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Burn (Chapter Thirty-one)

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Part Three

NO LUCK AT ALL

Chapter Thirty-one

CAEL COULDN'T GET LARKIN'S CONVERSATION WITH Dean Mills about Johnson out of his mind, as he dressed for the night's big event, the art auction. The upside was that Johnson's disappearance wasn't going to cause a ripple. The downside was that he'd been right all along; something was up. Second thoughts. One man short. Slit his throat.

The only thing that immediately made sense was a robbery, to be pulled off at some time before they docked in San Diego. With all the security on a cruise ship you'd think the passengers would be safe enough, but if members of the security detail were in on the deal, it could certainly be done.

Cael had already informed his people by phone that something was likely to happen, tonight, tomorrow night, or the next. Matt was going to talk to Sanchez to see if there was any way to get weapons for their team. The ship security team would have access to a few weapons, but it wasn't as if there was an arsenal onboard, so getting some weapons was a long shot. Still, with Mills and his men armed, Cael would feel better if they had some kind of backup.

He wanted Johnson's gun more than ever. Damn, what a waste that it had gone over the side with him.

If the robbery, if that's what it was, proceeded without violence, it was possible that the best course of action would be for him and his people to hang back. Stuff could be replaced. A shootout between the pirates – sea robbers was more accurate, and sounded less romanticized – and his people would likely lead to innocent people getting hurt or killed. If they simply took their loot and made their escape, he wouldn't move a muscle. Let them go; it was safer that way.

Might have to use his handcuffs on Tiffany, though. She wasn't particularly good at hanging back.

There was to be an art auction tonight, and the oil paintings that would be on display were worth a pretty penny. Might be just the right time for a robbery. Then again, the paintings weren't going anywhere.

If he were staging a robbery, he'd choose one of the formal events to hit. That's when the diamonds would be out, on display as surely as the paintings were. The artwork could be cut from their frames and stored in waterproof tubes. Cash? There wouldn't be much, since so many of the expenses here were prepaid, or simply charged to one's room, but these were rich folks who didn't travel without cash, and some might have a hefty wad. Was there something else onboard that he didn't know about? Some valuable item – or, God forbid, someone – worth taking this kind of risk?

It was the getaway that stumped him. There would have to be another ship of some kind nearby. The robbers could get there by lifeboat or helicopter, if the other ship was so equipped. It would make more sense to wait until they were closer to land, because as soon as the call went out, every vessel in the area would respond. Coast Guard, navy … there was no way to tell who would be in the vicinity.

He could see the security guards getting the drop on the passengers at one event or another, but what about the crew? This was a big ship, and there were crew members everywhere. It would be like trying to rob an entire small city, and even if all the security guards were in on the plan, and that was very unlikely, there were too many holes in the scenario he tried to imagine, too many things that could go wrong.

A mass kidnapping? A demand for ransom from hundreds of wealthy families and high-profile companies? That thought caused a chill to run down Cael's spine.

Tonight he had to find a way to speak to Captain Lamberti about his concerns. He'd take the man aside, tell him what he suspected, and if necessary why and how he'd found out, and perhaps suggest precautions that could be taken to stop the robbery or kidnapping before it started. Sanchez already had a good idea about a handful of security guards who were in on the deal. Cael considered phoning the captain now, but unless he was looking in the man's eye, how could he know if Lamberti was taking him seriously or writing him off as a nut? Ryan had established a relationship with the captain, and they had Sanchez on their side, too. Maybe that would be enough to get his attention.

If not, a viewing of a bit of the surveillance footage and a call from someone in D.C. who could vouch for their credentials, and the captain would have no choice but to believe.

Jenner caught his eye, as she walked out of the bathroom where she'd been fiddling with her hair. Her gown – black trimmed in white – hugged her torso, showing off her small but finely shaped breasts. The low scoop of the neckline teased him.

She continually surprised him in a world he'd thought held no more surprises. She'd never backed away from him, never shied away – not after that first night, at least. But now she stared at him even more boldly, as if she could see into him.

