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Classification Romance (H/M), adventure
 
Length Approximately 30,000 words, 76 pages (8 ½” x 11”)
 
Spoilers Through Season 6
 
Rating SLSV
Summary Harm and Mac's investigation into a SEAL unit turns deadly.

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

 

 

The lone figure sat in the darkened room, hunched over the laptop, typing at a feverish pace. So much depended on his effort. Some would die so that a secret would be kept. A few more keystrokes finished his task. It's done, he thought sadly, looking at the glowing laptop display. *My country and my honor for a few pieces of silver. God forgive me, 'cause no one else will.*



Somewhere in the jungles of Panama
1030 CST

 

The Chief Petty Officer was in agony, but determined not to show it in front of his younger teammates. The platoon of Navy SEALs had been engaged in training exercises in the Panamanian jungle for a week now. Every man was exhausted, mentally and physically, from the environment. The temperature was in the nineties most days and the humidity rarely dropped below ninety-five percent. Other hazards he had to contend with included snakes, lizards, mosquitoes and other critters he couldn't name at the moment. It was the closest thing to the Laotian jungle the Chief had experienced in years.

He shifted his sixty-pound field pack and finished off the canteen of water and replaced it on his web belt. His camouflage BDU's stank of sweat and the jungle. He could not remember ever needing a shower so desperately in his life.

He looked around at the other SEALs. He was by far the oldest person in the unit. Most of the SEALs were in their twenties, even the platoon leader, Lt. Willis. This was as rambunctious a group of SEALs as he'd ever met. He wiped away the sweat streaming down his face, scanning the jungle once more for movement. Thoughts of possible enemy activity brought his attention back to the mission at hand.

Somewhere nearby, a company of Panamanian soldiers masquerading as drug dealers was holed up. The objectives of this exercise were to locate the OPFOR, assess their strength, destroy a cinderblock hut and withdraw; a standard anti-drug mission, commonplace for the South American-based SEAL squads.

"How you holding up, Chief?" asked Lt. Elton Willis. He scrutinized the older man carefully. He didn't understand why the Chief had returned to the Teams after being behind a desk for so long, but couldn't dispute the results. The Chief really knew how to motivate the men, an impressive feat for someone who'd been assigned to his unit less than a month ago.

"Just fine, LT," replied the Chief, mopping the sweat from his brow. "It's a bit warmer down here than I remember," he chuckled. "I'm definitely leaving this place a few pounds lighter than when I arrived." He shifted his M-16/M-203 assault rifle to a more comfortable position. He didn't doubt for a second that he had lost several pounds over the last few weeks. The intensive SEAL training regimen had quickly worked off any excess body fat and left him leaner and stronger than ever.

Lt. Willis laughed at the comment. Everyone who spent time in the Panamanian jungles left a few pounds lighter. He paused to look at the older man (who was in his late thirties) and wondered why he had decided to retread and become an active duty SEAL again. There were times when he wondered why *he* was still a SEAL. The answer came immediately. Being a SEAL was in the man's blood. If Chief Burnett wanted to finish his twenty-year career on the frontlines, so be it. He'd already proven to be an invaluable asset, and Elton Willis hated waste.

The Lieutenant looked around and spotted his assistant platoon leader, Lieutenant j.g. Cory Adams. "All right, Chief. Let's get moving."

The Chief turned towards the rest of the platoon and used hand signals to signal the others to fall in and get ready to move out. As he watched everyone get into formation, Commander Harmon Rabb, aka CPO Matt Burnett, wondered which one was the man he was looking for.



SEAL Team 4 HQ
NAVSEA, Coastal Systems Station
Panama City, Panama
Same day, same time

 

The Chief smiled to her co-workers as she headed towards her CO's office. She ignored the admiring looks from some of her male counterparts. She shifted the load of manila file folders in her arms and knocked on the Captain's door. "Enter."

The Chief entered and stood to attention. "Sir, I have the reports you requested," she stated. Captain Bill Blackburn, a career SEAL, looked resignedly at the stack. Blackburn had a reputation as a fire-breathing maverick that got the job done. Being stuck behind a desk was a slow death to him. A smile that never reached her face flowed through the Chief. His expression mirrored that of another SEAL she knew.

"Set them down, Bonnie," Captain Blackburn pointed to the only bare spot on his desk. He glanced up and thought he saw the glimmer of laughter in her brown eyes. "It's not that bad," he said defensively.

"No, Sir. I've seen worse," she chuckled. "A couple of times. Sir," she amended. The two shared a laugh.

"Point taken, Chief," snorted the Captain. "You would think after 200 years, the Navy would come up with a better way of managing paperwork."

The Chief's lip curled. "A SEAL of my acquaintance once suggested a flamethrower, Sir."

Captain Blackburn laughed uproariously. "That's a great idea, Chief, but there would be too much collateral damage."

"I think that was his point, Sir," the Chief grinned as Captain Blackburn laughed again.

He sat there, face flushed, shaking his head. "Dismissed, Chief Tyler," he said good-naturedly. "Some of us have work to do."

"Aye, Sir," said Chief Bonnie Tyler as she braced to attention. She turned on her heel and left the office, closing the door behind her.

Captain Blackburn watched her leave, wondering who the lucky man was. Scuttlebutt had it she was romantically involved with one of the SEALs in his unit. Lucky bastard. The attractive Chief was worth her weight in gold. She was an able yeoman and fantastic at keeping the office running smoothly. He briefly pondered what it would take to get her a Warrant Officer's commission. The Navy needed more people like her.

