterman to describe his strange catch and Chip’s mind was soon filled with new questions. Is it possible that a deposit of record-setting gemstones had been discovered in the Chesapeake ? If so, are they so valuable that someone might be willing to harm Chancey to prevent their discovery? Could Seaview have been collecting precious stones?  Why?

“Can I help you with something Mr. Morton?”

Riley’s sudden appearance caught the officer off-guard but he managed to stammer a response before quickly heading off down the corridor. It might be a long shot but it was the first real lead he had and he wasn’t about to let the trail go cold.

 

****

An unexpected staccato rap on the lab door had both of Seaview’s senior officers scrambling to collect up the mission photos and documents they had spread out for viewing. As he placed the last photo into a folder, the admiral motioned for Lee to answer the knock.

Chip stood in the doorway. “Begging your pardon, Admiral, I need to speak with the captain.”

“Of course, Chip,” replied Nelson as he waved him in then picked up some charts and a large stack of folders from the bench. “I’ll leave the two of you here. Lee, join me in my cabin when you’re free.”

Lee nodded then both he and Chip stepped aside to let the OOM pass. Unfortunately, as the admiral rounded the doorway one of the folders he was carrying snagged the frame and the contents spilled out onto the deck. Chip immediately bent down to retrieve the wayward papers. “Let me get those, sir.”

As Chip picked up the items, Lee and the admiral exchanged concerned glances. They had no doubt that the exec could see they included autopsy photos, though to his credit he showed no reaction. True to his military training, he also made no comment.

Once the two were left alone, Chip blurted out his theory. “Gemstones.”

“Gemstones? What about them?”

“I think Chancey was somehow involved with them, collecting, selling…something.  Some of the locals told me she was in with the treasure hunters and I thought they were just accusations so I never asked her to explain. As much as I hate to admit it, it makes a lot of sense.” Chip supported his argument by providing details of his various encounters with the watermen and ending with a description of the peculiar object found in one of their nets.

Lee ignored that last complication for the moment. “You don’t think the watermen might have done something to her?”

Chip shook his head. “I thought so at first. They’re protective of their lifestyle and the bay but now I’m convinced they would never actually kill over it. I definitely think the first person we need talk to is Chancey’s crewman. I looked for him but like I told you before he was nowhere to be found. Maybe you can use your connections to check on his background, see where he’d go.”

A tentative “maybe” followed by silence had Chip convinced he had not quite sold Lee on his theory so he commenced with what amounted to a sales pitch. “Lee, we’ve seen it before when a lot of dollars are involved. People come out of the woodwork to get their finger in the pie. Chancey told me how busy she stays…she brings in people from all over the world. When I heard some of the men discussing the rocks you collected and they called them gems, it all clicked.” Chip paused, trying to gain a feel for where Lee stood but he simply couldn’t read him. Finally he asked a question he knew he may never be answered since it involved the mission. “Were you collecting gems?”

There were several minutes of silence as Lee picked his way through the intelligence minefield in his head. He briefly considered revealing Chancey’s secret life since it would be an easy way to explain her presence but deciding it would open him up to questions about the mission he chose to redirect the conversation.

“What exactly did they say?”

“The men?” 

Lee nodded.

“Oh, you know, just going on about what they would do if they could cash in.”

Lee’s dark expression gave Chip some pause but he risked defending the crewmen who he felt were just blowing off steam. “Heck, Lee, among themselves they talk about every strange thing we come across, you know that. It hasn’t caused us any problems before. Remember the …” When Lee held up his hand, Chip knew better than to continue. Instead he stood back and watched as the captain dropped his arms to his side, balled his fists and turned away. 

While it was true Lee was disturbed that his men would discuss details of their special mission after being ordered to keep quiet it was not the sole cause of his anxiety. The discovery of a body in the west Chesapeake meant there were potentially other bodies waiting to be discovered there and it would be difficult if not possible to keep a lid on their secret. If that wasn’t enough to worry about, Lee felt he couldn’t in good conscience continue to keep Chip in the dark. Not now that he had potentially valuable information and there might be some type of connection between Seaview’s and Chancey’s seemingly distinct missions.

“Chip, meet me in the admiral’s cabin at 1930 hours. We have something important to tell you.”

 

****

Expecting to receive the news that Chancey had been found injured or dead, Chip took a long slow breath before turning the knob and entering the admiral’s cabin. He was quick to notice a large corkboard against one bulkhead displaying nautical charts and several of the photos that he had picked up earlier as well as the table covered with rock-like samples that had been set up in the center of the room. Ignoring them for the moment he steeled himself. “Reporting as ordered, sir.”

The admiral stood behind his desk and pointed to one of the chairs across from him. “Sit down, Chip.  Lee will be here in a few minutes, but just so you know we’ve had no news regarding Miss Colgate. While it’s not what we’d like to hear, it’s better than the alternative.”

As he sat down on the edge of the chair Chip hoped his abject relief did not show on his face. “Yes, sir.”   

“Chip, what I tell you here is not to go out of this room. Nor are you to take any action related to any information you are given. Is that clear?”

“Perfectly, sir.”

The admiral then rounded the desk and leaned on the edge next to the exec. “I spent the last hour convincing the President that you were in no way involved with Miss Colgate’s disappearance. I also informed him that you might be able to provide some new pieces to our little puzzle and he consented to let me fill you in on some of our mission details…with two caveats." 

Chip raised his brow.

“You are to stay on Seaview for the duration of our mission and you are not to involve yourself in any way with the search for Miss Colgate. Agreed?”  

A stone-faced Chip acknowledged his orders  He would do the correct thing. For Chancey.  

“I know you’re in a difficult situation even being here. You aren’t supposed to be working. How is that problem by the way?”  

“I feel it’s improving, sir. I can hear most normal conversations even from a distance and there’s no more pain.”

“Good,” responded Nelson as the door swung open and a breathless Lee entered. He carried a folded piece of paper and handed it to the flag officer.

“Sorry I’m late, Admiral. I was waiting for that.”

The admiral took the message and glanced over the contents then slid it under the desk blotter. “All right Chip, Lee tells me you had a theory…" 

While awaiting their meeting Chip had time to better organize his thoughts and was able to describe relevant details of his experiences and their logical meaning in a matter of five minutes. After once again describing the watermen’s find he ended his monologue with his hypothesis. “Whoever took Miss Colgate and dumped me on that island hoping I would die there wanted something kept secret and I think it was those gems." 

The admiral reached over and picked up one of the specimen photographs that had been face down on the table and held it out for Chip to see. “Is this anything like the object they showed you?”  

After a quick look, Chip nodded. “Yes, sir, it’s almost identical.”

The admiral next raised one of the plastic bags containing his samples then handed it to the blond. Chip took it and examined the contents closely, flipping it over several times.  

“I was given that and other samples to study and I’ve determined they’re not gems,” said Nelson.

With that comment Chip’s well thought out theory was now bankrupt and he slowly placed the sample back on the table. “Is it something of value, Admiral?” Something worth Chancey’s life?

“Its value is yet to be determined. Now here’s where it gets interesting…and complicated.” With that the admiral described how, based on the location of two specimens by the reclamation crews, Seaview had been tasked with collecting any remaining ones from the dump site. As he listened, Chip wondered why the mission had come down from the President, but he remained silent on that issue. 

“Eventually eleven specimens were sent to Bethesda ." 

Bethesda ? A hospital? I don’t get it, Admiral. They only do…”  

“Autopsies. As I’m sure you are aware, those pictures you saw outside my lab were autopsy photos.”  

Chip was incredulous. “There are bodies inside those things?”

The admiral nodded. “That makes it crucial that we retrieve the one you saw. I’m hoping it will go without incident.”

“And as much as we’d like to we can’t let the men go on leave and risk the news getting out to the watermen or anyone else,” added Lee.

Chip winced. “Who would do such a thing, Admiral, and why? And why would Chance…Miss Colgate have an interest in them?”  

With a shrug the admiral sidestepped the blond’s questions and instead provided him only with that information he felt he needed. “Right now, every effort is being made to identify the remains. Fortunately all were found sealed inside those waterproof casings so decomposition isn’t a problem. Now it’s only a matter of time, and research. Based on the note Lee just gave me we now know who six of them are. As of now, all I know is that is most were women in their twenties or early thirties with similar backgrounds.” He pointed to the chart on the board. “I marked the approximate coordinates where each was last seen thinking there might some connection there. Let me show you, and you can tell me what you think.”

Chip stood in front of the chart and his eyes quickly fixed on a cluster of red marker dots. Without comment, his eyes followed the OOM’s hand and when it placed yet another dot in the same general area of the lower bay, his heart sank. It was the very same area from which Chancey had disappeared! For several minutes all he could do was stare at the chart and worry whether his friend had met the same fate as the other women he had just learned about.

“Well, Chip, see any connections?”

“Uh…no…sir. Not yet. Let me think on it for awhile,” he said quietly before hastily excusing himself and stepping out into the corridor.

Sensing his friend was in distress Lee set off after him and he located the blond around the corner where he was leaning heavily against the bulkhead. Chip was as pale as Lee had ever seen him. “Hey, what is it?  I’ve never seen you like this.”

In one motion Chip wiped beads of sweat from his forehead and ran his hand over his hair. “They took Chancey. And I let them!”

Lee motioned for the two of them to step into Chip’s cabin. At the click of the latch Lee quickly turned to face the blond who had taken a seat on the edge of his bunk.

“Who took her? What are you talking about?”

“Whoever or whatever snatched the other eleven!”

“What makes you think that?”

“It all adds up, Lee! Chancey is a young woman in her early thirties. She just happens to be around when the fishermen bring in one of those …things. Despite being familiar with every square inch of the bay she and her boat disappear without a trace, and in the very same area where all those other women did.” 

And she’s from a prominent family. With sudden understanding, Lee crossed his arms and rested his head in his palm. He realized the time had come to lay it all out for Chip but first he stepped over to the small sink, dampened a towel then handed it to his friend.  

“Thanks.”

Chip wiped his face then uncharacteristically balled up the towel and threw it hard against the bulkhead. “What other conclusion can I draw, Lee? Tell me something that makes sense.”  

“Chancey…works for the government.”  

“She told me that.” 

“Not just as an occasional diver.”

“What are you saying?”

“She was working on an undercover assignment… for the Coast Guard. She’s been under for about a year. And her crewman, Kracov works with her.”  

Chip grimaced. “Does her father know?”  

“Considering how he accused you of losing her, I doubt it. She didn’t want anyone to know, and apparently she was… is, good at keeping secrets.”  

“What, or who was she after, Lee?”  

“All they would tell me is she dealt in artifact smuggling. No specifics.”  

Chip looked up to the ceiling and shook his head. “The watermen were right. She was cozy with the people they despise most. Maybe she had an excuse for deceiving them but… she purposely chose not to share anything with me despite the danger…to both of us.”

Lee nodded.

“Damn her!”

What sounded like a kick at the door startled both men and Chip jumped up to answer. Standing in the corridor holding three glasses and a bottle of scotch was the admiral. “May I come in, gentlemen?”

Chip pulled the door open the rest of the way to let the admiral enter. Nelson then set the glasses down on the desk and poured hefty measures of the golden liquid into each. After handing one glass to Lee he picked up the remaining two and held out one for his exec. “Chip, as much as we might like, we can’t always leave personal feelings tucked away in a lead-lined safe. It’s crucial to stay focused in a dogfight but when the battle rages on having a stake in the outcome is what pushes us to victory. Consider your concern for Miss Colgate as your tactical advantage in this battle.” 

“Yes, sir,” responded Chip quietly before taking a sip from his glass.  

“Gentlemen, this mission has become rather complex. Let’s do a little brainstorming, shall we?”

 

****Saturday

 

After parking their trucks in their usual spots near the dock, the fish mongers sat on their rear bumpers to read the paper or smoke as they awaited the arrival of the watermen. Suddenly, all eyes turned as an eighteen foot, black and white refrigerated truck rolled past them and backed into position at the end of the row. The men were familiar with their regular competition and each hoped to catch a glimpse of the interloper; however, he remained in his cab up even after the first deadrise boats reached the dock. In the hubbub that followed the men paid no notice to the muscular young man standing behind them until he pressed a business card into the hand of Albert Rice and pointed to the black truck. Watermen and dealers alike were curious about the invitation, but Rice revealed nothing. “Be back in a minute, boys,” he announced as he walked towards the vehicle then climbed in.

