The first step in bringing the AV crew in on the operation was to get a
note to Baggy-- a thirty-ish man with the rather unusual name of
Sudhanssu Baggs. He was a British national of Indian descent, and spoke
with a heavy accent. He was the technical lead for first shift. He was
also one of the top gamers, which gave Harm a simple excuse to talk to
Once that was done, all Harm could do was wait. He got his answer the
next night, when Baggy came over and dropped into the chair next to him.
Since Harm was in the middle of a game, he could only spare a glance in
the other's direction.
Baggy sprawled in his seat, a bag of Cheetos in one hand. "The boys and
I are going to try to talk Ariel into letting us send George some
flowers or what have you in the hospital. We're getting together after
things wrap up here--" He gestured toward the game controller in Harm's
hands-- "to figure out what we want to do. You want in?"
Harm was impressed. It was a completely plausible story. "Yeah, that'd
"Lovely." Baggy grinned, pleased. His smile faded. "Now all I need to do
is figure out how to keep the boss from finding out about it. He'd
probably try to take over and make it some kind of 'from the office'
thing, and take all the credit." He sighed dramatically. "Ah well. He's
probably off terrorizing women at La Vida anyway." And with that he got
up, winking at Harm as he walked off to talk to some other folks.
Harm got the hint, wondering what Clayton Webb would think of how well
these people were playing the subterfuge game. And they didn't even know
what was going on yet. All he'd told Baggy was that George's collapse
wasn't an accident, and that if the AV crew wanted to help get the guy
who did it, he needed to talk to them without anyone knowing, and
When the night's session began to wind down, Harm told Baggy he was
going to go back to his stateroom for his swim trunks so he could take a
few laps in the pool after they decided what to do for George. But what
he really needed was an excuse to talk to Mac.
He found her sleeping when he got to the room. He stopped for a moment,
savoring the unguarded view of his wife. She lay on her side, with both
hands tucked beneath her chin like a little girl. Mac always tried to be
so tough. In sleep, though, the stern mask fell away, revealing the
luminous, sometimes fragile woman beneath.
Harm resisted the impulse to stroke her hair, knowing she would
instinctively turn toward the caress, smiling in her sleep. That would
no doubt be his undoing tonight. He was desperately worried for her. Not
because she was incapable of taking care of herself, or even because the
situation was all that dangerous-- but simply because he loved her so
much that it made his chest ache whenever he thought about how much, and
how much it would hurt to lose her.
Turning, he went instead to the dresser, purposely fumbling about in the
dark. Light sleeper that she was, Mac sat up almost immediately and
rubbed her eyes.
"It's me." He kept his sentences short, clipped. "I just came by to get
some things. Go back to sleep." He had his back to her and didn't turn
around. Instead, he grabbed what he needed and headed for the bathroom
As he'd hoped, Mac followed him. "Where are you going now?" she
demanded, catching the door before he could close it.
"Out." The open door meant the secondary recording system would pick up
what they said, so a little arguing was in order.
She crossed her arms beneath her breasts, giving him a rather
spectacular view considering the lacy number she was wearing. She
blinked as he flipped the bathroom light on. "With who?" But her smile
belied her tone. It was a wicked, flirtatious smile, one that sent a
heated thrill through him.
Harm grinned back, fighting to keep an angry tone to his voice. "Not
that it's any of your business, but nobody. I'm going to swim some laps,
"Harm, I hardly ever see you anymore." She punctuated the statement with
a luscious, full-lipped pout. Her dark eyes danced.
"You don't seem to lack for company." Harm crossed the distance to her
in a single stride and dragged her into his arms. "Quit it, Mac," he
whispered in her ear. "You're killing me." He nibbled her earlobe in
Laughing silently, Mac struggled away from him. "Pots and kettles, Harm.
You seem to be doing just fine with Ms. Upton." For a moment, her eyes
turned serious, begging him not to take offense.
He didn't, though it was his instinctive reaction. "There's nothing
going on between us and you know it, Mac." This time it wasn't hard to
put aggravation in his voice.
"Well, there's nothing going on between me and Toby, either, so let's
just drop it."
In the ensuing silence, Mac shut the bathroom door, turning the handle
with exaggerated care to make sure the latch didn't make a noticeable
click when it closed. They both breathed sighs of relief.
Mac slipped into his arms for a kiss, which turned into several.
"So what's the story?" she asked when they parted.
Harm stroked the curve of her waist, following it downward until she
squirmed and swatted playfully at his hand.
He chuckled. "I'm headed out to talk to the AV crew now. However… Baggy
thinks we need someone to run interference with Bob Schleigler, to make
sure he doesn't crash the party." He gave her a significant look.
Mac shook her head emphatically. "Oh no, not me."
Harm raised an eyebrow.
Mac rolled her eyes at him. "The man's a Neanderthal."
"Just keep an eye on him. He's supposed to be at La Vida tonight."
"What if he asks me to dance?" She managed to look horrified at the
Harm grinned. "Aw, c'mon, Mac. Where's your take charge, do or die,
anything for the Corps spirit?"
She eyed him dubiously. "I must have left it at home along with the rest
of my good sense."
