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Classification Action, Romance (H/M)
Length Approximately 22,500 words, or 61 pages (8.5 x 11")
Spoilers “The Black Jet,” “Boomerang,” “Legacy,” “Critical Condition”
Rating IM15
Author's Notes The basic plot here comes from a real-life incident, and this time, it isn’t by coincidence. During the Gulf War, a Navy pilot was shot down and classified “killed in action” by the U.S. military. Recently, however, information has surfaced which suggests that LCDR Michael Scott Speicher likely survived the crash of his aircraft and may still be a prisoner in Baghdad. I don’t know too many of the details, but if one of our own is still out there, I’d like to think that we’re doing absolutely everything in our power to bring him home. However, I’m doing my best to avoid taking a position on the validity of a war against Iraq, so please don’t infer from this that I’m supporting the concept completely. Then again, I do keep F-16s in the air for a living, so if you want to flame me for something, that’s your best bet.

Also, this story is set in the summer of 2002, well before Sergei decided to go all gloomy and leave the country in “Family Business.” Actually, I think the reason I was annoyed at his hasty, sulky departure was that I’d already written his scene. So I guess I’m getting my revenge. And for anyone struggling with writer’s block, a word of advice: nothing gets the creative juices flowing faster than a cable outage on a good TV night. I hate missing “Alias.”

By the way, the phrase “the last full measure of devotion” is taken from the Gettysburg Address. For some reason, I feel the need to explain my titles. Additionally, the quote at the end is a real-life excerpt from a DPMO speech given on July 26, 2002. Just FYI.
 
Summary On the brink of a new war, Harm and Mac risk everything to locate and bring home an American pilot taken prisoner – without knowing whether or not he’s even alive.

 

 

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

 

 

 

 

Chapter 1

August 14, 2002
Summersville, Maryland


“Mom, somebody’s here!”

Hearing her son’s shout from upstairs, Carol Frasier looked up from folding the laundry and moved to the window. A dark sedan was parked in her driveway, and the uniformed men that emerged from it immediately made her heart twist in her chest. She’d been confronted with that same image once before, over four years ago, and it had very quickly and effectively changed her life. Now, though, there was no pain left for them to deliver. She was a military widow, not a military wife, and as such, she couldn’t imagine what these men could possibly want with her.

“Mrs. Frasier?” asked the older man through the screen door. “My name is Captain Hobson. May we come in?”

“Of course.” Carol stepped aside and opened the door. “I don’t mean to be rude, but what’s this about?”

“It’s about your husband, ma’am,” the lieutenant beside Hobson began uncertainly.

“I assumed that much, Lieutenant. Could you be a little more specific?”

“Mrs. Frasier, what we have to say is going to come as a shock – ”

“Captain, the last time I got a visit like this, it came with the news that my husband was dead. Do you really think that whatever you came to tell me could affect me any more than that?”

“That’s just it, ma’am. The Navy has recently gathered some information which suggests that your husband my in fact be alive.”

From the top of the stairs, young Matthew Frasier watched his mother go pale. Carol stared at the visitors, waiting to be told that this was some exceptionally cruel version of Candid Camera. When that didn’t happen, she did the only thing she could think of to do. She fainted.

 

1044 EDT J
AG Headquarters
Falls Church, Virginia


“Corporal Spencer, I don’t understand how you could have so easily determined that PFC Barnes was the Marine who disobeyed orders and sneaked out that night. Did one of his squad mates turn him in?”

“No, sir. Even after the lieutenant got in their faces about it, they all stayed quiet.”

“Then what was the smoking gun?”

“Sir, the private’s boots were scuffed at inspection the next morning. Since the squad spent a good hour polishing everything that night, I realized that Barnes must have left the grounds.”

“And your conclusion was based solely on a scuffed pair of boots? Even though another person could have scuffed those boots as a prank – or better yet, as a distraction?”

“Objection,” called the prosecutor. “If the defense’s aim is to accuse the witness of speculating, he ought to take some pointers from the case of Pot v Kettle.”

“Withdrawn, Your Honor. I think the witness’s superior investigative skills have been clearly established.”

“Objection!”

“Sustained,” replied Captain Sebring, a warning clear in his tone. “We’ll recess for lunch. Commander, Colonel, I advise you both to go cool off.”

The gavel banged, and Harmon Rabb gathered up the files from his table. Across the aisle, Sarah Mackenzie stood up and fixed him with a withering look.

