Chapter 6 – What Happened?

The low, long beep that indicated Erica was conscious sounded before she opened her eyes. James took her hand. He sat beside the bed. "Hey, Doll."

She tried to speak but her mouth was full.

"Shhh," he cooed gently and stroked her hair. "They have tubes in your mouth. Lie still."

She slowly opened her eyes.

"You stopped breathing during the surgery," James told her. "Betty says they have to keep you on the respirator for a while."

It seemed like it took a lot of effort for Erica to understand him. James gripped her hand tighter. It was limp in his. She closed her eyes. Moments later three soft tones sounded. She had fallen back to sleep. He sighed then bent forward and lifted her hand. He kissed her fingers. "You'll be all right," he promised quietly. "You have to be."

Jesse came in with two cups. She came around the bed and handed one to James.

"She woke up briefly," he told her. "I suppose that's a good sign."

She took the chair next to him. "I just spoke with Levitus. He said it wasn't the previous healing that tore open. She has some sort of adhesions from the scarring and that caused the problem. He thinks he has most of it now."

"Most?" James asked and sounded worried.

"I guess it isn't that easy to fix. Somehow it stopped her breathing. I don't know."

They said nothing for a while. Monitors beeped. The respirator pumped and exhaled. James listened and sipped his coffee and tried to keep calm but finally he couldn't stand it. He got up to pace the room, leaving his cup on the bedside table.

Every time the respirator pumped and sighed his heart clutched. Erica had suffered enough. He couldn't stand that she had to go through this. He couldn't stand that they made her claim. He reached the end of the room and turned sharply. Her speech had been so heartfelt, so genuine. She had had Marcus in tears. She could be a good claimant, an excellent claimant, but not now. He turned again. If only there was a way out of it. He had been trying to think of one ever since he first learned she wasn't as well as they thought.

"She will be all right," Jesse assured him, annoyed at his pacing. "Sit down."

James stopped at the end of the bed. His cap made his head hot. He took it off and ran his fingers through his hair.

"Hello," Matilda greeted quietly as she came through the door. Roger followed her. "How is she?" Matilda asked. Roger carried flowers. He set them on the bedside table.

"She'll be fine," Jesse assured them.

"Not with this God damned claimancy hanging over her," James growled. "It's too much for her. This never would have happened except for the demands we keep putting upon her. Zoe is driving her nuts. She sparred with Lynsey to shut her up. And now, today…" Lynsey again. Her name had sparked off Lynn. He ground his teeth together to shut himself up but everyone already regarded him with looks of pity and concern.

Matilda wrapped her arms around him and held him tightly. He hugged her back. She felt so much like Erica in his arms he didn't want to let go. "She's strong, James. She'll be all right."

He shut his eyes tight to stop tears. "She stopped breathing during the surgery, Mati. She is not strong enough." The tears started. He released Matilda and walked to the other end of the room. He breathed deep and got control.

Roger followed him. He laid his hand on James' shoulder. "Is there anything we can do for you?"

"Yes," James growled at him. "Claim that God dammed piece of land!"

Roger grunted softly.

James turned to face him and when he did he saw Matilda standing next to his mother. Jesse read a note then looked up in surprise. She wrote something. Matilda read it and shook her head. James returned to them with a questioning expression on his face.

Matilda handed the note back to Jesse. James put his hand out. She didn't want to give it to him. She folded it.

James pulled his notebook and pen from his suit. 'Does this concern Erica?' he wrote and gave it to Jesse.

She nodded, and then, with a sigh, handed him the note Matilda had written.

It said; 'Erica informed me she has the means to acquire equipment from Marril. She requested I not ask questions but I did ask if it was legal. She said it was. She suggests she can get past the embargo and she has means enough on Marril to get the equipment here by using up favors. We need to discuss this with her in case it is true and if not we need to stop her before she does something dangerous.'

'Did she say what kind of favors specifically or with whom or how she expected to fund this?' Jesse had written.

James had already seen Matilda shake her head in answer. He fell onto his chair. What the hell was Erica up to now?

Jesse stood. "Matilda, come here please," she asked and took off her uniform coat. She handed it to Matilda then put her hand out for James' coat. He shrugged out of it. Matilda took them and left the room.

Jesse turned to James angrily. "What could Erica be talking about?"

James took his cap off and held it on his lap. He loosened his tie and undid the button at his neck. "I don't know. When we got home last night she saw the computer and her eyes lit up. Marcus and I warned her not to do anything illegal. She promised she wouldn't."

Roger grunted. "Does she know the difference between legal and illegal?" Matilda returned. She came to Roger's side.

"Damned if I know," James answered him weakly.

"If she said she has the means to get equipment from Marril then she must have money there," Jesse said. "She couldn't steal the things we need. She should know that. If she has money, enough money–" she stopped herself.

"What?" asked Matilda.

Jesse had a sly look in her eye. James didn't like it. Jesse smiled at Matilda. "If she says she can get past the embargo I tend to believe her. She has proven how resourceful she is. If she got the equipment as far as Quirni we could impound it and not be at fault for having it."

Matilda watched Jesse with a worried eye. "She mentioned she would expect that. She was counting on it. She said all she required was a list of the things I need."

"But the SDD would have to accuse her of illegal imports, incomplete manifests, not logging flight paths, all sorts of things," Roger told them. "Does she realize the trouble this would cause her?"

"Oh good God," James muttered. "Please tell me that isn't it. How could she have any money there anyway? She brought four million quid with her."

Jesse grunted.

"What does that mean?" James demanded. He sat up to look at her.

"That she didn't bring everything?" Matilda asked.

"Probably," Jesse admitted. "The Marrilian SDD suspects she has businesses there that are still up and running. They were incensed when they learned she was a claimant. They were building a case to prosecute her until her claimancy was announced."

