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Burn (Chapter Twenty-nine)

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SYD SAT IN THE PARLOR WITH TWO PAIRS OF ATTENTIVE eyes – Adam's and Kim's – on her as she talked to Jenner on Adam's cell. Their frequent and always too short conversations had gradually changed in the past few days, to the point where the exchanges were almost normal. Neither of them was terrified anymore. Confidence had returned to Jenner's voice, and that was a huge relief to Syd. If Jenner was okay with this, then she could be, too. After more than a week of being held prisoner, with the threat of harm to the other keeping both of them hamstrung, it was becoming more and more apparent that there was an end to this. A good end, where no one ended up dead.

The Silver Mist would pull out of Maui this evening, and was scheduled to dock in San Diego in five days. Five days, and this adventure would be over.

"I'm fine," Syd said in response to Jenner's question about her well-being. "I'd love to go for a walk and get some fresh air, or sit down in a restaurant, or shop, or go to a movie, but other that that, all is well. I never thought I'd see the day where I was tired of sleeping late and ordering room service." Jenner laughed lightly; that was a very good sign.

"Is the ship lovely?" Syd asked. She'd so wanted to see the Silver Mist in action.

"It's very nice," Jenner responded. "Which is a good thing, since I'm never getting on a ship again as long as I live."

Syd wanted to apologize. After all, it had been her idea to take the cruise, her father who'd booked the suite. An apology over the phone would be insufficient, so she didn't even try. When she had her arms around Jenner's neck, when she knew without a doubt that this escapade was over, then she'd apologize.

"The food is good," Jenner said.

Syd sighed. "I'm jealous. Right now I'd kill for a decent cheeseburger and some good fries. The room service restaurant here serves great salads and grilled shrimp, but their cheeseburgers are truly subpar, and the fries are soggy. I should be eating the salads and grilled shrimp, but with the stress of this whole situation I'm feeling the need for something more substantial. You know, comfort food."

"I have to go," Jenner said briskly. "I'll talk to you tomorrow. And when I get there we'll gorge ourselves on cheeseburgers!" The connection ended.

Syd stared at the cell phone for a moment, then childishly stuck out her tongue. She was accustomed to their conversations ending abruptly, as whatever cretin who was holding Jenner insisted that she hang up, but that didn't mean she had to like it. The tongue was for him, not Jenner. She'd heard his voice a time or two, in the background. He sounded like a jerk.

But Jenner sounded like Jenner again, so maybe he wasn't all bad. Not that Syd didn't want to kick his ass. Well, she'd hire someone to kick his ass. No one would ever be afraid of her, but she could certainly hire scary people, and when this was over she intended to make a point to find some. She would not go through this again.

Maybe her kidnappers could help. Syd knew her captors much better than she had a week ago. Spend enough time with a person – or people – and it happened. Dori looked scary, she had a terrifying scowl and a hard demeanor when it suited her, but if you caught her off guard she had a very nice smile. She laughed at the silliest things on television. She'd probably be thrilled to find a Three Stooges marathon playing when she pulled the night shift. Not that Syd cared to cross her, but still, she wasn't nearly as frightening as she'd been that first day.

Strong, usually silent Adam was obviously sweet on Kim, and from what Syd had been able to tell, Kim didn't have a clue, though when it came to other matters she didn't miss much. Kim, knives and all, was so like Syd's other friends, in personality, it was sometimes difficult to mentally keep her in the role of kidnapper. Dress her up and take away her knives, and she might be a perfectly ordinary pretty woman.

She thought about escape often, daydreamed about it in her recent hours of boredom. But even knowing that her captors were more than the thugs she'd initially thought them to be, she realized there was no way to escape. Maybe they wouldn't kill her – maybe – but they would definitely stop her. If she simply ran, they'd catch her. If she tried to latch onto one of the service people, a maid or a room service delivery guy, she'd only be putting the innocent hotel employees in danger – not that her diligent bodyguards ever let her get all that close to anyone other than the three of them. In her fantasies she was as tough as Dori, as skilled with knives as Kim, as physically strong as Adam. In her fantasies, she would sneak up on them and knock all three out with a series of skilled karate chops, and then she'd be free.

But those were only fantasies. She didn't know anything about karate other than what she'd seen in the movies. If she tried to run she'd get caught, and then she'd end up in a basement somewhere, thrilled at the very prospect of room service. If she was lucky.

