"It is always darkest just before the day dawneth."
Thomas Fuller, 1650

Before the Dawn

Author: Barb Moore

Spoilers: People vs. Mac

JAG Headquarters
Mac's office
Early stages of Mac's trial

The trial was going badly for Mac: that was obvious to the most unsophisticated observer. Brumby had managed to discredit her from the beginning, and Mac wondered why he had brought up the affair business. Harm had been very tentative about a joint trial from the beginning, and he was furious that Brumby entered the affair into the court record. Now Mac understood Harm's mistrust of Brumby.

Harm and Brumby were meeting with the Admiral now, and Mac felt left out. She wished she could sit in on the strategy sessions. Harm had told her he intended to ask for separate trials, but Mac was fairly sure it was too late for that maneuver. Mac was almost beyond caring. She was still shell-shocked at the whole incident.

'Why did I ever involve John? If I hadn't done that, maybe this whole mess would have gone away.' But Chris was dead, and that was not going away.

Chris had every intention of making her life miserable forever, and Mac knew he meant every word he said about that. She tried to remember why she ever thought she loved him. He had always tried to control her, and he wanted to keep her drunk. He was furious when she escaped his control and became her own woman.

'Why didn't I follow through on the divorce?' She had asked herself that question a million times in the last 3 weeks, and she never came up with an answer.

Was she just lazy or too busy? Or was she secretly afraid he would come after her and she wouldn't be able to survive it emotionally? All of this trouble would have happened years sooner had she tried to divorce him. She had only been delaying the inevitable. She was not surprised by Chris's violent feelings toward John.

'That was my worst mistake: bringing John into the loop.'

Mac reviewed the situation. She thought she was doing the right thing by telling John about Chris. She felt it was his right to know. Now, she wished she had never told him. She just thanked God she hadn't involved the Admiral. She almost told him that day when he came to her. She needed his strength so badly then, and she needed it now. But she would never involve him in this.

'I'll go to the firing squad before I get him involved. John's career was badly damaged before all this; it was over now. But if she had involved the Admiral, his brilliant career would be finished, too.

But Mac would always wonder if the Admiral would have been able to solve her problem with Chris without all this happening. He always seemed to know what to do.

'Maybe I should have told him. Maybe Chris would still be alive if the Admiral had handled things... And maybe he would be my co-defendent if I had.'

'Wonder what's going on in the Admiral's office. God, what must the Admiral be thinking of me now? First, to find out about Chris's death and the marriage at the same time, and now the thing with John. I wish I could just explain everything to him. Maybe he wouldn't hate me so much. I can't stand it when he looks at me, and I can't stand it when he doesn't look at me. How is all this going to end?'

Harm knocked on the door. "Busy?"

"Come on in, Harm. What's happening?" Mac could tell Harm was furious about something.

"Guess we're not going to get the separate trial. Brumby has agreed to not shoot us in the back again, but I don't trust him for a minute," Harm said.

"I wish he hadn't brought up the relationship, too, but he was just trying to protect his client."

"By pinning a murder on you? I could live with that if he hadn't agreed to a joint defensive effort. He's not a team player, Mac. And you're the one getting killed in that courtroom."

"Aren't you going to ask me about the affair? Or are you going to not ask that either?"

"Mac, you don't have to tell me anything."

"You're my attorney and my best friend. Aren't you even curious?"

"Of course I'm curious. I just don't want to pry into things you don't want to talk about. I don't think we can undo the damage done in court today."

"Well, if you care, I did have a brief affair with John. It was after I had received my orders to leave his command. We had a long weekend together, and I shipped out the next day. He had just gone through a divorce, and we were both lonely, and it just happened. He's a fine man, Harm. I have never been with him since that one time."

"We might be able to use that, Mac. But it doesn't explain the adultery situation."

"I can't explain that either, Harm. I can't even explain it to myself. I married Chris in a drunken stupor, and never completed the divorce procedure. Maybe I was afraid of him, or maybe I was fooling myself into thinking that part of my life never happened. But I never lied about my marriage; nobody ever asked."

"Where have I heard that comment before?" Harm said. "What about your application papers? Did you lie there?"

"No, I put 'separated' in that blank. And it never came up again. I don't think they forward the application with your other records after so many years, so it just sort of got lost in the bureaucratic mess. I didn't quite know how to deal with it after I let it ride so long. I was embarrassed for you and the Admiral to know."

Harm walked closer and looked at her. "Mac, why didn't you just ask me for some help? I would have helped you. We could have filed the papers and completed the divorce quietly."

Mac could only remember the one time she had gone to Harm for help, and she knew he was miserable about that. But she also knew that it would be a long time before she would ever trust him again to be there for her. It wasn't meanness on her part; she just couldn't help feeling that way.

"I probably would have eventually," she replied to his question. "How is the Admiral handling this? He hasn't said much to me since the trial started."

"He doesn't say much, Mac. I've never seen him this subdued before. He sure gives Brumby some latitude. I hope he eventually sees through him. I think he's just trying to be sure he can provide you a fair trial without appearing prejudiced. But to be honest, he's really struggling with it."

Mac's heart sunk. Even Harm seemed to realize how disappointed the Admiral was.

"Mac, you look exhausted. Why don't you try to get some rest tonight, and I'll see you in court tomorrow."

"What happened in your meeting just now? You looked pretty mad when you came in here."

"We had some...uh...words. Brumby didn't make any points with the Admiral, I can tell you that."

"What did he say to make you so angry?"

