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Chapter 28

 

Harm sat on the edge of the tub as he waited for the Admiral to pick up his phone. Water splattered against the shower curtain, the sound a constant hiss behind him. One week and six days, he thought. Less than two weeks left. I cannot wait to get off this ship. Come on, Admiral, pick up. Harm's thoughts ran in impatient circles. He'd hardly seen Mac during the last couple of days, and as much as avoiding each other was necessary to the case, it was also driving him crazy.

A familiar click told him Admiral Chegwidden had come on the line. "Commander." The Admiral's tone was brusque.

"Good morning, sir."

There was a short, ominous pause. "Commander, I have only one thing to say to you today."

After many years in Chegwidden's command, Harm had developed an instinctive sense for when to brace himself. "Sir?"

He heard the Admiral draw a deep breath and tipped the phone's earpiece away from his head in expectation.

"Just what in the name of all that's holy do you think you're doing out there, Mr. Rabb? Have you totally taken leave of your senses? This is quite possibly the most shameful display I have ever seen from an officer under my command, and that's saying a lot, considering your track record. Don't think I won't yank both your butts back to Washington for disciplinary action, if I find it necessary. Do I make myself clear, Commander?"

Harm winced at his superior's tone, but couldn't help a grin. Temptation Cruise II had aired an episode the night before. He could only guess what Steiner was doing with his and Mac's unhappy charade. The Admiral pretended he didn't care about the people serving under him, but they all knew better.

"Yes, sir. Perfectly, sir." Harm tried to keep the smile out of his voice, and failed miserably.

If possible, Chegwidden's voice grew sharper. "Something amuses you, Commander?"

Harm bit his lip to keep his chuckle from escaping. It wasn't often he got to embarrass his superior without serious repercussions. "Sir, you really shouldn't believe everything you see on t.v.," he said in his most reasonable tone.

Silence answered him. Harm imagined the Admiral collapsing into his chair as he processed the new information.

"Good grief, Commander."

Harm finally decided it was safe to laugh. "That about sums it up, sir. I take it we're doing a convincing job of sending our relationship into a fatal tailspin?"

"Convincing?" The Admiral's tone took on a sardonic note. "Next time, warn me, Rabb, and I won't volunteer to take over hosting duty for the JAG Temptation Cruise party. I nearly had a riot on my hands last night."

Harm grimaced. "Sorry about that, sir. I hope we didn't cause too much trouble."

Chegwidden snorted. "Well, other than Lieutenant Simms bawling all over my Parisian couch, I don't think there was any permanent harm done."

Harm was grateful he was on the phone and didn't have to face his commanding officer directly. Poor Harriet. "Will you tell the Lieutenant not to worry, sir? And Bud, as well."

The Admiral's tone turned thoughtful. "I can do that, Commander, though it won't help the rest of the world, if all of the disgusted callers I heard on the radio on my drive in are any indication."

Harm stared at the floor, trying to absorb the idea. "People call into radio stations about us?" It seemed ludicrous.

"Yes, and at the moment they all seem to be a bit… irate… with the two of you."

A thought struck Harm and he groaned involuntarily.

"Commander?"

Harm covered his eyes with one hand. "It's my mother, sir. I didn't even think--" He paused, shaking his head. How many years had she been after him about Mac? "She's going to kill me."

He heard a muffled noise that might have been laughter from Chegwidden. "I'll take care of it," he assured Harm.

Harm nodded in unconscious relief. "Thank you, sir."

The Admiral returned to the business at hand. "So what's your plan, Commander?"

Harm collected his thoughts. "Same as it has been, sir. Catch Ariel in the act. We realized about a week ago that the Antonys were the target of opportunity-- they were already having significant problems in their relationship, to the point that Mrs. Antony had made several overtures toward the two Naval reservists. If we want Ariel to go after Mac, we have to present him with a similarly easy-looking target." He paused. "Anything further on Steiner's involvement?"

Harm heard papers rustling across the Admiral's desk. "No, not yet. My gut tells me he knew, though whether that was before or after the fact remains a mystery."

"Are you leaning one way or the other, sir?"

He heard a small snort of amusement. "If I had to choose, I'd say he didn't know until afterward-- but has been playing the entire situation for his own benefit."

"All right, sir. Thank you."

"Carry on, Commander."

"Aye aye, sir."

Harm put the satellite phone back in its case and sat with his chin on his hands, thinking. It all came down to catching Ariel in the act, and knowing the camera system probably had some convenient faults made getting hard evidence somewhat risky. It was possible Ariel would use the same rooms as the last cruise, or that the technical staff would know which cameras were having problems if the rooms had been changed, but that would mean giving themselves away to George Laughton. They would have to have his help if they wanted to record Ariel making his move.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

A.J. stared at his phone for some time after hanging up with Commander Rabb. The political ramifications of this case had grown far beyond the fact that two reservists were facing rape charges. Any moment now, he expected to get a call from the SECNAV, chewing him out for the Rabbs' behavior on national television. Because of the popularity of the show, Harm and Mac had suddenly become the number one source for the public's opinion of the Navy. A.J. found it ironic that, in doing their jobs, they might very well cause more damage to the Navy's reputation than had they never volunteered for the assignment.

However, A.J. was pretty sure he could fix the problem without compromising the investigation. The idea that had come to him while talking with Commander Rabb had its pitfalls-- namely, trusting Dan Steiner-- but was, in his opinion, well worth the risk.

He touched a button on his intercom. "Tiner! Get me Daniel Steiner on the line."

"Yes, sir," came the new lieutenant's response. A.J. drummed his fingers on the desk as he waited. Now that Tiner was through OCS, the lieutenant j.g. really deserved to be doing something more than playing secretary for an Admiral. A.J. was loath to let him go, however. Finding someone as easily cowed as Tiner would be difficult.

"Mr. Steiner on line two," Tiner told him a minute later.

"Thank you, Tiner." A.J. pushed the appropriate button and leaned forward to rest his elbows on his desk blotter. "Good day, Mr. Steiner," he said politely.

"Admiral, if you're calling to tell me to lighten up on your people, don't bother." Steiner sounded a little harried. "They're digging their own graves out there."

A.J. ignored the producer's rudeness with an effort of will. He arched one eyebrow. "Did your rating take a tumble?"

Steiner made a disgusted noise. "Nosedive is more like it." A.J. could almost hear him shaking his head. "Do you know how many people were-- and I stress the past tense there-- tuning in just to see those two win? I mean, they had the audience believing in fairytales-- happily ever after, and all that."

A.J. couldn't help but smile. Mac wasn't exactly a fairytale princess, nor Harm the typical Prince Charming, but there was definitely something magical between them.

"What if I told you the dissonance is entirely an act?" he asked.

From the abrupt silence on the other end, A.J. knew he'd captured the producer's full attention. He continued, "I talked with Commander Rabb this morning. It is his and Colonel Rabb's firm opinion that the division is necessary to draw Ariel--"

"Wait." Steiner cut him off. "You talked to Commander Rabb today? How did you do that?"

A.J. chuckled lightly. "This is the United States military, Mr. Steiner. We have our ways." He couldn't help but feel a little smug. "I was going to propose that you incorporate this new twist into your broadcasts. It would be good for your ratings as well as the Navy's PR."

