Chapter 5. Monday Morning
Jordan’s internal clock woke her at 0600, a sure sign that she’d gotten a good night’s sleep. Stretching sleepily, she thought back on her weekend with Jack and their agenda for the day. She wasn’t sure which was more exciting, her new love or her pending assignment with the CRT. Either way, she had a busy day ahead. Wasting no time, she donned her running clothes and headed out the door. As she ran by the marina, she flung a salute in the general direction of Walk on the Moon, thanking the boat for her part in their weekend adventure.
Returning shortly before 0700, she slipped into the shower. She calculated that her short haircut saved her an average of ten minutes a day, a worthwhile trade-off in her mind. Towel wrapped around her torso, she came out of the bathroom and rummaged through her bag looking for clean clothes. The weekend hadn’t included time for laundry, and the large duffel she’d shipped down from D.C. wasn’t due until Tuesday. The pickings were slim.
A loud rap on the door caused her to jump. She wasn’t expecting anyone. A quick check through the peephole identified her visitor as Jack, wearing battered navy blue sweats and a drillmaster scowl. An impish grin spread across her face. The opportunity for payback was too good to waste. Putting on a carefully neutral expression, she unchained the door and opened it ten inches.
Jack’s eyes widened. Seeing Jordan clad only in a towel brought back vivid memories of watching her shower. Squelching the images and the feelings they aroused, he brought his attention back to his mission. “All right, Jordan,” he growled. “Where are my cookies?”
“Stand at attention,” she snapped disdainfully. Taken aback, Jack automatically straightened as Jordan continued, “Master Chief, when I want you to have a cookie, I’ll give it to you.” She slammed the door in his face.
Laughing, she quickly pulled on a pair of shorts and a T-shirt, reopening the door to see Jack struggling to keep a straight face. “Would you like to come in?” she asked. “Or are you just here for food?”
He pretended to give her question serious thought. “Both,” he answered. “But I can’t stay long.” He grinned. “I was a real son of a bitch, wasn’t I?”
“Yes, you were,” she snorted. “And you enjoyed it entirely too much.” Backing away from the doorway, she beckoned him in and closed the door behind him. “I’m glad to see you, tiger,” she said, resting her hands on the points of his hips. “I’ve been thinking about you.”
Placing his hands on her shoulders, Jack bent his head to kiss her. She raised her mouth to meet his in a brief connection. “I couldn’t stop thinking about you, either,” he said softly, his voice husky. He kissed her again. “I wanted to see you one more time before going to work, make sure I hadn’t dreamed the whole weekend. The missing cookies gave me an excuse to stop by.” He paused. “You do have them, don’t you?”
Jordan laughed. “Maybe.” Her look became more serious as she reached up and touched his cheek. “If it was a dream, it was a good dream.” She drew his head down for another kiss, releasing him reluctantly. “We have a big day ahead.” Stepping back and cocking her head, she surveyed Jack’s outfit. “Pretty casual attire for a meeting with the C.O.”
“Afraid I’m getting cold feet?” he teased. “I’m heading for the gym first. Uniform’s hanging in the SUV.”
She frowned. “Hmm, that reminds me. I wasn’t planning to be back in uniform until Wednesday. I’d better head to base early so I can touch up my shirt and trousers. Might start a load of laundry, too, as long as I’m there.”
“Do your laundry at my house. Ironing, too.” Fishing in his pocket, Jack brought out a key and handed it to her. “My spare house key. It’s yours.”
She looked at him with pleased surprise. “Thank you, Jack,” she said as she accepted the key, appreciating the trust behind this gesture. “You sure you want to give this to the woman who stole your cookies?”
He studied her face, slowly running his thumb along her jaw. “Yes. I’m sure.” Leaning down, he brushed his lips against hers. “I need to get going, baby. Meet me for lunch somewhere.”
“How about your place? I can pick up some sandwiches from that deli on the corner.”
He kissed the top of her head. “Sounds good,” he replied, his nose buried in her soft hair. “Roast beef on rye, no cheese, mustard no mayo. I can be home by 1210. Work for you?” His voice was muffled against her skin.
Jordan giggled. Puzzled, Jack lifted his head and asked, “What’s so funny, baby?”
“Your mustache is tickling me!” Struggling to concentrate, she repeated the lunch order back and looked up at him for confirmation.
Chuckling, he nodded. “You’ve got it. Thanks.” Cocking his head, he asked, “Does my mustache tickle you when we kiss, too?”
“Sometimes,” she acknowledged. “But I like it. Don’t you dare stop,” she ordered, raising her head imperatively.
“Yes, ma’am!” He obliged her with one more long, sweet kiss. Tearing himself away, he glanced at his watch. “I’ve gotta go, baby,” he said regretfully.
“Don’t forget your cookies,” she reminded him.
“What cookies?” he asked innocently, ducking as she swatted at him. “Save ’em for lunch.” Grinning, he cut off her attempted retort with one last kiss and headed out the door.
Laughing, Jordan followed him to the doorway, watching bemusedly until his 4Runner disappeared from view. As she returned to the motel room, she glanced at the clock. Oh-seven-fifteen. She briefly considered checking out of the motel, but decided it might be premature. Loading all of her belongings into the rental car, she headed for Jack’s house, picking up a drive-through breakfast on the way.
Arriving at his home, she walked in and set her bags on the floor. She felt awkward being there without him, halfway expecting someone to chase her away. Though she shook her head at this foolishness, she knew why she felt this way. She’d known Master Chief Urgayle for months, thought she understood him reasonably well, though she always sensed there was more to him than she could see. Now she realized the trainer chief was only one aspect of the man, a persona he’d created so that he could do his job and keep the world at bay. Over the past four days she’d gotten to know more of Jack as a friend and lover, but he was still more hidden than visible. She looked forward to learning more about John James Urgayle, realizing it was a project that could keep her occupied for years.