He'd never expected this; he'd never expected her.

"Look at me like that and you can forget about leaving the stateroom tonight," he teased, though damn if it wasn't the truth.

She smiled. "Works for me."

He didn't tell her what he suspected. She'd only worry. Worry, hell, she'd want a gun. Or a shoe.

Besides, it wasn't like he was going to let her out of his sight.

*  *  *

FRANK FINALLY DECIDED on a letter of responsibility that suited him. There were no words to convey his contempt for the people he was taking with him, as well as those he was leaving behind, but this would suffice.

The Silver Mist will be my funeral pyre, and I suppose that's fitting. I don't give a damn about the passengers. They're sheep, too stupid to realize they're being led, and I'm tired of being their damn shepherd.

I take full responsibility for the destruction of the Silver Mist. I planned the attack and planted the bombs myself. Fuck you.

If they didn't like that last part, they could cut it out of the news coverage. He thought it was important, because it conveyed exactly what he thought of them all. The e-mail would go to three major newspapers, an all-news network, and the three major networks.

He decided to write one more message, since he was in a mood for confessing.

The surly engineer who'd designed the EMP weapon was cautious to the point of being paranoid. Kyle Quillin didn't like to use the Internet for any exchange of sensitive communication. He thought people were spying on him all the time. Larkin had made a nice profit – profit he'd never see – from the EMP sale, and so had Quillin, who could no longer complain that he was underpaid and underappreciated.

But truthfully, Larkin despised the punk. Hell, he despised everyone, but Quillin was such a self-important little bastard. The EMP technology was out there now. It was almost complete, and already in the North Koreans' hands. If the e-mail was tracked and they arrested the kid, the completion of the weapon was still a given. And it would be kind of funny, that the technology Quillin had always feared led to his downfall.

Frank wrote one last e-mail, addressed to Quillin, this one without days of thought and rewriting. Fuck you. When something was worth saying, it was worth saying twice.

He'd set his e-mail program to send the messages at a preselected time, which meant he'd have to log onto the Internet and walk away, leaving his laptop on with the incriminating messages just sitting there. He didn't care. He had the trigger for the bombs belowdeck in his pocket, along with a weapon he probably wouldn't need, and the incendiary bombs on the higher decks, all five of them, had been activated. He glanced at his watch.

One hour and seven minutes.

He smiled, and for a moment, one precious moment, the pain in his head faded almost to nothing.

RYAN LOOKED FABULOUS in his tuxedo, as usual. Faith smiled at him as she slipped the posts of her eye-catching emerald earrings into her ears and fastened them. The earrings had been a Valentine's Day gift, one of many. She had to admit, her husband did things right.

Her own attire for the evening, a pale champagne silk gown that was draped elegantly on her body, was one of the more comfortable she owned but also one of the most expensive. There were days when she was willing to pay a pretty penny for comfort. The fact that this gown drove Ryan wild was a nice bonus.

A soft ping from the computer, which was sitting on the desk in the parlor, alerted her to the fact that she had a message. Maybe Larkin had finally signed on to the Internet and the key-logger program was paying off. Then again, it was more likely a message from her sister, who was determined that the two of them would go on a cruise together before the year was out, and had sent several messages to that effect.

Faith didn't rush into the other room, but slipped into her shoes and straightened the emerald necklace, a birthday present, that matched the earrings, before she walked into the parlor to check the laptop. Before she left for the evening, just in case, she'd program her iPhone to capture anything that came in while she was out of the room. She didn't sit, not wanting to wrinkle her gown just yet, but bent over the desk and opened the laptop.

Jackpot.

She smiled as she opened the program so she could see what Larkin had typed into the computer. The luck she was having with this program so far, it was probably a note to his mother. Did men like Larkin have mothers?

She read the message, and her smile disappeared.

"Ryan!" she shouted.

Recognizing the urgency in her voice, he ran into the parlor. "What's wrong?"

Her heart was pounding so hard she could feel it; her knees felt suddenly weak. "Larkin is going to blow up the ship and everyone on it."