“I knew it! I told my son that you’d be back here to steal it away!”

Under the nose of Congressman Colgate’s small army of feds, state police officers and the Coast Guard, Chip and Kowalski had disguised themselves as fish mongers and arranged a rendezvous with the waterman. The meeting was only their first hurdle; there was still the problem of getting him to hand over the body he didn’t even know he held without tipping him off.  

“I’m prepared to offer you whatever you think its worth. Just name the price”

Rice eyed the officer suspiciously. “This is a joke, right?”  

Chip shook his head. “I wish it were.”    

“What’s the catch?”  

“You have to remain silent about the exchange.”  

A heavy silence fell over the truck cab as Rice stared out the window and considered his options. It was obvious he was undecided so Chip attempted to address some of the man’s concerns. “Admiral Nelson did some research on your rock and he assured me it wasn’t a gem. As best he can figure it’s just an unusual manifestation of minerals. I’m sure you noticed it has little bits of plants in it? Gems are solid crystals and wouldn’t have those. It’s interesting… a true oddity, but not likely worth a lot on the open market.”

Rice turned to face him. “Then why do you want it so badly?”

“Because making this public would open a floodgate. You say the pillaging is bad now, think about what will happen if word gets out that there are these natural artifacts in the bay. Even if they are worthless there would be no stopping the speculators.”

Rice hung his head then nodded. “I want to do the right thing, for my family and every other fisherman out here but why do I get the feeling there is more to this?”  

“Did you ever serve, Mr. Rice?”  

“Of course, and proud of it. U.S. Army. Korea .”  

“And you followed orders, even though you knew you only had part of the story, or sometimes none at all. Am I right?”  

Rice nodded. “But I don’t take orders anymore, and especially not from any sailor.”  

Chip grinned at the man’s deadpan delivery. “No order. Just asking that you do the right thing. I know you could use the money. I also know you can keep a secret. You and your town certainly circled the wagons when you saw me coming.”

Rice laughed. “We were pretty impressive. Ya know you’re not too bad… for a Navy man.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment, Mr. Rice. So do we have a deal?”

To Chip’s relief, Rice held out his hand.  “Deal!”   

 

****

“Admiral, I have some good news,” announced Lee as he stepped into the admiral’s cabin. “Chip’s on his way to Bethesda . He called in about twenty minutes ago.”

Nelson turned away from the mounted chart he had been studying to face the captain. “Any problems?”

“No, sir, not unless you consider a half-million dollar tab a problem. Fortunately they were willing to take his IOU.”

“If it works, we can consider it a small price to pay. Good thing the President changed his mind and let Chip help out."

“That’s for sure. We’ll know within a few hours if the rest of the plan works.”

Nelson nodded. “Lee, while you’re here I need to show you something.” Pointing to an area of his chart outlined in red he explained. “The botanists at the Smithsonian took the species identifications I gave them and plotted their distributions. Most of the plants were pretty widespread, even cosmopolitan, but there was one that was only found in a limited area of the lower bay.  I’m certain that the covering material was made somewhere in here.”  

Lee examined the chart for several minutes before commenting. “There’s a lot of shoreline, Admiral. It could take a long time to search it. Shallow as it is, we can’t use the FS-1.”

“Agreed, but I think we can narrow it down even more.” He then reached over to his desk and picked up a second chart. “I’ve been wondering how the bodies ever made it out into the Atlantic . Now assuming they traveled through the water and not on it, it’s highly improbable that objects of their size could be moved that far by anything less than a tropical storm or hurricane. So…I looked at storm surge data from the last fifty years and according to the computer these twelve areas of the red zone are our best bet.”

For several minutes Lee stood with his arms crossed and a finger to his lips and though his eyes were directed at the charts, his focus was elsewhere.

“See something, Lee?”   

“I was just trying to think of a good way to deploy search parties to cover the territory without attracting undue attention. What would you think of sending a couple of men to videotape the coastline?”  

“It would save a lot of time. Just make sure they go in close. We can also have aerial photos brought over. How would you propose…?”  

Three sharp raps on the door temporarily halted the discussion. It was O’Brien, who handed the captain a sealed packet marked “top secret”. When the door was once again closed Lee tore into the envelope. “I had ONI checking into the details of Meade’s assignment at the time of his disappearance.” Lee scanned the documents then began to shake his head. “It says he had been following a KGB operative who bought some real estate just outside the weapons station near Williamsburg . When he didn’t return from a day of kayaking they concluded his cover had been blown and his body disposed of. It doesn’t say where he was kayaking or if it was mission related.”  

The admiral stuck a hand in one pocket and rubbed his forehead with the other. “We need that information, Lee.”

“You don’t think that the Soviets had anything to do with all this?”  

“Who knows? Let’s assume the disappearances are related. Meade was the only male and was snatched close to shore so he might be the key to pinpointing a specific site. Maybe you can have the men videotape that area first.”  

“Yes, sir, and I’ll call Admiral Johnson right away.”

 

****

 

“You’re not going to tell us anything are you, Morton?”

“I’ve told you all I know…about five times so far.”   

After failing to gain any ground from nearly six hours of questioning, the two exasperated detectives abruptly walked out of the interview room, slamming the door behind them. The vibrations had barely ceased when the door was again thrust open and a fuming Harold Colgate stepped inside. He quickly moved to stand between the mirror and the officer. “Morton,” he said coolly as he placed his hands on the table and leaned in closer. “I told them to shut off the speaker and take a break, so this conversation will be just between us.”

Standing up straight Colgate shook his fist in the officer’s face. “Personally, I don’t need any more evidence and if had my way you would already be strung up.” When Chip failed to flinch, the congressman’s demeanor became even more threatening. “You may enjoy torturing me but believe this. I will make the rest of your life pure hell, and you know I can. Now tell me. Where is she?!”

“I don’t know.”  

The impact of a fist on the table caused a plastic cup resting on it to overturn and spill its contents. Colgate reached down and snatched the cup, then threw it against the wall behind Chip. Despite the congressman’s vitriol and despite feeling his hot breath on his face, Chip remained silent and still. That served to anger the man even more, and in a rage he grabbed the officer’s tie knot and pulled it tight. Using all his strength, Chip managed to push the congressman away and to rise to his feet.  

“Do you love her?”  

Taken aback by the officer’s question he spat out his own. “What are you talking about?  

“Do you love Chancey? It’s a simple question.”  

“I don’t have to answer to you, Morton!”

“If you love her, you’ll forgive her, no matter how this turns out.”

“Forgive her? For what?”  

“You hated it when she kept things from you. She didn’t want you to interfere in her professional life like you had in her personal life.”  

“She’s a tour guide, what’s there to know?”  

“You say it like it’s something disgusting. She’s a lot more than a tour guide, Congressman. She’s just not what you expected her to be.”  

“I don’t have time for you or your drivel,” he muttered, then turned to walk out. 

“She’s an agent.”  

Colgate stopped in his tracks and slowly turned back around. “Agent? That’s ridiculous, I would have known that!”

“She’s freelanced for a number of agencies…for almost ten years. Divers as good as she is are rare.”

“Whatever you’re trying to do won’t get you off the hook, Morton.”

“She’s level-headed …well educated…independent…patriotic…”  

“I know my daughter!”  

“Apparently not as well as you thought.”  

Colgate stood quietly but Chip could feel heat emanating from him from several feet away. “Congressman?”  

“What?!!!”

“I don’t know whether her disappearance was related to her assignment but I would like to find out. I can’t do it here or with an unwarranted cloud of suspicion hanging over me.”

Colgate looked the officer up and down. “The President tried to convince me that you had nothing to do with Chance’s disappearance but I still don’t trust you, Morton. You didn’t protect her.”  

It was Chip’s turn to raise his voice. “Why, all of a sudden do you not trust me? Chancey told me you’ve practically obsessed over my career.  You played matchmaker and wanted me to marry her. If you know me so well, why would it even cross your mind that I could hurt her?” 

“You don’t appreciate what I’ve…”  

“Sorry if I disappointed you and ruined your plans by not falling in line like a good little sailor boy!  But this isn’t about me…or you.  It’s about Chancey! Where’s your concern for her? She’s your daughter. Your only child. Your flesh and blood!”  

Made furious by the blond officer’s criticism of him, Colgate exploded.  “She’s not my…!!!!”  

“Not your what, Congressman?”  

“Chancey’s not my daughter, at least not by birth,” he said, practically choking on the words.

Stunned by the revelation, Chip lowered himself into the chair and aware that he had revealed more than he had ever intended, the congressman turned away. An eerie silence settled over the room and for a few minutes neither man spoke.

“Does she know?” Chip asked harshly.

A much more contrite Harold Colgate turned back around to face the concerned officer. “No, she was just an infant.  It was a private adoption. I made a mistake.”

“The adoption?!”  

“No. Keeping it from her. She had the right to know, especially after the first incident.”  

Though sick to his stomach, Chip waded further into the murky waters. “Congressman, you better tell me the whole story.”

 

**** Sunday

 

After receiving information from the head of ONI that Agent Meade had been a regular visitor to one of the towns west of Mathews, Lee had instructed his men to concentrate their efforts there. Once the videotapes were returned to the Seaview, he and the admiral sat and viewed them frame by frame. They had consumed nearly a pot of coffee each before Nelson noticed an area where the beach had slumped into the inlet and there were a number of toppled trees hanging over the water. Citing the need for his scientific skills, the admiral made the decision to lead the small party of men ashore to explore the site himself. Though it was not Lee’s preference to remain behind, he didn’t bother to argue and quickly made the necessary arrangements for his superior.

After an hour long trip, the admiral, Sharkey and Riley anchored their deadrise workboat some one-thousand yards from the disturbed area. Armed for bear and carrying packs filled with sampling equipment, food and water the three then waded through muck and marsh grasses to reach the narrow beach. As they scraped the mud from their boots the three discussed their plan then entered the scrub pine forest to look for signs of recent disturbance. Their first hour of searching proved futile and after being scratched by low hanging limbs and forced to pick off numerous ticks, all were relieved to step out of the woods into a large open area some three quarters of a mile inland. With Sharkey and Riley standing by, the admiral scanned the site and with a gleam in his eye he walked over to a foot tall plant bearing bean-like pods, yanked it from the ground and held it up. “Sundial lupine! And over there’s sweet clover and red clover.”  

“Sir?” said the two men in unison.  

“Lupine pollen was in each of the specimen samples.”  

Sharkey shook his head. “Beggin' your pardon, sir.  What does that tell us?”   

“The specimens originated from somewhere near here. Look around for some remnants of digging or a building.” With newfound energy the men searched the field for any wood or stone that could have previously been a structure. They were about to move on to a new area when Riley stumbled over a large piece of heavy plywood. “Here, sir,” he shouted as he lifted the edge of the board. “It looks like an old well.”

Once the four foot wide opening was exposed, the three men stood over it. “It’s no well. It’s much too large and I can see to the bottom,” said Nelson.

“I’ll check it out, sir,” said Riley, cheerfully, as dropped his pack, turned on his lantern and slipped into the hole.  

The admiral chuckled to himself. While Riley was the youngest man in Seaview’s crew and lacked experience he more than made up for it in enthusiasm. It was the main reason Nelson had chosen to bring him along. After remaining out of sight for several minutes the young rating stuck his head back above ground. “It gets wider, and deeper, sir. I can almost stand. And it’s lined with wood. If I didn’t know better I would say it was a tunnel of some kind.”   

“Be careful, kid,” warned Sharkey as he set his own pack on the ground.  

When the admiral sat down to lower himself into the hole, Sharkey objected strenuously. “Admiral, you’re not gonna…”  

“No better way to find out, Chief. You stay out here and keep an eye on things. If anything happens, you’ll be able to tell the rescuers where to find us.”  