“You’re being such an ass about this one.”

I’m being an ass? You used the highly obscure yet brilliantly effective ‘pot versus kettle’ gambit,” he retorted. “Either Duke Law is ahead of its time, or I must have been playing hooky the day they taught that one.”

“Oh, shut up and take me to lunch.”

Harm rolled his eyes, amused despite his exasperation. Only this woman could call him an ass and somehow keep from thoroughly pissing him off. “Okay, just give me a minute to return a phone call.”

Mac smiled sweetly after him, but before she could head into her office, Harriet stepped into her path. “Ma’am, there’s a woman here in need of legal advice. Everybody was out, and she’s got her son with her, so I had them wait in your office. I hope that’s all right.”

“It’s fine, Harriet. I’ll take care of them.” Mac moved through the doorway and extended her hand to the woman who sat in front of her desk. “I’m Lieutenant Colonel Mackenzie. What can I do for you?”

After the door closed, Harriet’s gaze continued to stray back toward the window into the colonel’s office. When Harm emerged from his own office a few minutes later, she was still watching with curiosity. “Something interesting in there?” he inquired.

She jumped, startled. “Sorry, sir. I was just – I don’t know, I guess I was surprised by that little boy. He can’t be more than nine or ten years old, and yet he’s sitting in there, perfectly still and quiet. He doesn’t have a book or a Game Boy or anything, and he’s not climbing the walls. It’s almost like he’s too grown up. You think there’s a reason he’s so well-behaved?”

Harm followed her gaze to the solemn-looking child, and was instantly struck by a sense of familiarity. “There could very easily be a reason, Harriet,” he answered. “Obviously I don’t know for sure, but I think if you asked my mother, she’d tell you that I looked a lot like that thirty years ago.”

As she began to comprehend his inference, a hint of sympathy crept into her blue eyes, both for this boy and for the boy he himself had once been. Soon, though, the door opened, and Mac beckoned to him with an unreadable expression.

“Harm, I think you ought to hear this.”

Dutifully, he joined them in her office.

“Mrs. Frasier, I’d like you to meet my partner, Commander Harmon Rabb,” Mac introduced them. “Harm, this is Carol Frasier and her son Matthew.”

“It’s a pleasure, Mrs. Frasier,” Harm told her politely, shaking her hand. “Hi, Matthew.”

Carol’s gaze swept over the wings on his uniform, and she almost smiled. “What did you fly, Commander?”

Mac waited, wondering whether her friend would take offense at the use of the past tense in that question. But he only smiled back. “Anything I could get my hands on, ma’am. But I’m trained on the F-14.”

“My husband flew -18s, so I’m sure he’d make all sorts of cracks in your direction if he were here. But personally, I’d be grateful to have an aviator involved in this.”

“Well, that’s not something I hear very often.” Harm leaned against Mac’s file cabinet. “So what is it we can help you with?”

Carol folded her hands in her lap and began in a careful voice. “In 1998, my husband, Lieutenant Commander Daniel Frasier, was stationed with VFA-63 on board the Truman. They were in the Arabian Sea supporting Operation Southern Watch, patrolling the Iraqi no-fly zone. In March of that year, Danny was shot down by what the Navy called a lucky surface-to-air missile. Central Command reported him killed the next day.”

With that, Harm’s suspicions were confirmed: Matthew Frasier’s story might as well have been his own. “I’m terribly sorry, ma’am,” he said quietly.

But she wasn’t finished. “Because he went down over Iraq, the Navy wasn’t able to retrieve his body. But they were sure he hadn’t been able to eject… that is, they were sure until last month. A week ago, two officers came to my door and told me that Naval Intelligence and the CIA had uncovered evidence that Danny’s ejection seat had been separated from the aircraft when it hit. They said there was a source in Basra who claimed to have seen an American prisoner many times. I don’t know all the details – I’m sure you could get more access than I could – but the main thing is that last month, the Pentagon officially changed his status from ‘killed’ to ‘missing.’ And knowing nothing but that, I just don’t know what to do.”

For a long moment, Harm just looked at Mac, unsure how to react. After all this time, might an American serviceman still be left alive in a foreign land? “Did the officers who gave you this information tell you anything about what the Pentagon intends to do next?”

Carol spread her hands helplessly. “I don’t think they knew. They told me to call someone in Public Affairs or Personnel, and then both of those told me to call the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office, but that got me nowhere. All anyone could tell me was that the State Department is looking for a diplomatic solution.”