Harm turned on his most wheedling smile. "Your nation needs you, Mac…"
She snorted. "Fine, but if he drools on me, I'm rubbing it off on you."
Harm leaned close. "You can rub anything on me you like." He wiggled his
eyebrows for effect.
Laughing quietly, she smacked him on the chest.
Harm caught her wrists and pulled her close. "I'd better go. Until we
meet again…" He leaned down to kiss her deeply.
Mac twisted her hands free from his grasp, then wrapped her arms firmly
around his neck. "I'll be looking forward to it."
Harm grabbed the black case containing the satellite phone before he
left, hiding it under his towel. That was another reason for the
late-night swim. He walked down to the AV room, feeling underdressed in
swim trunks, a t-shirt, and bare feet. He missed being in uniform,
missed the preciseness of it and the comfort of knowing exactly where he
fit in the larger scheme. When they got back to Washington, he promised
himself he'd never complain about wearing his uniform again, not even
All eight members of the technical crew had beaten Harm to the AV room.
He found them waiting in a loose circle around the two main camera
stations. Conversation died when he walked in, which didn't surprise him
too terribly much. These weren't Webb's people. Nonetheless, they were
doing a pretty good job so far.
Baggy nodded to one of the other techs, who immediately jumped up and
went to one of several floor-to-ceiling racks of electronic equipment.
He opened a metal cover to reveal a panel with dozens of little switches
on it, each with wires attached. The tech, whose name Harm didn't know,
carefully counted his way along one of the rows, then yanked something
out of the panel.
That done, the group turned expectantly to look at Harm. He took that to
mean the camera covering the room had been disabled. He decided not to
ask. In his experience, talented technical people didn't need to be
second-guessed. It would only insult them.
"I guess that would be my cue," he said, setting the case containing the
satellite phone down on the nearest desk and laying it flat. "I'm going
to talk fast so we don't raise too many suspicions. So here it is." He
took a deep breath. "I'm Commander Harmon Rabb, United States Navy. I'm
a lawyer with the Judge Advocate General Corps. My wife is a Marine
Lieutenant Colonel, also with JAG. We're helping with an FBI
investigation into rape allegations that were made during the first
Eyes widened all around as Harm went on. "The investigation is focused
on Tony Ariel. We believe he arranged the circumstances of the rape
incident, and that he drugged George to get him off the ship when he
discovered George had been examining the recording system onboard the
Radiant Heart. We don't think Ariel knows he was deliberately studying
the system-- he just got nervous. However, George had discovered a
second control system attached to the cameras in two of the empty
cabins, one of which is the cabin where the rape took place. The control
system appears to interfere with the operation of the cameras in some
"George works for the FBI?" one of the techs asked incredulously. He
looked like he couldn't have been more than twenty. He sat on the lip of
one of the consoles, kicking his legs like a little kid.
Harm shook his head. "No, but it doesn't really matter. What I need from
you--" he looked around the group, "--is to disable the extra control
system in such a way as to be undetectable to whoever is using it. We
want a clear recording of whatever Ariel does in those cabins."
Baggy gave him a long, slightly stupefied look. "It's a bit much to take
Harm shrugged. "I know, but it's true anyway. Here." He opened the case
and pulled out the satellite phone. Dialing the number Webb had given
him, he waited while the connection completed.
"It's me. Put George on."
"And hello to you, too. Are you always this cheerful in the middle of
"Jut put him on, Clay."
A sigh. "Let me wake him up. Hang on."
Harm handed Baggy the phone. "George can tell you what he knows."
Baggy accepted the bulky piece of equipment, and Harm leaned his hip
against a desk as he listened to the conversation. It quickly turned
technical, leaving him feeling excluded. But by the time Baggy handed
the phone back to Harm, the entire crew had drawn together into a
conspiratorial knot, something he took to mean they thought they could
Harm put the phone to his ear. "Clay, you there?"
"Yep." Webb sounded tired. "Is there anything else I should know?"
Harm mentally reviewed their plan. "I don't think so. My only concern is
whether Ariel knows we're on to him. This thing with George has to have
made him nervous."
"I agree with you there, but I don't know what we can do about it." Harm
could hear the unspoken concern in the CIA agent's voice. He worried
about Mac almost as much as Harm did. "This isn't my show,
unfortunately. But I know Peters, the lead agent on the FBI's side. He's
a good guy. He's transferring a response team to the Coast Guard cutter
that's shadowing you. They can be onboard in about fifteen minutes, if
you need them."
Harm nodded, feeling somewhat reassured. "Thanks, Clay," he told the
other man with real gratitude.
"Don't mention it."
Harm cut the connection and turned to Baggy. "Can you guys do this?"
The question elicited a frown. "Not more than forty-eight hours, I
Harm pressed his lips into a thin line. There were about four and a half
days left in the cruise. Forty-eight hours would be cutting it pretty
"Any way to make it less than that?"
Baggy shrugged. "That's worst case. We'll probably have it done well
Harm was forced to accept that. He glanced over at the two consoles.
Each one had a large main screen surrounded by six smaller screens. "Can
you view the feed from all the cameras here?"
Harm nodded. "All right. That's it, I think."
