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THE FOLLOWING DAY
COMMANDER JOHN FLAGGLER’S HOME
ANNAPOLIS, MARYLAND
1412 EST

 

Harm decided to stop by John Flaggler’s house that afternoon. Bud’s research pointed to one conclusion, and, if it was as insidious as Harm feared it was, he knew he wouldn’t be able to tackle the situation by himself. Since their first meeting, aboard the submarine, Watertown, which Flaggler had skippered, Harm had known him to be a proud, dedicated naval officer, and, even more important for this, one who was unforgiving in his desire for the truth. Harm knew he would need a strong ally from here on out, and he knew he would find one in John Flaggler.

Too focused on his purpose to consider that it might be rude of him to drop by unannounced on a Sunday, Harm found himself on the doorstep of the Flaggler family’s stately home, just a few miles from the Academy. Ever the efficient officer’s wife, Marie Flaggler greeted Harm graciously, her clothing classic and conservative, and her hair expertly coiffed. She led him into their immaculate sitting room, and served him a cup of fresh coffee, making small talk with him, while they waited for John to end a phone a call he’d been on.

Flaggler finally appeared, and his wife excused herself politely. Harm shook his head. “What’s gotten into her?” he teased.

Flaggler chuckled. “It’s her Sunday gig,” he explained. “Starting tomorrow, she’s back to day shifts in the ER.”

Harm nodded in understanding. Marie Flaggler was an RN at the nearby North Arundel Hospital; Harm had never known her to play the role of doting wife. She was supportive of her husband’s naval career, of course, and proud of it, but she had insisted on keeping her own career, as well. Of course, the fact that she’d gotten much of her training through the Navy’s Nurse Corps didn’t sit too badly with the Academy’s leadership.

After the two men spent a few minutes catching up, Flaggler said, “So, what really brings you here, Harm?”

Harm smiled. “Am I that obvious?”

“Not really,” Flaggler replied, “but I have to assume you have a good reason for coming by, since the Redskins game is coming on in about ten minutes, and you know I wouldn’t take kindly to missing any of it.”

“Football can wait,” Harm said sternly. “Believe me.”

Harm’s tone caused Flaggler to take notice. “Sounds serious. What’s going on?”

Harm sighed. “I’m going back a few months here, but, do you remember us having a conversation about Laura Henry?”

“Sure,” Flaggler answered. “And, as I recall, I asked you keep me in the loop if you figured out what was going on with her, but I haven’t heard a word about it since then.”

“Well,” Harm explained, “that’s because I didn’t know very much about it, until just a few days ago. But, consider yourself back in the loop, John.”

“You found something,” Flaggler concluded aloud.

“I found a whole lot of something,” Harm said darkly. “A whole lot of something that scares the hell out of me.”

“Tell me,” Flaggler encouraged.

“You’re sure you wanna hear this?” Harm stalled. “You might never want to hear ‘Anchors Aweigh’ again.”

“Harm,” Flaggler insisted, “if you know what happened to that girl, then, tell me. I was as worried about her as you were; if you didn’t need someone in this with you, you wouldn’t have come here.”

Harm nodded. “Well, you saw the same things I did: she was going downhill – fast. She wasn’t eating, wasn’t sleeping, her grades were dropping, she was becoming a liability to the volleyball team. I care about her John; she was one of my best students, and I couldn’t stand by and watch her destroy herself like that. So, I poked around here and there, asking questions from whomever I could think of. Well, no one was giving me any answers – not the ones I needed, anyway – so eventually, I started pressing Laura about it. I guess I eventually got through to her, because she finally told me everything. Well, either that, or she opened up because she thought it would satisfy me and I’d leave her alone.”

Feeling a tension in the pit of his stomach, Flaggler waited for the bomb to drop, as he listened to his friend set the stage for some undoubtedly disturbing news.

“She was raped, John.”

Flaggler’s face paled. He stood there, frozen, equal parts unwilling and unable to process Harm’s words. When he finally spoke, his voice was stony. “I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that.”

“Good luck,” Harm said. “I’ve been trying to do that for three months.” Harm waited quietly, while Flaggler processed the terrible news. “Three male mids were helping her study for a physics test, and, at the end of the night, they informed her that she could repay them with…that.”

“Jesus,” Flaggler whispered.

“You don’t know the half of it,” Harm told him. “She told me everything that happened that night. God, it was horrible to listen to; I can’t come close to imagining what she felt."

“Damn it,” Flaggler cursed. “Why her?”

“Why anyone?” Harm countered.

Flaggler sighed. “So, what are we going to do about it?”

“That’s just it, John,” Harm said. “The ‘it,’ is much bigger than you think it is.”

“Why do I have the feeling there’s more you haven’t told me yet?”

“She’s not the only one,” Harm said. “Didn’t you tell me you knew of a few other mids who were showing the same signs as Laura?”

Flaggler nodded, recalling their conversation in the Academy’s gym from months before. “You asked me if they were all female...” Flaggler closed his eyes as the ugly realization dawned upon him. “Christ, not them, too,” he growled.

“I can’t say for sure who else, but I know there are more than just Laura, and it’s not just this year.”

“What do you mean?”

Harm spent the next forty minutes recounting his trip to the rape crisis center, and the undeniable connections Bud had made between the incidents and the disturbing financial activity of some of the Academy’s top officers. By the time Harm was finished explaining, Flaggler was numb.

“What the hell are we going to do about this?”

“’We,’” Harm echoed. “You have no idea how glad I am to hear you say that,” Harm told him.

“Well, of course, Harm. You can’t do this alone, and hell, I’ll be damned if I’d let you, anyway. The Academy’s my alma mater, too, and if this is happening there, well…it won’t be happening when you and I are through with it, that’s for sure.”

