A/N: This is a three-part story originally written for the HBX October Challenge. It's about the Navy Birthday Ball seen through the eyes of three attendees. It's set in the same universe as my 'Brownies & Surprises' stories… Harm and Mac have been married for several years (six at the time of this story) and have three young children – Jack (9), Katie (7), Matthew (11 months). Mattie is also part of their family. Your feedback is very welcome and much appreciated!
Disclaimer: I love them, I enjoy their company, but I certainly don't own them.
Katie gasps as I walk down the stairs towards her. 'You look beautiful, Mommy. I love your special uniform.'
'Thank you, Katie,' I respond, with a smile.
Standing nearby, Mattie smiles as her "little namesake", as she likes to call him, clings to her hand. 'Yeah, you look great, Mac. Very sharp.'
'Thanks Mattie,' I reply.
'Where are the other kids?' I ask, craning my neck to look past her into the living room. We have a very full house tonight. Bud is in town for work, and he brought Harriet and the kids along. It's a busy time for the Roberts family – they're moving to a new city following Bud's recent reassignment, and the children are changing schools. For them, coming here for a few days was a welcome break from the ongoing upheaval.
Like me and Harm, Bud and Harriet will be attending tonight's Navy Birthday Ball. They're staying at a nearby hotel, but their kids will spend the night at our house, under Mattie's watchful eye. As the designated (and handsomely remunerated) babysitter tonight, she'll have her hands full, but I know she'll do a terrific job. Mattie is great with kids, as is her boyfriend Josh, who's on his way over.
'They're all in my room,' Mattie says now, in response to my question, 'making a mess as usual.' She lowers her voice. 'After you guys are gone, we're going to make a video as a surprise for Harm's birthday, with the kids all playing different parts. It's going to be so cute.'
I smile. 'That's great, Mattie. I can't wait to see it.'
At that moment, Jack rushes out of Mattie's room. I give him and his sister quick goodbye hugs, then pick up Matthew to kiss him on the cheek as he babbles happily and tries to play with my medals.
'Okay… where's Dad?' I ask finally. 'We need to get a move on.'
Suddenly Harm appears beside me. 'He's right here,' he says; then he tucks my arm into his and adds his to the number of compliments I've already received tonight. 'Thanks,' I say in return, 'you look great too.' As we leave the house, Mattie is trying her best to distract Matthew, who from the sound of things is not too pleased to be left behind.
As we arrive at the venue of the Navy Birthday Ball, I draw a deep breath. Harm has no idea what I have planned for tonight, but if all goes well, by the time the night is over an annoying little problem that's lingered for far too long will finally be solved… for good.
We step into the crowded hall just as the cocktail reception begins. We work the room, mostly separately but sometimes together, making the usual small talk with all the usual suspects. Harm and I know a lot of people here, and twenty minutes into the reception, we still haven't even scratched the surface.
Harm and I have just finished a conversation with a promising young JAG officer and his wife, and are moving towards an old friend and colleague of mine, when Harm checks his cell-phone. 'Excuse me,' he says, with an apologetic smile, 'SECNAV needs me to call him right away. I'll have to step outside for a second. Be right back.'
I return his smile. 'Take all the time you need.'
As soon as he's out of earshot, it's time to set my plan in motion. I spot Bud and Harriet first, and walk briskly across the room to meet them.
'Are you enjoying the evening so far, ma'am?' Bud asks conversationally.
'Thanks, Bud, I am – and it's about to get even more interesting. I'll need your help, and Harriet's too.'
Bud suddenly looks wary, probably recalling some of the crazy schemes Harm and I have unwittingly drawn him into in the course of our past work together. Harriet, on the other hand, looks excited – I think she's missed those heady days.
'How can I help?' she asks eagerly.
'Well, Harm's outside on an urgent call, and I'm about to go have a little... chat with someone. The moment Harm comes back in here, I need you to keep him away from me and the person I'll be talking to. Just stall him for as long as you possibly can.'
Harriet's smile falters a bit. 'Uh, just who exactly will you be having this chat with?'
'I can't give you details, Harriet... trust me, this is important.'
