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Chapter 37

 

Capturing Ariel turned out to be somewhat anti-climatic. They found him in his stateroom, packing, as if he could somehow jump ship as easily as one would skip town. Clay had stayed back while Agent Peters read Ariel his rights, smiling slightly at their less-than-gentle handling as they handcuffed him and took him to wherever they would be holding him. Clay was glad the FBI was there to handle it. He wanted to skip due process and simply shoot the man, preferably starting at the toes and working his way upward. He had eleven rounds in his pistol, which might-- might-- be enough to quench his thirst for vengeance.

Afterwards, Clay had gone by both of the crime scenes, now taped off and filled with forensics investigators. It was the bathroom that had gotten to him. He'd seen a person bleed out before. It was impossible to comprehend how much blood the body contained until you saw it all in a pool on the floor. But that had been a man, and not someone Clay had known. This was Mac.

Sometimes he wondered why he felt so protective toward the feisty Marine. She was as tough as they came, and had courage enough to fly with. She didn't need protection. True to her credo, she would stand in the breach without thought for her personal safety if it would serve justice or her country. But maybe that was why the men around her automatically stepped in to shield her-- because they knew she would never hide, would never back down. And none of them wanted to watch her pay the price for her courage.

Clay shook his head sharply. It was a bad sign when he started waxing patriotic.

"It gets to you sometimes, doesn't it?" Agent Peters stepped up beside Clay.

Clay nodded, eyes never leaving the desecrated bathroom. "Yeah." He cleared his throat. "Especially this one."

"Have you heard whether she made it?"

Clay shook his head. He hadn't been able to bring himself to make the call.

Peters gave him a minute to collect himself before returning to business. "We've got the video sorted out. Thought you might want to see it."

Clay looked over at him, both pleased and grateful for the development. It gave him something to do beside stare at Mac's blood and wonder if he was ever going to be able to look Harmon Rabb in the eye again without flinching.

Clay followed the Peters to the AV room. The group of techs that had helped Harm clustered off to one side, having been ejected from their normal places by a trio of FBI agents. The three looked up as Clay went to stand behind them.

"Let's see it." Clay focused on the screen.

"Which one do you want?" one of the agents asked.

Clay sighed. "Let's do Ms. Upton first." That way I can avoid the inevitable for a little longer.

The agent nodded and went to work at his keyboard. Not long afterward, a picture appeared on the screen. It was Ariel and Nikki Upton, walking down a hallway, cabin doors to either side. They were talking companionably.

"Ariel and Upton had dinner together just previous to this," the agent said, narrating the scene. "Now he's walking her back to her cabin." The timestamp in the corner put the time at just past eleven o'clock.

On the monitor, the two stopped. Nikki stepped forward to unlock her cabin door.

"Here." The agent pointed as the tape froze, then went forward in extreme slow motion. "You can see her jump, as if she's been pricked by something." Onscreen, Nikki started and slapped at her leg as if chasing an insect. Ariel's reaction was credible, both in surprise and solicitousness.

"And there it is." The agent froze the scene completely. His finger pointed to Ariel's right hand, which was away from the camera and so mostly hidden. But in this frame, he had turned slightly, revealing both his hand and the slender hypodermic needle clasped in it. As the agent advanced the recording frame by frame, they saw Ariel drop the needle in his jacket pocket.

"So he drugged her." Clay wasn't terribly surprised. "What happened after that?"

The agent shifted to the camera inside Nikki's room. She walked inside then paused, swaying, and put one hand to her head. Grimacing in pain, she made her way to the bed and collapsed across it.

"That's it," the agent told him. "She doesn't move again. It looks like she simply quit breathing." He gave Clay a grim look. "Whatever he used, it was quick."

Clay nodded, not trusting himself to speak. He braced himself. "O.k. Now how about Colonel Rabb?"

"You sure you want to see this?"

