Harvest House Publishers
“Are you sure this is right?” George asked, frowning as he scanned the form on the clipboard. The young ensign in charge of the resupply detail stood watching him.
“Yes, Lieutenant. Absolutely.” Ensign Carver grinned, and George signed the form with a scrawl, not meeting his eyes.
Ron Davidson, one of Hudson’s two subordinates on the island, was leaving today. He and the three sailors who had accompanied the ensign to shore had already begun lugging boxes of provisions and new equipment from the ship’s boat up to the house that served as an observation station on Frasier Island. The sooner they got the supplies unloaded and stowed, the sooner they could leave.
A uniformed girl stood waiting, shivering in her wool pea jacket. She looked about sixteen, with the wind tugging tendrils of hair from her pinned-up braid. He could hardly believe she was old enough to have completed officers’ training. Her bag of personal gear sat on the rocks beside her, and she held the cord, working it nervously through her chilled fingers. His first glance had told George she was strikingly pretty. After that he had deliberately ignored her.
Now he looked her way. “Take your gear topside, Ensign.”
She looked as if she were about to salute, and he turned away. Handing the clipboard back, he muttered, “Don’t s’pose you’d trade me for one of your men?”
Carver chuckled. “You’ll get used to it, Lieutenant.”
George turned and picked up a crate of provisions. “As soon as we stow this stuff, we need to clear the helicopter pad.”
“You had to drop a windmill on the only flat spot on this island, didn’t you?” Carver asked as he hefted a box.
“Had to put it up where it would catch the wind.”
“Well, the boat ride in here is a real treat, I’ll tell you.”
“I’ve done it a couple of times,” George acknowledged. “Thanks for making the effort. We’ve had to run everything off the generators for the past four days, and the solar collectors are at an all-time low.”
They toiled up the slope. The house was perched on a bluff at the highest point of the island, near its western tip, and was built to withstand storms like the one that had buffeted them for the last week, toppling the windmill. It squatted on the hilltop overlooking an expanse of ocean that was empty, except for the five ships of the battle group standing by a quarter mile offshore. As soon as Carver and his men returned, those ships would leave.
Davidson and the sailors passed them on the trail.
“I showed Whitney where to stow her gear,” Davidson called.
George scowled. A girl in Ron’s place.
Rachel swung her canvas sea bag onto the cot and looked around the tiny bare room. As long as she had privacy, it would do. There was a small dresser and a crate on end for a nightstand. No closet, just a row of hooks on one wall. A small mirror hung over the dresser, and a folding camp chair stood in one corner. This was home for the next year.
She would unpack later. The last thing she wanted was for the lieutenant to think she was shirking her duties while the men unloaded, but she couldn’t resist taking a peek out the little window. A heavy wooden storm shutter hung below it, allowing the occupants to secure the window from the inside. She opened the sash and stuck her head out. The window faced westward, over the sea, and beneath it was a sheer drop of several yards to a ledge of volcanic rock that made the foundation of the house.
She swallowed hard. It was a far cry from the lush fields, peach orchard, and distant buttes that she could view from her bedroom window in western Oregon. She felt vulnerable and alone.
“Well, Lord, it’s You and me,” she whispered.
It still felt strange to talk to God. A week ago she would have scoffed at the idea. Her faith was still untried, but she had no question it was real. Despite her nervousness at meeting the renowned George Hudson and taking up her new post in an alien setting, she felt an overriding calm that had never been there before.
She went to the cot and opened her bag, taking out the top item, a small paperback Bible, and set it on the upended crate. Knowing that God was with her, she could stand whatever came her way here. Even the shock that struck her when she saw arrogant hostility in her new superior officer’s eyes.
As she hurried to the boat landing, she steeled herself to meet Hudson again. All through her four years at the Naval Academy, followed by special training, she’d had trouble submitting to authority, but with great effort she had kept her quick temper in check. She could easily ruin her chances for a challenging Navy career, and succeeding was very important to her. She’d never enjoyed failure, and in order to avoid it, she had conformed to the rigid discipline of the military life.
