October 18th, 2315 Seaview, Indian Ocean, 1820 miles NNE of Diego Garcia.
Hodges hurried down the corridor toward Sickbay closely followed by his assistant David Thornby, both men anxious to get this whole possible leak situation cleared up, finally.
The XO of the boat met him in the front room of Sickbay and conducted them into the second, inner room where the two Admirals were already speaking to the man in the gurney.
"Commander Crane you remember Mr. Hodges, the Special Advisor to the President on Terrorism.
Commander Crane looked like he had been to the wars. His eyes were sunken and his face was bruised. He was sitting up slightly in the hospital bed but had no animation to his features and looked exhausted.
"Commander Crane," Hodges acknowledged
"Sir," the Commander's voice was very soft and Hodges stepped up closer to the two Admirals so he could more easily hear. Thornby remained at the door in his normal duty of recording the meeting and keeping notes for later inclusion in his transcription for Hodges' presidential briefing paper.
"So, Commander?" Johnson spoke surprisingly gently for such a normally gruff man.
Crane sighed softly and nodded, his eyes focused on a middle distance while he remembered. "When I arrived at the camp … the kidnappers were already in negotiation with Al-Qaeda, … as you know they had made accommodation with the Taliban … the co-pilot, Holland."
"You know this how?"
"Al-Qaeda … al-Ash'ari.. in Wana … been out to meet with Gul Zaman … three times at least. Salarzai … only had one thing of interest to Al-Qaeda."
"That I believe," Johnson agreed. Everyone who was involved in the hostage situation had known that the Salarzai tribe was among the weakest in the tribal area. Their only strength was that they had managed to marry their daughters into enough other tribes to have strong relatives who could choose to support them or not depending upon the profit for themselves. Still it gave the Salarzai more strength than either their armaments or numbers would justify. It'd been that web of relatives that Gul Zaman had sought to use for his protection as he negotiated with both Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
" … I believe there was a leak …, about the mission ... Al-Qaeda came into the camp looking for a SEAL team." Lee closed his eyes for a moment. "I was sure it must be a briefing leak." Lee sighed again and paused. He was having a hard time with the long sentences, didn't seem to have enough air. He knew this was a symptom of the loss of blood, the inability of his body to move enough oxygen. It was annoying.
"Why was that, Commander? Why not a leak on the ground in Pakistan?" Hodges asked when Lee remained silent.
"Why would they think SEALS?" He said tiredly.
"Didn't it occur to you that someone might have seen something that made them think it was a SEAL team?" Hodges asked more sharply now. He'd been so worried about this debriefing, thinking this man knew something damaging and he knew nothing.
"I can't imagine … what, sir?" Hodges thought that the man sounded very unsure and disoriented.
"Couldn't you have said something to them yourself to give them that impression? I understand from other information we've received that you were questioned by them more then once, that you were beaten, tortured, could you not have let something slip?"
Hodges stepped back, slightly concerned as the young blond officer who had his hand on the Commander's arm started to move toward him. He was relieved to see the Commander reach up and grab his sleeve just as the blond started to move. He'd no desire to get into another shoving match with the young officer because he didn't like the sorts of questions he asked his friend. Crane's grip on the other man's sleeve appeared precarious but served to deter whatever the XO had been planning to do.
"I'm not impugning your courage just your recall. When you're injured and beaten and exhausted it's easy to make a mistake. Could you've been mistaken about Al-Qaeda being sure there were SEALS? Could they have meant any special forces?" Hodges hastened to clarify, he felt he'd gotten to the meat of the issue now and began to narrow in on the Commander's clearly faulty recall.
The Commander remained silent. "I guess … maybe mistaken… They believed me … when I said Special Forces soldiers … So maybe they were just confused …maybe thought green berets were …SEALS." The Commander closed his eyes again, clearly exhausted.
"But you're sure that they were looking for American forces, Commander?" This from Johnson who had been strangely reticent Hodges thought. Normally Johnson was the first one to ask a question. But he decided this was Johnson's man, his agent, he wouldn't like seeing that the man's recall was so badly clouded.
"I thought they were, sir… They agreed to my Taliban story … fairly quickly … maybe they were … I don't know … maybe trying to see if I was an agent." The Commander seemed to rally when questioned by Johnson and re-opened his eyes, but still maintained his hold on his friend's sleeve. Hodges was pleased to see the other officer had returned his hand to the Commander's arm and no longer looked about to come across the room at him. Although looking at the man now, his demeanor so calm and apparently indifferent to the issues being discussed, Hodges thought maybe he'd been mistaken earlier in thinking the man angry.