Clay snapped his head around to stare at the agent. His heart felt like it had turned into a lump of ice in his chest. "Tell me he didn't rape her…"

The agent shook his head. "No, but he got pretty friendly." The man shrugged. "It sounded like she was a friend of yours--"

"She is a friend of mine," Clay interrupted harshly. "Is." He bit his lip, running a hand through his hair as he tried to contain his distress. He regained control in stages, then turned back to the agent who watched him compassionately. He took a deep breath. "Just show me."

The agent nodded and turned back to his keyboard. Clay watched the video in silence, his jaw tightly clenched, as Ariel removed each piece of Mac's clothing and ran his hands-- and occasionally his mouth-- over what was exposed. When he was done, Ariel donned a pair of gloves then picked up Mac's still form and carried her into the bathroom. A moment later they heard the sound of water running.

"He's filling the bath," the agent said unnecessarily.

That went on for a while, then eventually shut off. They heard a few indistinct noises coming from the bathroom, but nothing identifiable-- until Mac screamed.

"We figure that's when he cut her." The agent tapped his fingertips against the base of the keyboard. Ariel walked out of the bathroom a moment later, gathered up Mac's clothes, and shoved them under the bed in passing. The cameras followed him out of the room and down the hall-- all the way back to his stateroom.

The screens blanked. The agent leaned back in his chair. "That's it, unless you want to see Rabb coming in to get her."

Clay shook his head. "No, thanks. Good work." But it didn't sound like praise when he said it. He turned away, wandering aimlessly out into the hall. How in the world had they let this happen?

After a moment, he drew out his cell phone and dialed a number. He couldn't avoid it any longer. The phone rang several times before being answered by a familiar voice.

"Chegwidden."

Clay sighed wearily. "A.J., it's Webb. How is she?"

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

The first thing A.J. saw when he stepped off the elevator on the third floor of Tampa General Hospital was the crowd of reporters milling around in the waiting area. Beyond them, two armed Marines blocked access to the hallway leading to the surgery wing. The reporters took note of his arrival-- and his Navy uniform-- with great interest. Cameras swung around to face him as a number of the reporters closed in.

"Sir, who are you?"

"Can you tell us anything about what's happened?"

"Admiral, can you tell us who's been injured? Was it one of the Rabbs?"

The questions came from every direction. A.J. was tempted to push past without comment, but at the last minute he paused. This entire set of events had been put into motion to help the Navy's reputation with the public. He couldn’t do anything to ruin that now.

He turned to face the group, squinting against the glare of the camera lights. "I'm Rear Admiral A.J. Chegwidden, Judge Advocate General of the Navy. I'm Commander and Colonel Rabbs' superior."

"Sir, why are you here? Has one of them been hurt?" The reporter directly in front of A.J. was very young and eager-looking. But he was also the only one who had addressed A.J. as "sir".

He turned to the young reporter. "Yes, Colonel Rabb was… badly injured." He paused, knowing his own information was sketchy at best. He'd gotten a courtesy call from the FBI office in Tampa, but they hadn't known much beyond where their helicopter had dropped off his officers. "I don't have any details." He held up a hand as the reporter opened his mouth. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go see my people."

A.J. shouldered his way through the crowd. The Marine guards came to attention as he passed, then returned to their parade rest stances. They, too, were there to take care of their own. That was the first thing A.J. had done on hearing the news.

A.J. stopped at one of the nurses' stations for directions, then headed to the far end of the wing. His shoes clicked loudly on the polished floors. Tampa General was an upscale hospital, existing primarily to serve the wealthy retirees in the area. The area A.J. walked through bustled, but had none of the crowding or desperation he expected of big city hospitals.

He found Harm eventually, seated on a padded bench at the very end of the hall. A young black man in a hospital gown and attending IV stand sat next to him, eyes fixed on the far wall. The commander sat leaned over with his elbows resting on his knees. He was covered in blood, now dried. It stained his clothes and streaked his skin, matting the hair on his arms into gruesome whorls. There was a dejected air about him that A.J. had rarely seen.

