by naloma

Commander Lee Crane, Captain of the SSRN Seaview, could barely breathe. Between the heat, the smoke, and the close quarters he didn't see how anyone could. He reached up unconsciously to loosen his tie. Then he remembered. Man, I hate these things!

"Good evening, Mrs. Tobin. Admiral," he nodded and smiled.

I don't know which is worse, this white straitjacket, or standing like a maitre d' greeting the paying guests.

"Having fun, Lee?"

Crane rounded on his Executive Officer with a look that could have melted titanium. But when he saw he was not alone, his face softened into a rueful grin. "Hi, Angie. I see you've brought another gladiator into the arena."

"Absolutely. Admiral's orders," she laughed lightly, reaching up to take Chip's arm. "The man needs to get out more."

Crane noticed that Lt. Cmdr. Morton looked just as uncomfortable as he did, in spite of Angie's presence. He didn't know many fellow officers who truly enjoyed this Annual Reception at the Nelson Institute. "Have you seen the Admiral?" he asked.

"Not up close," Morton replied. "We just came from the Main Hall where he was surrounded by two senators, three congressmen, a governor, and two generals."

"And you forgot the pack of agitated executive types waiting to pounce the minute the politicians are through," Angie added.

Crane rolled his eyes. "And I thought I was having fun. Have you seen any of the other men? I spotted Sparks and O'Brien over by the hors d'oeuvres. Is Sharkey here?"

"He and most of the enlisted men are out on the terrace. They at least seem to be enjoying themselves," the Exec grimaced. Then, catching his fiancé's exasperated sigh he added, "Not that I'm not, mind you." His attempt at appeasement falling flat, he changed tack. "Where's your date, Lee? I thought Katie was coming."

"That was before her sister arrived this afternoon for a surprise visit. She's on her way from Paris to a conference in Mexico City, and only could arrange a twenty four hour stopover." He reached out to the marble column beside him. "But this pillar and I are having a lovely time together," he grimaced, then quickly reclaimed his official smile as another couple approached.

"Good Evening, Admiral. Nice to see you again Mrs. Johnson. I'd believe you've meet my First Officer, Chip Morton. And this is his fiancée, Angie Hamilton."

"Hello, Captain, Commander," Mrs. Johnson responded warmly. "And it's very nice to meet you, Miss Hamilton. You're Admiral Nelson's secretary, aren't you? Tell me, do you find him as difficult to work with I've heard?"

"Difficult? I guess it all depends on your point of view." Angie's eyes twinkled. "I've discovered that as long as you're a perfectionist mind-reader with six hands and a willingness to work 80 hours a week -- he's nothing but a big teddy bear."

"Oh . . . Oh my!"

Mrs. Johnson's eyes widened, and as her husband, laughing, led her away they could hear him saying, "See? Now tell me how much I exaggerate."

Chip surveyed the growing crowd. "Uh oh. Here comes Adm. Stark, and he's aimed right at you, Lee. I think we'll retire gracefully. Good luck."

Any misgivings he may have felt at meeting Jiggs Stark on such unfamiliar ground vanished at the sight of the young woman on his arm. Talk about robbing the cradle. That girl is younger than his daughter! Lee Crane was so taken by her that he didn't even notice the man trailing behind them.

"Crane! This is Dr. McCarron . . ."

She's a doctor?

" . . . He's working on Nelson's new marine bio-medics project." Startled out of his reverie, Crane realized that an older man was extending a hand in greeting.

"Good evening, Dr. McCarron," he said, hoping his confusion hadn't been too evident. "Admiral Nelson has told me about your work with the immune system. He's very excited about the promising results you've had with coelenterate protein."

"So far it's just theoretical, but thank you," the man said, obviously pleased by the Captain's interest. "This is my daughter, Constance. She's been helping me get set up here."

"Very nice to meet you, Miss McCarron," Lee said with a dazzling smile. "Will you be working on the project, too?"

"No . . . um . . . Cmdr. Crane? Did I read the stripes right?"