Outside, Chief Bonnie Tyler poured herself a cup of coffee. It was usual Navy sludge, weak by Marine standards. Lt. Colonel Sarah MacKenzie sipped at her drink, wondering who in the headquarters staff was the person she was looking for.

 

Club Panama
Panama City, Panama
Two days later
2230 hours

 

Lt. Bud Roberts felt distinctly out of place. The smoke-filled Panamanian disco was packed with American servicemen and locals. The music was deafening and the beat was frenetic. He watched amusedly as SEALs from Commander Rabb's platoon engaged in a drinking contest. A number of Panamanian women were trying hard to separate the servicemen from their money through a number of fairly blatant means. All in all, it reminded him of some of the raves he attended during college.

He scanned the crowd until he saw the couple he was looking for. He smiled as he watched the pair. The woman, dressed in a flowery summer dress, was dancing up a storm with a tall Navy SEAL, dressed in slacks, button-down shirt and sports jacket, who was trying hard to keep up with her. Bud could see her laughing at some comment the SEAL made. The man pulled her close as a new, slower song started. Bud could see the longing desire the two held for each other. It was obvious in the way he held her and the way she looked at him. Bud sighed at the image they presented.

Bud was torn between loyalty to his friends and to his job. Commander Rabb and Colonel MacKenzie's covers were built around a pre-existing relationship between their alter egos, CPOs Matt Burnett and Bonnie Tyler. It was deemed necessary so that the two could meet regularly without drawing undue attention. Apparently, something had changed in their personal relationship, given recent events between them and their respective exes. Bud stood there mesmerized by sight of Colonel MacKenzie cutting loose on the dance floor. She was dancing the night away, as evidenced by the many admirers watching her. Bud had never seen this side of her before and, apparently, neither had Commander Rabb.