James closed his eyes and fell back in his chair.

A long, low beep issued from the monitor. Erica was waking. James leaned forward and took her hand. "Erica," he called, "Roger and Mati are here and so is Jesse."

She slowly opened her eyes. In spite of being awake, the respirator still pumped and exhaled for her. James got up and kissed her cheek. Erica squeezed his hand but her grip felt so weak. He drew his chair up closer to the bed.

Her delicate fingers fumbled at his shirtsleeve. She had noticed he didn't wear his uniform. She would know they had been talking. Her eyes rolled to look at Jesse.

Matilda laid her hand on James' shoulder. "I told Jesse what you said to me this morning."

"We'll talk about it," Jesse assured Erica. "James shouldn't be involved beyond knowing you have some sort of plan for the equipment Matilda needs. Do you understand that, James?"

He set his jaw against his anger. "Yes General."

Erica's eyes closed again but the monitor didn't indicate she slept.

"I'll bring a computer with me the next time I visit," Jesse added. "Then Erica can show me what this is all about."

Erica's brow knit slightly.

"I don't think she approves," Matilda commented. "I'm not sure I do either. I'll say again what I have already said to you a hundred times. My plans aren't worth anyone else getting hurt, Erica most of all. She has done enough. Do you hear me, Erica? You have done enough." The monitor beeped three low tones before Matilda finished speaking. Erica had fallen back to sleep. Matilda humphed in exasperation.

"She was born to drive you to distraction," Roger said and squeezed Matilda's shoulder.

"She certainly succeeds," hissed Matilda.

"Write up that list of supplies," Jesse told her.

"But you don't know what she's up to," Matilda argued.

"I have a pretty good idea."

"Fine," Matilda agreed curtly. "Why don't we make sure Erica can find more trouble? That's fine."

"Erica is quite capable of taking care of her business," Jesse reminded her. "And if I'm right then it isn't strictly illegal."

"Strictly? Her business is running a claim."

"You know what I mean," Jesse warned.

"I'm afraid I do and that is the problem," Matilda complained. "That was her business before she came to Quirni. She's beyond that."

"The only thing she is beyond is Marril and their jurisdiction."

"Until she gets on that computer," James reminded her. "Once she does and you see what she has going on you either become an accomplice or you may have to arrest her. It would be better if I did that. We don't need to lose another three-star general, Mother."

"We won't," Jesse assured him. "We won't lose another claimant for Kinsley Claim either. I have both in my best interests. I will protect both."

James stood and faced her. "Then we had best find ourselves some heirs because Erica isn't up to this and I'm not interested."

Jesse stood glared up into his eyes, her face hard. "As I am well aware which is why I am reminding you who put you where you are, Major. You may not defy the Claimant's Council."

"I can still name an heir. You know our family better than I. Help me find a suitable couple."

"And then what?" demanded Jesse.

"And then if Erica gets any worse we will hand the claim to them. We can under that circumstance. We have to. We can't let it kill her."

"She has protection as a claimant. Do you wish to see her lose that? If she resigns and the Marrilian SDD asks for her then we won't be able to deny them. Keep that in mind before you name heirs or you could land her in jail on Marril. She wouldn't live two months on Marril in her condition."

He hadn't thought of that. "Is there no way out?" he complained and sat heavily.

"Yes. If she really is this good person you think she is then there is a way. She can close down the businesses she has on Marril, do as we ask, and if she is caught by the MSDD, if a case if brought against her, we can claim jurisdiction. We can collect fines and leave it at that. No one needs to know. It will be between the QSDD and her. If she tries to defy me then it's a different story. I'll make sure she understands that because believe me, Major, we won't be losing another three star general because of her and Kinsley Claim will have claimants."

James stared up at his mother who returned his gaze with a steely frown.

"She obviously isn't going to come around today. I'll be going now," Jesse added. "Matilda, get us our coats please. And James, you quit sulking. She has the best care possible. You can't do anything by staying here. I already told General Burk you will take some leave. I suggest you get busy. Take care of the meetings Lynsey set up for Erica. You and Erica don't have much time before Council is over and you still have a wedding to attend. You will help Erica most by making sure she doesn't have a lot to do when she gets out of here."

"Yes, ma'am," he agreed quietly and stood.

Jesse hugged him. "Try not to worry. I'll spend as much time here as I can if that will make you feel any better."

What would make him feel better was to be free of all of his damn duties as a claimant and take leave of his duties in the SDD. Erica needed his care and his constant attention. Only he could bring her back if she switched to Lynn again and he dreaded what would happen if she was still healing and he weren't around. "We need to call Lynsey something else. That would make me feel better. It hurts Erica to hear that name."

"I already discussed that with her. She said she wouldn't mind being addressed by her middle name."

"Abigail?"

"Abby."

James smiled. "It doesn't suit her but I'll have to thank her."

Matilda came back in the room and handed them their coats. "I guess I'll be going," he said although he didn't want to. "What about you?"

"I'm staying for a bit," Matilda answered.

James offered Roger his hand. "Sorry I snapped at you."

Roger smiled gently, shook it and patted his shoulder. "I understand being sick to death with worry over someone." He jerked his head at Matilda. "I've bitten off a few heads myself."

"I'll see you later," Jesse told James and gave him a kiss. "You have a lot to do. I suggest you get it done while she's sleeping. Levitus can call if she needs you."

"Yes, Mother," he replied then went back to the bed after she left. His heart felt so heavy seeing Erica sick. He kissed her cheek. "I love you," he told her softly then straightened. "I'll be sleeping here," he told Matilda. "I want to be here if anything changes."

"Don't wear yourself out with worry," Roger advised. "It won't help her."

James set his teeth against the unkind thing he felt like saying. He worked around it then nodded. "Yeah," he muttered and left.