"This, young lady, is Lee Crane," Stark announced brusquely, "Captain of Nelson's submarine Seaview."

"Oh, I'm sorry Captain . . . I'll never figure . . ."

"No, no. You had it right," the Captain stumbled, taken in by the depth of her clear blue eyes. "My rank is Commander, but I serve as Captain." He stopped a moment, unwilling to break away from those eyes. "But please, just call me Lee. It's a lot simpler." Recovering, he extended a hand in her direction, which she accepted with a somewhat flustered smile of her own.

"In that case, Captain . . . er . . . Lee . . . please call me Connie," she smiled. "Constance is so Mayflower-and-Plymouth-Rock-ish."

Sometime in the middle of this exchange, which Adm. Stark had witnessed with smug satisfaction, he hustled his remaining charge away, hoping to deposit him with an equally receptive party.

"It looks like we've been set adrift," Crane observed. "What do you think of our Adm. Stark?"

"Well, his bashfulness and self-doubt don't seem to hinder him much, do they?"

Crane nearly choked on the club soda he had just snagged from a passing waiter.

"Are you all right, Captain?"

"I will be as soon as I rid my mind of the image of a bashful Jiggs Stark!" he managed to gasp around a spasm of poorly stifled laughter. Regaining his breath and his composure he chided, "And you're supposed to be calling me Lee."

"Sorry, sir," she replied, straightening into a facsimile of 'attention' and pulling a sober face. "It won't happen again, sir." The twinkle in her eye underscored the teasing lilt in her voice.

Once again totally disarmed, Crane shook his head and grinned. "Maybe we should start over." Extending a hand, he began, "Hello, I'm Lee Crane."

"Nice to meet you, Lee," she smiled, shaking his hand warmly. "I'm Connie McCarron."

"Oh? Then I've just met your father."

"You mean the famous absent-minded professor?"

"I . . . I guess so," he replied with a quizzical look. "Will you be working with him on his project?"

"No, not past next month anyway. I just came along to help him get settled in his quarters, and set up in his lab. Brilliant scientist he may be, but when it comes to practical, everyday living, the man's more inept than Fred MacMurray on his worst day!"

"I'm acquainted with the species," Lee chuckled. "What will you be doing after next month?"

"Come September I'll be back home, and at work."

Hoping his disappointment didn't show too much Crane asked lightly, "And where's home?"

"Originally we're from right down the coast in Oxnard. But we've lived all over the country, wherever there was research money available. For the past couple of years I've called Stockton home. I teach high school history there."

"What will your father do when you leave? We don't want to see him blowing up the garage or anything."

"Oh, Mom will be here before I leave. She's staying with my sister right now, helping out with a new baby. And what about you, Lee Crane? Where's home for you?"

"Here in Santa Barbara, when I'm not on Seaview. I have a little place just outside of town. But originally I'm from New England, " he grinned impishly, arching an eyebrow, "home of the Mayflower and Plymouth Rock."

"Oh dear. I've done it again, haven't I?" Once again she assumed her solemn, pseudo-military demeanor. "Sorry, sir. And what do you think of this weather, sir?"

Weather? "I . . . um . . . guess it's fine. But then, it's usually fine in Southern California." Then, catching on to the ploy he added, "And how about those Dodgers?"

Now it was Miss McCarron's turn to be confused. "Um . . . is Sandy Koufax still pitching?" After foundering another moment she finally admitted, "Sorry, but I don't follow baseball."

"Actually, neither do I," the Captain admitted. "But I figured it was about as safe -- and as boring -- as the weather."

* * *

Angie Hamilton had been keeping an eye on the Captain and his new acquaintance from across the room.

"Uh oh," she said. "It looks like they're floundering."

"Huh?" Morton replied, confused, "What are you talking about? Who?"

"Just look at them," Angie nodded in the direction of Crane and Miss McCarron. "They've run out of small talk. C'mon Chip, let's go help them out." As she grabbed his arm and tried to lead him across the room, Chip Morton planted his feet and seemed to grow roots.

"What exactly do you propose to do?" He looked down at his fiancée with a mixture of suspicion and amusement.