Harm was grateful for his friend’s loyalty, but he wanted to make sure he knew what lay ahead. “John,” he said, “I don’t know where all this is going to lead. Depending on how far up this goes, we could very well be risking our careers.”

“Harm, if this is really going on here, and these midshipmen are…having to deal with it alone, then what do our careers even mean? What’s worth risking them for, if not this?”

Harm nodded. “I just want to make sure you understand what you’re getting yourself into.”

“I’ve been here long enough to know what we’ll be up against, Harm, and that won’t stop me. When you and your partner – that Marine – were on my submarine, you found out who was behind all the strange incidents, and you found out because you were very unorthodox. From what little I know so far, it sounds like that might come in very handy this time. You have a way of uncovering the facts in the most unlikely ways. If this really is happening here, and someone’s trying to prevent you from finding out, my money’s on you, Harm.”

“Don’t place your bet just yet,” Harm cautioned. “There’s only one way we’re going to even get close to finding out who these guys are.”

“And what’s that?”

“Laura needs to press charges.”

Flaggler’s brow furrowed. “But I thought you just said there were a lot of other victims. Why does it have to be her?”

“We don’t know who those victims were. All we have is a list of phone numbers, and even if we traced those back to who was living in the dorm rooms with those numbers at the time of the calls, we can’t be certain of who was a victim. Someone could have used a friend’s phone. Plus, some of the phone records go back a couple of years; those girls are long gone from the Academy. Hell, some of them might not even be in the Navy anymore. I’m not saying we couldn’t spread the word through the Navy’s intranet, that we’re looking for people with information to come forward, but, for now, I think it would be best if we keep it under wraps as much as possible. Until we know how high up this goes, it’s the only thing that makes sense. If it goes high enough, they could block us at every turn.”

Flaggler sighed. He had a thousand other questions, but there was no doubt in his mind that Harm had already gone over other possibilities. If there was any other way to avoid making their student suffer, he was convinced Harm would have found it. “All right, then, what’s the plan?”

“I’m going to try to convince her to come forward.”

Flaggler raised an eyebrow. “And how do you intend to do that?”

“I’m going to push her – hard. Hard enough that she’ll either do it, or wind up hating me for the rest of her life.”

 

THE NEXT WEEK
1612 EST
HARM’S OFFICE
UNITED STATES NAVAL ACADEMY
ANNAPOLIS, MARYLAND

 

Armed with the information Bud had uncovered, Harm had summoned Laura to his office. This was no longer about her; it was about the whole Academy, and Harm was determined to make her understand that. Laura listened patiently, while Harm explained everything in detail. At times, Harm thought he could see shock, or anger, rising in her features, but each time, the emotions were quickly replaced by a stony, stoic façade. It was as if she’d lost the ability to care – about herself, and anyone else.

Harm finished the gruesome tale, and gave it a minute to sink in. “Now do you see why this is so important?” he asked Laura. “Why we have to put a stop to this?”

“Will they get expelled from the Academy, sir?” she asked, meaning the boys who’d assaulted her.

Harm nodded. “Assuming they’re convicted, that’ll be the least of their problems, I promise you. They’ll be looking at hard time in a military prison; dishonorable discharges will simply be the cherry on top. And, the men cleaning up their messes can look forward to long sentences in federal prison.”

Laura sighed. “What if they don’t get convicted, sir?”

“They will.” Harm’s tone was assurance set in stone.

“But what if they don’t?” Laura pressed.

“You have to have faith in the system.”

“The same system that allowed this to happen in the first place, sir? The same system that twice had you facing murder charges? You’ll forgive me if I’m not as trusting of it as you are.”

Harm sighed. He couldn’t argue with the girl’s logic, but he could try to paint a more balanced view. “Look, I spent ten years as a JAG officer. I don’t work for the JAG Corps anymore, so I can’t be part of the prosecution during any phase of this. But, I can damn well make sure that everything is done the way it should be, and if I find out it’s not, I’ll be the first one to blow the whistle. The pigs who attacked you aren’t the only ones with connections; the difference is, mine care about the difference between right and wrong.”

Laura shook her head. “I don’t know, sir…If I do this, my life will never be the same. This’ll be in my personnel file; everywhere I ever get stationed, people will know. I’ll never be just “Ensign Henry,” sir. I’ll be ‘that girl,’ from the Academy.”

“You’ll be the girl who stood up for herself,” Harm countered. “The girl who stood up for women all over the Navy.”

“I’ll be a freaking poster child.”

Harm sighed loudly. He had known he would face this kind of roadblock. Now, it was time to bring in the wrecking ball of an argument, the only thing that might crash right through. He hated to do it, but nothing else was working, and they were running out of time. It was only a matter of time before the boys raped again, and, most likely, they already had. Harm would have to play dirty; it seemed to him the only way. For reasons only she knew, Laura idolized him, and he was going to use that adoration to his advantage. To back her unwittingly into coming forward.

He took a deep breath, and let it out slowly, steeling himself to the chore ahead. “If you back away from this,” he began, “you’ll be letting them get away with it. Forget about the Navy, Laura. I went through a time when I wasn’t on speaking terms with the Navy, so I know it isn’t always a picnic to wear the uniform. But I see enough good in the Navy – and in you – that I’m willing to fight for both of those. Don’t do this for the Navy; do it for you. Do it because you’re better than they are. If you don’t, you’ll be saying what they did was okay, that it’s acceptable.”

“That’s just it, sir: it is acceptable. If it wasn’t, why would all those important people keep letting it happen?”

“Because they’ve been able to,” Harm replied. “Because nobody’s had the courage to face them. Don’t be another of those statistics, Laura. You’re better than that.”

“I don’t know why you keep saying that. You think I’m some brave, strong, person, and – “

“I don’t think you are, Laura; I know you are.” Time to bring out the heavy artillery, Harm thought. “Don’t prove me wrong.”

“Give me one good reason why I should do this.”

