Trick or Treat
By Helen H.
Harriman Nelson stood at the window of his office gazing into space. Normally, the view of the crashing surf gave him either peace or inspiration. Today it was doing neither. All he was seeing was the message he’d received that morning; just a few sentences, but the information it contained was enough to make time for a very special meeting.
At any minute, his visitor would come striding into the office, the usual confident look on his face. The one that said, ‘all’s right with the world.’ A look destined to be quickly dashed. How do you tell someone their services are no longer required? What words do you use, what tone of voice? Moreover, knowing that you’re going to get a look of disbelief and dismay, how do you stand firm?
Turning, Nelson made the two quick strides back to his desk. He picked up the message form and ran his eyes over the page. The sentences were short and succinct. And devastatingly clear. There was no way it could be misconstrued. Was there any kind of out, any possible opening? No. After a further reading, he concluded there was not. He grunted and shook his head. Being the boss usually had its advantages; normally it fell to subordinates to be the bearer of bad news. In this case, however, he couldn’t foist the telling of this onto someone else. The request had been directed at him for a very good reason. It was his choice whether to say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ And he’d done it, knowing that it would mean great disappointment for someone else. Now it was time to pass along the result of that decision. He was, indeed, the boss. He’d do it. No matter how much he wished it hadn't come to this.
Nelson picked up his coffee mug, took a sip, and made a face. While he’d been standing there searching for an alternative the drink had grown tepid. Irritated, Nelson walked over and thumbed open his intercom.
"Can you bring in another pot of coffee?"
"I’ll get it right away, Admiral."
His secretary’s mechanical voice contained a false perkiness. No doubt that was a result of his irascibility, an emotion he hadn’t tried to conceal since the moment she’d handed him the morning traffic from the Comm Center with this message on top. It ensured his grumpy demeanor would be in place for the rest of the workday. Angie had taken one look at his face, checked his daily calendar for an opening and headed straight for the kitchen and the first of many cups of strong coffee.
The door opened to Angie, carafe in hand. She had chosen to wear a tailored suit in a cinnamon brown color today. The clothing emphasized her height and trim figure, and the color complemented her shiny brown hair. She was intelligent, competent, and damned easy on the eyes. Nelson knew that he was a lucky man, in more ways than one.
"Here ya go, sir," she said in her soft twang. "Want me to pour?" Her face was a bit more animated than usual. She had gotten very good at ignoring his bad temper.
He stuck the cup out and immediately drew it back, saying, "Sorry, I haven’t thrown this out yet."
"Then we’ll switch," his pretty secretary said, picking up another cup from the sideboard. "Although I don’t know that you need any more coffee, seeing as how you’re as nervous as a cat in a room of rocking chairs, sir."
Nelson looked at the dark-haired girl, his eyes thoughtful. "Is it that obvious?" He rubbed his free hand across his chin. "You know what’s coming, don’t you?"
"’Fraid I do. Knew it as soon as Robby brought everything in and I saw that one. Guess Chief Garnett wanted to make sure that Seaview would make it to port in time before he sent it. Cut it kinda close, though. So when-you-know-who gets here, I’m going to make sure your door is closed and my hands are over my ears."
Nelson winced. "Hopefully he won’t take the roof off the building." He drew a deep sigh. "It wouldn’t be sporting to ask Lee to slow her down a bit, would it? Bring her in a day late, for example?"
Angie ducked her chin and looked at him from the tops of her eyes. "Admiral Harriman Nelson, you know the answer to that, sir. She’s been gone four months, time to get the guys home to their families. Too many of ‘em looking forward to the big shindig, after all. No, there’s not a doggone thing you can do about it. It’ll be unexpected, but things like this happen sometimes, nuthin’ stays the same forever." She smiled sympathetically. "You’ll get through it, sir."
Nelson wagged his head slowly from side to side and put the coffee to his lips, blowing on it a bit first. "You have more faith in me than I do, Angie. Being in battle was a breeze compared to doing this."
