A fan fiction story by Melpomene based on the characters and backstory of "JAG" and composed without permission. No copyright infringement is intended and no monies have been earned.
The women trudged across the sand toward the ancient well. Black veils and gowns concealed their features from the prying eyes of the outsiders who sat in the military encampment just along the Saudi border, a few dozen meters from the local watering hole. Neither group paid the other any overt attention; the women continued on their path to the well to fill the water jugs they carried and the soldiers kept watch for any would-be attackers. Once at the well, only one of the women turned her head toward the tents, American tents, American marine tents…
2300 local time
later that day
A full moon shone brightly across the white sand of the desert, hiding nothing from clear view. Colonel Robert Parker stood outside the supply tent and watched the alien environment. No matter how many times he was sent into the desert, it would never fail to hold some amount of mysterious beauty for him. His eyes scanned the cooling mountains of sand, pausing when he detected something moving, something bigger than the rodents that scrambled the dunes at night in search of food.
He remained motionless, watching the form draw nearer the encampment and slowly take the shape of a Saudi woman in traditional garb. Her veil caught in the gentle breeze that chased across the dusty land, sending it in a lazy dance around her shoulders. He waited to see what she would do next; they hadn't had any trouble from the locals and he was curious to see what this woman could possibly want with a camp full of marines.
She walked directly toward him, stopping within just a few feet and drawing a sheet of paper from the voluminous folds of her gown. Holding it out for him to take, she spoke softly in a wavering voice thick with a Saudi accent, "For the CO."
"What is this?" He accepted the folded sheet of paper, turning it over in his hands to peer at the writing on the front. "Who is it from?"
"One of your own," her voice trembled and she cast a fleeting glance around the camp to assure they had no audience.
The woman shook her head sadly, "I cannot say. Just please, give this to your CO." So saying, the woman turned and sprinted away from the camp leaving the Colonel staring after her and clutching the note in a tight fist.
two weeks later
"Can I help you, Sir?" Tiner saluted the marine colonel who stepped off the elevator, looking questioningly around the office.
"At ease," the man said, turning to face Tiner, "And yes, you can help. I'm looking for Sarah Mackenzie's office, Major Mackenzie, I believe."
"Colonel Mackenzie," Tiner corrected. "She's in court right now but should be back soon if you'd like to wait." Tiner escorted the visitor to Mac's office to await her return.
Nearly an hour later Mac and Harm exited the elevator. "I'm tellin' `ya, stickboy, that cocky attitude is not attractive."
"Come on, Mac, you're just sore because I beat you, again I might add." Harm grinned at his partner.
"Oh yeah, chalk up another victory for the squid," Mac chuckled derisively as she strode toward her office. "Good afternoon, Tiner. Does the Admiral have any plans for us for the rest of the day or can we get out of here early?"
"The Admiral is away from JAG for the rest of the afternoon, Ma'am." Tiner hurriedly continued as Mac's eyes lit up at the prospect of an early departure, "There's someone here to see you, Ma'am. He's been waiting in your office."
"Thank you, Tiner." She shrugged her shoulders at Harm's questioning look and grinned at him when she added the folders she'd been carrying to the stack he already held in his hands. "You'll take care of these for me, won't you? Mustn't keep my guest waiting any longer."
Harm's grin faded at the added weight and he cast a desperate look around the room. "Bud!"
Light laughter trailed after Mac as she approached and entered her office. Once inside she spied her mystery guest as he rose from the chair he'd been occupying. "I'm sorry to have kept you waiting, Colonel…"
"Parker, Colonel Robert Parker, Colonel Mackenzie." He extended a hand in greeting, shaking hers in a firm grip. "I apologize for the lack of an appointment, I realize that you are quite busy but I was unsure of when I might arrive and didn't want to put this off any longer than absolutely necessary."
"Colonel Parker, I'm afraid you have me at a disadvantage. What couldn't be put off any longer? I don't know you, do I?" Mac gestured for the colonel to sit again as she moved around to her own chair, sitting down and resting her arms on the desktop.
"No, Ma'am, you don't know me," he paused before continuing, "but we were hoping you might know the person who wrote this." He pulled a crumpled sheet of paper out of his pocket and laid it on her desk. He hadn't let it out of his sight since the night the Saudi woman had handed it to him; he had memorized the note and committed to memory the very style of the script in which it was written.
Curious by the unaccustomed intrigue, Mac picked up the sheet of paper and slowly and carefully unfolded it. On the outside was her name: Sarah Mackenzie, US Marine Corps. The writing was dimly familiar and she turned the paper over to find a single sentence that caused her heart to skip a beat when she read it. "The Gypsy Crow is a phoenix," she whispered the words hoarsely, her mouth suddenly dry and her tongue uncooperative.
"Do you know what it means, who wrote it?" Colonel Parker leaned forward in his chair, observing her sudden pallor. The JAG lawyer knew something about the cryptic message and he was determined to discover what it was.
"Yeah," Mac murmured, licking her lips in an attempt to ease her speech, "I know who wrote it. I attended her funeral."
Harm handed Mac a glass of water and sat down near her on the couch, remaining close to lend her emotional support by way of proximity if nothing else. Colonel Parker was seated comfortably in a nearby chair listening to the stories Mac told of the Gypsy Crow.
Mac smiled a thank you to Harm for the water and sipped it slowly. "I met her when we were in Bosnia. We shared sleeping quarters for the duration of our tour there and got to know each other pretty well. She was a Major at that time, Major Stormy Caldwell, but we all called her Gypsy Crow."
"How'd she get a name like that?" Colonel Parker wanted to know.
Mac smiled at the memory. A mental image of the woman flashed across her mind's eye: tall, slender, short cropped chocolate-colored hair, huge brown-black eyes, dark golden skin that had been the envy of all her female acquaintances, infectious laughter, and a gorgeous smile.
"There was a band of Gypsies near our base of operations and the locals kept confusing Stormy for one of them, I lost track of how many people tried to get her to tell them their fortunes. She finally gave up trying to convince them she was an American and read palms periodically. They thought she was Gypsy because of her coloring, she had the dark skin and hair and the dusky smudges beneath her eyes. When one of the guys in our team called her Gypsy Rose she laughed and said it should be Gypsy Crow," Mac paused and let the memories wash over her. "She was actually Native American and her `Indian name' was something having to do with crows."
"And so she became Gypsy Crow?" Harm asked.
"Uh huh, anytime we were out unofficially she was Gypsy Crow, I think she even preferred it to Stormy. She was one of the few people I felt I could talk to without reservation. She never seemed to pass judgment on anyone, regardless of their past." Mac dropped her gaze to study the weave of her couch's upholstery. "She hadn't had the easiest childhood herself…" her voice trailed off.
"But you said earlier that you attended her funeral?" Colonel Parker urged.
"It was a few years after we'd been in Bosnia together. We had kept in sporadic contact and she'd been transferred to the Middle East. Her husband was also a Marine and when they had managed to get positions within the same continent they were thrilled to be within a reasonable distance of one another. They were a strange couple, being stationed together never meant much to either one of them but when they were it was always a riot.”
A shudder coursed through Mac as she recalled the telegram she’s received when Gypsy Crow had been gone only a few months. “There had been an explosion. The bodies they were able to recover had to be identified with dog tags and personal effects such as jewelry. Her tags and wedding ring were found on one of the bodies and they shipped her back to the States for burial.”
“What about dental records?” Harm asked.
“No, the marines that had been captured by the Arab group were tortured and mutilated prior to the bombing, they had made sure that positive identifications were almost impossible.”
“And this message?” Colonel Parker asked. “The Gypsy Crow is a phoenix?"
"I don't know how, but she's alive."
Office of Admiral Chegwidden
"So you want me to grant you personal leave of absence based on what? Colonel, we're understaffed as it is, Imes and Mattoni can't take on all the cases single-handedly, even with the help of Mr. Roberts." The Admiral leaned back in his chair and studied the nervous Marine who had come seeking an audience with him that morning. He hadn't seen her this agitated since the whole Coster stalking affair. But whatever it was that was disturbing her would have to come out into the open before he granted her leave of any kind.
"Sir, if you found out that a comrade, who you thought was dead, was actually alive and behind enemy lines, what would you do?" Mac asked.
The Admiral considered her question thoughtfully, at last replying, "I'd want to have solid evidence that the comrade was in fact alive and that it wasn't all a ruse."
"It's not a ruse, Sir, I'm sure of it." She handed him the note Colonel Parker had delivered to her the day before.
The admiral unfolded the paper and read the message it held. Without knowing the specifics, the meaning was clear. "Then I'd do the same thing you're doing." Noting her raised hopes, he added, "But I'd take a certain navy commander with me."
"Sir…" Mac's brow creased in consternation. "It may become increasingly hostile, I couldn't ask the commander to risk his life for someone he doesn't even know."
"Colonel, do you know all the citizens of the United States?" AJ asked, halting her argument.
"Of course not, Sir."
"Are you an acquaintance of the United States' allied countries?" he further questioned.
"No, Sir." Mac was pretty sure she knew where the admiral's line of questioning was headed but she remained silent and acquiescent.
"And yet you are sworn to serve and protect those citizens, with your life if it comes to that. And besides, Rabb still owes you for following him to Russia to watch his six. You've got two weeks, Colonel. That will be all." AJ turned back to his computer, summarily dismissing the surprised colonel.
"Aye-aye, Sir." Mac affected a quick salute and turned to leave the confines of the admiral's office.
Studying, with mock seriousness, the green screen saver aliens that danced across his monitor, the admiral called out to Mac, "You just be sure to come back, Colonel. I don't like attending funerals."
"Understood, Sir," she murmured and closed the door behind her.
1242 local time
over the Atlantic Ocean
passenger cabin of DC10 flight #387
"How you holding up, Ninja Girl?"
Mac sighed and pulled the window shade down to block out the view of endless ocean that stretched out below them. "How could she be alive, Harm?" her soft voice was barely audible over the hum of conversation and the endless droning of the in-flight movie; even with the movie's audio being piped through a headphone system, the sound was loud enough to be detected. "I don't know whether to be ecstatic that she's not gone, or horrified that she's still living. It's been years since she was presumed dead. I don't even want to consider what she's suffered in the interim."
"Don't think about that," Harm whispered, drawing his knuckles along her jaw and locking her eyes in a gaze of compassion and hope. "If this is your friend then she'll be fine. You're the one who told us what a fighter she was. Didn't you say that she was even more stubborn than you are?" He paused and waited for Mac's nod of agreement. "See, if she's out there, she's going to be just fine. We've only got to find her and bring her back home where she belongs."
He watched the tumultuous flux of emotions flash across Mac's face as she strove to control them. "I know, why don't you tell me another story about Gypsy Crow. We're stuck here for another few hours at least and it will not only help to pass the time but will also give me some background information on this woman we're going after."
