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"THE RETURN OF THE PHANTOM"
Alison A. Passarelli
The blast from the explosion threatened to envelop FS-1. Nelson swung into action and managed to get the craft airborne within seconds of Krueger's disappearance. He was going to have an awful lot of explaining to do about that missile when he returned stateside. Worry about that later.
The girl in the co-pilot's seat pointed to the tiny archipelago in the nose window below. "Take me home."
Save for the light coming from the Flying Sub, it was pitch black in the lagoon. There wasn't a soul in sight on the island. In his haste, Nelson made a rather abrupt landing on the beachhead. He wanted desperately to explain everything to his passenger, but there was simply no time. The girl seemed eerily calm about the whole affair anyway, almost as if she knew more than she was telling. But that, of course, was impossible. Then again, she had witnessed first hand Krueger's possession of Captain Crane's body.
The young woman stood silently by Nelson's side as he turned the aft hatch-wheel of the Flying Sub. Glancing at Crane's unconscious form lying in the bunk, she touched Nelson on the arm. "My name is Maria."
"Harry Nelson," he responded as he shook her hand. Nelson looked into that comely face and was transfixed. Maria was the spitting image of Lani. But how can that be? He couldn't fathom the mystery right now. No time. Have to get Lee back to the ship. But neither could he take his eyes off the girl. Behind her wide, beautiful black eyes, there was a mixture of strength, intelligence, innocence, and worldliness. Nelson found her fascinating. No wonder Krueger had.
"Please tell your friend, I know now that he never meant to hurt me." Maria then bade him farewell with a compassionate nod, and a heartfelt wish for Crane's recovery.
Nelson closed the hatch behind her then turned to check on Crane. The Captain's face dripped with perspiration. His color was gray. Blood had begun to pour from the wound in his side -- of course, now that Krueger was gone, Crane's body had once again slipped into shock. He was dying.
"Hang on, Lee," Nelson pleaded as he squeezed Crane's arm. "Hang on a little longer." The Admiral did not bother strapping himself into the pilot's seat. He just grabbed the controls and took off. "Nelson to Seaview."
"Morton here, Admiral. We have you in sight."
"Lee's in critical condition. Have a medical team standing by."
"They're already here, sir."
One hundred eighty endless seconds later, the Flying Sub was berthed in its bay. Lee Crane would soon be on an operating table in Seaview's Sick Bay.
Climbing up the access ladder into the submarine's forward compartment, Admiral Nelson felt the eyes of an angry crew upon him. Only Chip Morton knew the whole truth. Only he knew that Nelson was not insane -- or worse. Only he knew how close all of them had come to death. Had it not been for Morton's loyalty and his love for both Nelson and Crane, Lee would be dead by now, and Nelson -- probably mad. How would they ever repay that debt?
"What happened to Krueger?" said Morton.
"He's gone for good, Chip. He's . . ." Nelson put a hand to his forehead and pressed against his throbbing temple.
"Are you all right, Admiral?" whispered the Executive Officer.
Nelson studied the blond fellow before him. This was a worthy man. He wished there were another Seaview over which Morton could be placed in command. He deserved his own ship. He was a fine officer. There was none better -- except, perhaps, Lee Crane. And he had certainly proved himself a fine friend. How did the saying go? There is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother. Morton was that friend. Nodding, Nelson answered, "Are you?"
Morton arched his brow. "I don't know yet. I feel like we've been living through a dream."
"We have been, Chip. The dream of a man who loved life too much." Suddenly, the gravity of the situation came crashing down around Harriman Nelson. He was completely drained, demoralized, and worried to death about Lee Crane. And he could stand the ill thoughts of his crew no longer. He had to get out of there. "Chip?"
"The men . . . the men deserve an explanation about what's gone on here today. I want you to tell them everything."
"Very well, but I can't guarantee they'll believe me."
"No. But you'll tell them nevertheless."
"I will, Admiral." Morton pivoted on his heel to go, but was stopped by a hand on his shoulder. He turned back around and looked at Nelson.
"Admiral, I . . ." Morton smiled and replied, "You're welcome, Admiral."
"Set us on course for Pearl Harbor. I'll be in my cabin if you need me."
An hour later . . .
As Commander Morton was plotting a course correction, the doctor's voice came over the intercom. "Sick Bay to Control Room."