Harm expertly concealed a bitter laugh. A diplomatic solution wouldn’t have worked even while tensions had been eased. Now, as the United States threatened an all-out offensive against Iraq, it would be completely out of the question.

“I’m sure there are a number of intelligence assets looking at the situation,” Mac assured her. “We can look into it and try to get you some more information. Some of it will no doubt be classified, but we’ll do what we can.”

“I’ll take anything I can get, Colonel, and I very much appreciate your help. I know this isn’t really your job, but I just kept hitting so many roadblocks … I guess I just figured that you could at least open an investigation into his crash, or something.”

“That’s only one of many things we’re going to do,” Harm promised resolutely. “If you get stonewalled by anyone again, call us. Nothing scares a Pentagon desk jockey like the threat of an internal JAG investigation.”

“You’re really going to try to find him, sir?” This subdued, doubtful comment came from Matthew, whose dark eyes held the commander’s gaze.

“We’re going to do our absolute best, Matthew.” Harm shook his hand as the family got up to leave. “We’ll be in touch, Mrs. Frasier.”

After they’d gone, Mac studied her friend carefully. “We should probably hand this off to somebody who knows what they’re doing in this arena,” she remarked. “But we’re not going to, are we?”

He didn’t answer the question directly. “You want to get us a couple of sandwiches from the caf? I’m going to go see if we can get in to talk to the admiral before court resumes.”

She sighed, already sensing the beginnings of yet another quixotic quest. “Don’t go in there without me. Someone’s got to steer the ship until your brain catches up to your heart.”

As it turned out, Admiral Chegwidden put up only a token protest. As a former SeAL who’d buried more brothers than he could count, his belief in the tenet of leaving no man behind was unyielding. As the Judge Advocate General, on the other hand, he had a responsibility to exercise caution.

“Investigate whatever you want,” he told them flatly, “as long as it can be done from this office. Research, collect data, crawl up the Pentagon’s ass, but remember what your duties are – and more specifically, remember what the limitations of your duties are. Clear enough?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Then get out of here and wrap up the Barnes trial. And Mr. Rabb?”

Harm paused. “Sir?”

The admiral leaned forward. “As difficult as it may be to remain objective in the matter, do not let this get personal.”

