||JAG story, drama,
words, 56 pages (8 ½” x 11”)
||Season 8 “The One That
Harm leaned over the small, chipped sink and peered at the slightly
distorted image in the grungy, scarred mirror. It looked a little bit
like he felt, fuzzy and slightly out of focus. He’d been feeling that
way for months now and he ought to be used to it by now, but he wasn’t.
The face that gazed back at him looked older than it should be, older
and maybe, just maybe, a little wiser. Harmon Rabb, Jr., ex-fighter
jock, ex-lawyer, ex-naval officer...ex-a-lot-of-things.
With a scoffing snort, he smeared on a handful of shaving cream then
plunged the disposable razor into the icy pool in the sink. The dingy
hotel didn’t sport hot water in the rooms but he considered himself
lucky to have any facilities at all. The last place the agency had stuck
him didn’t even have indoor toilets.
Still, the optimist inside wouldn’t let him forget the amazing
experiences he’d had since joining the agency. He’d flown more types of
aircraft in the past six months than he had in the past five years –
maybe ten. Every day was a new challenge and, provided he didn’t think
too much about everything he’d lost, he could almost convince himself he
Ducking out from under thoughts that were getting depressing, he turned
his mind to the upcoming mission. Most aerial reconnaissance missions
didn’t take this long to set up, but then again, most AR missions didn’t
require using a decrepit old charter plane with barely enough range to
complete the flyover. He was used to starting off on friendly territory,
getting in, and getting back out to that same friendly territory. He
still wasn’t sure about this business of starting the mission deep
inside a country where most everyone would gladly shoot him if they knew
what he was up to.
Two hours later, he was even less sure about it.
The small, beat-up eight-passenger plane groaned uncomfortably as it
lumbered into the sky. He thought for a moment he heard one of the
engines cough, but he couldn’t be sure. Damn good thing he didn’t have a
full load of passengers. The added weight would probably be too much for
the old rattrap. Gritting his teeth, he concentrated on getting the
mission over with and getting this thing back on the ground in one
piece, preferably with the rubber side down.
Another hour later, he got a rude awakening about just how difficult
that was going to be.
The flyover was almost complete. Five more minutes and they’d have
everything they needed to confirm if the jungle camp was a simple family
trying to eek out a living, a drug operation, or, as rumors had
suggested, a training ground for terrorists.
That five minutes was three more than he had. Out of nowhere, a bullet
ripped through his right wing as several more slammed into the body of
the plane. Snarling a curse, he fought the controls, literally
manhandling the plane out of its desire to spiral into the ground. He
spared one brief second to wonder about how things were going in the
passenger compartment behind him but gave up even that when the plane
bucked again, as if it were a horse, determined to be rid of its human
Harm wrestled valiantly with the controls, even though he knew in his
heart it was hopeless. The plane was dropping like a rock and there
wasn’t a damn thing he could do to prevent it. The ground was rushing
toward him at an alarming rate and in a stunning moment of clarity, he
realized there weren’t going to be any miracles this time. He wasn’t
going to be able to pull off some stunt and save the day. This time, he
was going to die.
Still, the tenacity that had marked his whole life wouldn’t let him give
up. He would fight the controls until the nose of the plane came through
the windshield and took his head off. The angle of his descent pretty
well guaranteed that’s what would happen.
But it also meant that long before it did, there was nothing to see but
greenery. The foliage filled his vision...and then suddenly it was gone.
In its place was a vivid image of Mac’s face. She was smiling that sad
smile of hers, her eyes flooded with tears. It was exactly as she had
looked all those years ago when they said goodbye before he left on a
fool’s errand to reclaim what he’d thought was the only life he wanted.
They hadn’t said goodbye at all this time and now, they would never get
the chance to. Leaves and branches slapped the windshield as the plane
plunged into the forest canopy and he knew he had only a few seconds
left. Mac’s sad, smiling face filled his mind once more.
“Goodbye,” he whispered. “Goodbye, my love...”
“Goodbye, my love...”
Mac awoke with Harm’s voice whispering through her mind and her eyes
filled with tears. She couldn’t remember the dream, but she couldn’t
shake the overwhelming grief and sadness flowing through her. She was
halfway through dialing his number before she finally got a grip on
herself. They hadn’t talked in months. He would think she was crazy,
calling him just because she’d had a nightmare.
Besides, she didn’t even know if he was in the country. For all she
knew, he was off somewhere playing spook.
She still had a hard time thinking of Harm as a CIA operative. He’d
always shown such contempt for Clay...but now, she was beginning to
wonder if that contempt had been fueled by Clay’s profession, or by some
innate sense males of any species seemed to have that told them when
they were in the presence of a rival.
She made a scoffing sound in her throat. A rival for what? In the eight
years she’d known him, Harm hadn’t done more than come close once or
twice to admitting he felt anything for her. Somehow, she knew he did,
and his complete refusal to even face the situation left her feeling
hurt and rejected.
Unfortunately, when she was hurt, she tended to lash out. It was her
worst flaw, as far as she was concerned, but she didn’t seem to be able
to do anything about it. The defense mechanism was so deeply ingrained
in her, it just leapt out before she could stop it. It was especially
bad where Harm was concerned because he tended to do the very same
thing. It seemed like every time they tried to face what was going on
between them, they ended up sniping and snipping at each other like a
pair of five-year-olds.
Groaning over the less than cheerful thoughts that she was starting the
day with, she rolled out of bed.
JAG HQ – 07:49 EST
Mac had barely made it to her desk before P.O. Coates arrived at her
door. “Morning, ma’am. The admiral asked to see you the moment you
Mac stifled a groan, but she couldn’t help feeling like she’d just been
given a summons to the principal’s office. The admiral was riding
everyone hard these days, but after her monumental blunder recently, she
had a feeling she would need to keep a very close watch on her six to
avoid having a size twelve shoe print planted squarely on it.
At her nod, Coates disappeared. Mac followed as quickly as she could.