Harm spent a moment at the ship's rail, looking out over the ocean. He'd
taken to running in the early evening since Mac was still getting up to
run in the mornings. This particular evening-- less than twenty-four
hours since his conversation with Baggy and the AV crew-- the sun lay
low on the horizon over a calm, flawless sea. The light breeze was fresh
and cool, but to Harm's mind lacked the choking tang of jet fuel that
should have accompanied it.
He sighed. His body had not taken well to having a twenty-year routine
undone. He was staying up until two or three a.m. every night and
sleeping until noon, and had probably eaten more junk food in the last
five and half weeks than in the previous five and a half years. And
though he had stuck to a regular exercise regime, it didn't feel like
Harm stretched extensively, cursing his age and ejection seats, then
headed out along the upper deck track. He liked it more than the lower
deck's. Fewer people came up there, which was worth the price of having
a significantly shorter loop. The short loop meant there wasn't much of
a straightaway, and that put more strain on his bad knee. Not that he
would ever admit to having a bad knee. It wasn't sufficient to keep him
off flight status, just twinged more often and tended to stiffen up when
it was going to rain. One more injury, though… Sometimes Harm wondered
just how many more times he'd be able to come back from something
Pushing such bleak thoughts aside, he started off. The rhythmic
thump-thump of his shoes on the track made a perfect counterpoint to the
cries of the gulls wheeling overhead. The birds gave the Radiant Heart a
constant escort, having learned that cruise ship passengers often tossed
food over the rails just to watch them dive to catch the pieces.
Harm had gone about two miles when he saw a young woman angling across
the deck to intersect him. She looked like one of Nikki's friends-- the
redhead who often hung around with her. He searched his memory for a
name, finding it after a moment. Chelsea.
Frowning, he slowed to meet her.
"Hi, Harm." She tucked a lock of deep red hair behind her ear. She was
dressed in a pair of cutoff shorts and a halter-top, but there was
nothing particularly flirtatious about her greeting.
He nodded in return. "Chelsea. What's up?"
She cocked her head to look up at him. "I'm looking for Nikki. You
haven't seen her, have you?"
Harm put his hands on his hips. He hadn't seen her except in passing
since the incident at the pool, and was quite content to keep it that
way. He shook his head. "Not recently."
She wrinkled her nose in frustration. "She must be avoiding me. Well,
thanks anyway." With a wave, she turned away.
Harm watched her go, wondering if he should be concerned about Nikki.
There was no telling what she might be up to. Finally, he shook his
head. He'd finish his run first, grab a shower and then check in on her.
Mac wouldn't get too upset, he didn't think, and it would ease his
conscience to make sure.
Mac sat at a small table in the same restaurant she and Toby had been
going to lately, sipping coffee and daydreaming as she stared out at the
water. Very soon now the cruise would be over-- the investigation would
be over, whatever the outcome-- and she would be able to go back to her
life. A life that had one huge, wonderful, fundamental change to it.
She glanced at her wedding rings, then back out at the ocean. Right now
she was fantasizing about changing out her nameplates at work and
getting a new driver's license. That would be a relief-- she looked
downright shaggy in the current one. Her experiment with growing her
hair out hadn't been very successful.
Mac looked up to find Selena standing beside her table, her hands folded
gracefully in front of her.
"Mr. Ariel asked me to find you. He'd like to talk to you about the last
two days of the cruise. There are, as you probably remember from your
orientation, a few changes to the ship's routine as the cruise nears its
Mac froze as her heart began to pound. This is it.
"Just me?" she asked Selena, unable to help the suspicious not that
crept into her voice.
Selena shook her head. "Of course not. It is an individual interview, to
make sure all topics are open for honest discussion." She gave Mac a
fake smile that was probably intended to reassure her. "Mr. Ariel has
already spoken with each of the Andersons."
"What about Harm?"
Selena shrugged. "I believe he's running at the moment. I'm sure Mr.
Ariel will talk with him later this evening."
Mac rose to her feet, feeling a wave of dread mixed with adrenaline.
She followed Selena to Ariel's office. Stepping inside, she made a quick
review of the room, but saw nothing alarming. It was just an office,
though even messier than her own.
"Come in, Mrs. Rabb." Tony Ariel didn't stand to greet her, but instead
waved her forward from where he sat behind a modern-looking black metal
desk. Mac did so, seating herself in one of the chairs pulled up before
it. Selena withdrew silently, leaving Mac to study Ariel across the
space of a few feet.
"Can I call you Sarah?" he asked as he swiveled his chair ninety degrees
toward a small wet bar tucked away behind the desk.
Mac forced herself to lay her hands calmly in her lap. "I prefer Mac."
"All right. Mac it is." He glanced at her from beneath thick black
eyebrows, the expression in his eyes less friendly than his voice. "Can
I get you something to drink? Coke? Pepsi? Tea? Frappuccino?"
Mac wondered what would happen if she refused. He would have to find
some other way to drug her. But she was the bait for this little trap,
and it was time to play her part. Harm, you had better be out there
somewhere, watching my six.
"Coke, please." She didn't want to admit it, but she was scared.
Everything inside her rebelled at the idea of voluntarily giving this
man power over her, especially knowing what he would do with it.
