Editor’s Note: Ensign Bobby Fisk is a fictional character in Claude Berube’s Connor Stark series, published by Naval Institute Press. This is the third short story in which various characters from the books find themselves in domestic or international bars before, during, or after an event in SYREN’S SONG. Check out the first two stories here and here.
Less than five hours after my ship pulled into the port of Oman, I sat at one of the side tables in the dimly lit, nautically-themed John Barry Bar at the Grand Hyatt as more officers arrived amidst two dozen patrons already nursing late evening drinks. It was my first time in weeks away from the navigation charts; weeks punctuated by two threats of court-martial filed by the same senior officer. It was rapidly becoming clear, despite my short career in the Navy, that avoiding him was going to be as difficult as flinging dog shit off my shoe.
Fortunately, I learned three lessons from Commander Connor Stark and Special Agent Damien Golzari, lessons that were just as applicable at sea in the middle of an operation as they were in any bar.
The first lesson was to be observant.
At the table next to me I heard giggling from an American woman and a man. She bemoaned the fact that a Tequila Sunrise wasn’t on the beverage menu. She cooed while she stroked her companion’s arm. She chose instead a specialty drink with vodka, melon liquor, blue curacao, mango juice, coconut cream, and orange juice. They gossiped about other embassy staff, trash-talking them while plotting their vacation together away from their respective families. The woman was reasonably attractive for someone my mother’s age, but she bleached her hair in an attempt to look far younger than the wrinkles around her eyes suggested. Before she finished her second drink, I heard her change one story three times. It reminded me of the chaplain at the Academy telling us the story of how Jesus told Peter at the Garden of Gethsemane that before the cock crowed twice, Peter would deny Jesus three times.
If I had to guess, they weren’t State Department and were more likely intelligence officers. Stark and Golzari had told me about field agents — they were attractive but also had a well-earned reputation as notorious liars who were inherently unfaithful to their spouses or anyone else. They were effective in assuming various covers because they had no identities or personalities of their own. If this was the best the Agency had to offer, it was no wonder that other people had to come in to clean up their mess. Whatever “great game” was going on around here, I could only hope these two were just bit players. I took my Guinness and moved away from them to a stool at the bar.
The second lesson was to be prepared.
I remembered this as I saw one of the other officers from the ship — a fellow Naval Academy grad — take a seat next to two Japanese women, neither of whom were shy with their dresses; one a plain turquoise and the other a lime green flower pattern. He and I played infield together briefly on the USNA baseball team. Despite his impressive .360 batting average, he was nicknamed “Strikeout” for his unfortunate attempts with women in downtown Annapolis. Strikeout wasn’t shy about introducing himself to the Japanese women. They nodded politely and laughed, though it wasn’t clear they understood much of what he had to say. I watched him as he tried to regale them with a story from the baseball diamond , crouching down and making the motion of stopping a ball at third base then throwing to first. As he did so, the woman in the turquoise dress looked at a man a few seats down who nodded his head, less an approval than an order. It was visible to me but not to Strikeout, and I readied myself in case things went south — just like my baseball career.
Turquoise dress tapped the other woman on her hand. The woman in lime green leaned into Strikeout’s right ear. This was the moment to prepare for: Strikeout pulled back with an incredulous look and said loud enough for most of the bar to hear, “What? You should be paying me!” Strike three. He took his drink and sat with his liberty buddies.
The third lesson was to act quickly and decisively, especially if someone’s life was on the line.
By now half the ship’s wardroom was either at the various tables or milling around the bar. It was our first night of liberty since our recent actions. That’s when she entered the bar. She dressed conservatively for Muscat — dark brown slacks, flats, a long-sleeved black shirt, and a brown windbreaker. Normally her frizzy blond hair was tucked up in a bun under her ball cap. Tonight, it was tied back in a neck-length ponytail. Two steps behind her were two loyal men, each half a foot taller than her. She took a quick account of the patrons and walked past the jazz trio doing a decent rendition of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five.” She made her way to the bartender and placed an order. A few minutes later, seventeen glasses of Guinness and seventeen shots of Jameson Irish Whiskey appeared in a line on the bar. One by one the officers took a Guinness in their left hand and the shot in their right.
When half of the wardroom had taken their places around her, she raised her glass and said “for strength!” We all immediately downed our Guinness. As the glasses were lowered, we said in unison, “For courage!” and each of us threw back the shot of Jameson. She placed both of her glasses gently on the bar, smiled at all of us, then left without saying a word. For her — the captain of our ship, the leader of the destroyer USS LeFon — we’d have given our lives. Some very nearly had after our latest mission. After what we had just been through, she had followed the lessons: observe, prepare, act. Those lessons had saved us. Few in Washington would ever know what really happened and those who did would never tell.
[You can find a list of drinks at the John Barry here]
Claude Berube has worked for two U.S. Senators, for the Office of Naval Intelligence, and deployed with Expeditionary Strike Group Five in 2004-2005. He teaches at the United States Naval Academy. He is the co-author of three non-fiction books and the author of the Connor Stark novels published by Naval Institute Press. SYREN’S SONG will be published this fall. Follow him on twitter: @cgberube.