A thoughtful silence filled the other end of the line. "Can you prove it?" Steiner finally asked, and A.J. knew he had him. "I mean, do I get anything besides your word--"

"I'll get you a tape of my conversation with the commander," A.J. assured him. Properly edited, of course. "It bounced off a satellite, so I'm sure the CIA has a copy of it somewhere." Considering Webb had a whole passel of agents-in-training running the thing as an op, it'd better.

"You say that like it's a good thing," Steiner muttered. Then, louder, "Get me the tape and I'll see what we can do on this end."

A.J. nodded in satisfaction. "I'll do that."

There was a pause. "Is there any chance we could get a live interview?"

A.J. chuckled. Greed would make sure the producer did what A.J. wanted him to, and the Navy would regain its prime time heroes.

As soon as he hung up with Steiner, A.J. pressed the button for Tiner. "Get me Clayton Webb," he told the lieutenant, then settled back in his chair. Now all he had to do was figure out how to break the news to his own people without creating an unprofessional uproar in the office.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Harm was getting thoroughly sick of Nikki Upton. He felt like he couldn't turn around anymore without seeing her. Right now was just another case in point. He'd gone to swim laps in the deck pool for no other reason than because one couldn't interact with other people while swimming and he wanted to be left alone for a while. But who did he find sitting at the end of his lane after only a few laps?

Carefully schooling his expression, Harm pulled up at the end of the lane, catching the edge of the pool with one hand and bracing his feet against the wall.

"What's up?" he asked casually, shading his eyes to look up at Nikki. She was dressed in a very scanty bikini-- the size of the bathing suits seemed to be diminishing as fast as their remaining time aboard the Radiant Heart.

Nikki shrugged and gave him what was, speaking impartially, a very fetching smile. Pretty as she was, though, Harm still found her presence annoying.

"A bunch of us are going dancing tonight at Polyesters. You interested?"

Harm tried not to wince at the mention of the ship's retro club. He hadn't much liked the 70's the first time through, let alone wanting to relive them.

"Uh… I don't know. Maybe." Could you show a little more enthusiasm, Rabb? I'm sure she's positively overwhelmed. He managed a smile. "Sorry. Too many late nights recently. I'm a little tired."

Nikki grinned at him. "Awwww." To his dismay, she pulled her feet out of the water, then lay down on her stomach at the edge of the pool, bracing herself on her elbows.

Harm bit back a sigh. Not that it wasn't a nice view… just not half as nice as Mac's would have been. Thinking of Mac sharpened his interest better than any display of Nikki's possibly could, and he suppressed a second sigh. Oh well. I'm supposed to be 'interested'.

Nikki had her feet up in the air, ankles crossed. She gave Harm a coquettish look, rotating one foot in lazy circles. "So, is there anything I can offer to entice you into coming with us tonight?"

Time to play the game, Harm thought. He'd been doing it so long it was almost second nature to grin back at her, the full-wattage ladykiller smile his father had left to him. "Why? Are you offering something?"

She leaned forward over the edge of the pool, smile widening. "Oh, I don't know…"

Harm didn't move-- either forward or back. "You'll have to do better than that," he chided her.

"Is that an invitation?" She slid forward until her lips hovered only a few inches from his. He could smell the combination of suntan lotion and chlorine emanating from her still-damp skin, and feel her breath on his mouth. He would have had to have been dead not to feel the impact of her closeness, but it was little more than an instinctive response. He already knew what a relationship with Nikki would be like-- he'd had too many of them in the past. Impersonal, mediocre, even in the physical aspects, and hollow.

Mac was everything to him this woman was not, and could never be. He kept his smile in place only with an effort of will.

"More like a challenge," Harm answered her, hating every word.

That clinched it, as he'd known it would. Smiling triumphantly, Nikki closed the distance between them, and Harm did not resist as her mouth descended on his.

 

Chapter 29

 

"You'll have to do better than that." Harm's words, coupled with that effortless, sexy smile of his, sent Nikki's heart straight into her throat. After all her hard work, he was finally starting to fall-- in lust, at least-- with her. That was what she wanted, what she craved.

"Is that an invitation?" she breathed, hardly daring to hope he'd answer in kind rather than backing down, as had always happened in the past. A man like this was used to having female attention lavished on him. She could only hope that the cold shoulder treatment his wife had been giving him lately (stupid woman) would be the little nudge that sent him over the edge.

"More like a challenge," Harm answered with an inviting grin, his blue eyes threatening to drown her.

Houston, we have lift off! Nikki smiled in triumph as she leaned in. An electric thrill ran through her at the touch of his lips on hers. She closed her eyes, sinking, powerless, into the kiss as the heat of it speared through her.

And then, suddenly, he was gone. Nikki's eyes flew open. Harm was staring at her, his expression intense.

"This isn't going to happen," he said in a quiet voice. The blue eyes seemed to bore straight through her.

Heart sinking, Nikki tried to catch hold of an opportunity that was rapidly slipping through her fingers. "Well, maybe not now…"

"Not now, not tomorrow, or next week or next month. Not ever." She didn't see even a shadow of conflict behind the firm statement.

Nikki bit her lip as her dreams of stardom and of bedding quite possibly the most amazing man she'd ever met turned to dust. Strangely, she didn't feel angry. Only sad. She managed a nod.

Harm echoed her, unsmiling. Then, without another word, he turned and pushed off from the pool wall in a rush of water, his strokes strong and even. Nikki watched for a moment, then rose to her feet and walked away.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Mac stood just inside the doorway leading to the deck, frozen in shock. She was invisible in the shadow of the bridge structure that loomed above her, watching as Nikki Upton leaned down to kiss her husband.

It was a short kiss, some rational portion of Mac's brain told her, followed by an equally short conversation before Harm went back to his laps. What it meant, though…

What it meant…

Mac didn't know what it meant.

Trembling, she turned and retraced her steps into the interior of the ship.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Harm wasn't sure how long he'd been lost in the cool, silent world beneath the water. He swam mechanically, needing the simple, repetitive motion to help measure the pace of his thoughts. He didn't know what to think, what to do. He'd never really been in a position like this before, where fulfilling his duty violated his ethics. His undercover assignments had never taken him into such gray lands before, nor left him feeling so… ashamed.

Ashamed. The word conjured memories-- kissing Mac that night on the Admiral's porch, the first time he'd seen his mother and Frank together, turning Mac away the night Renee's father died, waking up in the hospital knowing Mace was dead, staring at Diane's killer and realizing he had it inside him to murder a man…

All he knew at the moment was that he couldn't continue the charade with Nikki, for the sake of his own conscience. For the first few laps, he'd tried to convince himself that it was really about not wanting to hurt Mac-- that there were no deeper issues. But that wasn't true. Kissing Nikki was simply wrong. And he'd allowed it to happen.

It was a strange conviction for him, maybe. No doubt born of a bitter ten-year-old's inability to let go of his father and watch his mother fall in love with another man. No matter how good he was for her. But in finding the truth about his father, and in meeting Sergei, Harm had finally been able to get rid of the sense of betrayal that had followed him throughout his adult life.

His deep-rooted belief that love required absolute loyalty, however, hadn't changed. It was fundamental to who he was. And when he'd kissed Mac on the Admiral's porch that night… it had shattered his image of himself as an honorable man. He knew he could have had her-- taken her away from Brumby with a touch, a word-- and destroyed everything decent inside himself in the process.