Bringing herself back to the present, she sought out the laundry room, resisting the urge to explore more thoroughly. Once it was located, she moved her gear there, started a load in the washer, hung up her uniforms, and turned on the iron. While it heated up, she returned to the kitchen to eat her breakfast. On impulse, she put “Tutu” on the CD player and listened to it while she ate, thinking ahead to her meeting with Captain Sehloff.
At 0800 on the dot she called the captain’s office, confirming her 0900 appointment. She thought about wearing her whites, but decided to choose the more serviceable khaki shirt and slacks. She wanted to look as practical and capable as possible. After ironing and donning her uniform, she explored Jack’s collection of books, waiting for the washer to finish. Biographies, history, true adventure stories, fine art books, classics, poetry, contemporary fiction, cheap mystery novels. If there was a common thread, she was unable to find it.
The buzzing of the washing machine interrupted her reverie. She quickly transferred her laundry to the dryer, pulling out the lacy bits to hang. She grinned as she imagined Jack coming home to find them dangling from the shower rod. They would help him remember she was as much a woman as she was an operator–not that he seemed to need reminding. She glanced at her watch. Oh-eight-forty. With a final check in the mirror, she headed out the door. She didn’t want to be late for her first appointment with her new commanding officer.
Jack limped into the base gym, stopping momentarily to allow his eyes to adjust to the dim light of the interior. The pungent odor of stale sweat and socks worn too long filled his nostrils. He listened to the grunting and good-natured banter of the men working out as he scanned the room for his workout partner.
“Over here, Jack!” Clad in black sweat pants, shirtless and barefoot, Senior Chief Max Pyro padded over, dumbbell in one hand. He slung a towel around his neck to catch the sweat that dripped from his hair and ran in rivulets down his face. Looking pointedly at the large clock on the wall, he queried his buddy. “Some extra beauty rest this morning?” Grinning, he waited expectantly for a growl.
“Max,” Jack nodded in greeting, ignoring the jibe. He put down his gym bag and shed his sweatshirt, exposing the black T-shirt underneath.
Seeing that no more interesting response was forthcoming, Max sat down on the nearest bench and resumed his curls. “Where were you this weekend, anyway? I called a couple of times. Hooked up with this great chick, and she had a twin sister…”
“Count me out of your plans, Max.” Jack replied blandly, cutting him off in mid-sentence. “I’m out of circulation for a while.” He started his stretching routine.
Max snorted. “What, you got the clap?” Enjoying his own wit, he waited expectantly for a rise from Jack, but the chief just smiled back.
The lack of response was not in character. Puzzled, Max asked, “What the hell?” Suddenly a light dawned in his eyes. “Oh-ho, Jacko, found yourself a honey for the weekend?” He grinned lasciviously. “So who is she, man? Where’d you meet her?”
“She’s from out of town,” Jack replied, stretching his shoulders. “An old friend. No one you’d be interested in.” Suppressing a smile, he nodded at the row of weights along the wall. “Are we going to sit here and gossip or can I get on with my workout?”
Through the rest of the workout, Max continued his attempts to pry more information out of his friend, giving Jack a great deal of amusement and satisfaction. When the master chief headed for the shower, Max was none the wiser.
Jack arrived at Captain Salem’s office at 0830 sharp, having exchanged his sweats for summer whites. He stood at attention in the doorway and saluted.
“Come in, come in,” Salem said, returning the salute and pointing to a chair. “As you were. Sit, get off that leg.”
Jack sat across the desk from the C.O. “Permission to speak freely, sir?”
“Of course, Chief.” Salem was surprised. They rarely talked about anything other than routine Navy business at their weekly meetings.
“Request this conversation be off the record, sir.” Jack continued.
Salem frowned. “Request granted. Don’t scare me, Jack.”
“Thank you, sir.” Jack cleared his throat. All his carefully prepared speeches were flying out the window. “There’s this woman.” He stopped.
Salem raised his eyebrows. About time that boy found someone, he thought. But why off the record, and why was he being so hesitant? Feeling apprehensive, he asked, “She Navy?”
“Yes, sir.” Seeing the look on Salem’s face, Jack added, “but not under my command. She’s not stationed here.”
“That’s great, Jack. What’s the problem? Rank difference?” Getting information from the chief was like pulling teeth.
“Actually she outranks me. She’s a lieutenant.” Jack paused. “She’s on the CRT, sir.”
Salem almost choked on his cigar. “A woman … on the CRT? Shit, Jack, don’t tell me…” He raised himself from his chair and glared at Jack from across the desk.
Jack allowed a small smile to touch the corner of his mouth. “Yes, sir. Lieutenant O’Neil.” He hastened to add, “Nothing, I repeat, nothing happened during training. But she flew down Thursday. Wanted my advice regarding her assignment. We had dinner and talked, then went out Friday evening and spent most of the weekend together. Purely platonic, sir.” He cleared his throat. “But we do intend to pursue a relationship.”
Salem glowered. “Anybody see you together?”
“We were discreet. I don’t think anyone from the base noticed us. We weren’t in uniform.”
Salem sat back down, exhaling. “Hell, Jack, what were you thinking?”
“I was thinking I hadn’t met such an interesting woman in years.” Without realizing it, he smiled briefly as he thought about her.
Salem saw the smile. For the first time he really looked at Jack. The C.O. could not remember seeing his command master chief looking so relaxed and energized. Salem shook his head. “You’re not going to get all mushy on me, are you?”
Jack grinned. “Not planning to, sir.”
Salem frowned. “God help us all. I don’t recall ever seeing you grin like that before. Don’t you go losing your edge on me, now. I need you sharp. You’re my best weapon with those trainees.” He leaned back in his chair, chewing his cigar. Finally he relented. “Glad to see you looking happy, Chief.”
“Thank you, sir. The lieutenant is meeting with Captain Sehloff at 0900.” Jack grimaced. “I’m sure the captain will call me in as well. I understand he’s picking up McCool as well as O’Neil. Has he talked with you about his new grads?”
“He’s reviewing their files this morning. We’re scheduled to meet at 1300 hours. Seems we’ll have plenty to talk about.” Straightening up in his chair, Salem allowed himself a dry smile.