Not for the first time tonight, he wondered how he would make contact with them without breaking their cover. He watched intently as Colonel MacKenzie whispered something to Commander Rabb. The duo walked over to the bar and ordered some drinks. They stood there talking and laughing with other SEALs while sipping at their drinks. Bud took a deep breath, exhaled and watched them from his corner table.
 

~~~~~~~~~~
 

"Say, Chief!" Petty Officer Kelly Ashbrook asked Harm, "How long were you at JAG before you returned to the Teams?" Like most of the platoon, he was eager to learn more about Chief Burnett. Most of his background was highly classified, which only served to add more fuel to the rumor mill.

"About 8 years," Harm confided, "I worked at a couple of different JAG offices until I bumped into Admiral Chegwidden one day in Norfolk. He'd been my CO for a while before he turned ship driver. He remembered me from our SEAL days and offered me a job at JAG Ops."

"Why did you leave the Teams, Chief?" asked Liam Rourke, the platoon radio operator.

"Let's just say, I was right, my platoon leader was wrong and a lot of people were unnecessarily hurt," Harm grimly stated, watching the other SEALs shake their heads. "The Team CO saw things my way, but it was decided that I should leave. I've always been a fairly good paper-pusher, so he got me a job at the JAG office in San Diego."

"Where we first met," Mac chimed in. She gave Harm a loving look that the others caught. Some of the SEALs chuckled at Harm's embarrassed look.

"I don't get it," asked Rafe Cardones, "If you were right in the situational assessment and the LT disregarded you, why did you have to leave?"

Harm and Mac exchanged glances. This was going better than they'd expected. "Well, there was the matter of my striking an officer. The Captain chose to overlook the incident, but others in the team wouldn't, so I left." Such instances were rare, but not unheard of, in the tight Special Ops community. Mac looked at him sympathetically, resting her head on his shoulder. Every word he'd just said was total fiction, but the expressions on his teammates showed they'd believed what he'd told them.

"How long have you two been dating?" asked Celia Armstrong, one of Mac's civilian co-workers. The short, perky blond couldn't keep her eyes off Harm. Mac played to Celia's infatuation and wrapped an arm around Harm's waist, giving the younger woman a warning glare.

"On and off for the last few years," Mac replied. "We didn't really commit to each other until a few months ago."

"Although I almost lost you when I decided to retread," Harm said, looking deeply into Mac's eyes. He managed to convey some of the hurt he'd felt when he'd returned to flying two years before. Mac smiled softly and held him closer still.

"It's a good thing you discussed it with me before you left, otherwise you would have," Mac said, punching him lightly in the stomach causing the others to laugh at the scene. A couple of SEALs laughingly offered to assist Harm if he needed help fending off Chief Tyler's aggressive intentions.
"We'd better get going, Bonnie," Harm said to Mac. "We have to get up early, remember?"

"Oh, Harmy!" Mac pouted. "I was hoping we could sleep in for once." Her tone was both childish and naughty at the same time.

"Harmy?" asked Celia, delight shining in her eyes. She'd never met two people so in love.

Harm rolled his eyes at Mac. "It's my name. Matthew Harmon Burnett. Only Bon-Bon here and my mom call me Harm." He smiled wickedly at Mac's shocked expression at being called 'Bon-Bon', and then grunted as she slapped him hard on the stomach. Harm kissed Mac on the forehead, and then they bid goodnight to everyone.

As they walked out of the club, a stocky young man bumped into them, jostling Mac. "Excuse me, I'm very sorry," he stammered before quickly leaving the establishment. Harm and Mac shrugged and went on their way.

 

A few blocks from Club Panama

 

Lt. Alfred Aldridge struggled to stay awake in the car. He had been waiting for three hours for Bud Roberts to return from his meeting with Commander Rabb and Lt. Colonel MacKenzie. He sipped at his now-cold coffee, grimacing at the taste. He yawned and looked around the area again. There was still no sign of Bud, but a number of Panamanian women smiled and waved at him as they walked the streets. A few had approached him in the car, but he had brushed them off.

Alfred rolled down the car window and tossed out the remains of his coffee. As he did, he spotted Bud Roberts walking towards him. He rolled the window up and started the engine. When Bud got into the passenger seat, he pulled out and headed back to the American Embassy.

"Well?" Alfred asked.

Bud looked down at the list of names he held. "The Colonel and Commander have compiled a list of names of people they want us to check out."

"How did they get the list to you in a crowded bar?"

Bud smiled. "Something the Commander taught me a long time ago. Let's go. We still have a lot of work to do before the next meet."

 

Hotel California
Panama City, Panama
2305

 

"Well, mademoiselle? Does this meet with your approval?" Harm asked in a faux French accent. He held the door open for Mac as she walked into the hotel room they would be sharing for the weekend. CPOs Burnett and Tyler were known to be romantically involved, so this seemed a natural thing to do to maintain their cover.

He and Mac had spent a lot of off-duty time with the other SEALs in Team 4 and the admin staff trying to find their suspect in the espionage case they were investigating. As hard as life as a SEAL was, Harm knew he wouldn't trade the last few weeks for anything.

Sharing quarters was nothing new to Harm and Mac. They had done so in a number of other cases, but this was the first time they would be spending the night together in the same bed. Mac eyed the large king-size bed that dominated the room.

"Acceptable, my good man," Mac replied in an affected tone. Harm was full of surprises and tonight was certainly no different. After making contact with Bud at Club Panama, the two JAG lawyers had checked into the Hotel California, a small hotel on the Via España. The rates were reasonable and the rooms surprisingly large and well appointed. All in all, it was a nice little love nest for two Navy CPOs wanting a quiet weekend alone.

"Nothing but the best for mademoiselle," Harm bowed gentlemanly. The grin on his face spoke volumes. Their little role-playing had taken their personal relationship to new levels. Both were newly single after rather public breakups with Mic Brumby and Renee Peterson. Harm knew Mac was still hurting, though she would never admit it, and he frequently would do little things to lighten her day.

Mac sat down on the bed, finding it quite comfortable. Laying out her bags, she set about putting her things away in the chest of drawers and the closet. She watched as Harm put his clothes away. "Harm?"

"Yes, Bon-Bon," Harm teased her.