Leaving the grim-faced COB behind, the admiral slipped out of sight and began his inspection. Duly impressed by the sturdy construction and apparent strength of the support timbers he confidently proceeded further into the passage. Before long he caught up with Riley and the younger man advised him that the tunnel branched not far ahead. Shining his light into each of the three openings he directed the rating to take one of the branches. “I’ll take the main tunnel. Look for anything that might hint of what they were doing here.”

“Aye sir,” answered the rating as he entered the opening and disappeared.

As Nelson proceeded, the air in the tunnel became gradually cooler, a sure sign that he was moving further below the surface. Surprised that he could find no signs of mold or decay in the wooden structures and that the air remained surprisingly fresh he paused to take a better look at the tunnel’s construction. He quickly noticed there were open pipes in the ceiling spaced exactly fifty feet apart and reasoned they were part of a complex ventilation system. After making a mental note to come back and study the system further he continued on. He traveled only a short distance before encountering another fork and he quickly chose the left passage. The ceiling of the new section was considerably higher than that of the main tunnel. In addition to vents he noted there were primitive light fixtures hanging on the walls and they, too, were at exactly fifty foot intervals. Unable to locate switches to operate the lamps he continued down the tunnel.  Soon he reached a closed hexagonal-shaped door with heavy duty iron hinge and a knotted rope that served as a handle. When he tugged on it, he found the door opened easily, and silently. He then stepped inside.

“What the blazes…!”

****

“You’re kidding!” exclaimed Lee as he looked into the crystal blue eyes of his friend. “Someone tried to snatch her right under her family’s nose? Why didn’t Colgate mention that little tidbit to the authorities instead of siccing them on you?”

“It’s pretty complicated, Lee. She was only seventeen and her father made all the decisions back then so he never reported it to the police. There was information he didn’t want made public.”  

Lee shook his head then gestured for Chip to sit in the chair as he himself leaned on his desk and crossed his arms. “Start at the beginning.”

“I’m sure he never intended to tell me but he got so ticked he blurted out that Chancey was adopted. He never wanted her to know either and to ensure it never leaked out he told only a handful of people.”  

“What’s the connection between the adoption and the kidnapping?”    

“He thinks the people who tried to take her that time were the ones who gave her up for adoption but he didn’t give me his reasons or say who they were. He did say he worried that if he went to anyone about it, their family secret would be out and all the publicity would put her in even more danger. For a long while after the attempt he took steps to protect her. In comes yours truly, an up-and coming naval officer and expert marksman.  He admitted he was grooming me to be her bodyguard, though I’d bet I’m not the only man in uniform he tried to reel in.”  

“That stinks, pal. Sounds like all he was ever worried about was his political career.”  

“There’s probably something to that, but I think he truly loves her. I did get the distinct impression there was something unusual about the adoption, though. He didn’t tell me much, only that it was long ago and private. I’d like to give them the benefit of the doubt. I know that some people who can’t have kids go to any lengths to have one. Maybe he and his wife are like that.”

“Hmmmmm. Maybe.”

Chip stood before continuing. “Chancey’s being adopted is no big deal to me but I feel like a fool for not looking into her family’s background before now. If we expect to find her we’ll have to kick down some of the walls the Colgate’s built and maybe find a skeleton or two.”

“She had to have a valid birth certificate to go through all the background security checks for the work she does. It should list her birthplace, even if the rest of the information is missing. That might be a place to start.”

“If it’s okay I’ll use the people that do background checks of potential crewmen. They’re paid for their discretion.”

“Good idea. Do you suppose Chancey knew she was adopted but never said anything to her parents about it?”  

“She’s pretty sharp, so it’s quite possible. I thought about talking to her mother, but I’m not sure she would open up to me. In my experience she always let her husband do all the talking. If I could get her alone…”  

“Might be worth considering. I’ll clear it for you. Besides, I hear you have quite a way with words. Nice negotiations with the watermen.”

“Thanks. Compared to this, that situation was a piece of cake.” As if on cue Chip’s stomach chose that moment to let out a loud growl.  

 Lee grinned and stood up straight. “Speaking of cake, why don’t you go and get something to eat?”

“And what about y…”

“Admiral Nelson for you, Skipper,” interrupted the voice from Lee’s desktop speaker. “Secure line.” 

Chip grinned and excused himself as Lee reached down and pressed the mic button. Put him through, Sparks .”

 

****Monday

 

The radio conversation between Lee and the admiral was relatively short and practically one-sided. Explaining that he had located a substantial number of unexploded shells, land mines and other explosives, some dating from the World War I era, he ordered Lee to arrange for an explosive ordinance disposal (EOD) team to report to the site. He gladly reported that they had located no more specimens, though he could tell they had been stored in one branch of the tunnels and that the coverings had been mixed and applied in another. Finally, he informed the captain that he would be leaving the men to secure the area while he returned to Seaview to perform additional tests. Upon arriving with numerous samples the admiral locked himself in his lab, leaving a concerned Lee to wonder what exactly he had found. By 1130 hours on Monday Nelson finished up several experiments that he felt would answer some key questions and he summoned the captain.

“Based on the design and the construction materials the tunnel was built over one hundred and twenty years ago… likely just after the Civil War. And this,” he said as he held up one of the covering samples, “is propolis!”

“Propolis?”

“An ingenious invention of various species of bees manufactured by the worker’s from resins and other materials collected from local plants. That’s why we saw all those flowers and pollen mixed in. Bees use it to seal off openings, just like caulk but they also encase stray mice or other foreign life forms that become trapped in the hive. Here, look at this.”

The admiral held out a Petri dish which Lee took and held up to the light. “Propolis has antibacterial properties that keep a decaying animal from contaminating the hive. After I inoculated the plate with bacteria I crushed up some of my original sample and one I collected from the site yesterday and sprinkled it across the surface. When nothing grew around it I became convinced that covering over the bodies is a form of propolis.”

“Admiral, obviously no bee is responsible for covering the bodies of those people.”  

Nelson took back the plate and chuckled. “No, but whoever used this to seal the remains knew exactly what they were doing; how to make it and how to use it. I ran a chemical analysis and several of the samples from the bodies matched perfectly to those from crevices in the tunnels. We located a number of huge barrels containing unknown materials that I suspect are the components of propolis. I’m running tests on them now to see exactly what they are. 

 “What do we do with that information, Admiral?”

The admiral massaged his forehead then waved his hand in frustration. “I know, I know, they’re only a few more pieces to a very strange and complex puzzle. But think about it, Lee. With all the ways to dispose of someone, why would anyone go through all the trouble to encase them? And why would they use propolis instead of some other material that might be easier to produce? If we can learn why we might gain some insight into their plans.”

“How did they manage to hide everything for so long?”

“The tunnels were well below ground, and there was nothing unusual that anyone would notice from the surface. All they had to do was set up a farm or a mill and go on with their daily lives. We need to look into the ownership of the land while all this was going on. Maybe Chip can work on that." 

“He’s not here, Admiral. I sent him off on another errand.”  

“A lead on Miss Colgate?”

Lee nodded. “Yes, sir, he’s paying a visit to Chancey’s mother. As it turns out, she was adopted and…”

“Adopted? Let me guess, a private adoption of an infant, very hush-hush?”

Lee eyes widened. “How did you know?”

“Miss Post and two of the other women were adopted under similar circumstances. The rest we haven’t been able to verify.”  After running a hand through his auburn hair, Nelson cocked his head. “The President wanted that little fact about Miss Post kept quiet… for the ambassador and his wife’s sake. After we found out about the others, we let the ambassador know we might not be able to keep his confidence much longer.”

“Admiral, there’s more…” Lee then spent the next few minutes relaying what the congressman had told Chip about the attempted abduction and updated him on their plans to follow up on that information.

“I wonder what Colgate’s not telling us, and Post for that matter.”

Lee nodded but immediately changed the subject. “Admiral, why don’t I go ashore and check into the history or the property? If I leave now I can be there before the deed office closes.”

The admiral grinned. “Getting a little antsy, Lee?”

“Absolutely, sir.”

****

Chip drove his sedan up the long, winding driveway and for a moment he was once again a nervous midshipman arriving to escort the vivacious daughter of a powerful congressman to her first formal dance. Though none of it was funny at the time he couldn’t help but chuckle as he recalled several of the awkward moments from that night; his watch catching on the lace of her dress and practically detaching her sleeve in front of her father, Chancey falling into his arms after her heel got caught in a sidewalk crack and his mangling of the name of one of Chancey’s closest friends.

With his thoughts once again in the present he pulled in beside two luxury cars, an unmarked black sedan and a state police cruiser then stopped his engine. On the trip up he had practiced what to say to his friend’s mother but now that he had arrived he decided to ditch the trite phrases and just roll with the punches. He picked his cover up from the seat and set it on his head then turned and opened the door. He was immediately confronted by the trooper. 

“You have no business here!”

Chip climbed out and rose to his full height which was several inches above the muscular officer. “I’m here to see Mrs. Colgate. She can decide for herself whether or not to see me. Name’s Morton.”

“No visitors. Those are my instructions. Commander, I advise you to get back in your car and leave!”

The policeman’s stern voice carried a long distance so it was no surprise to Chip when the statuesque figure of Constance Colgate approached the two of them. She quickly dismissed her guardian and turned to the blond. 

“Charles, it’s good to see you,” she said quietly as she held out her hand.

When Chip reached to complete the gesture, Colgate put her other hand on top of his and patted it. “I want to apologize for Harold. I understand he has been acting badly.”  

“No need, Mrs. Colgate, I totally understand. While it’s little comfort, there are a lot of people out looking for Chancey.”

“Yes, yes, I know. Please, call me Connie.”

Chip nodded acquiescence. Mrs. Colgate then ushered him towards the veranda and the two stood quietly for several minutes looking out over the massive flower garden.

“Why are you here, Charles?”

Chip bit his lip then looked around to ensure they were alone. He then he asked the woman to sit then pulled another chair within a couple of feet from her and seated himself. “I don’t want to add to your burden but I need some information. I know that Chancey was adopted. It’s been suggested that there might be some relationship between the adoption, her previous kidnap attempt and her disappearance.”

Colgate gasped and put her hand over her mouth but said nothing. The sadness in her eyes said it all.

“I’m trying to follow all leads but I don’t have much to go on. Is there anything, anything at all about the adoption that made you uncomfortable, or at least seemed strange to you?”

Mrs. Colgate abruptly stood and wrung her hands. She then stepped several feet away before turning back to face the blond officer. In a quiet but shaky voice she let everything out. “We tried desperately to have children but it apparently wasn’t God’s plan for us. We finally made the decision to adopt. We weren’t ashamed, you understand, but you know how things are in Washington . Our attorney said he had a friend who arranged for private adoptions for well-known clients. We were thrilled when they told us they could get us a baby girl within a couple of months. And we were thrilled when she was brought to us.” Though her eyes welled with tears she managed to continue. “I… I still have the blanket she came wrapped in.”

“I would never have known she wasn’t yours.”

The woman smiled at the kind words.

Chip waited a few moments for her to gain her composure before continuing. “I’m sorry to open old wounds but I need some specifics.  Can you tell me who actually delivered her to you? 

“Our attorney, but I’m afraid he recently passed.”

“Do you have any records, anything listing her birth parents?” 

“The adoption was sealed. We are her parents and that’s what all our records show.” 

“Shouldn’t someone have the files?”

“Unfortunately, not anymore. Our attorney…Brantley Dorn, died in a fire at his office not too long ago. Sad. The authorities thought he might have dozed off with a cigar in his hand. In any event, his files were in that building.”

Chip recognized the implications but other than the slight bobbing of his Adam’s apple he gave no outward indication of his concern. He waited for her to continue.

Finally breaking the awkward silence Mrs. Colgate walked over to the sideboard where a photo album lay open. She picked it up and carried it over to Chip. “These are Chance’s first pictures. And this,” she said pointing to one of the close-ups of Chancey and the congressman, “is that blanket I told you about.”

