With All Good Grace

by Helen H. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Harriman Nelson kept the smile fixed on his face until the door closed, and then with one swift movement made to slam the folder in his hands onto the table in front of him. Angie hunched her shoulders, waiting for the explosion. He caught her reaction with his acute peripheral vision and with a huff of breath, changed his mind and set it down softly instead.

 

"Well, so much for that recommendation." Nelson reached for his cup and studied the cooling remnants of his third coffee of the morning. "The Navy Department has a lot to answer for, by God. I thought I had made it clear that semi-beached relics weren’t to be sent to me," he fumed. "I need a young man for this job, not some geriatric specimen counting the days until retirement! Just because some men have a few years on the record … like John Phillips," he looked up and gave his secretary a sidelong glance, "and I am well aware some might be foolish enough to count myself among that number, that doesn’t mean that the XO needs to be of the same vintage."

 

His secretary swallowed, gulping down her laughter. Admiral Harriman Nelson was definitely not a geriatric specimen; having seen him in action, Angie Williams knew he had the vitality and drive of someone much younger. Besides, he was an admiral; you don’t get to be one of those without the energy to stay one step ahead of everyone else.

 

She should have remembered that nothing escaped him. Raising an eyebrow, he growled, "And just what are you thinking, Miss Williams? That I am some incipient old fogey that ought to be retired for good, too?"

 

Angie flushed, sorry she’d been caught at something she hadn’t really done. Opening up her honey-colored eyes as wide as she could, she replied loftily, "Hardly, Admiral! Whatever gave you that idea?"

 

His lips twitched but he didn’t say anything, and inwardly Angie swiped a hand across her forehead. It had seemed for a while that one obstacle after another had been thrown in the way of interviewing anybody for the executive officer’s position, let alone these men. Angie knew Nelson believed some behind the scenes maneuvering had taken place, and his irascibility grew worse as time went by and the ‘right one’ hadn’t shown up yet. If someone wasn’t found soon, the submarine’s sea trials would have to be postponed, and she didn’t want to be anywhere around when that phone call took place. They were down to the last four -- no, five -- interviews, the last five men left in the Navy, she was sure. After that, she thought wryly, they’d have to start calling the Merchant Marine.

 

Nelson abruptly rose up from the table and stepped over to the window, brooding. This particular conference room overlooked the south beach, the sand and small cliffs meandering towards Goleta. Around the closest curve and hidden from view was the remnants of the Hill/Ortega homestead, now sadly lost to fire. Memories of his time at the house flooded back, and he idly touched his head, remembering how his curiosity had almost gotten him killed. He brought his thoughts back to the present and the sight of the Pacific Ocean rolling inexorably onto the California shore, the breaking green waves sparkling diamond-like under the glare of a cloudless sky. A half dozen seagulls picked their way along the sand, carefully avoiding the incoming tide as it rushed towards their feet. The tempered glass kept the sound to a minimum, but it was there, the restless, unceasing rumble of the sea.

 

Four unsatisfying interviews in as many days. This last one had been endorsed by some of the biggest brass in Washington. There was no doubt about their qualifications; they were all outstanding naval officers, with prestigious Pentagon and Fleet assignments in their service histories. Evaluations that were 4.0 across the board. Academically they had graduated at or near the top of their classes at Annapolis and gone on to advanced degrees at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey and other universities, including a couple of Oxford fellowships. And of course all had experience on nuclear submarines; although Seaview could hardly be classified under that specific heading, since she was unlike anything they had ever seen before.

 

Four interviews and not one that he wanted aboard ‘his’ boat, as executive officer. But was that true? Did he just not want to approve of any of them because of the man he was to meet with tomorrow?

 

"Maybe I ought to join the parade of seagulls down there," he said, feeling nettled. "The fresh air would no doubt do me some good and keep me from threatening to throttle someone," he barked.

 

Angie filled his coffee cup with hot, strong java. "As long as you’re just threatening, sir, it’ll be okay."

 

Nelson spun around, gaping, and then was taken up by the look of delight on her face. "Miss Williams, you are in rare form today."

