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Classification Romance (H/M), Action, Adventure
 
Length Approximately 37,000 words, or 79 pages in MSWord (8 ½ x 11 paper)
Spoilers Everything up to mid-season 8
 
Rating GS
Author's Notes I know this may sound crazy but I love undercover scenarios and this one holds possibilities to go into humor as well as action. Ever since the German rally driver Jutta Kleinschmidt in 2001 wrote sports history as the first female driver to win the Paris-Dakar, I have been wondering how a certain Marine colonel would do in the competition. And I always wanted to see how a multi-personnel undercover op would work out. At least I hope it will...

The rally is called Paris-Dakar because normally, the start is in Paris or at least in France and the final stage ends in Dakar which is the capital of Senegal in Western Africa. The 2000 Paris-Dakar Rally, though, didn’t leave African soil at all as the association wanted to have a special rally for Y2K. The route, nearly 10.000 km (6250 miles) long, went in 17 stages through six countries (Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Libya and Egypt) from Dakar to Cairo (Egyptian capital, Northeast Africa). So, the (fictional) year that my story takes place in has the same route reversed: Cairo-Dakar. For details about the route, check out the official rally site http://www.dakar.com/2000/presentationfr/parcours.html

This story holds a slightly different sight of why Harm didn’t yet get together with Mac. Not that this theory is new, in fact, I know of several writers that dealt with it. But I didn’t yet. That’s why I mention it.

Many thanks to Heather for beta-reading and to Layla for highly appreciated contents advice! All remaining mistakes are mine.          
 
Summary A Libyan weapons dealer forces Mac, Harm and the better part of the JAG staff into a large-scale undercover mission in the Paris-Dakar Rally... Stand-alone story.
 

 

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4

 

 

[Excerpts from Harm’s diary]


Nov, 29th

 

Dear Dad,

Here I am, at 0200, sitting at my dining table and trying to come up with a few lines that make sense. Well, I guess, given the chaos that’s my mind right now, that’s a useless endeavor, but I promised Harriet that I’d at least try. Turning my insides out to some anonymous blank pages doesn’t feel very appealing, though. That’s why I thought I’d write to the one person whom I could always tell everything. And that’s you, Dad. I hope you don’t mind.

So, as I said, I promised Harriet that I’d write down a few thoughts to clear my head somehow. That’s what she gave me this little journal for. To sort out why everything keeps going so terribly wrong. First Harriet tried to talk to me in person. She came into my office today after the admiral had briefed us about that new mission that this lunatic called Clayton Webb concocted. This time he really topped everything that ever came to that distorted mind of his - this is never gonna work out! But I guess I should tell you the story from the start. And that means I’ll have to start my tale with what’s left of my private life.

I did mention to you last Christmas that there was a woman in my life, didn’t I? Okay, not exactly in my life but in my heart and on my mind. She’s been there for seven years now and still I can’t bring myself to tell her how I feel. Can you imagine? I think I know that I mean very much to her, too. But there are deeper issues in the way, I’ll get into that later. So I just let the occasions slip away and cling to the close friendship that connects us - the most wonderful thing in my life. Until two days ago, and that’s when this whole mess really started.

Her name is Sarah Mackenzie – Mac – and she’s a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps, my partner at JAG, just in case you don’t remember - Dad, I fell for a jarhead! Mac and I spent last Saturday with little AJ, you know, our godson, Harriet and Bud’s kid. He’s going to be five in spring and he’s such a cutie. We took him to a children’s exhibition in Georgetown, really great. They have little experiments and machines to try out for children to make them see how things work, physics and such. We had so much fun.

There was one thing that especially impressed AJ. On a table that you could fold in half, there were little bricks waiting to be laid out horizontally in a certain manner, forming an arch that lay on its side. The single brick stones couldn’t be connected to each other in any way but if you placed them in the right way and made sure that the arch began and ended exactly where the table folded, you could get the arch up to vertical, put the table half down again and the arch would stand. Static. Impressive. AJ had us do it over and over again.

Dad, watching Mac with our godson always moves me very much. We have a deal, you know - please, don’t laugh - that if, by the time AJ turns five, neither of us is in a relationship, we’ll go halves on a kid. Really, we agreed on that. Won’t be too long now... I get all dizzy whenever I remember that day. What the hell was I thinking? I should have asked her to marry me instead. Would have spared us a lot of heartache. But then - our jobs, although they’re usually far away from the frontlines of armed conflict, have proven dangerous. I’ve come too close to losing her far too often. And vice versa, by the way.

Getting over Diane was an ordeal that took years. Considering the way that I cared for Diane doesn’t even come close to how I feel about Mac... Dad, I couldn’t handle losing her. I would break. I feel I can’t take the risk. And the coincidence that Mac is Diane’s physical twin fortunately reminds me of what is at stake when I’m in danger of losing my head, although I don’t see Diane in Mac. They are different – but the situation isn’t. That’s why I manage to retreat every time we threaten to get too close. I know I hurt Mac badly more than once and I feel ashamed of it. But it’s exactly as she put it once: I just can’t let go. I mustn’t, at any cost. You don’t recover twice from losing the love of your life.

So I keep telling myself that allowing Mac to have a child with me is just a pact between best friends - teamwork, sort of. Just whom are you trying to kid, Rabb?

Anyway, back to last Saturday. At the exhibition shop, Mac discovered that you could actually buy little sets of precisely shaped brick stones to try and repeat the experiment at home. She purchased one for AJ, one for herself and one for Chloe. And, of course, I never stopped teasing her about it. We bantered back and forth all the way home, even after we had dropped AJ off at the Roberts’. When we reached her building, she invited me to come up for a cup of coffee.