The younger man squared his shoulders. “I can handle the objective part, Admiral. But please, don’t ask me for something I can’t give.”

~~~~~~~~~~

Same location

Twenty-four hours later, they had a somewhat clearer picture of what they were up against. Lieutenant Commander Daniel Allen Frasier, a ROTC graduate of Pennsylvania State University, had been two weeks shy of his thirty-third birthday when his F/A-18 Hornet burst into flames over the Iraqi desert in 1998. Local residents had discovered the wreckage weeks later, and eventually a team of Saudi airmen went out to examine and photograph the site. They found the cockpit relatively intact and empty, with burn residue that suggested a successful ejection.

At the time, it was expected that the Iraqi regime would boast publicly about their victory, however small, over the mighty Americans; particularly if there was a living prisoner to show for it. When no such reports were made, and multiple requests for information were met with wide-eyed denial, U.S. Central Command closed its inquiry, concluding reluctantly that Commander Frasier had most likely succumbed to crash-related injuries or had died at the hands of angry locals. Nothing more was recorded in Frasier’s file until June of 2002, when a detainee at Camp Delta, Guantanamo Bay, informed one of his guards that he had information about a captive U.S. pilot in the southern region of Basra.

“No wonder nobody’s sure about anything.” Mac leaned back in her chair and stretched out her complaining muscles. “An Afghan Taliban – sorry, suspected Taliban member says he knew a man with a cousin in Basra who’d been in contact with jailers at a compound housing foreign prisoners. Leaving aside the fact that he voluntarily told all this to his supposed sworn enemy, isn’t that about three levels of hearsay?”

“This doesn’t have to hold up to a court of law. Besides, maybe the guy was angling for a deal of some kind.”

“If so, he’d better not hold his breath.”

Harm pushed another file across the conference room table. “Anyway, the source may have been shady, but Central Intelligence decided to shore up their human contacts in the area. The compound exists, and by some accounts, there have been some foreign guests there since the Gulf War.”

“So how does the CIA intend to go about finding out whether or not Frasier is there? Somehow I don’t think the Iraqis are going to be parading him around for our reconnaissance drones to photograph.”

“I don’t know, but I know who I’m going to ask first.”

 

1510 EDT
CIA Headquarters
Langley, Virginia


“What do you want me to say? We’re working on it through all available channels.”

“That’s a good start, Webb, but this isn’t some nebulous, far-off issue. This is the life of an American citizen, a man with a wife and son who miss him. For all we know, he’s getting beaten to a pulp for the eighty-fourth time right this minute.”

Clayton Webb glared at him. “Well, thank you for putting it all in perspective. None of that changes the fact that intelligence gathering doesn’t take well to acceleration. If we push too hard in the wrong place, it all goes up in smoke, and that doesn’t help Commander Frasier.”

Harm paced the senior agent’s well-appointed office. “Okay, so we can’t rush the intel. What about working on a parallel path? Can we put together an ops plan so that we’ll be ready to go as soon as we know if he’s there?”

“What do you mean, ‘we’?” Webb queried evenly. “Did you pick up a SeAL trident or a Force Recon qualification when I wasn’t looking?”

“I meant ‘we’ as in the U.S. government, and you know it. But I’d go in a heartbeat, and I think you know that, too.”

Webb just looked at him and nodded once in acknowledgement. “Regardless, the answer to your question is no. There can be only the vaguest possible discussion on this topic: no specific contingencies. We’ve already got a lot of weapons aimed at the Middle East as it is. If we put something on paper that looks at all like an incursion of Iraq’s borders, we risk fouling up the real-life strategic objectives that are already in place, just waiting on the word ‘go.’ If Commander Frasier were aware of our situation, don’t you think he’d understand that?”

Harm tightened a fist. “Probably so. But if you do receive credible evidence that he’s alive, there’s got to be some way in that wouldn’t compromise our battlefield objectives.”

“If there is, you can be assured that it’ll be implemented with all due speed. Now will you let me get back to work?”

“Thank you.” Heading for the door, he couldn’t resist getting in one last shot. “And would it kill you to take a break once in a while? You’re more uptight than our new SECNAV.”

Webb opened his mouth to hotly contest that statement, but the other man was already gone.

 

Chapter 2

1632 EDT
Summersville, Maryland


Harm got out of his car and approached the Frasier residence, still trying to decide why he’d driven all the way out here. It wasn’t as if the information he had to share was that critical. Hearing the admiral’s warning in his head, and subsequently ignoring it, he went up to the porch and rang the doorbell.

Matthew answered the door, regarding him with slightly less gravity than he had the day before. “Sorry, sir, but my mom isn’t home yet. I’m not allowed to let anyone in if she’s not here.”

“That’s okay, Matthew. I understand. What time does she usually get home?”