"When?" Ryan asked pragmatically, already reaching for his cell phone.

"I don't know. Tonight, I think. He didn't give a time, but it looks like the e-mails are set to be sent in an hour, so … shortly after that, maybe. He won't want anyone to have advance warning."

"I'll start calling the others, you call Cael."

"Then what?" Faith asked as she dialed.

"Then we get the hell off this ship."

LARKIN HAD CALLED ISAAC EARLIER in the evening and told him to take the night off. His steward had been surprised but grateful. Frank had suggested that Isaac spend some time in the crew bar, maybe sit around the sad little crew hot tub. He'd even told Isaac that he'd been doing a good job and deserved a break.

Truth was, he didn't want to take the chance that Isaac would get nosy and look at the laptop and the messages there. The only other man Frank might have to worry about walking into his room uninvited was Dean Mills, and since he was sitting across from Dean at the moment he wasn't concerned about that.

They were alone, at a small table in the corner of the Fog Bank. Dean was anxious, worried about his boss's plan to make an escape, a plan he didn't quite buy into. Greed had kept him on a leash thus far.

"Relax," Frank said as he sipped at what was probably his last scotch. "In just two hours, the excitement will begin." In two hours the excitement would be over, for most of the people on this ship. But Dean didn't need to know that.

Frank was prepared for anything and everything. His gun – a .40-caliber PM40 Dean had provided, when Frank had insisted that he needed a weapon for the big event – sat deep in one pocket. It was a smallish gun, but it was heavy and the bulge ruined the line of his suit. Who the hell cared? He hated the way a gun felt tucked in his waistband, and was always afraid he'd shoot his balls or his ass. Unlike Dean, he didn't own a shoulder holster. The pocket would do. Sitting here, directly above one of the incendiary bombs that would explode in less than an hour, no one could see the bulge in his pocket, anyway.

But if he needed it …

"I'm worried about Sanchez," Dean said in a very low voice.

"Who's that?" Frank truly felt no concern. Knowing he was about to die was more freeing than frightening.

"A security guard. I swear, I run into the guy every time I turn around. I think he's watching me."

"Don't be paranoid, Dean." Frank took a leisurely sip of his scotch. "If he gets in your way tonight, shoot him."

That slut Tiffany Marsters was sitting at the bar, drinking water and laughing with the bartender. She'd been more entertaining as a lush, but sobriety hadn't improved her tastes. The short, skintight bright blue dress she wore might've been painted on her, and how the hell did she walk in those shoes? Dean had cast more than one appreciative glance her way, even though he was worried about the plan for tonight and should have other things on his mind. Tiffany reached for a small gold clutch purse and opened it, pulling out a cell phone. He hadn't heard it ring, but then she was a good distance away. She didn't strike him as the sort who'd set her phone to vibrate out of consideration for others.

Dean was looking that way again.

Frank leaned forward. "After tonight, women like that will flock to you," he whispered, hoping to ease Dean's fears. "Money is a powerful aphrodisiac."

Judging by the expression on the man's face, the comforting words did the trick.

"WHERE ARE YOU?" Ryan's voice was unusually sharp on the phone.

"Excuse me," Tiffany said, smiling at the bartender as she slipped off her stool and walked away, searching for a bit of privacy. It wasn't like she could talk freely, though Ryan knew she was watching Larkin at the moment. "Fog Bank," she said, as if she were setting up a meeting with a friend.

"Is he there?" Ryan asked.

"Yes. What's up?" she asked casually, in case the bartender was paying attention, even from a distance.

"Don't look at him, don't react."

Tiffany stiffened. This couldn't be good.

"Larkin has planted several bombs on the ship." Ryan's voice was crisp, and she didn't interrupt him to ask questions. This wasn't the only call he'd have to make. "We don't know how many or when they're set to detonate, but it looks like tonight. Since he set his e-mail program to send out a couple of e-mails in approximately forty-five minutes, we should have at least that amount of time to get things under control."