"Just give them a little nudge, that's all."

"I really don't think Lee needs . . . "

"Oh don't be silly. Of course he does. Just look at them -- they're made for each other, but they're gonna blow it. We'll just introduce ourselves, and see what happens, OK?" She arched a provocative eyebrow. "Think of it as returning a favor."

The Lieutenant Commander reddened slightly at the memory, and reluctantly allowed himself to be steered in the direction of his Commanding Officer and friend.

I remember this. But last time it was me getting all the nudges. "Chip, drop this off for the Admiral on your way past, will ya?" and, "Mr. Morton, I'm really snowed under here, could you pick up those specs from the Admiral on your way back from lunch?" All in the hope that I'd 'get up the nerve' to ask Angie out. I didn't need nerve, I needed time to think! Talk about embarrassing! If she thinks I'm going to do the same thing to Lee that he did to me . . . he suddenly grinned . . . She's absolutely right.

* * *

By the time the couple reached the far side of the Reception Room, Lt. Cmdr. Morton had made up his mind. Lee Crane noticed their approach with some relief, until he saw the devious glint in his Exec's eyes. Just what is he up to? Throwing Chip a dangerous look he said, "Connie, I'd like you to meet my First Officer, Chip Morton, and his fiancée, Angie Hamilton. Chip and Angie, this is Connie McCarron, Dr. McCarron's daughter. She's here to help him get settled in."

"Pleased to meet you, Miss McCarron," Morton nodded politely, his face now a mask of angelic propriety.

"Hi, Connie," Angie said, reaching out to shake hands. "We met in the Admiral's office when you first arrived."

"I remember. You're the one who had to keep showing Dad the way to the lab. I tell you, he could get lost between the kitchen and the dining room when he's got his mind on his research." As the chuckling subsided, Connie glanced around the room for her father. "Speaking of getting lost, have you seen him lately?"

"The last I saw, Adm. Stark had just left him with Dr. Jamieson," Lee said, surveying the room himself.

"And I saw Doc leave about five minutes ago," Chip added, "in a hurry, as if he'd gotten a call."

The two couples looked around for another minute, then Lee said, "Maybe he stepped outside for some fresh air; it is a little stuffy in here."

At that suggestion a flutter of anxiety appeared on Connie's face, which she quickly turned to a small smile. "You're right. He's always wandering off somewhere . . . drives Mom crazy!" she laughed nervously.

Having seen the look, Lee was relieved when Angie touched her arm and said gently, "You are worried, aren't you?" Without waiting for a response, she looked up at her fiancé. "Chip . . .?"

The Lt. Commander rocked upward on his toes. "Why don't I take a quick look outside? . . . see how the men are doing." he suggested in wide-eyed innocence, as if it had been his own idea. "If you ladies will excuse me."

"Wait up, Chip. I'll check the hea . . . er . . . lounge, and meet you out there. Ladies," he bowed formally.

"Thanks, both of you," Connie said. "I know I'm being silly, but . . ."

"Nonsense. I've met your father, remember?" Angie laughed as the two men moved away. But before they were out of earshot Lee winced to hear her continue, "And besides, this gives me a chance to fill you in on our good Captain . . . "

* * *

Barely a moment later there was a commotion as Admiral Harriman Nelson made his way through the door from the Main Hall. A security officer had run up to him and was now reporting as they walked. As he listened, the Admiral's face darkened ominously. He stopped, scanned the crowd, and when his eyes came to rest on his secretary and Miss McCarron, he dismissed the security man with a curt nod, and strode across the room.

"Angie, where are Lee and Chip?"

"They just stepped out to look for Dr. McCarron, sir. Why? Can I . . ."

"They won't find him," he said brusquely. Turning toward the man's daughter, the Admiral's face softened along with his voice. "I'm sorry, Miss McCarron, but I've just received a report that indicates your father may have been abducted. This only happened a few moments ago, and our security men are confident that your father can't have been taken far."