 

They grinned at each other like mischievous schoolmates. Nelson had come to realize how lucky he was to have such a secretary; Angie had learned how to treat this man when he was touchy and irritable. She had joined Nelson’s staff as his private secretary before the gates had officially opened at the Nelson Institute of Marine Research in Santa Barbara, California. She carried her good looks on a long-limbed and thin-waisted frame. Her chestnut hair was combed back from her forehead and hugged the sides of her head, cut to just below the ears. High cheekbones defined her face. Her brown eyes carried more than a hint of worldly wisdom in them, even if she was only in her mid-twenties, and yet they could sparkle with a sense of fun. She settled in and smoothed the skirt of her dress. The pretty floral crepe du chine shirtwaist fit her to perfection, showing off her curves while managing at the same time to be respectable.

 

Rubbing his hands together, he returned to the table and sat down. "Let’s recap, shall we? I need to get this all straight in my mind."

 

Angie reached for her steno pad, crossed her legs over shapely ankles and waited for his first words.

 

"Let’s see," he began, picking up the first file. "Lieutenant Commander Donald Ericson. Annapolis ’52. NPS ’60. Academy Instructor, fleet commander staff at Pearl, XO on the Grayback - knows something about missiles, then. Now he's decided he wants to switch over to the civilian navy and conduct research missions," he said with a thoughtful smile. To the world, she would have that reputation; the people designing Seaview knew better.

 

Ericson had come off well in his interview, answering Nelson’s questions forthrightly and not being afraid to give a few ‘I’d have to think about that one a bit more, Admiral’ answers. His education and knowledge were at the top end of the scale. Nelson thumbed the page. "Seems like a good man, well spoken and articulate." Still, it was obvious he was unsatisfied.

 

"And easy on the eyes, Admiral," Angie said.

 

Startled, Nelson blinked several times and then chuckled. Her face was blankly innocent. "I didn’t know that is a prerequisite for service aboard Seaview, Miss Williams."

 

"Of course not, sir," she said somberly. Then her mouth curved up in a mischievous grin. "But it should be."

 

Nelson harrumphed and succeeded in keeping a serious look on his face, but the life in his eyes betrayed his amusement. "Make a note: Miss Angela Williams intends that only handsome men be allowed to serve aboard nuclear submarines."

 

"Oh, I wouldn’t go quite that far, sir," Angie retorted in her soft southern drawl. "But it sure wouldn’t hurt our PR efforts one bit. Commander Ericson would look really good standing up before a congressional committee with that fine head of hair he has."

 

Nelson lowered his chin and stared out of the tops of his eyes at her. "I shall keep it in mind as a condition for future employment," he intoned grandly as Angie hid her smile with her notebook. "Back to more serious matters. Our latest candidate, Commander Kenny is, shall we say, a little overqualified. Use that word, not ‘too old,’ if you don’t mind. Why the Pentagon thinks that I require someone in my executive officer position that’s a contemporary of Methuselah, I cannot imagine. He’s definitely a competent officer; his reference letters and CV indicate that. But I need someone that’s more than one assignment away from retirement and looking for a billet that merely extends his sea life!" Restlessly, he pushed the file away. He stared at her for several moments, and then said softly, "Am I being too particular in this, Angie?"

 

"Definitely not, sir. Not at all. Seaview is too important for that." She knew, however, that he was trying very hard to find something not to like about the men who had come for these interviews. She had started to wonder what he was waiting for.

 

"Your concurrence is appreciated," he said, and his smile widened a bit.

 

"I aim to please, sir."

 

While he was in this semi-good mood, Angie debated bringing up a subject she’d been nursing for a while. There was something ‘off’ in this process. Deciding to take the plunge, even if it meant she’d get her head bitten off, she asked, "Sir, won’t Captain Phillips expect to have some say in all this?"

 

Nelson stretched back in his chair to ease bunched muscles. "Captain Phillips is still finishing up his assignment in Washington." His tone held an amount of exasperation. "Until he can tear himself away, I’m going to exercise my executive rights and come up with a short list; a very short list, I hope, to present to him in the next few days. He and his cronies are just going to have to accept my choice. And it will be my choice."

 

Angie’s brows knit together. "Cronies, Admiral?"

