Home
Browse by Author
Browse by Title
Adult Stories by Author
Adult Stories by Title
Submission Guidelines
Missing Authors
Common Questions
Site Wide Disclaimer

 

   

Chapter 33

 

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 him.

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 be great."

"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 without cameras.

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.

"Harm?"

"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 to change.

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, that's all."

"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 retaliation.

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."

"Fine."

"Fine."

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 thought.

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 the whites.

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 Temptation Cruise."

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 manner."

"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 in, Harm."

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.

"Webb."

"It's me. Put George on."

"And hello to you, too. Are you always this cheerful in the middle of the night?"

"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 do it.

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?"

Baggy nodded.

"How long?"

The question elicited a frown. "Not more than forty-eight hours, I should think."

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 close.

"Any way to make it less than that?"

Baggy shrugged. "That's worst case. We'll probably have it done well before then."

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?"

"Yes."

Harm nodded. "All right. That's it, I think."

 

Chapter 34

 

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 enough.

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 serious.

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.

"Mrs. Rabb."

Mac looked up to find Selena standing beside her table, her hands folded gracefully in front of her.

"Yes?"

"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 end."

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. Showtime.

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 targets.

Who knew what they might be missing.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Harm had just stepped out of the shower when someone banged on his stateroom door.

"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. I swear."

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 evaporated.

 

Chapter 35

 

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. Rabb!"

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 way. Understood?"

Schliegler nodded and sank into his seat. Harm turned back to the console.

"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 screens.

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 noticed.

Clay didn't waste any time. "All right. We're on our way," he told Harm. "See you in fifteen."

"We?"

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 there, somewhere.

"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.

"She's dead."

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

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 feeling?"

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 head remorsefully.

"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.

 

Chapter 36

 

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 threshold.

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 background.

"Webb."

"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 minutes."

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 cameras?"

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. They’re empty."

"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 furniture.

"Which one is which?" he asked.

Baggy pointed to his own screen. "This is A-31." He pointed to the other. "That’s
C-5."

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 blood.

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, senseless whim.

Again.

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 examination table.

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 mainland."

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."

"What?"

"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 horror.

"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. "What happened?"

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 floor.

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.

 

 

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6 Part 7 Part 8 Part 9 Part 10
 
 
   

Copyright © 2005 Legacies Archive  - Site owner Pixie