words; 234 pages (8 ˝” x 11”)
||A sequel to Devolution,
Mac takes on a diplomatic assignment while restricted to light
duty. What was to be an easy week answering questions about a
career in the US military turns into something more. In my
little corner of the world, Tribunal hasn't happened yet.
Falls Church, VA
Mac absently savored her coffee as she stared at the computer screen. It
had been two weeks since that nightmare in Memphis had ended and only
one week that she'd been back in the office. Things were slowly working
their way back to normal, but she would be on restricted duty until the
fractured collarbone healed. Mostly it meant she would not be going out
on any field investigations. Fortunately, it didn't stop her from
litigating. If she'd had to spend the next six weeks doing nothing but
administrative paperwork and research, Mac was positive she'd be ready
to break someone else's bones.
As of yesterday, she'd been given a relatively clean bill of health from
the doctor over at Bethesda. She was grateful to be off that miserably
boring diet, although Dr. Berger had warned her to return to her normal
diet gradually. She smiled to herself recalling Harm's incredulous
snort, she'd had to jab him with an elbow to keep him from launching
into his version of her 'normal' diet. Still, it was sweet that he
insisted on coming with her to her appointment. They were both
cautiously feeling their way along in this new/old phase of their
relationship. It was like slipping into a comfortable old sweater and
discovering it wasn't the color you thought it was. They'd agreed to
help each other out; he'd help her work through her insecurities and
she'd show him that love wasn't synonymous with loss. Despite all their
accumulated baggage, this being-a-couple thing was definitely rewarding.
Her smile grew as she contemplated the 'rewards'.
"I don't know what you're looking at, Colonel, but could you send it
over to my computer, too?" Sturgis' deep voice startled her out of her
thoughts causing some of the coffee to slosh out of her cup.
"You're a dead man, Sturgis, that's the first coffee she's had in three
weeks and you just made her spill it."
Sturgis turned around to see Harm standing behind him. He raised his
hands in mock surrender, glancing from Harm to Mac, "It was an accident,
I swear. I didn't think Marines were that nervous."
Harm folded his arms and gave the Commander a stern look, "C'mon
Sturgis, everyone knows that you have to approach Marines quietly and
carefully because they frighten so easily. Pleading ignorance isn't much
of a defense."
Mac looked up from blotting spilled coffee off her hand and desk and
arched an eyebrow, "If you gentlemen are planning to take that show on
the road, I'd suggest you try making it funny."
The Commanders looked at each other and then back at Mac. "We think
we're funny," Sturgis said solemnly. Harm opened his mouth to add his
two cents when Mac's intercom interrupted him. The metallic sound of
Tiner's voice came over the speaker, "Colonel MacKenzie? The Admiral
would like to see you in his office as soon as possible."
"On my way, Tiner," Mac said, standing up. She made a shooing motion at
Harm and Sturgis, "You two can go back to your day jobs now."
Harm waited in the doorway as she left her office, "Think this is about
the Bacovian babysitting detail?"
Mac shrugged, "Possibly, the Admiral said it should begin sometime this
week." She continued walking, giving Tiner a nod as she entered the
Tiner smiled. "Go right in ma'am, the Admiral's expecting you."
"Thanks Tiner," Mac smiled in return. She rapped once on the door and
then walked into Chegwidden's office. Approaching his desk, she snapped
to attention, "Colonel MacKenzie, reporting as ordered sir." She was
peripherally aware of a civilian already seated.
AJ nodded, "As you were, Colonel. Have a seat." He gestured to the
civilian, "This is Mr. Nathan Gallagher from the State Department. He's
here to deliver the background information on your assignment with the
Bacovian royal family, as well as give you State's views on the
Mac picked up on the slight change of tone the Admiral used on the last
part of his statement. They looked at each other for a moment and then
she turned her attention to Gallagher.
Gallagher had been staring at Mac since she walked into the Admiral's
office. He didn't like the idea of working with the military on this
assignment. This was his ticket to bigger and better things and he
didn't need to have it compromised by some low-brow misanthrope who
couldn't function in the real world. Anyone who happily gave up their
free-will for a life as structured as the military obviously had some
sort of pathological need for authority figures. Admittedly, this
particular officer was easy on the eyes and as a lawyer probably had to
have some native cunning. Hell, she might even possess a modicum of
intelligence, but he wanted someone who could understand the complex
nuances of diplomacy. The damn Marine Corps version of diplomacy was to
blow the other side off the map. He clenched and unclenched his hands, a
nervous habit, why did this always happen to him? Well, he'd establish
who was in charge as quickly as possible and see if he could keep the
damage to a minimum. At least, as a woman, this MacKenzie would be used
to letting a man take the lead. Gallagher refocused his attention when
he heard Admiral Chegwidden introduce him.
He took his time, adjusting his tie before finally clearing his throat
importantly, "Colonel MacKenzie, I hope you realize the significance of
this assignment to the United States government. Bacovia has been an
excellent source of titanium for us and if we can work out an agreement
for the military bases, it'll be quite a coup. Having a member of the
royal family in our military will help solidify our relationship and
give us some leverage as well. We're counting on you to put the
military's best foot forward and convince the King that this will be an
excellent opportunity for his daughter." He pulled out a heavy file
folder as he spoke and handed it to her.
Mac accepted the folder and looked at the man for a long moment, "Of
course, Mr. Gallagher. You should know, however, that I intend to be as
honest as possible about what a woman's life in the military entails."
Gallagher gave a short, mirthless laugh, "Of course you will, Colonel.
Just avoid or downplay any potentially negative aspects of military
life. Surely, as a lawyer, that's not beyond your capabilities." He let
a tiny amount of pique creep into his voice. Great, this was just what
he needed, some jarhead officer playing the
'I'm-too-honorable,-I-cannot-tell-a-lie' game. She was a lawyer for god
sakes! She probably lied all the time.
Mac's face lost all expression and her voice turned icy, "Are you asking
me to deliberately mislead these people?"
Gallagher glared at her, "I'm telling you what needs to be done to serve
and protect this country. I didn't think I'd have to point that out to
an officer in the United States Marine Corps."