“I’ll give you a very good reason why, Midshipman: your sister. I remember meeting her during Family Week last year; she idolizes you. She wants to go to Annapolis, just like you. Are you going to let her do that, knowing what could happen? Are you going to let her follow in all your footsteps?”

Laura shuddered at the implication.

“Would you have that happen to her?” Harm continued. “Could you live with yourself if it did, knowing you could have prevented it? How can you even live with yourself now? It’s been six months since it happened to you. I wonder how many more girls have been attacked in that time. How many girls have you to thank for it.”

Laura’s face was a mask of stoicism, but her body trembled – with rage, fear, or sadness, Harm couldn’t tell, but he imagined it was a combination of the three. Harm hated the sound of the words coming out of his mouth, but he pressed on. He had no choice.

“This is happening to other people because you’re a coward. You have no honor, no courage. No integrity. They did what they did to you because they saw that about you, and, from where I’m standing, it looks like they were right. I’ve never thought that way about you before, but I’ll tell you one thing: if you let them get away this, then you’re not the young woman I thought you were.”

Tears welling up in her eyes, Laura looked at him for a long moment, and then ran out of the office.

Emotionally and physically drained from the act he’d just put on, Harm collapsed in his chair. He ran a hand through his hair, offering a silent prayer that his words would somehow get through to Laura. More than that, he prayed it didn’t backfire, and cause her to end up hating him, although she would have every right, after the horrible accusations he’d hurled at her. But, they were designed to light a fire under her. For whatever reason, his opinion of her seemed to mean the world to her, and he could only hope that pretending she had fallen out of his good graces would make a difference. Right then, it might have been the only thing that could.

 

SATURDAY
1535 EST
HARM’S APARTMENT
ANNAPOLIS, MARYLAND

 

Even after sleeping late, snuggled in Terri’s arms, Harm still felt drained from his encounter with Laura the day before. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw the last image she’d left him with: that of her looking at him, with nothing in her eyes but pure hatred.

He’d recounted the exchange to Terri, and they both agreed to give themselves a day off from worrying. Their plan was to spend a lazy Saturday watching old movies and eating comfort food. Of course, their ideas of comfort food were about as different as night and day, but Terri had managed to convince Harm to let her cook him some more southern delicacies, topping them off with a red velvet cake for dessert.

She was doing some of the prep work, while Harm reclined on the couch, reading The Greatest Generation, Tom Brokaw’s moving collection of first-hand accounts of life on the home front, and the front lines, during the Second World War. A knock on the door caused them both to look up.

“I’ll get it,” Terri said. She wiped her hands on a dishtowel as she crossed the apartment. She opened the door to see an unfamiliar girl on the other side. “Can I help you?” she asked cheerfully.

“Um…is Commander Rabb here?”

Harm heard the timid voice, and immediately recognized it as Laura’s. He got up and quickly walked to the door. “Laura,” he said, “come in.” He ushered her inside, and introduced her to Terri. “Commander Teresa Coulter, this is Midshipman Laura Henry; Midshipman, this is Commander Coulter.”

“Ma’am,” Laura said, extending her hand.

Terri smiled. “Very nice to meet you, Midshipman.”

“Likewise, ma’am.” Laura looked to Harm. “Um, is there somewhere we can talk, sir?”

Harm shrugged. “How about right here?”

Terri nodded. “I’ll just go out for a while. I need to pick up some food coloring for the cake, anyway.”

“That’s all right, ma’am,” Laura said. “You can stay.” She looked at Harm again. “I mean, she…um…she knows, right, sir?”

Harm nodded slowly. “Yeah,” he whispered. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay, sir. I wouldn’t have expected you to keep it from her.”

“Still,” Terri said, “you two need some privacy. I’ll be in the kitchen, if you need me.”

Harm nodded, and then mouthed the words I love you to her, as she walked away. He led Laura to the couch. “I never expected to see you here again.”

“I surprised myself, too, sir. But, I have something to tell you, and it couldn’t wait.”

Harm’s curiosity piqued, he said, “What can I do for you?”

“You can tell me I’m doing the right thing, if I tell you I’m going to press charges.”

Harm froze for a second, trying to process what he had just heard. He wanted to wrap her in a tight hug, but fought hard to resist the urge. It was clear Laura had come a long way, just in bringing herself to his apartment. Instead, he simply looked into her eyes. “Thank you,” he said firmly. Even though the battle was just beginning, and it was sure to be a long, slow, uphill one, he felt as though they had already won. As though she had won. “I knew you’d come around,” he said.

“How could you be so sure, sir?”

Harm smiled. “Because I know you, that’s how. I know everything I said about you yesterday was a lie, and I knew it would make you want to show me what you’re made of.”

Laura chuckled, even as a tear slipped out of her eye. “That was a dirty trick, sir.”

“I know,” Harm said, “but it got you to change your mind.”

“I changed my mind because of you, sir. I didn’t want you to think those things about me. I couldn’t stand it if you had that picture of me.”

Harm shook his head in disbelief. “Don’t do this for me, Laura. Do it for you. What I think of you is irrelevant; it’s what you think of you that matters.”

Laura shrugged slightly. “I haven’t thought much of myself, the past few months.”

Harm nodded, then offered her a cockeyed smile. “Let’s work on changing that, okay?”

Laura nodded, offering a small smile. “Okay, sir.” They sat there in silence for a few seconds, and then Laura asked, “Where do we start, sir? I mean, what do I have to do?”

“Well, there’s some paperwork we can go through together, and I’ll bring it to the proper authorities on Monday. Let me just go get it.”

“You have it here, sir? You really were sure I’d come around, weren’t you?” she said in wonder.

“I expected the best from you,” Harm said simply, “and you came through.”

Harm walked away, and Laura smiled again, relieved that his estimation of her hadn’t suffered like she’d feared it had.