"Commander Crane is seriously injured and obviously very tired. I think we've laid his fears about a possible leak to rest. Maybe we can wait on the rest of his debriefing until later?" Nelson stepped up to the bed and put his hand on Crane's shoulder.
Hodges remembered that Crane in addition to being one of Johnson's agents was also Nelson's Captain for this submarine. Obviously Nelson was very fond of the young man. Hodges had been very impressed with Crane's work in finding the hostages, but less impressed with his report about the leak. Clearly the man had gotten a little information and come away with the wrong impression.
Not the sort of poor fieldwork he was accustomed to from Johnson's people. Of course, he thought wryly, he didn't usually participate in the debriefing in the field the way he had on this case. Perhaps the reason the intelligence from ONI was so good was because of the good job Johnson did vetting the info before it made its way to the Special Advisor's desk.
"I'm satisfied, Admiral. Mr. Thornby will have a transcript of this for you within the hour." Hodges nodded to his assistant and the two left the room followed by Chip.
"This is Petty Officer Kowalski, he'll accompany you back to your cabin." Chip introduced them to Kowalski. "We had a bit of trouble on the boat earlier so we have increased security for the remainder of the trip."
"Yes, I heard, a fire?" Hodges asked.
"We think we have the culprit under arrest. It was a seaman who has had problems with discipline and with the Captain in the past. We think the whole thing was an effort by the man to empty Sickbay so he could attack the Captain." Chip explained, his mouth tight with disapproval.
"Did the Commander recognize his assailant?" Hodges asked.
"No, sir. Commander Crane was pretty heavily sedated and apparently the man wore some sort of disguise on his face."
"He's confessed though?" Thornby asked.
"No, claims he did nothing. We're still gathering evidence, hence the enhanced security, but we're sure we have the right man. Please gentleman this way." Chip gestured to Kowalski to lead the way and the two men followed the crewman from the room.
Chip closed the door after the three men and returned to the inner room.
"I don't like it, Gavin," Nelson was saying as he came in. "But that's why I have my job and you have yours. You're sure though that he won't make another attempt on Lee?"
"He has no reason to. As soon as Crane told me earlier that Al-Qaeda was sure he was the commander of a SEAL team I knew the leak had to be either Hodges or Thornby. Hodges misunderstood the briefing and came away with the impression that Crane was the commander of the SEALS. He told me as much. But I rectified his error and sent his corrected briefing paper on to DC. The only one who remained with the faulty information was Thornby. As long as Thornby thought Crane was going to reveal the leak he needed to get rid of Crane. Once he realized Crane had nothing to say that we believed, than Crane was no longer a threat to Thornby. He won't want to call attention to either Crane or himself. He took an awful risk with those fires, but he was desperate. Morton let him believe he's off the hook for the fires. He's a happy traitor."
"But if he's supplying information to Al-Qaeda don't you want to arrest him?" Chip asked.
"Well, as it happens, he is actually supplying information to the Russians. That's why Al-Qaeda eventually bought Crane's story about the Special Forces with the Taliban. The Russians no doubt gave the SEAL information to Al-Qaeda in exchange for some bit of information they wanted and to further embarrass us in Pakistan," Johnson smiled thinly. "That's why Al-Qaeda bought Crane's story in the end. They had no way to get back to Thornby for confirmation or denial, just had to take a chance on who to believe, the man they were torturing or the Russians. They went with Crane. Now that we know that Thornby is working for the Russians we'll play him for a while. Give the Russians some information we want them to have."
"So Hodges and Thornby go back to Washington, Hodges thinking Lee folded under torture and Thornby to spy for the Russians, sir?" Chip was incredulous.
Nelson snorted softly from his place over by Lee's bed where he was lowering the head back down to the prone position. "ONI at work, Chip. The dark side of diplomacy."
Nelson took the sting out of his words by clapping Johnson on the back and smiling at him. "Admiral Johnson's just scored quite a coup, Chip. I'm going to take him back to my cabin and let him tell me how clever he is. I'll leave the Lee watch to you," Nelson put his hand on Chip's arm, "but don't keep him talking too long. He's very tired." Nelson glanced at Lee, who lay on the gurney his eyes all but closed.