It hasn't been that long since we've finally been back to our easy banter, Dad. Engagements, girlfriends, plane crashes, minefields... something always got in the way of taking up where we had left off when I returned to active flight duty. We both missed our friendship very much and we’re both incredibly relieved to have it back to the way it was before everything. ‘Had’ it back, to be correct, until I messed up.

As we were standing in Mac’s kitchen while she was preparing the coffee, I casually asked Mac where she intended to try out the experiment as I didn’t see any folding tables in her apartment. She looked at me with a challenging smile and said that she was thinking about using me as a folding table. She would lay out the arch on my chest and then have me sit up and lie down again. Surely I would support her scientific efforts? With that, she stepped close to me, looking up to meet my eyes.

I felt the tension and although warning bells instantly began to toll at the back of my mind, I couldn’t step away. She always does that to me, Dad. She’s got a power over me that exceeds my understanding. So I just stayed put and remarked something sly I don’t even remember. The memory of what followed seems to unfold in slow motion, every time I think of it.

Sparks seem to fly, we’re leaning in, our lips touch, tentatively at first. Passion takes over. I gather her to my arms and kiss her as if my life depended on it. She ardently returns my kiss. We’re lost in each other, giving in to a passion that I haven’t yet known.

Dad, my feelings outright scared me but I couldn’t break off.

The telephone brought me back to my senses. We let the machine get the call, but the spell was broken and I was glad to be able to draw back. Mac met my glance - and knew. I will never forget the flow of emotions that I inflicted and saw mirrored in those beautiful dark eyes of hers: shock, disappointment, anger, pain... I knew that look. I caused it too often. But this time something new followed that knocked me off the track. I saw the pain prevail, but her anger, instead of rising, suddenly vanished, leaving behind only an incredibly sad, fatalist acceptance of what I had done. It seemed that Mac had inwardly drawn a line. She would never go there again.

Wasn’t that exactly what I wanted? To be safe from any danger of reliving the torment that Diane had caused me? Theoretically, yes. I tried to convince myself that it was better this way but at the same time something deep inside me broke at seeing her like this. I felt an incredible loss of something that I couldn’t really place.

“Mac...” I began, confused.

She only smiled at me, sadly, beautifully. “It’s okay, Harm. Really,” she said in a low, soothing voice that was devoid of any reproach, utterly contrary to how she’d normally react. This scared me even more.

She gently pulled me out of the kitchen. “I’m tired, Harm. Would you mind leaving me alone?” Her voice was still gentle and friendly, intimate, actually, as if I were her brother.

“’Course not,” I whispered, shaken. I took my jacket and opened the door. In the doorway I turned to find her watching me leave with that scary sad smile.

“Mac, I’m sorry...” I tried once again, not really knowing what I wanted to tell her.

“I told you, it’s okay. I understand.” Mac stepped up to me and placed her hand on my cheek. “Be safe, Harm,” she said gently before closing the door.

It felt like a definite farewell. I guess I mastered the art of burning bridges.

I tried to call her on Sunday but she wouldn’t pick up the phone. So I kept up my hopes for a word with her today at work. But Clayton Webb killed the opportunity. When I got in I was summoned at once into Chegwidden’s office. To my surprise, besides Mac - who smiled at me melancholically, greeting me as a friend - there were quite a few other people present: Webb, Gunny, Sturgis, Bud, Harriet, even Tiner and a man I didn’t know.

Webb then explained to us what the CIA needed us for this time. I can only tell you, Dad: if we normally have apprehensions whenever Webb shows up, this time the whole lot of us, including the admiral, were staring open-mouthed at that lunatic spook once he had finished explaining!

Dad, he wants to ship us all off to Africa for New Year’s! Well, not all of us, but a whole lot of people, nevertheless. Here’s the case:

Seven grenades filled with Anthrax germs recently disappeared from the Turkish Air Force Base of Erhac. They had been stocked there for several years, having been discovered in Iraq by the time the UN inspection teams were still allowed to go looking around before the four-years break, that means sometime before 1998. The government kept the existence of the grenades classified because the germ cocktail in them seems to be of a peculiar nature and they wanted to do some research first. But then priorities changed and research plans were postponed indefinitely.

Now, there’s a Marine guard, a Corporal Brian Dunfoss, stationed at Erhac who’s with the team that was guarding the grenades. Dunfoss’ brother Will is a rally driver and, with his navigator John Marx, even finished the Paris-Dakar of ’98 in fourth place. Will Dunfoss seems to be married to a Libyan and the CIA now suspects that someone from his wife’s family - outwardly a western oriented, liberal one - has connections to Al Qaeda and blackmailed or otherwise convinced Dunfoss to get his brother to turn over the grenades to them.

The Agency thinks that he’ll deliver them when this year’s Paris-Dakar crosses Libya. The rally organizers are planning on doing a reverse of the 2000 course that was Dakar-Cairo. So, starting from Cairo, Dunfoss and Marx would have several days of Libyan Sahara outback to quietly complete the transaction. Will has made arrangements with his brother to get his car flown to Erhac to have it checked by a local firm that works for the AF on the base. From there they’ll ship it to Alexandria in Egypt. The agents guess that’s when they’ll figure out a way to hide the hazardous freight safely in the car until it can be unloaded.

The grenades are deadly, but small, so at least, given their size, hiding them won’t be too much of a problem. But Will and Marx are extremely lucky that Corporal Dunfoss happened to work a lot with artillery weapon systems on his last duty station – it’ll be one hell of a job to secure the grenades in a way that there won’t be a risk of casualties when the car gets the living daylights beat out of it by the bumps and jumps of the course. Just who’s foolish enough to consent to doing a rally drive sitting on biological bombs? I guess only Al Qaeda is capable of ‘talking’ people into doing things of the kind.