"Why? What could anyone want with him? He's not doing anything . . ." she searched for the right word, ". . . classified!"

"No, I'm afraid you're wrong there. The details of your father's latest findings are indeed classified. In the wrong hands they could be used as a basis for the development of biological weapons."

"Then he could be hurt! They might . . ."

"No, Connie," Angie tried to assure her. "Remember, they're after his information. They know he needs to be alive to give it to them."

"Angie, you stay here with Miss McCarron. When Lee and Chip return explain the situation and send them over to me. It looks like I'll have my hands full," the Admiral sighed, nodding towards the center of the room. The assembled brass, having heard the news and sensing an opportunity to grandstand, was now descending upon them. As Nelson moved back toward the main hall they followed him like a pack of irate bulldogs.

"Harriman, I don't have to tell you what this could mean to funding for the Institute . . ." Stark was still blustering when Tobin cut in, "I can have a SEAL team here in 15 minutes, armed and ready to take . . ." while Johnson demanded officiously, "Exactly how much does this Dr. McCarron know, and how much can that information hurt us?"

With valiant effort Admiral Nelson contained his anger at the one-up-manship. "Yes, gentlemen, yes, I know . . . No, I don't want a team of trigger-happy commandos going off half-cocked in the middle of all these civilians . . . And of course I'm aware of the implications of this kidnaping, and the consequences -- not only for the Institute, but for international security -- should it succeed." While listening to the ensuing chorus of harrumphing, Nelson's eyes darted from one entrance to another until they finally found his two senior officers walking in from the terrace. Judging by the looks on their faces, they too had heard the news. They stopped only briefly for a word with the two women, then headed directly for him.

* * *

"Put that thing away, young man. I have no intention of doing anything that might tempt you to use it."

"Just the same, pops, I think I'll keep it handy. Now keep walking, nice and slow." The two men kept to the shadows as they threaded their way across the Institute grounds from the Administration building toward the research labs. "Just a minute, smart guy!" the younger man hissed. "Where d'ya think you're going? The labs are that way," he gestured angrily with his gun.

"Hm?" McCarron mumbled, looking around him. "Oh, I suppose you're right. Yes . . . that does look more familiar." With his hands in his trouser pockets, and his face reflecting nothing but contented rumination, he ambled off in the indicated direction, seemingly oblivious to the gun and its owner.

When they reached the doors to the lab, the gunman tucked his weapon underneath his stolen uniform and repeated his earlier threat. "No stupid heroics, OK? I don't get paid for damaged goods. We'll just walk into your lab, get your notes, and walk out again, calm and quiet. Got it?"

"Oh yes, I understand completely." The doctor stopped short, apparently coming to his senses. "Oh dear. I almost forgot. We'll have to pass at least one guard station, and they're bound to inquire why I'm here, and who you are," Dr. McCarron said, peering over his glasses.

"That's your department, old man. You're a smart guy. Say something smart."

The scientist inspected his captor. "Oh, that will never do," he said, reaching toward the man's jacket.

"Whad'ya mean? Hey! Whad'ya think you're doing?" he said, jumping back and retrieving his gun in a surprisingly smooth movement.

"Oh . . . excuse me . . . I forgot. I was just going to straighten your uniform. And your posture is appalling. You wouldn't make it through the door looking like that. Stand up straight, and show some self-respect if you expect to be taken for a naval officer. And square that hat on you head. There, that's better."

The sullen man followed his prisoner's instructions in spite of himself. Suddenly catching himself, he looked up suspiciously. "Hey, what's the deal, old man? How come you don't just let 'em catch me?"

"Because I don't want to give you cause to do something foolish. It isn't necessary for anyone else to get hurt. Hitting that officer in the men's room was unconscionable."

"Huh? Don't think you can get away with using those big fancy words to talk your way out of this. I'll do whatever's necessary, and don't you forget it."

McCarron sighed. "Yes, I'm sure you will." Putting his hands back into his pockets, he allowed himself to be escorted into the building.

