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,
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
Harm grimaced. "Sorry about that, sir. I hope we didn't cause too much
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
A thought struck Harm and he groaned involuntarily.
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,
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
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
"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
"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
Nikki shrugged and gave him what was, speaking impartially, a very
fetching smile. Pretty as she was, though, Harm still found her presence
"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
"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
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.
"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
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
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
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
"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?
"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 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
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.
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,
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.
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
John smiled for a moment. "Care to join us?" He met Mac's eyes for a
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
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
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
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
And in the darkness surrounding them, Ella crooned a lover's lullaby.
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 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
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
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
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
The convulsions ended after a few minutes that seemed like an eternity.
George lay still, seeming lifeless except for the shallow rasp of his
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.
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
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
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
"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
"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,
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
"Whatever you’re doing, and before you ask, no, I don’t want the
"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
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!
"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.
"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,
Toby nodded. "Yeah. Kinda scary. Has anybody said what happened?"
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?"
"So why shouldn't I ask? If it's important to you, then it's worth
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
He couldn't have played his part any better if she'd written his lines
"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
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
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,
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.
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
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
"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
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
"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
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,
"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
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.