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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Cruiser

A Dan Lenson Novel

Dan Lenson Novels (Volume 14)

David Poyer

St. Martin's Press




THEY'D been in the air for two hours from Spain when the copilot made her way toward him, bracing a hand on the back of each seat. "Coming up on Naples, Captain," she murmured over the hum of the engines. As the wing of the vice CNO's private jet lifted, she bent over him to point outside, giving a flash of cleavage at the neckline of her flight suit. "There's Vesuvius, sir. Harbor's coming up on your right."

The immense double mounds of the volcano barricaded the sky. Below stretched miles of roofs, streets, apartments, their windows flashing flame-orange in the winter sun. The air was hazy with mist, or maybe smoke. What must it be like, living in the shadow of a volcano? The very volcano—if he remembered correctly—where Hephaestus had forged the weapons of Mars, the god of war.

Then a great glittering rose-silver arc rolled up into view, and Dan leaned into the seat belt, shading his eyes. The pilot kept the wing depressed, as if to give his only passenger the opportunity for a long look down.

Captain Daniel Valentine Lenson, U.S. Navy, traced the tracks and roads that edged the sweeping concavity of sea that was the Bay of Naples; the inner harbor; the stone moles, spidery thin and knobbed as a movie alien's fingers. Cruise ships lay alongside the Mussolini-era passenger terminal, deck on deck shining in the sun like white steel wedding cakes.

A cliff of masonry, the fortification that had guarded the city in days past, frowned half a mile south of the inner harbor. Two hundred yards short of it lay the gray wedge of a Ticonderoga-class cruiser. A tug was nudging a barge alongside; smaller craft sketched foamy orbits around it. Those would be force protection, small boats guarding the helpless giant.

"Can you see it?" The copilot, leaning even farther over him. Blond hair swung forward, wafting a perfume he hadn't caught before. "We can notify Traffic Control and circle. Get you a better look."

"No, thanks." One glimpse had seared it into his retinas. The orange of spill-containment booms. The blues and greens that paled abruptly to shoal water a third of the way back from the stem. USS Savo Island was hard aground. That much was clear, even from five thousand feet.

"We'll be wheels down in ten, then. Is your seat belt secure? Just let me check—"

"I'll snug it up, thanks." Dan scratched his chin. He wore two rings: the heavy gold Annapolis one, and the thinner, traditional Navy wedding band, with stars and anchors. Glancing at his hand, she opened her mouth, as if about to say something. Then seemed to think better of it, and headed back to the cockpit. Still, he could appreciate the curve of her receding ass, firmly outlined by the tight-fitting flight suit.

The turbines whined up, then down, and dust floated and sparkled in the sunlight slanting through the window. No wonder Admiral Barry "Nick" Niles had diverted his personal aircraft to get a newly promoted surface line captain here as quickly as possible. An Aegis cruiser. The envy of other navies worldwide. Yet now she lay helpless on a shoal everyone knew was there, that was plainly shown on charts and even marked with a warning buoy.

How could it have happened?

And what was he going to do about it?

* * *

HE descended the deplaning ladder feeling like a member of Congress, carrying his briefcase and with his notebook computer slung over the other shoulder. Into hot exhaust and chilly, smoke-smelling wind. Down the line, airliners nuzzled a glass-walled commercial terminal. The U.S. Naval Support Activity, Capodichino, shared the runway with Naples International Airport.

A tall, eager lieutenant in khakis. "Captain Lenson? Lieutenant Mills.… Matt. It's a real honor."

He returned the salute awkwardly, and the junior officer relieved him of the computer. "I need to see Commodore Roald as soon as possible," Dan told him.

Mills glanced up from Dan's ribbons. He swallowed, looking intimidated.

"They don't make me any different from anyone else, Lieutenant. The commodore?"

A fresh blast of exhaust swept over them. Turning away, Mills yelled, "Right, sir. She, uh, told me she didn't need you until tomorrow, sir."

"My orders were to report to her."

"It's a legal issue, sir. She can't meet with the relieving commanding officer until the decision's made that the outgoing CO is actually outgoing. As I understand it."