Nervously, Morton picked up the mike. "Go ahead, Doc, we're all listening."
Breaths were held; hearts stopped beating.
"The Captain's out of surgery, and out of danger. He came through just fine, and he's going to be all right."
Unabashed shouts of joy filled the submarine -- except in one place. Alone in his cabin, in the dark, Harry Nelson heard the news as well. He sighed in relief. Then he put his weary head down on the desk and he wept.
The Next Morning . . . 0625 Hours . . .
Lee Crane awoke to a hazy world. It took him a moment to realize he was not in his own bed. It took him another moment to remember why he was where he was. Wasn't it just a dream? He looked left. His arm was hooked up to an IV tube. He reached under the blanket with his right hand and felt a bandage at his waistline. He pressed on it lightly and felt a pain that made him flinch. So it really happened after all! Crane tried lifting his head and found that to be a colossal mistake. He closed his eyes and stayed still for a while. Finally, the universe stopped reeling. When he dared to look out again, he saw the doctor standing over him.
"Welcome back, Captain," smiled Doc. "How do you feel?"
"I don't know." Crane took in a deep breath, then slowly released it. His lips were so parched, it was difficult to speak. His voice sounded strained and weak. "How should I feel?"
"Lousy. But you're going to be fine, Captain. And that's a promise. How's the pain? Tolerable?"
"Good. But let me know if it's gets any worse."
"Doc . . ." Crane swallowed. "Can I have some water please?"
"Coming right up."
A minute later, the Captain had drunk his fill. Easing his head back on the pillow, he said, "Doc, how did I get back to the Seaview?"
"The Admiral brought you back in the Flying Sub."
"The Flying Sub! But how did he even know where I was?"
"That's a long story, Captain. What say we let the Admiral fill you in on all the details? Meantime, you just rest and take it easy."
"When am I getting out of here?"
Frowning, Doc said, "I knew you were gonna ask me that question."
"Well? What's the answer?"
"When we reach port, you'll be transferred to the Tripler Army Medical Center."
Disappointment etched itself in Crane's features.
"Now look here, Skipper, you're lucky to be alive! You lost a tremendous amount of blood, and that bullet caused a great deal of tissue damage. You need time to heal."
"Just tell me when I'll be back to normal again."
The doctor ruminated for a few moments, then said, "Two weeks. Ten days if you cooperate," he added with a wink.
Pursed in disapproval, Crane's lips promptly turned upward into a smile.
"That's better," said Doc.
0750 Hours . . .
Chip Morton shut his cabin door behind him and headed for Seaview's state-of-the-art Infirmary. The Sick Bay door was closed. Morton knocked quietly then turned the knob. He poked his head into the room and called softly, "Doc?"
"Come on in, Chip," summoned Lee Crane from his bed.
"Lee!" Morton flew into the room and hurried to Crane's side. "How are you? How is he, Doc?"
"Coming along very well, Mr. Morton."
"Thank God! Thank God it's all over." Morton noticed Crane's happy expression contort itself into a distressed grimace. What had he said to cause that? "Do you . . . know what happened to you, Lee?"
"Chip, do you know what happened to me?"
The doctor slipped away unobtrusively and went back to his desk. Morton pulled over a chair and sat down. "Yes I do. And it's enough to make any man doubt his sanity."
"How much does the crew know?"
"Everything. The Admiral felt they had a right to know."
Still looking disturbed, Crane nodded.
"They took it well, Lee. Better than I did. At least they're not holding a grudge against the Admiral anymore."
"Where is the Admiral?"
"In his cabin. I'm sure he'll be down to see you any minute." Checking his watch, Morton said, "Hey! I'd better get up to the Control Room. Another two minutes and I'll have to put myself on report! With you gold-bricking in here, I've been pulling double duty. And I'm practically worn to a frazzle!"
Crane laughed. "You have my sympathies."
"Just for the record, Lee, you owe me big. Big!"
In a gentle tone, Crane responded, "I've known that for a long time, pal."
"Hey, Lee," said Morton, suddenly aware of a massive lump in his throat, "don't go getting sentimental on me. That's not fair."
Smiling with moist eyes, Crane replied, "Sorry. What's our status, Chip?"
