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A FEW DAYS LATER
1208 EST
USNA PHYSICAL EDUCATION BLDG & GYMNASIUM

 

That morning, Harm had spent an hour grading a multiple-choice quiz he’d given his law class. In an attempt to postpone what had, by now, become the inevitable, he had saved Laura Henry’s quiz paper for last. After having graded almost thirty students’ work before hers, he had unintentionally memorized the letter answers; he could tell with only a cursory glance that she hadn’t passed.

He was nearing his wit’s end. As the midshipman’s instructor, and therefore, subject to even more regulations than he’d been accustomed to at JAG, there wasn’t much he could do. On the other hand, it simply wasn’t in his nature to sit by idly, when he knew something wasn’t right. And that went double when that “something” was affecting somebody he truly cared about.

Midshipman Henry was one of the finest at the Academy. For nearly three years, she had been virtually untouchable: straight As, even when taking the toughest of courses; a long list of volunteer hours served; and she managed impressive feats every time she stepped onto the volleyball court. She had an extremely promising future in the Navy, and Harm felt fortunate to be along for the ride.

But now, something was jeopardizing all that. Something big. Something powerful enough to all but turn the girl’s world upside-down. Whatever it was, it was blowing through her life like a tornado, wrecking everything in its path.

And Harm would be damned if he’d allow it to continue.

Taking Terri’s advice about asking around with her other instructors, he decided to start with the most obvious person: Lieutenant Commander Peter Clark, the coach of the volleyball team. If anyone would know what was going on, it would be him, Harm reasoned. After all, the man saw the midshipman almost every day at practice, so even though he might not have known about her academic decline, surely he would have noticed the physical changes in her.

In fact, while he’d had his coffee earlier that morning, Harm grabbed a few back copies of the Academy’s newspaper. He’d thought it wise to do a little research, so he’d checked out the last few weeks’ sports scores and game recaps. He was disappointed, but not surprised, to learn that Laura’s recent athletic performance had been faring no better than her academics. Harm was confident that Coach Clark would either know what was going on, or would at least be willing to help him find out.

So, during his lunch hour, he stopped by the physical education building, where the coach’s office was located. A petty officer, who worked as the department’s administrative assistant, escorted him to the office. Fortunately, the coach hadn’t yet left for his own lunch.

“Sir,” the petty officer said, “Commander Rabb is here to see you.”

The coach came to attention before the senior officer. “Sir.”

“At ease, Commander,” Harm said, before dismissing the petty officer, and closing the door behind the young man.

“To what do I owe the pleasure, Commander?” Clark asked. He’d only met Harm once before, but Harm was a difficult man to forget. Even with only two years as an instructor at the Academy, Harm was already something of a legend.

“Well,” Harm said, “I’m hoping you can help me with something.”

Clark nodded. “Have a seat, sir. What can I do for you?”

Before getting into the thick of it, Harm took a few moments to study the man’s office. It was obvious how proud he was of his teams: pictures from past seasons were hung on all the walls, and there was a large glass case in one corner of the room, housing several trophies and medals. Good, Harm thought, someone who will take this seriously.

“How’s the team been doing lately, Commander?” Harm asked.

“Not so good, sir. We started out all right, but the past few weeks we’ve been going downhill – fast.”

Harm nodded. “I saw that in the paper. You’re not going to let West Point get us, are you?”

Clark chuckled. “Not if I can help it, sir.”

“Do you mind if I ask why? I mean, why the team’s been doing so poorly?”

He offered a mild shrug. “The usual, I guess, sir – not enough quality practice time, and also, we’ve had a few mids out with the flu.”

Harm nodded. It was nearing flu season, and things like that tended to spread like wildfire when so many people lived in such close quarters. Still, he suspected there was more. Moreover, he’d come there with a purpose, and he was going to address it.

“What about Midshipman Henry? How has her game been lately?”

“Absent,” Clark replied curtly. “That is, sir, she hasn’t had much of a game at all. Not recently, anyway. She hasn’t been playing like herself.”

“You wouldn’t…happen to know why, would you, coach?”

Clark’s eyes narrowed at the strange question. “Why do you ask, sir?”

“Well, she’s in my military law class, and her grades have been slipping pretty badly. Also, I can’t help noticing she doesn’t look so good. I don’t think she’s been sleeping or eating very much.”

“Well, she could stand to lose a few pounds, sir” Clark replied.

“Excuse me?” Harm reacted. Had he really heard what he thought he heard?

“All my girls, sir – the lighter they are, the faster they can move on the court.”

“But don’t you think it’s gotten a little out of hand with her?” Harm asked.

“Sir, if you’re suggesting that the midshipman might have an eating disorder, all I can tell you is, she’s certainly not the first, and she won’t be the last. Unfortunately, in a place like this, with the weight charts, and the measuring, and the constant scrutiny, that’s just par for the course.”

An eating disorder? Harm hadn’t even considered it. It was possible, he supposed, but then again, it seemed to be so much bigger than that. “What I’m suggesting, Commander, is that you be concerned, because your star player is going to hell in a handbasket, and I’m just wondering if you know why.”

“I don’t know why, sir,” Clark replied. “And, with all due respect, I don’t appreciate the insinuation that I’m not concerned.”

“Well, what have you been doing about it?”

“The only thing I can, sir – I benched her. She can play at practice every day, but until she gets back to her old self, she won’t appear in any matches.”

Harm’s eyes widened. “That’s what you did? Someone under your supervision is struggling with something – whatever it may be – and that’s your solution? What kind of a coach are you?”

“The kind that coaches at the Naval Academy, sir,” Clark answered angrily. “There are very clear-cut rules about where the boundaries are between myself and my players, and it has always been my policy to stay well back from those boundaries, so there can never be any appearance of impropriety.”

“Well, that’s a horrible policy,” Harm told him coldly.

“Respectfully, sir, it’s kept me out of your JAG office for the ten years I’ve been coaching here.”