"Well, you know Brumby. He just gets under your skin." Harm replied. He wasn't about to tell Mac about Brumby's accusation that he, Bud and the Admiral were all in love with her. 'Mac doesn't need that kind of stuff on her mind now.'

Mac could tell something happened that Harm wasn't going to tell her, so she let it drop.

"I think I will go home and try to get some rest. I am tired. See you tomorrow," Mac said.

After Harm left the office, Mac stared out the window. She knew she had some hard decisions to make and she couldn't put it off much longer.

The next day after another day of trial
The Admiral's office

Brumby was frustrated and angry. "She's using you again. I told you yesterday you were all a little in love with her, and now it's obvious she knows it, too. She's got you all wrapped right around her murderous little finger."

Harm started forward, but the Admiral stepped between them.

"Calm down, Harm. Smashing him in the mouth is not going to help the situation. Brumby, better watch what you say about Major MacKenzie. We're all her friends and have faith in her. Whatever happened that night, we know Mac is not a murderess."

Brumby replied to the Admiral, "That's just what I've been trying to tell you. She knows you will defend her no matter what, and she's manipulating all of you. Can't you see what kind of woman she is? She's a man-killer in more ways than just murder. And my client could pay with his life if she gets away with this."

Admiral Chegwidden moved face to face with Brumby. "Don't say that again, Brumby. It is becoming more and more difficult to not deck you myself. If you want off this case, fine. I'm sure we'll find someone else to take your position. And I'm sure we can find you a plane ride back to Australia."

"No disrespect, sir, but I don't think Lieutenant Roberts is ready for this type of case. My client would end up taking the rap for something Major MacKenzie did."

"You're out of line, Brumby," AJ shot back without backing off an inch.

Brumby bit his lip and said nothing.

Harm stepped forward and moved between the two men. He looked at the Admiral. "Sir, let me handle this. He's put down Mac too many times for us to just take it."

Harm stood close to Brumby and said, "You asked me once before to settle our differences privately. Maybe this would be a good time."

It was the Admiral's turn to play his own brand of peacemaker. "That's enough. Both of you! You WILL find a way to work together and you WILL conduct yourselves like officers. DO YOU UNDERSTAND?"

"Yes, sir," Brumby and Harm replied in unison.

"And Brumby," the Admiral continued, "If you ever undercut your co-counsel like that again, your ass WILL be grass and growing in Australia. Do I make myself clear?"

"Very clear, sir," Brumby managed, straining to suppress his anger and frustration.

AJ just stared at the two men standing before him. He knew Harm wasn't perfect, but AJ liked him, and knew him to be an excellent attorney. He didn't know Brumby well, but AJ had become suspicious of him after the first few days. He had pushed too hard to get "chummy" with everybody. He was just too anxious to please and entertain. Brumby also talked too much, and AJ didn't like mouthy men. And he didn't like what he was doing to Mac.

"Commander Rabb, I expect you to report to me on a daily basis."

"Understood, sir."

AJ glared at them one more time and barked "Dismissed!"

AJ went to the window to calm himself down. He was not about to let this situation deteriorate any further, but he would have loved to give Brumby a little taste of a SeAL sandwich himself. 'That boy is not going to make it here.'

AJ went to his desk and started reading through the daily transcripts of Mac's trial. 'Brumby has her in a rough position now. Things were bad enough before he surprised Farrow with the affair question. God, I would like to bust up that bastard. He comes in here like he owns the place, and within two weeks has managed to turn this office into a zoo.'

JAG Courtroom
Mac's trial

"What happened next?" the prosecutor said to Mac.

"I shot him," Mac replied. The courtroom went silent. Mac didn't dare look at the Admiral, who was seated in the back of the room. After that, it was a blur. Things were happening around her, but she was not aware of them. She remembered Harm telling her they could leave now, and she remembered walking toward the door. When she passed the Admiral, he refused to make eye contact. He was staring straight ahead at the back of the chair in front of him. His jaw was clenched and she saw him swallow hard. It was the worst moment of her life, and she would never forget it.

The next day was also a blur. She was aware that Harm and Brumby and Bud had gone somewhere to interview someone about the case, while she tried to bury herself in paperwork. Weeks later, when she looked back at the ending days of the trial, the thing she remembered most was walking past the Admiral when he wouldn't look at her.

She vaguely remembered slapping Brumby, and she wasn't sorry about it. She also remembered him asking her out the day the murder charges were dismissed. And she remembered Harm telling her she was lousy at picking men. She remembered that specifically because it was so true.

One week after the trial was dismissed, Mac was still waiting for the Admiral to talk to her. Several times, he had summoned her and Harm into his office to make assignments or talk over cases. But not a glance or casual comment passed between them. Mac was miserable.

Chegwidden's office
One week after the trial

AJ knew what he had to do today, and he didn't want to do it. He had put it off as long as he could. He had to formally tell Mac and her attorney (whom he assumed would be Harm) about the Article 32 hearing. AJ had scrutinized the trial record and felt Harm would be able to absolve Mac of the charges. But it was absolutely necessary to order the hearing to avoid appearances of favoritism to JAG officers. He wondered if it was fair if he pointed out to Harm the mistakes in the trial procedure that would help Mac.

'Maybe Harm will spot the deficiencies himself. If he doesn't, I'm going to have to make a decision.'

He called Tiner on the intercom. "Send in Rabb and MacKenzie."

A few minutes later, Tiner announced them. Harm and Mac came in and stood at attention.