 

"Damn, I shouldn’t have said that," Nelson blurted, and then caught the shocked look on Angie’s face. "And I shouldn’t have said that, either. You are my private secretary, and my trust in you is explicit. I’m just used to keeping secrets, lass," he admitted with simple directness. "The fact is, to get what I wanted in other places, I was ‘encouraged’ to accept John Phillips for the job of CO. Bluntly put, he’s my watchdog. Now, that isn’t to say he can’t do the job." Nelson emphasized the point with a finger jab at the desktop. "But I would have preferred my own man in the position. Someone like Lee Crane," he added quietly. "But what’s done is done." Rousing himself, he picked up his coffee cup and took a sip. "Well, where were we?"

 

The words he’d blurted out had surprised her but she brushed the thought aside for more important matters. "Done discussing Ericson and Kenny, sir?" Nelson nodded. "That leaves Malkowski and O’Bannon."

 

The pair spent the next hour going over each candidate, Nelson weighing the pros and cons of each officer, Angie taking it all down in her flawless shorthand and throwing in an occasional comment; she was a shrewd judge of character for one so young. Nelson had told her that it was the exec’s responsibility, not the captain’s, to ensure that the officers and men of the good ship Seaview exhibited the dedication to duty required from the crew of the most technologically advanced ship in the world. And as she listened to his comments on the interviews, she knew that each one was missing that little ‘something’ that Seaview’s builder was looking for, the spark that would bring this new and untested crew together.

 

Finally, with a distinct air of disillusionment, Nelson laid the last file aside. Angie snapped her steno pad closed at the same time.

 

"I’m leaving a little early, sir, don’t forget. I’m going to the cemetery."

 

"Oh, yes, of course. At least we have only the one appointment tomorrow. I would have liked to get all this behind us and be done with it, but it couldn’t be helped." He ran a hand through already unruly hair. "The man was overseeing quals and I dislike taking someone away from that; especially since his superiors are extremely unhappy that I even put in the request to interview him." Nelson let the image of the consternation that had caused in Navy Department circles filter through his brain, amusing him. "I need to make a decision and make it known to The Powers That Be on Monday." His brow creased in thought. "We can’t wait any longer, Angie. I’ve got to have someone on board as soon as possible." Staring past her shoulder, Nelson said absently, "The right one is out there."

 

"Understood, sir." Angie sat back, waiting for him to go on. But he didn’t. When the admiral had that look on his face, no more talk was forthcoming; he was working something out, and that was that. Scraping her chair back, she stood up and dropped her notebook into her briefcase. "I’ll see you in the morning, then, Admiral. Have a good evening."

 

"Thank you, lass. Have one of the girls bring in more coffee, would you?"

 

"Of course, sir."

 

Rising, she stepped to the door and pulled it closed behind her. Her high heels tapped against the polished linoleum floor as she walked rapidly to her office. She laid the briefcase on the desk, pulled her keys, purse and gloves from the top drawer, then slipped out of the office and locked it. A few more steps brought her to the large office at the end of the hall and the secretarial pool. There were three women working here, fingers flying over the keys of electric typewriters. Angie stopped at the first desk.

 

"Patty, would you take more coffee in to the Admiral, please. I’m leaving for the day, I’ll see you tom--"

 

"Oh, do I have to?" Patty Parker’s round little face suffused with alarm. For the younger secretaries, the admiral was a source of trepidation and fear.

 

Angie stared back, lips thinning. "He just wants a cup of coffee. The man won’t bite, Patty."

 

"I’m not so sure about that," Patty offered plaintively.

 

Angie smiled and shook her head. "He’s a big pussycat when you get to know him," she responded as she put her fingers into her soft leather gloves.

 

"Maybe to you, Miss Williams, but I sure know when he’s not happy about something, and he’s not been very happy lately. I’ll get him his coffee," she said, slowly getting up from her chair, as if hesitating would get her a reprieve from the governor.

 

"Just fill a carafe and put it in the middle of the table. With any luck, he’ll be over by the window and won’t even notice you’re there."

 

"Yes, ma’am. I hope you’re right."

 

"See you tomorrow, then."

 

Angie settled her purse over her arm and headed for her car. Admiral Nelson expected his staff to hold to the same high standards he set for himself. Anything less was unacceptable. As long as you did your best, he was satisfied. Patty and the rest of the secretaries would learn this in time.

 

Settling into the shiny new Chevrolet she pulled out of the parking lot and headed for the cemetery and a near-by florist’s shop.