A.J. walked up to Harm. The other man didn't look up. His hands rubbed continuously against each other, thumbs brushing away dark flakes of Mac's blood.

"Commander."

Harm's head jerked upward. A.J. stared into the face of the man who was more of a son to him than any other, and his heart went out to him. Exhaustion and stress had taken their toll, leaving him haggard. Even Harm's deep tan couldn't hide his pallor, or the emptiness in his gaze. He stood after a moment, swaying slightly.

"Admiral."

A.J. feared the worst. "Mac?" he asked softly.

Harm stared straight ahead, not really seeing his superior. "She arrested on the table." His voice was flat, hollow. He took a shaky breath, then went on, "The doctor said she was down about ninety seconds."

A.J. needed a moment to process the meaning of his words. "Where is she now, son?" he asked carefully. He hadn't realized how dire Mac's condition was.

Harm's gaze moved over A.J.'s shoulder, toward the wide doors leading into the surgical theater. "Surgery. They had to repair the artery-- they couldn't stop the bleeding."

"How long has she been in?"

Harm checked his watch. A.J. watched him struggle to do the simple calculation. "Two-- two and a half hours."

A.J. simply nodded. It might be a while until they heard anything, then. He shied away from thinking too hard about the situation. If he did, he'd have to envision Mac lying on an operating table, fighting for her life.

"I called your mother. She and Frank should be arriving any time. I'm surprised they didn't beat me here." A.J. paused to unlimber the carryon bag from his shoulder. "I brought you some things."

Harm made no immediate move to take the bag, so A.J. set it on the floor by his feet.

"Thank you, Admiral."

"You're welcome." He watched Harm a moment longer. "This isn't a time for formalities, son. Call me A.J."

Harm nodded, but remained silent.

"There are some fresh clothes in the bag for you." A.J. wasn't sure how to comfort the other man, who was very obviously still in shock. "I'll be happy to stay here and wait for news while you clean up. I'm sure there's a shower somewhere you can use."

"Hey, you can use the one in my room for all that," said the man beside Harm. He looked over at A.J. and offered his hand. "I'm George Laughton."

A.J. shook his hand. "A.J. Chegwidden."

"Thank you, sir… A.J." Harm shook his head. "But I'd rather stay here."

A.J. shrugged, familiar with the stubborn expression on the other man's face. He kept his tone light. "It's your call, but do you really want to have to deal with your mother when she sees you like this?" He glanced significantly at Harm's ruined shirt.

Harm followed his gaze, eyes widening as he took in the bloodstains that covered him. He looked back up at A.J, utterly disarmed. "No wonder the nurses kept stopping to ask me if I was hurt."

A.J. nodded in sympathy.

Just then the double doors behind A.J. swung open and a man in green scrubs walked out. He came over to the trio, giving A.J. a sidelong glance but keeping most of his attention on Harm.

"Mr. Rabb?"

Harm nodded, dread filling his gaze. A.J. moved a bit closer to his officer in an unconscious show of support.

The doctor folded his arms across his chest. A hint of a smile appeared on his face. "Your wife is quite a fighter."

Harm sagged in relief as the implication hit him. A.J. hurried to catch his elbow, his own knees weak.

"Will she be all right?" he asked.

The doctor glanced at A.J. "We managed to stop the bleeding, so from now on she'll be gaining ground." He returned his attention to Harm, his expression encouraging. "She's made it through the hardest part. Like I said, she's a fighter. I can't say she's out of the woods yet, but her chances get better with every passing minute."

"When can I see her?" Harm asked.

The doctor glanced over his shoulder at the surgery doors. "They'll be moving her up to ICU when she comes out of recovery. I'll have a nurse come get you."

Harm nodded. "Thank you." His voice was faint.