Keeping the admiral waiting wasn’t likely to improve his mood. The
moment she stepped into his office, however, she realized nothing could
improve the admiral’s mood. His scowl filled the room.
At first, she thought it was directed at the slightly heavyset older man
sitting in front of the desk, but the tight lines around Chegwidden’s
mouth didn’t relax any when he turned toward her. “Col. MacKenzie, this
is Allen Blaisdell. He’s with the CIA.”
A visit from the CIA was enough to get the admiral scowling, but it
still didn’t account for the strange, hard glitter she saw in his pale
blue eyes. She dragged her gaze from his and turned to Blaisdell.
“Pleased to meet you.”
“No, I’m afraid you won’t be,” he replied bluntly, his voice gravelly
Mac felt her own scowl beginning to form. “Excuse me?”
“Have a seat, Colonel,” the admiral interjected. “Mr. Blaisdell has some
information he needs to impart.”
Suddenly wary, Mac slid into a chair. The admiral was being far too
formal, too rigid. Something was definitely not right here.
Blaisdell turned in his chair, facing her more squarely. “I’m afraid I
have some bad news for you.”
Her insides turned to ice. Harm...or Clay...? Which one was it, and how
bad was it? Clenching her hands together in her lap, she waited for him
to go on.
“At approximately zero-six-hundred this morning, a reconnaissance
mission over Guatemala went bad. Harm’s plane was apparently shot down.
It exploded on impact. I’m sorry, Col. MacKenzie... He’s dead.”
AJ watched as Mac reeled with the blow. He knew exactly how she felt. He
was still staggering himself. It was taking every scrap of SEAL training
he had to keep it together. She blinked several times, her eyes suddenly
bright and brassy, and gulped in a few breaths of air. Blaisdell gave
her the time she needed, discretely averting his gaze to provide her at
least a semblance of privacy.
“Are...” She swallowed – very hard. “Are you certain?”
Blaisdell nodded sadly. “As certain as we can be. Villagers in the area
confirmed the explosion.”
This was something AJ hadn’t heard before and he pounced on it. “You
mean none of your people have gone to the wreckage?”
“No, and they won’t be, either. It’s too risky.”
“What do you mean, too risky?” Mac demanded before AJ had the chance.
“How do you even know for sure Harm’s dead, then? He could be injured!
He could be—”
“He could be.” Blaisdell held up a hand. “But from the description of
the explosion, it’s not very likely and sending someone in just to
confirm what we already know would only put more people’s lives at
“But you don’t know!” she insisted. “Not for sure!”
“I have to agree with her,” AJ threw in. “I can’t believe you would
leave something like this open to the slightest uncertainty.”
“We have to,” Blaisdell replied with something of a helpless shrug.
“Until the area is secured, no further entrance into the area will be
AJ watched Mac’s incredulity expand further. “But what about...you’ve
got to at least recover his...remains.”
Blaisdell shook his head again and she came halfway out of her chair.
“You can’t just leave him there!”
Blaisdell’s expression hardened slightly. “Look, Colonel, this isn’t
easy for me either. I got to know him pretty well. He’s my friend too.”
AJ watched the war of emotions on Mac’s face as she struggled to hold
onto her composure. Blaisdell didn’t begin to understand what was going
on here. He might be Harm’s friend, but Mac was in love with him.
It was why he’d asked Blaisdell to tell her what had happened, and it
was why he had to intervene now before the colonel took the man apart
with her bare hands. “Colonel, I’d like to speak to Mr. Blaisdell a
She was slow to respond but a second before he was about to repeat the
request, she straightened and turned to him. “Yes sir.”
Spine ramrod straight, she spun on her heel and strode from the room. AJ
had a feeling he would have to keep a very close eye on her. There was a
storm brewing behind that tough-Marine façade and God help anyone who
was in the way when it broke.
Clayton Webb acknowledged the phone call holding for him and took a
fortifying breath before picking up the phone. He paused one second
longer before punching the line button. “Sarah, hi. I heard. I’m so
“Are you aware that they aren’t even going to...to bring him home?” Her
voice was strung tighter than he’d ever heard it.
“This isn’t the Marine Corps,” he said quickly. “Semper Fi doesn’t apply
“Apparently basic decency doesn’t either,” she snapped. “They don’t even
know for sure if he’s dead, but if he is...he...he deserves a proper
burial, Clay. It’s the least he deserves!”
“I know,” he said quietly. “I argued the same thing myself, but the
higher-ups are adamant.”
“It will have to be,” he replied, his tone hardening despite his best
efforts. “The decision’s been made. There’s nothing more anyone can do.”
“We’ll see about that. I thought I could count on you, Clay, but I see
now I was wrong. Sorry I bothered you.”
“Sarah...” A loud click sounded over the phone line. Sighing, he slowly
hung up the phone.
She hadn’t given him the chance to tell her how hard he’d argued in
favor of a rescue/recovery operation. He’d been ruffling feathers since
the moment he heard about the crash, to the point that superiors were
telling him to leave it alone. They also discretely reminded him that he
wasn’t even officially back at work yet and suggested that if he ever
wanted to be, he would quit questioning their decisions.
Which sat him squarely on the horns of a dilemma. If he wanted his job
to still be waiting for him when he was ready to return, he had to drop
the whole thing, but if it weren’t for Rabb, he probably wouldn’t be
here to take the job waiting for him. He wasn’t naïve enough to think
Rabb was thinking about anyone but Mac when he stormed into Paraguay,
but the fact of the matter was, the man had saved his life.
And, even more importantly, he’d saved Sarah from enduring the same
torture he’d suffered. If it weren’t for Clay, Sarah wouldn’t have been
in that position in the first place and even though it chafed like hell
that it was Rabb that bailed them out, he owed the man a huge debt.
One he would now be unable to repay.