"What are we going to do about the sleeping arrangements?" Nervousness clearly showed in Mac's eyes. The question opened up a whole avenue of possibilities that neither was sure they were ready for yet.

"We're both adults. I think we're mature and responsible enough to share the same bed without giving in to our baser instincts, don't you?" Harm, standing before her, gazed intently at his partner. The statement was a complete departure from his previous feelings on the subject. He had always either slept on the floor or a chair when they had been required to share quarters.

Mac nodded mutely. It was more than she had hoped for. She smiled at him. "First dibs on the shower," she said.
 

 

Hotel California
Panama City, Panama
Several hours later

 

Harm lay awake, studying Mac as she drowsed peacefully next to him and pulled her closer. She smiled in her sleep as he held her in the crook of his arm. One tanned arm slid across his chest and rested on his stomach. She whispered something in her sleep, but he couldn't make out the words. He softly kissed her on the forehead, wishing for the umpteenth times things were different between them.

"Mmm. Don't stop," Mac whispered, her eyes fluttering open. A gentle, loving smile crossed her face as she looked up at him.

"Sorry," Harm muttered, looking away from her. In a heartbeat, the old barriers were back up. Mac caught the change in his demeanor immediately. He was shutting her out again.

"Don't do this. We need to talk about what happened in DC," Mac pleaded, sitting up in bed. She squirmed nervously as she adjusted her attire. Harm grinned broadly at the sight. The Semper Fi Marine was clearly uncomfortable wearing a U.S. Navy t-shirt and gym shorts. "Don't you feel anything about what happened?"

Harm's grin faded as he considered his response. "Honestly, Mac. I don't know what I feel. I mean, your boyfriend gets my girlfriend pregnant and then they elope. And how do they let us know what's going on? They leave us a videotape confession about the affair they've been having for the last seven months! An affair neither of *us* knew about! Tell me, Mac. How am I supposed to feel?" He said bitterly as the painful memory resurfaced.

"Harm..." Mac wanted to say more, but some compulsion stilled her tongue. His remarks made it clear he felt much as she did. Embarrassed at not noticing the obvious attraction that Mic and Renee had developed for each other, he was humiliated at the bullpen's response to the news of the elopement and just downright ticked at the world in the general. When Webb had approached them with this undercover operation, they had jumped at it, if no other reason than to get out of DC for a while. "I feel as badly as you do. People we loved and trusted duped us both. There's nothing we can do about it now."

"So, what are we supposed to do?" Harm wanted to know. He felt guilty raging at Mac, but the words escaped his lips before he could stop them. "Run around plotting to get even with them? If I wanted revenge on Mic and Renee, we'd be on our honeymoon right now, instead of working an espionage case in Panama!"

Mac stared at Harm, trying to assimilate what he'd just said. "Honeymoon? I thought..."

"You thought what?" Harm asked, quizzically.

"That you wouldn't 'let go' for me," Mac's voice trailed off as she gazed down at the floor.

"Mac, I've never said I didn't love you, only that I won't ruin our friendship with an affair," Harm cupped her chin in his hand and looked her in the eyes. "I can't define my feelings for you, Mac. I never have been able to. The only thing I can tell you is that I have always cared for you. Maybe someday, if our situation changes, we can be together, but for now," Harm took a deep breath before continuing, "For now, we have to maintain a professional relationship."

The JAG officers sat there silently on the bed, looking at each other. Mac admired his ability to stay focused on the assignment, when her heart cried out in pain and need. "Still friends?" she asked, extending her hand in a handshake. 'Just not lovers.'

Harm smiled winningly. "Always."

It was a start. "Good," Mac sighed inwardly. "Can we go back to sleep now? And no more touchy-feely stuff unless you mean it."

"Aye, aye, ma'am," Harm laughed. They lay back in bed together. Harm tentatively placed his arm around her. When she slid closer into his embrace, he let out a restful sigh and quickly fell asleep.

Mac, however, lay there, pondering Harm's words. 'This isn't over, Harm,' she thought. 'It's only just beginning.'

 

A dark alley somewhere in Panama City

 

Celia Armstrong staggered down the street towards her apartment. After CPOs Burnett and Tyler had left the party, she'd had more than a few drinks with Rafe and the other SEALs. Now it was all she could do just to stand up. A wave of nausea hit her and she stumbled down an alley. She barely made it into the pitch-black alley before her stomach revolted. She knelt on the ground behind a large garbage dumpster, waiting for her body to recover enough to finish making her way home.

"Are you crazy? Do you know how risky it is to meet like this?" said a familiar male voice. Celia looked up in surprise. What was he doing here?

"Do you know how dangerous it is to withhold information from Mr. Chan?" came a threatening response. The second speaker talked with a heavy Far Eastern accent.

“I'm not withholding anything," the first man said, "The information you want is very hard to get. I've told Chan that I don't have direct access to those schedules. My main source is getting cold feet. It's going to take time to get him to provide the data your boss wants."

"Time is something we do not have a great deal of. Mr. Chan wants that information by tomorrow night," said the Asian speaker.

Celia reeled back in horror. Even in her inebriated condition, she was aware of who the first speaker was. What they were talking about she had no idea, but she had to get away before they spotted her. She'd read enough mystery novels to know what happened to people who were caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Her first step toward escape was her last.

In the dark alley, she couldn't see more than a few feet in front of her. She stumbled and fell to the ground sobbing. She tried to scramble to her feet before she was spotted. She scraped her knee on the rough concrete alley, drawing a sharp cry. Celia bit back tears as she felt strong hands jerk her to her feet. Her body was slammed against the alley wall, snapping her head back against the wall with stunning force.

"Oh, Cece! Why did it have to be you?" Regret tinged the first man's voice.

"What are you waiting for? Do it!" demanded the Asian speaker. "She can't be allowed to live!"

"Please," she whimpered, pleading to the man she called friend. "I won't tell anyone."

"I'm sorry, Cece. I can't," he said. A quick, savage motion snapped her neck like a twig. He closed her lifeless eyes, and then picked her up in his arms. He motioned with a wave of his head to his companion. "Open it up," he ordered.