“No doubt, sir.”
“I’ll tell Sehloff I have no problem with it, on one condition.”
Jack eyed his commanding officer warily. “The condition being?”
“You don’t let that woman soften you up. I need your assurance you can still be an asshole when necessary.”
“I know the role well,” Jack nodded soberly. “Thank you, sir.” Handing Salem a printed status report, he slipped into their usual Monday morning routine. “My status. Anything I need to focus on this week?”
Salem scanned the report. They continued their meeting for another twenty minutes, as though this were an ordinary Monday morning.
Seated behind the desk in his temporary office, Captain Kurt Sehloff read the orders once more. “What the hell did I do to deserve this?” he muttered for the tenth time that morning. The paper in front of him looked deceptively like any other assignment order. Even the name “Jordan” could indicate a man.
Or, as in this case, a woman. “How the hell did she manage to make it through SEAL/CRT training? Has Jack lost his mind?” He shook his head. His verbal orders were clear. He was to use no obvious harassment, do nothing illegal, nothing he wouldn’t do with any other new team member. But he was to give her no slack. If she so much as sneezed at the wrong moment, he had his superiors’ blessing to boot her back to Washington. Clenching his fist, he growled, “politics,” making the word an expletive. Shoving the papers aside, he looked at the clock. Oh-nine-hundred hours. She should be here.
At precisely that moment, Lieutenant Jordan O’Neil appeared in Sehloff’s open doorway and snapped a salute, feeling almost as calm and resolute as she appeared. The captain’s square face and broad shoulders brought the image of a bull to her mind. Not a happy Ferdinand, this bull looked as though he was scouting for a matador to disembowel. She recalled Jack’s advice to keep the discussion businesslike.
“Lieutenant.” Sehloff acknowledged her salute and tipped his head back slightly, directing her to enter. He did not indicate the chair sitting across from his desk. She walked into the room, closing the door behind her, and continued standing at attention.
He studied her, curious to see this woman who had evidently managed to complete the tough course. She was shorter and more solidly built than he had pictured. Her hair was about an inch long, in a simple low-maintenance style. Her khaki uniform was equally neat and serviceable, from the cap tucked under her arm to her polished brown shoes. As far as he could tell, she wore no makeup or jewelry, and he caught no whiff of perfume. For all that, she was clearly female, and one his men would no doubt find attractive. He shook his head at the thought and sat silently a few more moments, looking for signs of approaching nervousness. He saw none.
“Stand easy, O’Neil,” he finally granted. “You wanted to see me?”
“Yes, sir.” Her voice was strong and steady. “Permission to speak freely, sir.” She paused long enough for him to nod his head. “Thank you, sir. And I request that this conversation be off the record.”
The captain raised his eyebrows and grunted. “Why?”
“I intend to share private information about myself and another member of the Navy, sir.” She caught his eyes. “If this information leads you to decide that Navy operations have been jeopardized in any way, you may use it as you see fit.”
“Hmmph.” Sehloff nodded slowly. “Very well, Lieutenant. But I reserve the right to repeat your statements if I deem it necessary for any reason. Proceed.”
She nodded crisply. “I contacted Master Chief Urgayle last Thursday when I arrived in Florida, to request his advice. We met that evening over dinner to discuss my new assignment, the CRT course, and other related business.” She hesitated only briefly. “At the end of the evening, he invited me to join him for pizza and a movie the following night. I accepted.”
Sehloff raised his eyebrows. “Go on.”
Jordan took a deep breath as she approached the more sensitive part of her story. “We went to Urgayle’s house after the movie, and talked at length.” She chose not to mention the physical contact they’d enjoyed. “We acknowledged our interest in getting to know each other better, but we had concerns about whether such activities might be contrary to the Navy’s fraternization policies. Saturday morning I contacted a friend in the IG’s office. She indicated that our relative ranks and recent instructor/trainee connection put us into a gray area of the regulations, giving discretionary authority to the commanding officer. We spent time together over the weekend but agreed to keep our relationship platonic until we could talk with you and Salem.”
Sehloff sat back, drumming his fingers on the arm of his chair. Was this how she’d managed to weasel her way through training? Slowly shaking his head, he eyed the lieutenant skeptically. “So you’re asking permission to continue pursuing this relationship with Urgayle.”
“Effectively, yes, sir,” she replied.
“Sit,” he directed, gesturing toward the chair. She sat. “It’s been almost three weeks since the end of training?” He asked the question rhetorically, ignoring her nod. “What was your relationship with the chief during the course?”
Jordan answered carefully. “Completely professional. The chief did his best to convince me to drop out of the program, but he treated me fairly.”
“No special treatment?” Sehloff had heard this was the case, though he found it hard to believe.
“No, sir. The trainers treated me as though I were one of the men. Equal requirements, equal workload, equal rations of shit. Equal consequences if I screwed up. I lived in the barracks with the rest of the trainees.” She looked at him directly, leaning forward slightly. “That’s the way I wanted it, sir.”
“I heard some wild stories about the SERE POW simulation. I understand you two had quite a battle. He beat you up pretty badly?”
“I gave him as good as I got, sir.” Jordan smiled briefly. “Just ask him.”
“I intend to.” Sehloff shook his head. “So when did you start this transition from battling to dating?”
“We reached a truce after SERE. I think the master chief finally realized he couldn’t get rid of me. But as I said before, it was on a purely professional basis.” She reflected. “I contacted him last week because I didn’t know anyone else who could provide the advice I was seeking. To tell you the truth, I halfway expected him to refuse to talk to me.”
Rubbing his chin, Sehloff silently digested the lieutenant’s presentation. Finally he sat up and leaned forward, resting his arms heavily on the table. “I’ll be frank, O’Neil. Personally I couldn’t care less whether you have an affair with Jack Urgayle. What I do care about is my team’s ability to get their jobs done and get home safely.”