Mac stared at the phone, wishing she could somehow crawl through the
phone line and choke some sense into Clay. Outwardly, she was still, but
deep inside, she was trembling uncontrollably. Keeping her hands in her
lap ensured the façade was unblemished. Even though there was no one
around to see, she didn’t dare ease her grip on herself. If she slipped
even a little, she was afraid she would start to cry – and never, ever
At AJ’s request, Coates gathered the staff in the bullpen. He knew they
were waiting out there, wondering what was going on, but it took him
another full minute to gather his wits. His guts felt like a bag made of
Jell-o and filled with battery acid. He’d performed some hard duties in
his time but this...this was going to damn near kill him.
Squaring his shoulders, he dragged in one more deep breath and stepped
out into the bullpen.
“Attention on deck!”
“As you were.” Bracing his feet, he clasped his hands behind his back.
Scanning the room, he briefly touched the gaze of each staff member,
reading the slightly nervous anticipation they were each trying to hide.
“I received some unfortunate news this morning. Comm—” He blew out a
breath and started again. “Former Cdr. Harmon Rabb was involved in an
air accident while flying a small plane over Guatemala. The crash
A collective gasp rippled through the room. AJ watched as his people
struggled to come to terms with the awful news. Each of them responded
in his or her own way. Lt. Bud Roberts stared, wide-eyed and
slack-jawed. A few feet away, Cdr. Sturgis Turner sucked in a sharp
breath, his whole body going rigid. At AJ’s side, he heard Coates try,
not quite successfully, to stifle a sob. He wracked his brain for
something more to say and came up empty, but that didn’t really surprise
him. Empty was exactly how he was feeling right now.
He shot a look at Mac’s tightly closed office door. It hadn’t surprised
him when she failed to respond to Coates’ request to gather. She knew
what was coming and he didn’t blame her for not wanting to hear it all
over again. He envied her the solitude of a quiet office and, with a
muttered promise to keep them informed if any more information became
available, he escaped to his own refuge.
Mac could hear the admiral speaking out in the bullpen and even though
she couldn’t make out the words, she knew the exact moment when he
delivered the news. It was as though the building itself held its
breath. The silence was overwhelming. And then, woven through the
deafening quiet, she heard again the whispered words that awoke her this
morning. Before she could stop it, that damnable time-sense of hers
kicked in, automatically doing the calculation. Harm’s crash was at six
a.m. – exactly the time she heard those words.
“Goodbye, my love...”
A single sob burst from her throat, then a blast of anger washed through
her, burning away further tears. It couldn’t end this way. It just
ADMIRAL CHEGWIDDEN’S OFFICE – 15:30 EST Two days later
When Coates announced that Col. MacKenzie was waiting to speak to him,
AJ almost refused. He knew what would be the very first thing out of her
mouth – the same thing everyone asked him at least twice a day. Heaving
a sigh, he crossed to the desk and punched the intercom, telling Coates
to let her in.
Mac strode into the room, her anger and tension sweeping in ahead of her
like the crest of a wave, about to break on top of him. Unconsciously
bracing himself, he faced her.
“What can I do for you, Colonel?”
“Sir, has there been any movement from the CIA? Are they going to
retrieve him or not?”
“Their position remains unchanged,” he told her. It was the same thing
he’d told her yesterday and it was the same thing he would have to tell
Her stance stiffened to a formal pose. “Then I request you send me to
“On what grounds? There’s nothing going on down there requiring JAG’s
“Sir, with all due respect, make something up. If they won’t do this,
then I will.”
Folding his arms across his chest, AJ regarded her in silence. The
flashing anger in her eyes, the defiant jut of her chin, it was all
classic Mac with a full head of steam, so why did he feel like he was
being swamped with déjà vu?
“I had virtually the same conversation with Rabb when he wanted to go
after you in Paraguay.”
She abruptly broke from attention. “Admiral, heaven knows I’m not too
happy with the way he went about it but you have to admit one thing. His
heart was in the right place. His lo—loyalty to me meant he couldn’t sit
here waiting to see if I came back vertically or horizontally, but
that’s where this is different, sir. You all knew I would be coming
back, one way or the other. The CIA won’t go in there until the area is
secure and who knows how long that could take. By then, his body....”
She dragged in a hissing breath through her teeth. “By then, he could
AJ watched her grapple for control. She was wrong about one thing. This
was no different. He’d caught her abrupt change in the choice of words
and knew she was wrong about that too. Her first choice would have been
the better one. For her, this wasn’t about loyalty, any more than it had
been about loyalty with Rabb. It was about something that started with
l-o all right, but there were only two letters after that.
He shook his head sadly. “I’m sorry, Colonel. There’s no way I can
justify sending a member of this staff into Guatemala to retrieve a
An instant blaze of anger flared in her eyes. “Admiral, I don’t give a
damn what the last line in his service record reads. He’s one of our
own! We can’t just leave him out there!”
One of our own. The words stabbed through AJ like a hot knife. She was
right. Rabb did belong to this family his command had become – and he
always would. Shoving off the desk, he paced a few steps away, keeping
his back to her as the guilt washed over him anew. If he hadn’t
processed Harm’s resignation, he never would have been on that plane in
the first place. He’d cut Rabb adrift; never imagining the bizarre
currents in this new and uncertain world would carry him away forever.
“Admiral, please...” Her strangled whisper filled the room, seeping into
every corner and folding around him like a hot, suffocating cloak. He
spun to face her.
“All right, Colonel.” The words were out of his mouth before he knew
what he was going to say. “Don’t ask me what excuse I’m going to use,
because I haven’t come up with it yet, but get yourself on a flight to
She snapped to attention so sharply it must have hurt. “Yes sir!”
She turned to go but as she reached for the door knob, more words flowed
out of him without his permission. “Mac.”
She turned around, meeting his gaze.
He swallowed hard. “Bring him home.”
Just for an instant, her features were claimed by the same gut-wrenching
grief that flowed through AJ, and then it was gone, buried again just as
he had to bury his. She gave a single firm nod.