The Asian man checked to make sure there was no one else around, lifted the lid and held it up. His eyes were wide with surprise at the other man's ruthlessness. It was out of profile for what Mr. Chan had said about him.

With a single, powerful toss, Celia's body was unceremoniously thrown into the dumpster. The Asian slowly lowered the lid to avoid making any undue noise.

"You'll get the data by Tuesday," said the first man.

The other nodded, and the two men quietly left the alley and went their separate ways.

 

JAG Offices
NAVSEA, Coastal Systems Station
Panama City, Panama
Monday, 1015 CST

 

Lt. Bud Roberts leaned back in his chair as he reviewed the data on his computer monitor. Colonel MacKenzie and Commander Rabb had compiled a list of ten suspects in the espionage case they were investigating. Four SEALs and six admin personnel were listed as possible candidates for investigation. Ten people, one or more of whom was selling classified anti-drug operations information to the Colombian drug lords.

Bud looked around the tiny office he had been assigned. The room was barely large enough for his desk and a pair of uncomfortable chairs. It was even smaller than his office back in DC. The room needed a paint job, and the air conditioning was marginal at best.

He glanced up as Alfred knocked on the door. "Come," Bud called absently. Alfred walked in with an armful of personnel folders. "Have a seat, Al. What have you got?"

"As you requested, Sir. I have copies of the suspects' personnel records," Alfred responded as he handed the stack over. Though both were the same rank, Bud was senior by several months in time in grade. He was also the more experienced investigator and trial lawyer. Alfred had quickly learned that Bud was Rabb and MacKenzie's protégé and frequently sought out his advice.

Bud looked through the stack of folders. Two of the SEALs were senior officers, with the necessary clearances to the material, as were three of the admin personnel. He noted, with some surprise, that both Captain Blackburn and his executive officer, Commander Paul Stroud, were both on the list. He wondered what the two officers had said or done to warrant the Colonel's attention. They were obvious suspects in any investigation of this type. Bud had already reviewed both their files, but hadn't found anything out of the ordinary. A deeper probe into both men was called for. "Al, contact Webb and give him these names. Let's see if he can find something we might have missed."

"Right, Bud," Al said, pulling out a notepad and pen from his pocket and began taking notes. He was a little skeptical about working with the CIA spy, but said nothing. From earlier discussions they had had with Webb, it was clear Bud had a good working relationship with the agent. It was also interesting to watch Webb around Bud. Webb seemed to have a hard time looking Bud in the eye, but Aldridge couldn't figure out why.

Lt. Aldridge's musings were interrupted by a knock on the door. Both men stood as Commander Lydia Mendoza, head of the JAG offices in Panama, entered the room. She motioned them to sit down. "As you were, gentlemen. I thought you might like to know, Lt. Roberts, that the Panama City Police found the body of Celia Armstrong, an administrative assistant at Team 4 HQ, in a dumpster near her apartment building Saturday morning." Al blanched in shock while Bud took the news stoically, but said nothing as Commander Mendoza continued, "Do you think there might be a tie-in to your investigation, Lt. Roberts?"

Bud knew she was angry at not being informed about his and Aldridge's mission, but his orders from Admiral Chegwidden were clear. He was not to discuss his assignment until he deemed it necessary. In this case, it meant crossing swords with Commander Mendoza almost every day. Bud knew from his briefing with Admiral Chegwidden that Commander Mendoza had served under him when he was JAG Pacific. She was a tough, dedicated officer and said to be a predator in the courtroom. "I can't say, Ma'am. We'll know more after we talk with the police and coroner. Where's her body being held, Ma'am?" Bud asked courteously.

"City morgue," Commander Mendoza replied tersely. She'd hoped to browbeat the lieutenant into providing details on his assignment, but he wasn't budging. The other lieutenant was taking his lead from Roberts and keeping his mouth shut. She grudgingly admitted that A.J. had trained these two well.

"Very well. With your permission, Ma'am?" Bud asked.

Commander Mendoza nearly growled in his face. She hated being left out of an investigation that was being conducted in her jurisdiction. It hinted that she (and, by extension, her staff) wasn't to be trusted in the matter. It rankled her professional pride, but she had done the same thing to others before in her career. Now it was her turn to sit and watch a major investigation unfold. She nodded perfunctorily at Bud. "Carry on," she said before departing.

 

Panama City Police HQ
1115 CST

 

Bud and Alfred strode up to the main desk where a burly Sergeant was filling out paperwork. "Excuse me, Sergeant. I'm Lt. Roberts and this is Lt. Aldridge. We're with the US Navy JAG Corps. We need to speak with the detective in charge of the Armstrong murder."

"That would be Sergeant Ruiz," the Sergeant replied. He gestured towards a nearby staircase. "Second floor, room 219."

"Thank you, Sergeant," Bud said as he and Lt. Aldridge headed upstairs. The two men quickly located room 219 and after a momentary language barrier were ushered over to Sergeant Ruiz's desk.

"Sergeant Ruiz? I'm Lt. Roberts and this is Lt. Aldridge. We're with the US Navy JAG Corps. We need to speak with you about Celia Armstrong."

"I'll save you some trouble, Lt. Roberts. She's dead," Sergeant Ruiz said humorlessly, looking up from the large stacks of files on his desk. He gazed at the two Navy officers, both in summer uniforms. Neither looked like much, and he wondered idly what kind of lawyers they were.

The room was sweltering hot. The overhead fans did little to cool things down. Bud dabbed at the perspiration on his brow with a handkerchief. "How did she die?" he asked, a bit winded.

"According to the coroner, she died of a broken neck," Ruiz stated mechanically. He picked up a folder and then handed it to Bud. "Here's my report."

"Her neck was broken?" Bud said, confused. He quickly read through the police report and flipped through the crime scene photos. "A resident was throwing out her trash and found Ms. Armstrong's body in the dumpster?" There was something wrong about how Celia had died.

"Yes. Guadalupe Estevez was taking out her trash at about 6:00AM (that's 0600 to you Navy types) and found the body. Time of death is somewhere between midnight and 4AM, judging by the state of rigor mortis," Ruiz said clinically.

"She knew her killer," Bud said with chilling finality.

Ruiz's eyebrows rose up in surprise. "And, how did you come to this conclusion, Lt. Roberts?"

