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Burn (Chapter Thirty-three)

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AFTER TAKING A FEW MINUTES TO WALK AMONG THE panicked passengers and enjoy the upheaval he'd created, Larkin slipped into the side entrance of a restaurant, The Club, which was barely lit by the auxiliary lights mounted on the walls. He walked past the empty tables, which still showed the evidence of the passengers who'd been sitting there until a short time ago, toward the kitchen. Hidden deep in a storage closet in the kitchen, one of the incendiary bombs sat armed to go off in, he glanced at his watch, twenty-three minutes.

The sounds of passengers screaming pierced the walls. Unfortunately they were primarily screams of fright, not pain.

Not yet.

He walked into the deserted kitchen, past the food prep area. Passengers had been eating, or waiting for their food, when the alarm had sounded. The kitchen had been abandoned as the crew made their escape. The grill had been turned off, but no one had bothered to put away the food, and there had been no one remaining in the dining room to consume the finished meals.

There was some indignity in dying in a closet, but in the end it wouldn't matter. Besides, it was quiet here. There was no traffic in and out. He could die in peace.

The headache that had faded for a while was back with a vengeance, like nails shooting through his skull. Thank goodness the sirens had been silenced.

He knew the procedures for such emergencies. And since events had not gone as planned, the captain had no doubt contacted the Coast Guard via the Amver system. How soon would rescue arrive? Likely not within twenty-three minutes. He glanced at his watch again. Twenty-two, now. The Pacific was a big ocean, with miles and miles and miles to be covered before anyone would reach the distressed Silver Mist.

So, a few more people would escape than he'd planned. At this rate not everyone would make it off by lifeboat, though. The idiots were panicking, costing themselves precious time. He wondered how things had gone below. Had Isaac been near the blast? Was he dead? Injured? Ignorant that his employer was responsible? He could only imagine the surprise of the security guards who'd been counting all this time on a robbery that had never been a part of the master plan.

For years, Larkin had been a success in every venture he began. He'd made deals happen, he'd influenced politics and finance, he'd secretly brokered arms deals that had affected the entire world. What was wrong with the fucking world that he couldn't pull off his suicide in the way he'd planned?

He glanced at his watch again. Twenty-one minutes.

JENNER STAYED CLOSE to Cael, but she made a point not to get in his way. She didn't say a word when Ryan found them, and informed Cael that Faith was already off the ship, having gone on one of the first lifeboats to launch. And he didn't take the time to needle her because Faith had cooperated and she had not.

Maybe later.

Captain Lamberti found the two men in the crowd. His distinguished face was set with purpose. "The Coast Guard has been informed," he said. "Every ship in the area, if possible, will come to our rescue." There was no telling what kind of ships were nearby: fishing boats, freighters, other cruise ships. The problem was, they were currently hell and gone from any other ship. It was going to take precious time for rescue to arrive. Lamberti didn't linger. Maybe it was true that the bombs hadn't sunk the ship, as had been intended, but people had been killed – and he didn't yet know how bad the toll was. No one did.

It was after the captain had moved on that Cael and Ryan put their heads together. "We need to find Sanchez," Cael said.

"If he was below when the bombs went off – " Ryan said, then stopped and shrugged. They had no way of knowing where he'd been. Security personnel could have been anywhere on the ship at the time of the explosion, so his fate wasn't a given. Larkin was still unaccounted for, and so was Tiffany, who'd been tailing him. Matt and Bridget had both been below when the bombs had been detonated, and with the cell tower out there was no way to check on them.

Cael turned once to look at her, and she saw the hint of a plea in his eyes.

"I'm not leaving until you do," she said, gentle but firm.

A couple she knew ran past, dressed in evening wear and PFDs. Though they passed by so near they almost ran her down, neither of them looked at Jenner closely enough to recognize her. Their attention was on the lifeboats.

"Sanchez!" Ryan suddenly shouted, and Cael's head snapped around. He immediately spotted the Hispanic man, who was a head taller than those around him, trying to make his way to them. He was hard to miss. With his wide shoulders he could've easily forced his way through the crowd, but he gently moved panicked passengers aside, and directed several to the boats.

When Sanchez finally reached Cael, he reached beneath his jacket and pulled out a pistol. He handed it to Cael, keeping the movement furtive. The passengers would panic again if they saw weapons being passed around. "You guys are easy to spot in the crowd," he said with a strange sort of sigh, and Jenner realized it was the truth. They were the only ones not running for the lifeboats.