Chip had never seen pictures of a very young Chancey and he couldn’t stifle a grin. He traced the image with his finger before looking more closely at the wrap. It was a typical flannel baby blanket but in one corner he noticed a small monogram with a stylized letter H. Chip took out a pen and paper and quickly copied the design before handing the album back to its owner. “I’m not sure it’s significant, but you never know.” Chip let a few moments pass before asking his next question. “Mrs…I’m sorry, Connie.  What do you remember about the kidnapping attempt?”

The woman set the album on the coffee table before tenting her fingers and touching them to her lips. “I never knew until well after the fact. Harold said to publicize it would have encouraged every criminal out there to try the same and at that time I agreed with him. It was only a couple of days ago that I had a change of heart.”

“Why? Did he tell you anything more?”

“Only that Chance had given him a good description of the people.

“That information could have been crucial. Did he give it to the FBI?” 

“He’s still holding out, I’m afraid.”

“Pardon my saying so, but under the circumstances he’s downright foolish to keep it secret.”

Mrs. Colgate tilted her head.  

Setting aside his frustration, Chip continued his questioning. “Connie, this is a personal question and you don’t have to answer if you don’t want to.” Mrs. Colgate raised her eyebrows in anticipation. “Did Chancey know she was adopted?”

“She never confided that to me but I believe she did. 

“What makes you think so?”  

“Just a mother’s instinct. Oh, I know that I’m not her real mother but the instinct is there all the same.”

Chip stood and grasped her trembling hands in his. “You are her mother in every way that matters. I think she turned out pretty darn well.”

She pulled her hands free and wiped a single tear then glanced at her wristwatch. “Harold will be back soon.  It’s probably best that you go.”

Chip nodded then reached into his inside pocket and retrieved his business card. He jotted some information on the back then handed it to her. “If you ever need me. I’ve also given you the number for our director of security. He can often reach me even when others can’t, including the congressman.”  

Mrs. Colgate nodded. “Charles, I hope you don’t think less of us because of all this.”

He shook his head. “Parents protect their young the best way they know how.” He leaned in and pecked her on the forehead. “We’ll find her.”

****

“Effie, is that you?”

The gentle tinkling of a bell alerted the county clerk that she had a visitor and when she received no response to her callout she poked her head through the back room doorway. “Oooh, you’re definitely not Effie,” she cooed to her handsome visitor as a smile crept over her face.

“No ma’am,” replied Lee with grin. “I’m interested in buying some land that looks to be abandoned and I’m here to see what I can find out about it. Unfortunately I don’t have much to go on.”

Without taking her eyes off the tall dark-haired stranger she pointed to a large index map on the wall. “Sir, if you would please give me the book and section numbers.  I’ll see what’s on the survey map and we’ll go from there.” 

Lee quickly pinpointed the area in question and after pulling a pen and notepad from his polo shirt pocket he recorded the number and held it out. “This should be it.”

As she reached for the paper the distracted woman accidentally knocked over a small vase of flowers that sat atop the service counter. Lee quickly scooped up the container while the clerk retrieved several napkins from a stash in he desk drawer and sopped up the spill. “I’m sooo sorry, Mr…”

“No harm, don’t worry about it. And it’s Glenn, Lee Glenn.”

“Mr. Glenn, you’re not from around here are you?”

Lee flashed a huge smile. “No, but if everyone is as helpful and friendly as you I will seriously consider moving here.” 

“Let me get that book for you,” said the clerk as she raised her hands to cover her reddening cheeks. She then scurried off to the records vault and soon returned with a heavy volume. “This should be it, number 212, section A4.” She set the bulky book on the counter and immediately began to thumb through the pages. When a flurry of activity was followed by a long period of silence Lee expressed his concern. “Problem?”

“It’s the strangest thing. The maps from that particular section seem to be missing.” She then demonstrated to Lee where the maps should have been. “I’m going to check into it but that won’t help you now. Let me look up the legal descriptions of the property.  Do you have an address?”

“No but it borders Chesstown Road .”

After fifteen minutes of research the clerk returned to report her findings. “Nothing.  I don’t understand it. It’s as if someone purged all the records.”

Though Lee had that very same thought he didn’t voice it. While he desperately wanted the information the maps would provide he was also concerned that if too much attention was paid to the missing materials, it might tip off the offender. “Ma’am, please don’t worry about it on my account. I’ll find another way to get the information.”

“I’m going to have to report this to the board of supervisors. It’s a serious breach of security for us. We keep the files in a vault for a reason.”

Lee was about to take the woman into his confidence when the bell on the door signaled another visitor. It was a young man dressed in the familiar uniform of a well-known delivery service. Lee nodded politely as the courier approached the service counter with his parcel.

“Oh, hello, Ethan. How was your day?” inquired the clerk as she reached out for the package.

“Wonderful, Miss Jeanne, and yourself?”

“I’ve had better, but thanks for asking.” In exquisite longhand the clerk signed the appropriate blank on the form on the clipboard and handed it back.  Almost done for the day?”

“I’ve got one more delivery up on Chesstown Road …”

Lee couldn’t believe his luck and after hastily requesting that the clerk not tell anyone about his visit he darted after the courier. He caught up with him as he stepped into his panel truck. “Sorry to bother you, but I overheard you mention you were going up to Chesstown Road . There’s a mix up in the deed files and I’m been trying to locate the name of the owner of one of the properties up there. You mind helping me out?” 

“If I can,” said the man with a smile bright enough to patent. 

Lee went on to describe the property and it was no surprise that the delivery man knew exactly where it was.

Gresham , family’s name was Gresham .”

“You know them personally?”

“Only from my stops. Did a good business it seemed. Family was one of the first to settle here so it was a bit odd when they all just packed up and left. Hope they’re doin’ okay.”

“When did they leave, if you know?”

“Couple years ago, just after that big nor’easter tore up the coast. I stopped making trips to their place after that so I asked around and found out he closed all his accounts with us. We figured he fell on hard times and would end up sellin’ the property. We haven’t heard from any of them since. How’d you find out about their land?”

Lee thought quickly. “I fly around and look for abandoned properties to buy.”

The answer seemed to satisfy the courier. “Look, I gotta get going.”

“One more question. I need to determine the land’s value. Do you know what type of farming they did on the property?”

“Not sure about farming, but Hiram’s girls had some of the best…”

 

****

“Honey and beeswax candles,” announced Lee as he sat down on the edge of the admiral’s desk. “The daughters sold them at fairs and markets for years. According to the courier, their mail order business was a fairly recent development.”

The admiral lit up a cigarette and took a long draw then leaned back in his chair. “That certainly fits with the use of propolis. Who would know more about using bee products than beekeepers? Did he give a name for the business?”

Lee ran a hand through his hair and dipped his head. “Hiram’s Honeys.”

“Hmmmppphhh,” growled Nelson as he ground out his cigarette. “The whole thing is obviously a front for something a great deal more sinister. Why else would they build a climate controlled bunker to stockpile military explosives from the last five wars? I have to wonder if Meade didn’t get too close to that. 

“Hmmm.”

“It concerns me a great deal that they would use children as a cover for their operation. What else were you able to find out about the family?”

“The neighbors that I talked to had very little interaction with them. They would occasionally run into a couple of the older girls at the market. They said there were a number of kids because they had seen them out on the property. They didn’t attend the local schools with their own children so they assumed they were being home schooled. I didn’t want to press them too much. If they knew what was out there…”  

“We’ll definitely need to tread carefully.”

Lee nodded. “I informed the men.” 

“How are Sharkey and Riley holding up?”

“Besides there being gnawed by a few too many bugs, they’re fine. They should be back tomorrow night. The Marine guards should be in place by morning and the EOD techs are due to arrive by midday to take care of the ordnance.”

A knock on the admiral’s door heralded Chip’s arrival.  When he entered the cabin holding a gift basket, the senior officers both raised eyebrows. Lee was especially curious about what his exec had found and couldn’t resist a little barb. “Stooping to bribery, Mr. Morton?”

“Never, sir,” replied Chip, with mock indignation. “Admiral, Lee. I stopped by to check on Kowalski and visited the Rice’s shop. That’s where I found these.” He then reached into the basket and handed each man a jar of honey.

The two scrutinized the labels then exchanged glances. “Go on,” said Nelson as he set the jar down on his desk.

“Mrs. Rice said they like to support regional farmers and have been buying that particular brand for as long as she can remember.” When the admiral began to drum his fingers on the desk, Chip took it as a sign he was growing impatient. “I’m sorry, Admiral, did I interrupt? I can come back later.”

Nelson leaned back in his chair. “No, Chip. Lee and I have just been discussing his trip into Gloucester . Finish your report.” 

Chip nodded and reached into his pocket, removing the piece of paper bearing the drawing of the monogram. “This design,” he said as he held up the paper, “was embroidered on Chancey’s baby blanket. I would bet there’s some connection between her adoption and whoever makes that honey.”

Lee took the paper and held it up against the jar and nodded. “It’s the same trademark all right. It’s too unusual to be a coincidence.” Lee then looked to the admiral.

“Chip, have a seat,” said the flag officer as he pointed to the chair next to his desk. “Apparently there’s more to Hiram’s Honeys than meets the eye.” The admiral and Lee then updated the exec on each of their field trips.

Once Lee had finished describing his visit to the clerk’s office Chip again reached into his jacket pocket. This time he pulled out an invoice given to him by Mrs. Rice and handed it to Nelson. “They apparently do all their billing and correspondence through that post office box and, no surprise, the zip code places it in Gloucester . The invoice is dated just six months ago so it’s likely one that’s still in use. Once we find out who pays the box rent or who picks up the mail that should lead us back to them.”

“This is good information, Chip,” said Nelson as he handed the paper to Lee.

The captain studied the document. “Admiral, do you suppose you can use a few of your connections to find out who owns that box? Small town life is centered on the local post office, so it would be too risky to just walk in and ask.”

“I’ll contact the Postmaster General. He can get one of his inspectors to pay a visit, pretend to be looking for something else. We should send someone to keep an eye on that box, though.”

“Sir,” interrupted Chip, “I already took the liberty of sending Kowalski. He’s going to pretend to be looking for work.  That way he can visit a lot of people, find out who’s who. I can call him and have him keep an eye on the post office as well.”

“Good plan, Chip.”

When the admiral caught Lee trying to stifle a yawn he stood then in turn he looked each man in the eye. “Nice work, gentlemen.  Now, why don’t the two of you get some rest? Tomorrow could be a busy day.”

Lee nodded and the two men left the admiral to make his call. After pulling the door closed Chip hesitated just long enough to draw Lee’s attention so the captain motioned for Chip to join him in his cabin. Once ensconced there Lee leaned on his desk and crossed his arms. “What didn’t you tell the admiral? 

In a rare move for him, Chip turned his back on his captain and friend. Lee was all too familiar with the personal, moral and ethical dilemmas presented by their work so he allowed his exec this one breach of protocol. True to his expectations Chip soon turned back.

“It’s about Chancey’s adoption. But first I need guarantees that their family’s privacy will be protected and you will fill me in on the whole story in the end.”

Lee looked at him quizzically. “If it’s related in any way to our mission you know I can’t make any promises.”

A still conflicted Chip cast his eyes to the floor, where they remained focused for some time. After a resigned sigh he finally looked up at Lee.  “I don’t know for sure, but I think Chancey wasn’t the only child that was placed by her attorney with a well-known couple. It could be some type of illegal operation.” Chip paused and scrubbed his chin.  “If that news gets out it could destroy a lot of families, including the Colgates.”

“What’s your proof?”

Chip held up his hand and counted out each point. “One, her adoption was too easy, too quick. Two, they refuse to report her kidnap attempt even now when it might help locate her. Three, thanks to a convenient fire that killed their attorney there are no more original documents.”

“What?”

Chip related the circumstances of Dorn’s death then drew an unsettling conclusion. “If what you learned about the Greshams is true, they could have been the ones supplying children to him. If so, Chancey was born a Gresham .”

Chip’s theory had merit and Lee’s mind raced to connect the remaining dots of the conspiracy. There was now no denying a direct association between Chancey and the suspicious family of beekeepers and it appeared that some person or persons were trying to systematically destroy all solid evidence of that connection. They would have to act fast to avoid that from happening so he reached across his desk for the intercom button.