Setting his jaw, he shook his head slowly. “I’m sure you can guess that I didn’t ask for you to be assigned to me. I don’t know what the hell kind of strings you pulled to get any assignment at all.” He looked her in the eye. “No one wants a woman on the CRT, Lieutenant, and frankly, it baffles me that you want to be here. My superiors made it clear that no one will shed a tear if you leave, no matter what the reason, trumped up or not.” He grunted. “If I busted your ass for going to a movie with Urgayle, hell, I might get a promotion.”
Looking for a reaction, he caught only a slight lift to her chin and tightening of her jaw. She was not going to be easily intimidated. Leaning back in his chair, he thought a few moments, eyes on a corner of the room. Finally he turned back to Jordan. “I try to be open-minded, but I won’t jeopardize my team or their missions just so someone can fly an equal rights banner. So you tell me. Why should I give you a chance?”
Taking a deep breath, Jordan assembled her case. She looked Sehloff in the eye as she spoke. “I earned my insignia just like the men did, sir. I passed all the coursework and performed well in a combat situation. I believe I will be an asset to your team. I’m strong, I’m smart, I’m fast, I’m tough. I can wiggle into spaces where most men can’t fit. I can get by on no sleep and less food. My topo skills are second to none. Give me a map, and I’ll tell you where people are and where they need to go. I don’t panic under pressure.” She straightened her back. “I may not have a dick, sir, but I do have guts.”
Sehloff grunted. “I’ve reviewed your course records. Your written work was exemplary, and you passed all the skills tests. But guts aren’t enough in hand-to-hand combat. I’d hate to see you up against a trained 200-pound man.”
Sending a silent apology to Jack, she replied, “I took down the master chief in the SERE camp, sir, with my hands tied behind my back. He underestimated me, left me an opening. I took it.” Looking pointedly at the captain, she added, “It wasn’t the only time someone has underestimated me.”
He formed a steeple with his fingers, choosing to ignore her last point. “Tell me more about SERE. How did you get captured? How did this battle begin?”
Wincing slightly, she acknowledged her initial failure of leadership. “I was team leader. Two of the guys refused to take orders from a woman. They took off in the wrong direction and tripped a booby trap.” Before he could comment, she continued. “When I didn’t crack under the chief’s initial interrogation, he set out to prove that the men wouldn’t be able to handle seeing me being hurt.” She paused. “He gave me every opportunity to back down, but I told him I didn’t want him to go easy on me because I was a woman. I taunted him, pushed him to do his worst. It had become the only way I could gain any credibility with him or my team.”
“I see,” Sehloff mused. “So how did you take him down?”
Jordan decided not to mention the threatened rape. “He had me bent over a table, trying to get the guys to give him some intel. I kicked him in the kneecap and smashed the back of my head into his nose. He went down on his knees, so I kicked him four or five times to flatten him and keep him there temporarily.” She paused. “Unfortunately, with my hands tied and guards all around, there was nowhere for me to go, and he managed to get back on his feet.”
Sehloff shook his head once again, trying to imagine this woman taking down Jack Urgayle. He didn’t want to ask why the chief had her bent over a table. If she was telling the truth, Jack had some explaining to do. “Then what happened?”
“He knocked me down twice more, pretty hard. The second time I almost stayed down. Then I heard him telling the guys that my presence made them vulnerable. So I managed to get up and defy him one last time.”
“Was this the now-famous ‘suck my dick’ line?” he asked. She nodded, slightly abashed. “Sounds like quite a show, Lieutenant.”
“The men thought so, sir.” She smiled briefly, remembering the “hooyahs” that greeted her final remark. “Master Chief Urgayle and I were pretty battered, but for me, at least, it was worth it. The guys really rallied behind me.” She paused. “I think that’s when he finally started to respect me.”
The captain nodded his head slowly. In spite of his efforts to remain unswayed, he, too, was starting to respect the lieutenant. He could see why Jack had become attracted to her, though it was certainly a bizarre way to start a relationship. But that didn’t mean she belonged on a reconnaissance team. It was time to check her story. “I need to talk with Urgayle and Salem,” he said, “and I’m also going to put in a call to the JAG for an opinion on the fraternization question.” He glanced at the clock. “Check back with me at 1400 hours and I’ll let you know my decision. Dismissed.” He nodded his head and turned away to pick up the telephone.
O’Neil saluted and left, closing the door behind her. She paused in the hallway to regroup, feeling much less certain of her future than she had going in to the meeting. She’d thought her battle for an assignment was over; now it seemed she’d only won a few skirmishes. Stiffening her spine, she vowed under her breath, “If it’s a fight they want, they’ll get it.”
Through the thin wall, she heard Sehloff on the phone. “Urgayle, get your ass over here.” Smiling in spite of her anxiety, she checked her watch. She still had time to drop in at Lt. Blondell’s office on her way to her psych appointment. Heading toward the door, she saw Jack coming down the hallway in his crisp whites. She couldn’t keep from smiling, though she maintained a careful distance as she nodded, “Master Chief.” Her steps felt lighter as she continued down the hall.
“Lieutenant,” he responded with an equally professional nod and brief smile. His eyes followed her as she walked away. With a small sigh, he approached Sehloff’s door and knocked.
“Come in!” Sehloff bellowed. Jack entered, closing the door behind him. The captain wasted no time getting to the point. “What the hell’s been going on between you and Lieutenant O’Neil? And what possessed you to let a woman pass the SEAL/CRT course? Are you out of your mind?”
Jack’s jaw tensed as he bit back a curt response. Then, remembering how easily Jordan had disarmed him when she returned from D.C., he decided to give her tactics a try. He stood at attention, offering the captain a quick salute and tight smile. “Good to see you again, Captain. Congratulations on your promotion.” He waited for Sehloff to stop blustering and acknowledge him.
The captain sputtered to a halt. “All right, Jack,” he said gruffly, waving his hand at the chief. “Have a seat. And stop calling me ‘captain.’ You know we worked together too long for that.” He paused while Jack arranged himself in a chair. “Tell me you didn’t pass this woman just because you had the hots for her.”