"Tucker's dead," Sanchez said in a voice lowered so only they could hear. Not that anyone around them cared what was being discussed. They were only interested in getting off the ship as fast as possible. "He was killed in the blast; that's his weapon. I was on my way down before the explosion but got delayed. I wasn't near the blast, as Tucker was."

"The others?" Cael prompted.

"Asker and Zadian are on the loose, as far as I can tell."

"That's it?" Ryan asked. "Is anyone else besides Larkin and those two involved?"

"Not to my knowledge."

Cael nodded to Sanchez. "Thanks for your help. You can head to the lifeboat station …"

"No thank you, sir," the security guard responded. "I'd like to see this through, if I can."

Cael nodded, and then a furious voice made them all turn their heads. "There you are." Tiffany had a gun in one hand, but it was down at her side and in the crush no one seemed to notice – or care. Her exotic eyes were snapping with rage. "Larkin's on this deck somewhere, at least he was last time I saw him, and according to Mills there are more bombs and more people in on this shit."

"We know about the people," Cael responded. "But we don't have any information about more explosives. Where's Mills?"

"Mills is dead, so he's not going to be any more help." Tiffany looked down at Jenner. "Why aren't you on a lifeboat?"

Jenner didn't hesitate. "You first."

She took a moment to study the people gathered together, a sea of control in the midst of the chaos. Cael, Ryan, Tiffany, Sanchez, and her. They were, in effect, a small army. It annoyed the hell out of Jenner to recognize the fact that she was not a part of this army, but she'd always been pragmatic. She wanted to be one of them, an asset in a crisis, and if they got out of this in one piece maybe she would be. But now …

"We can assume Faith's original estimation on time was correct, which means we have less than twenty minutes," Cael said. "We can probably count on fifteen. We're going to split up. Much as I'd like to get my hands on Larkin, the bombs are our first priority. He'll know where they are, and so might Asker and Zadian. Do we all know what they look like?"

Everyone nodded, except Jenner. She hadn't been in on their briefings until this point. She hadn't even heard the names Asker and Zadian before this moment.

"Jenner!" She spun around at the sound of that voice, coming face-to-face with a teary Nyna.

"Nyna, why aren't you on a lifeboat!"

"I can't find Linda," Nyna said. She wasn't dressed in evening clothes, like most of the others, but was in one of her workout outfits. Tears streaked her face. "I was supposed to meet her in Buttons and Penny's suite, but they're sealing off the stairways, not letting anyone go down."

Jenner took the woman's hand and looked her in the eye with confidence, though she felt no confidence at all. "Linda's probably already evacuated."

Nyna shook her head. "I don't think so. She has no sense of direction at all."

Jenner looked at Cael. She didn't like it, she didn't like it at all, but he had something to do that she couldn't help him with. She had to accept that, if she stayed, she was going to be in his way, she was going to distract him when he didn't need distraction. She wanted to be useful, to make a difference in this crisis, and she couldn't do that by hanging on to Cael's coattails.

What she could do was get Nyna off the boat before more bombs started going off. Less than twenty minutes! Maybe she could find Linda, and make sure Penny and Buttons got onto a lifeboat.

Their eyes met. Cael realized what she was thinking, he knew she was about to take charge of Nyna and leave him to do what he had to do. She didn't have to explain, but she went up on her toes, kissed him, and then whispered, "Muster Station Three, fifteen minutes. Get yourself hurt and I'll kick your ass."

*  *  *

IT WASN'T LIKE she had any place to hide a gun.

With Sanchez directly behind her, Tiffany followed Cael's directions and took the stairs up to the sports deck. Unlike the stairs coming up from the staterooms and the theater level below, these were deserted. There had been plenty of time for anyone who'd been up here when the alarm sounded to get to their Muster Station.

Larkin was likely either on the Lido deck or the sports deck. He wouldn't have taken the risk of taking the stairways down when so many people were surging up and the crew was doing their best to make sure everyone moved upward.

She wasn't afraid of doing what had to be done, but honestly, this was not what she'd signed on for. "It's a cruise," she said in a soft, high voice, mimicking Cael even though he'd never spoken in such a squeaky voice. "It'll be fun."

Tiffany stepped into the open, eyes peeled for movement where there should be none. Sanchez was directly behind her; they instinctively separated. She headed for the fitness center; he walked toward the putting greens.