And who was she kidding? She wasn't the ass-kicking type, by any fashion.

Syd found a movie on television – she'd seen it before but it wasn't horrible – worked most of the crossword puzzle in the USA Today, and when neither appealed to her any longer she retired to her bedroom and took a nap. When she woke up close to six o'clock, she heard the front door to the suite close. It was probably room service. Again. More grilled chicken or quesadillas, most likely. She washed her face, combed her hair, and entered the parlor, determined to eat a bit even if she had to choke it down. Adam stood by the dining table, with a couple of large white paper bags in his hand. "Cheeseburgers and fries," he said simply. "I asked the concierge, and he said this place made the best burgers in town."

He'd overheard her phone conversation, and gotten a cheeseburger for her.

Dori, who'd been kicked back on the couch watching something on TV, jumped up. "I'll get some sodas from the machine. Diet or regular?" she asked, nodding toward Syd.

"Diet, please." And at that moment, she hated her captors a little bit less.

IT WAS A RELIEF to Cael when the Silver Mist pulled away from Maui. When they were at sea all six members of his team – if she could read his mind Jenner would say seven, but thank God she hadn't figured out how to do that yet – could be used at all times. No more taking turns going ashore, watching and waiting for Larkin to decide without warning to take off to a beach or volcano somewhere. He hadn't done that, but they'd always had to be prepared in case he did.

Jenner was in the bed; not sleeping, he could tell, but headed in that direction. Maybe he wouldn't wake her when he went to bed himself. Yeah, right. He was going to stop breathing, too.

He was up later than usual tonight because Larkin seemed restless, jumpy. What would make a man who'd calmly hand over EMP technology to the North Koreans, stopping to buy jam along the way, jumpy? The possibilities were not good.

Not for the first time, Cael wondered about the aspirin Larkin took so often, the constant hand to his head, as if he had a persistent headache. Obviously he wasn't well. How sick was he?

It was just past two in the morning when Larkin abruptly jumped up like he'd been shot out of the chair and headed for the door. He was alone. No Mills, no bodyguard at all. Maybe this was it; the meeting they'd been waiting for. Was it possible that the man on the other end of this deal had been onboard all along? Or that there was another buyer, another memory stick?

Cael jumped up. There was no time to call anyone else on the team. He was the one on duty. By the time he woke Ryan or Matt and got them here, it would be too late. Jenner, of course, immediately woke and came up on her elbows. "Where are you going?" she asked sleepily as he headed for the door.

"Stay here," he commanded.

"But where are you …"

"Stay!" he hissed, and then he stepped into the hallway. Larkin wasn't in sight; Cael heard the ding of the elevator. Up or down? He sprinted to the elevator bank and checked the indicator.

Up.

Cael headed for the forward stairs at a run, glad there was no one else in the hallway at this late hour as he went up them two and three steps at the time. As he entered the stairwell he heard what sounded like footsteps a level higher, at the Lido deck. He stopped to listen, decided it was an echo, and continued upward.

JENNER THREW BACK THE COVERS and jumped out of bed. Stay? Was he kidding? She wasn't a dog. She didn't stay. She didn't roll over or play dead, either.

Besides, she knew Cael better than he realized. The expression on his face, as he'd left the room, had been intense. Something was going on, and if he didn't like it, she didn't like it.

It didn't take her two minutes to pull on a pair of capris and a T-shirt, and step into a pair of tennis shoes. She didn't take the time to put on a bra, but it wasn't like she had a lot to harness.

Putting on a bra would take precious minutes she didn't want to waste. If she was certain she wouldn't run into anyone, she would've followed Cael in her pajamas.

Damn it, if only Bridget and Cael hadn't completely cleared the suite of anything that might be used as a weapon! Maybe Cael could kill bad guys with a paper clip, but if she was headed into dangerous territory, she wanted something more substantial. Considering this was Frank Larkin's ship, and that Cael was obviously worried, she hated to go out alone without some kind of protection. As she was tying her shoe, she had a thought and glanced up. On the top shelf of the closet, several pairs of shoes sat. Most were casual, sandals and flip-flops, but there were a few pairs of dress shoes. A couple of them had narrow, very high heels. She reached up, grabbed a shoe, and ran for the door.

LARKIN GOT OUT of the elevator on the sports deck, which was thankfully deserted at this hour. He hadn't been sure it would be; there were a couple of insomniacs and quite a few night creatures on this cruise. But fortunately, most of those who were still awake were in the ship's various bars.