He'd almost done it anyway. Only the irrational, numbing fear of loving her only to watch her die kept him from stepping across that line. One kind of selfishness preventing another, worse kind.

That was why he'd had to turn her away when Renee's father died. Because he'd given Renee a tacit promise, and was honor bound to be faithful to it until the promise was dissolved. And because, if he couldn't find the strength or decency to be true to himself, he would never be worthy of Mac.

Harm surfaced at the end of the lane and hooked his elbows over the edge, breathing hard. The investigation wasn't good enough reason to continue this horrible, deadly charade. Bringing Ariel to justice wasn't enough. Even giving Mrs. Antony closure with what she'd suffered wasn't enough. He'd made Mac a promise to walk away if it got to be too much. For him, that time had arrived.

Resolved, Harm hauled himself out of the pool. He grabbed his towel, drying himself as he walked toward the nearest doorway. He had to find Mac.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

He found her on the far side of the ship, standing at the rail and looking out to sea. The ship's central structure threw the entire area into deep, cool shadow. Even the breeze seemed chilly. Still soaked from his swim, Harm shivered and pulled the towel around his shoulders as he walked forward. He stopped next to Mac, who didn't acknowledge his presence.

"You heard." It wasn't a question. Something about her expression told him she already knew what had happened.

"I saw, actually." She turned to look at him for a moment, her dark eyes inscrutable, then went back to staring at the ocean. "I don't want to talk about it."

Harm bit his lip at her tone. Was she just playing to the cameras? Sticking to her role with the same tenacity she showed in both the courtroom and her personal struggles? Or was this real?

"Mac--"

"No." She gripped the rail tightly in both hands, rocking back and forth as if torn between strong, conflicting desires. "I'm not going to talk about this now." She shot him a single, unrevealing glance. "Go away, Harm." The expression in her dark eyes turned pleading. "Please. We can talk later. Just not right now."

"But--"

"But nothing, Harm. Just go." Her gaze changed subtly as she looked him up and down. "Go dry off."

His determination wavered. Had they really fallen this far? Or was it, like her little hair-pulling stunt, merely a superb act? I guess the answer to that hinges on what I really think Sarah Rabb is made of.

Harm nodded once, sharply, as he made his decision. He owed her his trust, and his respect. He would believe the best and follow her lead on this, if only until they had the opportunity to talk without other ears. Then they could decide together what they wanted to do.

Turning, he left. He wandered aimlessly, his feet taking to the door of their stateroom without any conscious direction on his part. He went inside, closing the door behind him, and leaned his head against it.

After a bit, he pushed himself away and went to the closet for clothes and a dry towel. Then he headed into the bathroom to change.

Something scratched Harm's skin when he started to dry himself. He paused to investigate, and found a note pinned to the towel. Harm recognized the paper that filled the bedside notepad-- several sheets of it-- folded over and attached to the thick terry cloth with a safety pin.

He stared dully for a moment before detaching the slips of paper. Unfolding them, he found a long note written in Mac's blocky script.

Harm sat before he legs could betray him, and began to read.

Harm,

I'm not sure where to start, so I'll just plunge in. I don't know when we'll get a chance to talk. So here goes:

I think my heart stopped beating when I saw Nikki Upton kiss you. I mean, we've talked about things like that and I know it's necessary, but I wasn't prepared for the reality. I'm sitting here right now, crying my eyes out and wanting so very much to throw myself into your arms and tell you I'm ready to walk away from the investigation. You promised we would go someplace private where we could talk, and right now I can't think of anything I want more.

I also know that would be the coward's way out, so I won't say it.

I'm not going to pretend that seeing you with Nikki today didn't hurt. It did. But I learned something important today, too. I learned that hurt is an emotion. Fear is an emotion (and I've got plenty of that floating around inside me right now as well). But trust is a decision. My decision. I'm tired of letting the past dictate the present. I'm tired of basing my security on events and the actions of others. I can't control what happens around me, or what you or anyone else chooses to do. I can control me. I can make choices for myself. I can decide what kind of person I'm going to be.

I trust you, Harm. No matter what evidence I see to the contrary, I am going to believe in us.

That said, though, I hope I don't see you in person any time soon. I'm not sure I could control myself, though whether I'd deck you or just pin you down and have my way with you, I can't begin to guess.

Ha. Who am I kidding? I know exactly which I'd do, and then where would our investigation be?

I love you,

Sarah

Harm read and re-read Mac's words until he was certain his eyes weren't deceiving him, and each time his smile widened. Mac, you're amazing.

Standing, he tucked the note into his pocket, then finished getting dressed. Afterwards, he went looking for the pad his wife had used. Surreptitiously, of course. He found it conveniently left under the bathroom sink, along with a pen, and chuckled.

It didn't take him long to draft a reply, which he left tucked inside the cover of the novel she was currently reading. It was a poor substitute for holding her and looking into her chocolate eyes while they talked, but it was better than nothing. And it was for sure a lot better than wondering what was real and what wasn't.

Maybe we'll make it through this thing after all.

 

Chapter 30

 

George hummed quietly to himself as he worked. He was crouched inside one of the many maintenance spaces inside the ship, peering into the gaping hole he'd created when he'd opened the large steel access panel. Wiring ran in thick bundles through the space, branching occasionally. George followed the convoluted mess with a practiced eye, comparing it to the wiring diagram in his hands. He was pretty sure he knew what he was looking at now. Someone had added a separate set of controls to a few of the cameras and he was trying to backtrack the additional network to figure out where the controller was located. So far he didn't know if it would turn out to be a purely mechanical/electrical switch, or if there might be a computer interface as well.

George was intensely curious. Whatever was going on, he was certain, would have to do with the military's undercover investigation of the show and Tony Ariel, but how the two tied together he couldn't quite figure. And what Harm and his Marine wife were doing with the whole fighting routine also remained a mystery. George didn't think a man who had the exquisite control to fly fighters, the intelligence to earn a law degree, and the sneakiness to be involved in undercover investigation could possibly be a flagrantly immature as he had been acting. And likely, any woman he chose to be his partner would be more of the same. George had barely met Mac, so couldn't comment from personal contact, but her record would indicate she, too, was an exceptional person.

Groaning as he backed his way out of the cramped space, George tucked the wiring diagram away inside his shirt, then stood and stretched. He was done with this segment. He'd have to go up to the next level to continue tracing the wiring path, but that would have to wait until tomorrow night. His shift was almost over.

He made his way back to the AV room. Settling at the computer, he checked the progress of the data transfer batch he'd started before taking off to look at wire bundles. It had nearly completed. Perfect timing. He prepared the next set to be moved over, then leaned back in his chair.

The morning shift straggled in between ten and thirty minutes late, as usual. But, since Bob, their supervisor, was the worst offender, George had decided early on that discretion was the better part of valor in this case. He didn't complain. In fact, he never mentioned it at all except for some friendly teasing when the supervisor wasn't around.

Unfortunately, today looked to be a bad day for George's relationship with his boss. The technical supervisor for the AV crew was a tall, scarecrow of a man with thinning hair and poor posture. As opposed to the rest of the techies, who were Geeks, this man was the quintessential Nerd. George instinctively checked the man's shirt every day, looking for a pocket protector.