Mac settled herself further back in the seat and thought for a long moment. Her mind was racing, trying to make sense of the contradictory information it was trying to process. An old memory, long buried, slipped into her thoughts. A certain young major who, tired of the barbs and jabs she received from the other marines, took a knife to her long hair one night and ended up resembling a hedgehog when she was finished.
She'd been so startled by the sight that Gypsy Crow had to wrestle her fire arm from her when she'd come across her in the shadows of the camp, Mac had been certain she was the enemy and would have shot her on the spot had Gypsy Crow not been so quick to disarm her. A chuckle escaped her lips as she remembered trying to bring some semblance of order to Gypsy Crow's hair that night. They had finally accepted defeat when neither woman could stop laughing long enough to hold the scissors steady.
Their CO's expression had been absolutely priceless the following morning… Mac sighed happily and began to relay the story of Gypsy Crow and the knife to Harm, much to his delight.
The commercial flight they had taken into Jordan touched down in the early stages of a thunderstorm. Walking through the terminal building they scanned the milling crowd for anyone who looked as if they might be American. Thunder shook the windows in their frames as the onslaught of heavy rain worsened.
"Let's just hope that the hotel is nearby," Harm said as he hefted both his bag and Mac's and approached the exit.
"I don't see our contact here, I guess we should just go on to the hotel and see if they show up there." Mac peered into the heavy downpour. "Didn't Gunny say something about a drought?"
0700 local time
Hotel d' Jentre*
"Any word yet?" Harm asked, leaning on the doorjamb of their connecting rooms.
"No, it looks like we're on our own until we get to the encampment." Mac crossed the room and drew back the heavy draperies to reveal a morning drenched with rain. "I thought it never rains here?"
"I guess Gunny was wrong." Harm walked to stand behind Mac. "So, what did Colonel Parker say again about where and when he was given the message?"
The rest of the morning was spent studying the maps the Colonel had given them delineating the marine outpost and the known local compounds. There seemed to be half a dozen likely places for Gypsy Crow to be confined in the area surrounding the well. The only problem would be narrowing their choices since the Colonel couldn't be sure which household the mysterious woman had come from.
Among the military maps and hastily scrawled notes that littered the table laid the cryptic message and a photo Mac had pulled from a storage crate. The picture showed a pair of women dressed in dusty fatigues, bright smiles shining out from darkly tanned faces, perched on a military jeep, firearms and helmets littering the vehicle's hood. They didn't look like typical marines, then again, Harm thought, they weren't typical marines by any stretch of the imagination
"I just love playing dress up," Mac sighed as she removed a dark gown and veil from the closet and held them up to the dim morning light. A frown creased her brow at the thought of being stuck in such an outfit for any length of time; for all the material it consisted of, it hindered movement a great deal.
"At least you'll look like you fit in," Harm told her, "I just wish I could go in with you."
"Oh yeah, and blow my cover before I even begin looking for her? No thank you, you'll be better off observing from the encampment. Don't worry, there's plenty of room in this thing to hide a wire, you'll hear every word I say and hear."
"The Admiral wanted me here to watch your six, Mac. I can't do that if I can't see it," Harm argued.
"Cute, Harm, you’re very funny. I'll be fine, you'll see. All I'm going to do at first is hang around a well in the desert. How dangerous can that be?" Mac understood how he felt and she wasn't entirely sure she would have stayed so far back from the front line if it were Harm traipsing into dangerous territory but she couldn't risk scaring off the only person who could lead her to Gypsy Crow.
1812 local time
Saudi desert near the Jordan border
Well of Aman*
Mac sat down on the burning sand and leaned back against the low stone wall of the well. The rain had stopped soon after sunrise and now all the moisture had miraculously, and rapidly, evaporated in the mid-day sun leaving nothing but unrelenting heat in its wake. She had been at the well for several hours and had only met one person, and it had been a child at that. She was relatively sure that these people would require at least one trip to the well each day living in such a climate. Of course with the previous night's rain, they might have managed to catch all the water they required for the day.
Deciding to wait it out, Mac shifted her shoulders beneath her gown and fought her desire to rip off the suffocating veil. She could deal with the discomfort if it meant she would be able to see Stormy again.
After what seemed like an impossibly long time, the sun began to dip closer to the horizon and Mac cursed softly to herself. She felt completely useless, just sitting around waiting for someone to happen by. Marines were trained to take action, to confront the foe head on, not to be patient. Just as she was preparing to wander back toward the marine encampment where Harm waited for her, she spied several dark forms moving across the sand in her direction.
The group of women slowed their pace when they saw the stranger at the well. Nomads were not uncommon in the desert but this woman wasn't a nomad, her clothing was wrong, her veil not quite right, not to mention she wore almost no jewelry. She could be one of the nomads' outcasts, but her clothing looked too expensive for that.
One woman gestured for the rest to remain where they were and she continued along the path to the well. Cautiously she approached the stranger, eyeing her suspiciously. Calling out a greeting, she was surprised by the woman's Farsi response, flawless Farsi that would have fooled her had she not detected the slightest hint of an American accent.
"You're here for her, are you not?"
Mac's breath caught at the woman's English response. She wasn't Gypsy Crow, but she obviously knew who she was, surely she knew where she was as well. Struggling to maintain her composure, Mac nodded silently.
"She said you would be here once you knew where she was. She was correct." The Arabian woman studied Mac with hooded eyes. "She has never given up the hope that she would be rescued. Even after…"
"After?" Mac questioned. "After what?"
"You are not the first to come for her but I hope you will be the last."
"I'm not the first…" Mac's voice trailed off as she continued to stare at the woman. "You know where she is, don't you? You talk to her."
"She taught me her language and I taught her mine… although," she narrowed her eyes at Mac and cocked her head, drawing out her comment, "she already knew quite a bit of Farsi. She told me that she had learned it from a friend; I did not believe her. Humph, it would seem she was being truthful."
"I need to know where she is. Please, I only want to get her home, I don't want to hurt anyone," Mac's plea was as soft as the evening breeze, her hands clasped tightly together.
"I…" the woman's voice wavered. What the American was suggesting had been tried before and had been met with fatal consequences; she wanted no hand in either woman's death and she suspected that any further rescue attempt would destroy her friend's chance for survival among those who held her. But her friend was dying anyway, she reminded herself; she had not been brought up to live the restrictive lifestyle she had come to find herself in. She couldn't always hold her tongue or control her actions… Be it by her own deepening depression or at the hands of Riyadh, she wouldn't survive much longer.
Mac stared at her, gripping her hands together to keep herself from attacking the woman and physically wringing the information out of her. She was so close she couldn't, she wouldn’t, walk away empty handed, she refused to leave without some new bit of information even if she had to inflict a little marine terror to get it.
Sighing deeply, she looked up into the American's dark eyes. "I tell you this because she is my friend and I fear for her health. She requires help that I cannot give her." Turning around, she gestured to the west where the sun was almost completely hidden behind the shifting mounds of sand. "There is a compound three kilometers in that direction, five buildings in all. There is a small storage structure against the southern wall, the shed is locked at night, that is where she is kept." She turned back around and watched the emotion build in Mac's eyes. "Be careful, Riyadh has held her captive for a very long time, and he's not a novice to torture... or terror. She has endured much suffering and may not be the same person you remember."
"I'll be careful," Mac promised.
"Riyadh and his men are well armed, they will not tolerate a disturbance."
"I'll be as quiet as a mouse. I just want to bring her home."
Heaving another sigh, she closed her eyes for a moment. In carefully chosen English, she explained the layout of the complex, the placement of the guards, even what Gypsy Crow was likely to be wearing. Several minutes later she stopped her speech and prepared to leave.
"I need to get a message to her." Mac refused to look away from this woman who was her only link to Gypsy Crow; the fear that she would permanently disappear over the dunes tugged too strongly at her concern. "She needs to know that her message got through to me, that I'm here."
The woman nodded thoughtfully. "That I will do. I can deliver messages but no more than that, I have children to think of, to protect."
"Thank you." Mac blinked her eyes against a sudden gust of gritty wind. She hadn't thought far enough ahead to prepare a message. Suddenly she remembered a story Gypsy Crow had told her one lonely night in Bosnia and she knew what to say. "Tell her this: Coyote has the last laugh."
The Arabian woman shook her head. "The messages the two of you come up with… It's as if you're speaking in a code only you understand."
Mac smiled and clasped the woman's hand, slipping a small object into her fist. "We are."
She looked down at the chain and locket Mac had placed in her hand, studying the design before looking back to the serious American. "It was hers… before?"
"Yes, it was."
The woman heaved a heavy sigh. "Coyote has the last laugh?"
She shook her head again in confusion and returned to the group of women who were still waiting for her among the dunes. Mac watched until the woman was again with her companions before she fled into the deepening shadows of the pre-moon night.
Harm was waiting for Mac when she entered the encampment. His lurking shadow startled her as he loomed up out of the shadows of the supply tent and reached out to snag her arm when she passed by, her mind too preoccupied with other thoughts to notice the concerned naval officer.
"Damn it, Harm!" she hissed through clenched teeth, pulling slightly out of his grip.
"Come on, Coyote. They've got a cot set up for you, and I saved you some dinner."
Mac grinned up at him then recalled her earlier conversation. "She's here, Harm." She tugged the veil off her head and disentangled the wire from her gown. "Whoever that was, she just confirmed it. I can't wait, I need to go after her tonight, right now."
Harm gently placed his hands on her shoulders, peering into her eyes. "What you need to do is eat and get some sleep. Once you're rested, then we'll go after her."
Mac, at least pretend to come up with a plan before you go charging across the desert," Harm pleaded trying to catch her eyes with his own.
Mac's eyes literally sparked with anger in the darkness. "Like you did when we were traipsing across Russia looking for your father?" she spat out the words, shrinking back from the warmth of his touch.
"Mac." He would have continued had she remained to listen, instead he watched her retreating form as she wove among the tents toward the tent where she had stowed her things. "Oh, Mac…" His whispered appeal was torn from his lips by the suddenly rising wind. Shielding his eyes from the flying sand, he struck out after his stubborn partner, someone had to watch her six and the corps was remaining obstinately out of the entire situation, after all they had already buried Colonel Stormy Caldwell, they didn't need to go looking for her.
She was intently staring at the bowl of soup she had found by her flight bag when Harm extricated himself from the gusting sandstorm. She remained motionless, not acknowledging his presence even when he knelt down in front of her. The tent was blessedly empty, anyone who had originally occupied it had opted to find quarters elsewhere when they learned of the two JAG lawyers who were taking up residence and Harm was grateful. It should make talking to Mac a bit easier if they didn't have an audience.
"Okay, Mac, I'm listening."
"You just don't understand."
"Then make me understand. I want to know, no, I need to know why you’re so intent on getting to this woman that you're willing to disregard your own safety. How is it that she can have such a strong hold over you? It's been, what… just how many years has it been since you last saw her?" Careful to allow Mac enough distance that she didn't feel threatened, Harm made himself comfortable on the floor of the tent. It was going to be a long night he could tell, and it was only just beginning.