That made sense. Niles had insisted that he see Roald the instant he arrived. But Nick Niles wasn't here. Mills was ushering him into a small room with a plush brown suede sofa, a low table, and a modernistic, chromed Italian coffeemaker. "This is our distinguished-visitor lounge, sir. The head's through there. We'll get your luggage and bring your sedan around."

"I may not need a car. Where's the court being held?"

"Court of inquiry's in Admin Two. That's further down the Spina. Or I can just take you to your quarters."

Dan sank into the sofa. "So. Matt, is it? What do you do for Commodore Roald?"

"Actually, I'm the Aegis go-to guy on the DesRon staff. Did my previous tour on Anzio. Why she sent me to meet you, I think."

"Can you give me any background? I know the investigation's still in progress.…"

Mills closed a door Dan assumed led to the main passenger area. "I can tell you what I heard from the Port Ops guys. But I can't vouch it's true."

"Always good to hear the scuttlebutt."

"Yessir. Long's you know I'm not exactly the burning bush … Savo went aground day before yesterday. Coming in early, in the rain, bound for anchorage A4. What I heard, the quartermaster chief noticed they were coming in off bearings. The navigator told the conning officer she was coming in too fast and to change course. She—the conning officer—she thought she was right, and the CO backed her. The navigator tried to relieve her, and the skipper told him to, quote, ‘shut the fuck up,' unquote. Then ordered him off the bridge."

Mills glanced at the door. "At that point—and again, this is secondhand—kind of an argument-slash-clusterfuck broke out. Suddenly the castle looms out of the rain. The bo's'un sounds the collision alarm. The captain takes the conn, but they lose steering or maybe engine control, and when he orders the anchor dropped, the deck gang can't get the brake released in time."

A shiver harrowed Dan's back. A concatenation of errors and failures leading to disaster. "How fast did they hit?"

"Fifteen, sixteen knots."

He winced. "How bad's the damage?"

"They're still looking at it. A team from Surflant's down there. And, um, a lot of Italians." The aide's cell went off. "Excuse me, sir.… Yeah … yeah, he's here, in the DV lounge.… Yes ma'am. I'll tell him." He snicked it closed. "She says you might want to go down and take a look. I can drive you, if you want."

Dan wavered, torn between waiting for Roald and wanting to see the ship that very soon might be his own. Then took a deep breath, and nodded.

* * *

FIVE or six demonstrators pumped placards as Mills flashed his ID at a police barrier between crumbling ancient bastions. Some of the signs were in Italian; others, English. One read NO TO SHOCK AND AWE. They were waved through, though a car that tried to follow them in was surrounded by the shouting crowd. They rumbled over a concrete causeway, past a marina. A tunnel yawned in a looming pile of decaying volcanic stone. "The Castel dell'Ovo," Mills said. Dan assumed they were headed for the tunnel, but instead the road zagged and they skirted the massive sloped buttresses until the Mediterranean, blue and soft as a newborn's eyes, opened ahead.

Police and fire vehicles were jammed bumper to bumper. They had to pass three separate cordons. The first two were Italian; city police, then the federal carabinieri. The last was U.S. Navy, in helmets and black Kevlar and shorty carbines with black web slings. Guards examined their IDs, listened to Mills's explanation of who Dan was, and directed them to where they could look out over a final barrier of tumbled riprap crusted with barnacles and drifted plastic bottles and lost beach sandals.

The exposed mud smelled like a sewage treatment plant, but probably wasn't as ripe as it would get in summer. The cruiser lay motionless. Heat shimmered above the stumpy aux exhaust riser aft, but as far as he could tell, the main turbines weren't lit off. The sheer of the hull, the towering bluff of the superstructure, echoed the ramparts inland, though its horizon-blending haze gray was lighter than the ash-gray volcanic tuff of the medieval fortification. Tugs lay alongside, and the barge he'd noted from the air had been joined by another. Dan guessed they were taking off fuel, water, and lube oil, starting the laborious process of lightening ship. A third barge with a crane hovered some distance off.