AJ looked up from the desk and said "At ease. Please be seated."

The two JAG officers took the chairs opposite the desk and waited for the Admiral to speak.

"Major, I have been reviewing the transcripts of the Ragle trial, and have decided we have grounds for an Article 32 hearing, which will begin in one week. I am assuming you wish Commander Rabb to represent you?"

Mac looked at Harm with a question in her eyes. He responded with a nod.

"Yes, sir," Mac answered. She lowered her eyes, still unable to look the Admiral in the eye.

Harm ended the embarrassing silence. "What are the specific charges, sir?"

"Perjury, fraternization, and adultery," AJ answered, looking only at Harm.

"With all due respect, sir. Surely you realize the statutes of limitations will eliminate the latter two charges," Harm replied.

"I'm well aware of that, Commander. But we have to let the investigating officer make that decision. Do you have any other questions?"

"No, sir. We'll be prepared for the hearing in one week." Harm said.

"Major?" the Admiral asked of Mac.

"No, sir. No questions," Mac said.

"Then you're both dismissed."

Harm and Mac turned toward the door, and as Harm went through the door, Mac hesitated and looked back at the Admiral. For the first time, their eyes met.

"Is there something else, Major?" AJ managed.

Mac hesitated. There were so many things she wanted to say to him, but the words wouldn't come. She swallowed hard and said nothing. Harm was out of the room by now, and Mac and AJ just stood there looking at each other. It seemed like minutes to both of them, but only a few seconds had actually elapsed.

AJ had the distinct urge to go to her and wrap his arms around her but his inscrutable stare didn't belie these feelings. Mac had trouble finding her voice, and finally said, so softly he wasn't sure he heard it,

"I'm so sorry." And then she followed Harm out of the room.

After they left, AJ sat, thinking about what had just occurred. He contemplated the events of the past month. He was sure this was not the worst month of his life, but it was close. He just wasn't used to things being so out of his control. He had been trying to repress the memory of the look in Mac's eyes. He was almost certain she said "I'm sorry" to him before she walked out. He was also almost certain her eyes were glistening. Was it a tear of regret, or was she upset to learn of the hearing? She must have known there would be a hearing. He had hinted at it to Harm. Surely, he told her.

AJ was not used to being so confused about his own feelings. He told himself it was normal for any healthy male with eyes in his head to notice Mac. She was gorgeous. But his feelings had gone way beyond hormonal responses. When their eyes met on various occasions, he felt warm all over. He wondered if she had the same feelings. She was always completely professional with him, but sometimes, he caught her looking at him in a way that caused him to wonder. And was she aware of how he felt?

And in that same vein, was he aware of how he felt? There were times (like a few minutes ago) when he wanted to hold her and protect her from the world. To whisk her off to someplace where they could escape the damned rules, where nobody could ever hurt her again, and live happily ever after. There were other times when he was so hurt and confused that it made him furious with her. When he wanted to never see her again and never feel like this again. And he never knew which feeling would emerge or when. The constant pressure of controlling himself was becoming unbearable.

AJ knew that if they had been alone this afternoon in the office, he might have made a mistake. He promised himself he would get these feelings under control before he saw her again. But she looked so lost, so lonely. She aroused in him a tender side he didn't know he had. Why had she refused him when he asked to help? He could only think of one answer. 'She doesn't trust me.'

The next day
Harm's office

"This time, Mac, I'm going to ask you everything no matter how much it may embarrass you, and this time, you will answer me. I can't go into that courtroom again without the facts."

"I can't think of much you don't already know. After the trial, I'm beyond embarrassment," Mac told her partner.

"Let's begin with the fraternization charge. It clearly falls under the statute of limitations. Is there anything about your relationship with Colonel Farrow that you haven't told me? Anything at all?"

"I told you it was a long weekend after my transfer orders had been processed. We spent our time in a resort hotel. We also rented a boat and went sailing. I left Monday morning for my next assignment, and we were never...er...intimate...again. There was no private relationship of any kind before my transfer orders came through. We were friends, but I admit, there was an attraction there from the beginning."

"Can you think of any way we can pinpoint the date?"

"Why would it matter?"

"If we can prove your relationship didn't occur until after you were approved for transfer, it would look good for you and for John. We can get the records of the day your transfer was complete and the day you shipped out. If we can find hotel records or something that puts you together between those two days, it will give your story credibility."

"I guess my credibility is at a pretty low level right now," Mac mused aloud.

"I just think it would be good if we could show you believed you were not in Farrow's command at the time of the affair, even though we know the statute of limitations will remove the charge. We want to create the most favorable impression possible with the investigating officer."

"And what about the adultery charge? How can we minimize that damage?"

"I don't know, Mac. We may not be able to, but it also would fall under the limitations statute. Bud has located a copy of your application for admission to the Marines. Under "marital status", you have written "separated". That's exactly as you remembered. Were there ever any other forms or applications where you wrote anything different?" Harm asked.

"I don't recall ever being asked again. Nobody seemed to care, and I was anxious to put it behind me. I never applied for any benefits or anything like that, so I guess I thought nobody cared about my marital status. It was between Chris and me."

"Why didn't you ever divorce him, Mac? With him in prison, it would have been easy."