"What did you do this time, Laughton?" Bob asked as soon as he walked in the room. His tone was filled with disgust.

George's heart leapt inside his chest in guilty panic. He took a moment to gain control of his reaction before turning his chair to face his boss. "What do you
mean?" He tried to make the question curious rather than suspicious.

"Ariel wants to see you in his office as soon as you get off." Bob gave him a false smile. "Looks like your mouth is going to get you in trouble again."

George shrugged. "Better my mouth than… some other part." Bob had developed a reputation for making blatant and unappreciated advances to a number of women onboard the ship. The other techs suddenly became very busy, though George heard a couple of hastily swallowed laughs.

Bob paled, except for two bright red spots on his cheeks. "You'd better go see what the producer wants, Laughton," he said in a cold, barely-controlled voice.

George managed to keep a blank expression until he reached the hallway, then broke into a satisfied grin. Bob was just too big a target to resist. His smile quickly faded, though, as he climbed toward Ariel's office suite. Whatever the producer wanted wasn't liable to be anything good.

When Ariel's secretary sent him in, George found the producer leaned back in his chair behind the chrome and glass desk, rocking lightly as he stared at his visitor. Ariel's bulk hardly seemed to fit in the fragile-looking, ergonomically superior chair. Today Ariel was wearing a worn black t-shirt decorated with a yellow smiley face that had a bullet hole in the center of its forehead. George and a few of the other gamers had undertaken the task of trying to deduce just how many t-shirts Ariel had brought on the cruise with him. So far they'd only come up with four, which he seemed to wear a couple of days at a time. Slob was the word that most often came to mind.

"You wanted to see me, Mr. Ariel?" George asked politely as Ariel waved him inside. It wouldn't do to show the producer his feelings. Disgusting or not, he was a name in the industry, and George wanted to continue working.

Ariel gave him a narrow stare. "What are you doing with the wiring?" he asked without preamble.

George's heart started to pound. He stared at Ariel, hoping he didn't look too guilty as he formulated his response. He had thought about what he would say if someone asked what he'd been doing.

"Uh, I'm investigating a problem with the recording network."

Ariel kept staring. "Your supervisor hasn't informed me of any problem with the cameras."

George pressed his palms against his thighs to keep his hands from trembling. "No, it doesn't interfere with the function of the system. It's an efficiency thing." He managed a shrug. "I'm mostly satisfying my professional curiosity. None of the obvious things are the problem, so now I'm down to checking hardware connections to see if something is corroded or improperly grounded."

Ariel's expression lightened minutely at his explanation, which George took to mean he was buying it.

"Well, quit." Ariel drummed his fingers on the arm of his chair. "Leave the wiring alone. I don't want you accidentally breaking something."

George nodded. "O.k."

Ariel sat up in his chair and turned his attention to something on his desk, dismissing George from his attention. George took that as the sign to leave.

Once outside the office, he breathed a silent sigh of relief. When Dan Steiner had hired him, he'd expressed concern that the recording system onboard the Radiant Heart had been modified. He wanted George to find out if it was true, and fix it if it was. Now the only question was, did he continue with that assignment knowing that Ariel was on to him?

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

"Does anybody know what they did?" Stacy Anderson asked the other marrieds as they waited for the crew to finish setting up the stage for the Tribunal. The Moleneuxs had, apparently, been disqualified, though Mac hadn't heard any specifics. The four remaining couples had gathered on deck a short ways from where the television and sound crews were busy arranging equipment, banding together out of some primeval sense of mutual defense, Mac guessed.

Mac took a moment to surreptitiously take inventory of the others. Jeb and Stacy looked a bit tired, but still stared at each other adoringly. They stood with their arms wrapped around each others' waists, and Mac felt a stab of jealousy. Though she could feel Harm's presence beside her, she couldn't afford to do much beyond glance in his direction from time to time, carefully maintaining a set distance between them.

In contrast to Jeb and Stacy, John and Delia clearly showed the strain the cruise was taking on them, and on their relationship. Though their hands were clasped, their faces showed lines of weariness and defeat.

Mac glanced toward the final couple. Boothe and Carmen, oddly enough, looked like they always had. But then, she didn't think there was much love there to be lost, so perhaps the cruise wasn't as stressful for them. Ariel hadn't continued to push them to withdraw after hearing Boothe's side of the abuse issue. Mac didn't know what to think about all of that. Bud had confirmed Carmen's background: her family owned one of the largest diamond import businesses in the country. She was, indeed, the spoiled little rich girl Boothe painted her as.

Carmen tossed her hair, letting the constant ocean breeze blow it back from her face. "Who knows," she answered Stacy's question. "But I'll bet somebody feels like an idiot now. Four and a half weeks-- gone." She snapped her fingers.

John and Delia looked at each other, the gazes meaningful and a little guilty. When they turned back to the group, John spoke.

"We might as well tell you guys now… we've decided to withdraw. We're going to tell Ariel once the Tribunal is over."

Mac looked over at Delia and saw the quiet relief in the other woman's eyes. She smiled in understanding, and Delia echoed her.

Carmen shook her head in disgust. "You're gonna throw it all away?"

John pulled his wife protectively close. "Some things are worth more than money." He looked from Carmen to Harm, his expression challenging. Mac fought a smile. John and Delia were both so disappointed in them.

Harm held out his hand to John, who shook it firmly. "We wish you the best."

John smiled for a moment. "Care to join us?" He met Mac's eyes for a moment.

Mac flushed at the gentle criticism, but Harm just shrugged it off, grinning. "No thanks. We're still in the running. But, why don't we agree to get together after this is all over, the four of us. Atlanta's not that far from D.C. We can reminisce, and maybe see what kind of dent we can put in the million in one night."

Laughing, John nodded. "Sounds good. You'd just better make sure you bring that million, hear?"

Harm smiled, cocky as ever. "Count on it."

On impulse, Mac hugged Delia. A lump formed in her throat. "I'm happy for you," she whispered, fighting to keep her emotions in check. She wasn't even certain why the news made her want to cry.

"Me too, girl." Delia hugged her back, hard. "Promise me you'll be good?"

Mac laughed through her tight throat and nodded. They separated, then Stacy hugged Delia as well while John and Jeb said goodbye.

Carmen watched them all like they'd lost their minds. Perhaps, to her way of thinking, they had. Mac dismissed the thought. She no longer cared much what happened with Carmen. That the other woman had duped her made her angry, and doubly so because she'd managed to use one of Mac's deepest wounds against her.

One of the coordinators came over to shoo them all toward their places, preventing Mac from following her train of thought any further. She glanced up at Harm, who gestured for her to precede him. Mac bit back a smile. Being a gentleman was so ingrained in him he couldn't turn it off, even now. Mac liked that. It helped her to remember that the man she loved really was inside there somewhere. He'd left a note in her novel every day for the last three days, and that helped, too, but words on paper could be hard to hold on to despite her promise to trust him. It was an ongoing struggle, but one she felt she was slowly winning.

Mac sighed softly. Ten days, three hours, and forty-six minutes. She couldn't wait.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Harm ground his teeth in the dimness. He was never going to get to sleep at this rate. Mac lay only a foot or so away on the other side of the bed, and it was killing him not to be able to reach over there to touch her. It was the first time they'd gone to bed at anything approaching the same time in more than a week, and though he knew the secondary recording system wouldn't identify a single touch beneath the covers, he also knew there was no way it would stop with just one. Hence the reason he was trying, with great frustration, to keep his hands to himself.