The chief glared at the captain. “I didn’t pass O’Neil just because I had the hots for her, Kurt. No one graduates from my classes unless I’m convinced they’re ready. And you know it.” Relaxing slightly, he added, “And for the record, I didn’t have the hots for her during the course, though I have to admit she got my attention.” He shrugged his shoulders. “We gave her the same work, the same tests, the same shit we gave the rest of the trainees. In some areas we were harder on her than on the guys. I was so sure she’d ring out or test out that I didn’t take her seriously through most of the training session. She was a fluke, a curiosity, an irritant.”
“An irritant?” Kurt asked. “In what way?”
Jack threw open his hands. “She was a woman in my CRT training course. She didn’t belong there. How could she not be an irritant?” He shook his head. “Initially we were told to give her special treatment. She was billeted in separate barracks, held to lower standards. She had tied up her long hair but it kept falling down and getting in her eyes.” He snorted. “She was a joke. But that lasted only a couple of days. Then she insisted on being treated like the guys, shaved her head, quietly moved herself into the men’s barracks in the middle of the night. Caused a row in the morning.”
“And that irritated you?”
“I was pissed as hell. She was turning my class into a circus. Guys couldn’t concentrate. Tampon jokes.” He paused, realizing he might be giving Kurt the wrong impression. “At the time, we blamed her for the commotion. Thing is, she wasn’t trying to cause trouble. She wanted to succeed at the training and become operational, just like the guys did. It was the men who were out of line, not her.”
“But still,” Kurt replied, “she was a distraction. Made it more difficult to keep order?”
“Distraction, yes. Difficulty keeping order?” Jack thought a minute. “Maybe just the opposite. Once the guys got over having her in their barracks, they actually tended to behave themselves a bit better with her around. She was serious about the training, didn’t mess around, didn’t tease them. Held herself to a high standard. Her presence challenged the guys to do their best — they didn’t want the girl to beat them.”
“How do you predict she’d affect my team?” Kurt asked. “I have a good group, but they’re not angels.” He shook his head. “I’m not looking forward to throwing a woman into the pen with them.”
“Have you told them you have a woman coming on board?”
“Not yet. I’m still not sure I do. The west coast CRT commanding officer has flatly refused to take her. The brass seem to be under some pressure to place her, so they’re leaning on me. It was made clear that there will be some ‘appreciation’ if I can handle the O’Neil problem. But I can’t and won’t put her on my team if she’s going to jeopardize them in any way.” He raised a calculating eyebrow at Jack. “It would help if I could make it known that she’s dating the Catalano CMC. Your reputation might keep the guys from behaving like idiots around her.”
“What, I act like an idiot around her so they don’t have to?” Jack grinned at his old buddy. “Okay with me if you tell them, but better check with Jordan too.”
Kurt laughed. “You have loosened up a bit, haven’t you, Jack?” Shaking his head, he brought the chief back to the subject. “You haven’t answered my question yet, Jack. Bottom line. Is her presence going to make it harder for my men to do their jobs and get home safely?”
Dropping his gaze, Jack stared at a corner of the floor for a few moments. Returning his eyes to Kurt’s, he shook his head slowly. “I can’t answer that, Kurt. Every new grad is a wild card. You never know for sure which ones are going to settle in and do the job, which ones will fall apart when the pressure is too great. I think O’Neil will do well in the field. It’s my experience that the small scrappy guys do as well as or better than the big strong fellows, and she’s as scrappy as they come.”
He grimaced as he continued. “With the team, at least at first, she’ll present some special challenges. Especially on a sub, where she’ll be the only woman. Even if her platoon is okay with her, the rest of the crew may not be. She’s almost certain to be verbally harassed, could even be physically attacked. She’s got a mouth on her, and she’ll stand up to any of the men if they give her flak. Stand up to you, too, for that matter. Physically, I think she’s tough enough to take care of herself one on one, but you might remind her not to let herself get cornered by a group. The trainees learned to accept her, and I’m sure your men will too, over time. But there’s bound to be some friction while they work it out.”
Kurt digested this information without comment, nodding deliberately. “Back to the training. O’Neil told me her side of the SERE story. What’s your side?”
Jack shook his head slowly, reluctantly meeting the captain’s eyes. “It was one of the ugliest jobs I’ve ever taken on. First time I ever hit a woman, and hope to god it’s the last. But I knew it was my final chance to prove that she didn’t belong in the CRT, so I turned off my conscience and went to work.” He looked at Kurt meaningfully. “You know what I’m capable of. I tried everything in my arsenal to convince her to drop out. She took more abuse than most men would tolerate, and came right back at me.”
He exhaled slowly. “I needed to prove that a female’s presence would make the team vulnerable, that the men would jeopardize the mission to save a woman. So I knocked her around in front of the guys on her team, figuring they would spill their guts to make me stop.” He grunted. “They were ready to crack, but she ordered them to keep their mouths shut and they obeyed her. Didn’t expect that. Forced me to escalate beyond my original plans.”
Kurt nodded. This was starting to make sense. “She said you had her bent over a table. I can only guess what that was about.”
Jack laughed mirthlessly. “Fat lot of good it did. That threat would have gotten me all the intel I wanted from some of the men in the pen. Didn’t faze her in the least. I even cut her belt with my knife, started to pull her pants down.” He looked at the captain. “She tell you how she turned the tables?”
“Said she caught you off guard, smashed your nose and took you down. Kicked you, too?”
Jack nodded. “She connected several times, including where it hurts the most. And she wasn’t pulling her punches.”
Kurt frowned. “Where were the other instructors while you were on the ground? Why didn’t they stop her?”
“Pyro tried to interfere earlier, thought I was being too rough on her. I told him to stay out of it. So they all stood there picking their noses while she kicked me around.” Jack shrugged. “I guess they figured I was getting what I deserved.”
“Sounds as though Max was right. Bending regs, weren’t you, Jack? I’m surprised there wasn’t an inquiry.”