"Heading for Pearl at Standard. We'll be there in forty-eight hours. The Admiral's giving us all two weeks off. Looks like you'll be missing a great shore leave, Captain." Standing up, Morton added, "I'll try not to have too much fun without you."
"Thanks a lot!"
"It sure is good to see you back to your old self again." Morton noticed his friend yawn for the third time in as many minutes. "You'd better take it easy now. I'll check in on you later."
"Thanks for stopping by, Chip."
Morton patted Crane's hand, then turned to leave.
"Oh . . . Chip?"
Commander Morton turned back and witnessed another yawn. "Yes, Lee?"
The Captain's brows knitted together. "Sorry about that crack in the jaw."
Morton rubbed the spot to which Crane had referred. "That was quite a punch. I saw stars for about ten minutes afterwards."
"I couldn't stop him, Chip. I'm sorry." The guilt showed in Crane's face.
"Lee, forget it! I was only kidding. Besides, if it hadn't been for that right cross, this episode would've had an entirely different outcome."
"How do you mean?"
"Well, up until then, I was willing to believe . . . I don't know . . . that you'd been healed by . . . by faith! And that maybe you really did have a Top Secret assignment. But when you hit me . . . The look in your eyes . . . That wasn't the Lee I knew. As crazy as the Admiral's story sounded, it was the only one that made any sense. From then on, he gave the orders and I carried them out. How he figured you were on that tiny speck of an island I'll never know. But that's not important. What matters is, you're here, you're safe, and you're going to be all right. So don't think about anything else except getting well."
"Is that an order, Mr. Morton?"
Fighting a losing battle with a grin, the Lieutenant Commander did his best to look stern and authoritative. "That, Captain Crane, is an order!"
Crane returned Morton's smile and saluted. "Aye-aye . . ." But as he was speaking, the Captain's head lolled to the right; his eyes closed. ". . . sir." He fell asleep.
The Second Day . . .
By dinnertime, half the crew had been in to wish the Captain well. The Chief had stopped by three times. On his last sojourn, Sharkey was ordered out of Sick Bay by the doctor -- because he was making the Captain laugh too hard. At 2030 hours, the CPO was back for his fourth visit.
"So, Chief. Anybody on report, thrown in the brig, or locked in irons today?" asked Captain Crane rhetorically.
"Nah. But I did have to lace into Riley pretty hard a little while ago."
"Why? What'd he do?"
"I'm confused. Why'd you bawl him out, then?"
"See, Skipper, it's like this. Now it's my job to keep this ship running smoothly, right?"
"Well, in order to do that, I have to keep the men on their toes. So, I figure, if I go crazy over nothin' every once in awhile, they'll work extra hard not give me a reason to go crazy over somethin'."
Crane's eyes widened in amused horror.
"In other words, Skipper, since they never know when I'm gonna snap, well, that keeps them snappin' to. It's just simple psychology."
The Captain chuckled. "If you say so, Chief."
Moving his chair a bit closer, Sharkey grinned at Crane. "Say, Skipper, d'ya ever hear the one about the sailor who went ashore in Singapore. He ended up --"
"All right, Chief, all right, that's enough," said the ship's doctor as he ambled across the room.
"What, Doc! I'm only tellin' the Skipper a story."
"Save it." The doctor pulled Sharkey up by the elbow. "I don't want to have to fix any popped stitches, thank you."
Chief Sharkey winked and leaned over Crane's bunk. Cupping his hand to his mouth he said, "I'll come back and tell ya later, Skipper, when Doc's asleep."
"You do and you'll live to regret it, Francis!" said Doc.
Twice yesterday, and twice this day (while Captain Crane was fast asleep), Seaview's chief medical officer put in a call -- as ordered -- to the Admiral. Nelson was more than concerned about the Captain's condition; he was anxious, even fretful. It was all the doctor could do to convince him that Crane was improving steadily. And yet, curiously, every call seemed to end the same way. Doc would say, Why don't you just come to Sick Bay and see for yourself, Admiral? And Nelson would reply, as usual, that he'd be down for a visit as soon as he had a free moment. As of 2100 hours, there was still no sign of Admiral Nelson.
2200 hours . . .
Chip Morton strolled into Sick Bay again. "Getting along all right, Lee?"
Propped up against two pillows, Crane nodded silently.
"You seem a little down. Is anything wrong?"