The doctor smiled a real smile. "You're welcome. Now, if you'll excuse me…" He turned and headed back through the double doors.

A.J. watched Harm, both perplexed and concerned. He'd expected the other man to snap back to himself once they'd heard good news, but he still seemed as dazed as ever.

"Harm?" he finally asked. "Are you all right?"

Harm turned. "Not really, sir." He shook his head. "I honestly… didn't think she would make it." His blue eyes met A.J.'s, unguarded and full of pain. "I've been sitting here for the last couple of hours trying to figure out how I was going to live without her…" He made an aimless gesture.

A.J.'s expression quirked. "Well, quit it, commander." Rabb knew how to wallow better than most, but this was no longer an appropriate time. The sooner he snapped out of it, the better.

Harm turned to stare at his superior in surprise, but then accepted the chastisement. "Yes, sir."

Satisfied, A.J. nodded. "Good. Now go get cleaned up before you give your mother a heart attack." He paused. "That's an order, son."

"Aye aye, sir." Harm bent to retrieve the bag A.J. had brought.

George Laughton watched the two officers, his expression bemused.

"Do they really say 'aye aye' in the Navy?" he asked Harm once the two started to walk away. "I thought that was just in the movies."

Harm's amused snort floated back down the hallway to A.J., who took it as an encouraging sign. They'd be all right, he finally decided. As long as they had each other, Harm and Mac would always make it through.

He was still standing there when his cell phone rang. A.J. answered it.

"A.J., it's Webb." The CIA agent sounded infinitely weary. "How is she?"

 

Chapter 38

 

Mac woke in stages. The dark warmth that cocooned her gave way to a reddish glow she knew instinctively to be gentle light shining on her closed eyelids. After that came voices, rising and falling in conversational waves. She picked out Harm's resonant tenor after a minute, finding joy in the intimately familiar sound. She imagined his face-- the strong, clean lines of it, framing a perfect smile and sea blue eyes that could reflect a soul as deep as the ocean they resembled… or nothing at all. Her first image gave way to a new one, of the heavy doors slamming shut behind Harm's eyes, sealing away his overwhelming horror behind an empty mask. The image frightened her, but for a moment she couldn’t figure out why. But then she remembered Ariel, and the scissors, and the blood. Only then did Mac truly become aware of her body. Pain crashed down on her, crushing her arm and radiating into her shoulder and across her chest.

With a gasp, Mac opened her eyes.

Harm was immediately there. She felt his fingers engulf hers on her uninjured side as he leaned over her, a worried crease between his brows. "Mac?"

"Is it over?" she croaked. Her throat felt like sandpaper.

His brow smoothed out. "Yeah, it's over." His fingers caressed her face, trailing gently down her cheek. "You're safe."

Reassured, Mac let her gaze wander away from his face. "Where am I?"

"Tampa General Hospital," another voice told her. A young man leaned over her, white coat draped over his shirt and tie. A stethoscope was tucked into the coat's breast pocket. He smiled down at her. "Welcome back, Sarah. You've been asleep for--"

"Fifty-three hours, sixteen minutes, and forty-four seconds," Mac supplied automatically. That was how long it had been since she'd seen Harm standing in the bathroom doorway onboard the Radiant Heart.

The doctor raised an eyebrow.

Harm chuckled. "Now I know you're going to be all right." But the dark shadows that lingered in his eyes told a much larger story.

Mac felt an odd twinge of guilt. "I'm sorry if I scared you, Harm."

He just stared at her, blue eyes unguarded, and for a moment Mac found herself staring into an abyss. She'd seen similar expressions on disaster survivors and war veterans-- those who had seen things that would haunt them forever. She wondered if maybe she'd had the easier time of it, all things considered. After all, she'd been unconscious for most of it.

"You gave us all quite a fright, Colonel." Admiral Chegwidden stepped up behind Harm, coming into her range of view. With a start, Mac realized that there were several other people in the room as well. Trish and Frank were there, and Clayton Webb. All of them looked tremendously glad to see her.