Dumbfounded, Harm could only shake his head. “So you’re not at all interested in why someone like Midshipman Henry has been performing so badly?”

Clark offered only a mild shrug. “It’s not my place to be interested, Commander. I’m her coach; my involvement in the midshipman’s life begins and ends on the volleyball court.”

Harm was suddenly nauseous. How many more sorry excuses for officers was the Academy employing these days? “You can’t be serious,” Harm said. “Can you honestly sit there and tell me you haven’t noticed how thin she’s gotten? And I’m not just talking a few pounds, coach; she’s wasting away. And her face…her eyes. She’s just not the same girl she was a few weeks ago.”

At Harm’s last comment, Clark raised an eyebrow. “Sounds to me like you’re too concerned, sir. With all due respect, no midshipman is worth risking your career.”

“That’s where you’re wrong, Commander,” Harm said. His voice was filled with passion and conviction, as if he were delivering closing argument. “We’re here to lead these young people, to set an example. They’re here, training to become leaders, themselves. What kind of message does it send to them when we can see, plain as day, that someone entrusted to us is suffering, and we don’t do a damn thing to help them?!”

“It sends the message that we know the regs! Respectfully, sir, I’m not a stupid man. I can see something’s wrong with the girl, but it’s not my place to fix it. If she’s having a problem, there are people here whose job it is to help her. People who are actually trained for it. I’m trained to coach volleyball, and that’s exactly what I do. No more, no less.”

Callous bastard, Harm thought. How could he have been so incredibly mistaken about this man? “Do you have children, Commander?” Harm asked.

“Do you have children, sir?” Clark countered.

“No.”

“No? Well, I do. Three of them. And, if they were here, I’d expect them to give nothing less than their best, no matter what was going on outside the volleyball court. I agree with you -- Midshipman Henry is here to learn to be a leader, and that means learning to separate her emotions from her military responsibilities. It means putting everything in her life aside, to focus on nothing but the mission.”

“And you think her only mission should be winning volleyball games?” Harm spat.

“Are you trying to tell me how to be a coach, sir?”

“No, I’m trying to tell you how to be a good officer, and a compassionate human being. Sadly, it doesn’t look like you’re capable of either one.” With that, Harm grabbed his cover and headed for the door. Clark moved to stand at attention. “Don’t bother,” Harm growled, before slamming the door behind him.

 

THE FOLLOWING WEEK
1512 EST
HARM’S OFFICE
UNITED STATES NAVAL ACADEMY
ANNAPOLIS, MARYLAND

 

Harm was fuming. He’d made it very clear that Midshipman Henry was to be in his office at 1500. Now, it was twelve minutes after that, and there was no sign of her. If he wanted to be a real stickler about it, he could declare her UA, and then, showing up late to his office would be the least of her problems. But he knew he would never do that to her. No doubt she was just too scared to face him one-on-one. Scared of what, he wasn’t sure; he just wanted to help her. Something was wrong. Something big. And he only wanted to know what it was.

He spent the next few minutes scanning her test paper in disbelief. She hadn’t even tried. This was an essay test, not like the previous exam, where she’d gotten a C, by the sheer luck she’d had at guessing. This time, though, she’d had to produce all the answers herself. And she hadn’t produced a single one that gave Harm any indication she gave a damn about his class.

It was like a cry for help, Harm thought. Despite her insistence to the contrary, something *was* bothering her. He wondered if she was using her declining academic performance as a way to get attention, without having to suffer the embarrassment of coming right out and asking for it.

He sighed loudly. Damn, he said to himself, I must’ve picked up more from Jordan than I thought. He shook his head. What the hell am I doing, even *trying* to get into the mind of a nineteen year old girl?

Well, *she* might not give a damn, Harm reasoned, but *he* sure as hell did. For almost three years, she’d been an outstanding addition to the Navy. But, her behavior of late was rapidly negating her positive record. A person didn’t go from being an A+ student to almost failing, without some kind of explanation. Something was going on that was putting a very bright future at risk, and he was determined to get to the bottom of it, no matter what he had to do.

Finally, at 1517, he heard a soft knock on his open door. “Enter,” he told Midshipman Henry. She stepped into the office and walked briskly to his desk, coming to attention when she was in front of it. Harm looked at his watch very deliberately, then turned an icy stare upon the girl, his eyes boring through her for several seconds. God, she looked terrible. Her service jacket hung loosely on her diminishing frame; her cheeks were hollowed, and her once bright eyes were shadowed, and bordered by dark lines.

What the hell’s happening to her, Harm wondered desperately. He felt like there was a hand inside his chest, painfully squeezing his heart.

There was only one way to start this, he told himself, so he decided to leap right in. “You’re late,” he said coldly.

“Yes, sir,” she said formally. “Commander Flaggler kept me after class, sir.”

“Is that any excuse, Midshipman? Are you trying to tell me that your other teachers’ orders mean more than mine do?”

“No, sir,” she said. Her voice was steady, but Harm noticed a tremble in her shoulders. “It’s just that – “

“It’s just that what, Midshipman?” Harm cut her off. “It’s just that you didn’t think our appointment was important? It’s just that Commander Flaggler was more important? It’s just that you think I don’t have anything better to do with my afternoon than sit here, waiting for you to grace me with your presence?!”

The girl bristled at Harm’s question. She’d only heard him use this tone of voice once before, during the previous semester, when someone had fallen asleep in his class. But now, the chilly detachment was focused on her, and it was terrifying. “No, sir,” she replied quickly. “I mean, yes, sir, our meeting’s important. I’m sorry, sir.”

“I’ll say,” Harm told her. “You *are* sorry – a sorry excuse for a midshipman.”

The girl stood there, absorbing the blow. Her body was stiff, but Harm saw tears rise in her eyes. He ran a hand through his hair, and sighed loudly. “Have a seat,” he commanded. When the girl was more relaxed, Harm slid her test paper toward her across the desk. He watched her face closely, to gauge her reaction. She gave away no sign of surprise, or of disappointment. Her face hadn’t changed at all. It was as if she’d come to expect this by now.