“Pretty soon. Maybe fifteen minutes.” The boy hesitated, curiosity warring with his desire to obey his mother. “You think she’d get mad if I came outside to talk to you instead? That way you don’t have to come in.”

Harm smiled. “If she does get mad, I’ll tell her it was my idea, all right?”

“Okay.” Matthew slipped through the doorway and stuffed his hands into his pockets. “So do you really fly F-14s?”

“Sure do. Do you like jets?”

“Definitely. My uncle took me to the air show in Baltimore last month. The Blue Angels were there and everything. They fly F/A-18s, just like my dad did.” He looked up at the officer before him. “Sir, can I ask you something?”

Harm bent down to meet his gaze. “Anything you want, Matthew.”

His voice was troubled. “If there wasn’t a war going on, why did somebody shoot him down? And why wouldn’t they let him come home?”

Harm remembered all the meaningless platitudes that he’d been given at that age, and vowed not to use any of them here. ‘I don’t know if I can answer that very well,” he said finally. “The war that went on over there still affects things, even though it’s over. The man who rules Iraq was told by the rest of the world to stop doing a lot of bad things, and he wouldn’t listen. Because he kept hurting people, we decided to try to contain him, and not everybody liked that idea. Some people get angry when America gets involved in other countries’ problems, but the important thing to us is to make sure more people aren’t hurt. That’s what your dad was doing, and no matter what, you should always be proud of him for that.”

Matthew looked at him with eyes far wiser than his ten years. “I know,” he said matter-of-factly.

A car pulled into the driveway then, and Carol Frasier stepped out, recognizing her guest. “Commander Rabb,” she greeted him, quickly turning to her son. “Following the letter of the law, huh, sweetheart?”

Matthew offered a guilty shrug, and she ruffled his hair. “It’s all right. Go work on your math, okay? Commander, come in. Do you have news?”

“Only a little, ma’am.”

“I’m not used to the ‘ma’am’ thing anymore. Call me Carol.”

“I’ll do my best. You can call me Harm, if you’re comfortable with it.”

“I’ll do my best. Can I offer you a cup of coffee?”

“That would be great.” As she moved around the kitchen, he explained what they’d learned. “It’s not much more than you already knew,” he admitted in conclusion. “But the prison compound exists, which gives us a solid place to start. I’m leaning on a friend at the CIA to keep us updated.”

“You’re right – it is a start. Not that I mind the personal touch, but you could have picked up the phone to tell me this.”

“I know. I guess I wanted to see how you were doing.”

Carol handed him a steaming mug of coffee and shrugged. “We’ve been hanging on for four and a half years now. We can handle this.”

“You’re a strong person,” Harm told her earnestly. “This can’t be easy.”

“I don’t worry so much about myself. I worry that Danny’s out there, spending another hour or day or week alone. And I worry about Matthew more than anything. He hasn’t seen his father since he was five. He’s a wonderful child, but I can’t help wondering if he’ll even remember Danny’s face when he’s twenty.”

“I suspect that he will. Even if all this searching only gets us back to where you started … you’re obviously helping him remember his father.” He gestured toward a framed picture on the counter, a snapshot of Daniel Frasier sitting in the cockpit with his baby son on his lap.

“I have to. I need him to remember. I just …” Carol sat down on one of the kitchen stools and sighed. “I just want someone to reassure me that he’ll turn out all right without his father. This generation is different – there are so few people in this situation anymore, even after Desert Storm and Afghanistan. That’s a good thing, I know, but it doesn’t help me find a lot of support. I keep thinking that there must be an entire generation of Vietnam children out there who lost fathers, and I wonder what happened to them all.”

Harm reached into his pocket and withdrew a laminated picture from his wallet. “I can’t speak for the rest of them,” he said simply, “but some of us turned out all right.”

Carol took the picture he held out to her, immediately recognizing the similarity to the picture she kept of Danny and Matthew. In surprise, she looked up at him. “Your father?”

“Shot down over North Vietnam, December of 1969. I was about the same age Matthew was.”

“Was he killed?”

He shook his head. “Not right away. He was a prisoner of war for years before he died. I had to risk my life to finally find out what had happened to him.”

She shook her head in wonderment. “That’s why you’re working so hard on this. You understand.”

“I understand that I have the chance to do something here that no one was able to do for my mother and me. That’s all the reason I need.”

“But after everything you must have been through, only to find out that he was dead … didn’t that destroy your faith?”

“It was damaged, certainly, but not destroyed. If I didn’t have any faith, I wouldn’t be here.”

She nodded, accepting that answer. “I don’t know how much faith I have left right now,” she confessed. “I’ll do whatever’s necessary in order to find out the truth, but after so long, the odds of getting a happy ending out of this can’t be very good.”