Once inside, they were greeted by the petty officer at the desk. "Evening, Dr. McCarron. Surprised to see you here tonight. Party boring?" he grinned. Then he caught sight of the stripes on the accompanying officer's shoulderboards, and jumped up to salute. "Sir!"

For an agonizing moment, the "officer" did nothing but stare. Then, at a look from McCarron, he returned a sloppy salute and mumbled, "At ease."

The doctor exhaled. "Party? Oh -- the reception. Well, I guess it's fine if you like that sort of thing. But an idea occurred to me while I was there, and thought I'd stroll over to check it out before I forget it."

"Very well, sir," the guard said, extending a logbook for him to sign. "Just make sure you sign out when you leave."

As the two men turned to leave, the guard said to the officer, "Sorry, sir, but you need to sign in, too. And I'll need to see some ID."

"Oh, this is Lt. Mountebank, and he's with me, Pete. If it hadn't been for him, I probably wouldn't have gotten here at all. I'm not used to walking around here in the dark and kind of got myself turned around."

The young petty officer chuckled and shook his head at this latest manifestation of the doctor's forgetfulness. "What are we gonna do with you, Doc?" Not to be distracted from his duty, though, he pushed the log book toward the officer.

"Oh, I'm not so bad as all that. I used to have a friend who was a good bit worse than me, if you can believe it," McCarron confided. "His name was Oscar, and no matter how many times he came to our house, he always forgot the street. We lived on Sierra, but he invariably turned down Sequoia. So every time I invited him to the house, I always had to tell him, 'It's Sierra, Oscar, Sierra!' But it never seemed to help." He shrugged his shoulders and stared at the guard, waiting for a reaction. Getting none, he repeated the last line of his story again, "It's Sierra, Oscar, Sierra!" and wandered off down the hall, shaking his head and chuckling to himself.

When the newly christened "Lt. Mountebank" caught up he demanded, "What was that all about? What was that Sierra Oscar stuff? And what kind of a name is Mountebank? I didn't even know how to spell it. If you're trying to pull something, it ain't gonna work, pops."

"Hmmm? 'Pull' something? By no means, young man, by no means. I was just trying to camouflage your lack of proper identification." He stopped at the intersection of two hallways and looked intently down each one for several seconds before continuing. "I do dislike these modern buildings . . . so confusing . . . everything looks alike . . ." he murmured.

* * *

As Crane and Morton approached Adm. Nelson, he turned his back on the pack of wolves which was still growing around him. After he had spoken a few words to each officer, they headed off in opposite directions. On his way back to the terrace, Chip veered off to report the latest developments to Angie and Connie.

"They found an officer in the men's room, unconscious, bound, gagged, and minus his uniform. When he came to he told security that one of the waiters had followed Dr. McCarron in, then held both of them at gunpoint while he took off his jacket and trousers. The gunman knocked him out, so he didn't see anything more. Security is searching the grounds, and I'm going to round up our crew to help them out." He turned to the doctor's daughter with an encouraging smile. "Miss McCarron, they couldn't possibly have gotten off the grounds yet. We'll find them," he assured her.

"Thank you, Commander. I appreciate your keeping me posted." She returned a weak smile.

Angie put a comforting arm around Connie McCarron's waist, and guided her to a chair. "There's nothing we can do but wait, so it looks like we have some time on our hands." Trying to distract the understandably worried woman she said, "Tell me about yourself, Connie. What do you do when you're not looking after your father?"

"Me? Oh, I'm not very exciting. I teach history in a little high school outside of Stockton . . . " Connie talked on for several minutes, finally relaxing in the comfort of Angie's companionship. After the two covered the topics of public schools, teenagers, grumpy co-workers, and jobs in general, the conversation shifted towards the Captain and First Officer of the Seaview.

"How long have you and Chip been engaged?"

"About three months . . . we're planning a wedding for October, right after Seaview returns from your father's research cruise." Connie's slight wince reminded Angie -- too late -- that she was supposed to be keeping her mind off her father. "And I would probably still be waiting for him to ask me out if it wasn't for Lee Crane," she hurried on.

Connie responded absently, "Oh? What happened?"