Now that was behind her, and she was beginning the exciting part, the special assignment she had worked for so hard. She had the training, and she was ready.
Hudson fascinated her. When she’d heard about him at the high security training center back in Seattle, she had built up a respect for him. At first glimpse she’d known he was all she’d imaged: handsome, stalwart, heroic. His dark hair and gray eyes were very appealing. But he scared her a little. If only he would smile, she thought.
She was the first woman to qualify for the highly classified detail, but her pride in that had crumbled under Hudson’s baleful stare. He measured her against some unknown standard, and she obviously fell short.
She was resolved to make good on Frasier Island, and to leave in a year with a clean record and a recommendation for promotion. If Hudson was disappointed in his new subordinate, he’d soon change his mind. Her father called her stubborn. Rachel preferred the designation of tenacious. She would teach the handsome lieutenant what tenacity meant.
Pierre Belanger sat dutifully at his console in the control room, deep in the volcanic rock beneath the house. Months of isolation and forced quietude on Frasier had taught him patience. A couple of sailors poked their heads in for a moment and yelled a friendly greeting, but he couldn’t give them his attention. Ron Davidson was supervising the unloading of the supplies, and George was no doubt down on the rocks signing the manifest and greeting Ron’s replacement.
One of the sailors came down the stairs with a crate. He set it gently on the floor before coming up behind Pierre and clapping him on the shoulder. Pierre recognized Misner from six months ago.
“Well, Belanger, things are gonna change around here, hey?”
Pierre shot him a quick glance and then looked back at his console. “Happens every six months or so.”
“Not like this.” Misner went away laughing.
Pierre was intrigued, but he sat silent, looking from one screen to the next. Camera monitors, sonar, radar. Eight hours a day, with a couple of short breaks. The three men spelled each other around the clock. He could hear footsteps, distant voices, and thumps as crates were set down heavily in the storeroom overhead. Then it grew very quiet.
At last George came down the stairs. Pierre could always tell when George entered the room. He made almost no noise, but went straight to his station, not like Davidson, who talked to anyone whether they were listening or not. This time George came and stood beside his chair without speaking.
“What’s up?” Pierre asked.
“New recruit’s here.”
“C’est la vie.”
“Oui, mais…elle est une femme.”
Pierre sat without moving, staring at the passive sonar display without seeing it, for ten seconds. Ron’s replacement was a woman.
“Elle parle français?” he asked softly.
“Sais pas.” George was quiet for a moment. “Elle est trop jeune.”
“Magnifique.” She was too young—but by whose standard? George always thought the recruits were too young.
Pierre and George had often spoken French in the past six months when they didn’t want Ron Davidson to understand them. They had formed an unspoken bond that excluded the third man long ago. George had been here six tours now, three years since the day the program was instituted. He should have gone off the island long ago, but every time his relief came due, he requested another tour on Frasier, and so far his requests had been granted.
Now Pierre’s own year was up, but he had decided that another six months wouldn’t kill him. He liked being here with George, knowing the two of them were the ablest sentinels in the world, the only ones who could possibly do this job this well. In a spurt of patriotism and loyalty to George, he had offered to let Davidson go, and through some machinations that were hazy to Pierre, the switch was approved.
Ron had jumped at it. He’d hated the island from the day he stepped out of the helicopter. Of course, he came at the worst time of year in the North Pacific, during typhoon season, and he had faced long odds of breaking into the established friendship. Pierre felt a flash of shame for having treated him coldly. It wasn’t in his nature to freeze a man out, but Davidson was an odd bird. Or maybe it was he and George who were the odd ones, and Ron was too normal to let them feel comfortable. Whatever it was, Davidson’s constant carping and fastidious habits had nearly driven George insane. Pierre had been able to keep his sense of humor most of the time, but he knew he could never leave George here with Ron and some new man, an unknown quantity who might be worse even than Ron.
