John Paul Cater
Sea Station Umbra
I wish to thank my good friends and fellow authors Tom Johnson and his wife Ginger of pulp fiction fame for taking time from their busy writing and reviewing schedule to read and comment on this story as it developed in my mind and gradually bled from my fingers into words on paper.
Another high-five goes to the Jesh Art Studio of Fiverr for his visual rendition of a beautiful cover for this book that created several settings in the story. Without that image, guiding my thoughts much of this story would be just words rather than the textual imagery it offers.
Finally, last and foremost, I want to thank my lovely wife Jaye for tolerating the time I spend creating and writing books, satisfying some inner drive for creative expression I still can’t quite understand. Possibly her unconditional love and unfailing support drives me forward as I try to impress her but that has yet to happen. Maybe next time.
Chapter 1. O’Dark Thirty
It was four a.m. on a Monday morning June 13, 2016, when the bedside phone rang. I clicked on the lamp, squinted at the clock then picked up the phone. Seeing Unknown Caller I rejected the call. Four hours remained until work started and there was no need for anyone much less an overseas telemarketer to call me this early. Seconds later, it rang again.
Lindy my bride of barely six months roused from her sound sleep and growled:
“Answer it. Matt. It has to be an overseas call. Tell them to go away. We don’t want whatever it is they’re selling.”
Now normally she’s a doll of a woman; men swoon over her television news-anchor reports all day long but when she awakens it’s Katy bar the door. My best option was to appease her back to sleep. And, since the phone ID again listed Unknown Caller I decided it best to answer the call and give them a piece of my mind if they spoke English.
“Hello. What in the hell do you want? It’s four in the morning here in California,” I grumbled winking at my wife.
The usual automatic pause then several clicks followed before a voice spoke.
I had received calls at o’dark thirty before and they usually spelled trouble; the most recent came back in February when a Navy captain named Norton dragged me into a psychotic pi-day bomber’s world. Although it was dangerous as hell and I almost died twice my part in solving that crime saved California from nuclear annihilation and netted me over a million dollars in pay.
“Good morning, sir. To whom am I speaking?” I asked finally realizing it probably wasn’t a telemarketer: there was no accent.
“Yes I do. sir. I was aboard the RV/X Trident Tine under his command several months ago. Nice fellow. I really like him. The Navy did well putting him there.”
“I told him if I’d have been on his ship during my Navy tour, I’d probably still be in his Navy.”
My first instinct was to say no but it sounded mysterious. It drew me in.
“I’ll need more information, sir.”
“Yes sir. Carlos, my boss, put one in one shortly after my last contract. He didn’t like being out of the loop so he added it for future work. You can call me there later today.”
“Yes. I look forward to your call, sir. Have a good morning.”
As the unknown caller clicked off Lindy opened an eye, looked at me, and mumbled:
“What is it now? Another one of your secret jaunts? How long are you going to be gone this time?”
It melted my heart when she asked but she was beginning to realize that I was obsessed with my work. She would always come second.
Looking into her gorgeous sleepy blue eyes pleading for an answer, I couldn’t say. But I suspected for quite a while. Scrambled calls usually meant covert activities and those led to prolonged periods away from home in unmentionable locations.
I kissed her forehead gently and said, “I–I just don’t know, honey. He didn’t say, but he’s supposed to call me back at noon today and tell me more. On the scrambled work phone.”
“Well who is
I couldn’t help but laugh at her waking sarcasm.
“No one I know but he knew of my previous work. I guess I’m getting a reputation around the Navy as a modern Jacques Clouseau.”
“Well goody for you, Inspector, but I think you mean Cousteau,” she scoffed. “Anyway is it going to pay us another million dollars? We haven’t even used up the last one yet. We’ve got a new car, a new house with a big screen TV, and new furniture. Do we really need more?” she asked with tears welling in her eyes.
“I just can’t stand to have you gone, honey. I miss you so much. I’d throw it all away in a minute to have you stay home with me.”
Sharing her emotion, I was up against a wall. Her words ripped at my heart. Fighting back tears myself I wondered if we really needed more money or was it just another of my self-indulgent ego trips? Of course had I told her that I saved southern California from nuclear devastation during my last ‘secret jaunt’ she might have understood. But I couldn’t talk about it; that covert operation was hush-hush from start to finish.
“It’s not just about the money, doll,” I answered. “I won’t accept a job unless I can help humanity: do something for our world no one else can do. Kinda like when I was in the Navy before I met you, I loved serving my country. I guess I still do.”
She leaned up and kissed me. “Well, Matt Cross, you’re a good man. I guess I’ll let you slide again. Just wake me up when it’s over.”
With that, she laid her head back on her pillow and resumed her soft snoring.
Chapter 2. Operation Deep Force
That morning after arriving at work, I found the news had preceded me. There on my desk was a handwritten note from my boss: Matt, see me when you arrive. It was curt: no pleasantries or anything. Just a short impersonal request. That usually meant he was pissed about something.
My walk down the long hallway to his office brought curious stares and murmured whispers from my coworkers. Everyone seemed to know but me. Wondering what I had done wrong my mind churned but found nothing to regret. It had to be the phone call but how could they have known so fast?
His door was open so I walked in.
Looking out the window, he spun in his chair to face me.
“Come in, Matt,” he said.
I loved Carlos. He was a jovial straight-laced businessman who treated his staff like family. Although he was brash, a few pounds overweight, and his thinning brown hair was over-dyed he would give us the shirt off his back if we asked.
Analyzing the tone in his voice, I relaxed realizing it was not his angry one. I sat down in the chair across the desk from him.
“What’s up, boss?”
He paused clearing his throat before speaking.
“I assume you got a call at some ungodly hour this morning as did I.”
“Yes sir, I did. Caller wouldn’t identify himself though.”
“You know why, don’t you?”
“No not really. I’ve talked to a lot of navy people and they all told me
He motioned to the hallway.
“Matt, you may have noticed a little more attention out there this morning. True?”
“Yes, I did. At first I checked my socks and then my shoes to make sure they all matched. Then I thought I might have had my shirt on inside out. I really had a guilt trip walking down here. Why is that?”
“The red phone rang ten minutes before you walked in. That’s why.”
“Your new secure phone line?”
“Yes exactly. First time it’s made a sound since it was installed. People rushed out into the hall to see what was happening. Thought it was a fire alarm. Turns out it has quite a distinctive ring, like a chain saw on cocaine.”
That mental image tickled me. I couldn’t stop chuckling but I continued, “Was the call for me?”
“No. For me. But about you,” he snickered. Even he was caught up in his metaphor.
Leaning forward in my chair I asked, “May I ask what was said?”
He paused ...