“I will, sir. Count on it.”
Feeling energized to the point of distraction, Mac charged out of the
admiral’s office. Halfway across the bullpen, she caught Bud’s arm,
dragging him along toward her office. “Bud, get me on the first plane to
Guatemala. I don’t care if it’s a transport, or even a Fed-Ex cargo
He skidded to a halt. “You’re going to bring him back? The admiral
“He did, sort of.”
“All right!” Suddenly realizing his outburst, he glanced around the
room, and then lowered his voice. “Any chance there’d be room for two of
us on that—”
She shook his head, cutting him off. “Sorry, Bud. The admiral’s putting
his six out on a limb here. Let’s not add any more weight to the
Bud managed to contain his disappointment – barely. He told himself it
didn’t matter who brought Cdr. Rabb home, so long as it happened.
Ever since he heard the news, Bud had been consumed by the awful need to
say goodbye. He longed for the chance to talk to the commander just one
more time, to tell him how much he appreciated his support over the
years. Without the commander and the colonel, Bud had no doubt that he
would not be where he was today. The two of them were his mentors,
helping him when he needed help, pushing him when he needed to be
He wouldn’t be able to tell the commander any of this, but just knowing
he was back on US soil, that he was...home...would make a huge
A sudden presence beside him snapped Bud out of his thoughts. Cdr.
Turner spared him barely a glance, then turned to Col. MacKenzie. “Did I
hear you say you’re going to be on a flight to Guatemala?”
She nodded. “The admiral’s working on finding an assignment for me right
“As a cover for the...real reason?”
She nodded again.
Abruptly, the commander’s face cleared of all expression. “Good. That’s
Without another word, he turned and walked away. Bud watched him go,
confusion lacing its way through him.
“I just don’t understand him,” he admitted. “He didn’t even sound happy
Col. MacKenzie briefly rested a hand on his shoulder. “He’s just dealing
with it in his own way, Bud. Remember, he and Harm have been friends
since the academy. Sturgis has known him longer than any of us.”
“I guess,” Bud said with a sigh.
Sturgis crossed the bullpen, keeping his pace measured and slow, when
all he wanted to do was run. As he approached the door to his office,
his steps slowed even further. This wasn’t his office. It was Harm’s,
and it always would be. Every time he set foot in here, every time he
sat down at that desk, he felt as though he was usurping Harm’s
territory. It was as though he was being asked to take Harm’s place and
that was something he would never – could never – do.
But now, just for a moment, the office felt welcoming, a quiet refuge
where he could be alone with the spirit of a friend he would never see
again. He gently closed the door and simply stood, soaking up the
essence that remained in this room, that would forever remain a part of
“Well, buddy,” he whispered, “if this is the way it has to be...at least
we’ll all be able to rest a little easier...” He dragged in a shuddering
breath. “...once you are.”
DULLES INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT – 18:20 EST
It took everything Mac had in her to keep from fidgeting as she waited
for her flight. The commercial flight to Miami was the first of several
short hops to get her to Guatemala, but it was still going to be faster
than waiting for something more direct. Lost in thought, she barely
acknowledged a presence beside her, until the person spoke.
“Is this seat taken?”
Her head shot up. “Clay, what are you doing here?”
He slid into the seat beside her. “Just waiting for a flight to Miami.
Quite a coincidence, isn’t it?”
“Like hell it is,” she shot back. “I repeat, what are you doing here?”
“Going with you,” he replied bluntly.
She eyed him critically. “Officially or unofficially?”
“Unofficially, of course. I’m not even on the active roster, remember?”
“Why?” she stabbed at him.
He blew out a breath and ran a hand through his hair. “Because you’re
bound and determined to do this and since no one can talk you out of it,
the least I can do is make sure you don’t have to do it alone. It’s a
nightmare down there right now, Sarah.”
“Yeah, well it’s a nightmare around here too,” she muttered.
“I know,” he said softly. That was something she was still getting used
to: Clayton Webb being gentle and comforting.
“As long as you’re not going to spend the whole time trying to talk me
out of it,” she warned.
“I won’t. If you managed to convince Chegwidden to let you go on
this...mission, I know there’s not much chance anyone can say anything
to change your mind.”
“You’re right, there isn’t.”
They sat in silence for a moment. It was the kind of strained silence
she hadn’t once experienced around him since their return from Paraguay.
Something had changed between them down there, but she wasn’t quite sure
what it was, or what it meant. But now wasn’t the time to think about
that. She had enough on her mind. Once she got down to Guatemala
and...learned the truth, then, and only then, would she be able to even
contemplate the direction the rest of her life was going to take.
After bouncing around from place to place most of the night, they
finally arrived in Flores, Guatemala. At Clay’s insistence, they checked
into rooms at a small hotel. He said it was so they could get a few
hours sleep before going on, but somehow, Mac got the feeling he was
working to some kind of timetable. She wouldn’t put it past him to have
made all sorts of covert arrangements, once he learned she was coming
If it got her where she was going, she was perfectly content to let him
handle the arrangements, but as she surveyed the tiny room, she knew the
waiting was going to drive her crazy. There was no way she was going to
get any sleep. She’d hardly closed her eyes since hearing news of the
crash, for every time she did, Harm’s voice whispered through her mind.
She had tried a hundred times to tell herself it was just a coincidence,
dreaming of him saying goodbye at exactly the same moment he was
supposed to have crashed in the jungle. It had to be, because the
She violently shoved that thought away. There hadn’t been so much as a
scrap of confirmation that Harm had died in that crash. He could have
bailed out. It wouldn’t be the first time. He knew what he was doing and
had uncanny survival instincts that rivaled a cat. She couldn’t count
the number of times he’d gotten into a situation that should have been
fatal, but somehow, he always got out alive. The man’s luck was
And luck had a way of running out when you needed it most.