Harriet still looks doubtful. 'I don't want to come between you and Harm – I'm sure that whatever it is, you two can talk about it and –'
'Harriet,' I cut in, gently, 'I would never try to involve you in anything that would cause problems between me and Harm. I just need some uninterrupted time.'
She sighs and nods, reluctantly. 'Alright, Mac.'
I thank her and then turn to Bud. 'I'll need to steal you away from Harriet. But not for long.'
Bud looks like he's about to make an excuse not to come with me, when Harriet stops him. 'I'll be fine by myself for a few minutes, Bud. Go with Mac, she needs you.'
Bud nods, and I express my thanks to Harriet before gesturing to Bud to follow me to the opposite end of the room. I first spotted my quarry about ten minutes ago, and she's still standing where she was the last time I saw her, a few paces behind the CNO, chatting with some civilian guests. She looks almost regal in her dress blues, and has a charming smile on her face as she greets the people around her. Watching me and seeing where my eyes are trained, Bud realizes where we're headed.
'You want to have a "chat" with Admiral Krennick?'
Bud stops in his tracks, and I turn around to urge him forward. 'Come on Bud.'
'I need to know what this is about first, ma'am.'
I give him a pointed look. 'I really don't think you want to know, Bud. In fact, I think you'll be better off not knowing.'
Bud nods. 'I – I guess, but I know Admiral Krennick well enough to know that she's… well, she's dangerous. You don't want to cross her… and quite frankly, neither do I.'
'I understand,' I say, trying to reassure him. 'I'm totally prepared for this, Bud. And all I need you to do is help me get the conversation started. Once that's done, you're off the hook. I want her to be completely at ease when I start talking to her, and since you've known her for longer, you can help me achieve that.'
Bud nods his head again, slowly this time. 'Alright Colonel, I'm sure you have a plan.'
'Definitely. Okay,' I say, dropping my tone as we advance, 'here we go.'
When we approach Admiral Krennick, I pull back a little, so that I'm almost behind Bud. Krennick spots Bud first, just as I'd hoped.
'Commander Roberts! It's been such a long time,' she begins.
'Yes ma'am. It's a pleasure to see you again.'
'Absolutely. Admiral Rabb and I talked about you a while ago. Nice to hear you're doing well. You've come a long way from the eager, young ensign I met all those years ago.'
'Thank you ma'am.' He turns to me. 'Uh, Admiral Krennick, I believe you already know –'
'Of course,' Krennick replies, extending a hand towards me with a warm smile, 'Mrs. Rabb. We've met once or twice. It's a pleasure to see you again.'
'Same here, Admiral,' I say pleasantly, as our hands meet in a brief handshake, 'and it's Colonel MacKenzie Rabb.'
'Of course, Colonel. I meant no disrespect,' Krennick said, but I saw a steely glint come into her eyes. 'It's just that I've worked so closely with your husband so often – naturally I think of you as his wife first and foremost. My apologies. Is Harm here with you tonight?' she asked, looking around the room.
'He is, ma'am,' I confirm, 'he's around here somewhere.'
'I look forward to seeing him again,' Krennick says. 'I understand from Harm that you and he worked very closely with Commander Roberts when he joined you at JAG HQ. It must be very gratifying for you both to see how well he's done.'
I nod in agreement. 'Indeed. He's quite a force to be reckoned with in the courtroom.'
Bud blushes slightly and says, 'Thank you Colonel, I owe a great deal to your mentorship – and Admiral Rabb's.'
'Thank you, Commander,' I reply, 'but you really owe your success to your hard work and commitment.'
Krennick smiles thinly, clearly ill at ease with this entire conversation. Somehow I don't think making awkward chit-chat with the wife of the man she's trying to seduce was on her wish-list for this evening.
'Well, if you'll excuse me,' she says, 'Colonel, Commander… I need to run to the head. I hope we have a chance to talk again in the course of the evening.'
'Oh, I was just about to head there myself,' I rejoin lightly, 'if you'll pardon the pun. I need to freshen up before dinner'. Krennick's bright smile falters a bit at the edges, but she manages to maintain her composure as she nods. Turning to Bud, I add, 'I believe I see Harriet trying to get your attention across the room, Commander.'