“Admiral, I don’t believe any of us will get much sleep tonight.”

 

****Tuesday

 

After sharing and dissecting every last shred of intelligence they had gathered, the admiral doled out assignments. Lee was tasked with using his ONI contacts to locate where the Gresham family had resettled. Chip would follow up on the post office box to determine who in the town of Gloucester might still have ties to the family. Finally, since all agreed that the admiral’s considerable sway would be an asset in dealing with the recalcitrant politicians he hopped aboard FS-1 and made his way to the Washington office of Ambassador Post. From there he planned to visit the Colgate residence. By early afternoon he had returned and the three met in the admiral’s cabin to report their findings and eat a late lunch.

“I convinced Post of the serious threat posed to national security and got him to open up and reveal details of his meeting with Brantley Dorn. A week before Dorn died he and the congressman had been together in the attorney’s office. Up until then neither man knew the other had adopted a child, much less that Dorn had arranged both adoptions. The attorney had convinced the men that someone he knew took Stephanie and might try to take Chance. When pressed for a reason why he was asked to be present, Post suggested that it was to convince the congressman of the seriousness of the threat. He also insisted Colgate was genuinely angry and had pushed for details but Dorn had held firm and revealed nothing more of consequence.”

“Did they connect Dorn to the Greshams by name?” asked Lee.

“They never did learn who Dorn was referring to but I showed Chip’s drawing to Post and he said the symbol was on Stephanie’s baby bonnet.”

“What did they learn about the fire, Admiral?” asked Chip.

“When they first heard both said they were stunned. Of course, the congressman was very worried, since Chance was still alive but obviously in great danger. Fortunately, I was able to get the names of some of Dorn’s clients from each man. They apparently referred their friends, without mentioning how he had helped them. So far none of them are connected to any of our bodies, at least by surname. Certainly more research is needed. Chip, what did you discover about the mail box? ”

Box 948 was rented by a person named E. Herring and according to the inspector, the rental contract is about to expire. So far the renter hasn’t submitted a forwarding address. However, I had him check on the history of the box and he said up until two years ago it was rented by an H. Gresham, and had been for as long as that post office has been open.”

“How long is that, Chip?” inquired Nelson.

“Fifty years, sir. I had Kowalski find out who E. Herring was. He said she works at the historic courthouse as a docent. He’s keeping an eye on her. If she gets mail from the box he’s to follow her and notify us immediately.”

Lee stood and pushed back his chair and began to pace, a sure sign that he was processing a high volume of information. As if a light had switched on he stopped suddenly and faced the other men. “She, you said she. Does her first name happen to be Effie?” 

“If that’s short for Effinia. How did you know?”

“When I was checking the deed I heard the clerk say the name. I think they’re friends.  That would explain how someone might gain access to all the relevant records.”

“Hmmpppphhhh,” growled the admiral. “If that’s the case, we should snatch her up and make sure she does no further damage. She might know where the Greshams are now and we don’t want her to warn them. Lee, did any of your sources pan out?”

“Not yet, Admiral. I think they would have crossed state lines in order to make a clean break but I doubt they went far from their source of explosives. The EOD team will be tracing whatever they find but it might take awhile. I agree our best bet right now is to sweat this Effie Herring.”

 

 

**** Wednesday

 

“I never knew there were so many different types of boats. How did you learn so much about them?”

“Just something I’ve picked up along the way.” Lee said with a subtle smile. “My grandfather was a fisherman and I’ve always had a soft spot for nautical history and lore.”   

Lee and his lunch guest continued to make small talk until she caught sight of a familiar middle-aged brunette. “There’s Effie now,” she announced as she waved the woman over to their table. Lee immediately rose and the deed clerk introduced the pair. “Lee Glenn, this is Effie Herring. She is the person to ask about the founding families. Effie, this is Lee Glenn, the man I told you about.”

Nodding politely Lee pulled out the chair for the woman. “It’s a pleasure, Miss Herring,” he said as he seated himself. He immediately poured on the charm. “I was just telling Jeanne that this is the perfect area to pursue my hobby. I’ve always been fascinated by fishing communities; the men, the boats, their techniques, everything about them.  When she told me that you were a walking encyclopedia for the historical society, I couldn’t wait to meet you and pick your brain. That is, after I buy you lunch.”

Herring gave Lee the once over before responding. “She exaggerates, but I’ll certainly answer what I can.”

After Herring had ordered, Lee asked several general questions and the woman gave short but polite answers. Once she had been served he picked at his salad as he probed deeper into her local knowledge, including that of the Greshams . “I’ve been looking at some property that borders Mobjack Bay and I was told it was owned by one of the founding families, the Greshams. Do you know much about them, I mean, besides the fact that they kept bees and sold bee products under the name Hiram’s Honeys? Were they ever fishermen by some chance?”

Herring appeared to choke on her potato salad so Lee waited until she took a sip of water before repeating the question. Her response was not what he expected. “I can’t say I’ve heard of them.”

“Are you sure? They had a post office box in town.”

“Positive.”

Jeanne interrupted. “Wait a minute, Effie. Wasn’t it Hiram’s that we bought all our church candles from?” She turned to Lee. “I’m sorry I didn’t put two and two together.  Now that I know it was their property I can research for information by name.”

Lee thanked the clerk but kept an eye on Herring. The woman was obviously uncomfortable with the conversation and he was about to make it hotter for her. “I’m sure Jeanne mentioned all the legal documents are missing for the property I want to buy.”

Herring shook her head and shrugged.

“Theft of those documents is a pretty serious business and she’s contacted the authorities. Whoever was involved will probably be in prison for a long time.  I’m just hoping the deed is cleared up to allow me buy the land. You know the founding families pretty well. Are you absolutely sure you never heard of them?”  

“No I haven’t, sorry,” she said quietly then segued to a more familiar, and more comfortable, topic. “You say you’re interested in the watermen’s history. I suppose you already know the watermen assisted the French navy in blocking the passage of British supply ships and thus troops before and during the Revolutionary War?”

Lee nodded then listened as Herring relayed everything she knew about the history of the local commercial fishing industry. Mission aside, he actually enjoyed the colorful lesson and forgot all about the time until she announced she had to leave.   

“Mr. Glenn, you must visit the new watermen’s museum down by the river. It’s a wonderful source for information on the early fishermen.” 

“I certainly will. There are a lot of things I need to check out.”

Satisfied that he had done his job and Herring’s defenses were in overdrive, he paid the check and saw both women off.  He then walked over to his car and retrieved his two way radio. “The seed has been planted. I repeat, the seed has been planted.”  

After leaving the restaurant lot, Lee pulled his sedan up to the curb near the post office and waited while Kowalski pretended to read the inscription on the historic marker on the front lawn. Both men kept their eyes fixed on the door of the single story brick building where the rating had seen Herring enter nearly a minute before. Rather than returning to her job at the historic courthouse, she had practically raced to the post office and when the brunette once again appeared outside she carried a stack of bound letters in her hand.  She quickly stuffed the bundle into her handbag before setting off in the direction of the courthouse. As the woman darted between cars then ducked into a narrow alleyway Kowalski remained hot on her tail. Assuming correctly that she would exit on the opposite end the rating raced around the block and from a distance he saw her emerge and cross the street. When she entered a small shop he took a seat on a bench in front of a neighboring store where he had a good view of the front door. After ten minutes she did not reappear so he stood and peered into the window of the shop.  To his chagrin, he saw no one and cursed to himself. He pulled out his two way radio to notify his captain, and when he got no answer he snapped the antenna down and shoved the radio back into his pocket then took off running. When he arrived at the courthouse he saw the captain’s car and guessing that he had gone inside he raced up the steps and yanked the door open.  In his haste he nearly collided with two FBI agents who were escorting Herring outside. When he looked around and saw his skipper standing near the security desk with no apparent injuries, the rating grinned broadly.  

 

****

Chip stood in his cabin and apprehensively awaited the arrival of two rather unexpected guests. When the admiral had informed him that he had visitors and who they were he was curious but concerned. Several minutes later a knock on the door signaled their arrival and he rose from his chair.  “Come in.”

“Mr. Morton, your visitors are here,” announced Patterson from the exec’s cabin doorway. “Congressman and Mrs. Colgate,” he finished as he opened the door wide and let the couple pass.

Chip dismissed the rating then offered chairs to the couple but the congressman waved him off. “We won’t be long,” he growled. 

“Harold, please, we are guests here,” she scolded as she took Chip’s offer and gracefully seated herself. “Charles, a little over a month ago Chance made a rare visit home. She told us she had an accident on her boat and needed a few days away and of course we were elated to see her. She must have been feeling particularly vulnerable because we talked for hours about a number of things, including wills and final arrangements. I had her contact Brantley Dorn and they set up a meeting. Before she left she told me she had rented a safe deposit box locally and that I would have access to it. She also told me that there was something in it for you.” The woman then reached in her bag and pulled out an envelope which she handed to the officer. “It was only to be given to you if her death appeared to be under suspicious circumstances.  I… we think it might be time. As you see we haven’t opened it.”

Chip took the gray business envelope and read the address. “Lt. Cmdr. Charles P. Morton” was written in Chancey’s easily recognizable long hand. Whether it was the personalization of the letter, the closeness of his quarters or a combination of both, he suddenly felt connected to the two people with him and he wasn’t sure exactly how to react. That decision was soon taken out of his hands.

“Well, what does it say?!” Colgate practically spat.

Chip pursed his lips and looked the man straight in the eye. “Congressman, Chancey obviously meant this for me. If it contains anything significant that will help us find her I will let you know,” he added coolly.

“This no time for secrets, man!” he bellowed.

Chip bright blue eyes flashed in anger. “No secrets, Congressman? You’re up to your eyeballs in secrets. Old, useless, ridiculous secrets! If you’d told her…” He was about to upbraid the man like he would an errant seaman but the hurt look that appeared on Mrs. Colgate’s face made him stop and change tack. “Look, there’s enough blame to go around and I will certainly claim my share but I’ve already laid out my entire personal life for inspection to put the focus back on Chancey. Don’t you think it’s time you did the same?” His exasperated words were met with stoic silence. “If you don’t want to tell me at least tell someone who can do something constructive with the information.”   

Mrs. Colgate looked up at her husband and signaled her wishes. Colgate nodded and took her hand. “Get Nelson. We’ll talk to him.”  

Admiral Nelson,” corrected Chip quietly as he stepped outside and pulled the door closed behind him. He immediately grabbed the nearby wall microphone and requested that the admiral meet his guests. Nelson advised that he would be several minutes but would be on his way.  

Though he desperately wanted to believe Chancey was still alive and that reading the letter was premature, he knew it could provide clues to her whereabouts so the blond hurried to the opposite end of the corridor and slipped into Lee’s cabin. There he clicked on the desk lamp and retrieved a letter opener from the pencil drawer and in one stroke he slit the envelope.  He then replaced the opener and closed the drawer before walking around the desk and taking a seat in the captain’s guest chair. After taking a long deep breath he pulled the papers from the envelope. Tucked inside the folds was a photograph that depicted a shoreline and by all appearances it was from somewhere on the Chesapeake . He studied the photo then flipped it over but seeing no notations he set it aside and turned his attention to the three page letter. It was dated a couple of months prior to Chancey’s disappearance and was printed rather than written in longhand. When he read the simple salutation he stopped to let another emotional wave pass. Swallowing hard allowed him to continue.

 

Dearest Chip,

First let me apologize for putting this burden on you. As the most forthright and responsible person I ever met there was never a question that you were the one I would rely on to tie up the loose ends of my life. I know you will do what is necessary to protect both my work as an undercover agent and more importantly, my family. Hopefully you will be able to use some of what I tell you to keep them safe and give them some peace.

One year ago I took an assignment for the Coast Guard to determine who was stealing certain types of rare artifacts from the bay. To accomplish the mission I set up a dive charter business that as expected attracted a number of well known smugglers. Along with mission details you will find a complete list of my “clients” and contacts in case file 24-04-771. Any one of them could have had it in for me but while I wouldn’t totally discount the smugglers, Dad’s many enemies or the local watermen (whom I ticked off royally) as suspects, my instincts tell me there is something else going on.