Johnson laughed good naturedly at Nelson's teasing. He was quite pleased with himself and could allow Nelson a little leeway, besides that single malt would taste very good. He'd thought there was a Russian informant somewhere in the White House. Now that he'd found him he was going to enjoy exploiting his conduit to the Kremlin.
Smiling, Johnson gave Crane a very uncharacteristically demonstrative squeeze of the shoulder just before leaving. "Very good job, Crane. Very good job, very convincing performance. I was beginning to wonder myself what you remembered from your time in Pakistan."
"Uh…Thank you, sir," Lee said after a moment, clearly he was having trouble following the conversation. Nelson looked at him anxiously before exchanging glances with Johnson who smiled in understanding.
"Come on, Harry I want my celebratory drink." Nelson and Johnson left the room nearly colliding with Jamieson who stepped quickly aside to let the two Admirals pass.
Jamieson checked Lee's pulse and put a hand on his forehead. "Fever is coming down for sure, Lee, I think the antibiotic is kicking in. How's the pain?"
Lee smiled at him tiredly. "I'm fine, Jamie." The three men smiled at each other. "Honestly though, I don't feel that bad just now. Tired but not bad. Let me talk to Chip for a few minutes and then I wouldn't fight you over a shot of your best." Jamieson knew if Lee was asking for pain medication he was hurting but after glancing at Chip left the two younger men to talk. He thought just now the best medicine for Lee might be a few minutes of normal conversation.
He nodded to him, "five minutes I'll be back with your bedtime cocktail." Jamieson rested his hand on Lee's shoulder for a moment and exchanged a glance with Chip.
Chip sat back down beside Lee's bed. "I don't like it. If that guy had kept his mouth shut, not betrayed his country, you wouldn't be lying here."
Lee smiled at his friend and waited for him to work off his anger. Finally, after working through some of the expletives that had occurred to him when he thought his boat was on fire and when he heard that his friend had been tortured and when he saw Lee's chest covered with knife wounds and burns, Chip smiled sheepishly at Lee. "Sorry. I was angry I guess."
Lee ran a dry tongue around his lips. Funny the IVs could re-hydrate all of his body except his mouth. All the time he was on one of those awful drips his mouth was always dry as an old rag. He didn't realize he'd closed his eyes until he felt Chips hand on his shoulder. "Here you need a drink."
Lee opened his eyes and smiled and took the proffered straw and drank. He wasn't thirsty, just dry. "So Johnson lets Hodges think you folded under questioning. He lets Thornby get away with what he did?" he stopped talking when he saw the smile on Lee's face. His friend looked done in by the questioning but the smile was so genuine that Chip had to return it.
"Calm down, Chip… Hodges and Thornby both bought our story… that's the important thing."
Resigning himself to the inevitable of Lee accepting any and all outcomes from ONI missions without resentment Chip changed tack. "Kowalski told some of the hands how Senator Styles chased you assailant away. The crew is so pleased they're taking around a special sling for his arm. The whole crew is signing it as a thank you."
Lee smiled, it hurt too much to laugh but the smile felt good. He thought for the thousandth time how much he liked Chip Morton. How lucky he was to have such a good friend. Many people went their whole lives and never even met someone as fine as Chip and he had him for his best friend. "Thanks, Chip."
"For taking my side just now."
"Always, you know that."
"Yeah, but I don't always say thank you."
"You've lost too much blood, getting sentimental on me," now it was Chip's turn to smile. The two men sat silently, each congratulating himself.
"I was thinking," Lee said.
"Uh Oh, that could be dangerous."
"I'll have some leave after this. Want to go to Baja? Go diving?"
"Like Jamie's going to let you go swimming let alone diving for six months."
"Was mostly just wanting to sit on the beach in the sun anyway." Lee's voice was fading as he spoke his eyes closing.
"Yeah, we'll go to Baja, sit on the beach, in the sun," Chip talked of hot sand and bright sunny days in Mexico as Lee's breathing slowed and steadied and he fell asleep. He talked of walking on the beach and diving in the reefs instead of torturous Arabs and traitorous aides. When he was sure Lee was soundly asleep he spoke of heroes who took unnecessary risks to save men of lesser worth. And then finally as he pulled up the blanket to more fully cover his friend he spoke of pride and friendship.