"She was the first person to show me that it was possible to create a friendship where there were no expectations. She gave me her trust and support unconditionally. Even when I treated her badly, she wouldn't turn away from me. I didn’t mention it before but at first I hated her, I couldn't bear to see her face she irritated me so much. And it wasn't as if I could avoid her, we had cots next to one another. She was the first thing I saw each morning and the last thing I saw every night." Mac's brow wrinkled slightly and she briskly rubbed her hands across her face to ease the tension she could feel building there.
"We had been stationed in Bosnia for what seemed a lifetime to me, although it was probably more like three weeks when our team was taken by surprise while we were patrolling. Six of us were held for four hours before our abductors slipped up and we were able to retaliate and escape," Mac's voice trailed off. Shaking her head she continued her tale, "While we were still at their mercy Stormy kept drawing their attention away from me. She ended up getting hit so many times for her efforts that she spent the next week with the camp medics. I asked her later why she did it and she told me that there was something in my eyes that told her I'd been through enough, that I didn't need to suffer anymore." A sad smile creased her lips at the memory of Stormy trying to get the medics to leave her alone long enough that she could answer Mac's questions.
"So you feel that you owe her…" Harm started to say.
"I do owe her, Harm. After that I finally opened up and let her become my friend. She was the person who showed me that just because I had a rotten childhood didn't mean I had to have a rotten life." Mac cast pleading eyes at her partner. "I can't let her have a rotten life, Harm. She deserves better than that."
"I'm convinced but you still need to get some sleep before you try to do anything. Besides, this sandstorm is going to make sure you don't go anywhere for a while. Why don't you lie down and I'll start on a plan of extrication for your Gypsy Crow. Once you wake up I'll explain it to you." Harm reached out a tentative hand and brushed the hair back from her face, cupping her cheek in his hand.
"Okay, but only because of the sandstorm, otherwise I'd be headed toward this Riyadh complex by now."
Harm shoved Mac toward the cot. "Get some sleep, Jarhead. You're going to need it tomorrow."
Mac lay on the cot, wakeful and nervous. It had been hours since Harm had shoved her toward the cot, and just a few minutes since he had gone to sleep himself. What she had told Harm about Gypsy Crow being her first real friend had been the truth. She had met her just after her failed relationship with John Farrow and had been so wary of trusting anyone that it was nothing short of miraculous that the other woman hadn't given up early on, labeling the emotionally disturbed Marine as a hopeless cause. But no matter what Mac had done during those first few weeks, Stormy had always been there, hovering, annoying, and just as determined as ever. Three more weeks into their tour of duty, Stormy had gained a nickname and Mac had gained a friend.
She turned to watch the steady rise and fall of Harm's chest in the dim interior of the tent. She could hear the gusting wind as it continued to hurl sand against the canvas and plastic of the tent, piling up alternate dunes no doubt and, with any luck, not burying the encampment too deeply.
She closed her eyes, determined to gain some sleep before morning came. Harm was right, she'd be of no use to Gypsy Crow if she didn't rest and give her body time to recuperate from the stress she was dealing with.
Mac's eyes flew open. She had heard a noise just outside the tent flap; barely perceptible above the droning of the wind, it had been enough to rouse her from a troubled sleep. She rose and quickly pulled on the civvies she had left at the foot of the bed. Regs be damned, she was uncomfortable enough in her nightclothes that she wasn't struggling with a uniform this late at night, and the gown and veil could just wait until the sun was up. Stealing slowly across the tent, she paused at the zippered opening, waiting to hear more. The sound was repeated. Easing through the tent flap and out into the blowing wind she peeked back into the gloom, her fingers furiously buttoning the denim shirt she'd pulled on over her t-shirt. Harm shifted on his cot, muttering softly in his sleep. She followed the direction the noise seemed to be coming from, satisfied that she had in fact not disturbed her partner.
The moon shone down on the military encampment, illuminating her path as she searched for the origin of the noise. The perimeter guards surely would have noticed if an outsider had entered the camp, the only other options were one of the people in the camp or wildlife was the perpetrator of the sound. She continued her search of the area, checking between tents and peering into the storage areas, but she couldn't find anything that might be making the soft noise, she couldn't even determine what the sound was.
Suddenly she was pelted with something. She raised a hand to touch her head where the object had struck her, curious and confused. Before she could turn around to investigate the source, she was inundated with flying objects. Stones and rocks flew at her in rapid succession and she had to throw her arms up across her face and neck to avoid serious injury. Opening her mouth to call out, she was silenced by a strike to her temple, the force behind it sufficient enough to cause stars to dance across her vision and drop her into an unconscious sleep. She crumpled to the ground, her firearm still tucked securely into the waistband of her jeans.
0700 local time
Marine camp along Jordan/Saudi border
Mac and Harm's temporary quarters
Harm rubbed the sleep from his eyes and looked around the tent. Mac was gone, her bed unmade and her gown still draped across the ammunitions chest. He shook his head to relieve the fuzzy feeling that clung to his conscious and stared at Mac's cot. Something was definitely wrong, his obsessive-compulsive partner would never leave her things in such disarray. Perhaps there had been an early morning message from the Arabian woman who was in contact with Mac's friend, that would explain such a departure from regulations.
Rapidly pulling on his uniform, he stepped outside the tent to seek out his partner. She surprised him by not turning up in the mess among the marine's who were quickly downing their breakfasts, nor was she anywhere else in the compound of tents. No one had seen Colonel MacKenzie since the previous evening when she'd returned from her day at the well.
Harm was reluctant to disturb the encampment's CO, after all they were on extremely unofficial business and had been granted a stay purely due to Mac's status as a marine colonel. What help they'd been given was done on personal time and only voluntarily. Although they'd been given words of encouragement on the quest to locate Colonel Caldwell, their mission was openly viewed as a wild goose chase performed by officers who had gone somewhat insane.
Surely she wouldn't have headed out on her own. She was smarter than that, even when her emotions were in play. She wouldn't have risked wandering away from the camp in her western clothes, advertising her nationality wasn't exactly the wisest move so far from an embassy or permanent base of operations. This wasn't her first time in the Middle East, and it wouldn't be her last if her linguistic talents were any indication, she knew what the dangers were. And yet, where could she be hiding, it wasn't as if there were all that many places for her to go.
1013 local time
Someone was trying to pry open her skull with a crowbar. At least it felt as if they were. Wherever she was, it was blessedly dark, hot but dark. The temptation to let herself slip back into the oblivion of an unconscious dreamless sleep was nearly overpowering and she very nearly gave into temptation until the voices, hushed and exotic, reached her ears. They were close, these voices, and Mac struggled to lift her eyelids.
At first she couldn't make out anything. The room was swathed in thick, sweltering, superheated darkness. But as her eyes slowly adjusted to the gloom she was able to distinguish shapes that resembled furniture and a single heavily shuttered window. Blinking repeatedly to clear her blurred vision, she slowly turned her head, stifling a cry at the sharp pain that permeated all other sensations. Sighing over her sorry condition, she closed her eyes again and let the darkness reclaim her.
"Altair!" The whispered name echoed deafeningly in the quiet building. "Altair!"
A woman softly padded across the hard packed earthen floor, a basket of linens balanced on her hip, her face lowered and listlessly watching the dust motes dance around her stocking clad feet. Her face was hidden behind a black veil, only her eyes visible. Hearing her name called she looked up and located the origin. She shook her head at the beckoning woman, trying to dissuade her conversation. It didn't work and the woman followed her across the room and out the door.
"Altair, wait, it's important."
"No time, Suleima. I've got to finish this… and you'd better stop it with the English before he returns." She pinned Suleima with a warning look, the dark irises of her doe-eyes darkening until they were indistinguishable from the pupils, a testament to the strength of her concern. A moment later she turned and continued on her errand.
"Altair!" Suleima called out to no avail. "Stormy!"
The retreating woman froze in her tracks, swaying with the abruptness of her sudden halt. A shudder coursed through her, causing her shoulders to tremble and her thoughts to swirl with an intensity she had thought had been lost to her long ago. The wind tugged at her veil and a pale hand snaked up to automatically catch the material before it could fly high enough to expose her face. Slowly turning around to face her Arabian friend she whispered, "How did you…"
The locket Mac had slipped into her hand dangled from her fingers. "Because I have a message for Colonel Stormy Caldwell of the US Marines. I never knew your name, Altair. When you came here so many years ago you wouldn't speak. Did I ever tell you why I called you Altair?"
"No," her voice was so soft that Suleima almost didn't hear it above the sounds of daily life in the complex. She accepted the piece of jewelry and pried open the locket to reveal a lock of Andrew’s hair.
"Altair is Arabic, it means `a bird'. You were so forlorn and depressed when I first saw you that you reminded me of a nightingale I once saw when I was a child. It had been captured in the wild and placed in a cage," Suleima spoke soothingly, remembering the woman she had first seen in a filthy ragged military uniform, silent and proud regardless of her ill treatment. "That bird never sang again, it just sat in the cage and withered away until it died."
"How did you find out my name?" Slowly, she turned around, her white knuckled hands clutching desperately at the basket she held.
"Your message got through, Altair. Your friend has come." Suleima watched Altair's eyes closely trying to detect the woman's emotions.
"I don't…" Confusion warred with pure unadulterated joy as Altair tried to form a coherent thought.
"I have a message to give you," Suleima continued, " and some bad news as well." Suleima took a deep breath, trying to calm the wild fluttering of her heart. "This friend, she said to tell you that `Coyote has the last laugh, always'."
Altair's eyes crinkled and she suppressed a sudden chuckle. "Co-yo-te," she murmured, pronouncing the name the same way her great-grandmother had when she used to gather all the children around her rocking chair to hear the tales of Co-yo-te the Trickster. She knew who had come, who would come even when she was though to be long dead. "Mac."
"But, Altair, this friend of yours, she was found out. I do not know how or by whom, but it was discovered that she was here to take you back." Suleima stared into Altair's eyes. "She was taken last night, Altair."
"But how? Surely she didn't leave the camp at night, how could she have been taken? Mac's not exactly what you'd call easy pickin's." Altair's concern was evident in her harsh whisper. "Where is she? Where are they keeping her?"
This was the question that Suleima wished she could avoid answering, Riyadh's level of confidence had risen to such a degree that he felt Altair was no longer a threat, that she would remain where he put her and accept any treatment he felt obliged to dole out. By abducting her friend and holding her within his complex, he was waving a red flag before Altair's eyes. She wouldn't remain the simpering concubine and allow him to hurt her American friend. She had already been pushed too far; her control was already close to breaking. "She's here, Altair, she's here."