"Mr. Gallagher, I doubt these people are stupid. Lying to them about the
downside of military life is not only wrong but foolish. What makes you
think they don't already know about the flaws in our system? What if
this is a test of our integrity?" Mac matched his glare with one of her
"Colonel, I don't expect someone like you to understand the subtleties
of international diplomacy, so I would suggest you keep your ears open
and your mouth shut. All you're supposed to do is follow orders. My
orders. “Gallagher was thoroughly annoyed. The nerve of this woman!
Mac looked at him silently, then placed the folder on the desk and stood
back up at attention facing AJ, "Sir, I understand that this assignment
is voluntary?" Chegwidden nodded slowly. "Then sir, I respectfully
decline. Permission to withdraw?"
"Granted, Colonel." AJ watched her pivot and march out of his office
before turning back to Gallagher. "If there's nothing else, Mr.
Gallagher, my yeoman will see you to the door."
Gallagher stared at the Admiral, "Wait a minute, I need a tour guide for
the princess and her parents. They specifically asked for a woman who is
active in the military."
Chegwidden leaned back in his chair, "You probably should have thought
of that before you treated the Colonel like an idiot. She is the best
qualified and, at the moment, happens to be restricted to light duty. I
can't spare anyone else right now. You'll have to go to the next person
on your list. I would suggest you curtail your obvious contempt for the
military or I doubt anyone will be volunteering to work with you."
Eyes squinted in anger, Gallagher sat silently. Goddammit! Although he
had no intention of admitting it, MacKenzie did happen to be the most
qualified. If he had to work with these anachronistic, murderous
cretins, it made sense to use the best of the group. Why increase the
odds of failing with someone even worse? He looked at AJ, "I want
MacKenzie. Order her to take the assignment."
Chegwidden stared back at the man, keeping his expression blank. He
hadn't run into someone so belligerently anti-military since the Gulf
War. Considering the current attitude about the military after 9/11, it
was surprising to say the least. He sighed to himself, this would have
been an excellent interim assignment for Mac while she recovered. He
knew from watching her with Chloe that she worked well with kids and she
was a fine example of what women could achieve in the military. He had
no doubt she would have impressed the parents as well. All of which was
water under the bridge, thanks to this smugly superior bureaucrat. "This
assignment was on a volunteer basis. If you want the Colonel, apologize
and try to convince her yourself. Consider it an opportunity to exercise
the 'subtleties of diplomacy'." He turned and punched his intercom,
"Tiner, would you please escort Mr. Gallagher out?"
"Admiral!" Gallagher protested angrily, "I was promised full cooperation
from the military! I can't believe you'd jeopardize this country's
well-being because one of your female officers was having some sort of
Chegwidden's eyebrows slowly came together and his eyes narrowed, "Mr.
Gallagher, I don't know where you learned diplomacy because so far I've
seen little evidence of it. The Colonel was looking forward to this
assignment until you opened your mouth and I find it hard to believe
that you came in here without being aware of her qualifications. All of
which makes your insulting behavior even more egregious." AJ held up a
hand to forestall Gallagher's response, "However, it's patently clear
that this mission is vital to you. I'd have to say that your opinion of
the importance of this assignment is over-inflated. It is a good-will
mission, nothing more. If it's successful, it will make both sides
happy. If not, well, it's likely things will continue as before. I
seriously doubt the King would break off diplomatic relations because
his daughter didn't go to Annapolis. So I will tell you again, if you
want Colonel MacKenzie - you convince her." He looked down at the papers
on his desk, signaling that the conversation was over. Gallagher huffed
and grumbled a little longer before getting up and striding out of the
office, Tiner at his heels. AJ looked up as the door closed and
muttered, "I hope you know how to duck."
Mac stalked back to her office and dropped down in her chair. That
obnoxious, boorish, patronizing, contemptible jackass! That
"Mac? Are you okay?" Harm poked his head cautiously in her doorway. When
she looked up at him, he pretended to fend off her gaze, "Owww, Marine.
Put that glare back on stun." Seeing her shake her head, he ventured in
the rest of the way and dropped into a chair. "Problems with
Mac drummed her fingers on the desk, "I declined the assignment."
Harm's eyebrows rose in surprise, "I thought you were looking forward to
it. What happened?"
"A pretentious, obdurate State Department hack who wanted me to lie to
the Bacovian royal family about any problems a woman might face in the
US military." Mac leaned back with a scowl. It deepened when she saw a
smile lurking on Harm's face. "You think this is funny?"
"No, no. It's just that when you're ticked, I find my vocabulary
expanding. Why not call the SOB a SOB and be done with it?" Harm grinned
Mac sighed, "Not enough syllables, thank you. Honestly, I want to
flatten that supercilious jerk."
Harm's smile turned mischievous, "We could waylay him in the parking
lot. I'll hold him and you can incinerate him with one of your glares."
Mac gave him a look, "You're just hysterical today, Rabb."
"Hey, I'm not the one who inadvertently crisped a petty officer on my
way back from the Admiral's office. Go look in the bullpen, I'll bet
that little pile of ashes is still smoldering." He watched her with an
innocent expression. Mac couldn't help herself, she let go of her anger
and grinned ruefully. Harm smiled to himself in satisfaction. He rose
from the chair and motioned to her, "C'mon, I'll buy you a fresh cup of
They were halfway to the break room when Gallagher stormed out of the
Admiral's office. Seeing the two officers, he headed towards them,
"Colonel MacKenzie!" A harried-looking Tiner chased after him.
Harm felt Mac tense beside him as they turned around, although her voice
and expression remained neutral, "Yes, Mr. Gallagher?"
Gallagher let his gaze drift to the tall Naval Commander before
dismissing him to stare intently at Mac, "Colonel, I don't believe you
fully grasp the importance of this assignment. I was promised full
cooperation as well as whatever assets I deem necessary for the
successful completion of this mission. You are the most qualified and
therefore necessary; I'm ordering you to participate." He folded his
arms and waited expectantly, you had to be simple yet firm with these
Mac looked at him and said calmly, "You don't have the authority." She
turned back towards the break room. Incensed, Gallagher reached out and
grabbed her by the upper arm, yanking her back towards him. Clenching
her teeth on an exclamation at the unexpected pain, Mac let out a hiss.