You might want to ask why the spooks didn’t simply arrest everyone involved but you know how those people like to waste our taxes: they’re counting on us to track Dunfoss and Marx down to where the exchange is supposed to take place in order to get to the Al Qaeda cell.

You want to know why we of all people are supposed to pull this off? Honestly, I’ve been wondering about that one myself. Webb’s only answer was: “Brian Dunfoss is a Marine.” Yeah, well, semper fi.

He’s using us, Dad, once again. And the plan he came up with is just plain crazy. I just wish I could keep Mac out of the scheme somehow. Dad, we’re supposed to participate in the rally! Yes, you heard me right. Webb and Gunny go in as one team, Mac and I as another. And Harriet and Tiner (those two! in an undercover op!) will cover the team/technicians/TV side. I could clearly see that Bud didn’t like this at all. How come??

Actually, Mac and I are only supposed to act as support for Gunny and Webb who’ll be the main operatives. Gunny will be Felipe Moreno, driver, and Webb will be Carl Becker, his navigator. This way, he can play around with his little transmitters and sat-phones and stuff without having to hide too much. Mac and I are to draw attention away from them, and you know how? Mac is supposed to be driving! Get a smart and beautiful woman into a position such as this and - with a bit of PR - you can be sure you can operate quietly in the shadow that the medial attention focused on her will create. Of course she’s not the only woman competing but ever since this German, Jutta Kleinschmidt, won the 2001 rally, the media is a lot more interested in female drivers.

I’m going to sit by, navigate us through the desert and communicate with Webb. Great. I wonder where Webb picked up the names for us, too. Mac will be Deborah Kellerman, I’ll go by the name of Douglas Vandenberg. Well, whatever. Deb and Doug, the Double D, will manage somehow. We always do. We’re a team. What I’m really afraid of is the prospect of seventeen days when I’ll see my Mac in constant danger and will be confined to the intimate atmosphere of a Ford Focus with her alone, nothing but hostile nature surrounding us. Okay, ever since Afghanistan I should be sort of accustomed to scenarios as this. But, you know, Dad, doing it in cammies with rank insignia, knowing constantly that you’re on duty, makes it easier for me to keep my necessary distance. I don’t know if I can manage once I see her in one of those hot, clingy drivers’ suits... Webb says she must cut her hair rather short to change her looks a little, in case someone remembers her from Trial TV or the tribunal. I can’t do very much about my own exterior. I’ll just cut my hair to five millimeters I suppose. I’ll look horrible but at least Mac will be very cute, I’m sure of it.

Mac and Gunny are off to Nevada now with that strange guy who was in the admiral’s office, one Andrew Bensen, former rally driver. They’ve got three weeks of drivers’ training to get through, before we navigators fly down as well to do the last week together. Secrecy prevents us from flying to Cairo earlier than on Dec. 30th, so we’ll have to cope with jetlag and malaria prophylaxis, not knowing the country. But Webb tells us Bensen will prepare us adequately to stay somewhere in the middle of the ranking. I do hope so. And I really hope that the Gunny will keep a good eye on Mac while they’re down there because I could sense that Bensen was very fast developing a “thing” for Mac. My Mac. No, not my Mac. She can’t be. But she mustn’t be anyone else’s, either. Am I being selfish? Yes, Rabb, you are.

Harriet and Tiner are to go over with a ZBS team. Harriet will be secretary Carrie Smith who loves (and constantly collects!) gossip and Tiner will be Albert Brady, ZBS’s Good Boy whose helpful and friendly ways will make him everybody’s best friend in no time.

While Harriet and Tiner were ecstatic about, for once, being in on the adventure, and while Bud, AJ and I were resentful towards Webb for bringing all this about, Mac and Gunny took their assignments with their usual jarhead coolness. Sturgis just looked a little tired, realizing that he and Bud will have to fill in for Mac and me without having anyone to organize the office or help with the research - Harriet, Gunny, Tiner: all gone. Good luck, buddy, you’re gonna need it. As we do, too.

So, Dad, can you at least understand why I’m upset and confused? During the rally, Mac and I will hardly have the time to talk. So we’ll try to concentrate on the mission and ignore the tension. But how do you do that inside an SUV in the middle of nowhere?

But at least, with us partaking in the rally, Mac has an excuse for the Secnav who keeps trying to talk her into taking a post in Brussels as a NATO military law expert in the association talks with Russia. She told me that she’s getting increasingly desperate about how to make the mid-January deadline pass without having to decline the offer bluntly. Would have made a nice impression on our new boss. Now she’s out of trouble.

I managed quite well to avoid the ‘heart talk’, didn’t I, Dad? But I guess, now that you know the facts, I’ll have to get into that next time I write to you. I don’t know, yet, when that might be. I’ll very likely banish the thought of opening up from my mind as soon as I get into rally preparations. It’s easier that way. Please, Dad, don’t blame me. Force of habit.

I love you, Dad.
Thanks for listening.
Harm

 

Middle of nowhere, Nevada, Dec. 20th

 

Dear Dad,

I told you it would most likely take a while until I got back to you, didn’t I? Well, here I am. And you know what? I’m really grateful that you’re here (sort of) to listen. I just realized that I’m even closer to you this year than I normally am during Christmastime when I know that I’ll meet you at the Wall on Christmas Eve. Strange, isn’t it? I’m beginning to realize that I might owe Harriet more than I thought I would. Bud sure is a lucky man.