A chief in tac gear saluted. He was in charge of force protection; could he be of any help? Dan nodded toward the ship. "I may be relieving her skipper. Depending on the investigation. What d'ya know about how she went aground?"

"Not much, sir. My team's out of Civitavecchia. We're just helping the locals maintain the perimeter." He glanced seaward. "I got tac comms with our RHIB, though. Want to take a look?"

Dan considered. "Can I borrow a helmet?"

"Certainly, sir. Spare in the boat." He spoke into a Motorola, and one of the circling inflatables broke from orbit and turned a blunt nose for them.

They boarded from a floating pier at the boat basin. Not far away several yacht owners were talking rapidly in Italian, gesticulating contemptuously toward the grounded warship. Dan settled Kevlar on his head as the rigid inflatable purred back out into the smoky wind, the light chop.

The cruiser grew as they neared. It towered vertical, clifflike, unclimbable, with a lack of motion that struck a sailor as unnatural, although the steady roar of blowers and machinery, the mingled smells of exhaust and fuel and cooked food, were familiar. The overlofty, topheavy-looking superstructure was canted slightly to starboard. Aluminum, Dan remembered, and the whole class had been reporting cracks. A seaman in dark blue coveralls watched from the boat deck. Dan noted the colors had been shifted aft.

His gaze rose. Aloft, flags fluttered, the surface search radar rotated. Flat squarish panels with truncated corners, not quite octagons, were set like badges on the superstructure. They were the ship's reason for being; in many ways, her main batteries, though ranks of missiles were hidden beneath hinged flush covers fore and aft.

Those bland panels were SPY-1 antenna arrays. The Ticonderogas had been designed around them, mating a Spruance-class hull and propulsion to the most powerful radars ever put to sea. Within a radius of three hundred miles, an Aegis cruiser could detect, track, identify, and reach out with missiles to destroy any aircraft threatening the massive carriers that centerpieced U.S. or NATO battle groups.

"So, Lenson," Nick Niles had rumbled four days before, slapping his desk, "I keep my promises. Still want a ship?"

Dan had stood by the window of the vice CNO's temporary office at the Buchanan House, looking out toward the Pentagon. The offices he and Niles had staggered out of together, through burning fuel, under collapsing ceilings, over torn-apart bodies, were being gutted and rebuilt.

"Yes sir," he'd murmured. Niles had stalled his career, blocked his promotion, spread the word that the most highly decorated officer in the sea services was a hothead, an individualist, reckless, cavalier, unaccountable. He seemed to have changed his mind after 9/11. Somehow he'd engineered Dan's fourth stripe, though his fingerprints were nowhere to be seen. But Dan was still wary of African-American admirals bearing gifts.

"You made captain. Sure you don't want to cash in your chips? Take a medical retirement on those wheezy lungs, go make some real money?"

He didn't answer, and a hollow boom quivered the air as a big palm walloped the desk again. "Okay. A command? I got one. You might actually be a good fit. Your background with missiles. Think about who you can cherry-pick from TAG to take with you. Fill in the holes."

"Well, I—"

"But you won't have long." A sausagelike finger had boresighted him. "I can't wait for results. She's out there on a national-level mission. If this ship doesn't turn around, and I mean on a dime, I've got another O-6 with his bags packed. And tread light this time, Lenson. No more Gaddises. No more Horns."

"What's the mission, sir?" Dan had asked.

And Niles had told him.

"We can look at the far side, sir," said the coxswain, beside him in the boat. Dan nodded. Binoculars flashed from the bridge wing; he turned his collars up to hide his rank insignia. On the port side the red antifouling coating rose several feet above the waterline. "The screws seem to be in deeper water," Mills yelled, and Dan nodded again. That'd be a plus, if the shafts and screws weren't damaged. He could borrow fins and take a look, if that wasn't beneath the dignity of a skipper. Still, the sonar dome, all the way forward, looked as if it had been driven right up onto the shoal.

He took one more long survey, stem to stern, all 570 gray humming, roaring feet of her; at men and women standing about on the fantail, gazing longingly at the city that stretched away into the hazy distance, climbing the slopes of silent ominous peaks. Then said to the coxswain, "Thanks for the look. You can put us ashore now."