The horrible thing was that he could tell by her breathing that Mac wasn't asleep either. They lay there, side by side in the pale, silvery light cast by a nearly full moon, unable to talk, unable to touch. He risked a glance in Mac's direction and found her watching him, dark eyes soft and full of longing.

Harm smiled at the sight, unable to help himself. She smiled back, one of those wide smiles that were so rare for her, but it quickly faded. After a moment, Mac sighed and turned her head to stare at the ceiling.

She sat up abruptly. "I'm going to put on some music." She pushed the covers aside and swung her legs off the side of the bed.

Harm rolled over, propping himself on one elbow to better appreciate the view as she stood. The moonlight streaming in through the open balcony door turned her body into a luscious shadow inside the pale negligee.

"Just don't pick something twangy." Harm remembered at the last minute to make the comment annoyed rather than teasing. She knew he didn't care for most of her country music. She didn't like his Hendrix, either, though they did have some tastes in common.

Mac sighed reproachfully. "Don't worry, I'll pick something we both like." She managed to pack an incredible amount of bitterness into her voice. Mac's acting abilities continued to amaze him.

Mac knelt in front of the CD player for a while, sorting through music. Eventually, she slid a disk into the tray and stood. As the first strains of a familiar bluesy tune drifted out, she went to stand at the balcony door, staring out over the water. The song was an old one by one of Harm's favorites, the great Ella Fitzgerald. Her voice felt like velvet as it filled the darkened room, combining with the moonlight to make the night over into something magical.

Harm watched, entranced, as Mac tipped her head back, swaying gently in time to the music. She seemed to have forgotten he was there, losing herself in the sultry, melancholy sounds. Harm held his breath, not wanting to break the spell.

As the final notes of the song died away, Mac straightened. She turned away from the window, the light dusting her hair with an ethereal glow. Harm wasn't sure he'd ever seen anything so beautiful. Mac looked at him with limpid eyes, and held one finger to her lips in the sign for silence.

Harm pulled the sheets back as she returned to their bed, and took her into his arms without a sound. Mac slender body molded against his, their lips seeking each others' as if they couldn't survive another moment apart.

And in the darkness surrounding them, Ella crooned a lover's lullaby.

 

Chapter 31

 

Harm walked into the HALO room and was greeted by a round of hellos. He returned them, making a conscious effort to keep the exuberant bounce out of his step and his voice. Making love to Mac had put everything right with him again and it was very hard not to let it show.

Harm was early, so the lights were still up. He went over to the little buffet that lined the wall, taking a couple of sushi rolls and a pile of fruit to ward off the midnight munchies. This was about the time of night Mac started talking about ordering pizza, which Harm's stomach invariably regretted. Smiling to himself at the thought, he found a seat at one of the many tables.

His humor died as George walked in. He and Mac had agreed they had to bring the other man into their confidence if they wanted a chance at getting Ariel on tape. The prospect made Harm nervous-- he didn't like involving an innocent (not to mention untrained)-- civilian.

"Hey, George!" Harm waved him over.

George immediately changed directions. He flopped into a chair beside Harm. "Hey."

Harm looked at him in concern. George didn't look like he felt well. "You o.k.?" he asked.

George waved away his scrutiny. "Jut some heartburn. Had one of those unpleasant meetings with my boss's boss yesterday."

Harm didn't let his interest show. "With Ariel?"

George nodded. "Yeah. I've been trying to track down a minor problem with the recording system and I was looking at some of the wiring… Ariel freaked, like I was going to break something." George rolled his eyes. "Yeesh. It's my job to keep it all working. You'd think they'd trust me to touch it without all the micromanagement."

Harm made appreciative noises, though he was pretty lucky in that department. The Admiral probably gave him more leeway than was really warranted, and Harm worked hard to make sure he lived up to that trust. George's statement, however, rang a number of bells in Harm's mind. Was it just coincidence the other man was telling him he'd been looking at the recording system wiring? Could he be a plant? One of Webb's? If so, was this his way of letting Harm know he'd been looking into the trouble with the cameras? Or, if not… what did it mean? His information about the secondary cabin recording system had been extremely valuable.

"So did you find the problem?" Harm asked after a moment.

George shook his head. "No. I'm pretty sure I had a lead on it, but Ariel doesn't want me looking into it any more." He shrugged. "Like I said, he's afraid I'll break something."

Or afraid you'll find something, Harm thought, suddenly grateful for their decision to bring George in on the investigation. He had the note in his pocket, telling George who he and Mac really were, what they needed to know about the recording system, and why. All he needed was the opportunity to pass it to the other man. Hopefully he could do so once the gaming session started.

Other players trickled in over time. To Harm's relief, Nikki Upton did not appear. He wasn't exactly sure what he would have done if she had, but it would have made his evening far more difficult.

Since George was high in the standings, he got to play the first round. Harm found himself a seat near George and leaned back to watch, beer in hand. Don found them a bit later, along with a couple of other people who usually used that gaming station.

"So, I hear you told Nikki Upton off," Don commented as he sat down, earning Harm an exaggerated round of congratulations from those nearby.

Harm slewed around in his seat, feeling a flush rising in his cheeks. "Uh, yeah… pretty much." He was embarrassed to admit it, considering how bad a move it was for his investigation.

"At least you finally came to your senses."

Harm cocked his head, eyeing Don in the strobe-like lighting from the projection screens. "Oh?"

Don chuckled and shook his head. "Man, if I had a wife like yours…"

"Donny, you couldn't handle a wife like his." George looked away from his game for a second, grinning. The smile turned into a grimace as he dug the fingers of one hand into his side.

Harm smiled at Don, too, trying to look innocent. "He's got a point."

Don gave them both a mock wounded expression, hands folded over his heart. "Oh, you got me." He sprawled in his chair for a moment, playing dead, then sat up abruptly. "So, what does it take to handle a woman like Mac?"

Harm chuckled. "If I ever figure it out, I'll let you know."

Don gave him a wolfish grin and turned his attention back to the game.

Onscreen, George's character paused in the middle of a firefight, taking massive damage from one of the other players. Harm reached over to slap him lightly on the shoulder.

"Hey, George! You still awake there?"

George's head lolled back like a rag doll's. The game controller tumbled from his hands to clatter on the floor. His eyes rolled back in his head, showing the whites, and Harm saw flecks of foamy saliva decorating his lips.

Don jumped to his feet with a cry of alarm.

"George!" Harm barely managed to get his arms under the other man as he collapsed sideways out of his seat. Harm kicked the chair out of the way, making room to lay him down on the floor. George’s body felt boneless. His dark skin was the color of ash, made all the more ghastly by the strange lighting. Harm cradled the other man's head, searching first for a pulse, then for a telltale breath between the pale lips. He was relieved to find both.

"Get the ship's doctor!" Harm looked up at Don, meeting his frightened gaze and holding it until the cameraman nodded. Don pushed his way out of the room, through the gamers that had already begun to gather around George and Harm.

The lights came up, blinding after the earlier darkness. George went into convulsions.

Harm grabbed his shoulders, trying to keep him from slamming his head against the thinly carpeted floor. He fought down the fear that climbed up his throat. He knew very little about seizures. All he could do was hold on.