"Admiral." Feeling self-conscious, Mac tried to push herself into a sitting position, only to have Harm gently but firmly press her shoulders back against the bed.

"At ease, Colonel," the Admiral told her with a smile. "I don't expect you to snap to for a couple more days, at least."

"Yes, sir." Mac agreed. She looked over at the doctor. "Am I allowed to sit up?" She didn't like being flat on her back with everyone looming around her.

He nodded and reached for the controller that dangled near the top of the bed. "Of course." With a sound of grinding metal, the bed began to fold. Mac's head swam at the motion and she grabbed Harm's hand to steady herself. The bed stopped immediately.

"I think that's far enough," the doctor said.

"O.k." Mac agreed, her voice faint. Her stomach twisted with nausea that began to dissipate once she quit moving.

"Mac?" Harm asked, his concern obvious.

Mac blew her breath out in a sigh. "Phew. I'm o.k." When she was able to, she turned her head and smiled at him. The smile dimmed.

"Did we get him?" That was the one question she needed an answer to. Had it been worth it?

Harm nodded somberly. "Ariel's in custody. The DA is talking about asking for the death penalty."

Mac gave him a curious look. "Capitol punishment?"

Clayton Webb approached the bedside. "Nikki Upton is dead." Mac saw Harm flinch ever so slightly at his words. "We have Ariel on tape giving her a fatal dose of the same stuff he gave Mr. Laughton."

Memory overwhelmed Mac for a second, flashing before her eyes. "He was trying to make it look like I'd done it--" She met Harm 's gaze. "In a fit of jealousy. And then killed myself afterwards."

"He very nearly succeeded," Webb told her. She watched as he and Harm exchanged glances. The communication was swift and silent, but Mac had the feeling a great deal passed between them.

Mac squeezed her husband's fingers as remorse and guilt washed over her. "I'm sorry, Harm."

He stared at her incredulously. "You don't have anything to be sorry for, Mac."

She shook her head. "Other than wishing that girl dead from time to time--"

Harm turned swiftly to sit on the edge of the bed. He drew Mac into his embrace, carefully avoiding her injured arm, and held her tight. "If it's anyone's fault, it's mine."

"Harm--" Mac began, at the same time his mother broke in.

"Don't be ridiculous, Harm. It's Tony Ariel's fault, and no one else's."

Harm didn't move. His head was tucked again her shoulder and Mac reveled in the feel of his arms around her waist and his body against hers. "I just keep thinking I should have seen it coming," he said into her hair.

Mac sighed. "Yeah, well… you're not the only one. I walked right into it, too." She pulled back far enough to smile up at him. "I'm just glad you figured out where I was."

The corner of his mouth curled upward. "Tossing that towel out there was brilliant, Mac."

She had to smile at that. Harm didn't hand out compliments lightly, even to her. "So what's going to happen now?" she asked, her gaze moving from her husband to the Admiral and back.

"Well," Chegwidden drawled, rocking lightly on his feet, "the Andersons have officially won the million dollars since you two didn't remain aboard until the end of the cruise."

"Will there be any charges against Dan Steiner or the production company, sir?"

The Admiral shrugged. "Probably not. There's no proof he knew anything before the fact."

"What about our case?"

Another of the Admiral's light shrugs. "The reservists will most likely have the charges against them dropped. Lieutenant Roberts finally figured out the last piece of the puzzle."

Harm gave him a curious look. "Which puzzle is that, sir?"