“If O’Neil had filed charges, I could have been in trouble. But that wasn’t her agenda.” Jack shook his head wonderingly. “I know it sounds strange, but she wanted me to do my worst. With every bit of mayhem I threw at her, she came back daring me to push harder. She told me later that she knew it was the only way she was going to win the respect of the team. And me.”
“Told you later?” Kurt asked.
“Last week. We hadn’t spoken since graduation. She approached me to ask my advice about her assignment with your team. We talked about the training, particularly about SERE, and the Libya mission. Cleared the air a bit.”
“Speaking of Libya, Jack.” The captain pulled a report out of the stack of papers on his desk. “Some interesting reading here. Just received it this morning, so I haven’t had a chance to read past the summary pages. Maybe you can fill me in on the details.” He scanned the page looking for the statements that had caught his eye. “According to this report, you left the team at the landing site while you and O’Neil went to scout the extraction corridor. Why did you pick her to go with you?”
“Topo is her area of expertise. She’s good at reading maps, reading terrain. I figured she was the best person for the job.”
Kurt nodded his head. “Says here you spotted some Bedouins and then several border patrol vehicles on a road that runs right through the extraction route. After that the summary is a bit unclear. I guess one of the vehicles detoured up to your lookout point?” Looking up, Kurt shot Jack a questioning look. When Jack nodded, Kurt went back to the report. “One Libyan soldier stopped, walked around looking for something, came close to O’Neil’s hiding place, and you shot him, thereby alerting the rest of the patrol to your presence.”
Kurt placed the document back on the table. “Something doesn’t smell right here. You were supposed to go in and out without calling any attention to yourselves. What happened? Why’d you shoot this guy?”
Jack was silent for a few moments, recreating the scene in his mind. “The road ran through a broad desert valley. I had a good vantage point from a rock outcropping on a ridge. O’Neil was about a hundred yards to my left, downslope, in a semi-abandoned camp. A few ragged tents, rusted barrels, boxes. One vehicle broke away from the group and drove up to the camp. O’Neil ducked behind a wall. The guy got out of his vehicle, put down his rifle, walked toward her hiding place. As he got close, he heard her whisper to me on the radio and got suspicious, pulled out a handgun. He was looking for her. She had her knife ready, said she’d take him out, but I didn’t want to take a chance. So I fired.”
“You didn’t trust her to do the job?” Kurt’s question was delivered almost as a statement. He cocked his head, watching Jack’s expression closely. “Were you afraid for her?”
Jack frowned, knowing he was being herded into a trap. “It was a tough call. She was game to try, but it was her first combat situation. He was a big guy, he had his weapon drawn, and he was wary. Wasn’t some half-asleep sentry.” He shook his head, eyes traveling uneasily to the brace on his leg. “Shooting him was not a great solution. Stirred up the hornets’ nest, and I’ve got a bum leg to show for it. But if he’d taken out O’Neil, injured her, or taken her hostage, it could have been a lot worse.” Jack paused, anticipating the next question.
“And if instead of O’Neil, it had been one of the guys?”
“If it were you or Pyro, I wouldn’t have batted an eye. A trainee like Wickwire or McCool, who had some good combat experience, I’d have kept a finger on the trigger but I would have let him make the call.” He hesitated, lowering his head and roughly running his fingers through his hair. “I told O’Neil that if it had been another guy without combat experience, I would have made the same call that I made with her.”
Sensing Jack’s uncertainty, Kurt pushed his attack. “You think she lacks the stomach for a job like that? The strength?” Kurt leaned forward. “Or were you being overly protective? Did your feelings for her color your judgment?”
“I think she could have done it, Kurt. But I don’t know for sure,” he replied, twisting his mouth, ignoring the last questions.
“You don’t know if she was capable of taking the guy out, because you didn’t give her the chance to find out. So either she’s not ready or you screwed up. Which is it, Jack?”
“Shit, Kurt, it was her first mission! She hadn’t even graduated yet.” Jack straightened in his chair, leaning forward as he made his point. “You know as well as I do you don’t want to put a trainee in a position like that. Yeah, I screwed up. If I’d realized what we’d be facing I would have taken one of the other guys, or taken a different route. But don’t go reading more into it than was there.” Folding his arms across his chest and setting his jaw, he sat back, daring Kurt to pursue this further.
Kurt leaned back, stroking his chin. “The rest of the summary doesn’t speak badly of her. Sounds as though her leadership saved your hide. How’d she figure out where to find you? You two work out a plan?”
Jack shook his head, his jaw still tense. “She studied the map, the terrain, figured out what I’d do given the circumstances. Wick told me that setting up the explosives was her idea too.” Realizing that Kurt had backed off, he relaxed slightly. “Yeah, she’s a good leader. Original thinker, probably stronger than either Wick or McCool as a strategist.” He paused. “But it wasn’t just her leadership saved my hide. She ran into enemy fire and dragged me to safety. Might have made more sense to send one of the guys in for me, but she was closest so she did it herself.” He looked directly at Kurt. “Fault me if you want to on that mission, but don’t hold it against her.”
Kurt let out an exasperated sigh. “It’s not about fault, damn it. I’m trying to figure out whether to give this woman a chance, and you haven’t made it easier. First I find out you two have a thing going, calling into question everything you say. Then you keep feeding me conflicting messages. She took you down, her hands tied, but you couldn’t trust her to take out the Libyan. Her presence was a distraction but helped with discipline. She’s good but… she’s ready but… she can do the job but… bottom line, she’s still a woman.” He snorted. “Hell, I’m more uncertain now than I was when I started this morning.”
“I don’t envy you the decision,” Jack agreed. “But don’t underestimate her. She’s as qualified as any of the guys, Kurt. Stronger in some areas, weaker in others. Just like everybody else.”
“What would you do in my place? Would you agree to have a female in your platoon? Even if she were as good as O’Neil seems to be?”