“I don’t know what to say,” Harm told her. “You do know you’re in danger of failing this class?”

“Yes, sir, I know.”

“And that doesn’t bother you?” he asked.

She shrugged, staring at the grain pattern on the wooden desk.

“What’s going on, Midshipman?”

“I guess I’m just no good at this stuff, sir.”

“Bullshit.” Harm surprised both of them when he let slip the first thought that came to his mind. “That’s not true, and you and I both know it.”

“Then why am I getting such bad grades?” she asked.

“You tell me,” Harm replied.

“I’m not cut out for military law, sir. It’s too hard.”

“No, it’s not,” Harm said firmly. “For some students, yes. For you, no.” Not wanting to belittle his own career in the law, he decided to elaborate. “Look,” he said, “I’m not going to pretend like this stuff’s a piece of cake, because it isn’t. Some of your classmates have their faces buried in their books, and they’re still only making C’s. I’m not so old that I’ve forgotten how tough these classes are. But, I’ve come to expect great things from you, because you’ve always delivered them in the past. So, when, out of the blue, you give me a string of C’s and D’s, I have to start wondering what’s going on. Would you say that’s a fair statement, Midshipman?”

“Yes, sir.” Despite the unprofessional appearance it gave, she couldn’t stop herself from picking at her nails and cuticles. For his part, Harm couldn’t help noticing she’d bitten them down to the quick.

“Good,” he said. “Then, would you like to tell me what that is?”

“What *what* is, sir?”

“Whatever’s going on that’s causing the drop in your grades.”

She shifted her weight in the chair. “Nothing’s going on, sir.”

“I’m looking out for your welfare, Midshipman. If you can’t bring yourself to tell me the truth, then at least don’t insult me by lying. As your instructor, not to mention someone who outranks you by five pay grades, I think I deserve at least that much from you.” *(Author’s Note: The line about telling the truth comes from Degree of Guilt, a made-for-TV movie that DJE was in. It was based on two novels by Richard North Patterson.)

The girl nodded. She wanted to tell him; God, she wanted to tell him. But she couldn’t. No way. No one could ever know. Especially not him. He was the living embodiment of everything she’d wanted when she’d applied to the Academy – pride, honor, courage, discipline, dedication. If she told him what had happened, he’d never look at her the same. He would be disappointed in her, and she could never live with that.

“I…can’t, sir.” Her whisper was so soft, Harm almost didn’t hear it.

“Can’t, or won’t?” Harm prodded gently.

“I can’t, sir.”

“If you’re trying to protect someone else,” Harm told her, “it’s not worth it. I don’t know if you’ve been slipping in your other classes, too, but, if you are, academic probation is no picnic.”

Laura shook her head. “I’m not protecting anyone, sir.” Only myself, she thought.

“Then, why can’t you tell me what’s going on? You were one of my best students, and now…” He shook his head. “I don’t know what to say.” The girl was silent, too. “Is it something at home? You know you can request special leave if there’s a family emergency.”

She studied the pencil holder on Harm’s desk. “It’s not that, sir.”

“Look at me, Laura,” Harm said softly. His use of her first name compelled her to comply. “I’m asking because I’m worried about you,” he said genuinely.

The girl’s face was still dark, but Harm detected the faintest hint of a smile. “Why, sir?” she whispered.

“Why?” Harm replied. “Because, this just isn’t like you. I’ve known you for two years now, and for the past two months, you haven’t been the Laura Henry I know. You’re bright as hell, you know that? You’re too smart to be getting the grades you’ve been getting. And, I hate to say it, but you don’t look very good.” He held his hands up in defense. “I’m not trying to insult you, believe me; I’m saying it because I’m concerned. I can tell you’ve lost a lot of weight, and it doesn’t look like you’ve been getting much sleep.”

Laura nodded. It would be pointless to deny those observations; they were clear as crystal.

Harm sighed. “I just want to help, if I can, honey. You don’t even have to tell me what’s going on. Just let me know if there’s anything I can do to make things better for you, all right?”

A lone tear slowly made its way down Laura’s cheek. “No, sir, there’s nothing.”

Harm’s heart ached. Why did she have to be so stubborn? “If you can’t talk to me, go to your counselor, or to the chaplain. You know, there are people here whose only job is to help midshipmen make it through here with their sanity intact. This place gets to everyone sooner or later, honey. There’s no shame in asking for help.”

Laura nodded. “Sir, with all due respect, why do you care so much? I’m just one of thousands of mids here, no more special than anyone else.”

“That’s what you think,” Harm told her. He got up from his desk and walked to the door, pulling it shut. He returned behind his desk, but instead of sitting back down, he leaned against the wall, with his arms folded across his chest. “I’m going to tell you something, Laura, and I expect you to keep it to yourself, all right?” At the girl’s nod, Harm continued. “The truth is, you’re not all equal. Sure, you were all good enough in high school to get in here, or hell, some of you were just lucky enough to have parents or grandparents in high places. And you’ll all make decent officers. But you know what? In every graduating class that comes through here, there’s a small handful of students who are heads and shoulders above the rest – people who with the highest personal and professional values. People who will continue to make me proud of serving in the Navy. You’re one of them, you know. You’re going to be an outstanding officer, and I won’t stand by and watch you throw that away. Not if there’s something I can do about it, anyway.”

At Harm’s heartfelt speech, Laura began to cry in earnest. Harm handed her a pack of tissues from his desk drawer. Unable to bear her tears, Harm removed his jacket and hung it on the back of his chair. He proceeded to remove the shoulder boards from the epaulets of his dress shirt. He kneeled beside her chair. “Look,” he said softly, “no more rank, no more protocol; we’re just two regular people, having a chat. Now, do you think you can talk to me?”