Seeing Harm walk away, Terri took the opportunity to approach Laura. She offered her a piece of the freshly baked cornbread, still warm from the oven.

“Thank you, ma’am,” Laura said. “It smells wonderful.”

“Eat up,” Terri told her, “don’t be shy.”

“You’re really lucky, ma’am,” Laura said, cocking her head in the direction which Harm had gone.

Terri smiled. “I know.”

“Think there are any more like him in the world?”

Terri smiled brightly. “Well, he has a younger brother, y’know, but he’s already married.”

“Figures.”

“You really messed him up, y’know,” Terri said, talking about Harm again. “Chucked his whole belief system right out the window.”

Laura’s eyes widened. “I…I’m sorry, ma’am,” she stammered, although she wasn’t entirely sure what Terri was referring to.

Terri smiled. “I meant that in a good way.”

“Ma’am?”

“He’s learned that it’s okay to ask for help when he’s trying to save the world. After all, even Superman had friends.”

“Superman also had x-ray vision,” Harm said, as he returned with the papers. “A little trick that would prove infinitely useful during the next few weeks, I’m sure.”

“Well,” Terri joked, “you already know how to fly. One out of two ain’t bad.” Harm rolled his eyes. “I’ll leave you two to take care of business,” Terri said. She looked at Laura earnestly. “You’re doing the right thing,” she said firmly. “No matter what happens, always remember that.”

Laura offered a half smile. “Thank you, ma’am.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

After Harm was finished taking Laura’s statement, Terri invited the girl to join them for dinner, since, in Harm’s words, she had cooked enough food for three armies. Laura refused twice before finally relenting to Harm and Terri’s double-whammy of stubbornness. During the meal, Harm was pleased to note that Laura ate heartily. He hoped it wasn’t just a one-time thing; she would need all the strength she could get to face what would come next.

When they were done with dinner, Harm volunteered to do the dishes, since Terri had put the whole meal together by herself. While Harm was occupied with the mountain of pots and pans in the sink, Terri created the pretense of having to run to the corner store for milk, in order to be able to talk to Laura alone.

They were bundled in their coats and gloves, making their way down the street, when a sneaking suspicion hit Laura. “Ma’am,” she said, “there’s no store around here, is there?”

“No,” Terri replied honestly. “But I wanted to talk to you, and I didn’t want to do it with Commander Rabb hovering over us.” Laura nodded. They passed a bench near a flowerbed, which, had it been spring, would have been teeming with tulips and irises. They took a seat, and sat in a surprisingly not-awkward silence for several seconds, before Terri finally began the conversation she’d been wanting to have with Laura since the time Harm had told her what happened to her.

“Midshipman,” she began, her warm breath visible in the cold, night air, “have you told your parents what happened?”

Laura’s body tensed at the unexpected question. “No, ma’am.”

“You should,” Terri said firmly. “Before they read it in the newsletter the Academy sends home to parents.”

“I can’t, ma’am.”

“You told Commander Rabb, and he’s only your professor. This is your family. You don’t have to hide this from them.”

Laura shook her head. “They can never find out, ma’am. I could never go home, if they did. I couldn’t face them.”

“Honey, you’ve done nothing to be ashamed of, or embarrassed about. Your parents will understand. In fact, if you want, I’m sure Harm would be willing to be there when you make the call, and he can explain to them what’s going on.”

“What if they think I let it happen to me?” Laura asked. “What if they’re disappointed in me?”

“What if they’re proud of you for coming forward? What if they’ll be glad their daughter’s a strong-willed woman, who isn’t letting fancy titles and big money scare her?”

“Wanna know the truth, ma’am? They do scare me. They scare the heck out of me.”

Terri nodded sadly. “I know, honey. I know they do, but the important thing is, not to let them know that. And I’m not talking about your family; I’m talking about the people you’re going to go up against.”

Laura considered that phrase: the people she was “going to go up against.” They had three things she didn’t – three things that just might stand in the way of anyone ever getting to the truth: money, connections, and a legacy at the Academy. “This is hopeless, ma’am,” she sighed.

“You know Commander Rabb better than that,” Terri admonished. “If there’s anyone in the world who can get to the bottom of this, it’s him. He won’t let you down.”

Laura nodded. “He’s the best, ma’am, I know. I just wish I had a few more people in my corner, that’s all.”

“Midshipman, you have a lot more support than you think. You’ve got me, you’ve got Commander Flaggler, and you’ve got a bunch of Commander Rabb’s old friends at JAG working overtime on this.” At Laura’s surprised look, Terri said, “I bet you didn’t know that, huh? In fact, the former JAG himself, a retired two-star admiral, no less, is a political miracle worker, and he’s working for you as we speak.”

“I…I had no idea,” Laura marveled.

“This is big, Midshipman. It’s huge. That’s why it was so important for you to be strong, and stand up for yourself. Commander Rabb wasn’t trying to flatter you when he said he couldn’t do it without you.”

Laura blushed. “Well, I know I couldn’t do it without him, either, ma’am.” She shook her head. “I’ll never be able to repay him.”

“You don’t have to,” Terri told her. “His reward will be watching you stick with this, and then seeing you go on to have an amazing career in the Navy. Believe me, that’s the best thing you could ever do for him.”

Laura smiled, starting to sniffle in the cold air. “I’ll try to remember that, ma’am.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

When Terri and Laura returned to the apartment, Harm was going over the paperwork for the umpteenth time, so Terri offered to drive Laura home. When she returned to the apartment, she had just slipped her key into the lock, when the door suddenly opened, and she was pulled into Harm’s arms.

“I love you,” Harm said quickly. He tightened his embrace, and said it over and over again. He released her only long enough to help her take off her coat, and then he placed his arm around her, and led her to the couch. He held both of her hands in his, and looked deeply into her ice-blue eyes. “Thank you,” he said.