I think he heaves a small sigh of relief as he nods, excuses himself and disappears into the crowd.
'I'm glad he made something of himself,' Krennick says to me conversationally, as we head towards the bathroom together. 'As a young man he was so very ungainly and clumsy. Not really prime Navy material. Just between you and me, I really didn't think he'd amount to much. You were too modest just now; he was right… if you and Harm hadn't helped him, where would he be? It always helps to have good patronage in the services.'
I can feel my hackles rising, but I keep my anger in check as we walk into the bathroom, which is thankfully empty at the moment. I keep talking as Krennick enters a stall. 'Bud earned our support,' I reply, 'because of how committed and capable he was, so I have no doubt that if Harm and I hadn't been there, he would have had the support of whomever he'd worked with.'
Krennick emerges from the stall with a weak smile, looking unconvinced and slightly bored, and I decide to change the subject. 'Is your husband here with you tonight, ma'am?'
'I'm afraid not,' she replies, washing her hands. 'Frank's away on business. You've met him before, haven't you?'
'Yes, I have,' I say. 'it was a pleasure to meet him – there's something so courtly and gentlemanly about him.'
'Thank you, I think so too,' she replies, looking pleased. 'How are your children? From my conversations with Harm, you just had one about a year ago?'
'Yeah, little Matthew is almost a year old now.'
'It must be challenging for both of you to look after three little ones, with the demands of your assignments.'
'Well,' I say with a shrug, 'we do the best we can. Speaking of challenges, Admiral, there's a case I'm working on at the moment that's incredibly interesting...'
A guarded look comes into Krennick's eyes. 'I'd love to hear all about it, Colonel, but maybe some other time. We really shouldn't mix business with pleasure – and I've got to get back to Admiral Merriweather. He might need my assistance with preparing his remarks.'
'It's a really interesting case, and it'll only take a couple of minutes for me to sum it up, ma'am,' I reply. 'Actually, I could really use your perspective on it. You're such a seasoned expert.'
'Alright, Colonel,' Krennick says warily, 'although I can't imagine that between yourself and your husband, there are any legal issues you can't resolve. My legal skills are probably somewhat rusty – I don't need to use them extensively in my current position. On the other hand, I've heard a great deal about your legal prowess, and of course I have first-hand experience of Harm's stellar abilities.'
'Thank you, Admiral,' I respond, 'and you're right, my husband has been extremely… helpful, but I think I need another female perspective. Not to bash men, but there are some things they just don't understand about women, and never will.'
'Ah,' Krennick says, visibly relaxing a little, 'I think I can guess what this is about... something about discrimination against females? I think every woman in the military could write a book about that one.'
'Actually, I'm representing the plaintiff in a sexual harassment case,' I reply, and I have the satisfaction of watching Krennick stiffen for a second, and then shift slightly as I proceed. 'Well, not the plaintiff exactly. No formal charges have been filed… yet. I'll give you the background quickly. My client is a brilliant officer with an exemplary record. The alleged perpetrator – a woman – is another officer, also with an excellent service record.'
I laugh softly, pretending not to notice the fact that she's gone pale and that her mouth has straightened into a thin, tight line. 'My client is a really appealing man – he has that attractive mix of old-fashioned manners and modern sensibilities. Plus he's extremely intelligent, resourceful, and drop-dead gorgeous. Put all of that together with the excellent career I just mentioned, and I suppose it's really no surprise that the female officer in question decided to sink her claws into him.'
I ignore the fact that Admiral Krennick's ample chest is now heaving in agitation, and her eyes are now flashing with anger, and continue my tale. 'So, here's the situation, basically. This woman began harassing my client years ago, when they were both young and single officers with promising careers. At the time, she outranked him. They worked together quite closely, with the female officer taking the lead as his superior officer. Despite the clear legal provisions and protocol against such behavior, she made repeated attempts to entice him into a sexual relationship, which I can only attribute to her having a… moral fiber deficiency. She displayed a total lack of scruples.'
'"Deliberate and repeated unwelcome verbal comments, gestures, and physical contact of a sexual nature",' I quote softly. 'By that standard, her behavior definitely constituted sexual harassment. He steadily declined her offers – but chose not to take any further action, because he felt he could handle the situation adequately. To his credit, he did – there was no unpleasant fallout and no one had to suffer any lasting consequences from the situation. If only it had ended then and there.'