"Shit." It took all her willpower not to turn and look at Larkin, to stare at the monster. I can take him, she thought.

Ryan knew her too well. "Don't make a move. Cael's calling the captain, and Sanchez is trying to get some weapons for us. For now, stay on Larkin. I'll be in touch."

The call ended, and Tiffany dropped the cell back into her purse. With every fiber of her being, she wanted to run across the room and strangle Larkin with her bare hands. But she didn't. She returned to her barstool, smiled at the bartender even though her heart was pounding, and waited. Her self-preservation instincts were shrieking Bombs! Bombs!, but what the hell could she do? She was in the middle of the freakin' ocean with nowhere to go.

*  *  *

CAEL HADN'T SPOKEN to her directly about what was happening, but Jenner had heard his end of the conversation, and she knew enough. More than enough.

Bombs. That psycho Larkin was going to blow up the Silver Mist. Jenner thought about the people she knew, the passengers and crew she had never met, the friends she had made here. Friends, not mere acquaintances.

If Cael and his team weren't following Larkin, if they hadn't kidnapped her and Syd and set up surveillance, Larkin would've gotten away with this. It wasn't a given that he might not still get what he wanted.

It took Cael precious minutes to get the captain on the phone, and they didn't have a minute to lose.

"Captain Lamberti, this is Cael Traylor. There are bombs on this ship and they're going to blow tonight. You need to begin evacuation procedures immediately." Cael grit his teeth as he listened to the captain's response. "No, this isn't a bomb threat. It's a warning." He looked at Jenner. "Fine, arrest me. Lock me up. But before you do that, please get the passengers off this floating death trap." He listened a while longer, his patience fraying, and then he said two very important words, "Frank Larkin."

Cael hung up the phone, and two seconds later, the alarm sounded. A voice – the captain's – spoke loudly over the shipwide intercom. "This is not a drill. Please proceed to your Muster Stations. Repeat, this is not a drill." Cael ran into the bedroom and grabbed the two PFDs, then he took Jenner's arm and led her to the door. "Move it, sweetheart. You're getting off this ship now."

"You mean we, right?" she said as he ushered her into the hallway. Her heart was pounding. Well-dressed people who hadn't yet moved to the upper decks for the evening were beginning to leave their rooms, some with PFDs, others empty-handed and confused. "You mean we."

She freed herself from his grip and knocked on Linda and Nyna's door, hoping to hurry the ladies along.

No one answered, and Cael wasn't in any mood to wait. Knowing how important this was to her, he stepped back and kicked at the door Jenner had been knocking on. It splintered, cracked, swung open crookedly.

She called out; received no answer. Linda and Nyna weren't there; their stateroom was empty. Cael grabbed her and half-dragged her to the stairwell where they joined the others who were fleeing. Holding on as best she could, she prayed the ladies were already on deck and headed for safety.

The siren continued to blare; some of the passengers in the stairwell were crying, and one man pushed another aside.

"Don't panic," Cael called in a calm but inflexible voice that carried well. He gave the man who had pushed the other a look that said he'd toss his ass to the bottom of the stairs if he didn't settle down. "Everybody will get off the ship if you all remain calm. We have time." Not a lot of it, but some.

"Time for what?" one of the more impatient men shouted. "What do you know that we don't?"

"I know if you keep shoving, someone's going to get hurt," Cael said. Jenner wanted to kick the man's ass on general principle, but Cael was right. Panic didn't help anyone.

Without warning there was a deafening blast from below. The boat shook, lurched wildly to one side, and Jenner grabbed onto the stairwell railing to keep from falling. Some dust and debris filled the air as she bent down and wrenched off her shoes. She should've gotten out of these heels before leaving the suite, but changing into running shoes hadn't been on her mind. In front of her, Ginger Winningham stumbled and almost fell. Her husband, Albert, caught her; so did Cael, offering a steady hand.

Then he turned and looked at her with those deep blue eyes she'd come to love so very dearly. And she saw in those eyes what she, and all these other people, suspected.

They might not make it off this damn ship alive.

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