Terri thought she detected a tremble in his voice. “What for?” she asked, confused at this unexpected outpouring of emotion.

“For being you,” Harm said cryptically.

Terri offered a crooked smile. “I’ve always been me, y’know.”

“I know,” Harm said, “but I think, now, I’m seeing just what that means.”

Terri’s eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?”

Still holding one of Terri’s hands, Harm caressed it with his thumb, before bringing to his lips for the gentlest of kisses. “Thank you for what you did tonight. You could have been mean to Laura, or not even let her through the door. But, instead, you were friendly to her; you helped her.”

“Of course I did. Why wouldn’t I? Harm, the military has come a long way, but it’s still a bit of a boy’s club. Women have to stick together, because, at one point or another, we’re all going to face discrimination in some form – a snide comment, an inappropriate gesture, a career glass ceiling…”

“You’d have every reason to resent her, sweetheart,” Harm said, “I mean, she’s the reason I was so distant these past few weeks. She’s the reason I was neglecting you. Neglecting us.”

“No, Harm,” Terri assured him. “It wasn’t her; it was what happened to her. I don’t resent her, and I’m not jealous of her for having your attention. If anything, I’m glad I got the chance to meet her. I spoke to her for a while, y’know, and now, I see what you saw in her.”

“Oh yeah?” What did you talk about?”

“I asked her if she’s told her parents about what happened.”

“Oh, God,” Harm sighed. “I never even thought of that. So much else has been happening.” He ran a hand over his tired face, rubbing his eyes. “Has she told them?”

“Not yet,” Terri replied. “But I think she will. I told her it would be better if they heard it from her, and not from the Academy newsletter.”

Harm nodded. “I can’t even imagine how they’ll feel. You send your daughter to a place where honor, integrity, and discipline are supposed to be the supreme commandments. How can you possibly explain that something like this happened there?”

Terri merely shrugged. “I imagine you’ll find the answer to that, eventually. I mean, sooner or later, the press is going to get wind of this, and, when they do, that’ll be the number one question.”

Harm sighed. “The press. I’ve been trying to keep this as quiet as possible; I don’t want them turning this into a circus.”

“Good luck, hon. I can already see Barnum & Bailey pitching their tents outside the Academy gates.”

“At least they can’t get inside,” Harm muttered.

“Yeah,” Terri agreed. “If this were a civilian college, they’d be camped out under that poor girl’s window.”

Harm nodded gravely. “As far as I know, no one knows about this besides the few people I’ve told, and they certainly don’t include anyone with a press pass.” Suddenly more frustrated, Harm stood up and started pacing. “Although, I don’t really know why I’m trying so hard. I mean, this is where ten years of silence and secrecy have gotten the Academy. If I was smart, I’d get Stuart Dunston on the phone, and he’d be banging down the Commandant’s door in ten minutes. Maybe the more people who know, the better. Then, these bastards wouldn’t have anything left to hide behind.”

“Still, though,” Terri pointed out, “do you really want the whole world to know that this is what goes on at Annapolis?”

“Why not?” Harm replied, dejected. “It’s not as though the place has any reputation left to speak of.”

“You don’t mean that.” Terri said.

“Oh no?” Harm asked. “Baby, I took that ring off my finger a while ago, and I’m not putting it back on until I can wear it with pride.”

 

THE FOLLOWING DAY
1312 EST
AJ CHEGWIDDEN'S HOME
MCLEAN, VIRGINIA

 

Harm and Terri had spent most of the previous night talking about just how serious the situation at the Academy was. After going over everything again, Harm realized that although he still wanted to limit insider knowledge to as few people as possible, he needed another strong advocate in his corner. Bud Roberts and John Flaggler were formidable men to have on his team, and Terri was giving him more emotional strength than he had any right to hope for. But he needed someone else, too. Someone with a strong knowledge of both the law and the Academy. Someone whose passion for the Navy ran as deep as his own. Someone like AJ Chegwidden.

It was no surprise that his search had led him to his former CO. Although the dynamic between the two men had been irreparably damaged by the Paraguay fiasco, it seemed the old saying was true: time had done quite a good job of healing those old wounds. After all, it had been the admiral, who had recommended Harm for the job at Annapolis in the first place, and, of course, although Harm's ways had been too unorthodox for AJ's taste, there was no denying that he had saved countless American lives, when he and Colonel Mackenzie had destroyed the cache of stinger missiles.

Harm called AJ one weekend morning, hoping that they could schedule a meeting for later that afternoon. Harm had apologized profusely for the short notice, but assured the other man that it would be well worth his time. AJ knew Harm well enough to know that whatever this was, it was serious. The steely tone of the younger man’s voice had immediately conveyed the gravity of whatever was going on, and AJ killed the few hours before their meeting by pacing tensely around his house, wishing it was spring or summer, so that he’d be able to use gardenwork as an excuse to keep his anxious mind occupied.

Finally, the appointed time came. AJ was surprised to see that Harm had brought Bud along. Upon seeing the junior officer, AJ’s first thought was that maybe they had come on personal, rather than professional, business. The notion sent a shiver up his spine; what if something had happened to Harriet, or to one of their children? But, then, he noticed both men were carrying their briefcases, and both men also had thick files tucked under their arms.

They exchanged pleasantries quickly, and, at AJ's request, Bud pulled the most recent photos of his children out of his wallet, so AJ could admire how much they had grown and changed. Soon after, though, Harm explained that they had come to discuss something very serious, and they proceeded to get down to business.

Bud and Harm began spreading their files across AJ's large dining room table. Taking in all the papers before him, AJ couldn't help but speculate as to what was going on. "I hope you didn't come here to have me review cases, Mr. Roberts. If you tell me you've got another Carolyn Imes situation on your hands at JAG, I'll remind you bluntly, I'm retired."