Seconds later, Gallagher found himself pinned facedown on a desk, his
arm painfully twisted behind his back.
"Tiner, call Security." Harm's voice came out in a low growl. He looked
over at Mac, she was white-faced and had a hand pressed against her
shoulder. "Mac?" Harm asked anxiously. Harriet hurried over and helped
her into a chair.
"What is the meaning of this?!" AJ's bellow drowned out Tiner's
'Attention on deck'. He motioned for Mac to keep her seat and glared at
Harm, "Commander! Release Mr. Gallagher."
"Aye, sir." Harm let go and stepped back quickly. Sure enough, Gallagher
came up swinging. He was pounced on from either side by two large petty
AJ was in the bureaucrat's face in less than a heartbeat, "That's
enough, Mr. Gallagher! I want you out of this building and off these
grounds. Your behavior today has been nothing less than reprehensible.
Consider yourself lucky that I'm not having you thrown in the brig. I
will, however, have a number of things to say to your superiors."
Chegwidden looked at the petty officers, "Escort him to Security. Tell
Gunny Walters to make sure he leaves the premises and if Mr. Gallagher
causes any more problems, arrest him and take him to the brig." He
waited until they left the bullpen before turning back to his two senior
attorneys. "Colonel, do we need a corpsman up here?"
Mac shook her head, "No sir, I'll be fine in a moment." She smiled
reassuringly at Harm and Harriet.
AJ looked at Rabb, "What exactly happened?"
"Gallagher ordered Mac to take the Bacovian assignment. She told him he
didn't have that kind of authority and turned away. He blew up, grabbed
her by the arm and yanked her back to face him. Then I subdued him."
Harm was still angry. He wanted nothing more than to follow that son of
a bitch into the parking lot and beat the holy hell out of him. When he
realized that the Admiral was still watching him, he carefully schooled
his features to become expressionless.
AJ grunted as he watched Harm become poker-faced and then swept his gaze
across the bullpen. The staff immediately became engrossed in their
work, shuffling papers and typing industriously. He glanced over at Mac,
"If it's any consolation, Colonel, I believe Mr. Gallagher will soon
find himself reassigned to Outer Mongolia."
Mac smiled a trifle wanly, "Thank you sir, I think I'll wait to
celebrate until it's official." Harriet gave her a hand as she slowly
climbed to her feet. There was an industrial strength bottle of
ibuprofen in her desk and she intended to make use of it.
Chegwidden arched an eyebrow, "Not that I blame you, but I think I can
guarantee that Mr. Gallagher never sets foot in this office again." He
looked at all three officers, "Carry on." With that, AJ turned around
and strode back to his office. He had a few heads to roll over at State.
Harm hurried over to the two women. He looked at Mac, "Are you okay?"
Harriet continued to hover nearby.
Mac nodded, rubbing the front of her shoulder, "Yeah, everything's down
to a dull roar." She turned and slowly walked back to her office. Harm
went with her while Harriet continued into the break room. Settling
carefully in her chair, Mac looked over at Harm, "Thanks for the rescue
and the restraint. For a moment, I was afraid you were going pound him
Harm snorted as he settled on the corner of her desk, "Don't think it
didn't cross my mind. My question would be what idiot in the State
Department decided that that lunatic could handle a diplomatic
assignment?" He watched her rummage through a desk drawer before pulling
out a bottle of ibuprofen. "Are you sure you're okay?"
"I'll be fine in a little bit,” Mac replied. She broke into a grateful
smile when Harriet entered the office, bringing her a glass of water.
"Bless you, Harriet." She downed several of the pain-relievers and
looked at the two naval officers, "Not the most auspicious beginning to
the day, is it?"
Falls Church, VA
Mac looked up from her paperwork and saw the Admiral standing in her
doorway. Immediately, she began to rise to attention. AJ waved her back
down as he entered and dropped into one of her chairs, "Would you
reconsider volunteering for the Bacovian assignment, Colonel?"
Mac eyed the Admiral, "May I ask if Mr. Gallagher is still in charge?"
Chegwidden allowed himself a small grin, "You may and he's not. As of
1232, he has been suspended for two weeks and then he'll be reassigned.
I believe he's going to Greenland, apparently there were no openings in
Mac chuckled, "That's too bad, I was hoping not to be in the same
hemisphere. And yes sir, I'd be happy to take the assignment."
"Good," AJ handed her the file folder as he stood up. "Report to the
Bacovian embassy tomorrow morning at 0900. You'll meet with the King's
Chief of Staff, a Daniel Rica. He'll take it from there."
Mac stood up as well, "Yes sir." She waited for AJ to leave her office
before sitting back down and opening the file folder. Twenty minutes
later, a tap on the doorframe interrupted her reading. She looked up to
see Harm standing there, "Hey Sailor, how did court go?"
Harm grimaced slightly, "About how you'd expect with Lt. Singer
prosecuting. She always goes for the jugular." In truth, Lauren hadn't
been nearly as obnoxious as she had been in the past. The Memphis trip
had been an eye-opener for her.
Mac smiled, "So she's giving you a run for your money?"
"She's wearing me out. Have you got any plans tonight?" Harm changed to
the subject he would rather be discussing.
"Why? Are you hoping to bounce defense strategies off me?" Mac propped
an elbow on the desk and rested her chin, gazing at him innocently. No
sense in making it too easy, Harm could use the exercise.
He gave her a look before folding his arms and leaning against the
doorframe, "If I was going to bounce something, it wouldn't be
Mac's smile grew wider as both eyebrows went up, "In that case,
Commander, I believe my social calendar is clear. Your place or mine?"
Harm's grin matched her own, "I'll pick you up, there's a new Italian
place that's opened. I thought we could give it a try."
"Sounds good," Mac glanced back down at her file and waved a hand at
him, "Now if you'll excuse me, I'm knee-deep in Bacovian history."
This time, Harm's eyebrows went up, "You took the assignment? Does this
mean Gallagher is out of the picture?"
"Yes and yes," Mac replied, "Mr. Gallagher is currently suspended for
two weeks and will be reassigned to a post in wonderful, sunny Greenland
- hopefully the northernmost tip."