Ariel eventually emerged with a couple of drinks, handing one of them
across the desk to Mac. She sipped it, detecting a faint bitter tang
that might not have belonged, but she couldn't be sure.
They spent twenty minutes talking about the last days of the cruise, and
how things would go if both couples remained faithful. Mac resisted the
impulse to ask Ariel some pointed questions about what would happen to
his bonus if that happened. She would have liked to have seen his
expression, though. The thought nearly made her giggle. She managed to
bite her lip, shutting away the bubbling laughter.
Phew, there was definitely something in the Coke. She was starting to
feel giddy and lightheaded. She needed some air. And a deeper instinct
told her she needed to get out of there, and fast, before she was unable
to go anywhere at all.
"I'd better go," she told Ariel, rising unsteadily to her feet.
Ariel didn't seem the least put off by her sudden desire to leave. "Of
course. Thank you for your time, Mac." He watched as she turned away, a
small, amused smile on his fleshy lips.
Mac made it all the way out into the hallway before her legs started to
wobble. She grabbed the wall for support as the world tilted sideways
and threatened to slide away entirely.
"Mrs. Rabb? Are you all right?" a voice murmured in her ear. Ariel
gripped her arm in one large hand. "Here, let me help you to your room."
Mac stared at him, unprotesting, as he led her down the hall. Sounds had
taken on strange echoes, like she was walking through a metal pipe.
Nothing seemed familiar until Ariel opened a door and led her into a
stateroom. It wasn't hers, she knew immediately, but the bed looked
awfully comfortable. She sighed contentedly when Ariel walked her over
to it and let her collapse onto the soft surface.
She turned her head to look at him. "Tired," she told him, slurring the
word almost beyond recognition.
"I'm sure you are," he answered pleasantly. She felt the bed sink as he
sat on the edge beside her.
The last thing she was aware of as she slipped away were his fingers on
her shirt, slowly unfastening the buttons.
Baggy drummed his fingers impatiently on the AV console, wishing a pox
on Bob Schliegler and all his kin. The AV crew had taken care of the
redundant control system in the wee hours of the morning, which he'd let
Harm know about in a few hours at the HALO tourney. Knowing what he did
now, though, all Baggy really wanted to do was to put the two cabins up
on the main monitors and wait for something to happen. He wasn't
entirely certain what that might be, but it was bound to be interesting.
Baggy looked over at his boss, who sat in his chair reading his soft
porn magazines and occasionally glancing around the room to make sure
the techs were keeping busy. Baggy muttered a few choice words. As long
as Schliegler was around, the monitors had to stay on their normal
Who knew what they might be missing.
Harm had just stepped out of the shower when someone banged on his
"Coming!" Still dripping, Harm wrapped himself in a towel and went to
answer it. One of the techs from the morning shift stood on the other
side, sidling from foot to foot in fretful impatience. He pounced the
moment Harm opened the door.
"Harm! Word is your wife went to see Ariel in his office for some kind
of meeting. But when I went by there, his assistant said they'd both
left. She said Mrs. Rabb didn't look like she was feeling too good."
It's started. The knowledge hit Harm like a physical blow. Please, let
her be all right.
He didn't let his reaction show. "When was that?" he asked.
The young man checked his watch. "Twenty minutes ago. I wasn't sure
where you were."
Harm nodded. "All right. Thanks." He glanced down the empty hallway.
"You'd better get out of here."
The tech nodded and took off. Harm closed the door. He just stood there
for a moment, gathering his wits. A part of him wanted to panic, to
scour the ship until he found Ariel and beat the man's face in if he'd
so much as touched Mac. But the rational part of him maintained control.
Ariel wasn't the key. Toby Mathis was the critical link in this
particular chain. The set up went from Ariel to Toby, and from Toby to
Mac. So that was where Harm needed to go.
Harm shook himself into motion. He went to the closet, dressing in a
loose shirt, jeans and tennis shoes. Then he went into the bathroom to
retrieve both black cases, laying them out on the bathroom floor. He
pulled out the Berretta nine-millimeter pistol and inserted the full
clip. He chambered a round, lowered the hammer and flipped the safety
on. The gun went into his waistband at the small of his back, beneath
his shirt. He also pulled out the satellite phone. There was no point to
hiding it now, and he might need it.
Thus prepared, he left the stateroom, headed for Toby's. If the younger
man was planning to meet Mac for Ariel's arranged rendezvous, he would
no doubt be getting ready. He had to force himself not to run through
the hallways, but still used his long legs to great advantage. It only
took a few minutes to reach Toby's cabin. He knocked.
A few agonizing moments later, the door opened to show a slice of Toby's
face. He stared at Harm in surprise, colored by guilt. Harm tried not to
let himself feel too much anger toward the man. They were using him as
much as Ariel was.
"We need to talk," he told the other man.
Toby stared at him for another moment, then started to shut the door.
Harm jumped forward and shoved his shoulder into the gap, forcing it
open. Toby stumbled back. Harm quickly let himself into the room,
pushing the door closed behind him.
Toby backed away, his expression frightened. He raised his hands. "Hey,
look man, I don't know what you think's going on, but nothing happened.
Harm stared into the other man's face, wondering what his own expression
must have looked like. He probably thinks I'm ready to kill him. He made
a conscious effort to calm down.