Krennick cuts in, 'Look, I don't know what Harm has –'
I interrupt her, calmly, steadily. 'Admiral, if I could just finish before you make your remarks? I'm very eager to hear your views, but I think you need to have the full picture first.'
At that moment, two ladies in long evening gowns walk into the room, talking loudly. Looking at Krennick, I can see she thinks it's the perfect opportunity to walk away and end our "discussion". 'Please stay, Admiral', I whisper, almost under my breath, making sure that she can hear me but the ladies in the stalls can't. 'It's vital that you hear what I have to say, and I intend to say it, even if I have to do so in a crowded ballroom.' Her back stiffens and she stands her ground, holding her head high. We stand there in silence, studying each other in the large mirror until the other ladies finish their business and depart. If they hadn't been so engrossed in their conversation, they would definitely have felt the tension in the room.
Then, 'Continue, Colonel,' Krennick says. I comply.
'So, my client let it go, and when the female officer was transferred out, he thought it was all over... until fairly recently. It's now been just over a decade since the initial harassment, and my client and his harasser are now both flag officers, and as such both are highly-respected, and expected to display the highest level of professionalism, decorum and discipline as an example to the many men and women under their respective commands. They're also both married. Notwithstanding these facts, this same woman has made recent advances towards my client – from propositioning him at a coffee shop, to sending inappropriate text and voice messages to his phone. The incident at the coffee shop happened almost a year ago, but the messages have been left on his phone several times since then.'
I laugh wryly. 'She likes to leave the messages on "special occasions" – Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's Eve... you get the drill. When he asks her to stop, she persists. It's almost ridiculous – but also extremely sad, considering the caliber of the officer that has chosen to lower herself to this type of behavior. As his counsel, I am prepared to take any necessary action on my client's behalf. As the harassment has continued despite my client's clear and unequivocal rejection of the perpetrator's advances, I will advise him to file a formal complaint; which as you know will most likely lead to a full investigation.'
I pause to take a breath. So far, so good. Some of what I'm about to say next is pure bluff, but hopefully I'll be so convincing that she'll be none the wiser. 'I have assembled sufficient evidence of the alleged sexual harassment: the phone messages, statements from the coffee shop staff. I've even been able to track down witnesses who will confirm that the perpetrator regularly purchases new cell-phone SIM cards at their store. It shouldn't be hard at all to link those purchases to the numbers that the offending phone messages were sent from. The evidence is damning – and would undoubtedly destroy the female officer's outstanding career if there's an investigation.'
'Of course, the matter could easily go to court-martial after a full investigation determines that the evidence is sufficient to warrant that,' I continue. 'You probably know the applicable articles of the UCMJ and Navy Regs even better than I do, and the relevant case law is clear and established.'
Krennick is still staring at me angrily, but now there's a touch of fear mixed in with the anger. I go on. 'However, my client is not inclined to file a formal complaint ifit can be avoided.'
'H-how,' Krennick stammers out softly, moistening her lips with her tongue, 'how can it be avoided?'
'I'm sure you can guess the answer to that, Admiral. The female officer in question will simply have to cease and desist from the harassment – immediately, and permanently. If that happens, there will be no further action at this time. If, however, she chooses to continue to harass my client, or takes any action whatsoever that would cause any distress to my client or any member of his family, then she can look forward to the full force of the law being applied. I have already handed over sealed copies of the evidence I've gathered to several of my most trusted associates for safekeeping, with instructions to act swiftly under certain circumstances.'
Krennick looks slightly queasy. 'You've thought of everything, haven't you?'
'Well, everything that's within my control, Admiral. I won't pursue further action on my client's behalf if the harassment stops immediately... but if this woman has been unwise enough to involve herself in this type of behavior with others... well, I can't promise that they won't decide to file formal complaints against her.'