The convulsions ended after a few minutes that seemed like an eternity. George lay still, seeming lifeless except for the shallow rasp of his breathing.

The doctor arrived at a run with his bag in one hand and a portable stretcher in the other. Harm moved out of his way as he checked George's condition. At the doctor's direction, Harm helped him transfer the unconscious man onto the stretcher, then took up the other end to carry him to the infirmary.

The next few hours passed in a blur. Harm stayed with the doctor, helping him to restrain his patient through several sets of convulsions. George didn’t come to, which Harm gathered from what he overheard to be a bad thing. A heart monitor maintained a steady, reassuring beat, but George’s open eyes remained empty and unfocused. The doctor could give Harm no explanation for the seizures. All he could say for sure was that George had no medical history of such things.

After the Coast Guard helicopter took George to the mainland for further treatment, Harm forced himself to rejoin the gamers who’d gathered in a frightened knot on deck. It was nearly 3am. His thoughts continued to turn with unanswerable questions. Why George? Why now? His gut screamed foul play, though he couldn’t offer a shred of evidence to support it.

"He’ll be o.k." Don offered with a half-hearted smile.

Harm glanced over at him. "Maybe." He looked back out over the dark water. "I hope so." The note he’d intended for George remained in his pocket, useless now, and a man he’d grown to consider a friend of sorts was in serious condition. If Ariel had had anything to do with that, he would deeply regret it.

"Man, why does this stuff always happen to us?" Don shook his head. "First Nikki going over that cliff, now this."

Harm could only shrug. Nikki’s near-fatal fall had been the result of her own reckless stupidity. He’d been pretty angry when Bud filled him in on the details. But that wasn’t something he could tell Don, nor could he tell him his suspicions about Tony Ariel or of his renewed fears for Mac’s safety.

Harm sighed. "I’m going to try to get some sleep. We won’t hear anything until morning, at the earliest."

Don nodded, and Harm turned to go. He clapped Don on the shoulder as he passed, imparting what little encouragement he could with the contact.

"Goodnight."

"Goodnight, Harm."

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

As Harm sat on the edge of the tub waiting for someone on JAG’s end to pick up the phone, he felt utterly exhausted. It was that bone-deep, numbing weariness of too little sleep coupled with too much stress. The assignment had begun to take a heavy emotional toll. Harm had woken his wife up when he got back to the cabin, needing to see her, talk to her, even if it was just within the boundaries of their charade.

Now, Mac sat beside him on the tub’s rim, her fingers laced with his and her dark eyes filled with gentle concern. They’d decided that a little comfort and sympathy would be believable without destroying their set up. But not much. Mac would need to leave before long.

"Lieutenant Roberts." Bud’s voice filled the line.

Harm leaned his head next to Mac’s so they could both listen in. "Morning, Bud," Harm said. Mac added her own greeting.

"Good morning, Commander, Colonel." Bud’s tone held an echo of concern. "How are you doing?"

"We’ve been better," Harm answered honestly.

"Well, we’ve got some information for you on this end, sir, which may help." His demeanor became businesslike. "Let me transfer you to the Admiral."

Harm and Mac exchanged looks. The line went quiet for a minute as Bud put them on hold.

"Good morning, Commander, Colonel." This time it was Admiral Chegwidden. The two attorneys returned the greeting.

"I’m putting you on the speaker phone," the Admiral told them. "We have quite the crowd this morning. The SECNAV is here, along with Mr. Webb and Lieutenant Roberts."

Mac raised her eyebrows at that, but didn’t comment.

"How is George Laughton?" Harm asked without preamble. He had no interest in exchanging pleasantries today.

"He’s in stable condition at Tampa General, Harm." Webb’s voice sounded a bit forced, as if he were standing on the far side of the room and projecting to make certain the speaker phone picked him up. "Lab results showed a couple of drugs in his system that account for his collapse. One’s an immuno-suppressive used in some cancer treatment regimes, the other lowers blood pressure." Webb’s voice grew louder, as if he were approaching the Admiral’s desk while he talked. "It’s a potentially fatal combination, but your friend wasn’t given enough to kill him. He hasn’t woken up yet, but the doctors don’t think there’s much risk of permanent damage."

Much? Harm took firm hold of his anger before he could say something sarcastic to Webb that the other man didn’t deserve, and that Harm would later regret.

"Do you have any idea where the drugs came from?" Mac asked. "Could Ariel have cooked up something like this?"

"Probably, ma’am." That was Bud. "We uncovered something interesting about Ariel. His father was a pharmacist for twenty-eight years. There’s a good chance Ariel could have learned enough from him to put together a chemical cocktail like the one Mr. Laughton was given."

Harm’s anger settled into a cold lump in his stomach. He did his best to ignore it. He needed to be calm and rational.

"That lends credence to Mrs. Antony’s claim that she was drugged." Mac’s nails drummed lightly against the tub’s plastic rim.

"It’s not proof, though." Harm met his wife’s gaze. The risk had just gone up, if Ariel had access to potentially deadly drugs and had the knowledge to use them. "And we just lost our inside help. Did you know George was investigating the recording system onboard? He claimed he was tracking down a small problem with the system, but I suspect it was more than that. He’s not one of yours, is he, Clay?"

"No, he’s not mine." Webb sounded a bit aggrieved, as if Harm had been lobbing an accusation rather than asking a simple question.

"I suspect, Commander, that we’ll discover he was working on Daniel Steiner’s instructions," the Admiral added. "The investigation is public knowledge—at least, as public as the legal requirements will allow. Mr. Steiner is milking the situation for all it’s worth, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he put George Laughton on that ship for the express purpose of finding the problem with the recording system so he could have footage of Ariel’s crimes for his show."

Mac frowned thoughtfully. "Which could mean he knew what Ariel was doing during the first cruise."

"Maybe, but we can’t assume that."

"No, sir," Mac agreed.

Harm forced himself to focus on the factual aspects of the case. "Is there any evidence of Ariel possessing the drugs that were used?"

"Not yet," Webb told them. "I called in a favor with the FBI. They’re looking into it with LAPD. They’ve already got a warrant for his residence. The warrant for his office is still in work, but shouldn’t take much longer."

Harm nodded. That was the first good news of the day. "Keep us informed."

"Sure thing."

"What else?"

"I have something, sir," Bud injected, sounding a bit hesitant. "I just got the email this morning."

"About what, Lieutenant?" the Admiral asked.

"The hall recording from outside the room where the incident with Mrs. Antony took place."

That got Harm’s attention. The hall video was one of many pieces to the puzzle that simply wouldn’t fit together.

"Believe it or not, it was Lieutenant Singer who thought of it, sir." Bud was obviously talking to the Admiral now, with the rest listening in. Mac mimed an expression of utter shock at his pronouncement, to which Harm rolled his eyes. They shared a grin, the antics safely hidden from the eyes of their superior.

"All of the recordings have a digital time stamp on them," Bud continued. "You can see it down in the bottom right hand corner of the screen on all of the raw tape. The Lieutenant suggested checking the timestamps to make sure the footage of Mrs. Antony entering the room was legitimate, since the angle of the camera doesn’t let us see room numbers or any other distinguishing features in the hallway." Bud’s speech quickened, as it always did when he was leading up to something important. "So I had a friend in crypto take a look. It turns out the timestamp had been altered."