Angie cocked her head and stared at her boss with affection as he resumed his stance in front of the window. Having worked for him for several years, she thought she knew him very well. The man she had originally come to work for hadn’t cared much about the feelings of others when it came to things that needed doing. He'd been all work and duty first. That he had chosen to deliver the bad news himself made her realize how different he’d become, and for the better. Of course, he could still get angry, what little patience he had disappearing, the bright blue eyes firing with indignation and fury. Lately, though, he was capable of very different emotions, something he took careful pains to conceal. That he had warmed to Lee Crane so quickly had come as a surprise, and though it, he had changed in his attitude toward so many other things, and especially, people. Now, he and Lee and Chip Morton formed an efficient team tempered with friendship and understanding. It was smooth sailing all around at NIMR these days.
Except for a day like this. "Anything else I can get for you, Admiral?"
"Other than a bullet-proof vest? No, I’m afraid not, Angie. Just let me know when he arrives. And then rig for battle stations."
"I’ll keep it in mind, sir." She picked up the used cup, crossed to the door and gently closed it behind her.
Nelson sipped his coffee, flinching a bit at its heat. But that’s the way he liked it. It could have stood a drop of whiskey, he thought. Maybe a tad ‘o liquid courage would help his mood at this point. Coward’s way out, though, he chastised himself.
The intercom buzzed. He stiffened for an instant, then walked back to the desk. He sat the mug down and answered.
"You have a visitor, sir."
Mentally steeling himself with a deep steadying breath, Nelson said, "Thank you. Please send him in."
The door swung open and in walked Chief Jones, "Curley" to his friends, a nickname that had stuck to him since the last bits of his never very abundant head of hair had made their final forlorn appearance around the ripe old age of 30. Curley had accepted the sobriquet with good grace and very little complaining. Now on the far side of middle age, his shiny dome was well known to the crewmembers of Seaview.
His stomach had preceded him, of course; he wore his naturally padded poundage as a lesson to all sailors who had been at sea as long as Curley had; ‘good Navy beef,’ he would say as he patted the front of his tightly stretched khaki shirt. He had put off his retirement and the prospect of relaxing on the stoop of his Bay Ridge home to accept Nelson’s invitation to join Seaview’s plank owners. He had never regretted it. When he wasn’t yelling at some recalcitrant sailor aboard the submarine or supervising some needed repairs, the chief’s jolly face was usually screwed up in a squint-eyed smile. He was definitely smiling now.
"Thanks for coming, Curley. Uh, feeling okay? Everything going well?"
The chief’s rotund stomach jiggled as he laughingly said, "Right as rain, Admiral. ‘Cept I’ll sure be glad to see the boat back in. I miss ‘er when I’m on the beach, sir. I mean, I know that Garnett and the others can handle Seaview, but it’s tough knowin’ I’m not there keepin’ an eye on everybody. And I tell ya, Admiral, there better not be anythin’ messed up. Heads will roll if there’s as much as a scratch that wasn’t there before! Those boyos won’t know what happened to ‘em." He pursed his rubbery lips for a moment, and then added with a chuckle, "’Course, I stayed busy getting ready for the fun." Curley rubbed his beefy hands together, his big red cheeks deepening in color. "Halloween! One’a my favorite times of the year! Don’t tell anybody," he said, lowering his voice in a stage whisper, "but I always feel like a big kid again at Halloween. Sure do enjoy the party we have for the families. It’s a great thing that you do, sir, hostin’ every year. I know the kiddos get a big kick out of it. Think their parents do, too. And me, I probably get the biggest kick of all." He flashed Nelson another large grin.
Nelson took a moment to scrub a hand through his hair. "Yes, I know that you probably do, Chief. Everyone has a good time. At the party, that is. Day after tomorrow. Right. A good time is always had by all." Nelson took a deep breath. "Hmmmmm. I need to talk to you about the party, actually. Uh, can I get you some coffee? And please," he said, indicating the closest chair, "sit down, make yourself comfortable."
Curley eased his substantial bulk into the comfortable seat in front of the desk. "I wouldn’t say no, sir."
Nelson busied himself with the carafe and a cup. Filling it almost to the brim, he handed it to Curley and let him take a few tentative sips. The chief smacked his lips in satisfaction.