Laura sniffled. “I…I want to, sir, but…” she shook her head.

Harm had to hold back his own tears when he saw how truly distraught she was. He held her hand. “Laura, whatever it is, you can tell me.”

God, the commander was incredible, she thought. He had every reason to let her fail and be done with it, yet, here he was, using his free time to try and help her. He’d even gone so far as offering to leave the military out of it.

Unfortunately, Harm’s display of caring only served to make the girl feel even worse, for being unable to tell him. She could see on his face that it genuinely pained him not to be able to help her.

“I’m sorry, sir. I…I just can’t,” she said through her tears.

Harm sighed, hanging his head.

“May I be dismissed, sir?” Laura begged.

Harm nodded. “Go ahead,” he said softly, eschewing the usual, crisp command. It was clear he wasn’t going to get anywhere just then. But that didn’t mean he wouldn’t keep trying.

 

SAME DAY
1712 EST
USNA GYMNASIUM

 

After his encounter with Laura, Harm was worried, confused, and angry as hell. He grudgingly scraped through the rest of his day, counting down the hours and minutes until he’d be able to release some of those tensions at the campus’s gym. In recent years, he’d found physical exertion – to the point of total exhaustion – to be the most efficient way to exhaust the mind, as well. And, today, exhausting his mind to the point of near-shutdown sounded wonderful to him.

For weeks now, no matter what he was doing, or thinking about, in the back of his mind, there were always thoughts of the troubled midshipman. It was like a low din of white noise; not quite asserting itself, yet always there, existing quietly under the radar.

In recent days, however, its volume had been increasing in Harm’s head, to the point where it was now impossible to ignore. He had begun to find himself in the same state as the girl, herself. He was so worried about her, that he couldn’t eat, he couldn’t sleep, and it was becoming increasingly difficult to concentrate on his work. In fact, if not for Terri’s own concern for him, and her almost superhuman sense of understanding, Harm was sure their relationship would be suffering, as well.

And he didn’t know how much longer she would be willing to tolerate him. He loved Terri, and he knew he couldn’t keep going home every night too angry and too emotionally drained to be the kind of man she deserved. She was too intelligent, and too confident in her own self-worth, to hang around for very long, waiting for him to return to himself. She had seen, firsthand, how intensely he’d thrown himself into finding the truth behind Annie Lewis’s death, and she could see it happening again, now. She had told him more than once that, in fact, his passion for justice was one of the things that made him so attractive to her. And yet, he feared that if that passion became too big, it would drive her away.

Thus, with a mountain of conflicting emotions having a wrestling match in his mind, he hit the gym as soon as he could. He spent thirty minutes on the treadmill, running at a pace that made his quadriceps burn in protest. When he stepped off the machine, after a quick cooldown, he was highly disappointed to realize that, although he was breathing rapidly, soaked in sweat, and he could feel the blood rushing through his body as his heart raced, the exercise had done very little to distract his thoughts.

He needed something more violent.

He stopped at the water fountain for a quick drink, and cooled off for a few minutes before heading to the equipment desk to borrow a pair of boxing gloves. He spent the next fifteen minutes hitting the heavy bag for all he was worth, sending it swinging back and forth on the chain that suspended it from the ceiling. With each strike, he felt some of the tension dissipating. To aid his cause, he imagined the bag was whatever was causing Laura to spiral downhill. When he had exhausted that image, he switched it in his mind, so that he was now hitting the girl’s fear of opening up to him. It became a kind of voodoo doll; Harm told himself that, maybe, if he could hit it hard enough, he could destroy it, and Laura would have nothing to hold her back.

Each time Harm’s fist struck the bag, he let out a grunt, mixed in with some unintelligible swearing. He was so focused on his task, that he didn’t notice John Flaggler approaching. Flaggler had a towel draped over the back of his neck, and he held a water bottle in one hand.

“Whoa,” Flaggler said. “What did the punching bag ever do to you? I think you’ve beaten it into submission, Harm.”

“No way,” Harm grunted, landing another powerful blow against the bag. “It’s still hanging there, isn’t it?”

Flaggler raised an eyebrow. “Looks like someone’s taking out some frustrations,” he observed aloud.

“You don’t know the half of it,” Harm replied, striking the bag yet again.

“What’s going on?”

“I wish I knew.”

“You want to talk about it?” Flaggler asked. “I was just about to hit the sauna, if you want to join me.”

“No,” Harm replied, “I can still feel my hands.”

Flaggler chuckled. “And that’s a bad thing?”

At his friend’s humorous comment, Harm finally allowed himself a small smile. When the punching bag swung back in his direction, Harm grabbed a hold of it, to steady it back into its original position. “Thanks for the offer,” he said, “but I think I’ve done enough sweating for the day.”

“All right, buddy, suit yourself,” Flaggler said, as he turned to head toward the steam room. “Have a good one, Harm.”

Harm nodded, even though he was thinking, not very likely.

Flaggler was only a few feet away when a thought struck Harm. “Hey, John?” he called. The other man turned back. “Do you have a minute? Not in the sauna, though.” Harm didn’t know if anyone else would be in there, but he did know he didn’t want anyone eavesdropping on what he was about to ask.

“Sure,” Flaggler answered, and the two men walked to a corner of the room. The closest object to them was a seldom-used leg press, one that had been replaced by a newer model. Harm was confident no one would walk by and overhear anything. “What’s up?” Flaggler asked.

“Laura Henry,” Harm said bluntly, but quietly. “She’s in your naval history class, right?” After a confirming nod from Flaggler, Harm said, “Have you noticed anything…strange about her, recently?”

Flaggler’s eyes narrowed, but he didn’t give anything away. “Like what?”

Harm bit his lip. “Well, she’s in my military law class, and, until a few weeks ago, she had the best grades, by far.”

Flaggler nodded. “My class, too. She used to be the top student.”

“Used to be?” Harm asked, his suspicions piquing.