Frowning, Jack rubbed his chin as he tried to find a good answer to Kurt’s question. “Before I met Jordan and saw what she could do, I never would have accepted a woman on my team. Now if I were asked to take on a woman of equal caliber, I would consider it. Bottom line?” He hesitated, his sense of duty warring with his desire to help his partner. Duty won. Reluctantly, he admitted, “It would be hard for me to treat a woman as just another teammate. I’d be inclined to watch out for her. Wouldn’t trust her to take care of herself.” He shook his head. “Once I got to know her we’d probably work it out, but it would take some doing.” He met the captain’s eyes reluctantly. “The women aren’t the problem, Kurt. We are. It’s not just Jordan’s competence that’s in question. The men’s attitudes will have to accommodate her, and that’s not going to be easy.”
Kurt nodded. “I think you’ve hit the nail on the head, Jack. No matter how well O’Neil does, she’s still limited by the attitude of the men she works with. I have to ask whether my guys are evolved enough to adapt.”
“I hope the answer is yes,” Jack replied grimly. “Jordan will kill me if she thinks my hesitation lost her the assignment.”
“You really want your girlfriend going away on assignment with a bunch of wild-ass operators?”
“Of course not. I’d like her to be here with me. I know as well as you do what could happen to her. Scares the shit out of me if I let myself think about it. But it’s not just about what I want, it’s about what she wants, and about the job she’s trained for and signed up to do. Same thing you tell your wife about your job.”
Narrowing his eyes, Kurt studied his old buddy. “The lieutenant must be pretty fond of you to have talked with me this morning. I’m not sure you realize how tempting it is to use your fraternizing as an easy way to take care of the O’Neil problem.”
“We knew we were treading on thin ice. I figured as long as we were dating we might as well go all the way, but Jordan insisted on holding the line.” He smiled crookedly, remembering her lecture. “Said she was sure you could appreciate the difference between spending time with someone and sleeping with him, even if I couldn’t.”
“She’s right and you know it, you old dog.” Kurt shook his head. “Your logic might have worked on a 20-year-old but not on O’Neil.” He looked at Jack. “Must have been tempting.”
“We came pretty close a couple of times.” Jack grinned sheepishly. “The second time I ended up sleeping on the boat.”
Kurt shot him a stern glance. “Drawing the line was a good move on her part, but it would have made my job easier if the two of you had never gone down this path at all. You know damned well there’s a reason the Navy doesn’t allow fraternizing between instructors and students. I realize the course was over a few weeks ago, but that teacher-student relationship is still relevant. By compromising your objectivity, you’ve made it more difficult for me to gauge O’Neil’s suitability for the job.”
Jack ducked his head, acknowledging Kurt’s point. “Our first meeting was about business. A coaching session. But the more we talked, the more we enjoyed being with each other. We didn’t set out to make your job more difficult.”
Kurt shrugged his shoulders philosophically. “I’ll make the decision one way or another. I’m not sure how soon I’ll get an official opinion out of the JAG office regarding the fraternization, but if Jordan joins my team, I’m sure we can work something out eventually that will clear the decks for the two of you. In the meantime I’ll adopt a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy and you do as you please.” He threw Jack a mock glare. “Just don’t forget, you owe me one.”
“Thanks, Kurt.” Jack responded, acknowledging the debt. “I’m going to enjoy sharing that piece of intel with Jordan.” He returned to a more professional tone of voice. “Anything else you wanted to cover with me today?”
“Pyro around? I want to talk with him, get his perspective.”
Frowning, Jack opened his mouth to protest, but thought better of it. “They’re building some new barriers for the O-course. He’s supervising. What time?”
“Sooner the better. I’d like to get this wrapped up.”
Rising from his chair, Jack nodded. “I’ll send someone to fetch him.” Taking his leave, he returned to his office and sent Chief Carlson in a Jeep to the obstacle course to relieve Pyro. A check of his own schedule listed physical therapy at 1100, lunch with Jordan, and a personnel report due to Salem before the end of the day.
For a few moments, he let himself look forward to seeing Jordan at lunch. Kurt’s interrogation had rankled, but it was a price Jack was willing to pay if it helped her. Shaking his head, he brought himself back to the job at hand. This relationship stuff was eating into his time. He needed to focus if he was going to finish that report. Turning to his computer, he got to work.
The summons came just as Instructor Pyro was about to call for a 15-minute break. Giving brief instructions to Carlson, he left her in charge of the crew while he hopped in the Jeep and drove back to headquarters. Stopping in the washroom, he brushed off his navy blue utilities and mopped up the dust and sweat from his hands and face.
He arrived at Kurt Sehloff’s office shortly before 1030, wondering why the captain wanted to talk with him. Usually Jack handled any contact with the outside world. The master chief liked to present a unified front, keeping internal conflicts about training practices in house. The office door was open, revealing Kurt deep in thought over a report on his desk. Max saluted, clearing his throat to get the captain’s attention.
Looking up, Kurt grinned at his old teammate. “Max! Come in!” Standing, he waved away the salute and extended his hand across the desk. “Good to see you. Been a while.”
“Yes, sir, over three years.” Max smiled, grasping Kurt’s hand in a firm shake. “Congratulations on your promotion.”
“Thank you,” Kurt replied, pointing toward a chair and sitting back down. “Got lucky I guess. Close the door behind you and have a seat. Sounds as though you’re Jack’s right arm these days.”
Max shut the door and settled himself across from Kurt with a grunt. “More like his left leg. He gives me all the jobs that require running around. I’ve lost ten pounds since he came back from Libya.” He shook his head. “Not that I’m complaining. At least I’m not the one with the brace.”
Kurt nodded. “That Libya mission was a mess. Glad they all got out alive.” He leaned forward, propping his elbows on his desk. “Jack tell you what I wanted to talk about?”
“No, sir, just got a message to report to you on the double.” Max raised his eyebrows, cocking his head slightly. “Must admit, I’m curious.”
“Remember Lieutenant Jordan O’Neil?” Kurt queried. “She’s been assigned to my team and I’m trying to decide what to do with her. You were involved with her training?” It was more of a statement than a question.