Bud flipped back to one of the photos. It was a close-up of Celia's head and neck. A pattern of bruises on her neck was clearly visible. "Look at the bruises on her neck. Whoever killed her was standing in front of her. She was awake and saw her killer. Probably knew him by name." Bud looked through the other photos again. "There's no evidence of a struggle. And, look at the scrapes and bruises on her hands and knees. They're consistent with someone tripping and falling onto a rough surface... She tripped and fell. The killer picked her up by the throat and then broke her neck. The question is why?" Bud shook his head as he struggled to draw a conclusion. Only one came to mind. "She must have seen or heard something she wasn't supposed to."

Sergeant Ruiz smiled as he stood. "Very good, Lieutenant. You've pieced together in a few minutes a mystery I've been working on all weekend." The ringing of his phone interrupted him. "Ruiz? Sí? Bueno. Gracias. That was the coroner's office. He has the preliminary report ready. Shall we go see what he has to say, gentlemen?"

 

SEAL Team 4 Training Grounds
Panama City, Panama
Tuesday, 1015 CST

 

It was a curious sensation, being the hunted not the hunter. His objective was a one hundred meters away. It was an easy stroll on most occasions, but not with eight highly trained and motivated Navy SEALs hunting you. The dense Panamanian jungle worked for and against him. It made it harder for the SEALs to find him, but conversely made it hard for him to spot them. There were two SEALs off to his right about ten meters away, another about 15 meters ahead of him and a fourth one 5 meters behind. The Chief smiled as he crept through the underbrush.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

"You see him, Chief?" asked Commander Stroud, peering through a pair of hi-power binoculars. The tall, powerfully built man wasn't quite as tall as Chief Burnett, but he was, however, of a mind that the retread had no business as a SEAL.

"Not a sign, Sir," Chief Bonnie Tyler said, just a little too smugly. She almost laughed at his snorted response. The SEALs of Bravo platoon had been trying with no success for nearly three hours to locate Chief Burnett.

The mission was simple: Chief Burnett was one of six men whose objective was to cross a 1600 square meter area overgrown with grass nearly four feet high. Once through the glen, he had to cross a small stream, get past a barbwire fence and plant a satchel charge. To deter him were eight SEALs, plus an observation deck filled with the other platoon leaders (all of whom were aiding in the search via binoculars and walkie-talkies). The SEALs’ objective was to stop him before he reached the stream. It was a challenging scenario few SEALs succeeded at.

"Tell me, Chief," asked Captain Blackburn, "have you heard of 'hubris'?" Like other officers, he could not fathom how someone so large could disappear so quickly. Chief Burnett was easily the tallest SEAL he'd ever met and wondered if his size (and age) would work against him.

"False pride has nothing to do with it, Sir. Besides, that would only apply to me bragging about my own skills. I have every confidence in the Chief's ability to kick all their butts," Chief Tyler said, drawing chuckles from the platoon leaders. She admitted to herself that this was more fun than watching Harm masquerade as a Marine Force Recon Gunnery Sergeant.

"How about 'pride goeth before a fall'?" queried Lt. Akins, Echo Platoon's commander.

"Not in this lifetime, Sir," she smirked, squinting into her binoculars again. Her grin broadened as she found what she was looking for. "There he is," she said, pointing towards a tall figure silently crawling out of the edge of the grass. Mac chuckled craftily as Harm slithered out of the grass and across the stream. With minimal effort, he low-crawled up to the fence and snipped the barbwire with his wire clippers. A series of groans came from the gathered SEALS, including Commander Stroud and Lt. Akins, as Harm slipped into the perimeter and dropped the satchel charge at the drop-off point a mere five meters from the observation deck.

Captain Blackburn frowned as he watched the grime and muck-covered SEAL stand up. "Chief Burnett! Just how did you get by eight of the best trained and equipped SEALs in the Navy?"

"Sir!" Harm yelled back. "The Chief Petty Officer utilized years of finely honed skills as a sneaky bastard to stealthily circumvent the tadpoles." Harm grinned broadly as the Bravo platoon SEALs walked up behind him. They were all chuckling at the 'tadpole' (SEAL-speak for new recruits) comment. The SEAL officers on the deck broke out laughing as well at his remark.

Chief Tyler took her floppy hat off, holding it behind her back, while she scratched her head. She waited a moment before putting it back on, but not before discretely putting her winnings into her pocket.

"You know, Chief," said Captain Blackburn humorlessly, shaking his head at her Cheshire cat smile, "I could have you up on gambling charges."

"Sir, it's hardly gambling when the outcome's pre-ordained," she responded craftily, knowing he was right.

"Thin, Chief," Captain Blackburn laughed, "but I'll let it slide as long as half of it goes towards..."

"Marine Toys for Tots?" Chief Tyler asked, nervously. In retrospect, not the best choice a Navy CPO would make.

The Captain eyed her suspiciously. "That'll do." He paused to check his watch. "Paul, since Chief Burnett's testing took so long, let's push back the rest until after lunch. If the others decide to use him as an example, we could be here for a while."

“Aye, skipper," said Commander Stroud, not taking his eyes off Chief Burnett, who was shaking hands with Bravo platoon.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Shortly afterwards, back at headquarters, Captain Blackburn was stopped by two officers he didn't recognize. His nostrils flared as he looked at their collar tabs. JAG.

"Captain Blackburn?" asked Bud, "I'm Lt. Bud Roberts and this is Lt. Alfred Aldridge. We're with the JAG Corps. We're investigating the murder of Ms. Celia Armstrong."

The Captain flinched at that last statement. "A tragic event. Cece was a fine assistant. She will be missed."

"Yes, Sir," replied Bud, "Sir, we need to interview Chief Petty Officers Tyler and Burnett regarding Ms. Armstrong's death. We have information stating that they were seen with her at a party shortly before her death. We've already spoken with the other persons she was with Friday night."

Commander Stroud scoffed. "You really think they had anything to do with her death, Lt. Roberts?"

"I'm not at liberty to say," Bud responded. "Regs forbid discussion of an ongoing investigation, Sir. We need to ask them some questions about the incident. The Chiefs are the last two people on our list."

"Just a second, Lt. Roberts," questioned Captain Blackburn. "I don't recognize you or your partner. When did you transfer in to the JAG offices here?"