"I've asked myself that same question, Harm. At first, I was so intent on my career, undergraduate work, and trying to stay sober, it was like I didn't have the emotional stamina to go through the process. I was just too weak, I guess. And the longer I put it off, the less I thought about it. The easier it was for me to repress it. Then, when I was so successful in law school, and I was assigned here and became so comfortable with everything, I didn't want to risk it. It was almost like it never happened. I could go days, even weeks, without thinking about it. I know that's not a reason, but it's the best explanation I can give. I have never felt married, never. So being with another man did not feel like adultery. My marriage existed on paper only."

"Mac, as your friend, I can understand that. As your lawyer, I have to tell you, it's not much of an explanation. Have you had any contact of any type with Chris after you left him. Letters, phone calls, anything?"

"No. I never wrote him or sent him a card or called, even after I heard he had gone to prison. I feel guilty about that, but I didn't want to encourage him to come after me. He was so domineering that I guess I was afraid he would get control of me again, and I would have to go back to being the old Sarah MacKenzie... I hate her." Mac dropped her head to prevent Harm from seeing the tears that started to well in her eyes.

Harm was stunned to hear Mac open up like this. She had always been such a private person, and he had never suspected that she felt this way about herself. He said quietly, "Mac, you're one of the finest, most caring people I've ever known. Don't hate yourself. Nobody else does. In fact, we all love you and want to help you if you'll let us."

Mac managed to choke back the tears. "Thanks, Harm. I was just feeling sorry for myself. A woman's prerogative, you know." She managed a weak smile at her gentle friend. "Let's continue."

Harm thought it best to go on while Mac was feeling talkative. If they quit now, she might not open up to him again. "Do you recall ever talking to anybody about getting a divorce, or did you ever begin proceedings? Or call a lawyer about how to begin? Anything that indicated that in your mind the marriage was over?"

"I'll try to think about that. I know I thought about it a lot in boot camp. It seems like I did talk to a lawyer or a legal rep right after boot camp. It was so long ago. It's probably hard for you to believe I would forget something like that. But it was my first spell of sobriety, and you know the stress of boot camp and the emotions of completing it."

"And I imagine it was even more difficult with you being a woman. Just getting through it had to be an emotional roller coaster."

"Worse than that."

"Mac, I've got to tell you this: the perjury charge is the one we have to worry about. It could be the charge that sends us into a trial."

"I never lied. I just left some things out. I didn't tell you that John was there, but you didn't ask. Could that be a point?"

"Well, we could argue that you admitted you shot Chris. That was not a lie. You didn't give us many details when you were on the stand... I think we may have to rely on Morris to believe that a lie of omission is not grounds for perjury. I'm not very satisfied with that, but that's all we have right now," Harm reasoned.

"Mac, I just have to ask this. You knew that what you did couldn't be viewed any way except self-defense. Given Chris's record of violence, and a creditable eyewitness, why didn't you just tell everything the way it happened?"

"I was trying to keep John out of it."

"By the time you were on the stand, he was already in it up to his eyeballs. He was arrested and put on trial. You were together when you called the police. Any chance you had of keeping him out of it was out the window by then. It was a matter of record."

"I begged him to leave before the police came, but he wouldn't."

"Of course he wouldn't. I wouldn't have, the Admiral wouldn't have. And you wouldn't have if your positions had been reversed. I still can't imagine what you were thinking."

"Maybe that's the problem. I wasn't thinking. I was just responding and trying to protect him. Harm, what I feel for John is not really love, but I respect and admire him so much. He's such a decent man. I guess that's a type of love. I couldn't let him take the blame for something I did."

"I still don't understand it. I never will. It would have been so simple to tell the story to the police. You probably would not have been arrested, and certainly never convicted."

"But the money was missing when we went back, and we thought the police would never believe us."

"Well, I guess it's beside the point now. What we have to do is cast some doubt on the perjury charge. And, of course, the investigating officer might want to find a reason to let you off, so we won't abandon the technicality tactics."

"Harm, you're a great lawyer. If anybody can handle this, you can. It may be sort of late to tell you this, but I have a lot of confidence in you. And I appreciate all you've done."

"But I wasn't there when you needed me most. If I had been, none of this would have happened. I will never forgive myself for letting you down."

"Please don't think that. You are one of the dearest men I know, and you will always be my friend, no matter what happens in the hearing."

"Thanks, Mac. You're too easy on me. But I promise you I will do everything in my power to get you out of this mess. And Bud and Harriet are working hard for you, too. Hell, even Tiner is poring over old cases and files trying to find an angle."

"I know that. I've never had such good friends as I have here."

"And what category do you have for the Admiral?" Harm asked. He couldn't resist this attempt to pry now that Mac was talking so openly to him.

Mac was surprised by this breach of their unspoken pact to not explore this area of Mac's private life.

"I guess he's in a category all by himself," Mac answered.

"That's a pretty evasive answer, partner."

"I didn't mean it to be. That's exactly how I feel."

"Well, I can buy that. But what kind of category? Occasionally I get the feeling that there are some sparks between you two" Harm said. "I'm not accusing you of anything. I think you both know better, it's just that he acts differently when you're around."

"In what way?"

"When you're around he's much more formal and official. Like he's trying hard to look impersonal."

"Harm, he's an admiral. That's how admirals act."

"I'm telling you, Mac. He's much more open and at ease when it's just Bud and me. He's even funny sometime."

"When he started his career there weren't a lot of women in the service. Maybe he acts that way around all female officers."

"He was never that way with Meg or any other females when I've been around. Let's just forget I mentioned it. I'm going where I don't belong, but it's only because I want to protect you from getting hurt again."