1547 local time
US Marine military encampment
"Get me the Admiral," Harm shouted into the device, slamming a fist down on the tabletop for good measure, a sign of the futility he felt. He could just make out the sounds of the JAG HQ over the line, sounds that were a world and a lifetime away from where he stood in the scant shade cast by tents in the desert, worried about the whereabouts of his best friend and unaccustomed to the feelings of helplessness it created in his chest.
"Admiral" he acknowledged. "We've got a problem, Sir."
AJ rubbed a hand across his face at the revelation. "What kind of problem, Commander?" How could they have already found trouble when they'd only been in Jordan for little over a day?
"I've lost Mac, Sir."
"You lost her? What were the two of you doing that you could loose her; playing hide and seek with terrorists?" the Admiral's voice boomed loud and clear over the line and Harm pulled the receiver away from his ear in response. "I suggest you locate the colonel as soon as possible, Commander. She's the best partner you've had yet and I'd hate to see you have to break in another one."
AJ hung up the phone and summoned Tiner to his office. "Get me Webb, Mr. Tiner. And tell him to get over here pronto."
At the camp, Harm turned away from the communications chief to stare across the sand in the direction of the compound where Mac's friend was reportedly being held. Mac hadn't deserted camp the previous night of her own accord; she wouldn't have abandoned her disguise just to traipse across the desert for a quick visit. Someone had to have lured her out or slipped in and taken her from the inside. Since her firearm was missing, Harm's best guess was that she'd been taken unaware, stolen away during the night at some point when she had left their tent. He just couldn't figure out how.
1709 local time
"You've got to help me, Suleima." Stormy's eyes shone bright with fear and panic. "Just keep Riyadh occupied for a little while. Please, he never need know that your intentions were to help me." So much unspoken expression filled her too-dark eyes, things she would never speak of, memories she would never forget, and she clutched Suleima's hands in a death grip, her knuckles white from the exertion. She couldn't let Riyadh get his hands on Mac, no matter the consequences.
"I'll do it with or without your assistance, Suleima. And you're right to not want to help, it could prove dangerous. I don't want you to get hurt. Please, forget I asked…" Stormy sputtered, second-guessing her own better judgment and not waiting to hear Suleima's response. She dropped her tight hold on her friend's hands and had fled the darkened courtyard before Suleima could form a single thought.
She stood staring after the woman she had been inexplicably drawn to when she'd mysteriously appeared so many years before. Dropping her gaze to the ground, she thought of her own family, the one she left behind to join the household of Riyadh. If one of her sisters were in trouble she would want someone to help them, to protect them if possible, and she had failed to do so much as lift a finger against Riyadh on Altair's behalf. How could she deny Altair that same charity now when she so desperately needed it? How could she turn her back on her yet again?
"Altair, wait…" She started to follow her friend when she heard the familiar tones of her husband's voice coming from the entry. Altair had asked her to keep Riyadh preoccupied. Turning on her heel, she raced across the sandy courtyard, stirring up the dust and dirt with her hurried steps. If she was going to catch him before he decided to deal with their new American `guest', she was going to have to move quickly.
Stormy rushed through the buildings that made up the residential complex. Every nook and cranny of the area had been burned into her brain over the years and it wasn't long before she found the tightly latched storage shed. It was similar to the one she was often locked in over night; by some stroke of luck her presence had been ignored that evening, probably due to the arrival of a second American in their midst. Brushing aside the worrisome memories that assailed her, she struggled to lift the board that lay across the door to bar unauthorized movement. She pushed open the door and slipped inside.
Mac was immediately aware of the intruder's presence. She had been laying on the ground, fully awake at last and attempting to assimilate an escape plan of some sort when she heard someone enter her prison. The bright light that streamed in through the open door blinded her temporarily. As if the headache from her concussion hadn't been severe enough…
The flashlight slipped from her grasp, shattering on the ground with bone-shattering resonance. The sudden dusky-dim interior brought Stormy to a stand still and she dropped to her knees, frantically dragging her hands across the floor in search of the captive Marine. When her hand made contact with Mac's foot she let out the breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding. As soon as she made contact with Mac's foot, it was jerked back out of her reach, accompanied by a gasp of pain.
Mac's distressed response helped Stormy find her voice, "Hey, Co-yo-te, I thought you were supposed to rescue me, not the other way around." The barest of seconds passed before Stormy hurled herself into Mac's surprised arms. All pain forgotten, at least temporarily, Mac returned the embrace with desperate need. For a long moment the two women remained motionless and silent.
"We've got to get moving, quickly." Stormy was the first to break the embrace, trailing her hands up Mac's arms and to her face, trying to assess any damage her friend may have incurred. She shuddered when her fingers brushed against Mac's temple; it was coated in dried blood and dusted with sand. "Can you walk?"
"As long as you're alive I think I can do almost anything. I'm so sorry, Gypsy Crow. I never even knew…"
"It doesn't matter," Stormy's voice was whisper light. "But we really do need to get moving. I have a friend who may or may not be keeping Riyadh busy for a little while. Regardless, we need to get as far from here as we can." Stormy rose and helped Mac do the same, supporting more of the other woman's weight when Mac let out a stifled gasp.
Feeling Stormy's grip tighten, Mac hurried to reassure her, "It's not me, Gyps, I'm okay. I'm a marine, right? It's you…"
Cutting off her friend before she could go any further, Stormy started to move toward the door. "I’m a marine too, remember? There will be plenty of time to talk later, Mac, plenty of time." She practically drug Mac through the door, propping her up against the external wall while she replaced the latch. "Come on, Marine, suck it up," she murmured once the beam was back in place.
Mac watched her, wondering to whom her whispered words were directed. She could easily have been speaking to herself rather than Mac. Observing her friend's clothing, Mac glanced down at her own obviously non-Arabian mode of dress. "Gyps, I'm not really dressed…"
"I’ve got it covered," came the whispered reply, followed by a folded bundle of dark fabric. Mac worked as quickly as she could to slip the clothing on over what she already wore, tugging the veil firmly in place. She glanced at her friend to find her anxiously waiting.
A conveniently loose section of the rear perimeter fence allowed them to slip away from the complex and out into the arid landscape that surrounded them on all sides. Stumbling along through the sand, they continued to put as much distance between themselves and the complex as was possible given their varying physical conditions. Pulling Mac over yet another pile of shifting sand, Stormy lost her grip on Mac's arms and tumbled down the slope headfirst.
"Gyps? Gypsy Crow?" Mac craned her neck trying to locate her companion. "Stormy!"
"Keep it down, will ya," Gypsy Crow's voice hissed back to her. "Do you want Ali Baba and all his Arabian Knights to find us out here?"
"What are you talking about?"
"Nothing, just a private joke that's been keeping me sane these last few years."
"How about giving me some warning next time you decide to go down the easy way," Mac's mock sternness was ruined by the laughter that followed her remark.
"Yeah, well you're more than welcome to join me, or you can wait until I make it back up there to help get your lazy six in gear. But either way you're gonna have to wait until I can get some of this sand out of my mouth," Gypsy Crow sputtered.
"Suck it up, Marine."
"That's the problem, Mac."
Admiral Chegwidden's office
"There are still a few avenues of recourse left. Admiral, I realize you're upset since this is Mac, but my hands are tied. Relations are strained right now, the Middle East isn't exactly the prime location for a weekend holiday."
AJ rose from his chair and leaned on his desk with clenched fists. Not known for being a man of great patience, he considered how many bones he would have to break before Webb abandoned his play at immobility and helped get the two JAG lawyers back to the States. "I want my people back, Webb."
"Yelling won't assure Mac's safety, AJ. I'm worried about her too, but she's a marine, right? Maybe she'll be able to get out on her own." Clayton Webb refused to look away from the fuming ex-SEAL, he was damned if the man would intimidate him. Past broken noses aside, he'd survived worse than an angry Judge Advocate General. He just didn't know if he could survive something happening to Mac.
2005 local time
The handful of marines swarmed through the entry, guns at the ready, prepared for anything. Harm moved among the soldiers, watching the area for any sign of his partner. They had taken control of the complex with surprising ease. Riyadh had gotten cocky and lax in his precautionary measures, allowing the small band to gain entrance in fewer than ten minutes. They had been unsuccessful in locating either one of their foundling marines however.
"Commander? This woman asked to speak to you," a young marine escorted an Arabic woman into the courtyard, bowing his head slightly to her as he turned to leave.
"How can I help you, Ma'am?" Harm was too preoccupied with his concern about Mac to pay the woman more than a passing glance; his mind was still reeling with the notion that Mac had somehow been moved to another location.
"You're here about the pretty American?"
Harm's head jerked up in surprise. "What makes you think that?"
"She came looking for Altair, wanting to save her from Riyadh. But Altair ended up saving her. They fled, perhaps two or three hours ago. I don't know where they were going, just away." Suleima took a deep breath. "Sir, you must find them, your friend was hurt. I don't know how badly. And Altair, she hasn't been well for some time now."
"Ma'am," Harm began, "who is Altair?" He had followed Mac on her quest to save her friend without ever believing the woman was still alive. He was unsure how to deal with the possibility that this miraculous woman might actually still be living.
"I believe she is known to you as Colonel Stormy Caldwell?"
Harm's jaw dropped and he slowly exhaled, shock and concern both registering in his eyes. All this time he had gone along with Mac's plan just to placate her, and to find out that the woman in question had actually survived this long… "Where might they have gone to lay low? Surely this Altair of yours would know of someplace they could hide for a while."
"Sir, the only place Altair was ever allowed to go was the well. She will be as lost in the desert as your friend."
0930 local time
wind tunnel of a sandstone outcropping
Gypsy Crow jerked awake, cold chills coursing through her body and a scream caught in her throat. Looking around the wind carved cavern with frenzied eyes, she calmed noticeably when she spotted Mac standing at the cave's entrance. Wrinkling her nose against the material of her veil in an unconscious gesture of irritation she remembered that she was free of Riyadh, she could finally remove the blasted thing without fear of repercussions.
Finding the caves had been sheer luck the previous night. Without them they would have ended up stretched out in the sand waiting for scavengers to lay claim to their corpses. They had both been so exhausted that they'd fallen asleep almost as soon as they entered the cavern, all thoughts of lookouts and safety precautions lost to illness, injury, and absolute fatigue.
Mac's forehead was still splotched with dried blood, but her color was good and she was standing, a wonderfully positive sign. Desperate to get a better look at her friend, Gypsy Crow tore the veil free of her head and ran trembling fingers through the braid she'd let Suleima fashion for her that morning, sending lank dark hair falling past her shoulders. Pushing herself to her feet, she crossed the sandstone floor.
"Mac?" her voice was whisper soft but drew the other marine's attention as surely as a cannon blast would.
"Gyps? Hey, are you alright?" Mac had to suppress her distress at her first real glimpse of the woman's condition. She was gaunt-thin and her skin looked as fragile as parchment and as pale as cream. The enviable figure and coloring were lost to distant memories. Mac was unsure whether her friend should be walking on her own until she remembered how she'd been half carried from the complex the night before by the same woman. She grinned, pointing out the entrance of the cave. "I don't suppose you have any idea where we are."
