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Burn (Chapter Thirty-two)

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FRANK WAS HAPPY, CONTENT, EXCITED … AND THEN the alarm sounded. Dean jumped to his feet. "What's happening?"

"You idiot," Frank said, his voice tight but calm. "Obviously someone's found one of the bombs." He suspected that one of the devices that had been placed belowdeck, those he hadn't personally hidden, had not been properly hidden. This was what happened when you were forced to leave important tasks to morons.

Most of the handful of customers in the bar were heading for the exits, but some remained. One old man insisted he wasn't leaving until his drink was finished. A couple on the other side of the room thought it was just another drill. The Marsters woman had become hysterical, and was apparently trying to call someone on her cell phone instead of following instructions and making her way to the lifeboats.

"Let's go," Dean said softly. "Our only chance is to act like we don't know anything, like we're as surprised as everyone else. I need to get you into a lifeboat."

"No," Frank said, remaining seated. He glanced at his watch; in a little more than half an hour, the incendiary bombs would explode. Half an hour! Sudden fury shook him. He wasn't about to sail away and watch the ship burn without him. His plan was falling apart before his eyes; people were already making their way to the lifeboats. Dammit, he wasn't going to die alone.

Frank stood, drew his gun from his pocket, and pulled the trigger. He wasn't a particularly good shot, but Dean was close and the single shot did the trick. Dean crumpled. With his free hand, Frank removed the remote from his pocket and looked at it for a moment. If the drill continued, everyone would get off the ship before the bombs went off. That wouldn't do at all. The bastards! Someone had fucked up his plan. He braced himself, flipped back the safety trigger, and punched the button with his thumb.

CAPTAIN LAMBERTI HAD ORDERED SOME of the crew to search for the bombs, in case any of them could be disarmed, or maybe he didn't really believe there were any bombs and he wanted to prove it. Bridget had moved from the water treatment room to the storeroom, wondering where she'd hide a bomb on a ship, if that was her job. The place was huge; there were so many possibilities. Where would a bomb do the most damage? Electrical areas, engine room, control room, water treatment, anywhere near the hull …

The crew was divided. Some were headed up to help with the evacuation, and to escape themselves. Others were sticking with their jobs, for now, tying up loose ends, planning to head up in a few minutes. It wasn't like crew would be evacuated first anyway, no matter what the reason for the alarm.

They didn't know what she knew – that there were explosives hidden under their very noses.

According to Faith, they had some time. Larkin wouldn't blow up the ship until his e-mail messages were off. Otherwise, why bother to write them? They had at least half an hour. Maybe more. If they could find and defuse the bombs in that thirty minutes, they wouldn't need to abandon ship.

Not that they knew how many bombs Larkin had placed, or where the hell they were. She and Matt were searching on the lowest levels, and would work their way up. She didn't have the capabilities to defuse a bomb, but Matt did. Matt was one level up, on the level where the majority of the crew resided. That floor would be all but deserted during a crisis like this.

Unfortunately, she couldn't use her cell to call Matt if she found a device, since the cell signal might detonate the bomb, particularly if she was right on top of it. She'd have to go old school – running and screaming. Given the circumstances, she could handle that.

They were going to give it fifteen minutes, then head up to get the hell out of Dodge.

Then … success. Or failure, depending on how she looked at it. She would have preferred not finding anything. Wedged between a tall stack of cases of Coke and a similarly tall stack of boxes of crackers, a device sat, clumsily disguised by an empty cardboard box. She very carefully moved the box aside.

Bridget was no expert when it came to explosives, but she recognized the blocks of Semtex. A simple detonator was strapped to the explosives, and there was a tiny red light that blinked at a slow, steady rate.

One down …

Without warning there was a clicking sound from the bomb, and the light turned a steady red. Bridget instinctively backed up, but she knew it was too late.

"Our Father …"

LINDA VALE WALKED BRISKLY down the hallway, realizing, too late, that she should've gone to the aerobics class with Nyna this afternoon. Instead she'd taken a nap, spent time dolling herself up for the evening, and then headed down to meet Penny and Buttons in their room. Penny wanted help doing her hair, and while Linda thought it was rather like the blind leading the blind, she'd agreed to do what she could. After her class, Nyna would shower and dress quickly and meet them in the stateroom on the lower level, then they'd all go to the art auction together.

Nice plan. Too bad it had fallen apart. The alarm had sounded while she'd been in the elevator. It had stopped on this floor and she'd exited with the couple who'd been on with her. The elevators had stopped working because of some safety system, she supposed. She was going to have to take the stairs down another level – or was it two?