“Yeah. She…uh…she’s handed in some outstandingly bad papers lately. She’s gone from an A to a C, almost overnight.”

Harm nodded. “Doesn’t that strike you as odd, John?”

“Of course it does. Not to mention the other things,” he replied.

“Other things?” Harm asked. He knew then that his friend had noticed the same things he had, but he wanted to hear the other man say it, himself.

“Yeah,” Flaggler continued. “She’s lost a lot of weight. I mean, not that I’m looking at her that way. I mean…you know what I mean.”

Harm nodded. He would have been amused by his friend’s nervousness, had the situation not been so grave. “What else?” Harm prodded.

“She just…Harm, she looks like hell. She was a stellar student in all respects, and now, it’s like…I don’t know. It’s like she doesn’t care anymore.”

“Bingo,” Harm said. “On everything.”

Flaggler let out a sigh of relief. “So then, you see it, too? Thank god; I thought maybe I was imagining things.”

“No,” Harm said, “it’s definitely not your imagination. Something’s going on, that’s for sure. I just wish I knew what it was.”

“Me too,” Flaggler agreed.

“She’s too good to let whatever this is ruin her career here.”

“I’ll say,” Flaggler commented. “And so are the rest of them.”

“The rest of them?” Harm asked, suddenly curious.

“Yeah. She’s not the only one who’s gone downhill like that. There are three midshipmen in one of my other classes whose grades have taken a nosedive. They also look a little too thin. It’s like they’ve got some kind of pact, or something.”

Harm’s mind was on overdrive. A thousand thoughts and possibilities were whizzing through his head. His brain finally centered in on just one of them. “John,” he began cautiously, “those other mids…are they all female?”

Flaggler nodded. “What are you thinking, Harm?”

“I don’t know yet,” he answered, wanting to keep his suspicions to himself, until he had more by which to substantiate them. “I’m still trying to figure it out.”

“Well, when you do, clue me in, would ya? I’m pretty worried about them.”

Thank you God, Harm thought. Finally, someone who cares. “I will,” he promised. “You too,” Harm requested. “Keep an eye out. If you pick up on anything – “

“I know where to find you.”

Harm nodded. A quick glance at his watch caused him to wince. “Oh man, I’ve gotta go. I’m taking Terri to dinner tonight; I should have been showered and shaved by now.”

Flaggler offered a wry grin. “So, you and Commander Coulter, huh? Not that I blame you, Harm; she’s beautiful.”

“As much on the inside as on the outside,” Harm informed him.

“I’m happy for you, buddy. It’s about time you found a woman who could keep up with you. And I’ll bet that smile doesn’t work on her; she’s too smart.”

“It works on everybody,” Harm countered, flashing said smile.

“Not on me!” Flaggler laughed.

“Women, John. I meant, on women.”

Flaggler shook his head. “I’ll see you around, Harm.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Harm grabbed his bag from the locker room and ran to his car. Once on the road, he called Terri to apologize for his impending lateness, and told her he had a good explanation, which he would relay to her on the way to the restaurant, after he showered and got dressed. Stopped amid a long line of cars waiting to enter the highway, Harm pondered what Flaggler had said. So, all the midshipmen in question were female. The possibility had entered his mind previously, but he hadn’t dared consider it for very long; it was too horrible to imagine. It was bad enough that it ever happened anywhere, let alone at the Academy. It was the one place on earth he’d considered incorruptible, a place he’d been proud to connect his life to for nearly 25 years.

And yet, how many Air Force officers were out there, who had had the very same feelings about their own alma mater? And those beliefs had been irreparably shattered a few years ago. There had been reports of sexual assaults going unaddressed at the Air Force Academy, and of perpetrators going unpunished. In fact, many victims reported being reprimanded for smaller offenses, like underage drinking, while their attackers got off without so much as a slap on the wrist. Amid the news, dozens of past graduates had come forward to tell their own tales of a chain of command that had been unreceptive, unresponsive, and secretive. Some of them had remained in the Air Force; some had left the Academy, fearing retribution, or worse, stigmatization for the rest of their careers.

The entire Academy had come under intense scrutiny. Most of the top brass had been dismissed after it was revealed that the leadership had passed the buck further and further, until no one would take responsibility for the horrible unaccountability.

If something similar was happening at Annapolis…

Harm didn’t even want to think about it.

 

1606 EST
HARM’S OFFICE
USNA, ANNAPOLIS, MARYLAND

 

Using the Academy’s intranet, Harm had done a little digging, to find out who Midshipman Henry’s roommate was. Even if Susan Miller hadn’t known what was behind Laura’s behavior of late, surely the girl who lived with her would. Desperate for any kind of answers, Harm had sent Laura’s roommate – Midshipman Shelly Bloom – an email, requesting that she stop by his office at 1600 today.

It was six minutes after the appointed time, when Midshipman Bloom appeared in Harm’s doorway.

“Midshipman Bloom, reporting as ordered, sir.”

“As you were, Midshipman. Please, have a seat.” The girl sat down, and set her backpack down gingerly on the floor. “I was afraid you weren’t going to come,” Harm told her.

“I almost didn’t, sir.”

Harm’s eyes narrowed. “Why?”

“Well, to be honest sir, I have no idea what this is about. Respectfully, we’ve never even been introduced before, so I’m not exactly sure what I’m doing here…”

“That’s understandable,” Harm said, nodding. He’d left his email intentionally vague. In case the girl *did* have some idea of what was going on with Laura, he didn’t want to tell her why he was summoning her; it might give her time to consult with her roommate, and for the two of them to make up a false story to keep him in the dark. He hated to approach things this way, but as Laura continued to disintegrate, he was becoming desperate, and he felt he was running out of time.

“It’s about your roommate,” Harm said directly.