I shrug as I continue. 'And the truth is, I would be willing to represent anyone she might have harassed, or may try to harass in the future. The only reason I haven't pushed for formal measures in this case is because, to the best of my knowledge, only my client has been on the receiving end of this woman's improper behavior. If I were to find out that this kind of harassment constitutes a pattern of behavior in this woman's career, I would not hesitate to take appropriate action. I'm sure you'd agree that officers like her are a stain upon the service. Professionalism and respect for others are essential, and officers like this woman make a mockery of the values upon which our armed services are built and must continue to stand. So… your thoughts, ma'am?' I finish, with a smile.
Krennick summons up the strength to make a last-ditch attempt at a counter-attack. 'Like I tried to say to you earlier, Colonel, I don't know what Harm has told you, but believe me; everything that's happened between us has been completely consensual. In fact, he made the first move. It's been going on for years – I'm so sorry you had to find out this way.'
I can't help but feel sorry for this woman – something is pushing her to this level of desperation, and I'm beginning to think she just might need professional help. 'I'm sorry Admiral, but there's nothing you could ever say to make me think that Harm would lie to me about your relationship. Absolutely nothing.' I pause, watching the look of triumph slowly drain from her face.
I have a few more things to say. 'Earlier, you said that you think of me first and foremost as Harm's wife. Well, before I married him, I was a Marine – and, much as I adore being a wife and a mother, I'll always be a Marine too – it's a huge part of who I am. That unalterable fact influences everything I do – at home and at work. I don't back down, I'm always prepared to take on the enemy, and I don't give up on the people I love. Simply put, Admiral, it would be a mistake for anyone to try to mess with me. I have not yet begun to fight.'
Krennick's chest is heaving again. 'You're completely out of line, Colonel.'
I shake my head sadly. 'I respect your rank, Admiral, and everything it represents: competence, distinction, hard work, responsibility and achievement. However, I have absolutely no respect for your actions in this matter. It's only because I respect your status that I am giving you the opportunity, as civilly as I can, to put an end to this without any lasting repercussions.'
I pause for breath before continuing. 'Part of Harm's reluctance to take action in this matter is that he doesn't want to see yet another Navy scandal splashed across the news. Neither do I. Although I honestly would like to see you pay the price for your inappropriate behavior towards my client, I do recognize the wisdom of our regulations in calling for attempts to resolve these kinds of issues informally, before pursuing formal processes. That's what I'm offering you tonight. You have a chance to turn back the tide and act respectably from this moment on, thereby preserving your own dignity and the honor of your office. I'm giving you a chance to fix the situation, Admiral – to display the good sense that got you where you are today. I strongly recommend that you take it.'
I sigh again. 'I'm sure you're tired of this conversation, ma'am, and frankly, so am I. What I need from you now is your word – an assurance that this madness ends now, and that I won't be forced to take any of the steps I'm fully prepared to take to address the issue.'
Krennick sighs and then is silent for a long time. 'You have my word,' she finally says softly.
'Thank you. I'll also need written confirmation, witnessed by your attorney, to the effect that you will stay away from my husband and our family – no phone calls, no messages, no emails, no physical contact except that which is absolutely required for official purposes.'
Krennick shakes her head quickly. 'No way, I can't do that. What if it ends up in the wrong hands?'
'Well,' I reply, 'that's just a chance you'll have to take, ma'am. And if you ask me, it's a much safer bet than the risks you've been taking with your career.'
After a moment of hesitation, Krennick mutters, 'I'll do it.'
'I'll let you know where to send it.'
Krennick draws herself up to her full height, straightens her spine, and glares at me. 'Are we done here, Colonel?'
'Yes, Admiral,' I respond, 'enjoy your dinner.'
We've barely left the bathroom when I see Harm striding purposefully towards us, looking concerned.
'Mac,' Harm begins, as he reaches us, 'I've been trying to find you.'
'I was just having a nice conversation with Admiral Krennick.'
'Admiral,' Harm says coldly, barely looking at her – his eyes are fixed on my face.
'Harm,' Krennick responds, 'if you'll both excuse me.' She drifts off towards the CNO, her head held high.
'Mac, what the –'
Harm's urgent question is interrupted by the announcement that the dinner program is about to begin.
'Hey,' I say to him, 'let's go find our seats, shall we? Isn't this turning out to be a lovely evening?'