"Mac, I've rarely been farther than the well and I've never been behind the complex. We should probably wait until tonight and try to circle back to the encampment." Stormy looked past Mac at the harsh landscape. "That is, if we can figure out which way to go." Pausing for a moment, Gypsy Crow spoke up again, "Why did you do it, Mac? Why come out here after so long?"
"Semper Fi," was her only response.
"Semper Fi." Gypsy Crow shook her head, the smile melting from her lips, her voice nothing more than a harsh whisper cloaked in festering misery.
"Gyps, can I ask you something?" Mac turned from the blindingly bright desert sand to face her companion, an unspoken question furrowing her brow. Her marine training told her to put her questions on the back burner until they were out of imminent danger, but if they were going to be stuck sitting in the cave all day they were going to have to talk about something.
Eyeing her nervously, Gypsy Crow sat back down and leaned against the cave wall. "How is it that I managed to survive an explosion that killed the rest of my recon team?" she offered. "How about why did I allow myself to be taken hostage by an Iraqi-Saudi anti-American terrorist organization? Why did I not escape before when we were able to get away so easily last night? Or better yet, how could I kill my own husband when he came to rescue me from Riyadh's hold?"
Mac was so startled by the venom that fairly spewed from Gypsy Crow's mouth and the self-loathing that seeped into her eyes that it took a moment for her words to register. Understanding dawned clear, leaving bitter regret in its wake.
"Andrew…" Mac couldn't finish her thought for the barrage of questions that assailed her.
"It was about a year ago," she murmured, letting her tones sink with the heavy suffocatingly motionless air. "Andrew had been sent some intelligence reports that insinuated a known American hostage situation. At least I think he did, I've had to piece together what happened from what I've been able to overhear and what little he said to me at the time. The first I knew of him in Saudi was the day I saw him in Riyadh's holding. He was bound and had been beaten pretty severely but I could still tell it was him." Stormy closed her eyes at the memory, her voice punctuating each of the words she had spoken: `could-still-tell-it-was-him'. "I was so shocked to see him at all that I froze. I had assumed he thought I was dead with the rest of my team. Riyadh had told me that a body had been identified as mine and was taken back for burial at Arlington. It was a big joke to him, the American's burying an Arab terrorist in Arlington with full military honors."
"Riyadh had Andrew tied to a post in the courtyard where we were preparing dinner. I don't know how, but he recognized me almost immediately. He looked so relieved to see me, to know that I was alive, even when he was obviously not going to be able to complete his objective. I stayed out there all day; I didn't care what Riyadh would do to me for disobeying the rules of the house. I was terrified of what he was planning to do to Andrew the next morning. I had seen him torture enough people who had crossed paths with him to know what was to come."
She took a deep shuddering breath. "Suleima helped me seduce the night watchmen and slip them an herb that she said would effectively keep them indisposed for the evening. All went according to plan until I had cut Andrew down from his bindings. I had underestimated his injuries, he could barely walk and I was so weak at the time that I could hardly support the weight of his arm across my shoulders. We made it as far as the wall before we were discovered."
"The next thing I knew, the guards had drawn their firearms. Mac, they weren't going to kill him straight away, Riyadh wanted to torture him as a warning to the Corps. He wanted to draw out his death as long as possible and I couldn't let him do that. Regardless of the time I'd been away, Andrew was my husband; the one I loved above all others. I had no choice. I had a small knife tucked into the pocket of my gown. I had intended to use it to assist us in our escape from the compound. Instead it assisted in his escape from this life. He died in my arms, telling me he loved me."
Mac had to look away from the overwhelming pain in Gypsy Crow's eyes. "You didn't kill him, Gyps. Riyadh killed him the day he stole you away from him. You didn't see him at your funeral; Andrew was lost without you. He relied on you to ground him, even when the two of you were stationed apart. I had heard that he kept taking suicide missions, kept returning from them angry that he was still living. Then I just didn't hear anything else, I guess that I assumed he had died, I'm so sorry."
"You've nothing to be sorry for. You're not the one that killed him, Mac, I am…"
1128 local time
Harm was pacing in front of the supply tent waiting for the surveillance helo to report in. They'd searched as much of the sandy plain as they could before sunrise and would continue again under the cover of darkness. Since a positive visual identification had been made, thanks to one of Riyadh's wives, of the previously thought to be deceased Colonel Stormy Caldwell, the marines were heading up the search. Nothing like an officer returning from the dead to get a search and rescue team in action.
He drew a hand across his brow, swiping at the beaded moisture there. He considered contacting JAG again but put the notion off until he could report that he'd recovered the colonel, possibly both colonels. He felt ridiculous waiting around for someone else to take action. That wasn't how Mac helped him when he was in trouble, she would be out in the middle of the desert searching every square inch of desolate landscape looking for him if it were he who was missing. He knew that if their positions were switched, Mac would throw on a veil and take off into the desert. And he knew he had to do the same, only without the veil.
The helo landed a few minutes later with no new relays. It was too risky to cross into foreign air space when Saudi had it's own aircraft armed and ready for takeoff, just waiting for an excuse to do so. The USMC was determined not to give them that excuse. The desert was quiet; they would simply have to wait until nightfall. No one noticed the navy commander slip past the tents and lose himself among the dunes, a knapsack of provisions drawn over his shoulders and his uniform exchanged for the clothing of the Bedouin.
1650 local time
wind tunnel of a sandstone outcropping
The day was dragging by with interminable lethargy. Although both women had several years' worth of catching up to do, every attempted topic came to a standstill through distress or sheer physical exhaustion. Gypsy Crow had remained distant since her revelation of Andrew's death, lost in her own thoughts and regrets.
Mac watched over her as she slept. They had agreed that it would be safer to sleep in shifts. That way they would at least have some warning of a retaliatory attack, they wouldn't be able to do much due to their lack of weapons, but at least they wouldn't be caught by surprise. Idly, Mac wondered what had become of the sig she had taken with her the night she had been abducted. It was long gone by now, but she wondered all the same. She had liked that weapon quite a bit. She'd have to get a new one once she made it back to the US.
Stretching her long arms and rolling her head from shoulder to shoulder, she didn't even try to suppress the deep yawn. It had been an incredibly long couple of days and her emotional self was still in a state of utter confusion. It was no wonder that she was worn out. Through heavy lidded eyes she watched the desert that stretched out before the caverns, an endless stretch of pale, dry sand that glistened in the sun of mid-day. Just as her eyes were drifting closed she noticed movement just at the horizon line, where the sun sent rippled waves of heat coursing up from the sand in an endless torrent of watery distortions.
She watched the object as it wandered a jagged line through the sand. It appeared to be heading to the sandstone formation that loomed up out of the desert, a welcome reprieve from the blazing sun. And an unfortunately obvious one, if Riyadh decided to seek them out, he would have little trouble locating them.
As it neared, she could determine the figure to be human, possibly male. Reaching out to rouse Gypsy Crow, Mac was startled to find her already awake. "There's someone headed our way," she informed her, gesturing in the general direction of their approaching guest. "Come on, we need to get further back into the shadows. We're sitting ducks where we are."
Gypsy Crow amiably nodded her head in agreement and scrambled toward the rear of the cave, putting as much distance between herself and the entrance as she could. Actually nothing they could do would decrease their likelihood of being targets and she knew it as well as Mac did.
Sitting down on top of a large rock, she quickly glanced across at Mac who had also taken up temporary residence on a boulder. Marines weren't taught to hide from danger, regardless of their lack of arms. They had both been instructed in how to see to their own safety as well as the safety of anyone who might be under their protection. Of course, it was always assumed that they would be in top physical condition at the time they would need to do this…
Gypsy Crow wondered just how many marines in prime condition were caught out in the middle of nowhere, without weapons, and placed in a situation of kill or be killed.
The heat was fast becoming insufferable. It weighed down on him like a leaden blanket and provided just about as much breeze. The air had become so arid his mouth was like sandpaper, his tongue swollen from the effort to keep his lips moist. The turban he'd wrapped around his head had become an almost unbearable pressure. But he pushed on despite the gradually increasing pain and bone-weariness. He had to catch up with Mac; he needed to get to her before someone else did.
He spotted the rocky projection as it jutted up from the rolling blanket of sand to reach toward the heavens, the fossilized remains of some ill-fated angel cast from heaven's gates to die in the cruel landscape of a salt and silica laden plain. Forcing himself to keep moving toward the blessed shelter, the thought occurred to him that Mac might have had the same notion; the outcropping was large enough that it would provide some amount of protection from the sun and others' prying eyes.
The need to quench his thirst finally overpowered all else as he slipped into the shade of the rock formation and sank down to his knees. With the canteen at his lips, he heard the definite sound of movement coming from one of the wind hollowed caves in front of him.
He only paused a moment before the welcome sight of Mac assailed his vision. It took her only a second longer to identify their `guest' as her long time JAG co-worker.
Smiling broadly, she shook her head at him. "It's a good thing we're both unarmed. You have been dead a long time ago." She knelt down next to him and indicated his turban with a tanned hand. "What are you doing? Getting ready for Halloween?"
After he had quenched his thirst and handed the canteen to Mac he replied to her barb, "Only if you're going with me." He gently tugged on the gown she still wore, having slipped out of the heavy jeans and shirt she had been wearing at the time of her abduction.
"Dream on. Oh," Mac turned around and grinned at the woman who stood just within the cavern's shadows. "Harm, I'd like you to meet our phoenix, Gypsy Crow."
Office of Admiral AJ Chegwidden
The CIA agent he was railing against sat calmly waiting for the tirade to come to an end. "As I said before, Admiral, my hands are tied in this matter. I received word that the Marine Corps is now involved in the extrication of Colonel Caldwell since it appears that reports of her death were premature, they are also aware of the presence of the colonel and the commander. And you know that Mac would tell you herself that she can take care of herself." Webb leaned back against the chair. He was beginning to become concerned himself over the well being of both JAG officers. They should have been back by now, or at least been in contact with someone.
"I don't want to hear any more of your excuses, Webb. What I want is for my people to walk into that bullpen in the morning, safe and sound and ready to get back to work." The Admiral glared across his desk at the immobile agent, barely controlling his urge to cause the man some serious physical damage. Damn that Navy training, he wished he could pummel the man once and for all.
"Admiral, they'll be back. If they don't show up within the week, I'll make sure something is done. But I really don't think I need to make that promise. I doubt the marines are going to let Colonel Caldwell get away again so easily. They're having a hard enough time trying to explain to Washington how they mistakenly buried the wrong body at Arlington."
1658 local time
"So you're the elusive Gypsy Crow," Harm murmured, his tongue darting out to moisten his dry, cracked lips. He had to squint against the glaring sun to make out even a faint outline of the woman who remained in the deep shadows of the sandstone cavern.