 

* * * * *

 

Nelson shuffled the pile of dark blue folders, idly drumming his fingers on the topmost, and thought about the men whose military lives were described within their pages. They were outstanding naval officers, well qualified to be XO of Seaview. What they weren’t was more difficult to define and yet it was the most crucial requirement of all. To find ‘the one,’ as much as it went against his grain, he’d listened to the suggestions and well-meaning advice he’d been given, and then waited patiently -- not easy for him -- while a host of possible candidates were trotted out. The hardest task had been to overcome the ‘you’ll get him over my dead body’ threats. He had persevered, and tomorrow would see the result of his labors: an interview with the one he really wanted. He had followed the man’s career since the Academy, known when he’d changed billets and stepped up in responsibilities. There had been some discreet phone calls, to settle some points in his mind and gather recommendations. The final call had been to someone who had also known the candidate since Annapolis; someone who had become his roommate, fellow officer and eventually his closest friend. Based on that call, he was sure he’d found the man he wanted as Seaview’s exec; a face to face meeting would provide confirmation. Then it would be up to the young man to decide both their futures.

 

If he couldn’t get Lee Crane, he’d damn well get the next best thing.

 

* * * * *

 

The grounds of Santa Barbara Cemetery inclined gently, the acres of grass broken up here and there by tall palms and cypress trees, many gnarled and bent over from a losing battle against the wind sweeping across from the ocean just yards away. The cemetery had been in this location for a long while, ever since Protestant city leaders decided their departed loved ones deserved a resting place just as tranquil as the grounds of Mission Santa Barbara. Angie enjoyed her trips here. Rather than feeling morbid and sad, the open spaces and stunning views of the Pacific Ocean gave her a renewed faith in nature’s majesty. Thus the trek to the cemetery embarked upon every couple of months was never a chore, but something rather welcome, where she could honor her aunt’s wishes and gain a little quiet, contemplative time for herself. Lord knew that all the hustle and bustle at the Institute lately, with the submarine almost ready to be christened and the admiral on pins and needles to get someone in place for the executive officer position, had left everyone in a state of extreme tension. Here, she could shake it off and feel all right with the world again. After she’d paid her respects to her aunt’s favorite actor.

 

As she approached the plot, its tall gravestone standing out amongst its surroundings, she was surprised to see someone already there, rising up from having bent down. She wondered for a moment why that was, and then realized he had placed a vase of flowers upon the grass. The man was dressed in a light summer suit, and she definitely liked the way his body filled out the shoulders and the chest of the coat. She could not quite see his face under the grey fedora, but she had already guessed he was a younger man, as he stood tall and upright on the spot, with legs slightly apart -- almost as if he was at sea, she thought with a spark of recognition at a sailor's casual stance. That was how the men who came to visit Admiral Nelson stood, men who spent much of their time on naval vessels, rolling with the ocean's constant restlessness.

 

At the moment he was head down, probably reading the inscription on the monument. She knew it by heart; it was taken from Prospero’s speech from Act IV of The Tempest, in which he begins to understand that his magic is fading, and that a simpler life lies before him:

 

Our revels now are ended.

These our actors.

As I foretold you,

Were all spirits.

And are melted into air,

Into thin air.

We are such stuff

As dreams are made on,

And our little life

Is rounded with a sleep.

 

The monument had been commissioned for Ronald Colman and placed here upon his death in 1958. The talented English star of Lost Horizon, A Tale of Two Cities and Random Harvest --- Aunt Molly’s favorite -- was buried at Santa Barbara Cemetery. Since her aunt’s arthritis kept her from making the pilgrimage her niece had taken up the task, reluctantly at first, and then with increasing willingness as she realized how comforting the time away from daily cares and stresses had become. Mr. Colman may not have held too much fascination for a 24-year old (her tastes ran more towards the Paul Newmans of the movie world), but the thing she did admire was the man’s voice; only Admiral Harriman Nelson came close to what her aunt described as "talking from heaven." A voice, Angie thought, that sent shivers down your spine, imbued as it was with resonance and authority. Even when he was angry or crabby, which he was a lot lately, the admiral’s deep, melodious voice was something to listen to.