"That ass should have been fired," Harm grumbled. "He'll be trouble
wherever he goes."
"Getting rid of government bureaucrats is like getting rid of dandelions
- practically impossible. At least we won't have to deal with him
anymore. I'm looking forward to this," Mac said with a warm smile.
"When does it begin?" Harm was vaguely aware that he was grinning too;
she had that effect on him.
"0900 tomorrow," She shook a finger at him, "So you can't keep me out
'til all hours. I'll make a better impression if I'm awake and
"What if I promise to have you home and in bed by nine?" Harm waggled
his eyebrows suggestively.
Mac laughed as she leaned back in her chair, "Then it will be your fault
when I commit some faux pas and Bacovia declares war in the next
twenty-four hours." A little light flirting did make the day more
Harm made a show of pondering this. "Well, I suppose that wouldn't look
good on my service record. Still... Bacovia's pretty small?" Mac nodded
with a grin. "So theoretically, if I borrow a Tomcat for a day or so, I
could not only start the war but win it too. That would look impressive
on my record."
"What would look impressive on your record, Commander?" The sound of
Chegwidden's voice startled both officers. AJ had been coming out of the
break room when he saw Rabb at the Colonel's doorway. Deciding to get an
update on the McPherson case, he had detoured over in time to hear the
Commander's last comment.
"Ummm...," Harm stammered a bit, straightening up. He hadn't expected
anyone but Mac to hear what he'd said. AJ gestured at his Chief of Staff
to remain seated while looking curiously at Rabb.
"Saving the world for truth, justice and the American Way, sir," Mac
chimed in, looking highly amused.
Chegwidden's eyebrow slowly rose as he silently contemplated his
aviator-turned-lawyer. Harm met his gaze stoically while squirming a
little inside. What Mac had said wasn't much better than what he had
said. Finally, AJ spoke, "Highly commendable, Commander Rabb. Just
remember that the uniform of the day does not include tights." He turned
to leave and then stopped, looking back over his shoulder, "I'd like an
update on the McPherson case. Meet me in my office in five minutes." He
paused for a few seconds and then added, "Please don't fly in through
the window." With that, he headed back to his office looking pleased
Harm waited until AJ had cleared the bullpen before covering his face
and groaning, "I'm never going to hear the end of this." He lowered his
hand and glared at Mac. She was laughing silently. "This is your fault,
She raised her hands, "Hey, I'm not the one who likes to fly faster than
a speeding bullet." Mac cocked her head to the side, "So tell me, do you
have a cape attached to your flight suit?"
Rolling his eyes, Harm turned to walk back to his office, "This is going
to get old fast." He looked over at her, "Pick you up around 1830?"
"I'll leave the window open," Mac smiled. Harm gave her a pained look
before retreating to his office. He was going to have to think about
payback. His expression lightened - handled correctly, it could be fun.
Mac opened her door and grinned at her partner, "I'm impressed. You're
thirty-three seconds early."
Harm gave her a sidelong look, "I flew." Mac laughed as she gestured him
in. Her Superman analogy had filtered into the bullpen and Harm had
spent most of the afternoon dealing with witty and wry remarks from
those officers senior enough to get away with it. The junior officers
and enlisted had contented themselves with grins and sotto voce
renditions of 'faster than a speeding bullet...' whenever he walked
She headed for a closet, "Let me grab a light coat and I'll be right
with you." Harm admired the view as she walked away from him. She was
wearing a black skirt with a burgundy sweater top. She draped the coat
over her arm, grabbed her purse and turned back to him with a smile,
Harm grinned as he opened the door and bowed her through, "After you,
madam." He waited while she locked her door and together they walked
down the hallway. They stopped at the entry and Harm helped Mac into her
coat, taking care not to jostle her shoulder. He paused for a moment
with his hands resting lightly on her back. Leaning in, he said softly,
"Have I mentioned how beautiful you look tonight?"
He felt her tense momentarily, before relaxing again and turning to face
him. At his questioning look, Mac looked a little abashed, "Sorry about
that, I guess I'm still not used to hearing those kinds of comments from
you. It threw me a bit."
Harm gave her a grin while offering his arm, "Well, you know what they
say. Practice makes perfect."
Mac smiled back while taking his arm, "In that case, may I say that
you're looking handsome tonight as well?" He was wearing black slacks
and a charcoal sport coat. His shirt was a shade or two lighter than
midnight blue. It complemented her outfit with the added bonus of
setting off the brilliance of his eyes.
Chuckling, Harm inclined his head, "Yes, you may." They reached his SUV.
He opened the passenger side and handed her in. Eyes sparkling, he kept
hold of her hand for a moment and said solemnly, "I think we'll just
have to face it, Ms. MacKenzie, we are a stunning couple."
Suppressing a grin with difficulty, Mac matched his demeanor, "I concur
Mr. Rabb. Let's go knock their socks off at that restaurant."
With a wide smile, Harm gave a slight bow, "As you wish."
Falls Church, Virginia
Harm strode into the bullpen with a slight bounce to his step. It had
been a thoroughly enjoyable evening for both of them. The food had been
excellent, the conversation lively and even though it was an early
night, they still had time for a short after dinner stroll. He shook his
head slightly; they'd known each other for seven years and still found
each other's company fascinating. He'd known married couples that had
little to say to each other after five years. He glanced at Mac's
office, noting that it was dark. Seeing Harriet at her desk, he veered
over to her, "Morning Harriet."
"Good morning, sir," Harriet tried to contain her surprise. Harm was
usually not in for at least forty more minutes. She managed to get out
"How are you?" instead of "What are you doing here?"
"Fine, thanks." He hurried to ask his question before Harriet started in
on hers. "Has Colonel MacKenzie been in this morning?"
"You missed her by about five minutes, sir," Harriet smiled. "Is there
anything I can do to help?"
"No, no," Harm backed away and headed briskly to his office. Although
neither he nor Mac were hiding their relationship, that didn't mean that
he wanted to be grilled about it. He could feel Harriet's grin all the
way into his office. With a sigh he dropped into his chair and started
in on paperwork, it would be a long day.