"It's o.k., Toby." Harm didn't move from his place by the door. He
effectively had the young man trapped. "I'm not going to hurt you. I
just need to know when and where you're meeting Mac."
A puzzled crease appeared between the blond brows. "What?"
"When and where you're meeting her." Harm tried to keep his words slow
and calm. "She sent you a note, probably through Tony Ariel, arranging a
tryst. I need to know when and where."
Toby slowly shook his head, looking mystified. "I don't have any idea
what you're talking about." Harm could see the truth of the statement in
his clear blue eyes.
He stared at Toby in dawning horror. His link to Mac had just
Harm hit the AV room at a run, skidding to a ragged stop next to the two
main consoles. Baggy took one look at his face and turned completely to
face him, his expression filling with alarm.
"Bring up Ariel's cabins," Harm ordered, unconsciously falling back into
military mode. "You got it done, right?"
Baggy nodded, and Harm felt a small measure of relief. At the same time,
Bob Schliegler jumped to his feet and came over, his stance indignant.
"Contestants aren't allowed in this area! You're going to have to
leave." He reached over to grab Harm's arm. Harm shook him off, his eyes
never leaving the screens. The two main screens now showed the interiors
of the two cabins. Both were pristine and empty.
Schliegler grabbed his arm again. "You're going to have to leave, Mr.
Harm had neither the time nor the patience to spare. He whipped out the
Beretta, pressing the muzzle against Schliegler's breastbone.
"Back. Off." He enunciated each word carefully and clearly. However,
since he didn't really want to shoot the pompous jerk, he left the
weapon's safety on. Schliegler didn't look like he knew enough about
handguns to know the difference.
Schliegler's eyes turned into saucers. He backed away, stammering in
terror. Harm waved him toward his chair. "Sit down and stay out of the
Schliegler nodded and sank into his seat. Harm turned back to the
"What are we looking for?" Baggy asked him after a moment of stunned
silence. The other three techs on the shift gathered around to watch the
Harm returned the gun to his waistband. "Mac." He bit his lip against
the wave of sick terror that threatened to engulf him. "Ariel's got her,
but he changed the plan so I don't know where she is, or what he intends
to do with her."
Baggy motioned for one of the other techs to take the seat in front of
the other console. "I'll take A through D decks, you do E through G and
the maintenance areas," he said.
The other man nodded. Images began cycling through on multiple screens
while the gathered crew watched.
"Look for Ariel, too," Harm added, his voice tight from the effort of
keeping himself under control. "He can tell me where Mac is."
Baggy nodded. "Right-O."
As the screens flashed, Harm recalled the satellite phone in his other
hand. Growling curses at his own stupidity, he dialed Webb's number.
After three rings, it picked up. "Webb."
"Clay, I need that response team."
"What?" Webb's voice held a clear note of alarm. "What happened?"
"Ariel's got Mac, but he didn't follow the game plan. At the moment, I
can't find her. Or him." Harm gripped the back of Baggy's chair so hard
the edge bit painfully into the backs of his knuckles. He barely
Clay didn't waste any time. "All right. We're on our way," he told Harm.
"See you in fifteen."
Clay snorted. "Yes, 'we'." His tone said he thought Harm was an idiot
for even asking.
And that, strangely enough, gave Harm a sense of hope. His friends never
let him down when it mattered most. He cut the connection.
"Anything?" he asked the techs and received twin head shakes.
Harm went back to watching the camera feeds, his brain frantically
sorting through everything he knew about the case. The answer had to be
"Wait." A small detail lodged in his thoughts. It was just a hunch, but
he'd learned to trust his hunches. They were rarely wrong. "Have you
seen Nikki Upton on here?" He gestured toward the screens.
The tech at the other console narrowed his eyes thoughtfully. "Uh… yeah.
I think so." He spun his trackball, sending one of the small screens
through a flurry of images. He slowed the spin, eventually coming to
rest on a single image.
"There," he said, pointing to the screen where Nikki could be seen lying
sprawled on her bed. "Looks like she's sleeping in her room."
Harm stared at the tiny, peaceful form. Why was this bugging him? "Put
it on the main screen."
The tech did so, and Harm leaned forward to peer more closely at the
picture. He noticed the unhealthy white caste to her skin and her blue
lips immediately. His breath caught.
"She doesn't look too good," the tech commented. Harm could tell he
didn't really understand the import of what he was seeing.
Harm closed his eyes for a moment, then straightened. He felt suddenly
old and very, very afraid.
When Mac came to, she found herself lying in a warm bath. The tub was
very full, the water covering her entire body except for her head and
the tops of her bent knees. She was naked, but that was to be expected
in a bathtub.
She looked around, taking in details without attaching significance to
them. A showerhead emerged from the wall opposite her like the head of a
metallic snake. The walls themselves were tiled in white, with sets of
four smaller green tiles forming diamond-shaped patterns. Two white
towels hung from a rack above her head. She didn't see any bottles of
soap or shampoo lining the edges of the tub.
A small noise attracted her attention. She turned her head to find a man
kneeling next to the tub, his attention on something on the floor in
front of him. He looked up when she moved.