Two days ago, Webb and I flew out here - I don’t even know where ‘here’ is, somewhere in the middle of the desert of Nevada, it wouldn’t really help if I gave you the coordinates - to start our “real-life” scenario training. During the last three weeks my caseload was incredible. I had to wrap up all my and Mac’s cases as Sturgis and Bud were knee deep in a mishap investigation that they absolutely wanted to get rid of before we all left. Understandable, I’d say. Work was hell, especially without Mac’s smile to cheer me up from time to time, but somehow I handled all our cases and lost only one out of eight. Tell me you’re proud of me, Dad. I am.

So, as I said, two days ago Clay and I joined Mac and Gunny and this Bensen guy out here. But don’t think that we didn’t prepare in Washington, too. In fact, we did, and very thoroughly. I’d never have thought that I’d ever say this but I do believe that Clay and I have become rather close friends during the last three weeks. He came over after work almost every evening. I taught him whatever I know about navigation, even astronomical route calculation in case we run out of electricity. We studied map after map of the rally route and the whole extended region that we’ll be passing through. He filled me in on everything the Agency currently knows about the grenade theft and the people they suspect to be in some way connected to it.

Apart from that, we just talked. I mean, really talked, for the first time. Dad, there’s a human being inside Clayton Webb after all! You know, it really did me good to be sitting at the kitchen counter with him over a variety of china take-out boxes (That guy knows what’s good, by the way, unlike a certain Marine...), discussing God, the world and our (near to non-existent) private lives. We have a lot more in common than I thought. He was very fair whenever I mentioned Mac (what I did rather often), he never got into this ‘Why-don’t-you-tell-her-how-you-feel’ stuff everyone keeps constantly throwing at me, openly or not.

But I could see that he’s nevertheless wondering about the two of us. So, the evening before we left, I told him about Diane. I don’t even remember clearly how it came up. Clay just listened quietly until I had ended. There was an expression of understanding in his glance and all he commented on my tale was: “It’s always hard to live with the ghosts of your past. And it’s even harder for those who’re innocently involved.”

I thought, of course, that he was referring to Mac. I just nodded and took another sip of my beer. But suddenly Clay spoke up again, not looking at me. “I know very well what you mean, Harm. Even if you make your peace with the events of the past - it’s the fear that something of the kind could happen again that keeps driving you crazy whenever you get close to a point where you could get back the good things that you lost.”

He didn’t say anything else for a while although I sensed that he was wondering if he should tell me whatever was on his mind. So I took the initiative. “Who was she?” I simply asked.

Clay gave me a small, wry smile. At first I thought he wouldn’t answer but eventually he did. “Her name was Shirin. Last name’s classified. She was one of our operatives in Iran because her father was Iranian. Actually, she and Mac are very much alike, at least physically. Her character was different though. She was an openly emotional person. This character trait often got her into dangerous situations. But she had an amazing instinct to do what was right whenever things got rough. That’s why the Agency kept her. She could get close to people. And it was me, at the time, whom she’d come to report whatever she had found. That’s how we met.”

I glanced over at him. He seemed completely lost in his thoughts. “What happened?” I asked him.

Sighing, Clay drew himself up on his chair, massaging the back of his neck. “Sorry, I can’t tell you. Let’s just say that for once, her instincts couldn’t save her and she was captured and severely wounded. I managed to get her out before they killed her but the next day she died in hospital.”

“I’m sorry, Clay.”

When he looked at me I was startled by the pained expression in his eyes. “Harm, it happened twelve years ago but it still hurts badly. I’ve only told this story to a very few people since then, because most people simply wouldn’t understand how much the affair threw me off track. You do, though, don’t you?”

I nodded, painful memories invading my own mind. “I think I do. Did you tell her?” I couldn’t refrain from asking.

“Yeah, I did. Two days prior to the catastrophe. Worst mistake of my life.”

“Why?” I asked, at a loss.

He gave me a lopsided grin. “Oh, it’s quite simple. The time span from my confession up to when she disappeared were the most beautiful forty-eight hours of my entire life.” Clay took another sip from his bottle, studying the postcards on my refrigerator door.

“Oh...”

“I wouldn’t want to go through that ordeal again, ever.” Clay’s voice was low. After a few seconds he looked at me. “And that’s why I understand you, Harm.”

I returned his faint smile, at the same time asking myself how many times I had misjudged him, just because I didn’t know anything about him. “Thanks, Clay,” I simply answered. It felt good to have someone who didn’t need long explanations.

“You’re welcome.” Clay raised his bottle to me. I returned the gesture.

“Don’t take me as an example, though,” he said after a minute.

I choked on my beer. “What do you mean?” I asked, once my fit of coughing was over.

Clay’s expression was very open and sincere, he looked totally different from how I was used to seeing him at work. “I said that I dreaded the idea of going through that ordeal again. But I’ve never met another woman like Shirin. If I do... maybe I'll take the chance.”

“Just to break completely if you lose her, too?” I felt I was getting angry, maybe because I felt that he was right.

“You’re shutting life out, Harm. And you’re hurting Mac. Just be honest for once, okay? If something happened to her now, would you suffer any less just because you kept your distance?”

Dad, that man deserves his reputation as a good observer. I didn’t know how to answer his question and I suddenly understood something else. “You care for Mac, don’t you?”

Looking openly at me, Clay again gave me that small, wry smile of his. “Guilty as charged,” he answered, “But not the way you think. True, she reminds me of Shirin, but surely not as strongly as she must remind you of Diane. And,” his melancholy smile widened a little, “Whenever I might feel inclined to think about... possibilities, I just have to look at the two of you and I know that I’d never stand a chance anyway.”

“Clay...” I think I was blushing. Embarrassed, I took the empty bottles to put them away. I heard him chuckle behind my back.