It was so easy to get turned around on the ship, and it was all but impossible to make her way down while everyone else was headed up. People trying to escape pushed, they refused to step aside and let her pass, so she sometimes took one step back and then two forward. She looked for Penny and Buttons, but didn't see them in the crowd. Had she already missed them, or were they waiting for her? Poor Nyna was probably in a panic, on the top deck all by herself. Linda felt more than a touch of panic herself. Of all the times to be alone!

She kept going down, pushing her way past fleeing passengers, her progress maddeningly slow. Many of them tried to convince her to head up with them, but she shook her head and kept going. If she saw her friends, she'd gladly head up to the Muster Station. Muster Station Three, she remembered. If she could just remember where it was …

She squeezed past a frantic couple and slipped into a hallway, taking a deep breath, glad to be out of the crush. This was the floor where Penny and Buttons's room was, wasn't it? Most people had already fled, so there was only one lagging couple in the hallway. Linda ran half the length of the hall, then stopped. She wasn't going in the right direction. The elevator she usually took would've put her in the corridor in a different place.

Linda was standing in the middle of the hallway when an iciness shot through her body. Her neck tingled, as if someone had blown cool air there. A man whispered her name and she spun around, certain, even though it should be impossible, she was going to see Wayne standing there. She even called his name, held her breath expectantly, and then a blast beneath her feet deafened her, blew her up and back, stole the air from her lungs. And she realized that she'd been right.

"Wayne …"

WITHOUT ANY PRIOR INDICATION that it was coming, Larkin shot Mills. Tiffany turned, looked directly at the psycho as he pulled another object from his pocket. A remote trigger. Shit! He thumbed the device and, after a momentary pause, a couple of seconds at most, the ship shook; below, there was a terrifying rumble. The sirens continued to sound for a moment and then they stopped. The lights in the bar flickered and went out, and a moment later, emergency lighting came up.

Larkin was pointing his weapon at her, and as he fired she instinctively ducked, then rolled on the floor, making herself small and looking for cover. Had he made her? Was he shooting at her because she'd seen him hit that remote and shoot Mills?

She soon realized he was shooting not at her but at everyone who remained in the bar. The bartender. An older man who had refused to take the drill seriously until the explosion. A crew member who was trying to get everyone out of the bar. A couple who'd been cool before but were now in shock.

A dark-haired, stocky woman stumbled into the side entrance, near to Larkin. She'd been crying; the skirt of her long black gown was torn, as if she'd fallen to her knees, hard. "I'm looking for my husband," she said. Larkin turned toward her and fired again. A neat black hole appeared in her forehead. Her head snapped back, she fell, and Larkin calmly stepped over her body and walked out the side door.

Those around her were shocked, either screaming or looking as if they were about to faint, but Tiffany acted. She took her cell phone, stuck it in her bra, and ran. She reached Mills, crouched down, and grabbed the gun she knew he always carried.

He wasn't quite dead, but he would be soon. "Wait," he whispered.

"Honey, I can't do a thing for you," Tiffany said without sympathy. Mills had chosen the wrong side, and this is where it got him.

"I know, but … there are more," he said, his voice almost gone.

"More people? More bombs?" Tiffany pressed.

"Both."

She grabbed her cell phone and tried to call Cael, but she couldn't get through. She didn't think the cell tower itself had been damaged, but the bombs below had done a lot of damage and the power was out. Apparently there was only the most minimal auxiliary power. At least she wasn't completely in the dark.

Tiffany returned her cell to her bra, on the off chance the power was restored. What were the odds she'd run into Cael, or one of the others? Slim, but not none. Until then, she'd do what she did.

She followed Larkin. "That psycho fucker's mine," she muttered as she stepped onto the Lido deck. Maybe Larkin was a terrible shot, but she wasn't.

THE BLAST FROM BELOW threw Matt back. He landed hard, hitting his head against the wall. His arm took a good shot as it banged against a metal shelf in the storage closet he'd been searching, and then he landed on it funny, and pain shot through his entire body. His ears rang, filling his head with a high-pitched humming that drowned out everything else.

But he didn't lose consciousness, and urgency got him to a sitting position, then he staggered to his feet. His first evaluation said he wasn't bleeding too much, he didn't think. The power had gone out, then the emergency lighting came up, casting sad, insufficient illumination over one of the least impressive parts of the ship. He couldn't see very well, but he didn't think he was hurt all that bad.

He was still stunned though, and it took him a few seconds to reclaim his ability to think past the ringing in his head. He hadn't found a single bomb, but it was a big-ass ship, and judging by the blasts, they'd all been placed one deck down.

Where Bridget was conducting her sweep. Shit. Bridget!