"Thanks, partner. I have never crossed that line, at least by my interpretation. I won't start now. Besides, the Admiral would never give a woman like me a second glance."

"Mac, don't talk about yourself that way. And the Admiral and you... well, we all have our limits, even AJ Chegwidden. And you are one gorgeous woman," Harm said with a wink and his best grin.

Mac playfully punched him in the chest, saying, "And you are one big hunk. Now get back to work on my case."

Harm was happy to see a more cheerful Mac as she left the office.

Harm was still working in his office, Bud was out following some leads and Mac had cases of her own to plan. Harm thought Chegwidden had shown unusual confidence in Mac by allowing her to continue her work.

'Maybe he knew she would go crazy with nothing to do.' He was still puzzled by both of them, and he hoped he hadn't offended Mac by asking about their relationship. He was trying to keep his mind on the task at hand, when the Admiral stuck his head in the open door.

"Got a minute?"

Harm jumped to his feet. "Of course, sir. Come in and sit down."

AJ entered Harm's small office and closed the door behind him. He took the visitor's chair and began. "How are things going with the hearing? Do you have a strategy devised yet?"

"We had a long conference this morning, and we have a direction to follow, but nothing you could call a real strategy. We know the statute of limitations will be imposed on two of the areas of investigation, but we're still struggling with the perjury. But we think we can prove there was no fraternization by reason of evidence in addition to the statute."

AJ leaned forward in the chair. "Any evidence you could provide to that effect would certainly cause the investigating officer to look more favorably on Mac. What do you have?"

"Mac claims that they spent a long weekend together after she received transfer orders and before she shipped out. She says it's the only time they were ever... ah... together. We have the exact dates we're working with. We're matching hotel records with those dates. We're also going to try to compare leave times for both of them and prove they never had corresponding time off. Mac says that whenever Farrow was off base or on leave, he wanted her to be on duty. She was his administrative assistant, and Mac said he wanted one of them to be on duty at all times. It's a fairly common practice, particularly overseas. The old records are still available; it will just take Bud some time to find them."

"That's a good start. Bud would find them even if they weren't available. What do you plan to do about the adultery? If you try to explain the fraternization charge and then just fall back on the statutes for the adultery charge, it will weaken your first argument."

"We have a copy of her entry application where Mac stated her marital status was "separated". She says she never was asked about it after that and she never mentioned it. She explained to me her reasons for not filing for divorce. Admiral, I have to admit it sounded pretty logical, although certainly irresponsible."

"And what were those reasons?"

"It would be easier to let her explain, but I doubt that she would. I was frankly surprised at how much she told me today. She is usually very closed-mouthed about her private life. How much do you want to know?"

"I want to know how strong your case is, so I guess I want to know everything. Proceed."

"Mac says she was drunk when they got married, and Ragle did everything in his power to keep her that way."

AJ leaned back in the chair and muttered under his breath, "That bastard!"

"Pardon me, sir?" Harm asked.

"Nothing. I just wonder what kind of man would do something like that."

"A low life and sleezeball... Apparently, when she finally got away from him, she joined the Marines and went straight into boot camp. You know how tough that is for anybody, particularly females, and she said she was emotionally drained and too fragile to go through a divorce. She says she didn't feel strong enough to fight him then. So when she had the weekend with Farrow, she said she didn't feel married, and never had. So, in her mind, she wasn't being unfaithful to a husband, because she never did consider Ragle as her husband except on paper. I know that's a far reach, but that's her story and it's all we have."

"That's not too far a reach for me to believe, Harm. The same thing happened to me."

"To you, sir?" Harm was essentially a nosy person and wanted to hear the Admiral's story but he didn't want to be obvious by asking. As it turned out, he didn't need to. The Admiral seemed almost eager to tell his story.

"When Marcella walked out on me, I never filed for divorce. I would probably still be legally married to her if she hadn't filed when she wanted to remarry years later. I was pretty messed up after Viet Nam, and a divorce decree was a very low priority at the time. That part of Mac's story makes perfect sense to me."

"Do you think it would make sense to the investigating officer?"

"Depends on if he has ever been divorced. Nobody could expect a normal person to remain celibate for years because of a long separation. Long separations prior to or instead of divorce are not uncommon in today's society."

"No, I guess not. I guess there are many situations that might fall into the same niche."

"It sounds like you have a sympathetic explanation, if she'll let you use it in court. Have you asked her?"

"Ah... no, sir. I'm working up to that. I have to go slowly on some things with Mac."

"How's she holding up?" AJ asked in what he hoped was an offhand manner.

"She's doing better than I expected. I learned things about her today that I hadn't learned in 3 years. It's just my opinion, but I think she's relieved that it's out in the open and she doesn't have to hide anything from us anymore. This is probably the first time Mac has had a close group of friends in her life, and she feels badly about disappointing us. And especially about disappointing you, sir."

AJ didn't know how to respond to Harm. Harm's remark initiated AJ's protective response. He wanted to take some time to think that over, but he knew a gap in their conversation might tell more about himself than he wanted known. So he quickly moved into a new line of conversation.

"How do you plan to deal with the perjury charge? That's the serious part of the entire investigation."

"We agree on that 100%. That could be our Achilles' heel. I'm hoping to help Admiral Morris find an excuse to let her off lightly. I'm going for the fact that Mac never denied shooting Ragle. The only thing she omitted was that Farrow was in the room when the shot was fired."

"Error of omission? That's not a very strong point."