"He kept finding ways to throw me and Chip together, and he enlisted everybody else, short of the Admiral, in his campaign." Seeing she had now regained Connie's full attention, she continued. "One day I was sitting at lunch in the commissary, when the two of them walked by with their trays. Lee stopped and said, 'How about here, Chip?' and to me, 'Mind if we join you?' Seeing no objection, they sat down and Lee started right in talking about Chip's new house, and how he was fixing it up. As soon as I asked a Chip a question, Lee looked at his watch, jumped up, and announced, 'Sorry, but I have to run! I have a meeting. Enjoy your lunch!' So off he went leaving behind his tray, and one very tongue-tied Lt. Commander."

Connie groaned. "Subtle, isn't he?"

"Not as a matchmaker," Angie laughed. "Another time he maneuvered us both to a late afternoon meeting on the other side of the grounds, then devised a plot to strand us there, leaving us to walk back along the shore road, at sunset, on a clear, cool, perfectly romantic fall evening. I don't know whether it was the hour -- we were both starving -- or the atmosphere, or if he'd been planning it all along, but that's when Chip finally decided to put an end to all the speculation and conniving and ask me out to dinner."

Just then the shrill sound of sirens dragged them back to the present. "Oh, Angie, you've been so sweet to entertain me this way," Connie said, standing and looking uneasily toward the door, "but I really can't just sit here any more, doing nothing. Please, let's go see what's happening." Angie followed her through the dwindling crowd and into the main entrance hall.

* * *

When Lee Crane re-entered the Administration building, the first people he saw were his disheveled First Officer and Adm. Nelson, questioning a handcuffed maintenance worker. Just emerging from the doorway to the Reception Room were Angie and Connie McCarron. His first fleeting thought was embarrassment at the dirt and grass stains covering the side of his once-pristine uniform, and the mud he could feel caking on his face. But any thoughts for himself were driven out by the incessant whining of the handcuffed ersatz officer at his side.

"That guy's nuts! He ignored the gun, all he did was mumble to himself, and wander around like he was in some kind of fog. I tried to hurry him up in the lab, but he kept muttering about not knowing where he put his notes. Then I yell at him, he jumps, and knocks over this big contraption, and -- Bang! All of a sudden there's smoke everywhere, I can't see anything, and the guy disappears. I mean poof! He's gone! So I lit out. Figured I was gonna cut my losses and bag the whole gig . . ."

Finally reaching Nelson's side with the prisoner, Crane said wearily, "Admiral, this is the man who abducted Dr. McCarron."

Giving the man a cursory glance, he asked gruffly, "Have you found the doctor yet?"

"No, sir. But if you believe this guy, he just disappeared into thin air."

"What? You mean he escaped?"

"It certainly appears that way, but no one has caught sight of him."

"Chip caught his partner over there," the Admiral gestured over his shoulder, "trying to steal a car. We thought there were just the two of them, but if that's the case . . ."

"Sirs, if I may?" The young security guard from the research lab stood before them at attention. "I might be able to shed some light on this."

"At ease, sailor," Crane said. "What can you tell us?"

"Well, sir, when the doctor and this clown," he indicated Crane's prisoner, "came into the building, something didn't seem quite right, but Dr. McCarron was his usual absent-minded self, and perfectly at ease. He introduced this guy as Lt. Mountebank . . ."

"Mountebank! He said that?" the Admiral said in surprise.

"Uh . . . yes, sir. Does that mean something?" he asked.

"Why yes, of course it does. That should have let you know immediately this man was a charlatan, an imposter."

"Sorry, sir. I didn't catch that. But then he told this rambling story about his friend Oscar, and living on Sierra Drive, and . . . well, it was a good ten minutes later when it sank in, and I realized that he was giving me an SOS! I called for back-up right away, and ran down to Dr. McCarron's lab. I was just outside the door when I heard a crash, then all this smoke came pouring out -- man, that stuff stung my eyes! Anyway, somebody ran past me -- I managed to trip him, but couldn't get my hands on him, and he kept running. That's who you tackled out on the lawn, sir," he said to the Captain. "I'm sure nobody else got by me. Dr. McCarron must still be in the building."