Pulling in at least half a dozen more favors than he had coming, Clay
arranged for transport out to the village of Salamandra. It took him
over two hours to set it up and he hoped Sarah was getting some rest at
the hotel, but he knew it wasn’t very likely. He’d never seen her this
Like everyone else who’d ever met her, he knew there was something
between her and Rabb, but no one seemed to know exactly what it was –
including them. And, like probably every other living, breathing
heterosexual male who’d ever met her, Clay hoped he could overcome
whatever it was.
He wouldn’t have chosen this as the way to do it, though. He didn’t wish
Rabb any ill fortune, and watching Sarah going through this hell was
harder than anything he’d ever done. He’d seen the reports of the
villagers’ accounts of the crash and he knew in his heart what she was
going to find there. As painful as it was to admit, her hell had just
begun, but if there was any way he could help ease her way through it,
She shot him several suspicious looks when he knocked on her door and
told her he’d arranged transport to the village, but said nothing. She
simply picked up the backpack she was using as a purse and gestured
toward the door. “Lead on.”
For now, it seemed, she was willing to let him take the lead. He hoped
that would continue after they arrived in the tiny jungle village. If he
could pull it off with anything short of tying her up, he was going to
make sure she never got within ten miles of that crash site. There were
some kinds of hell she didn’t need to go through.
In an ancient rusty jeep, they bounced and chewed through the jungle for
over two hours. At times, the driver seemed to be creating his own
trail, but his quiet confidence told Mac he really did know where he was
going. Ramon was nearly as old as the jeep and had lived in the
Guatemalan jungle all his life. When they finally came out into a small
clearing, he turned to her with a wide, nearly toothless grin. “You see,
Colonel. I tell you I know the way.”
She frowned. “Uh, this isn’t a village, Ramon.”
He laughed. “No, we must walk from here.”
“How far?” Clay asked from the back seat.
Ramon shrugged. “Ten minutes, maybe a little bit more.”
Mac climbed out of the jeep and accepted her backpack from Clay. He was
a little slower to get out.
“Are you sure you’re up to this?” she asked quickly.
“Of course I am. It’s just a quiet stroll through the trees.” He gave a
shrug that only added to the sense that he was trying too hard to make
light of it.
The trail turned out to be an easy one and Mac offered a silent
thank-you for it. She knew Clay would never admit it, but he wasn’t
nearly as recovered, as he wanted people to think.
She dropped back to walk beside him. “Tell me about the mission, Clay. I
want to know how this happened.”
He dragged in a breath and blew it out. “About thirty miles from here is
another village, Dominguez. It’s much larger and even has a small
airstrip. That’s where Harm took off. His mission was to do a flyover of
a small jungle camp about fifty miles away. We’re almost certain the
camp is a drug operation but more importantly, we think it’s being used
as a terrorist training base as well.”
He nodded. “That’s why we needed the flyover. After our Guatemalan
contacts heard about the crash, they contacted the village and confirmed
from an informant there that Harm took off alone. He was supposed to be
working with a partner, Todd Sheldon, but we have confirmed that Sheldon
didn’t show up. We don’t know what happened to him, but Harm arrived at
the village alone and went up alone.”
Mac absorbed the information, but it refused to sit quietly. She didn’t
like the idea that Harm had gone into this alone, but it was just like
him to do that. He wouldn’t cancel an important mission just because his
own position had become more tenuous. He would have seen it as simply
more of a challenge.
The lush growth around the trail gave the impression they were miles
from any form of civilization but thirteen minutes after they left the
jeep, they emerged into a large clearing ringed with huts. In the center
of the village, a large ring of stones circled a fire pit. Even in the
middle of the hot, humid day, a small fire burned.
It didn’t take long for their presence to be noticed and Ramon moved
forward quickly to speak to the small group of people coming to meet
them. Mac watched as he began to focus his attention on a man she
guessed was several years older than he was. Gesturing back toward her
and Clay, he conversed with the man for a moment longer before they both
started in her direction.
“Col. MacKenzie, Mr. Webb, this is Caton. He is the leader of the
Mac nodded to him and greeted him in Spanish.
Smiling widely, the old man revealed a mouth with even fewer teeth than
Ramon. He returned the greeting, and then turned to grasp Webb’s hand,
shaking it soundly.
Mac wanted to get right down to the business of discussing the crash,
but Caton insisted on extending his village’s hospitality first. Leading
them over to the fire pit, he offered them seats on large logs that had
been sawed flat on top and called to someone to bring food and drink.
“That’s really not necessary,” Mac said in Spanish. “We don’t want to
“You are not,” Ramon replied in English. “Caton and his family don’t
often have visitors. It is a special occasion for them.”
Mac got the hint. Sighing, she accepted the drink she was offered. She
sniffed it carefully, but she couldn’t tell for sure. She looked up at
Ramon. “Is it alcohol?”
“No, it is a fruit drink favored by the women here.”
She got that subtle hint too. Men and women were treated very
differently in this world. Her suspicions were confirmed when Clay took
a sip of his drink and gave a small gasp.
“This sure as hell isn’t fruit juice!”
Ramon laughed. “No, Señior Webb, that is not.”
Clay took another cautious sip, starting to enjoy the drink now that he
was prepared for the kick. He sat and listened to the friendly banter
going around the circle, wishing his Spanish was a little better. He
managed to pick up a few things here and there, but much of the
conversation went by way too fast.
He also kept one eye on Sarah. He could tell she was antsy, eager to get
down to the reason they’d come here, but she kept it in check. For her
sake, he watched closely for the first opportunity to turn the
conversation to their reason for coming. It came nearly half an hour
“These people came a long way today,” Ramon told Caton.
“Yes, we did,” Webb said quickly, pouncing before Mac could.
Caton nodded. “The...airplane,” he said in very broken English.
“Yes, the airplane,” Sarah replied in Spanish. “You saw it crash?”
“Sí.” Caton shook his head sadly. His speech had slowed down and Clay
had an easier time following. “It was a very large explosion. We knew we
would not find anything good when we got there.”