* * *

DRIVING back to the base, Dan remembered coming here as a lieutenant (jg), aboard USS Guam. Naples had been a grim, depressed city of blowing trash and sullen crowds and wash hanging from shabby tenements, with too many people and far too little employment. In those days every bullet-chipped wall had been plastered with Communist posters, and sailors on liberty had been warned to travel in groups.

There was still trash back in the alleys, and the streets were no wider, but the Terminale Marittima had been freshly repainted and the cars they idled behind were new. The shops were all open, with bright signs and fully stocked windows. The women who crossed in total disregard of whether or not the lights said to walk swung along jauntily in glossy leather boots and stylish coats, and the men looked far more hopeful. Italy seemed to be doing well, even in what had always been one of its least-advantaged cities. Maybe the protection of the U.S. Navy had helped it get there. He liked to think so, anyway.

Mills was slowing the sedan at the entrance to the base when Dan noticed another crowd. The guardhouse lay at the end of a cul-de-sac walled off from the main terminal by blocks of warehouses and trucking garages and the concertina wire surrounding the Alitalia repair shops. A line of cars waited to enter, but between them and the guard shack a chain of demonstrators were waving signs, gesticulating, and marching back and forth. Their shouts echoed down the cul-de-sac, amplified by the concrete walls.

"What's going on up there, Matt?"

"I'm not sure. Work disagreement, I think. There's always a strike someplace in town."

"That hasn't changed."

"Usually it's pretty tame. They even announce the time it'll be over, when they strike the train lines. So everybody can plan. It's pretty civilized." Mills touched the pedal and the sedan edged up. He slid out a sign that read AUTOVETTURE DI SERVIZIO—US NAVY and propped it on the dash.

Dan lowered his window for a better look. Unlike the demonstrators down by the waterfront, all these were male. Some had beards, which he hadn't seen on any Italians in the streets. They were dark-skinned. A squad of police, shields and helmets stacked at their feet, were joking and smoking, leaning against a warehouse wall.

The brake lights of the SUV ahead flashed as it reached the throng. As the police yelled at the demonstrators, it pushed slowly through. Some of the crowd screamed back, parting sullenly. Others ignored it, haranguing the gate guards, who stood with gloves on pistols. A reaction team watched from a Humvee. The noise level was building.

Dan pressed the switch. The window was humming upward again when a green projectile hurtled up out of the mob, whirled in the air, and plunged. It burst on their windshield with a crack of shattering glass, spattering pinkish liquid, which, an instant later, burst into flame. His window was still closing as it hit, and some spurted in, filling the cabin with gasoline fumes. Time slowed as he watched the flame outside propagate along the fume-line, jump the gap just as the window sealed, and ignite on his shoulder and in the rear seat.

"Holy shit," Mills said, hitting the accelerator. Dan twisted away from the flames, beating at them frantically as they lurched forward. They crisped his hair, and a choking plasticky smoke filled the interior. Flailing at the fire, feeling his skin start to burn, he only dimly sensed their acceleration forward, then an abrupt brake that slammed him into his shoulder belt.

A thick white cloud blasted windshield and hood, instantly extinguishing the flames that roared and licked there. Tiny volcanoes of blistered, smoking paint vented gas and then sagged, stiffening as frost coated them. The door jerked open and an icy howl enveloped him, stopping his breath, instantly freezing his skin. But the flames doused as if by incantation. The rush of frigid gas moved on, to blast first over Mills, hunched at the wheel, eyes squinched, then shifting to the backseat, to quell the last stubborn pools of fire back there.

Gloved hands seized his belts, sawed, and yanked. He stumbled out in a gush of smoke and white vapor, flakes of which drifted around him before sublimating into invisibility. He nearly fell, but other hands steadied him, and he coughed hard, his 9/11-scarred trachea nearly closing. He swallowed, and grabbed the mask tubed to a green cylinder someone held out.

"Matt, you okay? —Matt?"

"Okay, sir," Mills said, sounding shaken, but looking unhurt. "You burned?"

"Just my … mainly my uniform, I think."