 

So here she was, with her tiny bouquet of roses ready to decorate the grave site. And this man had beaten her to it; and with a bigger bouquet. Angie felt a stab of indignation. This was her job! She stopped walking and stood still, not wanting to get any closer. She’d wait until he left. She didn’t hesitate to study him, though, observing with growing attraction the tall leanness of his body and the sharp angle of his jaw line. The long fingers. She liked long fingers on a man. The burst of resentment she’d felt upon first sight was almost gone when he did something that removed it forever.

 

Stepping back, the stranger touched the brim of his hat and inclined his head in a soft tribute. To her utter shock and amazement, the simple gesture brought tears to her eyes. The twinge of jealousy vanished.

 

A gentleman, Angie thought to herself. A true gentleman.

 

He looked up then and caught her staring at him. A brilliant grin split his face like a sunburst, the white of his teeth starkly lit in the tanned skin.

 

"Good afternoon," he said.

 

"Good afternoon," she responded, after a moment. It had taken her that long to catch her breath. Angie decided in an instant that here was someone she could learn to like easily, with a keen, intelligent face that displayed a friendly self-assurance. He was also very handsome. She couldn’t place the accent; it certainly wasn’t southern.

 

"Are you a fan of Mr. Colman?"

 

"Just a bit of one," Angie responded. "I come here for my aunt. He was her favorite Hollywood actor." She started forward. "Can I add mine to yours?" He gestured with his hand, and she knelt and pushed the rose stems into the vase. "Your flowers are lovely."

 

"Commissioned by my mother. She and your aunt would get along just fine. When she found out that Ronald Colman was buried here in Santa Barbara, and I was coming out, she made me promise to pay her respects."

 

He had taken off the hat, and now she could see fully the light blonde hair and blue eyes, eyes that were looking at her with frank appraisal and welcome. "Just visiting for a while?"

 

"A short while, yes."

 

"Are you from back east? I can never tell, unless it’s somebody from my neck of the woods, or somebody from New England," she gushed, feeling foolish but at the same time wanting to know more.

 

"I’m originally from the Midwest, but I’ve been working back east for a while. In Connecticut, actually."

 

He seemed disinclined to say any more, and Angie didn’t press. She had toned down her natural inquisitiveness since beginning work at NIMR and it had become second nature to her.

 

"Well, enjoy your visit. Santa Barbara is a beautiful place."

 

"It is indeed. Good afternoon, miss."

 

He raised his hat to her as he placed it back onto his head, and Angie’s heart melted. She watched him walk to the parking lot, get into a dark sedan and drive away. Annoyed, she made a beeline for the closest bench and sat down. To think she’d never see him again! And so good looking! Her Arkansas accent burst forth, and she said out loud, "Why couldn’t we’of met at the Biltmore, or at El Paseo, doggone it! Where are these boys all hidin’ when I’m out and about, not deliverin’ flowers to a cemetery!"

 

There would be no answer to that. Gathering up her gloves and her purse, Angie trudged back to her car. There was one more day in the week; maybe by some miracle, she’d be lucky enough to run into him. A girl could hope.

 

* * * * *

 

He was taking deep, steadying breaths, going over everything he could think of that Admiral Nelson might ask him, when he came around a corner on the twisting road and had to slam on his brakes. The eyes of the older man who was standing by the hood of the Impala got very, very big as the rental car shuddered to a halt only a few feet away.

 

He rapidly took in the situation. The man was in his shirtsleeves, and had just picked up the tire iron. The car was already up on the jack. One more look, and it was obvious the left front tire was flat. There was someone leaning against the trunk, a woman, who stood upright at the sight of his vehicle.

 

He opened the door and exited in one lithe movement. "Looks like you’ve got some trouble. Can I help?"

 

"Young man, you’re a sight for some eyes," the older man said. "I haven’t changed a tire in twenty years, and was sure not looking forward to doing this one. We haven’t seen hide nor hair of another car!"

 

He looked down at his spotless khaki uniform, newly purchased. "Don’t know how much traffic is on this road normally, but we could wait a few more minutes, or I could go for help ...." the words trailed off as the woman leaned forward and put one hand on the trunk and the other to her head. "Ma’am, are you not feeling well?"

 

"Alice!" The driver of the car, who he assumed was the woman’s husband, threw the tire iron down and moved to his wife’s side. "Honey, what’s wrong?"

 

"Just feeling a little dizzy, John, must be the heat. I ... need ... to ... sit ... down."