"Well, hello, Mac. I didn't expect you to wake up yet. How are you
Mac stared at him. She wasn't feeling much of anything, which she tried
to tell him but her mouth didn't seem to be working. Who was he, anyway?
Considering her lack of clothing, maybe he was her lover. She didn't
think so, though… she had better taste than that. At least, she thought
she did. No, the word lover brought a different face to mind-- a strong,
handsome face and the bluest eyes…
She was so involved in trying to figure out the blue-eyed man's name
that she almost missed her companion's next words. He was shaking his
"It's really too bad this had to happen," he told Mac with a short
glance in her direction. "If Mr. Laughton hadn't had his nasty reaction
to the drugs, everything would have been fine." He sat back on his
heels. He held a pair of scissors in his gloved hands.
Mac stared at him in fascination. His form was beginning to waver,
running like watercolors left out in the rain.
He flipped open the scissors and examined the edges. He tsked sadly.
"It's such a shame." He glanced at her again, raising both eyebrows.
"What's a shame, you ask? Why, your insane jealousy, Mac. Poor girl." He
stroked her hair in sympathy. "You couldn't take seeing your husband
spending all his time away from you."
The man reached down into the bath, emerging with Mac's left arm in his
grasp. The air felt cold against her wet skin, making her shiver.
"See, first it was Mr. Laughton, and then pretty Ms. Upton. But you
couldn't live with the guilt." He turned her arm wrist up, holding it in
a tight grip. Then he took the scissors, jabbing one of the points into
her wrist just above the bones, and ripping upward along her arm.
The searing flash of agony penetrated Mac's haze. She cried out,
reflexively yanking her arm out of his grasp and leaving a splash of
scarlet across the edge of the tub. Her arm dropped back into the bath
with a soft plunk. After a moment, the warm water began to ease the
stinging pain. Mac blinked. Tendrils of pink snaked through the bath
water in convoluted whorls, beautiful in their own, terrible way.
Mac was a little more alert now. She let her eyelids sag most of the way
shut, feigning drowsiness. She was in big trouble here, and if Ariel
gave her any more drugs she would most likely be dead before she woke up
again. She was afraid, though, that she might end up dead even if he
didn't. She couldn't feel her body. She tried wiggling her toes, but
couldn't tell if it worked.
Ariel dropped the scissors into the tub. Smart, Mac thought. No one
would be surprised by a lack of fingerprints. Of course, he wasn't that
smart. The forensics from this little escapade alone would probably
convict him, even if she weren't available to testify. And if the
warrants the FBI had gotten had resulted in anything, those would clinch
the case. Of course, if she died, Ariel would never see trial. Harm
would kill him, of that she was certain.
And where was Harm, anyway? Why wasn't he breaking down the door to
rescue her? Obviously, following Toby to her location wasn't going to
work. Ariel had apparently scrapped that plan to cover his mistake with
George. But there were cameras covering nearly every inch of the ship.
Surely the AV people could find her pretty fast.
Then it dawned on her. She was in the bathroom, the one place on the
ship where there were no cameras. Fear clenched her stomach and closed
her throat. She was on her own.
Ariel took one of the towels from the rack above Mac's head to wipe off
the blood that had gotten on his gloves.
"It won't be long," Ariel told her. Mac had a sneaking suspicion he was
right. He knew enough to cut lengthwise, and if his cut had gone deep
enough to get the artery, which she suspected it had, it wouldn't be
long at all.
Ariel dropped the stained towel in a crumpled heap on the toilet lid as
he turned away. "Goodbye, Mac."
Mac watched as he walked out of the bathroom, disappearing from view as
he made his way to the cabin door. She heard that door open and close
again, leaving her alone.
Mac didn't feel like she was dying.
She stared at the water surrounding her. It had turned an alarming shade
of red, dark enough to make her body into a shadow in the murky bath.
She was running out of time, and quickly.
She narrowed her gaze. Move, arm… Arm, move. She tried to will her
recalcitrant body into motion. Getting her arm out of the water would
allow the blood to start clotting, for whatever good that might do her
at this late date. It might also slow the rate at which said blood was
draining out of her.
A moment later and much to her surprise, her arm appeared, breaking the
darkened surface of the water.
Aha! Her triumph was short-lived. Gritting her teeth, she poured all her
effort into raising her injured arm out of the water and moving it over
the edge of the tub. Water and blood dripped from her in equal parts,
and she had a passing, irreverent thought about the amount of cleaning
work she was creating for someone.
Her elbow thunked on the edge of bath, sending a jolt of pain up her
arm. Mac stared at her exposed forearm in dismay. She hadn't realized
the damage. Ariel's gash ran from wrist to elbow, deep at first but
tapering off as it went. The edges of flesh were curled back, ragged and
white from the water. Blood pooled where the wound gaped open, spilling
over to splatter on the floor with a tinkling sound.
Now for the other one. Tearing her eyes away, Mac concentrated on
getting her right arm to move. It, too, surfaced eventually. With great
effort she managed to get her right hand clamped over the deepest part
of the gash, bringing a fresh wave of pain. She welcomed it. Right now,
pain was her friend. The searing burn was the only way she could tell
her hand was putting pressure on the wound.