“I’ve seen plenty of people beat lousy odds,” Harm told her. “We’re going to do something about this, and we’re going to do it soon. I promise.”

Carol smiled gratefully, blinking away a few tears. “Commander – Harm – I’m beginning to think you were heaven-sent.”


2011 EDT
North of Union Station


“You’re brooding.”

Harm glanced up at his dinner companions with a mildly indignant look. “I am not.”

“Sure you are. Sergei, is he or is he not brooding?”

Sergei thought carefully about the question for about two seconds. “She is right, brother.”

“Thanks a lot. Memo to me: never let Mac and Sergei team up.” Harm got up to clear the table, but he knew he wasn’t going to be let off so easily.

“You’re frustrated because of the lack of news on Commander Frasier,” she suggested. “True?”

“Yes, I am, and I think I’m entitled. I know these things don’t happen overnight, but I wish there were some way we could measure our progress. I mean, the man has a family who’s waiting on any word at all – ”

“ – and you’re personalizing this way too much,” Mac finished for him. “This is Matthew Frasier’s father we’re talking about, not yours. It’s absolutely the right thing to do, but it isn’t going to change the past.”

At that, Harm’s eyes flicked over to Sergei, and he fell silent. The significance wasn’t lost on the younger Rabb, and he spoke quietly. “Harm, do you think it will hurt me if you say that you wish our father had come home? I know that this is true. And I know also that it does not mean you wish I did not exist, even though the two things are connected. Love does not have to make sense in that way.”

“Don’t I know it,” Harm sighed, careful not to look up at Mac at that particular moment. “Thanks for understanding.”

Sergei smiled and stood up. “Thank you for dinner. Now I should go. I have much to do.”

“You’re sure you have to leave already?” Mac asked.

“Let me try again. I should go, and let the two of you be alone.” At Harm’s look of consternation, he frowned. “What? First too subtle, then not subtle enough?”

Harm wadded up the dishtowel and threw it at him. “Jeez. Get lost, little brother.”

Sergei disappeared with a not-quite-innocent grin, and Mac hid a smile. “Your personality is rubbing off on him,” she commented.

“Hey, I’m not the one who told him to join a hockey league to impress girls.” Harm cocked an eyebrow challengingly, but soon sobered. “It’s a good thing he isn’t taking offense at all this. I don’t mean to make it so personal, but I don’t know any other way to see it.”

Mac crossed the living room to sit down on the couch. “I think that’s reasonable, and I certainly think it’s a noble cause – it might be the most noble cause there is. I just don’t want to see you give yourself a stroke in the process.”

At this, he hesitated. Coming over to join her, he took a seat in the opposite chair. “If I’d been shot down over Libya or Kosovo,” he began, not meeting her eyes, “I’d like to believe that someone would have come after me, no matter when or how. In fact, I have to believe that. Without that, the fundamental precepts of our military are lost. Aren’t they?”

“Maybe so.” She toyed with the silver bracelet on her wrist. “In any case, I know at least one person who would have come after you. No matter when or how.”

He turned fully toward her, reaching for her hand, but the telephone sharply broke the moment. Shaking his head, he leaned over and grabbed the phone. “Hello?”

“Thought you’d want to know ASAP,” Webb’s voice reported. “How fast can you get to a secure line?”

“We could probably get to you in person just as fast, unless you’re in Grozny or something.”

“Fair enough. There’s a drugstore six blocks down from you. Know which one I mean?”

“Sure.”

“See you in fifteen minutes.”

The line disconnected, and Harm turned back to his partner. “Guess we’re going on a field trip.”

The drugstore in question was open twenty-four hours a day, but its photo counter was closed in the evenings. When the two officers wandered into the quiet store with a practiced nonchalance, Webb was idly pressing buttons on the instant photo-maker machine in the corner, trying to look busy.

“Vacation photos, Webb?”

“Exotic locales, at least.” The agent handed over a manila envelope. “If you tell anyone that these pictures left Langley – ”

“We know the drill,” Mac told him, looking over Harm’s shoulder. “Oh, good lord …”

There were two photographs, both taken from a moderate distance and in a hurry. One showed a pair of men dragging a bedraggled prisoner by the arms. The other showed the same prisoner lying limply against a dirty stone wall. Under his tattered tunic, a small tattoo was visible on his shoulder.

“We’re sure this is him?” Harm asked in a low voice.

In response, Webb showed them a third photo, an enhanced view of the tattoo. “Recognize that?” When they looked at him blankly, he rolled his eyes. “I don’t believe this. I have to clue you in on college football trivia.”

“It’s a lion,” Mac realized suddenly. “A Penn State Nittany Lion.”

“Frasier’s alma mater. He assisted the defensive coordinator for two seasons.”

Unable to tear his gaze away from the bleak image, Harm gathered his courage to ask the inevitable next question. “Is he alive?”

“Until recently, obviously he was. Now … we don’t know for sure if he’s even alive in this picture.” Two appalled stares greeted that admission, and he spread his hands. “The guy who got those pictures is an Iraqi national. He works in the adjoining compound, and he couldn’t get any closer without compromising himself. You can understand why he’d be skittish about being on our payroll.”