Since there was so much open space on this deck, and no one was jockeying for position, it should be easier to search than the Lido deck. Not that there weren't plenty of places for a man to hide. She was determined to get her hands on Larkin, but she wouldn't mind grabbing Asker and Zadian, too. According to Cael, they were in on the planning, had probably been in on planting the bombs.

How many more, and when were they set to blow?

Though the deck was not well lit, she was alert, on edge, and when she saw a bit of movement out of the corner of her eye, she spun around. Her gun hand popped up, and the other came with it, a steadying hand. Two figures were in shadow, so she didn't fire. Could be lost passengers, confused folks who were so panicked they'd decided to hide up here instead of evacuating. Unlikely, but before she pulled the trigger she had to be sure.

A man, not Larkin, yelled, "She has a gun!" And fired.

Tiffany returned fire as she quickly moved to cover behind the decorative pressed concrete of the elevator bank. The two men moved into the dim light as she scooted out of their line of sight. Asker and Zadian, looking very much like the pictures Faith had pulled up online, after Sanchez had given them the names of those he thought were involved with Mills.

The gunfire brought Sanchez running, his own weapon drawn. He drew fire, and Tiffany took the opportunity to take aim at the dark-haired man who was shooting at Sanchez. Her shot took Asker down. Sanchez got Zadian.

With both men down, Tiffany left her cover and joined Sanchez. Asker was dead, a bullet between his eyes, but Zadian had a bit of life left in him. Sanchez collected their weapons while Tiffany stood over Zadian and glared. "Where is he?"

"Who?"

As if he didn't know. "Larkin."

The man turned his head and spit. "Larkin lied to us. He never intended for us to get away before he set off the bombs. Why would he …" He stopped, breathing heavily. If there were a hospital nearby, he might survive the shot to the gut. Unfortunately for him, there wasn't.

Tiffany asked. "Were you looking for Larkin up here?" She had them pegged as men who'd push old ladies out of the way in order to get off a sinking ship, unless something very important delayed them.

"Yes." Zadian laid a hand over his wound, but didn't look at it. "He's not here. Maybe he escaped, leaving us …"

"Larkin didn't go anywhere." Too many people were looking for him. Cael and the captain had taken care of that. Besides, according to the e-mails, Larkin intended to die here tonight, and take as many people as possible with him. He wasn't thinking of escape.

"Where are the bombs?"

Zadian panted, then shook his head. "I planted one in the control room below, and another in the storeroom. I don't know where the above-deck bombs were placed."

"Who placed them?"

"Mills and Johnson."

Two dead guys. Great. Larkin was their only chance to get to the bombs before it was too late.

"Larkin must be on the Lido," Tiffany said as he turned back toward the stairway. "We need to get one of those weapons to Ryan and …"

"Kill me," Zadian said, drawing her attention. "Please, kill me."

She glanced back at him, then snorted. Like she'd do any favors for a fucker like that.

CAEL GOT MORE and more pissed as he searched the bars and cafes on the Lido deck.

The evacuation procedure had reached a calmer level, but the crew members who were loading the boats and lowering them didn't realize there were more explosions coming. Since they were working at maximum capacity, it wouldn't do any good to tell them. In fact, they'd panic and the procedure would probably suffer.

He heard the distant ring of gunfire. Larkin, or the security guards who were on the loose? His gut told him Larkin was close.

Damn it, he and his team weren't here for wet work, they were a surveillance crew. Surveillance! All of this felt too damn familiar to him, but his team hadn't signed on for this. Neither had he, but what the hell; you took what came at you. In a few minutes, according to the plan he'd set with the others before they'd split up, they were going to get off the ship themselves. By that time it would likely be too late to find and defuse the bombs. Let Larkin blow himself up.

There were too many places on this ship to hide a bomb, too many possibilities. Since these were likely civilian bombs, IEDs that could be any size or makeup, he didn't even know what to look for.

Only Larkin would know, and they were about to pass the time where that knowledge would do them any good.

He kicked in a kitchen door, raised his weapon, and there was the bastard, sitting on the floor in the doorway of a pantry of some sort. There was little light in the kitchen, but it was enough to cast a shadow across Larkin's face.

Cael raised his weapon, aimed at Larkin. "Stand up."

"No," Larkin said in a calm voice.

He was too confident, Cael thought. He must know there wasn't much time left. "Where are the bombs?" Cael asked. "How many? When are they going to detonate?"