Sarah’s eyes opened wide. “You’ve been to the crash site?”
Caton nodded again. “We have what you are looking for.”
Clay saw her stiffen sharply. “What? What do you have?”
The old man’s gaze dropped to the dirt at his feet. “A body.”
Mac came halfway to her feet but Clay grabbed her hand, giving it a
squeeze in a silent warning to slow down. It took a second for the
message to sink in, but she finally sat back down.
“We need to...see the body,” Clay said slowly, hoping his Spanish was
Caton hesitated a moment, then nodded.
He rose, leading the way toward a small hut on the far side of the
village. Clay could see Sarah gathering herself for what was to come.
Brick by brick, she built a wall around herself. He’d seen a wall like
that before, had built one himself many years ago during the most
horrible moment of his life. It was a dam, designed to hold back a grief
so strong it would flood the world if it wasn’t contained. His jaw
“I had no idea,” he said quietly.
“No idea about what?” she asked, her voice strained.
“You’re in love with him.” It wasn’t a question; it was a statement of
She held his gaze a few seconds, then abruptly turned away, but her very
silence confirmed it. Realizing he had completely underestimated the
depth of the bond between Sarah and Rabb, he wondered anew at the
history between them. How far had their relationship gone?
He would probably never get an answer to that, but he wasn’t sure he
wanted one anyway.
They approached the hut and Caton gestured to him. “Mr. Webb, come.”
Beside him, Sarah tensed. Before she could argue, he laid a hand on her
arm. “Let me go in first.”
She stared at him for a long moment and then, to his surprise, she
nodded. Giving her arm a squeeze, he moved to join Caton and Ramon.
Mac watched the three men duck into the hut. A huge part of her wanted
to go in there with them but another part acknowledged that as long as
she didn’t, she could continue to tell herself it wasn’t real, that it
wasn’t Harm’s body laid out in that shack, cold and lifeless.
Clay came out a moment later and the instant she saw his face,
everything changed. He was pale as a ghost, a thin sheen of sweat
glistening on his brow. He shouldn’t have been that shaken. Something
Before she was even aware of moving, she lunged toward the shack, but
Clay caught her shoulders, barring her way.
“Sarah, no!” he hissed.
“Let go of me! I need to go in there. I need to see—”
“You do not need to see that,” he replied roughly.
Instinctively, Mac knew what he was referring to and why he was so
shaken. The plane had exploded on impact. There would have been fire....
“But...it’s him, isn’t it? You could tell, right?” The desperation in
her own voice frightened her.
Clay’s hands tightened on her arms. The awful pain in his eyes bored
through her. “Not visually. There’s...there’s not enough left.”
Stunned, Mac struggled to absorb the impact of this latest blow, but
there was simply no possible way she could. Not only was Harm’s spirit
gone, but his body had been destroyed as well. She didn’t know why she
had assumed he would be...whole. She knew about the explosion, but her
mind had rendered his image as a peaceful mockery of sleep. Now, her
much too vivid imagination seized upon the horror in Clay’s eyes.
With a strangled sob, she spun away but Clay moved right back in,
wrapping an arm across her shoulders. Grappling with a grief too
profound for tears, she stood, her entire body one massive, rigid ache.
“Come on,” he whispered softly. “It’s time to take him home.”
Monday morning, Mac reported for duty as usual, but nothing was the same
anymore. There was no purpose, no “mission” to focus her thoughts on,
and no way to keep the awful truth at bay. She’d met with the admiral
over the weekend and he had taken on responsibility for the funeral
arrangements, so even that distraction was denied her.
Going through the motions, she stored her purse and briefcase and began
the day as if it were a day like any other. She was functioning strictly
on autopilot, because that’s the only way she could function at all.
As the morning progressed, the vaguely surreal quality began to fade and
she was surprised to find she was able to concentrate on whatever task
was at hand. For now, at least, that would have to be enough – taking
each moment one at a time, without any thought for what the next one
Just before ten o’clock, PO Coates, buzzed her, saying the admiral had
asked to see her. She put aside the brief she’d been working on and
crossed the bullpen.
“He said to go right in, ma’am.”
Nodding, she rapped on the door and went in. She paused when she saw he
was on the phone, but he waved her into the office.
“I don’t care what the rules say! If I don’t see a squadron of F-14s
over Arlington on Wednesday, more than one head is going to roll, but
I’ll start with yours and work my way up! Is that clear?” He paused
briefly, and then his tone became sarcastic. “Thank you!”
He dropped the receiver back onto its cradle and took a deep breath
before turning to Mac. “Sorry about that, Colonel.”
Not sure what to say, she simply nodded. He blew out an explosive breath
and she watched him mentally shift gears.
“Have a seat.” He waved her to a chair and dropped into his own.
“Colonel, I have a task I’d like you to take on. It’s strictly
voluntary, but I’d appreciate it if you would consider it.”
She didn’t like the sound of that but replied, “Of course, Admiral. What
He paused a moment. “Harm’s parents are flying in this evening. I’ve
arranged for them to use his apartment but I need someone to...go in and
set it up for them.”
Inwardly, Mac cringed, understanding now why the admiral had seemed so
reluctant to ask. She surprised herself by saying, “I can do that, sir.”
Her words came back to her that afternoon as she stepped off the
elevator and saw the door to Harm’s apartment. Suddenly, she wasn’t at
all sure she could do it. Steeling herself, she moved quickly to the
spot where he hid his spare key, hurriedly digging it out and sticking
it in the lock before she could lose her nerve. The door swung open and
she forced herself to step inside.
Nothing had changed...and everything had changed.
The loft looked exactly as it had the last time she’d been here – it
felt like a lifetime ago – but there was a stillness now, as though
everything in the room mourned the loss of the spirit that had made them
into more than a collection of objects. Haunted by that very lack of
spirit, Mac hurried through making sure things were in order for his
Someone, she had no idea who, had the foresight to empty the fridge. It
was clean and fresh. The whole apartment was covered with a fine layer
of dust, however, and she quickly tackled it, but with each possession
she touched, she was flooded by a hundred memories. His guitar, the
photo of him and his dad, everything that had ever meant anything to him
– they all sat as mute symbols of Harm’s essence, but that essence
itself was gone.