"We haven't, sir," Bud informed him. "Lt. Aldridge and I are here on another matter. Commander Mendoza was concerned this might be related to our investigation and asked us to look into it."

"I see," said Captain Blackburn. "Very well. Chief Tyler, I want you to give these men your full cooperation. Call Chief Burnett and have him report here as soon as he gets cleaned up. Return to the training range afterwards. Lt. Roberts, you may use my office to conduct your interviews. I presume Lt. Aldridge will be Chief Tyler's advocate?"

"Yes, Sir. Thank you for the use of your office, Sir. We won't be long. Chief?" Bud stepped aside to let her pass.

 

Club Panama
2030 CST
That night

 

Harm and Mac sat together in a corner booth, as far from the crowd and noise as they could get. Both were dressed casually, and Mac's head lay on Harm's shoulder while his arm was draped around her shoulders. This was as close to Heaven as Mac could imagine. She thought back fleetingly to the time she'd been with Mic Brumby. Nothing she'd felt for him came close to the simple pleasure of cuddling with Harm, even if it was pretend.

"I think we trained Bud a little too well," Mac said softly, so only Harm could hear her. Although strictly for purposes of maintaining their covers, the young lieutenant had been quite thorough in his interview sessions with them.

"Mm-hm," Harm murmured softly in response. He sipped from his drink and watched warily as several SEALs from his platoon entered the nightclub. He noticed that Cardones and Ingram were both staggering a bit. The old adage about loose lips came to mind. "Here they are. Looks like they've been barhopping for a while. This could work to our advantage."

"Doesn't this bother you, Harm?" Mac questioned. "Using them like this?"

"Mac, one of these people is not only a traitor, but a murderer," Harm reminded her. "Look, I like these guys, too, but let's maintain a little objectivity, ok?" He waved to Cardones, who responded with an exuberant "CHIEF!" The two JAG officers chuckled at the sight.

The SEALs gathered around the booth. Cardones and Ingram took seats opposite Harm and Mac, respectively, while the others pulled up chairs. "Hey, Chief! That was some show you put on today!" exclaimed Cardones.

"Yeah," said Ingram, "no one else even came close to the perimeter. You blew them all away!"

The other SEALs laughed in agreement. A moment later, a waitress came by, took their orders and returned a few moments later with their drinks.

"Say, Chief," asked Cardones, "what did those JAG pukes want?"

Harm shrugged, as if it were no big deal. "They wanted to talk to me about Celia Armstrong's murder."

"Too bad about Cece," remarked Ingram solemnly. "I'm gonna miss her."

"Yeah, me, too," said Cardones. "I hope we get first crack at whoever whacked her."

"How well did you guys know her?" asked Mac.

Cardones smirked. "Pretty well, Chief. Cece was a real party girl."

"Yeah, man," Ingram agreed. "There was one lady who seldom slept alone."

Harm and Mac exchanged looks. "So, she really wasn't dating any one person?" asked Harm, considering the possibilities. Could she have fallen victim to a jealous lover? No, that didn't make sense.

"Nah. She liked to play the field," said Cardones. "She'd done it with most of the officers in the Team. She had this thing for rank."

"Even the Skipper?" Mac asked incredulously.

"No, she never made a play for him, but rumor has it she and Commander Stroud were pretty tight for a while," Cardones informed them.

"A toast to Cece Armstrong!" shouted Ingram. "Cece, you were a real party girl and we're gonna miss you!" Harm and Mac joined the others in their farewell toast, all the while wondering what was really going on.

 

Somewhere in the Colombian Jungle
0935 Local

 

The eight-man SEAL squad crept silently through the dense jungle towards their target. The men of Baker Platoon knew this was no training exercise. All weapons were loaded with live ammo and, as a unit, they packed enough firepower to shatter an infantry company. The SEALs were in a standard formation; point men front and rear, flankers on both sides and the platoon leader, medic, radio man and demo expert spread out in the middle. Off on the distant flank, the other half of Baker Platoon was arrayed similarly.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Lt. Miles Edwards, Baker Platoon leader, surveyed the terrain around him for signs of human life. His instincts told him they were being watched. He used hand signals to tell everyone to stop and seek cover. He watched in admiration as the hardened SEALs melted into the terrain, becoming nearly invisible. Lt. Edwards looked up and around, searching for some hint of danger.

The jungle teemed with a life of its own, as plants and animals scurried about their everyday existence. The lieutenant was an experienced SEAL with a number of black ops under his belt, and this mission was no different from numerous others he'd been on.

"Point, this is Lead. You see anything," he whispered into his throat mike, carefully sweeping the area for any sign of movement.

"Negative, Lead. It's quiet here," replied Chief Henry Alvarez.

"Deuce, Trey, you see anything," asked Lt. Edwards.

"Negative, skipper."

"Same here, sir. Not even the birds are making their usual racket."

"Roger that. Everyone, maintain position and wait for my signal," ordered the lieutenant. Trey was right about one thing. It was too quiet for his liking. The lieutenant shifted his weapon slightly to redistribute the weight. Something wasn't right with the setting. He could feel hostile eyes watching him, but there was nothing to be seen. If someone was out there, they were very good and well-trained.

A moment later, he realized the depths of the trap he'd unknowingly led his men into. He got up and quickly barked orders to his men as he started to run. "Fallback! I repeat, fall back to extraction point bravo. It's a trap! Sanchez! Notify base that we're falling back to..." Whatever he had to say was lost to history as he felt, then heard three bullets strike him in the chest. His legs became weak and everything seemed to stand still. Suddenly, he felt himself falling, his legs no longer able to support him. Lt. Miles Edwards landed on his side, staring blankly as the world around him exploded in a cacophony of gunfire.

 

Club Panama
Panama City, Panama
2145 Local, three days later

 

The dance floor was filled to capacity as Mac and Harm enjoyed another night together. It was a pleasant change from the steady stream of inquiries into the Baker Platoon ambush. The base NCIS and JAG investigators were conducting extensive interviews with everyone involved, looking for any breach of security.

For Mac, this was a great opportunity to get closer to Harm. She'd subtly stepped up her campaign to win him over. Harm was being his usual stubborn self, but, to her surprise, he wasn't putting up as much resistance as she'd expected. When she'd suggested they go dancing at the club again, he'd readily agreed and even gone so far as to dress up for the occasion.