Unfortunately, putting both arms over the lip of the tub meant she had
to turn onto her side. Now she was balanced precariously on her hip with
nothing but her unfelt toes braced against the tub's far wall to keep
her from slipping and going under.
Experimentally, she pushed with her feet and felt her body move against
the cool plastic of the tub. O.k. So my body works…sort of… even if I
can't feel it. She looked around. If I could just get to the doorway,
the cameras would see me. But that would mean leveraging her entire body
out of the tub, something she doubted she could manage.
Think! There's got to be a way. How would Harm get out of this mess? Had
she been in less dire straits she might have laughed at herself for that
one. Harm always managed to think, charm or just plain stubborn his way
out of situations that would overwhelm anyone else.
Mac didn't think charm would do her any good at the moment, which left
her with the other two. She stared toward the open bathroom door. The
room camera was her only hope. It was only four feet or so away, but
could have been four miles for all the difference it made. How could she
cross that distance?
Her gaze fell on the bloody towel Ariel had left on the toilet. She
smiled. Bingo! Mustering her resolve, she let go of the wound in her arm
and reached for the towel with both hands. The terrycloth felt harsh
beneath her fingertips.
Trembling, she gripped the towel in her right hand, holding it against
her arm until a large, bright red stain covered it. Then she wadded the
towel into a ball and with the last of her energy flung it toward the
doorway. She watched it fly a short arc, plopping down just beyond the
Exhausted, Mac sank back into the water. Her left arm remained draped
over the edge of the tub, blood running down her fingers to drip into
the growing puddle on the floor. All she could do now was wait.
Harm stared at the image of Nikki Upton with a growing sense of
desperation. She’d bee dead a while—long enough for the blood to have
pooled in the lowest areas, leaving her visible skin with that snowy,
translucent look. And as much as he regretted her death, he was more
concerned by what it said about Ariel. There might not be a limit to
what the man was capable of.
He’s got Mac! It was a silent wail. One he would never voice.
Harm raised the satphone once more. He was pleased to discover that his
hands remained steady. When Webb picked up on the other end, Harm could
distinctly hear the whine of a helicopter’s engine spooling up in the
"He’s graduated to murder, Clay."
The utter silence on the other end told Harm just how much Webb cared
for Mac, even if he would never admit it. Brumby had had it right—they’d
all fallen a little bit in love with her. Harm had just had the
unimaginable good fortune to be the one she loved in return.
"…Mac?" It was little more than a whisper.
Harm stared at the monitor screens, which continued their rapid sweep of
every camera on the ship. "No. Nikki Upton. Looks like a drug overdose,
or maybe asphyxiation. I didn’t see any obvious signs of violence."
There was another short pause as Webb recovered. "Any idea why Ariel
would want to kill her?"
"None. She’s connected to me a lot more than to Mac." Harm hated the
idea that Nikki might have died because of him, but it wasn’t something
he could afford to deal with at the moment.
Webb pulled away from the phone to talk to someone on his end. Then he
returned. "Harm, I’ve got to go. We’re taking off. ETA is about eight
Harm cut the connection and spent a moment figuring out how to clip the
phone to his belt. The FBI team would search the ship from bow to stern
for Ariel and Mac. They had to be aboard somewhere.
On the tails of that thought, he turned to Baggy. "There have to be some
areas of this ship that aren’t covered by cameras. Maintenance spaces,
engine areas, the bilges… things like that."
Baggy nodded. "Sure, but most of them have restricted access. Ariel
doesn’t have a passcard as far as I know." He pulled out a badge that
hung on a retractable cord at his belt and showed it to Harm. The badge
had a shiny gold smartchip embedded in its surface, along with Baggy’s
name and photo. "We have access to the maintenance spaces and wiring
closets, but not the engine rooms or the bridge, for example."
"So where could he take Mac that they wouldn’t be visible to the
The tech at the second console paused to look up at him. "Isn’t that
what those two cabins are for? He was supposed to be able to fritz the
cameras so nobody could see what he was doing?"
Baggy gave his companion a disgruntled look. "But we checked ‘em.
"Put them up again." Harm ran a hand distractedly through his hair. He
felt like he was going in circles.
The two main screens came up with angled views of the two cabins. Both
empty. Harm stared at the neatly made beds and sterile, hotel-like
"Which one is which?" he asked.
Baggy pointed to his own screen. "This is A-31." He pointed to the
Harm’s gaze didn’t follow him to the second screen. There was something
lying on the floor in A-31, way down near the corner of the image.
"What’s that?" he asked, leaning forward to study the object more
closely. Distortion at the edge of the picture made it hard to make out.
The others crowded around.
"Don’t know," Baggy ventured. "Looks like a… towel, maybe?"
"Or a piece of clothing," someone else added.
"What’s the dark spot?"
Harm leaned forward until his nose nearly touched the screen, his heart
pounding. He needed a moment to confirm what his eyes brought him—a
small white mound of cloth marred by a dark stain.