It might sound weird but practically all my life I’ve had the feeling that someone was following me. For what purpose I have no clue. Before you chalk it up to paranoia you need to know there have been several incidents, close encounters if you will that help confirm my suspicions. The first one was when I was eleven and at summer camp. We were playing a game where a “seeing” partner was supposed to lead a blindfolded person over various obstacles. When it was my turn to be blindfolded I was led on a long walk. I got scared and pulled off the blindfold and found I was being led away from the camp by three strangers. I took off running but never said a word to the counselors or my parents. Obviously that was a mistake because there was another attempt when I was seventeen. I told Dad about it and he insisted he would handle it and I thought he had. A couple of months ago while I was out in my boat in an isolated area near the Hooper Strait I saw several people swimming rapidly towards me so I picked up my binocs and my gun. When I took aim they finally turned around, swam to shore and took off for the woods. Before they disappeared I snapped a photo, which I’ve enclosed. If you look closely at the far left of the photo you can see them climbing through the brush.    

My greatest concern in all of this is that someone with a fixation on me will attempt to hurt my parents and I need your help to find out who is involved and see they are brought to justice before something happens. Be forewarned that if you turn over enough rocks you will likely find out some very unflattering things about me, but don’t let that stop you from doing what’s necessary. My reputation isn’t nearly as important as my parent’s lives.

Lastly, I must again apologize for a couple of things. One is for never confiding in you or my parents that I was an agent. I knew my father would never approve and frankly I thought you would try and talk me out of it. I wanted to be an independent woman and I guess I succeeded! In hindsight, maybe you both knew best. The second apology is for never telling you I was adopted. I found out that little detail when I applied to be an agent. My parents never told me and they don’t know that I know. They must have had their reasons for keeping the secret and I guess it doesn’t really matter now.

My dear Chip, I can’t think of anything else to say except that I hope to see you again someday. 

 

Love, Chancey

P.S.  I realize that my father will likely get up on his high horse and demand to see what’s in this letter. To that end I have included another version of it that should pass muster with him. I figure I can at least save you from some grief.

 

Chip smiled at the post script then bit his lip and stared at the papers in his hands. Following several minutes of quiet reflection he folded and laid the letter on the desk.  He then stood and paced the floor slowly several times before stopping to pick up the photograph.  He strained to see the images Chancey had described in the letter and soon concluded the photo would be useless for helping to identify anyone. The picture did provide another valuable clue, however, so after tucking it into his chest pocket he reached over to the squawk box and pressed the button. “Control room, this is the exec.  Prepare the flying sub for launch and have Sharkey, Patterson and Riley report to the captain’s cabin immediately!”

All but certain that Chancey’s photo depicted an area near where he had been dumped, Chip quickly made all the necessary arrangements for the FS-1 to land at the Coast Guard Station at Crisfield, Maryland. By the time the admiral finally emerged with the Colgates and escorted them to the dock the exec had the Nelson’s detail lined up and ready to go. All that was left for him to do was to convince the OOM that he was right and the picture along with a brief summary of the letter did the trick. Soon the four men heading towards the station in FS-1.

When the party arrived they were greeted by the station commander then Nelson immediately pulled out the photo. The lieutenant was unfamiliar with the scene but one of his men quickly identified it as a section of coastline some forty miles to the northwest of their current location; an area known as Swan Harbor . The admiral worked through the evening compiling information on that bit of geography, including the examination of detailed charts, aerial photos and road maps. He even made note of resources such as police and fire stations. At around 2300 hours he found himself staring at the station’s wall mounted chart performing distance calculations in his head.

Just before midnight Lee arrived at the station bearing news that Herring was not likely a spy and had merely served as a part-time bookkeeper for Hiram’s. He expressed his disappointment that the woman had not led them directly to where Chancey was likely being held, but once he heard more details from the letter he was eager to follow the new trail. The two men put their heads together and within two hours they had a plan. Leaving the admiral, Sharkey, and the other ratings to make preparations, Lee and Kowalski headed for the barracks to get a few hours sleep.

 

**** Thursday

 

In the dark of night a Coast Guard cutter released her cargo and just minutes after dawn Lee and Kowalski paddled their kayaks around the point and caught their first glimpse of their target area. With the help of the incoming tide they soon reached a sheltered inlet where they could go ashore. After easing himself from his cockpit Lee grabbed his gear bag and lifted the small craft out of the water and quickly hid it behind a mass of shrubs.  The rating followed suit and the men began to pick their way through the dense scrub.  They found it nearly impossible to avoid making noise; however, there was little they could do. Lee had seen the aerial photos of the compound and knew there was no way of bypassing the thicket. His only hope was that the brushy barrier would thin out long before they encountered anyone.

Despite the difficulties it took only twenty minutes for the pair to reach a large clearing and for several minutes they remained crouched down behind a fallen tree watching for signs of activity. The pair stood to move on, but when a girl suddenly scampered past them and entered the clearing they had to quickly duck back down. With hearts still pounding both took a good look at the child. About ten years old, with her hair in braids and wearing a worn plaid dress, pinafore and “Buster Brown” shoes the girl appeared to present no immediate threat. When she stopped and scanned the area Lee was almost certain they had been spotted but the girl seemed to ignore them and walked over to stand in the center of the clearing. With her back to him, all Lee could tell was that she had removed something from the basket she carried and set it on the ground before once again scurrying off into the woods.

Lee waited a few more minutes and when the girl did not return he motioned for Kowalski to stay put and crept nearer to the object. It appeared to be a small crystal bottle and he stepped from his cover to get a better look. The crack of a twig caused him to look up but it was too late to make a move as he was quickly swarmed by a group of ten teenage girls. Though he was stronger, they were many and each time he broke free one or more of the girls managed to again latch on. He shouted for Kowalski to take off and get help, and though the rating hesitated he reluctantly followed his orders. 

About forty seconds into his struggle to free himself Lee felt several sharp stings through his clothes and almost immediately his strength began to wan. In less than a minute he found himself lying flat on his back looking up into the cherubic faces of what he assumed were the progeny of Hiram Gresham. Lee’s sluggish demand for an explanation for his treatment was ignored by the girls who easily picked him up and placed him on a litter then carted him off.

As Lee was carried along a well-worn path he was alert enough to notice several huge fields of wildflowers, hundreds of honeybee hive boxes and buildings that he assumed housed the family and their production and shipping facilities. He also caught glimpses of several individuals in white protective suits, mesh masks and carrying smokers, all necessary tools for tending the bees. After being set down in the center of the compound he was left alone but even from a distance he continued to watch the girls who had captured him as they moved in and out of the various buildings collecting supplies then loading them onto a large cart.

Something instinctive told Lee to count the number of potential “enemies” in the camp but in his drug induced haze and awkward position the task proved extremely difficult. It was only by sheer force of will that he kept his eyes open and somewhat focused.  Children, how many children? Too many. All look alike… girls…all girls. Where are …boys? Who is that…where…seen her before…looks familiar...the drugs…can’t …think… clearly.

Thirty minutes of confusion and concern for what would come next ended when several older girls dressed in all black loaded Lee and his litter onto the cart that held the supplies and rolled it down a shady path. He began to move in and out of consciousness so when the cart came to a stop and he was lifted from it he couldn’t tell how far he had traveled. He was aware of being carried down some stairs and soon sensed that he was underground.  He recalled the description the admiral had given of the tunnel and the facilities that were housed there and when he opened his eyes and saw several vats and a large metal mold, for the first time in a long time he felt fear. If something didn’t happen soon he was sure he would become the next subject to be encased in propolis.

 

****

Once Lee had gone ashore the Seaview men waited nearby in FS-1. When they received a frantic call from Kowalski that the captain had been taken, each and every man felt bile rising in his throat. The admiral immediately turned the sub around and retrieved the rating, but after hearing his initial report he refused to allow any of the men to take off after their skipper. Though no one said a word, the hang-dog look on Sharkey’s face told the tale; the men were confused and angry. After the sub had been moved safely out of sight of the suspect coastline, Nelson again questioned Kowalski, this time insisting they go over every minute detail of the reported attack. When pressed, the rating was able to recall a couple of both pertinent and fascinating facts and the scientist/officer immediately contacted Chip.

“He was only supposed to film the compound, not engage them.”

Nelson could tell the younger officer was frustrated. “I am well aware of that, Chip. They chose to engage him. That’s why I called. I think I know what this whole thing is all about but I need more information. On the bottom shelf in my cabin is an old book titled ‘The Social Insect’. Go get it.”

When Chip responded practically in slow motion the admiral’s notorious anger flared.  “I know you think I should just go in there and get him! Well I won’t send anyone else in there until I know what we’re up against. The answers are in that book. Now go!” 

Chip winced and scurried off and in less than a minute he had returned with the tome.

“Now go to the index and read me the entries on honeybees.”

As the blond listed the topics the admiral made connections between the highly evolved insects and the strange community.

“Hive structure.”

“Bees have strict spatial and environmental requirements for their hives. The measurements in those tunnels were absolutely precise.  There was a completely self-contained ventilation system that also served to keep the temperature consistent throughout. The doorways and storage areas were six sided which added to their strength and saved space. They used wax and propolis as a sealant. What’s next?”

“Hive hierarchy.”

 

“Kowalski described Lee’s captors as a large group of girls in their late teens. That’s key.  No one who spoke of the Greshams ever mentioned the boys. The girls did the shopping. The girls sold candles and it was the girls that unloaded the supplies from the delivery truck.”

Nelson fully expected some comment from Chip but the XO remained oddly silent.  “Don’t you see, Chip? A hive is made up almost exclusively of female workers. Their work assignments are based on the age of the bee. The youngest bees tend to the queen, the nursery and convert nectar to honey. As they get older, worker bees not only do the pollen, nectar and resin collection they perform security duty. They act as sentinels, keeping intruders out of the hive. If an invader manages to make its way in, the guards take care of it by stinging and removal. If it’s too large to move, they cover it in propolis.” 

Chip swallowed hard. He didn’t need to verbalize what both men already assumed; that Lee’s situation was dire. “Admiral, how long does it take bees to cover something in propolis?”

Nelson knew where Chip was leading. “Something the size of a mouse, maybe 24-48 hours. We should have plenty of time. What’s the next topic? 

“Behaviors, and that’s separated out into foraging, flight, mating and swarming.”

“Hmmm. Read the introduction.”

Chip quickly located the appropriate page. “For many years researchers sought an explanation for the predictable behaviors of some bee species beyond what could be associated with genetics or learning. It was long suspected that reproduction and many other behaviors were bio-chemically controlled. In 1959, Karlson and Lüscher first used the term ‘pheromone’ to describe the chemical substances influencing the behavior between animals. A great deal of research is currently underway to isolate these pheromones…”   

“Stop there. That’s what I was looking for!”  

“Sir?”

“The common thread…and the solution to getting Lee and Miss Colgate out of there. Pheromones.”

“How do these pheromones work, sir?”

“In some respects just like hormones in humans. Chemicals are secreted by various specialized glands that control growth and behavior. Social insects evolved their use to the extreme. Bees are practically drugged by all the vaporous chemicals in the hive.  Every behavior of every bee is controlled to some extent by them.”

Chip tried to wrap is head around what he was hearing but he really had only one concern. “Sir, how do we use that information to get them out?”

“We need to find a way of blocking the action of the chemicals so they can’t send out warning signals to the others. Blinding them, so to speak. Some type of …I’ve got it! Smoke, like the beekeepers use! Once we get inside we can figure out the rest. Chip I’ll need you to…”

****

While Chip worked quickly to complete the laundry list of tasks given to him by the admiral he had little time to think or worry about his friend and captain. Included in his assignment was the outfitting fifteen of his best men with full body protective suits and stun guns, supplying them with three crates of smoke grenades, packing up medical supplies and Dr. Jamison and getting them all to Nelson’s location without attracting undue attention. At the flag officer’s request he had also contacted a renowned military psychologist who specialized in the brainwashing of children and had him flown by helicopter to the Guard station. His final task was to create a story to be supplied to the media should the operation raise any questions, and to accomplish that he returned to his cabin.