Matt jumped up, and his arm protested. He glanced down and realized he hadn't gotten off so lightly after all. His arm was obviously broken, which meant he wouldn't be able to dig his way out if he got trapped down here. He gripped his wrist to keep the arm still, until he could find something to fashion a sling with, and he ran into the corridor and toward the stairs. He burst into the stairway, which was filling with smoke. Black smoke drifted up the stairs. He shouted, but the sound was odd to his own ears. If he'd lost most of his hearing one level up, any survivors below would likely be deaf.

There had to be survivors, and it was possible Bridget was one of them. Maybe. Hundreds of crew members had been below, while he'd climbed one flight to begin his search. Then he saw movement in the smoke and he waited, expecting a stream of people to emerge.

Four. Only four had made it out? Surely to God there'd be more. This was just the first bunch, wasn't it? He stared at them in disbelief. All of them were injured in some way. Cuts, mostly, some of them serious, others less so. Two of the survivors had blood seeping from their ears.

"Bridget," Matt called loudly. "Did any of you see her?" Two women and one man just looked at him, dazed and deaf, thinking only of getting to the top of the ship. They continued on without stopping. Jane, a pretty blonde who worked the deck as he did, was at the end of the line. He caught her eye and she stopped on the landing.

"Bridget?" he shouted, dazed. A rivulet of blood ran down one side of Jane's face, but she didn't appear to be seriously injured.

Jane pointed to her ears and shrugged her shoulders. Tears sprung to her eyes.

Matt pointed to his mouth, hoping she could read lips. "My friend, the steward," he said slowly. "Bridget."

Jane grimaced. "I saw her earlier." She spoke loudly, shouted as Matt had, and placed one palm against the side of her head, maybe trying to ease the ringing. "Bridget was headed into the storeroom. I think she was really close to one of the blasts. At least, she went that way and I didn't see her leave …" The tears trickled down her cheeks. "What happened? What went wrong? Matt, there are dead people down there!"

"Keep moving," Matt yelled, pointing up to direct her. "Get yourself on a lifeboat asap."

"Are you coming?" Jane screamed.

"No," Matt said, and he continued downward, into the thick smoke.

RYAN'S ONLY INTENT was to get his wife off the Silver Mist.

It was bizarre, to see all these people in evening dress running for the boats. This was nothing like the lifeboat drill, where women had giggled and men had been bored and irritated that they'd been pulled away from their putting practice or card game. Tonight order was forgotten – and then, the blast shook the boat and changed everything.

Passengers were already in a couple of unlaunched lifeboats – good-size vessels that could easily hold forty to fifty passengers – orange PFDs in place over tuxedoes and evening gowns. After the blasts women screamed; men showed their stripes, either assisting or shoving others out of the way. After the explosions below, the usual bright lights of the ship went out, and a moment later were replaced with emergency, battery-powered lights. What had been crisis became chaos.

He steered Faith toward one of the crew members and a lifeboat. "I'm going to find Cael."

"I'll go with you."

He kissed her briefly, wondering if it would be the last time. "You're not a fighter, Faith."

"But …"

"And you'll distract me when I can't afford distraction."

Her lips tightened. She looked at him with her heart in her eyes. She didn't like it, but she knew he was right. "I love you," she said. "Be careful." And then, tears streaming down her face, she allowed the crewman to take her hand and assist her into the lifeboat. He watched as the boat was swung away from the larger ship and lowered. The first group was away.

CAEL HELD JENNER'S HAND as they burst out of the stairwell and onto the Lido deck. Behind them people pushed and shoved, screamed and cried. He separated from the group, protecting Jenner as much as he could with his body, steering her away from the crush.

The blasts had done serious damage, but the ship was extremely well built. The Silver Mist wasn't going to sink, at least, not for some time. Though damned if she wasn't listing a bit.

"You're getting on a lifeboat," he directed.

"Not without you," Jenner responded, her voice steady.

He looked into her eyes. She was stubborn, determined, immovable. Damn it, he didn't have time for this. "For me," he said, playing the only card he figured he had where she was concerned. Apparently it wasn't enough.

She gave him a scornful look. "Not on your life."

Poor choice of words. "I can't leave until I know my people are accounted for, and I'd like to make sure Frank Larkin doesn't blow anyone else up. And damn it Jenner, I'd really like to know you're safely away from here when I do what has to be done."

On all sides, there was mayhem, and he didn't know what had happened to his team. Behind him, someone screamed "He's been shot!" and a chill walked up his spine. Jenner still kept it together, though. She realized the seriousness of the situation, but she wasn't falling apart.

"I know you better than you realize," she said in an even voice. "You're a damn hero. If I'm right behind you, if you know without a doubt that I'm not getting on a lifeboat until you do, then you'll take better care of yourself."

The hell of it was, she wasn't wrong.

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