Max raised his eyebrows. “Yes, sir, I worked with the lieutenant.” A wide grin split his face as he remembered how she took down the master chief. “She’d be hard to forget!” He shook his head slowly as he absorbed the rest of Kurt’s message. “They’re putting her on a team? I’ll be damned.” Catching himself, he added, “Begging your pardon, sir.”
Kurt nodded slowly. “Help me out, Max. I’m struggling to understand how a 120-lb. woman who’s been working in an office the last few years managed to pass the SEAL/CRT training course, when over half the men failed. Was she held to the same standards as the other trainees, or were you gender-norming?”
“Sure as hell didn’t expect her to last. She started out with separate standards, separate quarters. But she fought it from day one. Wanted to be treated like the men.”
“So Jack decided to give her what she wanted?”
“Not exactly.” Max grinned as he recalled being told to “educate the lieutenant” about the gender-norming regulations. “She tried to complain to him but he refused to listen to her. So she went to the C.O. and he made the decision. Told Jack.”
Kurt raised his eyebrows. “She went over Jack’s head? Was this when she moved into the men’s barracks in the middle of the night? Can’t imagine he liked that.”
Max chuckled. “He was pissed. You know trainees aren’t supposed to have a say in what happens during the course.”
“Once the decision was made, did he sign on? Or did he still treat her specially?”
“She got what she asked for,” Max replied. “No one cut her any slack, especially not Jack.”
“So you’re convinced that she met the same standards the men did. No exceptions for size or strength?”
“Yes, sir, same standards. No exceptions,” Max declared emphatically.
“Tell me, Max. Would you serve on a team with the lieutenant? Was she up to the job?”
Max grunted. “Rather not.” Cocking his head, he added, “but I would if ordered. She’d probably do okay.”
“Why do you say you’d rather not?” Kurt probed.
Max twisted his mouth. “Just feels wrong. I’d be worrying about her.” He reflected. “Probably get used to it after a while, but I think it would throw me off stride at first.”
“Is this because of something specific about O’Neil, or would you feel that way about any woman?”
“Oh, nothing wrong with O’Neil, sir.” Max grinned appreciatively. “She’s a pistol. Kept us on our toes. It’s just … you think of women as being people you need to protect. Not teammates.”
“Speaking of protecting women,” Kurt noted, “Jack mentioned that you disagreed with the way he treated O’Neil in the SERE POW simulation. Said you tried to call him on it. True?”
Max hesitated, reluctant to discuss an internal issue. But since Jack had brought it up himself, he guessed it was okay. “Yeah. He was pretty heavy-handed.”
“More so than with the guys?”
“More than with most guys.” Max leaned back slightly, folding his arms across his chest. “He doesn’t always get involved. I guess he decided I was being too easy on her so he took over. Slammed her around pretty hard.” He swallowed. “She was such a little thing compared to him. It was tough to watch.”
Kurt shook his head. The pairing of O’Neil with Urgayle seemed stranger than ever. “Did he tell you why?”
“Didn’t tell us shit. Just told me to get the hell out if I didn’t like it.” Max allowed a small smile. “Gotta say, none of us were too sympathetic when she managed to take him down and kick him around. She’s tougher than she looks.”
“Did it seem personal, Max? Did he dislike her? Was he angry with her? Or was this purely professional?”
Max thought a few moments, finally shrugging his shoulders. “You never know for sure with Jack. But I didn’t get the impression it was personal. Even after she kicked him in the balls, he didn’t seem pissed off. Just told her she shouldn’t start something she couldn’t finish. Delivered the line like it was a classroom lecture. Then he kicked her in the head. Weird business.” He shook his head. “It was all about convincing her that a woman didn’t belong in the CRT.” He snorted. “Didn’t work, though. She just rode him out like he was some kind of tropical storm.”
He looked at Kurt, puzzled. “Funny thing. After it was all over he told me she wasn’t the problem. It was us. The men. Still ain’t certain what he meant by that, but I don’t think he held a grudge against her.”
“Did the chief behave differently toward her after SERE?”
“I didn’t notice anything different, but I wasn’t around as much. She was called back to DC for a couple of days, and after she returned it wasn’t long before the class took off on their training mission. I stayed here to get things ready for the next group.”
“Do you think he had the hots for her?”
Surprised, Max stared at Kurt for a moment, then threw his head back and roared. “That what this is about?” He shook his head, still chuckling. “No way, man, just the opposite. She drove him nuts. He wanted to get rid of her.”
“You sure? You don’t think he was attracted to her? Even after SERE?”
“No way. Not his type.”
“Hmm.” Kurt grunted. “So what is his type, Max?”
“When we go out drinking, mostly he ignores chicks, tells ’em to go find someone their own age. Every once in a while he’ll take somebody home. Never the same one twice. He likes ’em quiet, not too flashy, not too young.” Max reflected. “Had a dry spell for a while but I guess he’s got a new squeeze now.”
“Yeah, he disappeared over the weekend, showed up late at the gym this morning.” Max grinned wolfishly. “Said he’s outa circulation for now but wouldn’t tell me who she is. Just said it’s some babe from outa town.”
Humoring Max, Kurt raised his eyebrows appreciatively and grinned in return. Glancing at the clock, he realized he needed to conclude the interview. “Anything else you can tell me about Lieutenant O’Neil?”
Cocking his head, Max thought a minute. “I’m not saying a woman belongs in the CRT. But if I had to have a female on my team, I’d pick her. She’s okay.” He looked at Kurt. “When does she report?”
“She got into town last week, but she’s on leave until Wednesday. She was on base today, met with me this morning.” Kurt sat up. “Thanks for your time, Max. Get together with you and Jack for a drink before I have to ship out again?”
“You bet,” Max replied, rising to his feet. “Good luck with your decision.” As Kurt nodded a dismissal, Max headed out the door, musing. A wild possibility occurred to him. He paused in the hallway, deep in thought. “Jack and O’Neil?” He shook his head “Nah! No way!” Chuckling at the thought, he headed back to the O-course.