“But there’s no reason to kill Frasier now, after they’ve held him for so long,” Mac pointed out. “They could even try to use him as a bargaining tool, to stall the expected attack.”

“For all we know, they’re taking out their frustrations with the U.S. on him,” Webb returned. “And they know we won’t fold for just one man. We’re principled, but we’ve got our limits.”

“The point is, they’ve got him, and at least until very recently, he was alive. So how do we get to him?”

Webb met their anxious gazes calmly and slid the pictures back into their envelope. “Let’s take this discussion outside,” he suggested.

The trio proceeded down the sidewalk, each concealing a hurricane of turbulent thoughts. “We don’t get to him just yet,” the agent continued as they walked. “Current tentative plans are to include the liberation of the compound in one of the military operations in the Basra region.”

“You mean after we’ve already started an attack?” Harm demanded. “That’s ludicrous. Even assuming an attack is inevitable – which I doubt – once the bombs start falling, who knows what’ll happen in there? We can’t guarantee that he’ll even survive that long.”

“We can’t guarantee that he’s even survived this long,” Webb countered. “Without concrete evidence – and maybe even despite it – no one on our side could risk even the most well-planned insertion. It’s just too unstable.”

Harm pounded a fist into his palm. “So we just sit on our hands?”

“Maybe not.” Both men turned to Mac as she spoke thoughtfully. “Maybe there’s a way to get that evidence. Would the word of an American observer be enough to verify Frasier’s status?”

“Like who? Somehow I don’t think he’ll be part of the dog-and-pony show the Iraqis are going to put on for our Congressional delegation next week.” At that, Mac and Harm shared a look of simultaneous inspiration, and Webb abruptly stopped walking. “Oh, no. No way in hell.”

“This could work,” Mac argued. “We could be part of the advance group, working out the procedures and schedules and such. Although … once we’re in, we’d better go all the way and actually extract him. We definitely won’t get another chance once our intentions become obvious.”

“You really think they’re going to let a pair of military officers into the country?”

“We’re lawyers, Webb. We’re the personification of the weakness and excess of the West, remember?”

“And they’ll underestimate Mac like crazy,” Harm added. “Just by virtue of being female. If we play it right, nobody will believe that we could be qualified to infiltrate anything.”

“Maybe that’s because you’re not! This can’t be a seat-of-the-pants maneuver. It has to be precise.”

His blood burning, Harm couldn’t hold back the cutting sarcasm. “Oh, like the stellar success that was the joint CIA-military operation against Kabir? That precise?”

Webb’s eyes narrowed, and he aimed an accusing finger at the other man. “That’s exactly my point, Rabb! After what happened to Secretary Nelson in the Senate hearings, I would’ve expected you to clue into this. Do you have any idea how much heat I took because of that debacle? The rest of the world views it as a total and unconditional intelligence failure, and not surprisingly, the DCI views it as my failure. For Christ’s sake – I had him telling me to go out and enlist if I was so fond of the Navy! So I’m speaking out of experience and a certain amount of bitterness when I say this: JAG is out of the field ops business. Despite the proficiency you two have demonstrated on numerous occasions, it’s still a lot like assigning a brain surgeon to start in the Super Bowl. You’re not the right tool for the job.”

“I know that, damn it, but the right tool isn’t available to us, is it?” Harm kept his voice as level as possible, but intensity still glowed from his eyes. “Here’s what matters. While we stand here and argue, Daniel Frasier is spending his fifty-third month as a prisoner of a regime about to come under attack by his own people, all because he did his job. I know for a fact that it’s not the first time, and I seriously doubt that it’ll be the last. So I’m speaking out of experience and a certain amount of bitterness when I say this: I’ll be damned if I’m going to let him stay for month number fifty-four.”

They stared at each other for a long moment, each man a staunch defender of his country in his own right. Finally, Mac spoke up quietly. “Okay, time out. We’re not going to get official permission to do what we want to do. I think that’s obvious. But what if we do it on our own? All we need is a legitimate way in. The Congressional delegation doesn’t even need to know why we’re really there. Your contact in Basra can help us out with the layout of the compound. We can talk to some friends and get a helo crew from the Guadalcanal that’ll pick us up with very few questions asked. If it goes well, everyone all the way up to the President will come out looking heroic. If it goes bad, we’ll call off the pickup, and the U.S. government can disavow all knowledge of our actions. You can play up the story. Hell, make stuff up if you want. Harm disobeyed a slew of orders and went on a crusade because of his history with his father, and I went along with him because I’m either in love with him or slightly unstable.”