The dusting complete, she tossed the rag into the sink, knowing only one
task remained, the most difficult one of all. She turned very slowly to
the stairs leading to the bedroom. Suddenly paralyzed, she gazed at the
stairs, seeing Harm bouncing down them in his dress blues, in sweats, in
a striking gray three-piece suit. She saw him come down slowly in the
darkness, clad only in a pair of white boxers, coming to comfort her
when the world was crashing down around her.
“Oh, Harm,” she gasped, her eyes flooding with tears. “How am I supposed
to live without you?”
The empty stairway held no answer.
Dropping onto the sofa, she wrapped her arms around herself as a huge
sob wrenched from her very soul. This time, a second followed and then a
third. She couldn’t hold them back any longer. The grief flowed over her
and out of her, spilling forth and seeping into every molecule of the
silence surrounding her. The sobs that followed echoed through that
silence, combining with it and filling her with a soul-deep emptiness
that would remain with her forever.
JAG HQ – 09:36 EST Tuesday
Bud Roberts moved slowly through the bullpen, acutely aware of the
unnatural hush in the room, a pall that seemed to hang over everything
and everyone. The place felt like a tomb.
He almost groaned aloud. Stupid analogy, Roberts! Stupid, perhaps, but
unfortunately, very accurate. He wondered a moment if the place would
ever get back to normal, but then, it hadn’t been normal for months now.
Things had fallen apart a long time ago, but he was beginning to think
this latest blow could be the final straw that forever destroyed the
wonderful dynamic that had once existed here.
Trying to pretend he wasn’t dreading it, he made his way toward Cdr.
Turner’s office. He never knew what kind of reception to expect from the
commander, but it was guaranteed to range from neutral to outright
frosty. Hoping this would at least be one of the neutral moments, he
started to knock on the doorframe, but stopped when he realized the
office was empty.
Turning, he caught the attention of one of the support staff. “Have you
seen Cdr. Turner?”
“Yes sir. He said he would be working in the library.”
Threading back through the bullpen, Bud went out to the corridor and
down to the library. Cdr. Turner was camped out at a table in the
corner, reading a file and making notes. Determined to be friendly and
cheerful, Bud went over to the table. “Doing some research, Commander?”
“No,” Turner replied slowly, “I’m just catching up on some paperwork.”
“Then why work out here instead of in....” He let the sentence trail off
as the most obvious answer leapt out at him. “Oh, I think I understand.
I don’t think I’d be too comfortable in there either, sir.”
Turner gazed up at him for a very long time. Something passed between
them, a shared moment of understanding, but before Bud could do more
than acknowledge it, the commander blinked and looked away.
“It’s...quieter in here, that’s all. What can I do for you, Lieutenant?”
Bud thought instantly of the unnatural silence in Ops, but decided not
to comment on it. He held out the file he’d been carrying. “Here are the
depositions from the Pearson case. You asked to see them.”
Sturgis accepted the file, knowing full well Roberts hadn’t believed his
excuse for working in here instead of his office. He muttered a thank
you, hoping Roberts would go away without saying anymore about it. To
his surprise, that’s exactly what happened – sort of.
“You’re welcome, sir. Let me know if there’s anything else you need.” He
paused, fixing Sturgis with a penetrating gaze that spoke volumes.
“Anything at all.”
“Thank you,” Sturgis said again, but this time, he meant it.
With a nod, Roberts turned to go. Sturgis watched him, noticing his limp
was a little more pronounced today. It got that way when he was tired
and Sturgis couldn’t help thinking Bud probably wasn’t getting any more
sleep than he was. Sleeps required letting one’s thoughts turn inward
and that wasn’t a very pleasant place to go these days.
And neither was his office. Every time he stepped in there, he felt more
like an intruder. If the admiral hadn’t been so insistent that he take
the office in the first place, Sturgis would have requested a move a
long time ago. He couldn’t very well go to the admiral now and ask to
move because he felt haunted. That would go over like a lead balloon
with the practical, no-nonsense ex-SEAL.
It should have been hogwash to a seasoned submariner too, but Sturgis
couldn’t shake the uncomfortable feeling he got in that office. What
surprised him was that Roberts had picked up on it so easily...and that
he understood. Sturgis was at least mature enough to recognize that
recent events had colored his perception of Lt. Roberts, but maybe he
hadn’t realized just how much – until now.
MAC’S APARTMENT – 05:14 EST Wednesday
Mac awoke sobbing. Swimming up out of the nightmare, she came to slowly,
her bedroom gradually replacing the background of her dream. As she had
in the dream, she was clutching something to her chest. Now it was her
pillow, its soft fabric soaking up her tears. In her dream, it was
Harm’s cold, lifeless body.
With an agonized groan, she flung the pillow away, flopping over on her
back. Not today! Please, not today! Today of all days, she needed to be
strong. It was going to take every ounce of strength she had to get
through this day without shattering into a million pieces.
Dragging herself out of bed, Mac shivered as a deep-seated chill soaked
into her body. Even wrapping herself in her thick terry robe did little
to chase it away. The moment she looked out the window, she realized
why. A cold gray mist had moved in to blanket the city, as though
echoing the bleak shroud draped over her soul.
It was no different at Arlington. A clammy fog wandered among the
headstones, pooling in the low spots, as if pausing to pay its respects,
then rising to curl among the tree branches. Even the normally bright
reds and golds of fall seemed muted this day, stripped of their
brilliance in deference to the solemn ceremony about to take place.