"I know, sir, but it's all we really have. My plan is to present all these other parts of Mac's story and bring her excellent service record into the proceedings and try to soften up Morris to the point where he's searching for a reason to let her off."

"What's Mac think about it?"

"I didn't exactly put it that way to her, but she thought it was a stretch, too."

The two officers sat quietly for a few minutes, while each digested the prior conversation. AJ sat with his elbow on the arm of the chair and his head resting in his hand. Several times he looked up and started to speak. Each time, he stopped, as if considering each word he planned to say. Harm was uncomfortable with the long silence, but he was intuitive enough to realize the Admiral was about to tell him something that he felt was important.

"Sarah's had one shitty life, hasn't she?" AJ said.

Harm was startled by this comment coming from his commanding officer. After a few seconds, he recovered. "I guess none of us realized how bad it really was. If we had known, maybe we could have done something." It was only later that he realized the Admiral had called Mac "Sarah".

"Well, we know now. And we are going to do something," the Admiral said.

Harm felt that AJ had come to a decision of some sort while he sat there. He waited silently to see what that decision would be.

"Commander Rabb," he started. Harm knew something important was about to take place whenever the Admiral called him that when they were alone. "Commander Rabb, how many times have you read the precise wording of the UCMJ?"

"Quite a few times, sir. Did I miss something?" Harm had never known the Admiral to point out errors or omissions to either side of a court case. The JAG was the ultimate authority on appeals, so he couldn't get involved one way or the other during a trial. 'But,' as Harm reasoned to himself, 'This isn't a trial. It's an Article 32 hearing to determine if there are grounds for a court-martial. There is no appeal from an Article 32 hearing.' Harm found his voice again. "I guess it's everyone's responsibility to determine the facts at a hearing. There's no point to take a case to trial if an error has occurred in the hearing. Have you found an error in the proceedings?"

The Admiral seemed to be encouraged by Harm's response. He had obviously been mulling over whether he should make a strategy suggestion.

"When I'm stumped, I always return to the document itself." He glanced at his notepad. "Section 931. Article 131. Perjury. False testimony material to the issue or matter of inquiry."

"Yes, sir. Every law clerk knows that."

"The issue being investigated during Mac's testimony was murder. The murder issue was dismissed. Therefore, the error of omission should be dismissed... Mac's entire testimony should be dismissed." AJ pursued the idea. "I know it's a complicated technicality, but if we're looking for something for Morris to hang his hat on, this could be it."

Harm thought about what was just said. He finally looked up at the Admiral and grinned. "You know, that could be the point that could make the case for Mac. No testimony material to the issue if there's no issue. No testimony, no perjury. Great!"

AJ grinned back, obviously pleased with himself. "Do you think Morris will agree? It may be the extra inch he needs to absolve Mac."

"It might even be an extra foot."

Harm reached behind his desk to the humidor that had been idle ever since he quit smoking. He said, "I think this calls for a cigar," as he took one for himself, and handed one to the Admiral.

"I thought you quit!"

"I allow myself one when things are going well. And I have to tell you this is the first one in a long time."

"I'll probably regret this later, but right now I think we both need a cigar. Maybe even a beer after work," AJ said.

"And I'll buy."

The two officers both leaned back in their chairs and enjoyed their cigars and each other's silence for a long time.

Finally AJ rose and walked to the door. He turned and said to Harm "I'll meet you at The Rack in an hour."

The Rack

Harm and AJ sat at the bar, each with a bottle of beer. It was the first time they had ever done this, and AJ wondered if this could be considered fraternization, but decided he didn't really give a damn at this point.

Harm was easy company, not needing to fill up every minute with talk. AJ liked that in a man. He was glad Harm had accepted his ideas and that things were looking better for Mac. 'Mac,' he thought. 'Wonder what she's doing now and how she's feeling? Wonder if Harm has told her yet that he has a plan?'

Harm finally spoke. "She really has had a shitty life, hasn't she?"

AJ realized they were both thinking of her. "I don't know much about her life before she enlisted. Her service years are spotless. I figured something bad happened to her to cause her to turn to drinking. She just doesn't seem like the type."

"Guess there's no 'type', but she doesn't fit my profile of an alcoholic either. She's so in control all the time."

"That's how she stays stay sober, I guess. How did she ever get hooked up with Ragle, anyway?" AJ asked.

"I don't know all the details, but I do know her father was abusive and her mother abandoned her. I think she started drinking quite young, like in junior high."

"Oh, Jesus! She was a baby!"

"Sort of explains why a guy like Ragle could take advantage of her. In that position, I would have probably married the devil himself to get out of the house," Harm said.

"Yeah, and he probably kept her supplied with booze. He needed killing. How did she manage to get away from him?"

Harm thought a minute. "I don't really know. I think her Uncle Matt had a lot to do with it, but I don't know the details. She told me she hated the old Sarah MacKenzie."

"Do you think she's happy now?" AJ asked.

"I guess I don't know her as well as I thought. It's so hard to tell. She's changed a lot since she came here. But she's still pretty guarded and serious. Before all this happened, I thought she was starting to lighten up a little. But I don't think she ever felt really secure. I think maybe she thought if we found out about what she had come from, we wouldn't accept her, and she would lose her only friends."

"Did she ever ask anybody for help when her husband showed up?" AJ was hoping it was a casual question. He was confused by Harm's long silence. AJ waited.