"It's not that, sir," Harm said, answering for Bud. AJ may have, indeed, been retired, but Harm could never break himself of the habit of calling him 'sir.' To him, it wasn't just about the military; it was about respect in general, and a great deal of respect for the admiral, in particular. "Please, sir, have a seat, and we'll explain."

Harm and Bud spent the next two hours briefing the admiral on everything they had discovered. AJ went through the same range of emotions as Harm had. The difference was, Harm had had almost six months to process everything; AJ had one hundred twenty minutes.

Now, two hours and six antacid tablets later, AJ was still trying to understand it all. Even having been the Judge Advocate General for nearly ten years, he wasn't acquainted with everyone in high places, especially at the Academy. He did recognize one of the names, however. Four years earlier, it was a name he had associated with hard work, family values, and commitment to the Navy. Now, though, all that was tainted.

"George Prevard," AJ mumbled. "I was on that son of a bitch's promotion board, for crissake. I gave that man his goddamned eagles." He curled his hands into tight fists, his knuckles turning white.

"You had no way of knowing, Admiral," Harm assured him.

AJ looked at him. "Did you have any way of knowing about your student, the one who started all this?"

In his heart, Harm wanted to say yes, that he did have a way of knowing, that he should have known right away. But his head knew better. "No, sir."

"Does that make you feel any less responsible?"

Harm sighed. "No, sir."

AJ picked up the copy of Bud's notes the men had made for him. He scanned the documents for the fourth time, searching desperately for something – anything – that might help him make sense of this incredible travesty. He looked up when he noticed Bud quietly slipping his own copies back into his briefcase.

"Are we done already, Mr. Roberts?" AJ asked him.

"Uh, no, sir," Bud said. "The commander can answer any other questions you might have, but I have to leave now. There's a father-son play date at the indoor playground in Alexandria," he explained. He looked torn between excusing himself from the important discussion, and spending some much-needed quality time with his sons.

"It's all right, Bud," Harm told him, for the third time that day. "We'll handle it."

Bud nodded, but he was still reluctant to leave. "I'll have my cell phone on, so call if you need anything."

"Go, Mr. Roberts," AJ said. Although he was retired, to Bud, the command still held the unmistakable power of an order. "The commander and I will be fine."

"Yes, sir," Bud complied quickly. He snapped the locks shut on his briefcase and saw himself to the door.

When Bud was gone, Harm sighed. "Harriet set that up for him a few days ago. She's been on his case for not spending enough time with the boys. I asked for his help on this a while back, and he really threw himself into it – to the exclusion of all else, I'm afraid."

AJ nodded. He set down the papers he'd been looking at, and steepled his fingers on the table. "Can I assume you came here to ask me to do the same – throw myself into it?"

Harm met the older man's eyes for several seconds, his stomach filling with dread. Even retired, sitting there in jeans and a sweatshirt, with the logo from his favorite minor-league baseball team, the man was still a formidable presence. Harm nodded gravely.

“Admiral,” Harm began, “we have to do this. These girls need people in their corner; people who aren’t going to let big money and long service records intimidate them. They have no voice; they can’t speak up for themselves. They’ll be ridiculed, ostracized. They’ll be lucky if they have the emotional toughness to survive the rest of their time at the Academy. Look at what happened at the Air Force Academy. The honor code is huge. Upholding the code is what Academy life is all about. But, there’s one thing that, among the midshipmen, has always been even worse than violating the code.”

“What’s that?” AJ asked.

“Ratting out someone else for doing it,” Harm pointed out. “Being a snitch is about the worst reputation someone can develop at that place.”

“Worse than being a rapist?” AJ prodded.

“No, sir,” Harm answered firmly. “That’s exactly why we need you with us.”

Although this entire situation seemed to AJ like a breech of ethics of the worst order, it simply wasn't his job to solve these problems anymore. He'd survived almost ten years as the Judge Advocate General. He had seen his fill of scandals, involving everyone from the greenest seamen recruits, all the way up to stunningly decorated admirals. When he passed the torch on to General Cresswell, he'd had no intention of ever picking it up again. "I put out more than my share of fires during my JAG command, Harm, and now, it's up to someone else," AJ said, his tone matter-of-fact.

"Someone else won't be good enough," Harm insisted, causing AJ's eyebrow to arch in surprise. Their previous personality clashes were water under the bridge by now, but it still surprised AJ to hear the younger man praise him like that. “Admiral, sir," Harm continued, "these aren’t some faceless names in a list of witnesses. These are midshipmen at the United States Naval Academy; they deserve to get an education in an environment free of fear and harassment. If this kind of thing continues, sir, then our diplomas won’t even be worth the paper they’re printed on. Annapolis’s name will mean nothing.”

"These girls aren’t just students,” he continued, “and they’re not just midshipmen, sir; they’re someone’s daughters, someone’s sisters. If not as an officer, sir, then, I would think as a father, you’d be able to relate. I mean, when I think of Mattie attending the Academy, it turns my stomach to think that this could happen to her.”

AJ sighed loudly. "Harm," AJ said, regret already evident in his tone, "look, I hear what you're telling me, but this isn't my job anymore. I can’t count how many times in the past I’ve been dragged into things, how many times I’ve been pushed – very much against my will – to get involved in things that didn’t immediately involve me. Now, my memory isn’t what it used to be, so you’ll excuse me if I get this wrong, but, as I recall, in every one of those instances, I found more trouble than I’d bargained for. Additionally, in more than one of those instances, I found myself being dragged through the Secnav’s wringer, as well. So, I’ll ask you, why on earth would I want to do it again, especially now that I’m retired, and the wounds are finally starting to heal?”

Harm swallowed hard. “Point well taken, sir. And, while I realize that in more cases than not, you found serious…complications, in each case, you also found the truth. Please forgive me for speaking so freely, sir, but knowing you as I do, I know you can’t just sit by while criminal acts continue to happen. Not when it’s within your power to stop them. I know that’s not something you handed over when you submitted your retirement paperwork.”