Although Midshipman Bloom had never met Harm officially, she’d heard all kinds of stories about him. She knew him to be one of the most popular professors on campus, for his great teaching, and, in the eyes of the female mids, for his incredible looks. Moreover, she knew him to be a top-notch former JAG officer, and it was that quality that sent a wave of fear through her, at the mention of Midshipman Henry.

“Is she in some kind of trouble, sir?” Shelly asked.

“I was hoping *you* could tell *me*,” Harm replied.

“Sir?”

“Haven’t you noticed something strange about her, the past few weeks?”

“Yes sir,” Shelly replied quickly.

“Well, do you know what’s behind it?”

“I wish, sir. I’m really worried about her.”

Thank God, Harm thought. “So am I, Midshipman. But, I’m only her instructor; I only see what happens in class, or, at a volleyball game, once in a while, when I can spare the time. Can you tell me what she’s like outside of class, in your room?”

The girl shifted nervously in her chair. If she felt like Harm was prying, she didn’t say so. “Well, sir, she hardly sleeps anymore. I mean, she goes to bed, but, I hear her tossing and turning all the time. Some nights, she gives up, and goes into the bathroom to read, so the light won’t bother me.”

“Is there anything else?” Harm asked.

“I think she might be sick, sir. Really sick, I mean. Sometimes, I hear her…throwing up in there.”

Harm’s brow furrowed. “How often is ‘sometimes,’ Midshipman?”

Shelly sighed. “Often, sir. A couple times a week, I guess.”

Harm sighed, and rubbed his hands against his face. That would certainly explain the weight loss, he thought. Could that really be it? An illness? If so, it would also explain her refusal to admit it. A condition that bad would most likely earn her a medical discharge from the Navy, if anyone were to find out about it.

“I’ve tried to get her to talk about it, sir,” the girl continued, “but Laura, well, she’s a very private person, Commander. She believes she can handle anything life throws at her, all on her own.”

“Except, she’s not handling it, is she, Midshipman?

“No, sir. Not unless you consider letting yourself fall apart like that, ‘handling it.’”

Harm nodded. “Do you think something might be going on at home? With her family?”

“No, sir,” Bloom replied. “Or, at least, if there is, she hadn’t said anything about it. I’ve overheard her on the phone with them a few times, and everything seems fine.”

“You’re not helping much, y’know,” Harm teased gently.

“I’m sorry, sir,” the girl replied. “I wish I could, honestly. Laura and I were assigned as roommates, but we’ve become friends, and I’m scared for her. I’ve already had some friends here who didn’t make it this long; I don’t want to see Laura leave the Academy, too.”

“Me neither, Midshipman,” Harm assured her. “And, I’m going to do my best to make sure that doesn’t happen. But, I’ve got to get some answers, and I’m running out of people to ask for them.”

The girl could only nod. She couldn’t give him answers she didn’t have.

“Frankly,” Harm said, “I find it a hard to believe that Laura’s your roommate, and you have no clue as to what’s happening to her. You must know *something.*”

“If only I did, sir. I wouldn’t keep it to myself. I know you don’t know me, sir, but, I’m just not that kind of person. If someone’s in as bad a way as Laura is, I would do everything I could to help. I’ve tried talking to her, sir, honestly. She just doesn’t want to talk back.” Shelly sighed. “I can’t force her to open up to me.”

“I know,” Harm said softly, somewhat regretting pushing the girl for information she simply didn’t have. “She’s going to have to open up to someone, and soon, or she’ll wind up on academic probation. If she doesn’t turn herself back around, she’s going to have a hell of a time staying here.”

Shelly nodded solemnly. “I miss her, sir,” she admitted softly. “I mean, she’s still here, but I miss her. She and I used to go into town for a smoothie on Saturday mornings, or sometimes go for a jog along the river. But now, she hardly ever leaves our room – only to go to class, or volleyball practice. She lays in bed a lot, but she doesn’t sleep.”

Harm sighed. This was like a puzzle he was trying to put together; he had all the pieces on the edges, but there was a gaping hole in the middle. The missing pieces were somewhere, but the question was, where?

“Are you sure you can’t tell me anything else, Midshipman?” Harm asked. The girl did seem genuinely concerned for her friend, but Harm had the nagging feeling that she could also just be protecting her.

“I don’t know anything else, sir,” the girl promised. “I would tell you if I did, sir, believe me. I’m really worried about her.”

Satisfied, for the time being, Harm nodded. “Well, I appreciate your concern,” he told her. “I know you were probably freaking out when I asked you to come here, and it couldn’t have been easy for you to talk about this, so I’m grateful.”

“No problem, sir. I wanted to help.”

Nodding, Harm said, “I’ve kept you long enough, but, thank you for coming by.”

“Yes, sir.”

“If you find out anything else…”

“You’ll be the next to know, sir.”

Harm smiled. “Thanks.”

 

SAME DAY
2129 EST
HARM’S APARTMENT
ANNAPOLIS, MARYLAND

 

As had become the status quo over the past few weeks, Harm was distant and distracted throughout dinner. Terri managed to fill some of the quiet space with stories about her classes, but she stopped when she noticed Harm wasn’t paying any attention. He’d talked to her time and again about one of his students – someone who obviously had some kind of big problem, but wasn’t willing to talk to anyone about it. Terri was torn between her admiration for that quality of Harm’s -- helping anyone who needed it, anytime, anywhere – and her resentment that his knight in shining armor routine seemed to be pushing her further out toward the periphery of his life. She loved Harm’s superhero complex, but she feared that it was turning her into an unwitting Lois Lane. Building a relationship with a man who was constantly rushing off to rescue other people was impossible. She wondered if that was what would really happen, in the end: she would grow tired of him leaving her alone, while he put everyone else before her, bearing the burden of protecting the entire world, while his own life went to shambles.