Once the officer had pulled the completed press release from the printer and set it aside, he leaned back in his chair and rubbed his eyes.  It was not long before thoughts of the Greshams and the strange colony began to swirl around in his head. A community of people who have somehow adapted to living like bees! What science fiction writer could have imagined it?  Admittedly when he had first heard the admiral’s wild thesis he had thought the man had finally gone off the deep end. They had all seen some very strange things on Seaview’s varied missions, but it was incomprehensible that something so utterly bizarre could exist practically under the noses of those in the seat of power. That is, until Nelson had laid out the overwhelming supporting evidence.  Unfortunately, nothing they had learned so far explained why Chancey had been taken and that fact continued to nag at him.  

Chip rose to head towards the wardroom to grab a cup of coffee when he glimpsed the admiral’s book on the corner of his desk. He wondered whether it might hold additional clues so he eased into his guest chair and began to flip through the pages. Though not a research scientist, he was well-educated and motivated so once he started to read he quickly became immersed in the amazing life of bees. Of special interest to him was the section on the role of the queen:

“There is but one queen within the hive at a given time and though the precise mechanisms are still unknown she is able to direct nearly all of the hive’s activities, including how many workers (females) and how many drones (males) are allowed inside the hive. The newly emerged queen will herself ensure that she has no competition by destroying any remaining queen larvae. These larvae are then removed from the hive by so-called undertaker bees. In turn, when the queen is no longer able to exert control over the hive due to age or illness it is a group of workers who see to her removal and the establishment of a new queen. In natural colonies the typical queen is replaced every three to five years.”  

Replaced? No, killed. If a woman is killed every three to five years… Chip shuddered at the implication before reaching for the microphone. “ Sparks , get me the admiral.”

 

****

Lee slowly rose to consciousness but rather than open his eyes and alert his captors he remained still and listened. From somewhere near his feet he could hear a metallic scraping sound, and it reminded him, of all things, a dentist’s pick being run across a metal filling. The scraping eventually stopped and for a number of minutes it remained eerily quiet. Suddenly he felt something brush across his forehead and reflexively he opened his eyes and he found himself staring into the faces of three young women. One of them held a small sponge and when she touched it to his face he automatically tried to rise. He quickly learned that any significant movement was futile and as he looked down towards his feet he discovered why. A hardened shell of propolis now reached from his toes to his chest.  With his arms also covered practically to his biceps, he was locked in and totally unable to defend himself. His muscles were also cramping and he was miserably hot, his hair was practically soaked and rivulets of sweat had begun to form and roll down his neck.  He was also very thirsty. “Water, I need water,” he stated rather than pleaded. There was no response, nor any indication that the women had even heard him. “Who are you and what do you want with me?” He was again met with stony silence.

As the women continued their work mixing, packing and scraping the propolis, Lee studied them closely. All had dark hair but the most striking thing about them was their large eyes that appeared almost black in the dim light. They were very similar in appearance to a couple of the women whose bodies had been discovered in the Atlantic . In fact, they bore a striking resemblance to Chancey as she appeared in a photo that Chip had shown him just before he had departed Seaview. The exec had hoped Lee would recognize her, and dead or alive he would bring her home. Instead, here he was, trapped and useless.

Rather than continue down a path of regret Lee looked around for something to distract him until the admiral and his crew arrived. Tilting his head slightly, he caught sight of one of the holes used for ventilation of the tunnel. Ironically, he now had a perfect view of what the admiral had called the oldest and most advanced static ventilation system he had ever seen. He was still studying their craftsmanship when he heard a hissing sound coming from the direction of one of the vent holes. Almost immediately he detected a sickly sweet scent, and he wondered what its effects would be on all of them. Within a few minutes he had his answer. He began to feel more alert but unfortunately, it had the same effect on the women and they began to work feverishly.  When the silent workers began to apply propolis to his neck and upper chest Lee suddenly felt nauseous. Time for him was running out and he would be wide awake for it!

 

****Friday 0200 hours

 

Concluding that there would likely be less activity during the middle of the night, the admiral waited until then to launch his raid on the compound. He had put the time beforehand to good use by studying a number of new high resolution aerial photos, discussing with the psychologist how to best approach the children and arranging for a new EOD team to be assembled. After drilling with his men for several hours Nelson felt they were ready for practically anything. Unfortunately, all the plans in the world could not prepare him or his men for what they discovered as they searched the main house.  The three story building had all the appearances of the typical large farmhouse with living, dining, bath and kitchen areas on the first floor. The second floor contained semi-private sleeping quarters and a library and the third floor was wide open and obviously used as a dormitory. Every corner of the home was stylishly furnished and tidy. There was only one thing missing from the idyllic picture: people.

Concerned that the residents had been somehow tipped off to their arrival and had gone into hiding, the admiral ordered Patterson, Kowalski, Garza, and Riley to check the floor of the house for hidden passages while the he and Sharkey led another group of men to the equipment barn. With the fate of their captain foremost in their minds the men needed no encouragement to perform a thorough search but after moving every stick of furniture and turning over barrel and crate, they found no sign of a tunnel entrance and still no sign of any inhabitants.

The admiral signaled for the men to assemble next to a grove of huge oaks at the edge of the compound to discuss a possible next step. As they approached he noticed that the light of the half moon reflected off the buckles of their protective suits and it gave him an idea. “Sharkey, take one of the men and go get the J15. Rig it so it can be worked from a generator. Bring that extra spool of heavy duty wire and get back here fast. Kowalski, Patterson, Garza. I need you to help me build a frame. The rest of you men pull out five of those Mylar blankets from the emergency supply, and hurry it up.”

Using wire and thin strips of wood already on the property the men constructed a twenty foot wide concave frame on which they attached the space blankets. The parabolic reflector was then placed on the eastern edge of the compound facing west.  When Sharkey arrived with the J15 high intensity light source it was positioned in front of the bowl.  Before turning it on the admiral then waved the men over and spoke to them one more time. “I’m not certain what we’ll see once we light this place up, but be prepared for anything. So suit up and spread out.”

The admiral waited for his men to assume their positions before he reached down and cranked up the Gresham ’s generator.  He then donned his protective mask and plugged in the unit. As expected, practically the entire compound was illuminated as if it was daylight. Nelson then turned his back to the light source and pulled the stun gun from his holster and scanned the property. It took several minutes but the false sunrise created the desired effect when ten young women raced from the woods and headed directly towards him and his men. Just as they had practiced the men deployed smoke grenades that effectively surrounded the women then threw nets over them to prevent them from attacking. While most of the men remained to control the captives, the admiral, Sharkey and several of the ratings sought out the entrances to the underground tunnel system. With the benefit of light they easily found openings in two of the larger trees. After first tossing in several smoke grenades, Nelson and Kowalski entered one tunnel then Sharkey and Riley slipped into the second.

The race was on to find Lee Crane before it was too late.

 

****

When the silent women stopped their work and disappeared it gave Lee a glimmer of hope for rescue from his predicament. As he continued to fight for each and every breath he relived some of the moments of his life that meant most to him; when he got his first sailboat at the age of ten, his admission and eventual graduation from the Naval Academy, his middle weight boxing championship bout and his first submarine command. While all of those things had been had been huge at the time, their significance was dwarfed by being asked by Admiral Nelson to captain the Seaview. He smiled weakly as he recalled the first time he had boarded her as her commander. He had been worried that following the death of her first captain the crew might be distracted.  He had been proven wrong but had ruffled a few feathers among the crew. Since that time he had come to know and trust and understand each and every man. He couldn’t ask for a better crew or despite its risks, a better job.

Lee was still deep in his reverie when the women suddenly reappeared and once again set about their tasks. As two of them proceeded to polish his propolis shell the other reeled out a strip of duct tape and tore it off the roll. Lee saw the writing on the wall and shook his head violently but his efforts to stop the inevitable nearly caused him to pass out. When the tape was pressed across his eyes and he was plunged into total darkness he let out a desperate gasp. After a few more minutes he could feel and smell the resinous sludge as it was applied to the sides of his face. Once it covered his mouth and he could not shake it off he began to tremble. Soon the oily smell of the death mask overwhelmed him and he passed into black oblivion.

  

****

Though their bulky suits made the going difficult Seaview’s men could ill afford to be disabled by vaporous chemicals or smoke. Fortunately, after dispatching the human hive’s guards they met with little resistance and within minutes they located the undertaker’s chamber. When he saw a woman standing next to the large mold placing more propolis on a nearly completed specimen the admiral’s heart sank. “Lee!” he shouted as he pushed the workers aside. “Kowalski, help me get him out!”

Due to the President’s desire for security the rating had not been told that bodies had been located inside the gem-like specimens and he demonstrated his confusion. “Sir?”

Nelson began to pry away the material with his fingers. “The captain is in here! Go get something to break this thing open!”

Kowalski didn’t need to be told twice and within thirty seconds he returned with a six inch hook. By then Nelson had Lee’s face and neck exposed and was checking for a pulse. “He can’t inflate his lungs!” he shouted as he pulled harder at the casement. He then grabbed the hook from Kowalski and yanked at the section covering the captain’s chest. Though his actions drew blood, a large chunk came free.  He then jumped up on the mold and began to perform chest compressions. Oblivious to all around him or how much time had passed Nelson pumped and pumped and pumped. After nearly a minute he was finally rewarded by a quiet sputter, and then another. They were the most wonderful sounds he had ever heard.

 

**** Friday afternoon

 

When the admiral had called and reported that Lee and Chancey had both been found alive, Chip had been elated but as he stood next to Lee’s bed in the in the respiratory unit at Bethesda he felt somewhat lost. The captain had been exposed to numerous drugs, most of them inhaled. That in combination with his temporary lack of oxygen had weakened him considerably. Unfortunately, until he was weaned off the drugs and his blood tests indicated normal oxygen levels he couldn’t be thoroughly tested for brain function. The idea that his young and vital friend could potentially have debilitating brain damage was gut wrenching to him. In an attempt to banish his negative thoughts he looked out the window and thought back to some of their more pleasant youthful adventures. It only helped temporarily and with a sigh the blond turned to head back down the hall to the ICU where Chancey lay.

As he stared through the glass at the woman’s still figure he couldn’t help but worry about her and her future. The doctors had determined that, like Lee, she had been exposed to multiple drugs but it was for a longer period so it would take days to learn exactly what they were and to flush them from her system. Taking no chances that she was possibly a threat to herself or to others, she had also been placed in restraints. That fact had disturbed her parents so much that shortly after he had arrived they had left for parts unknown. Chip was glad to be alone with Chancey but he was frustrated that he could do nothing but wait. With a headache looming the blond leaned against the wall and pinched the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes. A hand on his arm snapped him back to reality. It was the admiral.

Nodding toward the patient Admiral Nelson updated his XO.  “We found her in a large chamber roughly forty feet beneath the main house. The design was practically identical to a bee’s brood chamber. They had large stores of food there and there were several very young children taking care of an infant and several toddlers. She seemed to pay no attention to the children and she acted oblivious to our presence. She didn’t even fight when she was taken out.”

“Just like the queen…she never attends to her children, and has no defenses of her own.  Her role is to produce heirs and chemically control the hive. 

Nelson nodded. “We found a central control board for the ventilation system. Someone had to sit there and turn the switches at the right time. Evidently the reason everything was underground was so that the entire group would receive the proper daily dose of control drugs.”

The two stood for several minutes before Chip asked a very difficult question.

“Admiral, is she pregnant?”

“It will be a couple of weeks until the doctors can perform the test.”

Chip slowly shook his head. “There’s something I still don’t get, Admiral.”

Nelson raised an eyebrow.

“How did these people, these humans, just start to act like bees? And how did Chancey get chosen?”  

The admiral cocked his head and rubbed his chin. “I’ve wondered all that myself. No psychosis I know of would explain it all. I sense definite human intervention but it’s going to take more time to figure things out. ”

 

**** Late Saturday afternoon

 

Friends and crew alike were relieved when after only twenty four hours Lee had made significant strides in his recovery. For several hours after first regained consciousness he could utter only low moans and grunts and that had his doctors very concerned. However, once he was fully hydrated he was able to form words and phrases that made sense and he recognized and acknowledged visitors. The dramatic improvement in his condition had made it easier for the admiral to leave for a meeting with John Hardy at the White House. After seeing the flag officer off, Chip got something to eat in the cafeteria then returned to his friend’s bedside. Lee was awake but anxious.