"Angie does make a good cup o’ java, that’s for sure, sir. Almost better than our Cookie’s. Definitely better than the bilge water on the Razorback. I remember one time aboard her we needed some lubricant for a bearing that had gone bad. All’s we did was mix some of the galley’s day-old coffee with a bit of bearing oil and it fixed ‘er right up. Another time...."
Nelson let him ramble on, nodding abstractedly every few sentences. Listen to Curley reminiscence was far better than imparting the news that he had to give to the man. He waited, hoping to find the right opening.
"I’m sure you didn’t call me down here to drink your coffee for you, Admiral. What can I do you for today?"
Nelson put down his cup and faced him squarely, hands on hips.
"Actually, it’s the party that I wanted to see you about, Chief. I know how much you look forward to this every year. Everyone appreciates the great job you do, dressing up, entertaining the children, but..." His voice faltered as Curley’s brows furrowed together. "But, well, something’s come up. Chief Garnett has requested the, um, special assignment, and on reflection I’m going to allow it." He swept his arm towards his desk. "I just got his message this morning, and he’s given several good reasons, and I just couldn’t find anything wrong with any of it." Much as I tried, Nelson thought to himself. "So -- you’re out as the Great Pumpkin for the Halloween party."
Nelson finished up with a rush and waited for the explosion. Curley Jones’s temper was almost as bad as his own, and he braced for the words that were sure to come.
Instead, Curley took another big drink from his coffee cup, and to Nelson’s great surprise, winked.
"That’s alright, sir. I already knew about Joe Garnett’s request. Knew he was gonna wait until the last minute, too, to make sure the boat was back on time." He was suddenly all business. "I’ll start getting’ the dock ready for Seaview’s return, with your permission, of course, sir."
Automatically, Nelson said, "Permission granted. Wait... you...." Nelson was completely overwhelmed. "You... knew?"
"Yes, sir. He’d talked to me about it before they shipped out. He mentioned that his kids wanted him to do somethin’ special this year, ‘cause they’re old enough now to understand about costumes and trick or treatin’ and all. So he figured that dressin’ up as a giant pumpkin would tickle ‘em to death. Not that he is gonna hold a candle to my pumpkin of course," Curley, said, patting his wide stomach. "I admit I was kinda disappointed, but he does have an awful good reason, sir. And it is just for this one time. So I told him to go ahead and ask you, that I was okay with it. And I am, sir, honest and all. Already got some tricks up my sleeve for somethin’ funny I can do for the kiddos. I’m not feeling bad about it at all, Admiral. But I thank you for telling me personal like."
Nelson fixed him with an icy stare. "So as soon as I said ‘party," you knew what was coming."
"Well, I had a pretty good idea, yes, sir," Curley said with only a hint of chagrin.
"And let me go on with my speech."
"You no doubt enjoyed seeing me hem and haw and squirm my way through it, Chief Jones," Nelson blustered.
"Now, you are wounding me, you sure enough are, Admiral, sir."
"Well, maybe I enjoyed it just a little bit, sir." Curley rubbed his work worn fist over his face, peeking through his fingers. His mouth crinkled up into a smile.
"Your insubordination has been duly noted, Chief." Admiral Nelson replied tetchily. The nerve of the man! Letting him go on and on! Then he remembered with relief that the outcome of this interview could have been a good deal more painful. "In deference to your long years of service, I’ll overlook it this time."
Curley snapped smartly to attention and bellowed, "Yes, sir, Admiral, sir! I promise I won’t do it again, sir!" The "apology" came with an enormous wink and a grin.
"Don’t you have some lowly seaman to tell off somewhere, Chief Jones?"
"I’m sure I can find one, sir!"
"Very well. Dismissed!"
"Aye, aye, Admiral!"
Curley turned on a heel and marched quickly to the door with only a snatched glance at the man now seated at his desk. He had great liking and respect for his boss. No doubt, the admiral would exact a small revenge from him for what he’d been put through, but Nelson was a fair man. After all, it was the season for trick and treating.