Terri had asked him about it several times, but he hadn’t revealed anything beyond the fact that one of his students wasn’t acting like herself. Harm’s concern was so deep, it had morphed into Terri’s constant worry about him. More often than not, when they ate together, Harm would only pick at his food, barely eating anything. He’d also begun to wake up during the night. Sometimes, the motion of him getting out of bed would wake Terri; other times, she would wake when her alarm went off, only to discover that Harm wasn’t beside her. Terri would go into the living room, and find him reading a book on the couch. Or, on days when Harm’s mind was particularly restless, he would spend the dawn hours doing pushups and situps, hoping that by exhausting his body, he could exhaust his spinning thoughts, too.

Tonight, Harm and Terri were laying on the couch together. Terri was reading a novel, while Harm flipped through a magazine. The soothing sound of soft jazz piano music floated from the stereo, but Harm was anything but calm. He turned the pages of his magazine quickly and loudly, barely reading a single word. Knowing that no article in the world could distract him from his worried thoughts of Laura, he gave up, and tossed the magazine onto the coffeetable, with a huff.

Terri slipped her bookmark into place, and set her book on top of Harm’s magazine. She and Harm had been spooning; she turned over, so she could face him. “You really care about her, don’t you?” she marveled, knowing, without having to ask, what Harm was thinking about. “You never do anything halfway.”

“I wouldn’t know how,” Harm admitted. “I took this job as a professor not just to teach the law, but to teach Navy values. The Marine Corps may have cornered the market on leaving no man behind, but, the fact is, that’s true of all the services. If I can tell someone’s in trouble, it goes against everything I believe in to let them go on suffering, when they don’t have to. If there’s something I can do to help, then I have to try.”

“I know,” Terri smiled. She reached her hand up to caress his face. “It’s why I love you so much.” She pulled her hand back in toward herself. “I’m just worried about you.”

“Me? Why?”

“Harm, you’ve hardly eaten anything these past few weeks, and I can’t remember the last time you slept through the night.”

Harm sighed. “I feel all right,” he said. “I mean, physically, anyway. I just wish I knew what was going on. This girl was my top student…hell, she was one of the Academy’s top students, and over the course of just a few months, she’s fallen apart. It just doesn’t make any sense.”

“Do you think she might have something going on at home? I mean, the mids can take emergency leave if something happens with their immediate family, but this girl wouldn’t be the first one to refuse it. At the pace the Academy goes, missing just a few days can mean having to repeat an entire semester, and I can’t imagine anyone who’d want to live the life of a midshipman for one minute longer than absolutely necessary.”

“Could be,” Harm acknowledged, “but, I don’t think that’s it. I don’t know what it is, but if it were that, I think she would have told me.”

Terri was silent for several seconds. She studied Harm’s face, observing the redness in his tired eyes, and measuring the small changes that were the result of the few pounds he’d lost recently. “I wish there was something I could do to make things easier for you,” Terri told him softly.

“Just being with you makes it easier,” Harm whispered. He pulled her close to him, kissed her lips softly, then draped his leg over hers, wrapping her in him completely, as he held on to her tightly. (Note: The two lines about making things easier are also borrowed from Degree of Guilt.)

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

The next week was Sexual Assault and Harassment Awareness Week at the Academy. The campus was plastered with signs conveying some rather disturbing statistics about rape and assault in the general public, and on military installations, in particular. In every dormitory, flyers and pamphlets were available, with contact information for the police, local hospitals, and various hotlines that could be contacted anonymously to ask questions, or, heaven forbid, report a crime.

Earlier in the week, Terri had asked Harm’s advice on how to address the subject in her classes. Instructors weren’t required to participate in awareness activities, but Harm and Terri had both agreed it was unconscionable not to. They had both witnessed the devastating personal and professional aftermath of sexual assault – Harm as a prosecutor, and Terri as a forensics expert.

Terri wanted to discuss procedures for gathering and handling evidence with her classes, but she wasn’t sure they would be able to conduct themselves like adults. She had no desire to hear the snickers of eighteen-year-old boys when she used perfectly proper medical terms for the human anatomy. She and Harm had discussed it at length, and Harm convinced her to give the students more credit.

“After all,” he’d told her, “we’re not talking about a bunch of frat boys who’re hung over from the raging kegger they had last night. These kids are training to be officers in the Navy; I think you can trust them to be mature about it.”

“I hope you’re right,” Terri grumbled.

“I know I am,” Harm said. “And, if I’m not, well, I’m sure you’ll find me a suitable…’punishment.’”

Instantly intrigued, Terri had raised an eyebrow at that. “How about I punish you in advance, just in case?”

Understanding Terri’s meaning, Harm swallowed hard. Inching closer to Terri on his sofa, he slowly licked the edge of her ear. “Tell me,” he whispered, “just what kind of punishment did you have in mind?”

Terri shivered from the sensation of Harm’s warm breath on her skin. “That depends,” she whispered, her voice shaky. “How bad have you been?”

“I’ve been very bad,” Harm growled. He took Terri’s hand, leading her to his bedroom.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Harm tried his best to shove that memory aside for the time being. Right now, he was standing in front of his advanced military law class; X-rated thoughts of Terri had no place here.

When his students had all taken their seats, Harm took a deep breath and began his speech. “As you all know, this week is Sexual Assault and Harassment Awareness Week. In fact, I’m sure you’ve had lectures about it in other classes, and you’ve seen the posters everywhere, and you’re all probably sick of it by now. Well, I’m sorry to burst your bubble, but you’re going to have to sit through one more lesson about it, folks. I’ll try to make it a little more interesting for you, though.”

He paused, gathering his thoughts. “Sexual assault is not an easy topic to talk about, but it’s absolutely necessary, and it’s also very much related to the theme of this course. I don’t want to short-change you as students of the law, so I’ll try to focus my lecture on the legal process regarding allegations of assault and harassment.” He passed his eyes over his students, making sure he connected with each of them individually.