AJ ran his hand firmly over his bald head. “Damn it, Harm,” he squirmed uncomfortably. “You don’t miss much, do you? God, this must be what it feels like to be cross-examined by you.”

If the circumstances had been less grave, Harm would have smiled. “Did it work, sir?”

“Yes, God damn it,” AJ grumbled. “What do you need me to do?”

"I'm not exactly sure yet, Admiral. All I know is, these guys probably aren't going to go the JAG route to defend themselves. They're going to have lawyers who charge for an hour what I make in a week. Bud and I just wanted to have you 'in the know,' for now, sir. In fact, we were hoping you might be able to tell us what to do. He and I have almost twenty-five years of legal experience between us, and we have no idea what the hell to do with this."

AJ chuckled ruefully. "While I appreciate the faith you two seem to have in me, I have to tell you, Harm, I don't have the slightest clue." Suddenly, AJ's eyes changed, and he froze for a second. "What I do have, however, is General Scott's phone number." AJ was a sudden blur of motion. He walked briskly into his living room, and came back with an address book he'd retrieved from a drawer. Harm was relieved to see that the admiral still preferred good, old-fashioned paper and pen to more modern electronic organizers. Especially now, it was nice to know that some things never changed.

"General Scott, sir?" Harm asked.

"A retired Air Force JAG. He might be able to tell me how the zoomies navigated their way out of their own minefield a few years back. In fact, if I remember right, he retired just after all the fallout settled from that. Poor sap aged a decade in about six months."

"Sir," Harm said, "at some point, we're going to have to confront these people. Whether it's just the Naval officers, or the civilians who've been bribing them, too, eventually we're going to have to sit down with them and figure out just where this needs to go. Would you do me and Bud the honor of being with us, when we do?"

AJ's head whipped around to look at Harm. "Harm, just what makes you think you'd be authorized to be there at all? You're not a JAG officer anymore. I can see Roberts being there, but I don't know how we could explain your presence there, much less mine. I'm not even in the Navy anymore."

"You had two stars when you retired, sir; if that doesn't still carry some weight, then I don't know what would."

AJ grumbled unintelligibly. "Let me make some calls this week, and see what I can do. But you should probably keep in mind, we might not ever come face to face with the civilians, Harm. The officers, we can prosecute. The other guys, well, they're just plain out of our jurisdiction."

"But you do want to meet with them, if we can, right, sir?"

"What I want to do, Harm, is kill them – slowly and painfully. But we can't always do what we want."

 

SIX WEEKS LATER
2119 EST
ANNAPOLIS, MARYLAND

 

Once Laura had formally pressed charges against her attackers, things started moving quickly on all levels. Her bravery set an example for other girls at the Academy, and more victims began coming forward. It was a slow trickle at first, but once word started spreading through the Navy community, several past graduates came forward as well. Nearly every day, there was a call from someone new, wanting to tell her story. Some were still in the Navy, and ranged from newly commissioned ensigns, to lieutenants; others had withdrawn from the Academy before they’d even had a chance to become officers.

Moreover, other female officers, ranking as high as captains, had called in to report assaults that had taken place years before. They hadn’t been victims of Laura’s attackers, or of their brothers and cousins that had come before, but they *had* been victims of a system that was apathetic and ill-equipped to handle allegations of sexual assault. The financial whitewash hadn’t existed at the time they were midshipmen, but the “old boy’s club” had been alive and well. The women had had no recourse, no resources available to help them, and certainly, no way of seeking justice without ending their future military careers. Pointing a finger at a fellow midshipman was tantamount to exiling yourself.

Terri was desperate to help the women, to be a part of restoring the Navy’s good name. She felt powerless compared to Harm, whose tenacity and connections had caused things to come even this far. Not knowing what else to do, she had set up the reporting hotline, so that victims could call anytime, day or night, and add their stories to the others. The hotline was staffed by volunteers, but Terri had become a personal point of contact for many of the women.

Commander Flaggler felt trapped in the same way: he wanted to do something useful, but with no legal experience, there was little he was qualified to do. He was particularly frustrated because, having served most of his career as a submariner, he hadn’t had much experience working with female officers. He was disgusted to know that those who *had* had the privilege, had done such a miserable job of respecting the women, and understanding and appreciating the essential role they played in all areas of the Navy. He struggled to find some way to be of use to his sisters in uniform, and he eventually settled on doing the only thing he could: he began re-writing the Academy’s regulations for reporting assaults. In addition, he and Terri both worked closely with Sheila Wagner, from the Rape Crisis Center, to create a follow-up procedure specifically for midshipmen, so that they would be assured the quickest possible medical and psychological attention.

It had taken several weeks, but now, the very first stages of the investigation were underway. Given the amount of money Laura’s attackers received from their grandfathers as regular “allowances,” it hadn’t been difficult to subpoena the men’s financial records. And then, it hadn’t been difficult to follow the trail they paved. Still, it would be a long time before any sort of trial would get underway, and even longer before the outcome would be known.

Tomorrow, however, thanks to Admiral Chegwidden’s vast array of contacts throughout the Navy's legal community, Harm and the admiral would sit in on the preliminary questioning session of the guilty officers, as well as the civilians who had bribed them. Neither of the two men would be involved in the prosecution, but out of respect for AJ's former position, he was granted a seat at the table, and through some very smooth talking, he had secured Harm a spot, as well. They were to be there only as silent observers. It was less than Harm would have liked, but more than was required of anyone to give him, and he was grateful for what little leeway he was being given.

Tomorrow, they would face the vile, despicable creatures who had perpetuated the situation they were now mired in. They would come face to face with pure evil. Harm was terrified that all the fancy sword tricks, by all the white knights in the world, might not be enough to slay this mighty, multi-headed dragon.