“Oh, come on, Harm, still in denial?”

Sighing deeply, I leaned against my kitchen cupboards, my arms crossed in front of my chest, defeated. “No, I’m not. You’re right, Clay. I don’t even dare to think about what I might feel if something happened to Mac, even now while I’m still trying to stay out of it. I thought you understood that.”

“I do,” he answered. “But let me just say one thing: unlike me, you’ve been offered the same blessing twice. If you throw that chance away just because you’re too afraid, be sure that I’ll be there to chew your sorry six for the rest of your days. For Mac’s sake,” he added with a small, woebegone smile that held the slightest edge of guilt. He left shortly after as we’d see each other anyway at the airport the next day.

I can tell you, Dad: Clay was fully aware that he’d gotten quite a few wheels turning inside my head. Damn him. I’m sure that was what he wanted to achieve from the start of the whole conversation. But I couldn’t get his words out of my mind: ‘unlike me, you’ve been offered the same blessing twice...’ Strangely enough, imagining that Clay might feel something more than friendship towards Mac didn't disturb me half as much as I thought it would. Although I was still mad at him for sending us into yet another crazy operation, I could be sure now that he cared for her and would never willingly make her do something that he felt was too dangerous for her. Maybe, it really is my over-protectiveness that always gets me this close to punching him whenever Mac’s involved in one of his missions. He sees her abilities for what they are. I somehow can’t do that. That’s all part of the problem, isn’t it?

Okay, let’s move on with the story. I didn’t get to see Mac until yesterday morning, when we all met with Bensen for our first navigator/driver training unit. As soon as I witnessed how they greeted each other with a peck on the cheek, laughing, I felt the strong urge to grab that guy and beat the hell out of him. One look at Clay who was watching me with a knowing expression... and I only took a deep breath and let it be. Mac deserves friends outside the office. But couldn’t they just be female, short and ugly? Please?

Mac looks smashing. As worn out and used as her driver's suit is - it hugs and caresses every curve of her body, making me wonder once more if I’ll ever get to see what’s beneath the fabric. She got her hair cut very short (not quite down to stubble length, she can still comb it). It clings to her head like a dark brown satin cap, making her huge eyes seem larger still. I finally gave in to the inevitable and had my hair cut to something near zero. I avoid looking into any mirror ever since. How can people willingly wear their hair like this? Naturally bald people like the admiral can be good-looking, but, come on, me?? Gunny commented on how I looked like the classic Hollywood action hero but you know what, Dad? I don’t care! This is Douglas Vandenberg, not me. Ugh.

Yesterday was spent with easy tasks for the navigators. Bensen wanted us to get used to doing our work in the constantly moving, bumping cars that went at high speed. So he only told Mac and Gunny to take us on a tour around the training course that they had spent the last three weeks on. Webb and I had to make out positions of certain landmarks and so on. I already knew a little about the course. Mac had sent me a few e-mails to D.C., telling me about the training. So I was prepared for a really rough ride but I surely wasn’t prepared for her driving. Dad, she made my blood freeze in my veins! That woman’s one hell of a driver. And I sure as hell felt like hell once we got back. Harmon Rabb, Jr. seasick? Never. Airsick? That’s an insult. Carsick? Uh oh. I’ll have to take a major quantity of Superpep Travel Sickness chewing gums with me to Africa if I really want to survive this trip.

Today’s training was an outright catastrophe. We were told to set off west, far off any existing roads, and then meet again in four to five hours at a meeting point that Bensen had given us the coordinates of. We started twenty minutes after Webb and Gunny so that none of us could see the others. Mac and I hadn’t exchanged a single word in private yet, and we knew that we were both equally uncomfortable in the close confines of the car. So we drove in silence, except for the navigation instructions I gave her.

“You looked a little green yesterday,” Mac finally stated without looking at me.

I couldn’t help smiling. “You embarrassed my stomach with your driving, Marine.”

Still, she didn’t look at me but I saw the corners of her mouth twitch. “Just put your head between your knees once you get out. I heard that helps.”

“Ha ha...” Normally, I would have wanted to smack her for turning my own advice back on me but our silent chuckling had considerably lessened the tension and I was glad for it.

The truce didn’t last long, though. We still didn’t talk and the tension again rose all the more, the longer we were silent. I physically felt Mac’s presence close to me and I caught myself looking at her way too often. Her new look produces a strong effect on me, Dad. She seems more... private somehow. I admire her strength and determination, how she handles the car, and at the same time, with her hair hidden under her helmet, her eyes seem twice as dark and twice as big, making her look even more vulnerable, a woman to just take in your arms and protect from the evil of the world. Imagine my state of mind. In addition to that, my stomach started out with its leaps once again and I tried to will the nausea back in check. And, last but not least, Webb’s words were still spinning through my mind and I felt that I had to talk to the woman beside me.

In short, I was concentrating on everything but my navigator's duties. I had kept track of the coordinates - but I hadn’t checked on the maps if the route that my GPS calculated was functional for our vehicle. Before long we were stuck in deep sand. I could have slapped myself backward and forward. Mac’s stare was icy as she turned off the motor and got out of the car.

“Come on, squid, let’s dig,” she only snapped, throwing me a shovel from the trunk.

“I’m sorry, Mac.” It sounded lame.

She straightened and looked at me, leaning on her shovel. “Damn, Harm, that was your job. I was wondering for quite some time about where we were going. We’re not on a holiday safari here!”

Somehow her anger got to me. “You could have told me if you had doubts, Mac!”