"Who do we have searching that area?" the Admiral demanded.

"When I left, Sharkey, Kowalski, and Henderson were going through the building, sir," Crane answered.

No sooner were their names mentioned, than the crowd parted to reveal the Chief and Kowalski escorting Dr. McCarron into the building. As his daughter ran toward him the tears she had held back earlier mixed with relieved laughter so that her face glistened with radiated joy. The effect was not lost on the Seaview's Captain.

At a gesture from the Admiral, Chief Sharkey hurried over. "Where did you find him, Chief?"

"He was locked in the controlled environment lab, sir."

Crane blurted, "They locked him in the vault?!"

"No, sir. He locked himself in." The Chief himself seemed less than clear on the subject. "Maybe I'd better let him explain it to you, sir."

By the time Nelson dismissed the two prisoners to the custody of Chip Morton and his security chief, Kowalski had successfully shepherded McCarron and his daughter across the room. It was a relieved Harriman Nelson who grasped the doctor's shoulder as he shook his hand. "We are certainly happy to see you, Doctor! But how did you happen to get yourself locked in the sealed lab?"

Dr. McCarron smiled broadly, apparently reveling in his celebrity. "That man was brawny, but he wasn't really very bright," he said confidingly. "I knew I couldn't overpower him, and I didn't want to see anyone else get hurt, so I just strung him along with my absent-minded professor act, until I saw an opportunity to distract him and escape to a safe hiding place."

No one's eyes were wider with astonishment than his own daughter's. "Absent-minded professor act? What do you mean, act? No. I can't believe that! And neither would Mom. She . . ."

"She knows me a lot better than you think, Constance. I found out long ago that this is what people expect -- and it really does free me to do a lot of thinking. Your mother wasn't fooled for long, but she's been a good sport not letting on." Suddenly the doctor's face fell, and he continued ruefully, "But now I guess I'll have to own up . . ."

"No . . . no, Doctor!" Nelson laughed, reaching out to grasp the man's arm. Finally managing to refine his mirth into a dignified chuckle, he said, "You'll do nothing of the sort! I believe I speak for all of us when I say that your secret is safe. Right, men?" Receiving cheerful nods of assent from Crane, Sharkey, and Kowalski, he continued more seriously, "I'm afraid, though, that we will have to get a complete statement from you as soon as possible."

"How long will that take?" he said, glancing down at his daughter, still clinging to his arm .

"It shouldn't be too long," Nelson answered. Turning to Connie he said, "Don't worry, Miss McCarron, we'll take good care of him, and we'll see that he gets back to your quarters." To both he said, "I'm posting a security guard, as well, at least until we've gotten to the bottom of this."

"In that case, I have no objections, Admiral." McCarron replied. His eyes crinkling in a smile, he added, "Capt. Crane, might I impose on you to escort Constance back to our apartment?"

"It's no imposition at all, sir. I'd be happy to," the Captain answered truthfully.

* * *

"Lee, I'm afraid I have a problem." Seaview's First Officer stood before his captain in greatly improved physical condition: face clean, hair in place, uniform brushed and straightened. However, his countenance showed both irritation and dejection.

"What's wrong, Chip? What happened?"

By this time the hour was late, and the only people left at the reception were the die-hard rubberneckers, those who had been involved in the search, and their guests. While the former showed little sign of dispersing, the latter were slowly drifting toward the doors. Lee Crane and Connie McCarron had been among them.

"When Angie and I tried to leave, I found one of my tires flat. I can't very well change it in this get-up, and Angie needs to get home. Could we possibly borrow your car? I'll take her home, stop off at my place to change into jeans, then come right back. Shouldn't take more than an hour."

While his friend's face betrayed no trace of duplicity, Crane knew exactly what was going on. Without a second thought, he decided to play along. But I'm not going to make it easy, my friend. "Why don't you just call the motor pool? They could have somebody over here in five minutes to change it for you, then you wouldn't have to drive all the way back."