 

"Can you make it over here? It’ll be more comfortable while I change the tire."

 

"Your smart uniform will get all dirty ...."

 

"It’s alright, ma’am. I’ll be as careful as I can. My name’s Chip Morton, by the way," he said as he held his car door open.

 

"I’m John Fletcher and this is my wife, Alice." Fletcher took a handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped his palms, then escorted his wife over to Chip’s car and handed her in. "We’ve never been here before. Looked like this road would lead us to the beach, and then we saw the Nelson Institute signs that basically said "keep out," and went to turn around. Obviously ran over something. Never thought anything like this would happen. We’ve just retired from a school system in New Mexico, figured a little trip to California would be a good idea," he said ruefully.

 

"It was a good idea," Alice retorted from inside the car. "This is just a momentary setback, John, we'll be alright now."

 

"It’ll be done in no time, sir." Taking off his jacket and laying it across the front seat, Chip unbuttoned his cuffs and rolled up the sleeves, and then picked up the tire iron. "I hope you have a good spare?"

 

"Yep, made sure of that before we started out from Albuquerque."

 

"Alright, then." Taking a deep breath, Chip squatted down. "This won’t take long."

 

"Were you on your way down there? Do you work at this Nelson Institute of Marine Research?" John Fletcher asked as he watched Chip's nimble fingers begin the task of changing the tire.

 

"No, just going in for a job interview." Just!

 

"Well, since that’s a Navy uniform, I doubt very much if you’re looking for a job in the Motor Pool."

 

Chip laughed and replied, "Not quite, Mr. Fletcher."

 

"Based on what I’m seeing, they’d be crazy not to hire someone who’s as willing to pitch in as you are."

 

Grunting a bit as he picked up the tire, Chip said, "I hope you’re right, sir."

 

Fifteen minutes or so later, the old tire was off and the new tire on. Mrs. Fletcher was walked back to their car and John Fletcher made to reach for his wallet, but Chip wouldn’t hear of it. With a wave amid cries of ‘thank you so much’ they were on their way.

 

Chip waited until they were out of sight before he inspected his uniform. There were streaks of ground-in dust and pebbles on the knees of his pants where he’d knelt on the asphalt. The immaculate white shirt now had two parallel lines of grease where he’d had to hold the tire against himself to get a better grip. He sighed as he used his handkerchief to wipe as much of the dirt and grime off his hands as he could, and got back into his rented car.

 

Leaning his head back against the top of the seat, Chip blew out the air in his cheeks. So much for giving himself a good margin of time to get to the Institute. He’d be at least ten minutes late now. He knew how much this visit had cost him with his superiors back at New London; he’d have a lot to answer for, if it had all been for nothing.

 

Throwing the car into gear, he stepped on the gas, hoping that the famous Nelson temper -- talked about from Annapolis to the Pentagon -- would subside long enough to give him a chance to explain.

 

* * * * *

 

"Where the hell is he, Angie?" Nelson irritably broke out. Angie flinched but didn’t answer. "Sorry, pardon my French, I know it’s not your fault. I’m just a little ticked off by the situation."

 

A little? You’ve been ranting for ten minutes. "No problem, sir, I understand. I hope nothing’s happened," she said anxiously.

 

"Chip Morton had better hope something’s happened," Nelson retorted, his face growing redder. This would be the final straw. How could he be let down like this? What else did he have to do to get a man for Seaview?

 

Chip? What kind of name is that? "Must be some kind of nickname," she said softly as she left the admiral in the conference room fuming and pacing and stepped out into the hallway. Of all the times for trouble.

 

The door from the reception area flew open, and Patty stepped in, accompanied by what in a moment became a recognizable figure. The woman pointed at Angie standing at the end of the hall, and went back through the door as the man walked rapidly in her direction.

 

"It’s you -- I saw you yesterday at the cemetery!" On impulse Angie held out both hands to him as if she was greeting a friend. "And you’re …." she hesitated as comprehension dawned. She looked him up and down, taking in the stained uniform. "Well, looks like you’re going to have some kind of excuse, anyway."

 

After a moment’s hesitation, for he was as startled as she was, he took her hands in his and pressed softly. His surprise and then pleasure was as genuine as her own. "I’ve got one. An explanation, that is, not an excuse."