Harm stood on a footbridge a short distance away from the Academy, watching as the nearby lights shimmered on the gentle ripples of the water. A dense fog had settled in earlier that evening, obscuring much of the Academy's landscape. Looking in that direction, Harm could barely see the buildings. He stared long and hard at the fuzzy images, trying to find the American flag, where he knew it was flying atop the highest building, keeping permanent vigil over the campus. Even with its own bright spotlight, it was difficult to make out through the fog.

Memories came flooding back to him as he stood there; memories of his own days as a midshipman, when he would come out to this very bridge, and watch the majestic landscape that was the city of Annapolis: the Severn River, the Academy, the warm, welcoming downtown shops and restaurants, the historical sites of colonial Maryland. More than once, especially as graduation day approached, he'd had to pinch himself, just to make sure this was real, that he was really here, earning the magical gold ensign's bar they would pin on him. He'd soon be off to flight school, living the kind of dream so few people have the courage to even dream about.

There were days when there wasn't a single cloud to be seen. Days when the blue was so clear, the sky and everything under it seemed endless, filled with infinite possibilities. How he longed for that now: a day when you can see forever.

The fog moved and shifted quickly tonight, occasionally allowing Harm a clearer glimpse of the stately buildings, but even their presence, with their auras of history and honor, couldn’t negate what he now knew. He stared until tears rose in his eyes, blurring everything into a jumble. Colors blended together, rendering everything unrecognizable to him, like an abstract painting by an artist longing to express profound sadness, loss, and incomprehension.

How had things become so terribly complicated? Things that, for so long, had been so unshakably right, were now fundamentally wrong. The very foundation upon which he’d built much of his life had crumbled, and fallen away, leaving him suspended, with nothing to catch him, should he fall.

In his entire life, he’d never felt more alone.

“You want some company, stranger?”

The voice surprised him, but when Terri wrapped her arms around him from behind, Harm had to marvel at her timing. If he was going to fall, he couldn’t think of a softer place to land. He took her hands and placed feather-light kisses on both of them, before letting her once again embrace him from behind. “How’d you know I was here?”

He heard her chuckle. “I don’t know, really," Terri said. "I just…had a feeling.” Suddenly, she released her hold on him and took a step back. “But, if you’d rather be alone…”

“No,” Harm said quickly. He turned around to face her. “Y’know, I thought I did, but, now that you’re here, I think I want to…I just…”

Terri looked at him oddly. She’d never seen him quite so…nervous? It was an emotion she’d never before associated with the accomplished, over-confident man before her. And yet, that’s just how he seemed to her in that moment. She couldn’t help a girlish smile. “What, Harm?”

“This,” he said. He stepped forward and wrapped her in a warm embrace, burying his face in her silky hair. “I just want to do this.” When Terri followed Harm’s lead, and hugged him back, Harm held onto her even tighter, clinging to her – the one thing that was certain in his life.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

When they finally parted, Terri informed Harm that she’d brought a thermos of hot chocolate. She poured some into the lid, which doubled as a cup, and they took turns sipping from it. The hot, sweet drink slowly chased away the chill in their bones; winter was holding on for as much of March as it could.

“This is it, I guess,” Harm said, by way of a conversation starter.

Terri didn’t need to ask what he was referring to. Now that she was in the loop, Harm had shared as much information with her as he could. Moreover, he’d vowed never to shut her out like that again. The effects of keeping such a huge, painful secret inside him almost caused him to lose her once. He would never do it again.

Terri knew that tomorrow would be the first day of rectifying everything Harm had told her about. The futures of so many people would be determined by events that were set to begin in less than twenty-four hours. Tomorrow was only a meeting; merely the first of many, that would likely take place before they would even begin to make arrangements for some sort of trial. The men involved were extremely powerful; despite the best efforts of the JAG office, they’d managed to convince the authorities that they deserved a forum in which to explain themselves, before anyone tried to pass judgment on them.

Recognizing that this was nothing more than a cheap delay tactic, Harm was infuriated that they had been granted the unnecessary formality. AJ Chegwidden felt the same way, for the most part, but he had been forced to play political chess games since his first day as the Judge Advocate General, and was much more accustomed to them than Harm was. He’d assured the younger man that nothing that was said or done behind those closed doors could possibly change the facts. They had done what they had done, and no amount of smoke and magic could cover that up.

Still, Harm was terrified. He was terrified that he was going to let Laura down. What if, somehow, these guys actually got away with it? Hell, they’d managed to do so for almost ten years. If he hadn’t pestered Laura to the point of her telling him everything, they never would have been caught. He expressed as much to Terri.

“That’s not going to happen, Harm,” Terri assured him. “You and the admiral won’t let it.”

“It’s not up to us,” he said. “I’m not a JAG officer anymore, and the admiral’s not even in the Navy anymore. Hell, we’re lucky they’re letting us sit in on this at all.” Harm sighed. “Look at all this,” he said, sweeping his hand through the air, indicating all the historic, stately sights of Annapolis. “Do you think this is the kind of thing the founding fathers envisioned when they built this country? Damn it, this is exactly the kind of thing they came here to get away from: rich people, who think they’re above the law; people with powerful family legacies, who think it’s natural to manipulate the powerless, to use the rest of humanity as their whipping boys.” He hung his head.

Harm gripped a railing on the bridge, his knuckles white. “How did this happen?” he asked. He seemed to address the question to the water that flowed beneath them, not expecting an answer. “How did everything get so complicated?”

Terri’s heart broke at the pain in Harm’s voice. She placed her hand atop his, caressing his skin with her thumb. Harm closed his eyes, reveling in the sensation for a moment. After a few seconds, he opened his eyes again, and just looked at Terri. The only thing in his world that wasn’t complicated was her. He loved her; she loved him. It was the simplest thing in the world.

 

 

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