"So Mrs. Antony probably didn’t meet the reservists of her own free will." Mac jumped on it before Harm could put his thoughts together. "Her account is sounding more and more plausible."

"Nothing ties it to Ariel, though," Harm countered. "Not conclusively, anyway."

Mac nudged him in the ribs, a slow smile appearing on her face. "That’s why we’re here instead of a private beach on Fiji, dear."

Harm raised an eyebrow at the suggestion. "Fiji, huh?" Sharing the phone the way they were, their faces were only inches apart. Mac nodded, parting her lips in silent invitation. Harm accepted without reservation, catching her mouth in a sweet, promise-filled kiss.

"Stop it, you two." Webb sounded like couldn’t decide whether to be annoyed or disgusted.

Harm broke the kiss after a moment and stared into his wife’s chocolate eyes. "Stop what, Clay?" He could see Mac biting her lip to keep a laugh from escaping.

"Whatever you’re doing, and before you ask, no, I don’t want the details."

"Can we get back to the case, people?" The Admiral effectively cut off any comeback they might have made. He seemed amused, though.

"Of course, sir." Harm did his best to sound like nothing out of the ordinary had been going on. It would get Webb’s goat, if nothing else.

"Are you still prepared to go forward with your plan to lure Tony Ariel out, Commander, Colonel?" The SECNAV spoke for the first time.

"Yes, Mr. Secretary," Harm answered with a familiar pang. "It’s the only way to positively tie Ariel to the crime, at least right now. If we catch him attempting the same thing with Mac, we can use that to tie all of the circumstantial evidence to him."

"And are you aware of the high visibility of this case, along with your own... ah, more personal visibility?" The SECNAV never sounded comfortable talking to the JAG lawyers, but now he sounded especially stiff.

Harm and Mac traded knowing looks. "Yes, sir," they chorused.

"Good. Then I don’t need to tell you how important it is for the Navy’s public image that this case be brought to an unequivocal conclusion."

Translation:, Harm thought, Everybody’s watching, so don’t screw it up!

"Yes, sir."

"Just be careful," the Admiral added. "Both of you." He paused. "I can’t afford to lose two of my best attorneys. I have cases piled up already, waiting for your return."

Harm and Mac smiled at that. "Yes, sir."

"We’ll be careful, sir." Mac tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. "Now, if you gentlemen will all excuse me, I need to be going. I’m meeting Toby for breakfast."

"Is that--?" Webb began then broke off in consternation.

"The boyfriend," Harm supplied. Mac gave him an odd look. He shrugged. "Well, he is."

Flashing him a seductive grin, Mac slipped off the edge of the tub and down to the floor. She crawled around Harm’s knee, coming up between his legs to wrap both arms around his neck. Harm chuckled. "No that I’m worried or anything." His free arm fastened itself around her waist.

"You’d better not be," Mac said before her lips fastened on his.

"Oh for crying out loud." Webb’s voice echoed through the phone’s earpiece, small and tinny. "We’re hanging up now." The line went dead with a click.

Harm and Mac burst into laughter that they hastily muffled in each others’ shoulders. Harm set the satellite phone down on the floor, then drew his wife into a tight hug.

"Get some sleep, o.k.?" she said, her lips brushing his ear in a caress.

Harm nodded, drawing back. "I will." He kissed her one last time. "I’ll see you later."

Smiling crookedly, she stood and walked to the bathroom door. She paused there to wave, then disappeared into the cabin.

Harm stared for a long time at the place where she’d been. Fiji sounded like a wonderful idea.

 

Chapter 32

 

"How are you holding up?" Toby asked after Mac joined him at the restaurant. Their table sat in a small corner of one of the upper decks, giving them a spectacular view of the ocean. Mac could see the green mound of an island in the distance, but had no idea which one it might be. She was beginning to feel very guilty about dragging Toby into their schemes. She and Harm were, in essence, setting him up to be duped into rape… though she had no intention of letting that happen. Hopefully her would forgive her, once all was said and done.

Mac sighed. "All right." She brushed a few hairs away from her face. "Didn't get much sleep. Harm's really upset-- you heard about George, didn't you?"

Toby nodded. "Yeah. Kinda scary. Has anybody said what happened?"

"No."

Toby reached over to squeeze her hand, and after a moment she squeezed back. "I'll bet Harm's lighting a fire under somebody, then."

Mac couldn't help a smile. "Not yet, but if there's no news by the time he wakes up, I'm sure he will." She looked down at their joined hands. "Why are you asking me about Harm?"

Toby shrugged. "You care about him, don't you?"

"Yeah."

"So why shouldn't I ask? If it's important to you, then it's worth knowing."

Mac carefully extricated her hand and sat back in her chair to study the man seated across the table. She knew without a doubt that she loved Harm with her whole heart. She had no interest in Toby-- in that way, at least. But more and more she was seeing in him a dear and true friend, and she disliked having to add a sexual aspect to their relationship.

She sighed. "Thank you. I appreciate that."

Now it was Toby's turn to study her. "Do you mind if I ask you something personal?" he said as a waitress came by with menus and water. The waitress left again without speaking, obviously sensitive to the serious nature of their conversation.

Mac bit her lip, but nodded. "Go ahead."

"What happened between you two? You seemed so happy there at first."

Mac raised an eyebrow. "That's a pretty personal question." She sipped her water, staring out at the ocean as she formulated a vague answer. "I don't know. Marriage just didn't turn out to be what I expected."

"So what are you going to do now?"

Mac looked at him quickly, wondering if the intent behind the question was really as obvious as it seemed. Toby gave her a sheepish grin. "I mean, there's less than a week left in the cruise. After that, what are your plans?"

He couldn't have played his part any better if she'd written his lines for him.

"I don't know." Mac toyed with her napkin, feeling uncomfortable with the entire conversation.

Toby wouldn't quite meet her eyes. "Well, if you get to a point where you're ready to look for something different… give me a call, o.k.?"

Mac nodded slowly. "O.k." She flashed him a smile, thinking how sad it was that her relationship with Mic had given her so much practice at pretending a love she didn't feel. "I just might do that."

He grinned back.

They sat there for several minutes, just smiling at each other as they perused their menus. The waitress returned to take their orders, and no sooner had she left than another person took her place beside their table.

Mac looked up in surprise at Boothe. A young woman-- one of the singles-- stood with him, her fingers laced with his. Boothe looked between Mac and Toby with a knowing smile, then turned his attention solely to Mac.

"Maybe we should have gotten together last night, Mac-- killed two birds with one stone." He winked at her, as if sharing a private joke. "Not that I'm disparaging your choice, of course." He nodded in Toby's direction.

Mac watched him warily. He seemed far too chipper.

"This isn't what you're thinking," she told him with a gesture in Toby's direction. Then, "So are you and Carmen disqualified?"

Boothe chuckled. "This far into things, I figured it would really tick Carmen off. What do you think?"

Mac resisted the temptation to shake her head. "I think you're right."

He winked again. "Well, we'd better go. I'd like to get some breakfast before they come for me. Bye, Mac."

"Bye, Boothe." Mac watched him walk away, somewhat stunned. After a moment she turned back to Toby, who widened his eyes theatrically. Wow, he mouthed.