Mac drove up to the entry of the embassy and gave her name over the
intercom. Forty-three seconds later, the gates rolled open. Pulling into
the courtyard, she was directed to a parking space by a young soldier.
He waited for her to get out of the car and then escorted her to a side
door. There, he handed Mac off to a liveried servant who took her to a
richly appointed sitting room. The servant gave a slight bow and
disappeared as quietly as he had arrived. Curious, she scanned the
contents of the room. Aside from the to-be-expected expensive furniture
and hangings, there were a number of photographs, both on tables and
hanging on the walls. Obviously professionally done, they were of the
royal family. Mostly, they were of the children at various ages, engaged
in numerous pursuits. The twins were immortalized jumping fences on
horseback, playing soccer, rock-climbing, giving music and dance
recitals and even in fencing attire. The younger children didn't have
nearly as many photos but apparently were just as active. Mac smiled to
herself, wondering if this was what every well-rounded royal child went
A throat clearing interrupted her perusal. Turning around, she saw a
small man standing in the doorway. If she had to describe him, the first
word that came to mind was 'soft'. He was round-faced and round-bodied,
with a library pallor that contrasted sharply with his black hair. Mac
was willing to wager that he had only a passing acquaintance with any
physical endeavors. She walked over to him and smiled, "Mr. Rica? I'm
Lt. Col. Sarah MacKenzie from the Judge Advocate General's office." Her
smile faded a little as he regarded her silently. She began to wonder if
anyone in this embassy actually talked.
Abruptly, he turned and walked out with a gesture for her to follow. Mac
swallowed a surge of irritation and started after him. She had a good
four inches of height on him and so she had no trouble catching up with
the little man. He seemed to find that development annoying, to judge
from the look on his face. However, with her longer stride, his only
other option was jogging. That was definitely beneath what appeared to
be a massive amount of dignity. Finally, he spoke, "You're late."
Mac blinked, "I was told to meet you at 0900."
"Precisely. You're late."
After debating with herself for a few seconds, Mac said, "No, I'm not.
He looked at her in disbelief as he continued to stride down the
corridor. Reaching into his coat, he brought out an expensive-looking
pocket watch. Glancing down at it, he said rather triumphantly, "It's
They were rapidly approaching the end of the corridor. There was a set
of double doors flanked by uniformed men. Mac spared them a quick glance
and decided they must be members of the Bacovian Household Guard. They
silently opened the doors as the two came closer. Rica never slackened
his pace. Staying alongside, she looked down at him, "Your watch is
fast, it's 0857."
Once inside the room, he turned to face her. Waving his watch under her
nose, he said, "This is a finely tuned, precision-crafted timepiece and
it's... " he stopped moving it to look, "... exactly 9:06. You're late."
Mac folded her arms and stared at him, "It's 0858:32. I entered the
Embassy grounds at 0850, it took 3 minutes and 26 seconds to park the
car and walk to the sitting room. I waited 3 minutes and 41 seconds
until you came in and it took 85 seconds to reach this room."
"Surrender gracefully, Daniel," came a soothing, baritone voice from a
corner of the room. "The Colonel is quite correct about the time." The
owner of the voice moved to the center of the room. Mac stiffened to
attention. Even without Rica bowing respectfully beside her, she would
have known that this man was King Gheorghe. He exuded an aura of
strength and authority without seeming to be aware of it. His features
were a trifle too irregular to be considered handsome but there was a
rough-hewn attractiveness there. He was of medium height, lithe rather
than heavily muscled and moved with an athlete's grace. His dark eyes,
sparkling now with humor, missed little. Mac sucked in a breath, even
after seven years of preparation with Harm, this man's charisma was damn
He gestured at her as he continued to walk towards the two, "Please,
Colonel, relax... umm, as you were. Is that correct?" He smiled when she
nodded and turned an indulgent grin upon Rica. "Daniel, I've been
telling you for weeks that your watch is gaining time." He watched the
little man huff indignantly and then turned back to Mac, "I beg your
pardon, we haven't been introduced and Daniel isn't finished sputtering
about his exquisitely crafted watch. I'm Gheorghe Dzurick and you, I
presume, are Lt. Col. Sarah MacKenzie?"
Mac nodded, "Yes, Your Majesty."
"Thank you for coming. Despite the reception Daniel probably gave you,
my wife and I appreciate your presence." He sat down in a brocaded
wingback chair and motioned for Mac to have a seat. The King glanced at
Rica as he spoke and the little man looked back in defiant displeasure.
"I'm afraid Daniel doesn't approve of my daughter's plans nor our
acquiescence.’It is unseemly for a woman of royal blood to pursue a
career as a common soldier.' I keep assuring him there is nothing common
about Mo. Nor, if I may be so bold, does there seem to be anything
common about you, Colonel."
Mac blushed and looked down at her hands for a moment, feeling a trifle
flustered. It was disconcerting to find another man that could affect
her the way Harm did. "Thank you, Your Majesty... I'm looking forward to
meeting your daughter."
"And so you shall," Gheorghe replied. Fifteen seconds later, another
liveried servant stood attentively at the doorway. Mac decided there
must be some sort of bell or signal near the chair. "Would you ask the
family to join us?" Gheorghe inquired. The servant nodded silently and
disappeared. The King turned back to Mac and cleared his throat,
"Colonel, I believe I should warn you - my children are headstrong and
they always try to push the limits with anyone new in their lives. I
don't know if I'd call them bullies... “Rica snorted and then subsided
when the King looked his way.”... but don't let use their royalty as a
club. As far as my wife and I are concerned, you outrank them."
"Yes sir," Mac said with a slight smile, wondering if the Princess would
be another Chloe.
Gheorghe leaned back in the chair, "Might I ask a personal question,
Colonel?" Mac nodded somewhat warily. The King grinned as he glanced at
Rica, "How did you know exactly what time it was? Is this something they
teach in the American military? Because if that is the case, perhaps I
will send some of my staff to be educated."
Chuckling, Mac shook her head, the thought of the stuffy, little
Bacovian Chief of Staff in Marine boot camp was amusing, to say the
least. "I'm sorry, Your Majesty, but that particular ability is all my
own. I've been able to tell time without a watch since I was ten."
