NEVER FORGET by Heather Ashby

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Special Sneak Peek:

With 7.5 tons of World Trade Center steel melted into her bow,
what if there are more souls aboard the USS New York
than the Sailors and Marines stationed there?

And what if those souls can help the troops defeat al-Qaeda this time?

Royal Navy Lieutenant Gwyn Pritchard thought she’d prepared herself for seeing the USS New York up close and personal before flying to America, but apparently that wasn’t possible. She rubbed her forearms. “Look at me. I’m all goose bumps.”

The driver parked on the pier and spoke over his shoulder. “It happens to the best of us, ma’am. You know the story about her bow stem, right?”“You mean that it was forged from World Trade Center steel?”

“Yes, ma’am. She’s a floating memorial to those who died. You think you have goose bumps now, wait ’til you stand over her bow. They put the recovered steel there because it’s the part that cuts the water when she’s steaming. You know, the first part to arrive on the scene. Kind of like the first responders we lost on 9/11.”

A shiver worked its way up Gwyn’s spine.

She gathered her personal belongings and followed the driver up the gangway where she was greeted by an oversized ship’s crest on the quarterdeck. Another wave of chills hit her when she read the New York’s motto: “Strength Forged Through Sacrifice. Never Forget.”

The Officer of the Deck welcomed her aboard. “We’ve been expecting you.” He paged her sponsor, then made polite conversation while they waited for her to arrive.

Gwyn felt movement behind her and stepped aside to allow a man with a bicycle to approach the quarterdeck and sign in. He would have been the most handsome man ever, were it not for the scars that puckered his left temple and cheek.

“Good race, Gunny?” the duty officer asked him.

“Naw, came in fourth for my age group.”

Gwyn had done her homework. Gunny meant gunnery sergeant in the U.S. Marines.

Gunnery Sergeant Muscles finished signing in, then turned to Gwyn, tipped an imaginary hat, and said, “Ma’am,” in what she supposed was a southern drawl because he strung it out for three syllables. Long enough for her to feel stripped of her Royal Navy uniform and viewed stark naked in the middle of the quarterdeck. He gave her a good-humored grin, and walked his bicycle—click, click, click—past her.

Good God, had it become even hotter than it had been a moment ago?

“Gunny Connor is one of the Marines on board. His collateral duty is Physical Trainer. He’s helped a lot of our sailors get in shape. He’ll be in even higher demand once the Marines embark,” the OOD explained.

Gwyn figured he must be in high demand now with the females on board. Blimey, but he’d just raised her temperature, even with those ghastly scars. A bead of sweat trickled down between her breasts. Apparently she didn’t know just how hot things could get in Florida.

The officer closed the logbook. “Ah, here she is now. Lieutenant Gwyn Pritchard, this is your sponsor, Commander Smith.”

“Welcome, Gwyn. These are my children. We just came in today to meet you. Let’s get your things stowed, then we’ll give her a tour of the ship.”

“Can we go on a ghost hunt?” asked the young boy.

“Shhh,” his mother admonished. “There will be none of that.” She turned to Gwyn. “Don’t mind him. I’m afraid he’s caught up in the rumors on board.”

The commander led her through a series of passageways that mirrored the Atlantic’s. The endless miles of cords and wires strapped to the overhead and bulkheads made her feel right at home. Every warship, no matter what country it hailed from, carried the scent of fresh gray paint with a side of diesel fuel.

They passed a man in a business suit and an elderly woman in the passageway. It was Sunday, so maybe this man had just come from church and brought his mum to visit his ship. The old lady eyed Gwyn up, then a warm, friendly smile lit her face. Gwyn responded with a tentative wave.

“Come,” her sponsor continued. “Your stateroom is this way.”

Gwyn stepped aside for another group of visitors in civilian clothing: A man in a Hawaiian shirt, a woman in a suit and high heels—of all things to wear on a Navy ship—and a young, blond boy. He carried a stuffed dog with floppy ears in his left hand, with the thumb of his right hand stuck firmly in his mouth. She was surprised Commander Smith hadn’t greeted them, being a mother with her own children and all. But when Gwyn looked behind her, the family was gone.

“Is the ship open for tours?” she asked her sponsor.

“Usually just for special occasions. Why do you ask?”

“No reason. I just wondered.” Something didn’t quite match up, what were these civilians doing wandering the ship.

What had her sponsor’s son asked? Can we go on a ghost hunt? Gwyn had read reports of ghost sightings of 9/11 victims on New York, but that was rubbish. She needed to tend to business, but the goose bumps wouldn’t disappear and the hair at the nape of her neck tingled. To prove there were no such things as spirits here, she decided to say hello to the next person who seemed out of place.

And there he was. A handsome African-American man in a dress uniform. His shoulder boards and wings identified him as a pilot, although she hadn’t seen any aircraft on the flight deck. She’d chat with him for a second, just to quiet the flock of birds fluttering in her gut.

Funny he should pass Commander Smith with no acknowledgement on either of their parts. Gwyn waited for him to come abreast before speaking. But when he approached, her jaws locked. Heart hammering, she slammed herself against the bulkhead and allowed him to pass.

There could only be one explanation for his wings to read, “United Airlines.”

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