"No. I guess I'm just tired." The Captain shifted, but could not seem to find a comfortable position.
"Yeah. You look pretty beat. I'd better let you get some rest."
"No, don't go. Stay awhile. Please?"
Morton paused, thinking it over, then said, "Okay, Lee."
Crane cleared his throat. In a casual sounding-voice, which Morton knew was only a mask, the Captain said, "I wonder why the Admiral hasn't been around yet?"
Morton made a yet another feeble excuse for the Admiral's absence. Both he and Lee knew it was a white lie, but it sufficed for the moment. After a little more small talk, Chip Morton said good night to Lee Crane. But before heading to his own cabin, the exhausted Executive Officer made a side trip to the Admiral's. He knocked gently.
Nelson was writing at his desk. Morton stood in the doorway.
Finally, the Admiral glanced up. "Come in, Chip. Sit down."
"Thank you, sir." Morton took the chair in front of Nelson's desk.
"Everything all right?" asked Nelson. "We're still on course?"
"Affirmative. We'll reach Pearl Harbor in the morning."
"Is Lee all right?" Nelson asked, plainly trying to hide the panic he was feeling.
"He's all right, Admiral. But he's been asking for you -- for two days." There was a definite tone of chastisement in Morton's voice, and in his expression.
Nelson looked away and fidgeted in his seat. "Well, I've been very busy trying to figure out how the devil to write up a report on what happened. It's not easy to --"
"Sir, with all due respect, I think you'd better go see the Captain."
"I just said . . . I'm . . . I'm busy working on this report. It's got to be finished by the time we reach Pearl Harbor."
"That is a load of baloney, Admiral." Get ready for the explosion, Charles!
An angry Nelson threw down his pen. "How dare you talk to me in that manner!"
Feeling two-foot small, Morton tried to sit up straighter. "Begging the Admiral's pardon, sir, but I have a friend in Sick Bay right now who keeps asking me why you haven't been around to see him. I'm afraid I've run out of excuses."
The Admiral's shoulders sagged. His eyes closed. Suddenly he appeared ten years older. After a few seconds, Nelson blinked rapidly. He looked at Morton. "Oh, Chip . . ."
There was so much pain in those expressive blue eyes; and in those two words. Morton felt as though he had just run the older man through with a sword. He was about to apologize when the Admiral said, "I can't go see Lee yet."
"Why not, sir?"
"Isn't it obvious? Because I can't face him!"
"But Admiral, Lee isn't harboring any bad feelings towards you. He understands better than any of us what you were up against."
Nelson slapped the desktop and stood up. "Well, I don't!" He began pacing back and forth. "I . . . I . . . I can't forgive myself, Chip," he said with a quivering lip.
"I suppose if I were in your shoes, Admiral, I'd feel the same way. But, sir, believe me, I've talked with Lee. He's knows that if you hadn't done what Krueger wanted, he'd be dead. And so would the rest of us."
Nelson went back to his chair. "That still doesn't excuse it."
"Admiral, please. Go and see your friend. He's waiting for you."
Nelson glanced at his watch. "But it's late now."
"Admiral . . ." Morton stood up. "Go and see him." Without another word, he left the Admiral's presence.
Nelson poured himself a shot glass of whiskey. He'd hoped the alcohol would give him the courage he lacked, but he might just as well have had a shot glass of water, for all the good it did. He closed up the bottle and returned it to his bottom drawer. After a quick inspection in the mirror, Nelson stepped into the corridor. He felt as if he were walking the last mile.
2210 Hours . . .
The Sick Bay door was ajar. The doctor was standing behind his desk, closing his black bag. Nelson entered quietly. "Doc?"
The physician looked up. "Hello, Admiral."
"How's . . . uh . . . how's the patient?"
"As I've been telling you, he's doing very well. Though I must admit, when we first got him on the table, I wasn't so sure he'd make it. His blood volume was practically nil. But, despite everything, and that includes shock, surgery, three transfusions, and too many of Chief Sharkey's tall stories, he's holding his own."
"Well, Lee has a strong instinct for survival."
Doc nodded in agreement and looked toward the Captain's bed. "Whatever it is, it seems to have brought him through the gates of Hell, back to the land of the living."
"And he's going to recover completely?"