From the look in her eyes I could see that now, she was really ticked. “I’m already doing all the work here! We’re supposed to be a team, as in T-E-A-M, remember? This kind of driving is fatiguing, you know? How do you think I’ll get us through the Sahara if all you do is sit by and take photos? I have to be able to rely on what you tell me! Okay, I know that in private, this team stuff never worked out for us, but until now I had the impression that at least at work it did!” She turned and fiercely dug her shovel in the sand behind the left front wheel.

“Mac, I’m really sorry, I...”

“Oh, come on, Harm, spare me your excuses, just this once. I've had too many of them already.” Mac didn’t even look at me. So, resigned and hurt, I quietly dug on until we could get the plates of corrugated iron under the wheels that serve for freeing the car from situations such as this.

We arrived at our meeting point two hours after Gunny and Webb. Mac didn’t look at me any more than was absolutely necessary.

Your son thoroughly screwed up today, Dad. I feel dreadful. I think I’d better just go to bed and try to forget about all this. I can’t concentrate on what I'm writing anyway.

Please, Dad, don’t be angry with me, too.
I miss you.
Harm

 

Dec. 31st
Cairo Hilton

 

Dad,

It’s 2338 on New Year’s Eve and all I have to do is sit in my hotel room, all by myself, and write to you. Pathetic, isn’t it?

I’m sorry that I didn’t get back to you any earlier, except for our ‘personal’ conversation on Christmas Eve - I mean, at least I hope you were there when I talked to you; after all, it wasn’t the Wall, it was nothing but a starry night out in the desert. But I think I could feel you near me. You can’t imagine how good that felt, Dad.

As I told you then, things haven’t been all that great between Mac and me. After the incident that I referred to in my last letter, Mac and I snapped into professional mode. We even began to call each other by our undercover names - to ‘get into the role’ as we explained to the outside world but I think she knows as well as I do that it’s a lot easier to get on well with each other if we leave Harmon and Sarah completely out of the scenario. Superficially, our team works quite well now. I’m chewing gum like a camel while she drives but at least I manage to keep my nausea in check. Calling her ‘Deb’ after a little while made me (kind of) forget that it’s the love of my life that I was talking to and the tension lessened.

It’s also fortunate that I can keep my eyes glued to my instruments and instructions. Not seeing her makes it easier. We don’t talk much but it’s not too awkward, either. After a few days I got the idea of how to navigate a rally course and we keep closing up on Gunny and Webb - oh, I’m sorry, ‘Felipe’ and ‘Carl’ - although they’re still always first in the training. But at least we stay in the competition. After all, it’s them, not us, who are mainly chasing the criminals.

It’s only at night that the whole situation keeps getting to me. Mac and I are together all day, so I can’t stop seeing her at night. Don’t ask, Dad - I’ll only tell you that my fantasies are pure bliss, well... fantasies. You know how that works. During the last ten days, I haven't really slept much. And now we’re in Africa and I’m suffering from terrible jetlag. Great. I think I’m really fit right now to do the world’s most difficult rally. I still feel like I’d want to strangle Clay if I hadn’t gotten to like him so much recently.

We were on the same plane from Dulles to Cairo as Harriet and Tiner with the ZBS team. Luckily, we managed to stay unobtrusive or the TV people would have at once wanted interviews about why we were only traveling now or where we prepared and so on. But we watched our coworkers a little. Especially Harriet, she's a real professional. She chats and laughs and makes friends everywhere. Whenever I look into my mailbox, there’s a new report from her and Tiner, filling us in on the gossip behind the scenes. Until now, it was only TV talk but I hope that she can keep it up, now that she comes near the racing teams as well.

The transatlantic flight was pure torture for me. I was sitting next to Mac and I watched her the whole time she slept. She’s just so beautiful, Dad. Her face is that of an angel, and she looks so fragile because the Marine façade’s all gone once she sleeps. Seeing her like that only makes my fear grow because it seems just so much more likely that something might happen to her.

Still, during the long flight, something inside me moved. I can’t really explain how it happened but the nearer we got to our destination, the more I felt the realization grow in my heart that Clay was right. If I didn’t take the chance it would mean throwing away a gift from heaven. And maybe, if I open up and Sarah lets me be a part of her life, maybe I can protect her from any danger. I know, I’m already over-protective. I told you so myself, but perhaps I needn’t be any more, once we’re together, because I won’t have to continuously come up with new excuses to cover her back. I’d just be there and maybe she wouldn’t even notice that I’m protecting her.

Dad, I want her in my life. I really do. And I’ll talk to her as soon as I get the chance. It’s just that I still don’t know how to cope with my fears, but for the New Year, I swore to myself that I’d conquer this. I will. Maybe God lets miracles happen.

New Year is approaching fast. Twelve minutes to go. I’ll get back to you next year, okay? Give me an hour. Bye!

0028 - I’m back. Speaking of miracles: I just got one. I know I didn’t deserve it. But it happened all the same. My heart is still beating fast. Give me a minute to chill out and I’ll tell you all about it. Life is great.

After I interrupted your letter, I got myself a glass of water and went out on the balcony to toast the New Year by myself. I knew that Mac had gone to bed hours ago because we have to do the first stage tomorrow. So I was rather surprised to find her awake and out on her balcony as well. She smiled at me and suddenly I couldn’t wait any longer. I signaled to her that I’d come over and was gone before she could object.

My heart was racing when I knocked at her door. She opened a moment later, in her bathrobe, a slightly confused look on her face. “Harm? Is everything okay?”

I smiled a little uneasily. “Yeah, sure. I just... no one should be alone on New Year’s Eve, Mac.”

“Okay...” she let her voice trail off, her tone carefully masking whatever feelings lay beneath the surface. She opened the door a little wider, letting me step past her. Together we went out on her balcony. Four minutes to midnight.