"You are obviously a woman of many talents, Colonel... “The King was
interrupted when the doors opened and a crowd of people entered the
room, the youngsters were chattering noisily. Gheorghe climbed out of
his chair and Mac rose also. That was enough to quiet everyone down. A
brunette, only an inch or so shorter than Mac, continued forward until
she was at Gheorghe's side. He placed a light hand on her back and
smiled, "My dear, may I introduce Lt. Col. Sarah MacKenzie? Colonel,
this is my wife Carol Dzurick."
Mac inclined her head a little and smiled, "Your Majesty."
Carol smiled in return and offered a hand, "I'm glad you're here,
Colonel MacKenzie, my daughter is anxious to find out everything she can
about a military career. You're going to be her 'inside' information."
She turned to Gheorghe and raised an eyebrow, "I think you'd better
start the introductions before all your children expire from curiosity."
Gheorghe glanced over his shoulder, "I believe you're right." He looked
at Mac, "Are you ready to brave the lion's den?"
Mac followed along in the little crowd that trailed after the royal
family. The King and Queen went first, followed by the Heir Apparent and
Heir Presumptive, their twin daughters. The third group, which Mac found
herself in, consisted of the ever-scowling Rica; the King's batman,
Lucian Valter; the Queen's Executive Secretary, Elizabeth Parker; and
Gheorghe's aunt and uncle, the Grand Duke Victor and his wife, the Grand
Duchess Katrina. The introductions had gone, more or less, smoothly.
There were a number of people. The twins had been on their dignity,
she'd have to wait to see what they were really like. The younger
children had turned shy at the last minute. The rest had been the adults
and they were clearly divided about whether the Princess' desire for a
military career was a good idea.
Rica was adamantly opposed and judging by the cool reception, so were
the Grand Duke and Duchess. The King's batman, the Queen's Executive
Secretary and the governess, Olga Hristov, were all in favor. Now they
were on their way to private living quarters of the royal family. Carol,
keeping a weather eye on the undercurrents, had decided that the
discussion that was about to take place would be better in a less public
setting. The whole thing had Mac slightly perplexed. She thought she
would be allaying (or possibly confirming) the parents' concerns, not
arguing her case before the royal household.
They entered a large, comfortable room and subconsciously or not, split
into opposing sides. Mac stood back a little ways, apart from either
group. Grand Duke Victor fired the opening salvo, "I cannot believe
you're actually going through with this, Gheorghe. The military is no
place for a woman and most especially, not one of royal birth. It's
degrading and dangerous." Mac noticed the surreptitious looks cast her
way by the others, as well as the identical defiant look directed to
their great-uncle by each of the twins.
"Uncle Victor," Gheorghe said calmly, "I am going through with nothing.
Natalya is eighteen and can make her own decisions. Naturally, her
mother and I will gladly offer opinions - wanted or not." This produced
the expected smiles and eye-rolling from all the children, easing some
of the tension. The King waited a moment and then said more seriously,
"As for the rest of your statement, I believe you've come perilously
close to insulting our guest." He looked at Mac, "Colonel, would you
like to answer Victor, or shall I?"
Mac looked at him for a moment, realizing that Gheorghe had expected
this reaction and now apparently wished to gauge her response. Meeting
his gaze, she gracefully inclined her head and turned to the Grand Duke
with a smile, "Your Grace, while I respect your opinion, I'm afraid I'll
have to contradict you on several points. The military is the place for
anyone who is willing to serve and defend their country, regardless of
gender." She glanced around the assemblage, "I doubt that it's much
different than the responsibilities of royalty; unless you find
'noblesse oblige' to be degrading as well?" She paused, raising an
eyebrow. Victor glared at her but remained silent. Mac continued, "As
for danger, well obviously, some aspects of the military are more
dangerous than others but then, these days, being alive is dangerous
too. The difference is that in the military, we expect to deal with
danger and are trained accordingly. Civilians rarely have that
"If the military life is so idyllic then why aren't more people
joining?" This came from a frowning Grand Duchess.
Mac turned towards her, "Idyllic is hardly the way to describe the
military. We're undermanned, overworked and underpaid but we stay in
because it's important and because there's something honorable in
serving one's country. Not a lot of people are willing to make the
sacrifices a military career demands."
"But your military doesn't allow women in combat. You don't get to
defend your country - you're nothing more than a group of uniformed
secretaries and clerks. Why should the Princess demean herself for such
menial tasks?" Victor said this with a hint of malice. Mac noticed both
Elizabeth Parker and Daniel Rica bristling at his words.
"There is nothing menial or demeaning about the clerks or the
secretaries. Only a small percentage of troops actually see combat and
they couldn't if it weren't for the clerks, secretaries, cooks,
mechanics, technicians, truck drivers, warehouse workers, medical
personnel, lawyers and all the rest of the support staff that keeps the
military functioning. Despite the non-combatant status, all receive the
same combat training because there is very little that is predictable in
battle. Women are currently not allowed in the frontlines as ground
combat troops but that doesn't keep them from providing support in the
rear echelons. And, as you're surely aware, there are a number of women
combat pilots." Mac locked eyes with the Grand Duke and waited for his
response. She was peripherally aware of the small smiles on the faces of
Gheorghe, Carol and the children.
Victor's face reddened as he remained silent, his eyes narrow as he
glared at her. Abruptly, he threw up his hands and turned to Gheorghe,
"Very well, disgrace the family if you wish. I can see that I will have
little say in the matter." He turned towards the doors and looked at the
Grand Duchess, "Come." Then he strode angrily from the room, trailed by
his wife. As he passed by Mac, he said softly and venomously, "Suka."
She stiffened momentarily and watched him leave the room. Only the Grand
Duchess had heard Victor's last comment and she looked like she agreed
with him. Mac decided that she'd need to keep an eye out for the
Gheorghe's gaze followed the Grand Duke and Duchess out of the room. He
turned a perplexed look towards Mac, "Victor rarely surrenders a
position so easily, Colonel."
