Thursday, June 7, 2007

Excerpt from "From the Depths"

Author's note: Here's the first of several slices of my novel that I'll be posting over the next few months. Enjoy--and I'd love to hear your comments, even the mean ones.

Lights flickered ahead. I had been transported so far back into my past that I hadn’t realized how far I’d come in the present. The gatehouse emerged, ghost-like, from the fog that had coalesced as I got closer to the naval base.

The guard checked my ID and inquired about my business with an expression of stern indifference. Another soldier stood near the gate, his M-16 held barrel-down at an angle across his broad, camouflaged chest, while two other men used illuminated mirrors to check the underside of the Cherokee.

I focused on a spot in the mist about twenty-five feet beyond the gate and tried to pretend the man in the gatehouse wasn’t staring at the side of my head.

The search took a couple of minutes, and when it was over I had a laminated ID badge and a card to stick on my dashboard. Before he raised the gate, he handed me a map of the base with a route marked in red felt-tip pen. At the end of the crimson trail, he told me, was General Patterson’s building.

I hadn’t known that Patterson had an office at the naval base, but it didn’t surprise me. Branch of service didn’t seem to be an issue with his work. Not that I’m certain what his work is. All the times I’ve encountered him, however, he has been giving orders as something unusual, dangerous and covert is unfolding.

The drive through the base was surreal. Blocky buildings came and went, just gray, ephemeral shapes in the mist. Deuce-and-a-halfs and Humvees squatted in long, perfect rows. I seemed to be the only source of motion in the entire installation.

Using the map as a reference, I knew I was nearing my destination, but the light from Gen. Patterson’s office still surprised me as its diffused glow colored the mist. I never had been to the two-story, nondescript concrete structure I now was approaching. Its neighbors were hard to see but probably featured the same bland, gray color. At the top of five or six concrete steps lay the only obvious entrance, a pair of steel doors with windows inset. There was no sign telling visitors what they might expect inside.

I parked in a "guest" spot, grabbed my bag, and walked around the side of the building to the steps. The right-hand door swung open as I was on the third step, revealing another fatigues-clad soldier.

"Dr. Myers? I’m Lieutenant Weeks, General Patterson’s aide. If you’ll follow me, please?" He managed to smile at me, although it seemed an awkward expression for his pale face.

He held the door open as I walked through, then hurried around me and trotted down the hall. He looked at least six and a half feet tall, and it was tough for me to keep up. When he stopped in mid-stride and turned, I came within a few inches of plowing into his chest.

"Oh, I’m sorry, ma’am. I just . . . can I carry that bag for you?" he said.

I took a step backward. "Um, sure," I said, handing the duffel to him. My first instinct had been to say "I’m fine" and continue down the hall. But he seemed earnest and almost desperate to follow decorum, and it disarmed me, just for that instant.

He hoisted the strap over his shoulder, turned, and began walking again. The slapping of his combat boots on the tile floor echoed through the empty corridor.

Patterson’s office was in a corner, of course, on the second floor. Weeks opened the door for me, allowed me to walk in, saluted, then closed it behind me.

Patterson was sitting at a battered oak desk in a short-sleeved khaki uniform dotted with pins and medals. He managed to look crisp and dangerous despite the smudges of black under his eyes and stubble on his angular face. There was a dime-sized divot at his hair line, right in the middle of his head. It came, I suspected, from a glancing collision with something fast-moving and hard, possibly a bullet or a gun butt. It wasn’t the first time I had seen the mark, but it always jumped out at me.

I keep track of faces that way. It’s reflexive. Blame it on medical school, blame it on professional obsession, but when I meet someone, I catalogue their features. Without the skin. In the two sentences it takes to be introduced, bone structure, scars and teeth all get jotted down in a mental file. I’m fairly certain I could ID most of my friends’ bodies, no matter how they died. But I don’t tell them that.

The room’s white walls were home to constellations of framed pictures and awards. His desk, two chairs and a U.S. flag in the corner were the only furniture. A motionless, wood-bladed fan hung from the ceiling.

"Dr. Myers, have a seat," he said, gesturing at an overstuffed brown leather chair across from him.

I complied.


"No thanks. I’m fine."

He leaned back in his chair and ran his fingers through his salt-and-pepper buzz cut. I could hear his neck pop as he clasped his hands behind his head.

"This is a tough situation, Dr. Myers, and I appreciate your assistance, as always. Your agency always has been discreet and helpful."

I nodded.

"It’s fortunate that we have someone with your expertise nearby." Without waiting for me to respond, he continued. "You’ll be on the boat with sixteen men, all SEALs. Lieutenant Daniel Larsen is in command. He understands your mission and you will have great latitude in what you can do, but ultimately he is in charge. Do you understand?"

"Yes," I said, resisting the urge to add a "sir."

"The crew will submerge the sub as quickly as possible and then continue to a submarine bay here. The ship will be shadowed at all times by a Los Angeles-class attack sub, the Hyman G. Rickover. You know your job. Do you have any questions?"

I refused to blink as his brown eyes bored into mine. He leaned forward and rested his forearms on his desk, which was empty except for a calendar blotter, a telephone and a manila folder in front of him.

"How long had the submarine been at sea?"

"About a month."

"Did it have a history of accidents?"

"No. The sub’s history is in the material I faxed you."

"Then I believe I’m ready to go," I said. That was true, but I already knew I’d think of more to ask him once I was onboard.

"Good." He pushed a button on the telephone. "Lieutenant, Dr. Myers is ready to leave."

I heard the door open behind me. "Lieutenant Weeks will drive you to the staging area," Patterson said.

He opened up the manila folder and began leafing through its contents. I was dismissed.

McBooks Press
"From the Depths," by Gerry Doyle, available November 2007

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