“Chip…when …I was …I saw a… woman…she looked like….I…knew her.”

The blond had been warned that Lee might have problems remembering recent events and he tried to be supportive. “You mean Chancey, Lee?  Remember, I showed you her picture before you left.”

Lee shook his head slowly and continued his slurred speech. “No. Not…Chancey. Other…woman… brown hair…eyes. 

Chip frowned. As far as he knew, practically every woman Lee had encountered recently shared those same physical traits. To refresh his friend’s memory the blond recounted the previous week’s events and listed the people he knew to be involved. Lee closed his eyes and strained to remember but soon became frustrated with himself.

“Can’t.”

“Don’t force it, Lee. It’ll come.”

Their discussion was interrupted by the arrival of Lee’s nurse. “I’m afraid I need to check on the commander,” she announced as she picked up Lee’s chart from its rack at the foot of the bed. “I’m going to have to ask you to step out.”

Chip did as requested but this time he didn’t head for the ICU. When Chancey had wakened she had been transferred to a different floor of the facility where the doctor’s could begin to treat her psychological wounds as well as see her through withdrawal from the drugs in her system. Since she was not being allowed visitors he would have to be satisfied with reports on her condition that would be relayed to him through the admiral. Without a destination he sought out a source of hot coffee and after twenty minutes he returned to Lee’s room to find the captain sitting up.

“Joan…Jen…Jeanne. That’s it, it’s Jeanne.  Her name… is… Jeanne. She had the maps”

Chip’s face brightened. “You mean the county clerk, Lee?”

Lee nodded. “Yes. Yes. That’s her, Jeanne. She was…there…Chip.”

Chip squinted and scrubbed his jaw.Jeanne. Jeanne. Where else have I seen that name?” he half whispered. After several minutes of digging through his own memories it finally came to him. “The files! It was in Chancey’s files!” While the admiral had been raiding the compound Chip had busied himself by sifting through boxes of Chancey’s and Kracov’s case files. A woman by the name of Jeanne had been listed as an associate of a man named James Ross, one of the prime suspects in the smuggling operation! 

He briefly explained his sudden revelation to Lee then after admonishing him to do as he was told he grabbed his cover and headed out the door. Lee was too weak to do much more than lay back and grin.  

 

**** Sunday

 

Albert Rice pretended to coax his sputtering Chesapeake deadrise towards the well-appointed private pier of the riverfront estate and a hundred yards short of his goal he let the engine die completely. As he picked up his tool box and stepped from the cabin he glanced out over the water and off in the distance he could see another workboat headed rapidly towards shore. Nodding to himself he lifted the engine cover and began to tinker, making it a point to create a lot of noise. For added effect, he reached down to the deck and lit a pile of dried pine needles on fire. Apparently noticing the smoke billowing from the fishing boat James Ross himself raced out onto the fancy pier, jumped into a motorboat and headed his way. When he arrived alongside, Rice thanked him, grabbed his mooring line and invited him aboard.

As the waterman discussed his plight with the Samaritan he made a half-hearted attempt to adjust the carburetor on his inboard motor. Out of the corner of his eye he watched as the other boat reached its destination and several armed men disembarked and quickly disappeared behind the house. Once the boat came about and moved away from shore, Rice pretended to flag it down and as his visitor turned to see what he was missing, Rice stumbled into him and the man fell into the water with a loud splash.

Expecting to be rescued the man reached out his hand but when Rice fired up his engine and proceeded to tow his boat away he realized he had been deceived. As he continued to tread water the furious man hurled threats and cursed at the retreating waterman but his crude words simply bounced off the ex soldier. When he looked back over his shoulder at the floundering man Rice broke into a wide grin.  

During the hubbub off shore the admiral and three crewmen had managed to locate the underground hiding place of Jeanne Harkin. Once they had marched her to the pier Rice easily looped his boat back around and picked up the entire group then carried them around the point to where the second boat now sat idling. He offloaded his passengers then with a wave to the pilot he was off again.

“Okay, Chip, take us back!” shouted Nelson from the stern deck.

“Aye, sir,” responded the blond as he spun the wheel and pointed the boat southward.

 

****

Hours of interrogation at a secluded military facility were necessary to loosen the lips of the woman now dubbed the “Alpha Queen” but after waiving her right to an attorney she had provide her keepers with many pieces to the puzzle. Her nearly six hour confession had been videotaped and several days later a copy had been sent by courier to the Seaview where the admiral had made it his priority to view it. He had just completed a call to John Hardy to discuss the contents when he heard a rap at his door.  At his summons Lee stuck his head inside. “You asked to see me, Admiral?”

Nelson stood and looked over the still recovering captain then waved him towards a chair. Lee slowly lowered himself into it and looked on expectantly. After pulling a cigarette from the pack on his desk and lighting it the flag officer sat back down and took a long drag. “I just finished watching the tape and I want to share what I learned from it and from Hardy with you. We still have a bit more to do to complete this mission.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I must admit it is quite an amazing story. At first everyone thought Miss Harkin was stringing them along with her colorful accounts of how her ancestors had stumbled on the small colony of bee like people and adopted their efficient lifestyle. But… she provided a complete history with dates and names. She has the alphabet agencies stumbling all over themselves trying to verify everything but what they found so far has been quite accurate.” 

“Though her name’s Harkin, I assume she’s a Gresham ?”

“She had her name changed long ago. As a county clerk she could manipulate all the records including the issuance of falsified birth certificates."

“And no one found her out until now. That’s what I find amazing.”

“Before this era of twenty-four hour television news it was easy for small communities to remain secret. Even if they weren’t hiding anything, news traveled slowly or not at all.  With all this modern technology around us we sometimes forget that. It does make it harder for them to hide.”

“Did she say what happened to the original people, the ones she claimed were living like bees?”

“She accused them of being too timid and weak to be allowed to survive so they were dealt with.”

“Dealt with?” 

“She avoided saying outright they were killed but gave them credit for developing the perfect sarcophagus. She bragged that all the drugs were her own great-great grandfather’s discovery. And before you ask, the colony eventually dealt with him too.”  

“How did the community sustain itself?”

“When they were younger each girl spent time doing nursery, cleaning and guard duty.  As they got older many went out into the world and held normal jobs and brought the money and supplies back to the colony. Others were builders, chemists, beekeepers and candle makers. A select few were the undertakers.”

Lee’s slight shiver didn’t go unnoticed.  

“Do you want to wait to talk about this, Lee?”

Lee waved his hand then sat up straighter.  “No, sir, I’m all right.  Did she say how they selected a queen?”

“In the early days they had some problems with their so-called colony morale and her genius great-great grandfather concluded it was due to inbreeding. They looked around for blue blooded girls for breeding stock and of course they found plenty around the bay in summer.”

“And what about men? As I understand it there are very few males in a colony.”

“They ensured some diversity by pairing the debutantes with their own young men and the Gresham girls with boys from outside. One night stands apparently, just like honeybees.”   

“What happened to the rest of the boys?”

“Adopted out as infants, as were a few of the girls. They placed them in what they deemed to be good families which turned out to mean those with money.  They built that huge house to impress social services so they would leave them alone allowing them to operate what amounted to a baby selling operation under the guise of a home for girls.”

“And Brantley Dorn…”

“That’s where it gets a tad complicated. Dorn’s father was also an attorney and shortly after World War II he was asked to handle a few private adoptions for some well-heeled clients.  It seems that word got around among the elite that he could provide babies and he and the Greshams entered into an informal contractual arrangement. Brantley Junior followed in his father’s footsteps but somewhere along the way he had a change of heart and he spent most of his last years trying to protect the adoptees from the Greshams . It seems that whenever they had trouble locating a new queen the colony would seek out former members for that role. Miss Colgate alluded to being followed in her letter to Chip.” Nelson paused to grind out what was left of his cigarette before continuing. “Unfortunately the Greshams saw to it that Dorn never had the opportunity to share what he knew with anyone except Miss Colgate. In her debriefing she provided details of her meeting with him where he came clean about the whole thing. It would certainly have been helpful if she had shared what she knew with someone other than Kracov her partner. Unfortunately he is still missing and presumed dead.”  

“So all of it, the children, weapons and the honey business were all about….”

“Money and greed, though I don’t think the initial colony had that intent. They only perverted the honeybee lifestyle, probably due to some type of mental illness, but the Greshams capitalized on it. If they had stuck with explosives smuggling they could possibly have continued for several decades.” 

Lee shook his head and ran a hand through his hair.

“Tired, Lee?”

The captain grinned. “A little, sir.”  

“I’m afraid the President has asked us to do one more thing to complete our mission.  It’s partly my fault. I suggested we could use those new sensors to track where the rest of the bodies might be, now that we know their point of origin. I’m arranging to have a new set built and brought here. We just need to warn the crew again to keep quiet about all this.”

“I’ll see to it, Admiral. On a different topic, I just spoke to Chip this morning. Chancey is due to be released today and he plans to be there to support her. He did mention that the congressman has been downright civil ever since they paid a visit to the Seaview.  He even asked him to Chancey’s homecoming dinner. I assume you had something to do with that?”

Nelson grinned. “Perhaps the congressman has finally seen the light.” He then stood and addressed Lee more formally. “All right, Captain, after you get a little more rest and after Will clears you for duty we’ll talk about ending this cruise.” 

The captain opened his mouth to object but the steely look on his CO’s face made him acquiesce. “Understood, sir.”   

 

****

As her blond companion looked on, Chancey Colgate stuck her nose up into the fresh air of her parent’s veranda and filled her lungs. “It’s so good to be home!”

“It’s good you are home. I was worried about you, Chance. Everyone was.”

Chancey nodded her head then after a few moments of silence she turned around and faced Chip. “I’m sorry I gave you so much to worry about. For a supposedly smart woman I made some really dumb mistakes.”

“We all do Chance,” he chuckled. “On a regular basis.”

“The biggest one was not confiding in you long ago,” she said as she grabbed his hand and held it in hers. “I regret that I chose the route I did. I didn’t want you to see me as weak or emotional and because I took the chicken way out a lot of people I care about were hurt.”

“Like it or not you had a duty to perform and keeping secrets comes with the package. You had no way of knowing who or what you were dealing with. Bizarre doesn’t come close to describing that community.”

Chancey frowned and let go of Chip’s hand.

“What’s wrong? What did I say?”

 

Chancey hesitated. “I am, and apparently always have been…a part of that community. How do you feel about that?”

The question hit Chip like a sledgehammer. Chancey was indeed tied to the colony by birth and in so many other ways and though the psychologists had assured everyone she posed no threat she would always carry the burden of being a Gresham . It was a burden he would never fully understand. “To be quite honest I’m going to have to work through my feelings. It would be an insult to pretend to know what you’re going through.  Just know I will be here if you need me. That’s really all I have to offer.”  

“I do want to continue my career but I’m afraid they won’t take me back. They won’t trust me.” 

Though he had substantial reservations about Chancey’s return to the world of cloak and dagger, he could never let on just how much, or why. He would not bust her bubble.  “From what I saw of your work you did a fantastic job. You put a stop to the smugglers.  They are serving search warrants all over the bay as we speak.” 

Chancey eyed him curiously. “Chip, do you trust me?”

“With my life! Now let’s go eat. I’m sure your parent’s are tired of waiting.”

Chancey led the way to the dining room and as Chip pulled the chair out to seat her Chancey pulled him close and whispered in his ear. “Thanks.” 

****

The sun was just peeking over the horizon when a small group of chattering teenage girls congregated on the dock and prepared to take their fifty foot sailboat out for a refreshing day on the water. It would be the last trip of the summer and since each had been accepted into a different college, the last time that they would see each other for a good while. As they packed up the last of their supplies none of the happy-go-lucky sailors took notice of the lone figure standing on the sand some one hundred feet from them…   

 

The End?

 

 

 

 

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