As she moved into position at the graveside, everyone from Bud and
Harriett to Coates, Sturgis and even Capt. Seabring, tried to catch her
eye, but Mac resolutely ignored them all. The only way she was going to
get through this day was to disconnect from everyone and everything in
Without focusing on any one individual, she surveyed the sea of faces
gathered to say farewell. Friends and colleagues, rivals and partners,
virtual strangers and family. They were all here, stone-faced or grief
stricken, each of them prepared for the moment when they would finally
be able to let go and say goodbye.
Abruptly, Mac realized she had unconsciously taken a discrete step away
from them all, for they were here to do something she would never –
could never – do. She would grieve with them, mourn with them, and even
gather with them to share the healing of stories and remembrances, but
she knew with utter certainty that she would never be able to let go and
move on in the way each of them was attempting to do. The hole in her
life was too great, too raw and gaping, to ever heal.
At last, because she needed some sort of anchor to cling to, and because
he wasn’t looking at her with sorrow-filled eyes, Mac let her gaze come
to rest on Admiral Chegwidden. He stood stoically throughout the
ceremony, his gaze locked on some distant point. She desperately envied
him his strength...until the moment came to accept the folded flag from
the bearer. As he reached out, she saw his hands tremble ever so
AJ clamped down on the flag as hard as he dared, concentrating on the
silken feel of it until he could get a grip on himself. With a precision
that should have taken far less concentration than it did, he turned and
marched to where Harm’s mother was seated. Executing a sharp, snapping
turn, he started to extend it to her...then he made the mistake of
looking into her tear-filled eyes and his hard-won control threatened to
desert him completely.
Don’t! He snarled at himself. Don’t you dare! Jaw clenched, throat
tight, AJ hung on with everything he had. He hadn’t made it through
Vietnam, September 11th and everything in between, only to lose it at
the sight of a mother’s tears. He’d seen many, many mother’s tears in
his career. This is no different, he insisted...but it was. This was the
first time he’d even come close to understanding the agony behind those
tears. She’d lost a son...and one hell of a big part of AJ felt like he
He’d not only lost the closest thing he’d ever have to a son, he was at
least partially responsible for it. He’d sent men on dangerous missions
before, and felt like hell when something happened, but in every case,
the men under his command had gone willingly, accepting the hazards that
were part of their duty. But this time...this time, he’d cut Rabb loose.
AJ thought he was released from any responsibility for Harm the minute
that paperwork went through, but he was wrong.
That’s why AJ willed his hands to be steady as he bent slightly and
presented it to her. This was to be his final act as Harm’s commanding
officer, and he was damn well going to get it right!
Mac was losing it. Seeing the unexpected chink in the admiral’s armor
made it impossible to ignore her own. She clamped down on the pain with
a strength she didn’t know she had and made it through the
ceremony...until the roar of jet engines rose to fill the air. The
flyby! She’d forgotten about the damn flyby!
Powerless to stop herself, she turned her gaze skyward with everyone
else as the four F-14s approached. She couldn’t stop the wash of tears
that sprang forth as they streaked across the sky. The symbolism of the
missing man formation had always been strong for her but when the one
plane suddenly kicked heavenward, shooting straight up into the swirling
gray clouds and she saw that awful gap in the sky where Harm should have
Bud wasn’t at all certain how he did it, but he managed to maintain his
composure throughout the ceremony. He couldn’t help the tears that
blurred his vision, but he didn’t even try. He was an officer in the
United States Navy, but he was also a human being – and a better one,
thanks to the man they were here to honor today.
When the ceremony was over and they were formally dismissed, it didn’t
surprise him to see the JAG staff gathering in one location. Harriett at
his side, he joined his colleagues. Admiral Chegwidden stood nearby –
but not quite within – the group. Something in Chegwidden’s eyes, a
distant, almost vulnerable look, made Bud move over to him.
“I’m sure Cdr. Rabb would have been honored, sir.”
The admiral started as if Bud had yanked on his arm. A brief but very
sharp look streaked across his features then he shot Bud the shortest of
glances. “Yes, I’m sure he would. Excuse me, Lieutenant.”
Turning on his heel, the admiral strode away, a hard, angry snap in his
stride. He didn’t stop until he reached a large, imposing oak tree, its
crown cloaked in the burnished gold of fall. Stopping beneath the riot
of color, the admiral braced one hand against the solid trunk, as though
seeking to draw strength from it. Head lowered, he stood for a very long
time and then abruptly, his head sprang up. Taking a savage swipe at his
eyes with the back of his hand, he pushed off the tree and walked away.
Bud watched in silence as the strongest man he had ever known strode
away in search of a place to weep.
For the next two days, JAG Ops functioned by rote, running on autopilot
as the entire staff adjusted to a new world where even the mention of
Harmon Rabb’s name was met with uncomfortable silence. Mac managed to
get through those two days the same way everyone else did, by keeping to
herself when she could and maintaining an ultra-professional attitude
when she couldn’t.
Over the course of the weekend, she literally ran herself ragged,
extending her usual morning runs by half and adding a strenuous workout
at the gym in the afternoon of both days. As long as she kept busy, both
physically and mentally, she could almost convince herself life was
returning to normal.
She also recognized how frightening that was. She didn’t want things to
be normal; she didn’t want to believe her life would go on with so
little disruption. She was already used to going through every day
without seeing Harm, without talking to him about her latest case or
some inconsequential bit of trivia. She couldn’t deny it. He had been
out of her life completely long before the crash. The only thing that
had changed was now, she knew it was permanent.
Dropping onto her sofa, she stared at the wall, consumed by the
realization that, even after he disappeared from her life, she had very
carefully avoided contemplating what that might mean for the future.
Now, she no longer had that option.
Regret rolled over her in waves. There were so many things left unsaid
between them, so many things left undone. Something inside her had
always believed there would be some magic moment one day when everything
would fall into place and they would acknowledge the soul-deep
connection between them. If that moment was ever meant to be, fate had
intervened, robbing her of the chance. Harm had gone to his grave
without ever hearing how much he meant to her and now she would have to
live with that until she finally followed him into whatever lay beyond