"I'm sorry to say,... she did..." It was really difficult for Harm to go on. "She came over to my place when Chris first threatened her, but I didn't know it at the time, and she didn't tell me. I... I had a... guest, and when Mac saw her, she told me it was nothing important, and could wait till the next day. You will never know how rotten I feel about that. I might have been able to prevent the whole mess."

They sat nursing a beer. Both of them were now miserable. Harm, because he didn't help her when she came to him, and AJ, because she turned him away when he went to her.

"Well... at least she felt like she had somebody she could turn to," AJ said, and then they sat silently, each lost in his private misery until they finished their second beers. AJ finally blurted out, "How can you expect a kid to handle something like that? What was she, 12? She never had a chance." He pushed the empty bottle away. After a long silence, "Have you told her yet that you have a plan?"

"She wasn't home when I called, but I'll stop by later. I want to be able to give her some hope without promising anything... Admiral, there's something else we need to talk about."

AJ waited apprehensively for what Harm had to say.

"Sir, you realize, I'm sure, that if Mac is exonerated from the charges, the investigating officer will probably assign her to non-judicial punishment? No matter how brilliant our strategy, he's bound to believe she at least tried to mislead. I'm convinced that Admiral Morris would like nothing better than to find a way to let her off."

AJ was relieved that was all Harm had on his mind. "Well, according to Brumby's theory, Morris makes four." AJ gave a rueful smile. "And yes, I've considered the possibility of an Admiral's Mast, and it wouldn't be my first."

"It would be your first for Mac. That must bother you."

"Goes with the job, Harm." AJ tried to sound nonchalant, but it was a scenario he dreaded. "Guess I should be getting home. My dog is probably eating the furniture by now."

"And I need to be getting over to Mac's with the good news about your idea."

"Harm, it might be better if she thinks it's your idea. I would feel better about it."

"Sir, I think Mac would appreciate knowing it came from you. And probably would have more confidence, too."

"Let's just wait on that. If there is an Admiral's Mast, it would be better my way."

"I understand, sir. I really appreciate your help, and Mac would, too, if you would let me tell her."

"Not yet, Harm. See you tomorrow."

As AJ drove home, he tried to keep his thoughts off the hearing, but his mind always came back to Mac. These last months, his mind continually returned to how Mac turned down his offer to help. AJ berated himself over how much he had allowed that to bother him. He didn't like to think about how much it would have meant to him if she had accepted his help. AJ had been his own man for many years, and it troubled him that Mac had this kind of power over him. But she obviously didn't have the same kind of feelings for him, and AJ felt bewildered, confused and a little angry. Mostly at himself. 'I can live with her not caring for me in a romantic sense, but it really upsets me that she doesn't trust me or think of me as anything but a CO. She went to Harm for help, she went to Farrow for help. Christ, for all I know she went to Tiner for help. What the hell is wrong with me?'

AJ wearily opened the front door. He was immediately overwhelmed by Captain's welcome. Captain Sherman Shepherd was his best friend and psychologist. He was a highly trained dog, but his loving nature was innate. No matter what kind of mood AJ was in when he came home, Captain could have him laughing and hugging him within minutes. Tonight was no exception.

The two greeted each other affectionately and roughly. Captain would put his paws on AJ's shoulders and AJ would wrap his arms around Captain's neck, and they would both start snarling and laughing. AJ would eventually shove Captain down to all 4 feet and rub his head and neck while the dog would nuzzle his face.

"Hey, Buddy. How was your day? What did you do all day?" It was the same line every day, but Captain never tired of it, and neither did AJ.

The huge shepherd followed his master to the bedroom, where AJ changed into jeans and a tee shirt. Then, the pair went to the kitchen to start dinner. AJ was the better cook, so he was in charge of food preparation. After a meal, Captain would lick the dirty dishes clean before AJ put them in the dishwasher. It was a division of labor that worked well for them.

Captain laid down under the table with his alert eyes following every move his master made. This was their favorite time of day. This was when AJ would tell Captain all the things that happened to him that day and Captain listened intently, completely content to just hear his master's voice.

"Sorry I was late tonight, pal. Had a couple of beers with Harm. We think we have a plan that will keep Sarah from going to trial." AJ pulled tonight's dinner out of the fridge. "I'll never understand why she picks such duds. Except for Farrow, she's batting zero. Some women just like jerks, I guess. Surprised she hasn't latched on to that idiot, Brumby. That's all we need."

Captain beat his tail on the table leg to get AJ's attention. "I know, pal. She's had a rough life, much rougher than I knew, and women who have been abused have such low self-esteem they subconsciously seek out mean men because they think that's all they deserve. When did you get to be such a damned psychoanalyst?"

Captain grinned.

AJ's mind knew that Captain didn't know these things. But his gut knew that whenever he talked negatively about someone, Captain objected. AJ finally decided that the dog could sense his master's subconscious guilt feelings. And whenever AJ thought something he knew he shouldn't be thinking, Captain would beat his tail noisily on the nearest object. So, in effect, the dog served as AJ's conscious. So the beating tail usually softened AJ's bad thoughts. "If anybody knew about this, Captain, I would be committed, and you would be sent to the animal behavior lab."

Captain grinned his approval as AJ bent over and rubbed his ears.

"You trust me, don't you, boy? You would let me help you if you were in trouble, wouldn't you? Sure you would. That's a good boy. That's my good boy. I love you, too."

AJ's spirits were improving. After the two friends finished dinner and cleanup, they retired to the living room, as was their custom. Sometimes they watched TV, sometimes AJ worked at his desk or computer, and a few times they worked at the keyboard. (Both of them were lousy musicians, but they didn't know it, and nobody else had to listen.)