And now George had dropped the bombshell. Ron’s replacement was a woman, a very young woman. Pierre knew the odd feelings of apprehension, wonder, and chagrin that coursed through him were mild compared to what George must be feeling. George had hardly stepped off this rock for three years. He thrived on the solitude, or at least he thought he did. Pierre wasn’t so sure.
But he knew George would not voluntarily leave the island now. Until the Navy forced him to, he would stay and stand watch for his country. America…all those people. Men, women, and children that George had never seen and didn’t want to see. He would willingly give his life for them, but could he go back and live in his beloved country when the time came?
“You stay here,” George said. “We’re going to clear the helo pad.”
“Send Ron down. I’ll help you.”
“No, he’s already charged up to leave. You can concentrate better than him.”
Pierre shrugged. “All right.”
It was his regular shift, and when he’d sighted the ships on his monitors, Davidson and George had left him alone in the building while they tended to business outside.
“You putting the new recruit on duty today?” Pierre asked.
“She might as well get a running start. If we mollycoddle her today, she’ll expect it.”
Pierre nodded. “Okay. If you need me to stay on a while with her, I will.”
“It’s my job to train her. But I might send her down here while we finish up outside. I don’t think she’d be much help with the heavy work. I was hoping they’d send us a man who could pull his own weight.”
“Perhaps she has other skills,” Pierre said gently.
George looked toward the doorway. “There’s a lot she doesn’t know.”
“They’re still not telling the recruits what we really do?” Pierre shook his head, remembering his own shock when George had clued him in on their mission a year ago. “You going to tell her first thing?”
“We’ll see. Might let her settle in a little first.”
Pierre nodded. “I’ll leave that to you.”
“All right.” George moved quietly toward the stairs.
“Hey!” Pierre called. “Did they bring coffee?”
“Plenty, unless mademoiselle is a caffeine addict like you.”
Pierre smiled. His glance swept over the monitors on the console, and then he focused for twenty seconds on the aircraft identification chart that hung on the side wall.
The wind seemed mild after the gale they had endured over the past week. George and Carver passed the sailors again on the narrow path as they went back down for more supplies. Davidson nodded at him, his eyes eager despite the weight of the crate he carried. When they reached the landing, George looked over the few boxes that were left.
“We’d have brought you more if we could have landed a Seahawk today,” Carver shouted.
“Well, you brought the new equipment and coffee in.”
“Not to mention Davidson’s replacement.” Carver laughed at his grimace. “Yes, well, you fellows have to eat. We left some frozen food and a crate of cookies and popcorn on the ship. Maybe we’ll be able to stop by again in a few weeks. Don’t want you to run short on rations.”
As he lifted the box containing Pierre’s precious coffee, George saw the girl coming cautiously down the steep path.
“Can I help, sir?” she yelled against the wind. He pointed to a box he thought she could wrestle up the trail. He didn’t watch to see if she could lift it, but seized another carton and turned away. When all the supplies were inside, George gathered the men around him.
“The crucial thing is to clear the debris of the windmill off the chopper pad.” He looked intently at each of them. “You can’t stay here long enough to repair it. This weather’s too unpredictable. Belanger and I will have to work on it ourselves when the wind drops. But we need to be able to get helos in here in case we have an emergency, so we’ll just drag the pieces off to the side and leave them there. Got it?”
Rachel Whitney’s solemn blue eyes were huge as she nodded.
“Not you,” he said quickly, and she winced.
“I’d like to help.” Her voice was quiet and earnest, but George shook his head.
“Davidson will take you down to the control room. Belanger is on duty now, and he can show you the basics of the monitoring job while the rest of us take care of this detail.”
“Yes, sir.” She looked disappointed, and her dark lashes lowered, hiding her expressive eyes. He’d never seen eyes quite like that. George found himself watching, waiting for her to look up again, and he looked hastily away. Trouble. Nothing but trouble.
It was a relief when Ron led her to the stairway that went below, to the control room. But George knew the relief would be shortlived. Rachel Whitney was here to stay.