"That would be her," Mac responded as she tried to pry Harm up from the sand and propel him into the cave.
Mac turned around to look questioningly at her newly recovered friend. She looked hard into her eyes but couldn't detect the problem. At least she didn't seem to fear Harm, that was good. But why would she refuse him shelter from the unrelenting sun…
The woman silently inclined her head in the direction Harm had only just come from. Finally she spoke, "We need to move to the other side of this formation." Seeing the confusion in both lawyers' eyes, she clarified, "sandstorms here are just as bad as twisters back home and they do about the same amount of damage. We don't have all that much time to find better accommodations." She knelt down and retrieved the small stack of Mac's clothing before stepping out into the blistering sun and easily slipping Harm's knapsack over her shoulder and disappearing around the rough stone.
Shrugging her shoulders, Mac helped Harm stand and maneuver around the scattered shards of jagged sandstone that littered the ground, trying to keep as mush weight off his sore, blistered feet as possible. She didn't understand the woman any more than she ever had. She did remember however, to trust that Gypsy Crow had her own reasons for doing things, very substantiated reasons at that regardless of how strange she appeared.
"I would rather not be in the direct path of that storm when it gets here."
Mac grinned at her inherent ability to read minds. It was something that took some getting used to; she wondered how long it would take Harm to accept it, he still had difficulty accepting her ability to keep such close track of time.
"So, you gonna tell me exactly why you're here, partner?"
Harm grinned and chuckled at the admonition. "You didn't really think I'd let you trek out here alone and have all the fun, did you? I'm under strict orders to watch your six, Ma'am. I figured it would be easier to do that if we were in the same country."
"Yeah," Mac sighed. She helped Harm settle into the cave Gyps had located on the opposite side of the dun formation, adjusting her discarded clothing behind him in place of a cushion. "Let me get a look at those feet of yours. What did you do, try to cross the desert without socks?"
"Must not be used to so much walking," he chuckled. "Don't get much exercise in front of a courtroom."
"Don't believe a word he says, Gyps. This guy can almost keep up with me on our morning runs. He's still a squid, but he's not that much out of shape."
Gypsy Crow had taken up residence on a smooth ledge of stone a couple of meters away from Mac and Harm. She silently watched the two as Mac worried over Harm's injuries and listened to their playful banter. It had been so long since she had heard American accents that she felt almost lightheaded she was so giddy with relief. She could have sat and listened to them pick at each other all day had Mac not become concerned over her sudden silence.
"It's alright," Mac had assured her in hushed tones once she'd tended to Harm's feet and proclaimed him relatively fit. She had crossed the cavern to stand next to her friend, her hand resting lightly on her shoulder. Mac had to suppress the shudder of aversion she felt as her fingers molded to Gypsy Crow's clavicle and scapula. She was so thin Mac could have easily counted every bone in her body. "Gyps?"
"You were always thin before, but…" her voice faded to nothing as Mac found that she couldn't bring herself to bring up what might possibly be another painful subject.
"I'm not trying to starve myself, Mac. It's my allergies, that's all." Her voice was flat but her eyes warmed with a sudden surge of compassion for the concern Mac demonstrated. "Wheat and lactose don't agree with my digestive tract and milk is pretty much the basic food stuff in these parts, milk and flat bread. Once I finally told Suleima what the problem was she would try to help me out. I'd give her all my milk and bread rations and she'd hand over most of her dates and rice and preserved fruit and anything else we might have had that I could eat. I tried to `ignore' the allergy at first but it didn't work, I got so sick I couldn't move. And laziness is not condoned in that complex."
"Are you alright?"
"Oh yeah, it was hard at first but once I got used to the diminished diet I lost the lightheadedness and the dizzy spells. But I can't tell you just how much I'd be willing to pay for a big juicy steak with garlic roasted potatoes and a nice bottle of white wine just about now." Gypsy Crow's smile shone through the dimly filtered light of their temporary shelter and she leaned forward to peer around Mac at the man who was still seated on the sandy floor of the cave. "Is your friend going to be alright?"
"Him?" Mac turned around and cocked her head at Harm, a smile playing at her own lips. "He'll be fine. He's pretty tough for a squid."
"I heard that," Harm commented although his head remained pressed back against the stone and his eyelids stayed firmly shut.
"You were meant to, I believe." Gypsy Crow, feeling a bit more at ease with the tall dark stranger, hopped down from her stone shelf and crossed the cave to crouch down beside him. "I'm sorry for being so rude before." She extended a hand in formal greeting.
"Colonel," Harm acknowledged, raising his hand in salute before reaching out to grasp her proffered hand.
"Oh yeah… it's been so long… I guess I'm going to have to get used to that again..." Flustered, she ran her hand through her hair once Harm released it and leaned back on her heels wanting to put more distance between herself and this man who had trudged through the sand in search of Mac. Stifling her unease, she glanced sideways at the handsome Navy Commander. "So I don't suppose you know how to get us out of here and behind Jordan's border, would you."
Laughter bubbled over, rising above the shrill cry of the sand storm that raged outside the cave, as Gypsy Crow's delicate fingers closed around the objects that dangled from Harm's hand. "I don't care what you say, Mac," she chuckled, "the squid is good for something."
Mac looked up in time to catch the compass and GPS that Gypsy Crow tossed her way, a grin spreading across her own face. Their hopeless situation had just taken a turn for the better.
1942 local time
"Ma'am! Permission to speak freely, Ma'am."
"Go on, Lieutenant," Captain O'Rourke allowed, muttering, "as if I could stop you anyway…" Training had its benefits but she wished these guys would stop yelling once they got out of basic.
"Ma'am, there's some discussion going around about the validity of the Arabian woman's claim. I mean, it's been how many years since Colonel Caldwell was declared dead…"
The Captain never gave him the opportunity to complete his sentence. "If you have not forgotten, Lieutenant, the marine corps doesn't knowingly abandon its men behind enemy lines without a damned good reason, we go in and get them out. Now unless you have a problem with that, I suggest you make damn sure that this discussion concerning whether the colonel is alive or not is ended. Your energies are much better utilized finding her and the two JAG officers who were `man' enough to go after her."
Lieutenant Rodgers snapped to attention at her tone of finality. Diane could be great when she let herself relax but this was not one of those times… "Yes, Ma'am."
Captain Diane O'Rourke watched the younger man make a hasty retreat before she turned her gaze back to the endless plain of colorless sand. Silently she wondered about the colonel. She had only met her once years ago, back when she had only just made officer status and Stormy Caldwell/Gypsy Crow was already a legend. The woman had made such an impression on her that she had never forgotten her, she'd even gone to a bar and drowned her sorrows the night she had heard the reports of Colonel Caldwell's death.
Whispering a hushed prayer for the colonel's safe return as well as her rescuers, Captain O'Rourke strode back to the munitions tent. If Saudi was going to make a fuss over getting their people back, they needed to be ready.
Later that evening
"Blood on the moon."
"What?" Mac swiped at the sand and grime that stubbornly clung to her face squinting in the dark to locate Gypsy Crow.
"I said there's blood on the moon." She turned back into the cave, moving stealthily through the deepening shadows of dusk with sure whisper-soft steps. Once she reached Mac's position she dropped into a crouch, settling into the sandy floor next to her friend. "It's an old wive's tale. Blood on the moon foretells a death."
Her voice was low and husky in the cave's confines and held a touch of the humorous, almost self-mocking air of mystery Mac so often associated with her memories of Gypsy Crow. It was the same amused attitude the other woman would assume whenever she elaborated on omens or shape shifters or spirit guides or anything relating to the mysticism that filled the stories of her childhood. You never knew if she held any faith in the old tales and beliefs or if she was just keeping them alive out of a self-appointed sense of cultural preservation.
"Thanks for the vote of confidence. Is that from another of your grandmother's stories?"
Gypsy Crow chuckled softly. "It was my great-grandmother who was the storyteller, but no it isn't. Actually I think it has origins in Europe somewhere. I always thought it went well with the sailor's rhyme: `red skies at night--sailors' delight, red skies at morning--sailors take warning'." Gyps chuckled again before she rose to her feet. "We'd best be going. You wanna rouse your slumbering partner, or shall I?"
"You'd scare him to death," Mac replied eyeing her friend's emaciated face in the silvery moonlight before turning to Harm's sleeping form, adding a quick grin to soften her sudden response. She sighed again over her old friend's condition; she could just imagine the result of Gyps trying to rouse anyone when she so closely resembled the angel of death. Harm's steady breathing resonated through the cave and had served to lull Mac into a half daze while they waited for dusk to fall. Now that darkness had at last descended on the desert it was time to execute their escape.
Gypsy Crow grinned at Mac as she filled Harm in on their current situation. Pulling the map back out of the pack Harm had brought, she double checked the readout of the GPS and recalculated the distance they would need to travel. Her technique was a bit rusty but navigation was like riding a bike, once you learn you never forget. She had consulted with Mac earlier in the day but her knowledge was only slightly more fresh, too many years spent in a courtroom and not enough hands-on practice.
Stifling a yawn, she watched the pair of lawyers exit the black shade of the rock formation. In an attempt to loosen the muscles in her neck she dropped her head forward, catching sight of the silver locket that hung from the chain around her neck. Her initial surprise at seeing her prized necklace in Suleima's hands had been replaced with the knowledge that Mac hadn't forgotten about her and that she would do whatever it took to free her from her stay on Saudi soil. She carefully tucked the locket beneath her gown and, drawing Harm and Mac's attention, pointed to the moon that hung close to the horizon, still tinged a coppery red.
"We should have the moon for most of the night at any rate. Considering the distance we need to travel, the fact that we have all made the same distance in the not too distant past, and our growing list of injuries… we might make it to Jordan before the moon disappears on us." Gypsy Crow raised her eyebrows. "If the Corps is actively searching then our chances are even better. If Riyadh has decided to exact some twisted form of revenge…" her voice faded to silence, leaving the lonely howl of the rapidly cooling wind to fill the void.
They had been traveling for several hours before Harm called a halt, insisting that they all needed to rest a moment. Huddling together in the soft sand, they passed the canteen around until everyone's thirst was quenched.
Harm's concern was split between the pair of marines. The back of Mac's head still sported a lump the size of a golf ball and although she refused to acknowledge it, he knew she was experiencing some amount of pain. Actually, even if he hadn't picked up on the subtle grimaces that flitted across her eyes, Gypsy Crow's preoccupation with watching Mac would have clued him in. Not a minute went by that Gypsy Crow didn't glance over at her friend, her face a thinly veiled mask of worry.
Gypsy Crow wasn't the picture of health herself, even ignoring her obvious frailty, she looked ready for a month or two in the hospital. Harm smothered the chuckle that accompanied his thoughts, how did he ever wind up in the middle of the desert with two `grin and bear it' marine colonels…
"Okay, ladies, we'd better get moving again."