Larkin looked at his watch, moving it into the light to read the hands. "I'm not telling you," he said, sounding like a petulant child. In the weird light, his eyes were strangely shiny. "There are too many of them; even if you found them, you don't have enough time to disarm them. I'd say you have a little less than five minutes. Give or take."

Cael swiftly calculated. Last time he'd seen Jenner, she'd been standing by the lifeboat station with a frightened crew member, helping others onto the boats. She should be off the ship by now – he hoped. God, he hoped.

"You're the one who screwed this up for me, aren't you?" Larkin asked, as he put the pieces together. "Who the hell are you?" Without waiting for an answer, he lifted one hand, revealing a small weapon.

The old instincts kicked in and Cael fired – and at this distance he couldn't miss. The bullet tore through Larkin's arm and the pistol went spinning away. He fired again, aiming for the knee. He didn't want the bastard deciding at the last minute to make it to one of the lifeboats. Larkin screamed and fell forward, writhing in pain.

And time was up. Screw Larkin. He had to get Jenner and the rest of his team into the lifeboats. Now.

JENNER WAS FRANTIC; she'd gotten Nyna on one of the lifeboats, but there had been no sign of Linda Vale, or of Penny or Buttons. The women might've gotten off the ship before Jenner had arrived at the station, as many of the passengers had, but she and Cael had gotten to the Lido deck so quickly, that seemed unlikely. Surely she would've seen them, even in the crowd.

There was so much to worry about, so many very real concerns, that she felt some control when she concentrated on one problem at a time.

Diana, a very young crew member who'd valiantly stayed at her station even though she obviously, desperately, wanted to escape, was beginning to show the wear and tear of the last horrible … how long had it been? Half an hour? An hour? She had lost complete sense of time. The lifeboats were filled, then swung away from the ship and lowered into the water, where they automatically detached and the process began again. The process was quick, and went smoothly as long as everyone cooperated. There were only a few people left onboard, and Diana was befuddled.

Large lifeboats filled with people floated on the water, moving away from the Silver Mist, waiting for rescue that should arrive no later than morning. It was going to be a long, scary night.

"There should be more passengers, and lots more crew," Diana said as she looked around, asking the unspoken question of the older man who was assisting her. There were other stations, other crew members – and Captain Lamberti, at the aft lifeboat station – asking the same questions. Where was everyone else?

Jenner suspected that the earlier blasts had taken more lives than anyone yet knew. "It's hard to keep track of people in an emergency," she said calmly, while inside her chest her heart was pounding and she felt like screaming in an agony of fear. Where was Cael? They didn't have much time before the arranged meet. She couldn't leave without him.

"Get in the boat," she said to Diana. There were no other passengers waiting in line at this station.

"But …"

"I'm right behind you," Jenner promised, not adding as soon as Cael arrives. She definitely didn't want to tell Diana the truth, that there were other bombs on this ship and there wasn't much time left.

She heard the sound of footsteps and turned. Tiffany came sprinting into view, still wearing those high heels, still carrying a gun. Sanchez was directly behind her, his powerful stride matched to hers. Ryan approached from another direction. Where the hell was Cael?

"Get in," Tiffany said brusquely as she reached the lifeboat.

"Not until Cael – "

"Sanchez," Tiffany said sharply. "Help Ms. Redwine into the lifeboat."

Jenner held up a hand. "That isn't necessary." Nausea gripped her as she climbed into the boat, and she felt so weak that at the last minute she almost fell. Where was he? Tiffany and the others climbed in right behind her, and Diana was ready to launch the boat, which was filed primarily with crew members who'd been the last to evacuate via this station.

"Wait," Jenner said desperately as Diana started to lower the lifeboat. "There's one more coming."

Cael was coming, wasn't he? Larkin hadn't gotten to him, hadn't shot him, hadn't come up behind him and hit him on the head and …

Tiffany took her hand and squeezed. "He'll be here," she whispered.

"I know." But she didn't know. She couldn't be sure. Would she feel it if something bad happened to him? Shouldn't she? Her breath hitched. She couldn't lose him now. Damn him, she'd found him just a little over a week ago and they'd wasted so much time in fighting each other …

Then she heard it, the sound of pounding footsteps approaching at a run, and took a deep breath. But when a crew uniform and a blond head came into view, she almost cried.

"Thank God!" Tiffany stood, and when Matt reached the side of the boat she offered a hand to help him.

"No, don't touch me," he panted. One arm was in a sling he'd fashioned from what looked like piece of a singed tablecloth. He was banged up pretty badly, bleeding and bruised, and his clothes were torn.