Even though the spa and golf activities were closed at this hour, the sports deck was well lit. The Silver Mist was a bright, shining city, an expensive amusement park for adults. There were long shadows, dark recesses, but most of the deck was as bright as day. Once, he thought he heard a step behind him, but when he whirled around nothing was there. Was the damn cancer playing tricks with his hearing now?

He walked toward the putting greens, unconcerned. If anyone was watching, they'd think he was enjoying the peace and quiet of the night. He wasn't, of course. Larkin didn't care much for peace or quiet; he never had. In his mind he was picturing the display that would begin in less than forty-eight hours. One of the incendiary bombs was hidden in a closet, disguised by the false bottom in a storage bin, in the men's steam room at the aft end of this deck. When it went, the sight would be spectacular. He could almost see it. Flames would burst into the air, spreading and climbing, incinerating anyone who had the misfortune to be on that end of the deck, sending a tower of flame into the night sky as, at the same moment, a different type of bomb destroyed a portion of the hull and a large part of the crew, and other bombs added their fire and roar of destruction. What a display it would be …

He didn't want to wait any longer, but it would be better if the Silver Mist was well away from Hawaii, and the navy vessels there, when she blew. He wasn't going to make it so easy for those who would survive. Let 'em wait for their rescue. Make 'em bleed and scream and wonder if help would arrive in time. God, he hated them, hated every minute he wasted in their company. All these years he'd put up with them, and now it was almost over. Everything was almost over.

A few months ago he hadn't known anything about explosives, but thanks to his wealth he was in a position to obtain and learn about anything that struck his fancy. The bombs had been constructed by a man who'd participated in a few arms deals Larkin had put together over the years. The same man had instructed Larkin on how to arm the bombs, when it was time, and had been the one to suggest that some devices be set to go off by timer alone, while others that were in close enough proximity to one another could be set to respond to the same trigger device. Why put all his eggs in one basket? If for some reason he wanted to get the party started earlier than planned, he had the power to do so. The timed devices could be programmed well in advance, and if something happened to him before he could trip the switch on the others, the Silver Mist would not continue on unscathed.

Larkin was torn. He'd intended all along to die quickly, and he doubted he'd change his mind. But oh, he did want to see the Silver Mist and the people aboard her burn.

He didn't stay on deck very long. His impatience was growing; being outside didn't make his pain any better, it didn't make the time pass any faster. Instead of heading back for the aft elevator bank, he walked to the forward stairwell, which was closer. His floor was just two stories down. Even in his condition, he could manage that much. At least being close to the bombs had given him a little bit of satisfaction.

CAEL STOOD IN SHADOW and watched Larkin from a distance. There was no one else up here; no meet, no contact. Shit. He'd taken the chance of blowing his cover because the nut job wanted a breath of fresh air.

As he watched Larkin disappear into the stairwell, a touch of cold metal brushed his neck, and a deep voice whispered, "Don't do anything stupid, pal. Why are you following Mr. Larkin?"

Cael didn't give any hint that he realized the metal touching his neck was a gun. He turned, stumbled slightly. "I'm not watching anybody," he said, sounding a little bit drunk, reeling back when he saw the gun. It was unlikely that the security guard would take the chance of firing the weapon. There was no suppressor, and it would make a helluva noise. "Whoa. You shoot people for pissing off the top deck?"

The guard wasn't buying it. "Funny, you didn't walk like a drunk five minutes ago."

So, the security guard had been watching for a while. The footsteps from the stairwell. He'd probably taken the elevator one floor up and walked from there; he'd been here all along.

"I think Mr. Larkin might want to talk to you. He doesn't like being followed."

Couldn't happen, Cael thought coolly. Larkin absolutely could not find out that the man who was staying in the stateroom next to his had followed him onto the sports deck in the middle of the night. He and Jenner and everyone they'd talked to during the cruise would end up shot and tossed over the side, noise be damned.

Cael evaluated the man before him – thin but strong, calm, not easily distracted, armed – and looked for weaknesses. For one thing, he was one of Larkin's underpaid, overworked security guards. He couldn't be the cream of the crop.

The guard had waited for Larkin to leave before he made his move. Was it a power play, a chance to shine as he delivered a spy to Larkin's door, or was he worried about maybe irritating his boss in a public place, where someone else might see his instability?