Harm straightened abruptly. "It’s blood." Chances were good it was Mac’s
Harm turned and sprinted for the door. He ran with his heart in his
throat, and his mind filled with terrible images. Diane’s lifeless body
kept flashing before his eyes, mocking him. It couldn’t happen again. It
just couldn’t. He didn’t bother with the stairs, sliding down the rails
like the experienced sailor he was, and shouting for those ahead to make
way. Those that didn’t move fast enough got shouldered aside with
ruthless efficiency, leaving a trail of angry voices in his wake. Harm
neither noticed nor cared.
He paused at the door to A-31 to listen. Hearing nothing, he drew his
weapon then cautiously tried the door. It opened onto the same pristine
room he'd seen on the monitor. He stepped inside, eyes sweeping the area
for any sign of Ariel or Mac.
It only took three steps to bring him in line with the open bathroom
door. The cloth he'd seen on the camera lay in front of the doorway, a
crumpled, bloody mess. Harm's gaze went past it after a moment, into the
bathroom, and his entire world shattered.
The bathroom was coated in blood. It filled the tub, and ran in streaks
down the plastic sides, and covered the floor. Mac lay in the midst of
the carnage, one arm draped carelessly over the edge of the bath. The
thick red liquid dripped from her fingertips.
For a split second, Harm couldn't force himself to move. Couldn't force
himself to go over there. He couldn't bear to see her cold and
lifeless-- everything he loved ripped away, destroyed by a violent,
Then Mac's head turned, her eyes fluttering open. The corners of her
pale lips curled in a shadowy smile.
"You found me." It was less than a whisper.
For Harm, the world snapped back into place with a giant shudder.
"Mac!" He rushed to her, dropping to his knees in the puddle of blood.
The warm liquid soaked into his jeans as he leaned over, sliding an arm
under her shoulders and knees to pick her up out of the water. The
emotional part of him wanted to drag her into his lap and hold her,
sobbing in relief. The clinical portion knew better. She was alive, but
still in a great deal of danger. He stood.
"Ariel--" Mac plucked weakly at his shirt, her expression desperate.
Harm held her close against his chest as he maneuvered his way out of
the narrow bathroom. "Shhh. Don't try to talk. Webb's on his way with
the FBI emergency response team. They'll get Ariel."
Mac fell silent and Harm concentrated on getting to the infirmary as
quickly as he could. He burst into the small facility, startling the
doctor who recovered quickly and waved him over to the single
Harm lay her down, instinctively brushing a few stray hairs off her
forehead while the doctor looked her over. The doctor raised his head
after a moment, his expression pained.
"I can start an IV to get some fluids into her, but I'm not equipped for
this." He shook his head helplessly. "I don't even have a supply of
blood. I'm going to have to call for a helicopter to take her to the
Harm could read the flat, empty certainty in the other man's gaze. "She
doesn't have that long." He felt like he could barely breathe.
The doctor shook his head. "No, she doesn't."
Harm stared into his wife's still face. He wasn't a man to give up-- not
ever. He unhooked the satphone.
Webb picked up on the first ring. "We're overhead now, Harm," he said
without preamble, shouting over the roar of the helicopter blades.
"They're getting ready to drop the ropes."
Harm looked upward unconsciously, as if he could somehow see the
hovering aircraft through the many floors over his head. "Stop them,
Webb! Tell the pilot to land on the deck."
"Tell the pilot to land on the deck!" Harm rarely broke out his command
voice, the one that demanded instant obedience and heaven help the poor
slob who didn't jump fast enough.
Webb wasn't exactly cowed, but he got the message. There was a short
pause. "The pilot says he can try a soft landing on the upper deck." His
tone said Harm had better have a really good reason for his demand.
Harm figured he did. "Good. I'll meet you there." He cut the connection
and tossed the phone down on a nearby counter. He didn't need it any
more. Scooping Mac back up in his arms and praying she was still alive,
he headed for the elevators.
The upper deck of the Radiant Heart looked like something out of a
movie. The helicopter, a Huey not too different from its Vietnam-era
brother, sat with its skids barely touching the deck. The rotor remained
at full spin, carrying most of the heavy bird's weight. Men-- and a
woman, Harm noted absently-- dressed in black kevlar body armor and
helmets jumped down from the transport, rifles held ready. The FBI's
response team fanned out as another figure came forward. Harm headed for
him, and the helicopter beyond.
Webb looked out of place in his suit and tie. He trotted toward Harm,
his sidearm clasped in both hands with the muzzle pointed down and away.
He stopped short when he spied Harm, his expression one of stunned
"Holy--!" Webb stepped back automatically as Harm rushed past him. He
turned, yelling for the FBI team's EMT, and fell in beside the aviator.
Harm spared him a short glance as the EMT ran up. "Ariel tried to kill
her--" Harm's throat closed as he lost control of the fears clambering
inside him. "I don't know, maybe he has." He forced himself to move
faster. Mac just couldn't be dead. The first tears forced their way out,
blurring his vision. "Set it up to look like suicide."
They reached the helicopter. The EMT jumped up ahead of Harm, then
helped him load Mac aboard, laying her out on a stretcher on the metal
Clay grabbed Harm's arm as he started to climb in after her. "I'll take
care of Ariel," he promised, his eyes fierce.
Harm just nodded. Right now, he didn't care about Ariel. All that
mattered was keeping Mac alive. Once she was safe, he would have time
for fury, for justice… or for revenge.