As a medic led him toward an emergency response van Dan glanced back. A steel mesh barrier and a solid line of troops barred access to the base. Red and blue strobes hurtled across still-smoking asphalt. The Italian police were in among the demonstrators, pushing them to their knees, handcuffing them. Some fought back, and the cops blocked the blows with their shields. Black batons rose and fell as, down the narrow street, sirens seesawed and more police vehicles turned in toward the scuffle.

He coughed hard, and sucked another hit of oxygen. If he hadn't gotten that window closed, the gasoline would have gone all over him. A fucking Molotov cocktail. Was he the target, or just a random victim? His damaged throat spasmed again and he closed his eyes, trying to breathe.

"Sit down right here, sir," the corpsman said. Filipino, by the look of him. "Got a problem with that airway?"

"No. No … problem."

Shrewd brown eyes examined him. "Looked like you might have. Just need to have you lie down here, then. And I'm going to give you a little injection, all right? Just to help you relax."

Still fighting to catch his breath, Dan only nodded.

* * *

THAT night, in his suite, he looked through a book someone had left in the lobby bookcase. It was by Freya Stark, about Rome's long struggle to maintain its eastern frontier against first Mithradates, then the Seleucids, and then the long struggle with the Parthians … who seemed to be related, in some way not quite clear, to the Pathans or Pashtuns he, Dan, had fought in Afghanistan. The Persians seemed to be involved too, but later in the story.

Eventually, trying his cell every few pages, he managed to get through to Blair. His wife sounded depressed. She'd been fighting the blues for a long time now, after being injured in the Twin Towers collapse. She'd gone through bone infection, burn problems, and trouble with the autografts to her face and ear. "How's it going, honey?" he said. "It's me."

"I know. But why's your voice so raspy?"

He debated telling her about the firebombing, but decided that would serve no good purpose. His skin still itched where the corpsman had applied an antibiotic ointment. He shivered. After getting badly burned on Reynolds Ryan, and so narrowly escaping from the Pentagon on 9/11, he was really starting to fear fire. "I don't know. Do I sound different?"

"Maybe not. Where are you now? Italy?"

"Correct. Naples."

"I'm sitting here watching them start another TV war. Are you aboard your ship? Savo Island, you said?"

"No, I'm at the Navy Lodge. I can't take over until they relieve the previous CO."

"I wish you didn't have to go."

He lay on the bed, BlackBerry pressed to his ear. The news was on the television, an Italian channel, sound muted, but a long shot panned the length of a beached and helpless warship, lingered on the U.S. flag, then pulled back to show the harbor. A commentator spoke in the foreground, ending with a smirk and a shake of the head. Dan closed his eyes. "So, how's the ear?"

"Looks horrible, but the swelling's going down."

"And the fund-raising?"

"I feel infected after every meeting. But Checkie says it's got to be done. He's been a big help. He advises me before every sit-down."

"That's good, hon. But I can't believe you need much hand-holding." Checkie Titus was her father, a retired banker. Blair was from one of the oldest families in Maryland, and a former undersecretary of defense. Dan didn't think she'd actually have much trouble raising enough cash to run for Congress, though he wasn't sure he wanted her to win. That, of course, had to go unvoiced. Like maybe a lot of things between husbands and wives.

"I wish you didn't have to deploy again."

"I wish I could be in two places, hon. How about this. Maybe you can take a break and fly over. How's Crete sound? The ruins of Minos. Or maybe Athens?"

"I've been to Athens, but Crete … hmm. That'd be new." Her voice changed, gained what sounded like anticipation. "Can you let me know your schedule?"

"Not sure just yet. And I couldn't tell you over the phone anyway. I'll give you the name of the port-calls guy at Surflant."

When he hung up he lay watching the muted images flicker shifting shadows on the ceiling of the darkened cavelike room. He hadn't seen his daughter in nearly a year. Wouldn't see his wife for months. Neither would any of the others aboard the ship he might shortly call his own.

Why did they do it? When they could all make more money ashore? Be with their families. Have actual lives. Instead, they were part of a crew.

Part of a crew.


Maybe that was explanation enough.

Copyright © 2014 by David Poyer