Mac looked at me with her huge dark eyes that I love so much. Being scrutinized by her makes me feel like I'm baring my soul without saying a word. I really wonder why she can’t read me through them. It would make everything just so much easier.

We quietly let our gazes wander over the roofs and streets of Cairo. “There’s something on your mind, squid,” Mac observed after a rather long interval of silence, looking at me.

“Yeah,” I whispered, gathering my courage and stepping closer. I saw her draw back at first, fear in her eyes, and it felt dreadful. But then she took a deep breath and stood her ground, looking up at me.

“What is it?” she asked.

“I...”

Just then, a siren was heard and fireworks started to paint the whole sky in all colors imaginable. I quickly changed my plan of action and, trembling, leaned in. Our lips touched without moving, just lingering on each other’s for a long minute. I closed my eyes and only hoped that the world would stop spinning.

When we parted I encircled her with my free arm and rested my cheek against hers. “Help me let go, Sarah,” I whispered, “Please, help me let go.”

“Are you sure?” she only asked, drawing back slightly to watch my expression.

I only nodded, too tense to speak.

Mac leaned into my embrace again, resting her face in the crook of my neck. “I can’t help you, Harm,” she answered, “Because that’s something that you must come to terms with on your own. But I can show you whenever you’re on the right way. And if you want me to, I’ll be there for you when things get difficult.”

I was so overwhelmed that she hadn’t turned me down, even though her answer still held many ‘if’s’. “Please do,” I breathed into her hair.

She drew back slightly. “Are you going to tell me one day why all this scares you so much, Harm? Apart from the things I already know?” She had spoken quietly and I could feel her eyes on me.

“One day, yes, I promise, but please don’t press me to do it now,” I pleaded.

“Hold on a minute, will you?” she asked, quickly disappearing into the room and stepping out again shortly after, carrying something small. “I’ll take your promise to tell me one day as new foundation of the bridge you burnt between the two of us,” she explained quietly, placing the object in my hand.

I looked at it: it was a small wooden brick stone. “What’s this for?” I asked, at a loss.

“It’s one out of seven that you need to build that arch that fascinated little AJ so much. I bought three sets of bricks at the museum store, remember?”

Again, I nodded, intrigued.

Mac reached up and caressed my cheek with her fingertips. “Whenever I give you one of these it means that you made a big step in the right direction. Let’s just see how far you come in the following two weeks. Back in D.C. we’ll decide what we make of it, okay?”

I caught her hand with mine, resting it on my cheek. “Okay... Mac?”

“Hmmm?”

“Thank you.”

She gave me one of her breathtaking smiles. “Anytime, Harm. Thank you for trying.”

I leaned in once again and kissed her briefly. “Happy New Year.”

“Happy New Year, Harm.”

With that I left her, knowing that we both needed sleep - and knowing that we’d both sleep well.

I can’t believe there’s still hope, Dad! I’m all giddy.
I love you.
Harm

 

Jan 1st
Wadi Rayan, near Al Fayum, Egypt

 

Dad,

Your son is a racing driver! Officially! Okay, to be more correct, your son’s the navigator of the sexiest female racing driver on earth but still... I can’t believe we’re actually in this, Mac and I. We’re officially partaking in the ‘Dakar’ as they call it now. (‘Paris’ is often omitted since it’s been a long time since they last started in the French capital, and – as you see – even starting the race in France isn’t a ‘must’ anymore.)

So today was our first stage – boy, was I scared! Of nearly everything. Apart from the ‘Mac-and-I-in-the-car’ problem that I already explained to you, and apart from my fear for my stomach, I was scared I wouldn’t find the route. I was scared we’d have a breakdown and I’d have to repair our high tech vehicle on the road. All drivers do that, but they know their cars inside out. I don’t. I was scared of getting stuck in the sand. And so on... there’s a lot to be scared of when something’s totally new to you and you don’t feel prepared. I was sweating even before it got really hot. And it did, Dad, it did...

Before the start, Mac and Gunny tossed a coin to decide who’d have to watch out for Dunfoss first and the task fell upon us. She took it stoically, knowing she’d have to go at full force on the very first day. I subconsciously made sure that I had enough chewing gum with me. Luckily I did, and it helped (a little). I was sick only twice today and I even managed to warn Mac beforehand so she could let me out in time. Maybe you feel you need to remind me that today’s stage was only 145 km long.

[A.N.: The official rally site states all distances in kilometers so I take it up, being more familiar with it anyway than with miles. Just for the record: 1 mile = ~ 1.6 km]

That’s true. And you might want to remind me, too, that the special track was all city traffic.

[A.N.: A stage consists of liaison and special track, the first being just the means of getting from A to B, the second always offering difficult tasks for the drivers and navigators.]

That’s true as well. Dad, I know very well that I’m facing entire days in the car, stages of something in-between 700 and 900 km, with hundreds of kilometers of special track, but I think that, for the premiere and given my jetlag and lack of sleep and all the adrenaline, being sick only twice is worth something. I’m determined to conquer this!

We started at a decent hour of the day, at 0830 local, right under the pyramids. What a sight they are! They seem so smooth when you’re far away, but once you come near you see all those huge blocks of stone that are taller than you are and all you can feel is awe and compassion for the tens of thousands of people who built them thousands of years ago. I’d have said that the pyramids alone were worth this adventure, had it not been for Mac meeting that German rally champion I told you about. She observed how we stood there, together with Gunny and Webb, admiring the pyramids, and approached us, together with her navigator.

“Prepare yourself to see even more breathtaking sights,” she said with a smile. “Hi, I’m Jutta.”