"And he's been known to try physical intimidation when words fail him,"
Carol added grimly. She glared at Gheorghe who looked at her with a
slightly shocked expression, "Liza and I hear things from the staff that
you don't, Geordie. As far as we know, he hasn't actually laid hands on
anyone yet; but he's been growing more and more difficult these last few
months. I don't know why he persists in staying with us when we so
obviously annoy him."
"He doesn't want to be too far from the power," Mac murmured
thoughtfully. She flushed slightly when she saw the King and Queen look
at her, "I beg your pardon, your Majesties. I was speculating out loud."
"It's a valid point," Gheorghe sighed. Then he smiled again, "But now
that that's over, I think we should all sit down and get acquainted." He
looked over at Rica, "Daniel, you may go or stay. It's up to you."
Rica smiled. Mac felt mildly surprised, she had begun to believe the
little man didn't know how. He looked at the royal couple, "I believe
I'll stay, your Majesty. I can hardly raise new objections if I'm not
here to listen to new information."
"Very true, Daniel," the King laughed. He turned and escorted his wife
to the sitting area, everyone else trailing behind. Once all were
comfortable, he looked over at Mac, "Ready to answer questions,
"Yes, your Majesty," she said with a smile. Two hours and seventeen
minutes later, Gheorghe called a halt. Mac heaved a quiet sigh of
relief. She'd lost track of the number of questions she'd answered and
had had very little time to ask any of her own. Still, the nature of the
questions gave her some insight into each person. Enough for a pocket
sketch of the various people she would be dealing with. The oldest twin,
Princess Margarete Catalin, 'Cat', was the definitely the leader of the
two. She didn't talk so much as listen and her questions tended to get
to the heart of the matter quickly. She took her responsibilities as the
heir seriously. Princess Natalya Moira was more vivacious. She had
inherited her father's charisma and seemed blissfully unaware of the
fact. 'Mo' combined a sunny disposition with the sometimes disconcerting
habit of focusing her entire attention on whomever was speaking. Mac
decided she was one of those people to whom others gravitated like moths
to a flame.
Prince Andrei Nicolae, 'Nicky', was at that awkward age of fourteen. He
was still trying to cope with the growth spurts and other changes that
were taking place. Princess Christina Elena, 'El', was a typical
twelve-year-old. Happy and bubbling, she bounced from subject to subject
at the speed of light. In the space of five minutes, Mac learned that
El's favorite pony was named Henri, her favorite color was blue, she was
having trouble in math, she thought Mac was pretty and she wanted her
parents to have another child because she thought babies were cute.
The King and Queen were a little harder to read. Mostly, their questions
conveyed concern over the career choice their daughter had made. Mac was
pretty sure that Carol was the disciplinarian in the family, Gheorghe
tended to dote on his children. Liza Parker's title was Executive
Secretary to the Queen but her true position was that of confidante and
best friend. Mac learned that she and Carol had grown up together in
Lexington, Kentucky and Liza had been responsible for Carol and Gheorghe
meeting. Lucian Valter was the King's body servant. He was young and
bright and his relationship with Gheorghe was somewhat like father and
son. It was fairly obvious, at least to Mac, that he was mesmerized by
Mo. The governess, Olga Hristov, was an older, mousy little woman whose
main purpose in life these days, was keeping El out of trouble.
Daniel Rica was a puzzle. Intelligent, blunt and acerbic, he had no
qualms about contradicting the King whenever the mood struck him. He
played Devil's Advocate with a vengeance. Gheorghe treated him with fond
amusement and a good deal of respect. Mac decided that his primary
loyalty was to Bacovia and that he would put the safety and well-being
of his country above any personal relationships, including that of the
"Colonel?" Gheorghe's voice broke into her thoughts. "Would you care to
join us for lunch? After that interrogation, the least we can do is feed
you. It will just be the family - nothing formal."
"Thank you, your Majesty," Mac said, "I'd be happy to have lunch with
you, if you're sure I won't be intruding."
"Nonsense, Colonel," Carol smiled, "You're about to become a member of
the family - at least for a little while. We've been hearing all about
the Marine Corps and military life and now we should get to know one
another on a more social level." She glanced at Gheorghe as she said
this, checking his reaction and missed the quick look of displeasure on
Rica's face. Mac didn't and wondered which was annoying the Bacovian
Chief of Staff more, that she was staying for lunch or that he hadn't
been invited. Truthfully, she wouldn't have minded skipping the lunch
and calling it a day. Her stamina still wasn't where it used to be and
she was tired. However, as in the case of admirals, when a king requests
your presence - you say yes.
Mac sat in her car and waited for the gates to open. Lunch had turned
out to be an interesting affair, if unexpected. 'That's what I get for
going in with pre-conceived notions,' she thought to herself wryly. What
she thought would be a stuffy, stilted gathering had turned into an
enjoyable experience. Eating had been punctuated with good-natured
teasing, favorite stories and wry commentary on world events. The royal
family was a close-knit bunch that obviously enjoyed each other's
company. Listening to the twins was like watching a tennis match as they
finished each other's sentences. Gheorghe had a dry sense of humor and a
deadpan delivery as he told how Carol's parents (who raised
thoroughbreds and warm-bloods) had been less than impressed with the
possibility of a royal son-in-law until they discovered he knew which
end of a horse got up first. Carol matched that with stories of her
competition days in the equestrian 3-Day Event. The Bacovian royal
family were intelligent, likable people. All in all, Mac decided that
this would be a relaxing and fun assignment.
She pulled out onto to Embassy Row and headed for Georgetown. There was
no point in going back to the office, the Admiral wasn't expecting her.
She'd go home and relax for a couple of hours and then give Harm a call
and see if he wanted to get together for dinner. Mac was fairly certain
she'd had a more enjoyable day - he'd been in court again with Singer.
No doubt he would need a little sympathy. Absorbed in her thoughts, she
didn't notice the dark sedan that followed her.
Mac entered her apartment, juggling keys and packages, and pushed the
door closed with her foot. She'd stopped at a little market on her way
home. Depositing the bags in the kitchen, she came out and stepped back
in surprise. Clayton Webb stood in her living room, watching her
reaction with a small, lopsided grin.
Mac put a hand to her chest, leaning against the side of her desk. Her
heart was hammering wildly, "Goddammit, Clay! You scared the living
daylights out of me! Don't you ever knock? What are you doing here?"