Morton didn't even dignify that question with a response. Everybody knew that nobody touched that '64 Mustang except the Lt. Commander himself.

"Or could I change it for you? -- under your supervision, of course. I don't think I can do much more damage to these," Crane said, eyeing his dress whites.

Exuding concern and consideration, Morton said, "No, Lee. I couldn't ask you to do that. If it's going to cause a problem I'll ask . . . "

"Of course not, Chip," he relented easily in the end. "There's no problem. I was just trying to save you some trouble." He pulled out his car keys and tossed them to his friend. "If I'm not around when you get back, just leave them on the front tire, OK?"

"Thanks, Lee. I really appreciate this," Morton replied, a model of innocence and sincerity.

"And now we're even," Crane's low, menacing tones were belied by his mischievous grin. A minute flutter of confusion, enlightenment, and chagrin crossed Morton's face, unnoticeable to anyone but those who know him well. And Lee Crane knew him well. "Don't do anything I wouldn't do," he winked and turned away to rejoin his 'charge'.

"Well, Miss McCarron, it seems like we're temporarily stranded. If you'll allow me a minute to clean up a bit, perhaps I could interest you in a moonlit walk along the waterfront?"

"Why Captain, that sounds like a superb idea."

* * *

Half an hour later the couple had reached the far end of the docks, where Seaview was berthed. "Beautiful, isn't she?" Capt. Crane couldn't help swelling with almost parental pride as he invited Connie to admire Seaview. "Would you like the fifty cent tour? There should only be a few men on board - mostly security."

Connie shook her head. "I don't know Lee. I'd love to, but I don't think I'm exactly dressed for ladders."

He looked at her long gown and elegant sandals. "I see what you mean," he frowned thoughtfully. "Well, ma'am, there's only one solution to this problem," he said, taking her arm in his and leading her away from the dock. "We'll have to reschedule your tour for another day. How does your calender look for Saturday afternoon, at say . . . five o'clock?"

"I believe I can fit that in, sir, somewhere between washing my hair and ordering pizza."

"Ahem . . . I beg your pardon. If there is any ordering of pizza to be done on Saturday, it will be by me. Didn't I tell you? This is the dinner tour. It includes a full course meal at the pizzeria of your choice, followed by a walk on the beach, weather permitting, and a stop at what is, without a doubt, the world's greatest ice cream parlor."

"Oooh," she wailed in feigned agony, "you've found my Achilles' heel! How can I turn down an invitation for pizza, the beach, and double chocolate almond?"

Either the thought of frozen dessert or a the cool sea air sent a shiver through her. Before she had a chance to protest, the Captain had taken off his formerly white jacket, and wrapped it around her shoulders. "I hope you don't mind being seen in the very latest in mud and grass stains."

Shrugging gratefully into the broad shoulders of his jacket as they walked, she grinned up at him, "Tell me, Captain Lee Crane, did you arrange for that breeze, too?"

"What?" he asked in confusion.

"You think I didn't notice the little charade about Chip's flat tire? I don't con quite so easily as all that! I've heard about your penchant for 'arrangements'."

"Who? Me?" he cried in mock protest. Had the light been better, however, she would have seen his face darken in embarrassment. "Just what has Miss Hamilton been telling you, anyway?"

As Connie related her conversation with Angie, Crane began to laugh. "What's so funny?" she asked.

"I'm surprised Angie never figured it out."

"Figured what out?"

"I'll take full responsibility for most of those 'arrangements', but it wasn't me who arranged for them to be stranded that day -- it was Chip! I was just the front man. He did all the planning."

"You're kidding! And he never told her?"

"Evidently not."

The two walked along in congenial silence for a few minutes. As they approached the Administration Building, and turned away from the water, Connie looked up at her escort. "Y'know something, Lee Crane? It really isn't so bad being conned, is it?"

Wrapping a protective arm around her shoulders he smiled contentedly. "No, Connie McCarron, it isn't."

* * The End * *

Copyright 1999 by naloma
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