"The hall recording. We knew the timestamp had been tampered with, but there's no way to know what it originally said. What the lieutenant finally figured out is that the hall video didn't mesh with any of the principals' stories. Remember, the video showed Mrs. Antony going to the room alone first, and then the two reservists arriving some time later. She didn't take anything in with her, nor did they, but both Mr. Brown and Mr. Rossman said in their statements that she had created a romantic atmosphere with candles and music-- which the room video supports despite the poor quality. We know from the ship's manifest that the room wasn't stocked with candles. It's a fire hazard. So, the conclusion to be drawn from these events is--"

"That someone had to have set Mrs. Antony up." Harm finished. Mac smiled at him, shaking her head. Only he could finish the Admiral's sentence for him and not get chastised for it.

"I'm sorry to interrupt--" The doctor looked over at Mac's visitors. " But I need to examine Sarah, so I'm going to have to ask you all to wait outside for a little while." He glanced at Harm. "You're welcome to stay, Mr. Rabb."

Harm nodded. He released Mac and stood, recapturing her hand after a moment. One by one the others came to the bedside before departing. The Admiral simply smiled at Mac, looking a little uncomfortable. He never had like personal situations. Frank and Trish each gave her an encouraging squeeze, and a second one for Harm as they passed him, headed for the door. But it was Webb who truly blew her away. With an indecipherable glance at Harm, he bent down to kiss her on the forehead.

"Get better, Mac," was all he said. He turned away before she had a chance to formulate a response.

She looked questioningly at her husband once Clay was gone. "What was that about?"

Harm's gaze was shrouded. "He took your almost dying pretty hard."

She blinked, taken aback by his tone as much as the words.

"What about you, flyboy?"

Harm brought her fingers to his lips in a tender caress. "Me, too." For a moment she glimpsed his pain, his terror at the prospect of losing her.

The doctor started his exam then, keeping Mac from pursuing the subject. She watched with trepidation as he pulled away the bandages covering her forearm, revealing the long gash. To Mac's surprise, the ugly wound she remembered had been replaced by a line of black spidery-looking stitches.

"Wow. Is that it?" She rotated her arm, giving the wound a critical examination. It hardly looked dangerous.

The doctor prodded the edges with a gloved finger, eliciting a hiss of pain from Mac. He gave her an apologetic glance. "It looks to be healing well. No sign of infection. How's the pain?"

"It's fine," Mac assured him. Her arm was throbbing, but she was leery of taking any more medication than necessary.

"Mac." Harm obviously wasn't buying her claim. "You had surgery. You're entitled to some pain meds."

She glanced at him, taking in the stubborn set of his jaw, and sighed. "I don't like being all doped up."

"How about an unlimited supply of Tylenol, then?" the doctor asked with a smile. "In large quantities, of course."

"Deal," Mac answered promptly and saw Harm's expression lighten. "When can I go home?"

The doctor chuckled. "A couple of days, provided no infection develops." His humor faded. "You've had the equivalent of a blood transfusion, Sarah. Your body will need time to recover from the shock. We also had to reconstruct the artery in your arm, which went well, I'm pleased to say. However, there's a great deal of healing going on under these stitches. It's not nearly as minor as it looks."

Mac swallowed hard as understanding hit her. Ariel really had almost killed her. She hadn't honestly stopped to consider how close she'd come…

The tears came out of nowhere. One moment Mac was thinking about how soon she could get on with her life, and the next she was sobbing in a combination of terror and fury for all the things that had so nearly been stolen from her.

Harm wrapped her in a tight embrace. Mac knotted her good hand in his shirt, burying her face against his chest. The tears passed as swiftly as they'd come. Mac closed her eyes, resting her head against Harm and listening to the steady beat of his heart beneath her ear. She was vaguely aware of the doctor replacing the dressings on her arm while she sat there, but everything else was submerged beneath the flood of gratitude she felt simply to be alive. And not just alive, but with everything to live for.

"Harm--" Reaching up, she hooked her hand behind her husband's neck, drawing him down for a much-needed kiss. Their lips met, melding in a reaffirmation of the bond that had been forged between them and would never be broken.

Not if Sarah Rabb had anything to say about it.

 

The End

 

 

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