"Absolutely. He's been very anxious to see you, Admiral. Why don't you pull up a chair and visit for a while?"
Nelson took a peek at Crane. His eyes were closed. "He's sleeping. I don't want to disturb him."
"He's just resting. Go on. He'll be glad to see you. I have to make a house call, anyway -- sprained ankle in the Missile Room. I'll only be gone a few minutes, but I'd feel better knowing someone's here."
Rubbing his neck, the Admiral stood in place on the deck as if his feet were glued to the spot.
"Come on." Doc picked up a chair and carried it to Crane's bed.
Nelson finally forced himself to move. He followed the doctor to the patient's bedside and sat down.
Nodding his satisfaction, the doctor headed for the Missile Room.
For the longest time, Nelson just stared at Crane -- he looked so fragile, so terribly pale and drawn.
After a few seconds, Lee opened his eyes. A smile lit up his face. "Admiral!"
"How are you feeling, Lee?"
"Never better," he said in a cracking voice.
"Mm." Nelson shook his head. "I'll just bet." The Admiral allowed his gaze to wander about the room. It was easier than meeting Crane's eyes.
"There's something I'd like to get off my chest."
Here it comes, he thought to himself. "All right, Lee. Go ahead."
Crane bit his lip. "Thank you for . . . for saving my life."
That was the last thing Nelson had expected to hear. The tension within him was visible from without. "How can you say that to me after . . ."
"You risked your life to give me back mine."
"But if it wasn't for me, you wouldn't be lying in this bed."
"That's right, because I'd be dead."
Nelson started kneading his hands. This was all wrong! Lee shouldn't be thanking him.
"Admiral, I know what Krueger did to you. I know what he was capable of." At the mention of Krueger's formidable powers, a sweat broke out on Crane's forehead. "You had no choice in the matter. Just as I had no choice in leaving the ship, and bringing that poor girl to Mulayo. Incidentally, is she . . . did you get her off the island, too?"
"Yes, yes. She's fine."
"Thank God for that."
"She asked me to tell you, Lee . . . she knew you didn't mean her any harm."
The Captain visibly relaxed. "I'm glad to hear that, too. You know, I can hardly believe it all happened, it seems so unre --" Crane moved suddenly and evidently experienced a painful twinge; his hand went to his side and he winced.
Nelson cursed himself. He ought to be the one suffering, not Lee. The Admiral held Crane by the arm until the discomfort passed. "Shall I get the doctor?"
"No." After he released a breath, Crane said, "I'm fine. Really. There's nothing to worry about."
"I'll worry if I want to, Captain!"
Smiling, Crane said, "Admiral, please tell me you're not feeling guilty over this."
Nelson answered in a sharper tone than he meant to. "Well of course I feel guilty! For heaven's sake! I shot my best friend!" He rubbed the mist out of his eyes and looked at Crane again. "And I am so truly sorry, Lee."
"Admiral, there's nothing to be sorry about. That bullet saved my life. It saved the crew, and it saved the ship. So no more recriminations. Doc says I'll be up and around in no time. Everything's worked out for the best. At least now I'll get that vacation you're always promising me but never delivering."
For the first time in three days, Nelson laughed. Somewhat sheepishly he said, "Do you mean to say, Lee, that . . . you still feel the same way about me -- as you always have?"
Uh-oh . . .
"I mean to say . . ." Clearly overwhelmed by everything that had happened to him, Lee Crane could not keep a tear from escaping his left eye. "I admire you more now than I ever did before, Admiral."
Harriman Nelson began to shake. He held his mouth and sobbed in silence for several seconds. Finally, the weight of the world was off his shoulders. He would be able to forgive himself, after all. When he found his voice again, Nelson filled in for Lee the parts of the story he was missing. He explained that it was Lani who had really saved all their lives -- Lani and Chip. By the time the Admiral had finished telling the bizarre tale, the doctor was back, and Crane was struggling to keep his eyes open. Nelson offered to go, but the Captain wanted him to stay. So he stayed.
And with their bond of friendship strengthened and renewed, Harriman Nelson and Lee Crane felt magnanimous enough to forgive Gerhardt Krueger. If as fine a soul as Lani could love a man like that, there must have been something there to love.
Perhaps now those two tortured spirits could finally rest in peace.
Copyright 1998 by Alison A. Passarelli
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