Thankfully the moon was bright enough that reading the compass wasn't difficult; continuing to walk was becoming problematic for Gypsy Crow however. Not for the first time she longed for the endurance she had once possessed. Too many years spent locked up and poorly fed had destroyed any strength she had once had. The only thing that was keeping her in motion was sheer will power. She refused to be a burden and she was still too worried about Mac's head injury to delay finding help.
2342 local time
1.5 miles from Marine encampment
The recovery crew swarmed across the shifting dunes. They had departed base as soon as darkness had fallen, carefully watching not only for Saudi retaliation efforts, but also for the trio of military personnel who were their sole reason for crossing into enemy territory to begin with.
Waving her men forward, Captain O'Rourke brought up the rear line of her small team. She disliked going into a possibly hostile situation with no more than a handful of men at her disposal. It wasn't that she doubted their capabilities, she didn't, but there was something to be said for the mental assurance of large numbers of muscled limbs and even greater amounts of heavy artillery.
The lieutenant saw them before she did, snagging her sleeve in his fist and silently gesturing to a shadow that seemed to slowly drag itself across the sand. The team froze in position, quietly watching the movement, waiting for it to transform into either friend or foe.
"All this sand is beginning to piss me off," Gypsy Crow grumbled, only half-jokingly, as she sloughed through another shifting mound of glistening sand. She had discovered that if she said something every once in a while, it seemed to alleviate everyone's concern, not to mention lighten the mood a bit. The arid landscape was providing her with few ideas for lighthearted anecdotes however, and she'd long since exhausted her store of old Co-yo-te stories. She was only slightly amazed to discover that the sand was indeed beginning to annoy her with its very existence.
Harm glanced over his shoulder at the determined woman, silently thankful for her constant thread of humor. He had been unable to cover his amusement at Gypsy Crow's earlier explanation of Co-yo-te as a trickster god, having no trouble at all placing his stubborn, jarhead of a partner in that role. Mac had been less than amused by his candid reaction, throwing an icy glare his way that very well might have been lethal under better circumstances.
"We're too close for you to start complaining now, Colonel."
"Oh, you can never be too close to complain, or too far away for that matter. That's the joy of a complaint, it's timeless." Gypsy Crow snaked one hand up across her collarbone and roughly drug it over the skin at the back of her neck in an attempt to ease some of the tension that had settled there. Pressing her fingers against taut muscles, she rolled her head slightly. It was then that she became aware of the nearly motionless shadows that lined a distant sand dune.
Mac and Harm had already noticed their observers and stood quietly still. It made no difference what they did; they were unarmed except for the single handgun Harm had stowed in the knapsack. They would pose a pitifully easy target if their welcoming party turned out to be Saudi rather than American.
Straining to hear above the whistle of the wind, a grin spread across Gypsy Crow's face. She tapped Mac on the shoulder and whispered, "Listen."
Very lightly, as if it were merely a trick of the night breeze, a familiar tune carried across the short expanse of desert. Relief washed over the trio as they breathed a collective sigh and set out toward the crouched shadowy forms.
As they got closer, the words became more recognizable… "Here's health to you and to our Corps which we are proud to serve. In many a strife we've fought for life and never lost our nerve. If the Army and Navy ever look on heaven's scenes…"
Gypsy Crow chuckled and whispered the rest of the verse, "They will find the streets are guarded by United States Marines."
Watchful and wary still of the possibility of attack, Mac, Harm and Gypsy Crow hurried toward the familiar music and the promise of protection it held. They were mere meters from the other marines when Gypsy Crow finally lost her internal battle and collapsed to the ground.
In the time it took Mac and Harm to drop down next to their fallen comrade, the group of marines had joined them, scooping up Gypsy Crow and hurrying the pair of wayward lawyers back across the rapidly cooling, arid landscape. There was no time for discussion or introductions, no possibility to assess injuries, just a rush to return to friendly soil and the relative safety of the marine encampment.
Office of Admiral Chegwidden
"Well, Admiral, it seems that your people have returned to the fold. In one piece I might add." Webb strode into Admiral Chegwidden's inner sanctum, pressing past Tiner and oblivious to the young man's discomfiture.
"You're not off the hook yet, Webb, not until I see both their shining faces right where you're standing." The admiral drummed his fingers against his desk once before turning back to the paperwork he had been reviewing prior to the CIA agent's arrival, summarily dismissing him from his attentions.
Webb remained where he was for several quiet minutes before he claimed one of the nearby leather chairs, settling himself into the cushioned seat. He was determined to wait as long as proved to be necessary. He had no meetings, no urgent appointments needing his immediate presence. He had all the time in the world to sit in the JAG's private office and wait until he was either needed elsewhere or AJ physically removed him from his current location.
"How long do you plan to sit there and annoy me, Mr. Webb? I do have work to do."
Clayton Webb studied the nameplate that perched on the desk in front of him wondering at both the differences and similarities that existed between the military and the government's other agencies and pondering whether or not he should admit his intentions or remain stubbornly silent. Since silence suited him best, he merely raised his eyebrows, folded his arms over his chest, and stretched his legs out into a more comfortable position.
AJ peered at his guest over the file he was giving the impression of studying, taking note of his situation. Repressing a sigh of resignation, he opted to leave the agent where he was; he wouldn't be getting anything of consequence done until Rabb and MacKenzie were back anyway and with Webb around he would have a ready scapegoat just in case something did go awry.
0730 local time
Captain O'Rourke stood outside the med tent pacing nervously and awaiting further word on the patients. The CO had already radioed for transport evac for the three officers who had taken up temporary residence in the canvas cocoon, sending word ahead to JAG headquarters as well as to the Commander-in-Chief himself concerning the military personnel and their current condition.
Except for dehydration and some very minor injuries the navy Commander seemed to be in good health. Colonel MacKenzie was only slightly worse off than her partner. It was Colonel Caldwell who had the doctor and medics concerned. She professed to being malnourished and neglected, but the newly recovered colonel's injuries went well beyond the surface.
The dubious question of a possible return to active duty was racing through the encampment eliciting a wide variety of responses. Captain O'Rourke didn't care whether Gypsy Crow returned to active duty or not, her return from the dead was miraculous enough for the time being. It wasn't every day your hero was raised from the grave. She just wanted to see her once more before the Marine Corps packed her back off to the States.
Her thoughts in turmoil, she continued to pace, unable to relax until she had been told something.
Tension was running high within the confines of the medical tent as well as Colonel Caldwell repeatedly refused to cooperate with the physician. Intractable to the end, she systematically rebuffed a thorough examination, insisting that she was perfectly healthy, just a bit malnourished.
Mac watched Gypsy Crow as she continued to argue with the doctor. They had tried everything they could think of to convince her to agree with the exam but none of their ideas had been the least bit successful. The woman remained huddled on the cot, viciously lashing out at any medical personnel who dared to broach her personal space.
Major Parker at last admitted defeat. "At least I know you're not without some strength," he remarked rubbing his jaw where Gypsy Crow's left hook had landed solidly just minutes before. "I think I'll leave you to your friends and go find out how much longer that transport is going to be." He backed slowly away from Gypsy Crow's cot, reaching for the tent flap before suddenly remembering his anxious comrade outside. "Captain O'Rourke, the officer who led the team that brought you in last night would like to speak with you. But if you're not going to be any more civil that you’ve been with me I'm not going to let her in."
Mac continued to observe her friend and wasn't surprised when she straightened up and smirked at the doctor, murmuring her agreement for visitors.
"It's good to see you haven't lost that sparkling personality I've heard so much about, Colonel." The teasing sarcasm in the doctor's tone brought a genuine smile to his patients' faces. "I'm send Captain O'Rourke in, but I'm warning her that she's on her own. Anyone who enters this tent does so at their own risk, at least until that transport gets here."
Captain O'Rourke listened impatiently to the doctor's instructions and warnings, finally nodding her acceptance and slipping into the stuffy tent. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the muted sunlight that had managed to push its way through the canvas weave. The Mac looked up at her entrance and glanced over at Gypsy Crow, curious to see what her reaction would be to the newcomer while Harm jumped at the opportunity to exit the tent on some fabricated errand of the utmost importance.
Mac chuckled over his hurried exit. `Afraid to stay in the same tent with three of us; I guess three marine officers are just too much for one sailor to handle,' she thought irreverently.
"I brought you something to change into if you'd like," the nervous captain began. She extended a neatly folded field uniform to the woman who was still crouched on the cot.
"Thanks." Gypsy Crow accepted the uniform, unfolding it slowly and reverently placing one hand against the rank insignia. It had been such a long time since she had even thought about what it meant to be a colonel. Pushing aside the rush of melancholy she felt cresting, she returned her attentions to her visitor. "So, you've made captain now. Congratulations."
Mac watched the flush of embarrassment that colored the captain's face. Gypsy Crow always amazed people with her knack for remembering names and faces and Captain O'Rourke was no exception.
"Yes, ma'am. I'm surprised you remember me at all, ma'am," she stuttered.
"Don't be, you impressed me when we first met. I had wondered how far up the ranks you'd gotten." Gypsy Crow gingerly unfolded her legs and began to stand.
"Mac, I'm fine. And if you sound the alarm and send that doctor running back in here I'll demonstrate to you just exactly how fine I am," she warned pointing a finger at her friend. "Just you remember what I did to Hanaker in Bosnia when he tried to stand in my way."
Mac grinned broadly at the memory and decided to bring Captain O'Rourke back into the conversation and possibly switch Gyps' concentration long enough to get a better look at her injuries. "So who'd you steal the uniform from, Captain?"
"A marine never reveals her sources, Colonel," Captain O'Rourke chuckled. Moving her gaze from Mac to Gypsy Crow she asked, "Are you sure you're alright, ma'am?"
They all heard the helo approaching at the same time, a welcome promise of their impending return to western civilization. Captain O'Rourke slipped from the tent to seek out Commander Rabb and provide the newly recovered colonel a chance to shed her tattered gown and don the pilfered uniform.
Mac smiled at Gypsy Crow as she stood smoothing the uniform to her body, trying unsuccessfully to eliminate its baggy appearance.
"I feel like a kid playing dress-up," she stated at last, giving up on her pitiful attempt.
"Well you look terrific."
"Oh yeah, that I believe." She moved closer to her friend to take a seat next to her on the lumpy sagging cot. "This is all just so unreal, Mac. I keep expecting to wake up and find out it's all been some crazy dream, to find myself locked in the storage shed again." She paused before finishing her thoughts. "In a way I wish it were just a dream. I mean, what do I really have left to return to? My family's gone, they died in a car wreck before I was captured. Andrew's dead, anything I might have at one time owned is gone… I've lost everything I once held dear."
"You still have me," Mac interjected. "And, while I don't know exactly what it is that you're going through, I do understand what it's like to be alone. But what about your people? They'll welcome you back."