Harm drew back, startled, but she only shrugged. “What does it matter? We’ll be dead.”

Webb just looked from one lawyer to the other in utter disbelief. “You’d really stake your lives and your reputations on the possibility, slim as it will certainly be, that you’ll be able to not only get in and find this man – which is doubtful enough – but get out again without getting shot? You’re willing to take those odds without even a second thought?”

“I can think pretty quickly. Here’s my second thought: I’m going.” Harm glanced over at Mac, considered raising an objection on her behalf, and finally thought better of it.

Unfortunately, she’d already read his expression. “Excuse me? You’re going to try and tell me to stay behind? Did you not just hear me come up with pretty much the entire plan myself? You don’t honestly think I’d let you pull this dumb-ass stunt on your own, do you?”

“I didn’t even say anything!”

“You were obviously thinking it!”

Webb waited as the pair faced off. Soon, though, Mac relented, smiling a little. “Besides, does anyone in this world watch your six better than I do?”

A trace of a grin crept into Harm’s eyes. “Just remember, Sundance – you said it, not me.”

“Christ. You’re both apparently far crazier than even I gave you credit for,” Webb stated in disbelief. “You know I can’t take this to the DCI. The moment the word ‘JAG’ comes out of my mouth, he’ll send me packing for Antarctica.”

“So have someone else take it to him,” suggested Harm reasonably. “There must be someone in that building who owes you a favor. Better yet, take it directly to Naval Intelligence. I don’t care how you do it, but you have to at least try.”

Webb pinned them both with a hard stare, then shook his head. “I’ve been playing this game way too long.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because there’s a part of me that actually wants you to do this.” He sighed in resignation. “I’ll see what I can do. Don’t hold your breath, but at the same time, stay close to the phone.”

“Thank you.”

“Don’t thank me. A stunt this suicidal is going to need a lot more than just my backing.” He was still shaking his head as he walked away. “I’ll be in touch.”

Mac and Harm looked at each other for a minute, contemplating the potential catastrophe that they’d just bullied their way into. “This might end up looking a lot like Keeter’s jailbreak in Iran,” Mac remarked.

Harm shrugged as they started back toward his apartment. “We don’t have to worry about retrieving a plane this time,” he pointed out. “Basra’s close to both the Kuwaiti border and the sea. As long as we can get a helo in to pull us out, we’re good to go.”

“You can be amazingly optimistic when you want to be.”

He flashed a quick grin at her. “Aviators are confident, Mac, not optimistic. ‘Optimistic’ doesn’t reflect the appropriate amount of certainty.”

“My mistake.” She paused a moment, then looked up at him in all seriousness. “I guess we’ve never really talked about what’s going on over there right now. Hypothetically speaking, do you support regime change by way of preemptive strike?”

He winced a little at the thought. “It’s definitely not the way this country typically does things,” he admitted. “Back on the Henry, I said something to X-Man once … I told him that we were the good guys, and that we didn’t get that way by shooting first. I still believe that, but …”

“Yeah. I don’t know if we can afford to leave this guy in power any longer, either.” She shook her head, as if trying to clear those dark thoughts. “Anyway, that isn’t what matters right now. They’ve got one of ours, and that’s all there is to it. I think.”

When they reached the spot where her Corvette was parked, there was a strange silence. It wasn’t that either of them felt awkward; it was more the gravity of the duty that lay ahead. Confidence aside, there was no way this would be an easy task, and they both knew it.

“I guess I’ll see you tomorrow?” he said lamely, as if it were the best he could offer.

“Of course. Hey, thanks for dinner.” She reached down to unlock the car door, but his hand shot out to still her.

“Mac – I’m no good at this, but thank you. I know I dive into these kinds of things headfirst without checking the water, and I’m sure you could have tried to pull me back without, you know, jumping in after me. I guess I’m trying to say …” He shrugged and gave her that half-sheepish smile that always melted her just a little. “I’m really grateful that you jumped in after me.”

She glanced down at his hand on her arm, and covered it with her own. “Somebody needs to do this, Harm. I realize that there’s a much larger issue in sight for this country right now, but that man gave everything he had to give for us, and if somebody doesn’t go in after him, all our vaunted principles aren’t worth a damn.” With a hint of a smile, she continued, “But don’t think that you have nothing to do with it, because let me tell you, if it weren’t for you, my outlook on a lot of things would be very, very different.”

“Was that a compliment or an insult?”

“It was a statement of fact. But I’d lean toward calling it a compliment.” She squeezed his hand once, then opened her car door. “Good night.”

It gave her an odd feeling of comfort to see him in her rearview mirror, standing on the sidewalk and watching until her Vette finally turned the corner.

 

 

 

 

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