Mac answered with an easy grin. “I know, you’re a legend, even to newcomers. I’m Deb. Nice to meet you.” Then she motioned to me. “This is Doug, my navigator. And,” indicating Webb and Gunny, “Carl and Felipe are our team mates. We’re mostly in for the fun of it all, no real interest in the ranking.”

I acknowledged with a grin, a wave and a nod. Fun. Sure.

“Then I suggest you keep your eyes open. The desert is one of the most beautiful places on earth,” the German answered. “And should you need any advice, Deb, don’t hesitate to ask me once we’re in bivouac. We female drivers have to stick together. Good luck.” She gave Mac a good-natured pat on the back, smiled at us and turned to get back to her car.

“To you, too,” Mac answered, making her turn and smile once more.

“Might come in handy that she doesn’t consider us a threat for the ranking,” Gunny observed. “I feel like I could in fact use some good coaching.” Mac silently frowned consent.

I don’t really remember the last minutes before take-off – excuse my use of pilot talk here, Dad, but the situation somehow reminded my of my last tour on a carrier. We got in line – no mass start – secured our helmets, tested our comm-link with Bensen, strapped in, waited for the signal and roared off. The only thing missing was the catapult.

Mac was very tense at first. She seemed to have difficulties to adjust to the situation. Somehow it’s reassuring to know that you’re not the only one who’s scared and trying to hide it. Eventually, though, she relaxed behind the wheel and let her race training take over. Our speed grew higher, the bumps heavier, the jumps wider and her smile broader. And my stomach feebler, but I already told you that.

One of Webb’s people among the resources and supplies bunch managed to bug Will Dunfoss’ car, thus providing us with a GPS reading of his current position. Clay and I have to be careful handling the device because the use of GPS is not allowed for all stages, only for some. But if he manages to hide biological weapons in his car we should at least get through with a GPS and a secure comm-link. You know the effect of reading in a moving car, don’t you, Dad? Let me just say that studying the road book, observing the GPS readouts of Dunfoss’ whereabouts and signing his route on the map didn’t really help me to feel better.

Apart from what I told you, nothing important happened during our first ride. Mac and I both kept silent for most of the time. We had no spare brain cells left for light conversation. Hopefully that will improve once we get used to the racing routine. Mac gets to see a lot more than I do of where we’re going. Navigating is a poor job. All you do is look at your lap. The few times that I felt I had the leisure to look up, I got a little impression of what’s awaiting us out in the desert. Jutta is right – it’s an awesome sight: high, seemingly smooth sand dunes in either sandy yellow or light orange alternating with sharp, fierce rock formations in all natural colors imaginable. I’ll surely steal a few looks now and then.

Just as the burning sun had successfully turned our car into a Finnish sauna, we arrived at our bivouac for tonight. Many drivers consider this spot one of the most beautiful bivouacs to be had on a rally course. We’re in Wadi Rayan. A wadi is a dry river and there are many of them out here in the Sahara. They say it’s dangerous to follow them because in the unlikely event of any rain, wadis become torrents in no time. There are statistics that more people have drowned in the desert than have died of dehydration. Nevertheless I feel safe here, on this spot situated between two rock outcrops. After all, the rally organizers chose it, so one can presume it’s safe, right? Not long ago I got to see the most breathtaking desert sunset I ever witnessed – and this is just the beginning. Dad, I have to confess that right now I’m feeling quite adventurous. Is that a bad or a good sign? I wouldn’t know.

Just in case you’re wondering – Mac and I are bivouac-ing together. I’d never have guessed but many drivers actually sleep in tents out here, so Bensen equipped us with everything he thought necessary. He’s here with us as our team boss. When it came to setting up the camp I noticed that he’d have loved to take my place, but luckily Webb helped me prevent that by explaining that Mac and I always shared our hotel rooms and that we worked best as a team when we were together all the time. I was infinitely grateful for Webb’s poker face – one look at Mac and we were done for. We simultaneously murmured something about having to seize the last sunrays to get our tent up and fled, trying to stifle our laughter. The result is that I find myself unexpectedly on a camping trip with Mac. Anyone think I’m complaining?

Mac just came over and asked me what I was doing.

“Diary,” I only murmured, not daring to look up. I think I was blushing.

Immediately, Mac’s laughter warmed my heart. “You keep a diary? You, of all people?”

“Well, yeah.” I looked up and, with an uneasy grin, met her merry gaze. Her dark eyes were sparkling with barely contained laughter. I felt my breath catch in my throat.

“I guess it’s... uhm... private?” she ventured, trying to stay sober.

“You bet!” I snapped at her, inwardly swearing over the fact that I showed such uneasiness at the idea that she might read my ramblings. She must wonder what secrets I’ve got to hide.

“Whoa, calm down,” she answered, new laughter ringing in her voice. “Don’t worry, flyboy, I won’t intrude.”

“Mac, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to...”

“Hey,” she said gently, sitting down cross-legged beside me and placing a hand on my arm. “Everyone has the right to a little privacy, especially in a place as this.” Her eyes shone with understanding. “I was just surprised, but actually I think knowing that you keep a diary is kind of cute. Maybe I could read some of it someday?”

“Someday I’ll read all of it to you,” I answered, earnestly looking at her. She instantly understood that I had just made her another promise to open up when I was ready.

“I’m glad,” she simply answered, leaning in and brushing her lips to my temple. “Good night, Harm.”

“Good night,” I answered as she got up and crouched into her sleeping bag. I think I managed a slight smile. I’m glad she’s here with me.

Tomorrow things are going to get rough, Dad. We’re looking at a total of 722 km, 416 of which are special track. The start is scheduled for 0530. I don’t want to think of it right now.
Wish you were here, too.

Harm

 

 

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