"Bridget?" Ryan asked, and Matt shook his head.

"She didn't make it." His voice was too loud; he shouted even though he was standing close to Ryan. "I looked as long as I could …"

"We have to go," Diana said, and it was the truth. They were out of time.

"I said I wouldn't leave without him," Jenner said, and gripped the side of the lifeboat as she began crawling out.

Tiffany grabbed her and hauled her back in. "Keep your ass here," she said sharply. "We don't have time for this kind of shit."

The blast from the sports deck made everyone duck. Diana screamed, and a fireball shot into the air. From the aft end of the deck, there was another explosion that took out the lifeboat station there, as well as the people who were manning it. The heat of the fire reached them in a stinking wave and the lifeboat they were sitting in shook violently. Diana began to lower it.

"No," Jenner said, sobbing. "Wait!" Diana looked at her, hesitated for a few precious seconds, then began lowering the boat again. Jenner jumped up, but Ryan grabbed her hand and pulled her back down. He held that hand tight. She didn't know if that strong hand was meant to keep her in place or offer comfort.

The lifeboat lowered in slow, jerky movements. Just as it sank below the railing, she saw him, coming at a dead run. "There he is!" she shrieked, and Diana hesitated again. The lifeboat jerked to a stop.

Cael didn't hesitate. He literally dove over the rail and into the boat, looking for all the world like some sort of rabid James Bond, tuxedoed, singed, sweating. Jenner grabbed him and held on tight, ducking as low as possible as yet another explosion rocked the upper decks of the ship.

*  *  *

LARKIN TRIED to suck in air, but there didn't seem to be enough oxygen. The burning sensation in his arm was bad enough, but his knee, or what had been his knee, was excruciating. He wouldn't have to endure the pain for much longer, though. Sitting propped up on the floor of the closet, he listened with more satisfaction than pleasure to the first explosion. He'd had to set the timers separately so there would be a few seconds, perhaps even a minute or two, between explosions, but he didn't have long to wait.

Another explosion sounded, and he imagined the fire racing across the deck, fed by chemical accelerant, feeding on everything and everyone in its path. He closed his eyes. There was the third explosion, and the fourth, which seemed to be the one in the theater below, as it felt more distant, rumbling from beneath his seat in a kitchen closet. He could feel the heat from encroaching fires, heard the crackle and pop of the burning ship, as well as a scream in the distance, and still the bomb he was all but sitting on hadn't yet exploded.

He waited. One moment. Two. And then, in a rage, he moved the boxes under which he'd hidden the bomb. It ticked away, inert, the timer showing an hour yet to go. An hour! He stared at it in disbelief. He couldn't have set it wrong. Someone had seen him, had come back and changed the time. He didn't make mistakes like this.

If he'd stayed in the Fog Bank he'd be dead now, blown up in an instant as he'd planned. He wouldn't be in this pain. He'd have simply disintegrated, the way he'd planned. Instead he was stuck here, almost vomiting with pain, waiting for a release that hadn't happened yet. He yanked at the wires on the bomb beneath him, hoping to make it explode. Instead, the timer simply stopped blinking. Nothing happened.

The heat around him was building to a suffocating level. Cursing, he dragged himself up, tried to stand, but his shattered knee collapsed under him. He howled in pain, rolling on the floor. Finally, panting, he began pulling himself along. He found his gun and stuffed it in a pocket. Searing pain licked at his foot and he looked around in horror to find his shoe on fire. Screaming, he beat at the shoe, then finally took it off and hurled it away. His hands burned, his foot burned. His leg and arm were nothing but agony.

With furious, single-minded purpose, he dragged himself out of the kitchen and onto the deck, where flames were leaping into the night sky. He managed to reach the railing and looked below, where a large number of lifeboats filled with people floated on the ink-black ocean. Not everyone had made it out, he had that satisfaction, but this was hardly the spectacular event he'd planned.

Fire raced across the aft deck toward him. He turned, suddenly afraid in the face of that unnatural flame, but fire raced at him from that direction, too.

The bastards. The fucking bastards. They were going to live! After all his careful plans, they were going to live and instead of going out in a blast he was going to burn. He hated them, he hated them all. Pulling out the pistol, he draped himself against the rail and began firing blindly at the lifeboats, at the water, at anything and everything. The flames reached him again, and he screamed.

It hurt. It hurt everywhere, worse than he'd ever imagined, and for what seemed like a very long time … he suffered.

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