"Maybe they will at first…"
"Gyps, don't worry about any of that now, there'll be plenty of time later to figure things out. I would like it though if you'd agree to stay with me once the let you out of Bethesda." Eager to get as far from the Middle East as she could, and to do so as quickly as possible, she rose to her feet and reached out to take her friend's hand. "Come on, let's go home."
(9 days later)
Gypsy Crow settled into the cushions of Mac's couch, the remote control in her hand and a steady stream of disjointed words and images flashing across the television screen as she rapidly changed channels.
"You're as bad as a man," Mac observed, nodding her head toward the television, "channel surfing."
Gypsy Crow laughed but continued to scroll through programs. She tucked her feet beneath her and pulled a velour afghan across her knees. She was silent for a long time, seemingly content to remain as she was.
Finally Mac spoke, "You're going to be late-"
"I'm not going," she interrupted, switching the television off with the same rapidity with which she had been changing channels.
"Gyps, they're honoring you. They're presenting you with the Medal of Honor." Mac watched the wary expression that swam in her friend's dark eyes. "It's okay. No one blames you-"
"That's only because they don't know the whole story." She pushed herself even deeper into the couch drawing the afghan protectively around her. "If even one of them knew about Andrew, about what I did to him…" she trailed off sadly.
"They, like Andrew himself, would understand and agree that you had no other choice," Mac finished for her.
They still had an hour and a half before the ceremony was scheduled to begin, and it would be another hour before anyone would notice they were still at large. Mac sat down next to the friend she had once believed was lost to her.
Bethesda had released Colonel Stormy Caldwell after only three days of observation partially due to the doctor's orders but mainly because of the woman's own determination to get away from the facility. She'd been discharged with strict orders to increase her weight slowly and return in a week for the first of several follow up visits. The enormous amount of media attention surrounding her miraculous return had swamped the hospital switchboard and flooded her room with flowers and cards. She had never been a public person to begin with and the entourage of well-wishers was quickly driving her ever further into herself.
Gratefully she had left the hospital and retreated to Mac's apartment and had managed to elude her ever growing fan club for five quiet peaceful days, preferring to spend her time in the company of Mac and Harm. Admiral Chegwidden had stopped by to meet the woman who had lured two of his lawyers into a hostile desert and Bud had brought Harriet and the baby for a visit but no one else had been allowed an audience with the self-isolated marine.
Mac was becoming increasingly concerned with Gypsy Crow's state of mind but was unsure of how to proceed without scaring her. "I got a call at the office from a Joseph Hicks**. He wanted to arrange to have dinner with you after the ceremony if you were free."
"I couldn't say; you never finished teaching me your language."
Gypsy Crow smiled. "The chief; just a figurehead really with no real power but lots of prestige nonetheless."
"He left a cell number." Mac handed her the memo she had jotted down while she had still been in her office that morning.
She accepted the slip of paper and looked imploringly at Mac. "I can't do this, Mac. I don't deserve it."
"But you do."
"No," she replied vehemently, crumpling the memo in her fist. "My very actions were an abomination to the moral code I profess to so stringently adhere to. I desecrated the vow I swore to uphold," she paused briefly, gasping for breath, her expression turning wild-eyed and tragic. "My God, Mac," she choked out, her eyes pooling with hot tears that streamed down her cheeks unchecked, "Andrew died by my own hand. I plunged the knife in that ended his life, it was his lifeblood that stained my hands, that stains them still."
"You're the one who told me he was going to be killed anyway, that you had no choice. You tried to help him escape. It just couldn't happen."
"I should have found a way or died with him. I'm a marine. I never should have given up so easily; I never should have remained there. I should have tried to escape again."
Mac cocked her head at the last of Gypsy Crow's statements. "Again?"
"Yeah, I did try to get away once early on," she sighed and shook her head against the memory. "I wasn't exactly in great shape physically. I didn't even get away from the compound before I was caught. They made sure I never forgot the repercussions of trying to flee."
Mac's brow furrowed as she tried to decide what her friend was alluding to.
Slowly Gypsy Crow reached over her shoulder to grasp a handful of the soft knitted sweater she wore, drawing the material up to expose her back. She eased forward so Mac could see what had been done to the once smooth skin.
The golden skin that stretched across still prominent ribs and vertebrae was badly scarred. A lasting reminder for a woman who had never before given her own natural beauty a second thought.
"I don't know what to tell you, I really wish I could say otherwise. You just need to take it one step at a time, just deal with the present and leave the future alone," Mac soothed.
Sudden unrestrained giggles interrupted Gypsy Crow's self-loathing and Mac cocked her head questioningly, which only served to intensify the laughter. She waited for the other woman to restrain her inappropriate response.
"I'm sorry," she got out between chuckles. "It's just that, umm…" She dropped her voice and octave and tried to assume an air of mock seriousness, "The twelve steps to POW recovery…" she lost her control and broke into another peal of laughter.
"You've gone over the edge haven't you?" Mac grinned and added, "I'm glad to see your smile though even if it is at my expense." She rose from the couch as Gypsy Crow dried her eyes on the back of her hands. Lifting a freshly laundered and pressed dress uniform from the hook it had been hanging on; she held it out for a cursory inspection. "What d' you say? Wanna give it a try?"
"Alright, you've talked me into it. But let me call the u-gu-lu first." She paused at the doorjamb. "Do you think Harm would like to join us for dinner with an ancient Indian chief?"
"He wouldn't miss it for the world," Mac assured her.
"Good, the more people who are there, the happier I'll be. I'll be ready in just a minute. I guess it would be bad form for the guest of honor to be late for her own ceremony."
Gypsy Crow slipped away from the group of well-wishers and sat relatively unnoticed on a low stone bench overlooking a quiet reflecting pond. Mac watched from afar as her friend solemnly gazed at the gentle ripples of water, her cover clenched in a white knuckled fist as her other hand reached up to tentatively drag long fingers through dark, sleek wind tousled hair.
She no longer resembled a child playing at dress up. Images of shell-shocked Doughboys and directionless Viet Nam vets flashed through her mind and Mac had to shake her head to clear the disturbing thoughts. Gypsy Crow wouldn't end up like those poor lost soldiers of previous eras; she'd see to it that she wouldn't even if her quest became an obsession to rival one of Harm's.
From the crowd emerged a tiny, hunched man. His gnarled fist held firmly to his cane as it sunk slightly into the grassy lawn that separated the awards platform from the reflecting pool. Gypsy Crow glanced up at his halting approach, sliding further along the bench to allow him a place to sit. They remained there, unmoving in the gentle breeze, as the crowd that had gathered for the ceremony slowly dispersed, leaving Mac and Harm standing amid vacant folding chairs talking to the admiral.
"Wouldn't you agree?" Harm had noticed Mac's absence from their conversation at the time he'd watched Gypsy Crow disengage herself from the group. "Mac? Are you okay?"
"What?" She tore her eyes away from the quiet scene, refocusing on two pair of expectant eyes. "Sorry, I must have slipped away there." She smiled. "What were you saying?"
AJ grinned. "Nothing important, Colonel." Taking his leave of them, the admiral departed the lawn and walked toward the few cars that remained in the parking lot.
"So where are our dinner reservations, Mac?"
"I don't remember, but don't worry, I'm sure you'll be able to find something you can eat."
Sitting at a table in a dim corner of the room, Gypsy Crow immersed herself in the menu; a long list of tasty dishes growing in her mind.
"Chief Hicks," Mac began as she set aside her own menu to devote her full attention to the elder man, "do you plan on staying long in the capital?"
"Yes, I don't often get away from home and am anxious to see all of the sights our Stormy has told me about."
"How is it, U-gu-lu, that you managed to get away without someone from the council tagging along?" Gypsy Crow's eyes flashed with amusement. The tribal council was nothing if not over-protective of their figurehead, power or no power.
"My body may have betrayed me and become feeble over the years, my dear, but my mind is just as sharp as it ever was. They have yet to find a way to rob my of my autonomy, but that reminds me…"
"Yes?" Gypsy Crow braced herself for the unpleasantness his tone implied.
The arrival of the waiter put their conversation on hold and Gypsy Crow's exhaustive order raised several eyebrows.
"What? I'm hungry."
"I think you could feed a platoon with what you just ordered," Mac teased.
Gypsy Crow's only response was to delicately shrug her shoulders.
Shaking his head to hide his amusement, the chief continued his train of thought, "The council has asked me when you plan on returning home."
"I am home."
Knowing full well that her friend had no plans to expound on her answer, Mac spoke up. "Stormy's staying with me right now. I believe there are still some things to be taken care of with the Marine Corps before she can go anywhere."
"Surely they would allow a POW to return home before making her undergo their trials and tests."
"You don't understand…" Gypsy Crow began but couldn't bring herself to complete her thought.
"I understand more that you might think, my dear. But if you would rather stay here with your friend, don't let the council bully you into coming back to the reservation before you're ready. I hate to say it but life there is much too stagnant for someone so young as yourself. And the council would never give you any peace. Stay here as long as you need to, but please do come to see me when you are fit enough to do so. Even if it's just for a short visit." The chief rested his hands on the table and continued his speech, "I have something that belongs to you. Your great-grandmother left it in trust with the council and when we thought you had died, it was placed into my care. I am glad to be able to pass it on to its rightful owner."
"What is it?" Gypsy Crow's curiosity was peaked.
"A collection of the stories she was so well known for. Before she passed from this life she made one of the council members sit at her bedside to record them all so that they would not be forgotten and lost. She wanted you to have it but wouldn't allow any of us to tell you the volume existed. I think she was worried that if you knew they were written down, you would grow lazy and wouldn't tell them yourself."
Gypsy Crow studied the tabletop, suddenly extremely interested in the weave of the linen cloth that rested there. While in the company of Suleima, she had recounted the stories to her friend's children countless times until they could tell the outcomes at the start of each tale. Perhaps she hadn't lost everything after all. She still had the u-gu-lu's support, her friendship with Mac, and now a bound volume of her great-grandmother's stories.
"I'll come to visit you as soon as I can. But like Mac said, there are things I need to straighten out with the Corps first."
"Remember, my dear, a warrior’s deeds are never accomplished alone. Even the strongest warrior maintains ties with those whose help and support he, or she, needs. Andrew knew that when he went looking for you, and you understand that now too."
"How did you know about Andrew… He didn't tell anyone…"
"He told almost no one of his intentions, my dear. Just after he heard that you might be alive, he paid me a visit. He was quite candid in his expectations for your recovery and explained that should he be able to save you he would not likely be able to save himself. I do not know the exact circumstances of his mission or how he met his end, but I do know that he was fully aware of the consequences his actions would incur. He loved you enough to die for the chance to save you. Don't let him become the crux of your existence; he would never have wanted that. He wanted only for you to be free and at peace."
"And so I am."
* these locatations are figments of my imagination, as far as I am aware, they do not exist anywhere but in this story
** Chief Joseph Hicks is a real person and presides over the Texas Cherokee, not the North Carolina band as it is relayed in this story.