But tonight AJ needed to think. 'And how will you handle an Admiral's Mast, Chegwidden? That will be a tough one.' And AJ began a mental list of his options if it came to that. It was going to be another sleepless night.

Article 32 hearing

The hearing was going much as Harm had expected. The good news was that Harriet had found out that Admiral Morris had been divorced not once, but twice. They all hoped that would give him a little empathy with Mac's divorce situation. Harm knew that wasn't much, but it was an encouraging sign. Every scrap of information which would cast a sympathetic light on Mac's situation was important.

Bud found hotel records placing Mac and Farrow at the hotel on the exact dates between Mac's transfer and shipping out. And Tiner had uncovered Farrow's credit card records showing the sail boat rental on one of those dates. Bud had also found records indicating Mac had talked to the legal officer on two occasions regarding divorce proceedings. Both times she had been transferred before she could follow up. And in addition to that, Bud, Harriet and Tiner had charted every single leave that Farrow or Mac had taken while Mac was under his command, and there was not one single incident of them having time off together. None of this was, in itself, key information. But Harm felt that the combined effect would impress Admiral Morris and give him some basis for leniency for Mac.

Harm had delivered a logical, yet moving, explanation for Mac's failure to secure a divorce, and gave a very convincing argument that Mac truly believed she was not in Farrow's command at the time of the affair. Harm had decided not to mention the Statute of Limitations or Mac's service record. He knew Morris would know about that, and Harm wanted Morris to realize for himself that there was evidence, explanations and technicalities lining up in Mac's favor. He felt that he had scored some points with Morris on those two charges, but the perjury charge defense would be purely technical.

The entire defensive team knew that the outcome of the hearing would revolve around the perjury charge. And when Harm came up with a logical argument to dismiss the testimony, they began to feel some hope.

But they all knew the deciding factor was Mac's own words.

Mac's sincere apology and explanation was eloquent in its simplicity, and Admiral Morris was obviously impressed. He gave the perfunctory lecture, assigned her case to Admiral's Mast, and ended with, "Don't make me regret my decision."

Harm and Bud breathed a sigh of relief, and Harriet wiped a tear from her eye. The Admiral was not present. Morris would inform him of the Admiral's Mast. But Mac could not celebrate. She did not feel innocent of Chris' death and she never would. It was another brick in her house of self-incrimination. And now she could add Admiral Morris to her list of people who expected more from her than she thought she had to give.

There was a general sense of relief over the entire office as Mac was respected and liked by almost everybody there from the custodians and security guards to her colleagues in the JAG Corps. But there was no relief in the Admiral's office, because now her fate was in his hands, and AJ did not relish this final phase of Mac's legal troubles.

After AJ/Mac conference

Major Sarah MacKenzie left the Admiral's office in a trance. She was accustomed to military discipline and had endured her share of 'dressing-downs'. She had been on the receiving end of shouting, screaming, sarcasm, in-your-face discipline, humiliation and physical punishment. She had handled every sort of verbal and physical abuse, and had never in her life felt as emotionally empty as she did at this moment.

She somehow managed to leave the Admiral's office, walk through the bullpen, and get into the privacy of her own office before her legs abandoned her. She stumbled into her chair and sat stunned for an undetermined amount of time. Finally, the hypnotic state began to fade and she became cognizant of the space around her. She glanced at the window. It had become dark outside while she was in the trance.

Everybody had gone home for the weekend, and she was here alone to deal with the incapacitating blow she had just received. Her thoughts returned to her 'conversation' with the Admiral. Actually, he had done the talking. She occasionally replied with the standard responses expected from the person receiving punishment. It would have been easier to accept if he had exaggerated or embellished anything she had done. But he hadn't. He cut straight to the chase as only he could, and Mac knew he was right about everything he said. Everything but one. "You didn't trust me enough." That part was not true, but only Mac knew it.

She had gotten off the perjury charge with a lot of luck coupled with Harm's brilliant strategy. They had expected the dismissal of the fraternization and adultery charges. Between the statute of limitations and a sympathetic hearing officer, that was almost a given. But she couldn't understand her residual feelings of guilt. 'So why do I feel like I've been kicked in the gut?'

She was sorry Chris was dead, but Mac was sensible enough to know she had no choice in the shooting incident. Chris would have killed her and John had she not acted on her instincts. So she knew that was not the cause of the pall that consumed her.

The loss of promotion hardly entered her mind. Mac knew there would be no promotions for a while, no matter how the hearing went. She was already beyond where she should have been anyway, given her age and experience. When the investigating officer had pronounced her not guilty of any court-martial offense, she should have been happy. Harm was happy. They had 'won'.

But what she 'won' was an Admiral's Mast. She had dreaded the fact that the Admiral would have to be the one to decide her punishment. That wasn't fair to him. Mac would have gladly accepted a more severe punishment if she could have spared him this. She was fairly certain he was attracted to her, and at the very least, thought of her as a friend. 'It's just not fair that I screwed up, and he has to take on this load of guilt.'

When the Admiral had ordered her to stay when Harm left the office, she knew the dreaded moment had come. She thought that he would probably fine her part of her salary, give her flunky work for months, demote her or even confine her to quarters. And he would administer one of his famous nose to nose lectures. She thought he would feel he had to give her a substantial punishment in order to set an example. She knew he would be angry with her. But she never dreamt that he would do what he did.

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