"Don't you lock your door? I could have been some maniacal serial
killer." Clay countered with a smug look. It was rare that he managed to
surprise the hell out of her. He dropped down on the couch and watched
as she went and locked her front door.
Mac turned around, folded her arms and regarded him sternly, "I thought
you were still in Afghanistan. Did you suddenly feel the urge to come
back to the States just to give me a heart attack?"
"That was on my agenda," Clay said, the gleam in his eye belied his
serious expression. He waited while she settled in a chair opposite him,
"So you're the officer they drafted to do PR work with the Bacovians?"
Mac nodded, eyeing the CIA operative with suspicion. He stared back at
her, his expression neutral. Mac groaned and dropped her face in her
hands, "Dammit to hell, Clay, this was supposed to be a relaxing,
no-brainer assignment. Tell them about the pros and cons for women in
the military, take them on a tour of Annapolis and maybe run them out to
Quantico." She raised her head and glared at him, "If you tell me the
royal family is a secret al-Qaeda cell, I think I'll scream."
Webb looked at her and grinned, "Not al-Qaeda - well, not directly,
anyway. And we don't think the royal family is involved, but we're not
sure. It could be the staff. Of course, we don't know if what we're
hearing is true or if it's just misinformation to keep us turning in
circles. That's where you come in."
Leaning back, Mac sighed in exasperation, "Clay, I'm just too tired to
follow the convolutions. Could you please spell it out for me slowly and
in English? What's going on?"
Clay took a closer look at Mac, she did look tired. "You're still
recovering from that militia debacle, aren't you? Mac gave a slight,
reluctant nod, she hated admitting weakness. Webb leaned back, while he
thought things over. Damn, if what he suspected was going on, Mac would
be invaluable as their inside player. The problem was that he had no way
to gauge the level of danger she could be facing... He snorted to
himself, what was he thinking? Mac was just as bad as Rabb; any estimate
of the likelihood of trouble could be automatically squared if either
one was involved. With both, the estimate could be figured by powers of
ten. Unfortunately, that also went hand-in-hand with their success rate.
If he got Mac involved in this, he could count on Harm's participation
as well. That would bring in the Admiral... Clay felt his nose begin to
"Clay... ?" Mac's voice brought him out of his reverie. He looked to see
her watching him with mingled concern and amusement. "I guess I'm not
the only one who's tired. I should have guessed that asking you to
simplify things would send you off to uncharted space. Do you want some
Webb raised an eyebrow and then nodded. He stood and gave Mac a hand up
and then followed her to the kitchen. Leaning against the counter, he
watched while she prepared the coffeemaker. Mac grinned at him, "Do you
need real coffee or wimpy, squid coffee?"
Clay scrubbed the side of his face, "Real coffee, please. It's been a
long couple of weeks."
Mac measured out the fragrant crystals and then started the coffeemaker.
Turning, she leaned against the counter as well, "Have you figured out
what to tell me?"
Sighing, Clay gave the bridge of his nose one final rub, "Yeah. You know
we've been monitoring al-Qaeda traffic?" Mac nodded, everyone on the
planet probably knew that. She refrained from comment, knowing he was
ordering things in his mind as he spoke. He continued, "Well, we picked
up an odd snippet about ten days ago. Chechen rebels arranging a meet
with an al-Qaeda representative. In and of itself, that's not too
surprising - the Chechens are willing to go anywhere for help. The thing
is the call originated in Bacovia. The King has always been pro-West and
we don't think that's changed. So this could be just a rebel group
conveniently hiding out in the Bacovian mountains, or it could be a
threat to the royal family. We also don't know if any of the family is
involved. The Dzuricks have been a prolific bunch; you can't swing a
stick without hitting a blood relation somewhere. Strategically, it
doesn't really affect us but if al-Qaeda-supported Chechens establish a
hold in that country, it could cause huge problems for Russia and the
neighboring countries. Ultimately, that will cause us problems down the
line. Especially when we start thinking about Iraq."
"So you're leaning towards a coup? Do you think they'd do away with the
monarchy altogether?" Mac tightened her grip on the counter, what she
was asking was whether the entire family would be murdered.
"We just don't know. They might keep some form of puppet government to
appease the citizens. Most of this is speculation. We don't even know if
the call was legitimate." Webb was silent for a moment and then looked
Mac in the eye, "My gut feeling is that the Dzurick family is in
"What do you want me to do, Clay?" Mac asked tightly, thinking of the
lengths these people might go to to achieve their goal. That there were
children involved had not proved to be much of a deterrent these days.
"Tell the King what we suspect and see if you can convince him to keep
it to himself. Tell him we're doing everything we can to find and stop
these people. He'll want to protect his family but what if someone in
the inner circle is the traitor? If they think their plan has been
compromised, they might just try to slaughter everyone. We need to
proceed as if we suspect nothing." He looked down for a second and then
said, "You realize you'll be a target as well? Killing an American
officer would be icing on the cake." Clay was well aware that if
anything happened to her, Rabb would kill him and the Admiral would make
sure there was nothing left to bury.
"What are the alternatives, Clay? Run away and pretend it's not my
problem? There's no way I'm going to let these bastards get a free ride,
not if I can help it." Mac was adamant.
Webb smiled to himself; Mac had dropped into kick-ass Marine mode. Any
terrorist who crossed her path right now was roadkill. He thought of
something else and glanced over at her, "You should also know that Major
Sokol flew into D.C. late this morning."
He moved quickly to a deserted room when he felt the cell phone vibrate.
Pulling out the phone, he looked cautiously around before answering,
"You were right to suspect her. The CIA met with her at her apartment
this afternoon. The agent was there for over an hour. What if they know
what's going on?"
"Don't panic. We've been careful, they're probably just speculating." He
moved further into a corner.
"That's easy for you to say. What if they KNOW? What are we going to
do?" the voice was growing anxious.
"We follow the plan. If it becomes necessary, we'll adapt." With that,
he broke the connection and moved quickly from the room. They'd come too
far to give up now. If the woman officer started poking around where she
wasn't wanted, they'd get rid of her.