A soothing contentment filled her as they danced to a rhythm all their own. Mac rested her head on Harm's shoulder. Glancing around the room, she noticed a number of SEALs were also in attendance, dancing and drinking the night away. Despite the solemn events of the previous day, morale was high and the other platoons were eager to even the score. The loyal soldier in her hated the fact that one of them might be responsible for the deaths of four SEALs.

Mac sighed happily as Harm's hand traced a lazy circle on her back. No, not a circle. A 'C'. "Oh, no," she whispered despairingly, wanting more time alone with Harm. She turned to see Clayton Webb, dressed as casually as she'd ever seen him, standing at the edge of the dance floor mingling with the crowd. Mac looked up and saw the same bothered look in his eyes. "Come on. Let's get this over with."

Harm took her by the hand and led the way out of the club. The two walked for a while, before slipping into a deserted alleyway. Mac leaned back against the brick wall and pulled him close, wrapping her arms around his neck. Harm responded by nuzzling her neck, giving the image of two lovers enjoying a private moment. The problem, for them both, was separating fantasy from reality.

Mac was lost in his touch. Harm was doing what she wanted him to do, only he was pretending.

"Oh, grow up, you two!" said a familiar voice.

Mac jerked upright, adjusting her dress. "Well, well, if it isn't the master spy himself," she said sarcastically, trying to cover her embarrassment. Mac glared ominously at Harm's amused look.

"It's about time, Clay," Harm watched interestedly as Webb joined them in the ally.

Clay looked warily at them, wondering just what the status of their relationship was. Both had been mortified when Mic and Renee had eloped. To him, it seemed only natural that Harm and Mac would seek comfort with each other. They had been through too much over the years to look elsewhere for help. But, for the millionth time, he also reminded himself it wasn't his business how Rabb and MacKenzie screwed up their love lives. "So what happened?"

"We don't know yet, Clay," Harm said testily. "There's a pretty tight security net over the whole operation. Whatever happened, it was nasty enough to nearly take out an entire SEAL platoon. My unit was tasked with covering the extraction. I haven't seen that kind of bloodshed in a long time."

"Mac?" asked Clayton Webb, nodding. This mission was rapidly getting unmanageable. First espionage, then murder, now an ambush. Try as he might, he couldn't find a pattern of behavior. Every day more variables were added to the mix. His instincts told him to get Harm and Mac out before things gotten even deadlier.

"I don't know, either, Clay," she replied sadly. "The reports I've seen so far indicate that 1st squad was hit first, then the OPFOR turned its attention to 2nd squad. The only good news is that the surviving SEALs regrouped fast enough to inflict heavy casualties before withdrawing."

"Ok, have you gotten any more leads?" asked Clay, glancing over his shoulder. His eyes narrowed as he saw several Navy personnel loitering a ways off. They didn't appear to be moving closer, but experience dictated that he leave soon.

"Not really," Mac confided, "but Commander Stroud seems to be taking the losses hardest. Which is rather odd considering that he and Lt. Edwards didn't really get along."

"Do you have any hunches about him, Mac?" Harm inquired. "He really seems to have it in for me."

"Stroud doesn't get along with many people, Harm," Mac informed him. "How he made it as far as he has I don't understand. He's an adequate XO, but he seems to rely heavily on his administrative assistant to get things done properly. It's strange."

"All right. Harm, you keep pumping the other SEALs for information. Let's see if we can shake something loose. Mac, watch Stroud. See if he starts acting differently. Watch for anything that might point to his involvement in whatever's going on."

"Gee, Clay. Why didn't we think of that?" Mac quipped.

Clay shook his head. "Fine, just watch yourselves. These guys are obviously willing to kill to accomplish their goals."

"We understand," Harm said, looking down at Mac. She caught his concerned look and smiled at him.

"I can take care of myself, Harm," she reminded him.

"I know. I just don't want to see you hurt," he replied. An old ache filled him as he contemplated a life without her.

"I'm out of here. If you two keep this up, I'm going to be sick," Clay reproached them. "Stay in touch." With that, he checked the entrance to the alley and left as quietly as he arrived.

Mac started to leave as well, but Harm held her back. "Wait," he asked. "Let's give him a few minutes before we leave."

He stepped closer to her again, putting his arms around her waist and holding her close. He took pleasure in her touch. Mac cupped his head in her hands and pulled him down closer for a kiss.

"Mac," he cautioned, breaking the kiss.

"It's ok, Harm," she responded, kissing him again. This time, Harm reacted the way she wanted him to. The way she needed him. "If you ask, I'll say 'yes'."

"I can't. We need to maintain our focus," he said, pleading for her understanding.

"And?"

"And what?" he replied, mystified.

"You were going to say something else," she noted.

Harm's breathing became heavier; his heart ached to give in to her demands, but doing so wasn't an acceptable option. "It's nothing," he lied unconvincingly.

A change of tactics was called for. "Let's get something to eat, Harm. I'm hungry," Mac said, gently brushing her lips against his. Their little game was about to go to a new level of intensity. It excited and scared her.

A distant part of Harm's mind acknowledged he was fighting a losing battle. He didn't want to ever let her go again, regardless of the consequences. "I'm not hungry right now."

"Then, let's go back to the club and dance some more," she came back.

"I don't feel like dancing," he responded sullenly. His heart and body had another type of dancing in mind.

"Then, why don't we go someplace quiet and you can have your way with me?" she half-chidingly said. He would never say 'yes', she knew.

Harm paused to look around and get his bearings. He could feel the last vestiges of resistance crumbling. She had him and there was no escape. In that instant, his anguish at Renee's leaving him for Bugme vanished. The Marine in his arms was all that mattered now. "The Hotel California is a couple of blocks away," he reminded her, not fully believing he was about to break one of his cardinal rules.

"Are you asking?" she replied, hope filling her eyes.

"Yes. I am," he said, kissing her.

 

Nearby

 

The shadowy figure watched the pair walk quickly down the street. Their giddy laughter almost made him feel guilty about what was going to happen next.
 

 

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