“This is serious business, people. The UCMJ doesn’t play around with it, and, I can tell you from personal experience as an attorney, neither does the JAG Corps. The leadership here would like to think that, as naval officers in training, this should all go without saying to you. It should be common sense that making unwanted physical or verbal overtures to members of the opposite – or the same – gender, is not only disgusting and unethical, but, if you’re in the military, it is indisputably illegal.”

“However,” he continued, “the problem with common sense, is that it isn’t nearly common enough. Your counterparts at the Air Force Academy proved that a few years back. Their actions, and the actions of officers at every level of the chain of command out in Colorado Springs, reflected badly on all of us, no matter what uniform we wear. Just because it was somewhat ‘internal’ to the Air Force, and not international news, like events in the Army-run prisons in Iraq, doesn’t mean it didn’t have ramifications for the entire U.S. military. Make no mistake: you represent the Navy, and you are the defenders of everything that’s supposed to be good about this country. Unwanted advances of a sexual nature – no matter how subtle – are illegal, and they bring disgrace upon us all.”

“I’ve seen long, distinguished careers destroyed over this,” Harm told them. “I’ve seen decorated flag officers reduced to seamen, and I’ve seen seamen thrown in jail. Trust me when I say you don’t want to be anywhere near this stuff, people. Don’t get involved in it, and if you know someone who is involved in it, report it immediately. If, for whatever reason, you encounter a lack of concern or sympathy, I want you to come straight to me. I won’t turn you away, and that’s a promise. If you listen to one thing I’ve said all semester, let it be that.”

Harm stopped, making sure his words had sunk in. Some of the students’ eyes seemed to have glazed over, so he addressed them with a more forceful version of his usual, “Is that understood?” After a loud chorus of “Yes, sir,” from the suddenly awake bunch, Harm launched into a brief lecture about how various kinds of assault cases are navigated. Since this was a twice-a-week class, it meant a longer session than classes that met Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Harm had planned his speech to allow time for a video regarding harassment and rape in the military.

“The material in the video is graphic, and detailed,” Harm explained. “It’s a serious presentation on a serious subject, and I expect you all to give it the respect it warrants. What does that mean?” he asked rhetorically. “Well, it means I expect to be able to hear a pin drop in this classroom. If I hear the slightest chuckle, or an off-color comment, well, let’s just say the test next week is a doozie, and you wouldn’t want to waste precious study time outside doing punishment marching drills. Got that?” After the students acknowledged, Harm shut the lights and started the video.

It was difficult to watch, even for Harm. He’d seen his share of rape cases as a JAG officer, but even so, some of the stories described in the video were truly horrific. It was relatively new territory, armed-forces wide. When Harm had attended the Academy, they’d had nothing like this awareness week. It hadn’t seemed necessary; sexual assault in the military, and specifically, at the academies, seemed unthinkable. In recent years, though, with so many facts coming to light, it was revealed that it had in fact happened, and happened more often than anyone would have imagined. The year 1980 was Harm’s plebe year, and the graduating class that year included the first female Naval Academy graduates. Women had worked so hard, for so long, to be “granted” admission, that they hadn’t risked losing that right, even if it had meant keeping sexual assaults to themselves.

Harm, himself, found it hard to believe any of the mids even had time for things like that. He had managed to do his share of fooling around when he was a student, of course, but the Academy had meant so much to him that he wouldn’t have done anything serious enough to risk getting thrown out. Punishment drills, and extra watch shifts, yes. Getting expelled -- or, hell, jailed – never. He’d lived and breathed that honor code.

He still did.

Harm occasionally scanned the faces of his students, to make sure they were paying attention to the video. He knew it must be slightly insulting, from their point of view, to be constantly barraged with warnings regarding sexual assault and harassment. These people were the top of the top – academically, physically, and mentally. These were the last people on earth who should need lectures and videos like this. So, it hit him like a deafening clap of thunder when he heard a wave of hushed giggles spread through the room. He looked up with ice in his eyes, and the sound stopped instantly.

Just a few seconds later, when the room was quiet again, except for the timid voice of a woman recounting an assault in the video, Harm thought he heard someone sniffling. He dismissed it at first; as the weather got colder, it was common for mids to come to class sneezing and coughing. The video continued, and the victim detailed what had happened to her – and worse – what had happened after the fact, when her attacker’s trial had become a he-said/she-said story, and she had been entirely discredited and forced to leave the Navy. It was like being raped twice, she’d said.

As the woman spoke, Harm heard the sniffling grow louder, and he looked around for the source. He froze when his eyes fell upon Laura Henry. Her face was streaked with tears, which glinted off her cheeks in the television light in the darkened classroom. She wasn’t sniffling from being sick, Harm realized instantly. She was crying.

The woman in the video began to use some very graphic language, and some of the male midshipmen found it impossible to contain their reactions. They started elbowing each other, and before long, the whole class had erupted in laughter.

There was one student, however, who wasn’t laughing. Midshipman Henry jumped out of her seat and ran out the door, momentarily bathing the classroom room in the bright light that burst in from the hallway. The door hadn’t even had time to close behind her before Harm had jumped up, himself. Simultaneously, Susan Miller bolted out of her seat. She looked at Harm without a word, her eyes silently begging permission to go after her friend. Harm only nodded, cocking his head toward the door.

He hated to consider it, but he was becoming more certain than ever of what had happened to the midshipman. The very suspicion of it was so horrible for him to contemplate that it wrenched every cell in his body. He wanted to crawl out of his skin and be somewhere else entirely; a place where the mere concept of this simply didn’t exist.

Without a word, Harm turned off the video. He flipped the lights back on and took his seat behind his desk. Sensing their impending doom, the midshipmen all sat rigidly in their chairs, each one of their faces frozen and silent. Harm stared at a blank sheet of paper, while his heart pounded furiously with barely contained rage. He didn’t think he could look at any of the students without losing the contents of his lunch at the least, or doing something that could get him court-martialed and or disbarred, at the extreme. What in the hell had they been thinking? What in the fucking hell had they been thinking?

 

 

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