The ping of the elevator arriving was loud on the all but deserted deck. The security guard didn't waver; the gun he held on Cael remained steady as he stepped to the side and turned his body so he could see Cael as well as whoever was arriving by elevator.

Cael looked over his shoulder, expecting another guard, Larkin, or an innocent passenger who was about to find himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.

He did not expect to see Jenner, armed with a fucking shoe.

JENNER HAD TAKEN A CHANCE. Up or down. Fifty-fifty she'd end up going in the same direction as Cael. Maybe sixty-forty Odds were up, she guessed, because that was where all the action was at night. The Lido deck was the most crowded, so she decided to check out the sports deck first. If Cael wasn't there, then she'd walk the Lido deck. Inside the elevator, she fidgeted. Maybe she should've stayed in the room, but she was certain something was wrong, and she was damn tired of being left out of the loop. It was more than curiosity that spurred her on. She didn't like being helpless or worthless.

The dinging sound the elevator made as the doors opened surprised her. So much for stealth. She'd remember that next time, if there was a next time, and take the stairs.

She stepped off the elevator and just ahead, there they were – Cael and a man in a security uniform. The man in the uniform had a gun, and it was pointed at Cael. Oh, Jesus, a gun. Her heart leapt into her throat; her knees went weak and she began to shake. But she didn't lose her ability to think. Panicking wouldn't help Cael at all. She'd blown her chance to be stealthy, so she might as well charge onward and pretend she'd never intended not to be seen.

"You're arresting his ass. Good!" She shook her shoe at Cael and walked boldly toward him. "A three-way? The nerve. I thought you were different. I thought you loved me." She sniffled loudly and turned her attentions, and her shoe, on the man with the gun. He wore the somber uniform of a security guard, along with a brass name tag that read Johnson – yeah right, Johnson. On this ship nothing was as it seemed. If the security guard was innocent, Cael would say something, he'd tell her, somehow, to back down. He didn't.

Johnson didn't let the gun waver at all. It was still aimed at Cael's chest, and that sight made her knees feel weak again. The weakness didn't last; she wanted to be a partner, not a hindrance. "Maybe I'm being too hasty," she said, letting the shoe fall a bit. "A lot of people think three-ways are just peachy. Maybe I should give it a try. What do you think, big boy?"

Johnson looked a little shaken at that question. Finally, the gun shifted, just a little. Johnson looked at her and his eyes narrowed. "Hey, I recognize you. You two have the suite next to Mr. Larkin's."

Cael moved like a snake striking, grabbing the guard's arm and pushing his gun hand away, then he delivered a cross to the man's jaw. Jenner stumbled back a half step as she tried to get out of the way of the blow to the man's jaw. Johnson stumbled back, too, into the rail. He gathered himself, the gun came back around and Cael went for it, but Johnson wasn't letting go so easily. He shifted, freed his gun hand from Cael's grip, swung out, and popped Cael in the side of the head with the weapon.

Cael's head snapped around; Jenner choked on a cry as a streak of blood bloomed just above his temple, she instinctively rushed toward him as he began to go down, dropping, as if he were falling to his knees. This wasn't how it was supposed to go. Johnson shifted his aim until the gun was pointed at her. He actually smiled.

And Cael's direction shifted. Instead of going down he shifted his weight and surged upward, hitting the armed guard under the chin with his head and sending Johnson reeling backward so hard the armed man slammed into the railing and almost tumbled over. Cael helped, grabbing one leg, lifting, and giving a shove.

Johnson went over, but fighting for his life gave him strength and speed; he managed to catch the rail with one hand as he fell. He hung there, which couldn't have been easy, considering how fat the railing was. Two hands might give him a chance, but as Jenner looked over the rail she saw that he still hadn't let go of his gun. Cael lunged toward her, the words ripping out of his mouth as he reached for Johnson. "Are you all right?"

Yes. No. He was going to shoot you. She couldn't find a voice to answer, could barely breathe. She forced herself to nod, then gave a stifled shriek as she caught the movement out of the corner of her eye, saw the gun coming up. Johnson wasn't going down if he could help it, he was going to shoot. Her. Cael. One of them, or both, if he could. Instinctively she swung around and down with the shoe, ramming the point of the heel into the hand that gripped the rail.

Johnson screamed. He couldn't hold on. He, his gun, the shoe … they all fell.

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