Mac found she had nothing to say. Already the day had taken on a bizarre quality, and it was only breakfast.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

George Laughton had been pronounced able to see visitors for all of about five minutes before a trio of men in business suits let themselves into his room. Two had the unmistakable aura of cops around them. The third was something different. Government, if George had to guess.

The head of the trio looked like he might have played football in college. He was big and beefy, with his thinning hair cropped down to a nub against his skull. He smiled politely at George.

"Mr. Laughton, I'm Agent Peters of the FBI." He gestured to the second man, who George guessed to be his own age or a bit younger. "This is Agent Fellows. We'd like to ask you some questions."

"Who's he?" George looked over at the third member of the trio, a nondescript, sandy-haired man who hung back near the door.

The man stepped forward. "Clayton Webb, CIA." He met George's gaze, piercing him with an intense stare. The ordinariness he projected, George realized, was little more than a shell. The man behind that mask was someone to be reckoned with. "I believe we have a mutual friend."

George could only think of one person who might have friends in the CIA. "Harmon Rabb."

Webb's lips twitched, as if a smile were lurking there, trying to get out. "That would be him."

Sudden concern pushed George's curiosity aside. "Is he all right?" He looked between the three federal agents. "Nothing happened to him and his wife, did it?"

"Not yet," Peters answered at the same time Webb said, "The commander and the colonel are fine."

George breathed a sigh of relief. He'd had a niggling worry for them in the back of his head ever since learning about the drug interaction that had landed him in a Tampa hospital.

Webb's gaze narrowed. "And now I'd like to know why you didn't even bat an eye when I used the Rabbs' ranks. You knew they were military."

"Y- yeah." George stared at Webb, thoroughly intimidated. "I wrote the data upload/download scripts we use to transfer footage from the ship to the studio, so I snuck in my own newsfeed when I did it. Just the top stories off the New York Times website and the sports scores. I wanted to stay connected, y'know?"

The young agent-- Fellows-- turned to his superior. "I knew there was an anomaly in the downloads to the ship!"

"So you've known about the investigation of Tony Ariel and the first Temptation Cruise since the story broke." That was Agent Peters. He had a notebook out and was making some notes.

George nodded. "Yes."

"But you didn't tell the Rabbs."

"No. I warned Harm that there was a secondary audio-only system that ran in the contestant cabins at night, but that's all."

"Why were you checking out the wiring onboard the Radiant Heart?" Webb continued to watch him suspiciously. George was beginning to get the feeling the CIA agent cared pretty deeply about what happened to Harm and Mac.

George gave him the truth. He didn't have enough visibility of the larger picture to know what benefit there might be to guarding his answer, so it could only get him in trouble. "Dan Steiner told me to-- when he hired me."

Agent Peters paused, pen suspended over his pad. "What exactly did Mr. Steiner tell you to do?"

"He said he suspected the recording system had been tampered with and he wanted me to find out-- quietly-- and fix it, if it was. I was pretty sure even then that it had something to do with the rape case, which was all over the news." George paused to get his hospital-issue water bottle and take a sip. His head had finally stopped pounding, but he still felt parched.

"Did you find anything?"

"Oh, yeah." George kept the bottle in hand, resting the base against his thigh. He had the feeling he was going to be doing a lot of talking. "There's an extra system onboard that controls the cameras in a couple of the cabins."

Webb flashed a humorless smile. "Let me guess: A-31 and C-5."

"How did you know?" And more importantly, why couldn't anyone have told me? Then I wouldn't have had to trace the wiring the entire length of the ship to figure that out!

Webb shrugged. "Those are the cameras that had intermittent problems during the first cruise. Mrs. Antony was raped--"

"Allegedly raped," Peters reminded him.

Webb waved the correction away. "Whatever. The incident occurred in C-5."

George looked back and forth between the two men, his thoughts turning. "So was I supposed to figure out how to keep those cameras functioning full-time? Why didn't anybody tell me?"

Peters and Webb traded looks. "Ah… we didn't know about you." Webb gave him a bland stare. "Unfortunately, we didn't have enough information to suspect the camera system had been tampered with until after the second cruise started, and Mr. Steiner didn't see fit to share his plans with us."

"Oh." George decided he didn't dare say more on that subject. It sounded like Steiner might be in some trouble.

"Let's talk about what happened to you," Agent Peters suggested.

George's stomach clenched at the thought. He'd come pretty close to dying, the doctor had said. "Somebody drugged me."

"Somebody?" Webb asked.

"Yeah, somebody. I don't even know when or how."

Peters tapped his pen against the back of his hand thoughtfully. "But it was after Tony Ariel told you not to mess with the recording system wiring."

George nodded. "Yes. The next day."

"Is there anyone else who might have wanted to harm you?"

"My boss, Bob Schliegler, maybe, but he's pretty incompetent. The doctor said the drugs they gave me are hard to get."

Peters made another note, but didn't seem to take the suggestion too seriously. That was all right with George. He thought it was Ariel, himself.

"My understanding," Peters said, "from talking to your doctor, is that you had an unusual reaction to the drug combination. Most likely, it was only intended to make you sick."

"That's hardly reassuring, Agent Peters." A steely note crept into his voice. He'd nearly died.

"About that extra system to control the two cameras…" Webb rocked lightly on his feet.

"What about it?" George wanted to know.

"Could you have fixed it so those cameras would be on full-time?"

George frowned. "I hadn't completely defined the system when this happened, so no. But now that I know what I'm looking for, I could probably do it in a day or two. Do you have any idea how Ariel is controlling the system? That would help a lot."

Webb shook his head. "Sorry." He paused. "What if we got you back on the Radiant Heart?"

Peters gave his colleague a dirty look. "The doctors aren't going to release him for at least another twenty-four hours, Webb. And how could you guarantee his safety? If Ariel did this, he knows Mr. Laughton is a threat to him."

Webb voiced a short, frustrated sigh. "I know."

"The AV crew could do it."

Both agents turned sharply to look at George. He shrugged. "Except for Schliegler they're a pretty good bunch of guys. They'd be happy to help if they knew what was going on."

Somehow, Webb managed to look suspicious and thoughtful at the same time. "How many people are we talking about?"

George took another sip of water. "Eight, total, but they work two shifts-- well, three now. Somebody would've had to take my shift. You could have one crew working on Ariel's network while the other is on for their regular shift. It'd be pretty easy to erase any evidence of what they were doing if you had both crews working it, and they'd get it done a lot faster than I could working alone."

"How do we know we could trust them? What if one of them went to Ariel? Harm and Mac's lives could be at stake."

George tried not to feel too insulted. This man was a strange one, but he obviously looked out for his friends. "I don't think any of them would do that. Except Bob, of course. Avoid him at all costs." He paused. "But the technical crew are just regular guys. They'd love to have a chance to do something really important, especially if it'll discredit a lemming like Ariel."

"A lemming?" Peters asked.

"No original thoughts. Just follows the trends."

The big man cracked a smile. "Oh."

Webb chewed on his lip, oblivious to their exchange. "All right," he finally agreed. "I'll run it by Admiral Chegwidden and see what he thinks." He nodded to George.

The three men took their leave after that, joking as they left that they'd never live it down if anyone saw the FBI and CIA playing so well together. George watched them file out of the room with an odd smile.

Ethan Hunt, eat your heart out, indeed.

 

 

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