 

Cheeks flaming, for it had been a bold thing to do, Angie pulled her hands back. "Alright, then. Oh, lord, wait." She pulled a tissue out of her pocket and rubbed a spot on his cheek. "Can’t imagine what you were doing, but that spot of grease just had to come off." She squared her shoulders and reached for the doorknob, then stopped, eyes wide. "You are Lieutenant Commander Morton, aren’t you? Chip Morton?"

 

"Guilty as charged, Miss--"

 

"Williams, Angie Williams. I’d shake hands again but that’s quite enough of that, plus I don’t think we should waste another second. He’s just a trifle upset at the moment," she said, pulling a face. "If he doesn’t throw you out in the first 30 seconds, we’ll catch up later." Opening the door, Angie announced, "Lieutenant Commander Morton is here, sir."

 

Turning from the window, Nelson roared, "You better have a good reason for keeping me waiting, mister!"

 

Angie indicated he should go first, and Morton made for the head of the table while she slipped into her seat and picked up her shorthand book. He looked determined, and Angie thought that here was someone who would not back down from anything, even when a red-in-the-face superior officer was glowering at him. As for the PR Department, they would be very, very happy, too. Deep in her heart though, lurked a sliver of disappointment. If he did come to work at the Institute, there would be no getting any closer to him for her. It had been a strict rule from the beginning of her career that dating any of the men that worked where she worked was out of the question.

 

Heaving a big sigh, Angie listened to his explanation, while Nelson folded his arms and glared at the young naval officer.

 

"I do, sir. About a mile from the turn-off I came across a couple stuck in the middle of the road with a flat tire. They’d never been to Santa Barbara before, and thought they’d found a way to the beach. They’d seen the sign that read ‘Road Closed to All except Staff and Visitors to the Nelson Institute of Marine Research" and finally decided it meant exactly what it said. Apparently in their hurry to make a u-turn they ran across a nail or broken glass or something. Tire started going down and they couldn’t make it back to the Coast Highway. They were awfully glad to see me."

 

Nelson’s expressive eyebrows went up, and he gestured at Morton’s uniform. "I take it you changed the tire," he prompted.

 

Morton pointed at his trousers and grinned. "Yes, Admiral. I thought about driving the rest of the way to alert your Security to send help, but I didn’t know how long that would take and the lady was having trouble dealing with the heat. Both of them retired schoolteachers, a little up in years, and certainly not up to changing a tire. It only took a few minutes, sir, but as you can see," he pulled back his jacket and showed off the tire marks, "it left me a little the worse for wear. And made me late for my interview. It was unintentional but I feel I made the right choice given the circumstances." His eyes went from Nelson to Angie and back again. "I will fully understand if you think I’ve wasted your time, sir."

 

Angie quietly closed her shorthand pad. There was nothing left to take notes about. She had been right about him, after all. She waited for Nelson’s response, certain she knew what he was thinking. He had been very quiet while Chip spoke -- she would have to get used to that name. She was very sure she would be using it a lot in the days to come.

 

Nelson so far had said nothing. Hidden in her cliff-side lair, almost finished, floated the nuclear submarine Seaview. There was still time for a bold and intelligent executive officer to make a difference in her internal design, to bring fresh ideas and a clear mind to her final configuration. He glanced out the window towards the sea. A little up in years, hmm? At least he didn't say old! And not a man to make excuses for his decisions but stand behind them. Nelson studied Morton’s features, eyes slightly narrowed. The object of his scrutiny didn't flinch. Chip Morton was living up to his reputation for cool thinking, problem solving and unflappability. Nelson breathed a silent sigh of relief. Well done, young man.

 

"You haven’t wasted my time at all, Chip," Nelson answered, his smile full of pleasure as he reached out to take Charles Philip "Chip" Morton’s hand. "In fact, I think that’s the most illuminating thirty seconds I’ve enjoyed in quite a while. Sit down, and let’s discuss your other qualifications in addition to being an excellent tire mechanic."

 

"I'd like that, sir!"

 

 

 

 

His years but young, but his experience old;

His head unmellow'd, but his judgment ripe;

And, in a word, for far behind his worth

Comes all the praises that I now bestow,

He is complete in feature and in mind

With all good grace to grace a gentleman.

 

The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Act II, Scene IV