Burn (Chapter Twenty-three)
He didn't seem to mind. Hell, he didn't even stir, though she knew if she tried to go for the key again or smother him with a pillow, he'd be awake and aware in an instant.
In the past couple of days they'd come to an uncomfortable truce. She didn't push for details he refused to share, even though it galled her to be left out of the loop; he continued to let her speak to Syd. Yesterday the conversation had even gone on a few moments longer than usual. She'd had the chance to really hear Syd's voice, and note the lack of fear. They didn't exchange details that might endanger the precious concession their captors had made, but it was clear that Syd was surviving the ordeal as well as Jenner was.
Cael had even gone to yesterday's early-morning yoga class, though he'd made it clear to her that one class was to be the last. Just as well. She'd been looking forward to watching him try to contort himself into knots, and keep his balance at the same time, but she'd been disappointed. As muscled as he was, he still hadn't had a bit of trouble with any of the positions, which made her think he'd done some yoga or tai chi before. He was, however, a definite distraction in a room full of women – a pleasant distraction, but still … he threw the entire class out of whack just by being there, and being who he was.
The world was filled with all sorts of men, but damned if she'd run into any quite like this one.
She moved away from him and dozed off again, because it was still dark out, but morning was coming and according to the schedule they would reach Hilo about seven a.m. When she woke the next time, light was peeking around the heavy curtains and she was once again curled up against Cael's side. There had been a time when she'd have panicked at being so close to him, but not anymore. Unfortunately, she liked it. There was no way in hell she'd ever let him know it, but she liked the dip of the bed where his big body lay, the warmth she got from him, even the way his skin smelled.
This time, she didn't roll away. She couldn't; he'd thrown one heavy arm over her body. Her face was tucked close to his chest, again, and her feet were entwined with his. It was as if her body wanted to be close to him and every time she let her guard down by going to sleep, it automatically moved closer.
He'd kidnapped her, bullied her, scared her. She had no idea what he was up to and he refused to enlighten her; he made it clear day after day that even though she'd done her best to do what he demanded without giving him too much grief – not too much by her standards, that is – he didn't trust her. Damn it, that wasn't fair. She wasn't the kidnapper here; she wasn't the one who had proven to be untrustworthy.
And yet, she wasn't afraid of him; hadn't been for days. She was wary, as any right-minded person would be in these circumstances, but she wasn't afraid. Did that make her a good judge of character, or a fool who was letting her hoo-ha do her thinking for her?
But she was thinking. She was thinking that, no matter how she provoked him – and God knew she'd done her best to really tie him in knots – he hadn't hurt her, and had in fact responded with sharp humor that slipped under her guard. The "slimy" comment about Larkin, coupled with the "treason" she'd overheard, made her think Cael was one of the good guys. His hat might not be white, but it definitely wasn't black. Gray, maybe. She could handle gray.
When she realized that Cael was waking up, she crept out from under his arm and turned her back to him, as best she could considering her restraints. She had to pull on his arm, which completely woke him up, and in a matter of minutes he was unlocking the cuffs, and their day was under way.
Less than an hour later she was standing at the railing on the private balcony, sipping coffee on a gorgeous morning, as they neared Hilo. She could allow herself a moment to relish the illusion of being alone, even though Bridget was on the other side of the door, keeping an eye on her while Cael showered. Jenner was tired of telling them that she had no intention of causing them any trouble. Well, no serious trouble. When she knew that Syd was safe, she'd do her best to cause them all kinds of grief.
No matter what their intentions, no matter what Larkin might've done, they'd kidnapped her and Syd, and she couldn't just let that go. It wasn't in her nature to take a beating, figuratively or literally, and slink away. She wouldn't go to the authorities, but she'd do something. She just had to figure out what.
For now, though, she enjoyed the moment. If she was in another situation, she'd get lost in the magnificent view before her: the water, the lush green of the island, the crisp blue sky and puffy white clouds. She made a point of taking it all in, because once she got off the Silver Mist she was finished with sea travel. If she ever returned to Hawaii, she'd be admiring the view on approach from the window seat of an airplane.
Her illusion of privacy was interrupted when the door behind her opened. She turned as Cael stepped out to join her. She almost smiled. He wore khaki pants and a traditional Hawaiian shirt, loose fitting and brightly colored. The outfit was a far cry from his usual silk shirts and exquisitely tailored pants, but he looked perfectly comfortable, and of course the whole point was for him to look like every other tourist. To her he didn't look anything of the sort, but then she knew him.
She wondered if she'd even be considering that he was more than he claimed to be if he didn't look this way. If he was short and scrawny and ugly, would it even cross her mind that he might be one of the good guys? That there might be a reason for his behavior? She didn't want to be so shallow that her hormones affected her judgment, but what red-blooded woman wouldn't look at Cael Traylor and fantasize just a little bit.
"Get a quick shower and get dressed," he said bluntly. "You have thirty minutes. We're going ashore."
"Why you silver-tongued devil," she said. "What an invitation."
"It isn't an invitation, it's an order. You're a part of the costume."
Oh, yeah? She was on the same level with his atrocious flowered shirt?
As she went past him he caught her hand, forcing her to stop and look up at him.
His expression was deadly serious when he added, "And today you will be on your best behavior."
THEY FOLLOWED LARKIN IN SHIFTS, he and Jenner, Faith and Ryan, and Matt – who'd sneaked off the boat wearing a pair of baggy shorts and a T-shirt, a dark wig, and sunglasses, as well as a large well-worn backpack – trailing for a while then breaking off when another team had him in sight. All they knew was that Larkin had a meeting set for Hilo, their first stop in the islands. They didn't know where or when, but as Larkin had been one of the first passengers to disembark, maybe they'd get lucky and the meeting would take place soon.
The man they were following might not think twice about catching a glimpse of a few of his fellow passengers while he was out and about, but if that went on for too long and he continued to see the same people again and again he'd get suspicious, and might even call off the meeting. If that happened they were back to square one, so they were careful to stay out of sight as much as possible, even though they were swapping out the lead in following him.
Tiffany, who'd spent so much time near Larkin in the past few days that he probably would think twice if he caught sight of her in his orbit on the island, was staying aboard the ship. Bridget would keep an eye on the suite, as usual. Sanchez remained on board, as well, but Cael didn't trust the hired man the way he trusted his own people. The rest of the team followed Larkin, communicating through a state-of-the-art system that was all but invisible, the components were so small.
Larkin usually had a bodyguard with him wherever he went, but this morning, when his rented car dropped him off on a street corner, he'd continued on alone, walking briskly, taking quick, frequent glances over his shoulder. Cael and Jenner, who'd been in a cab close behind Larkin, notified Matt – the least recognizable of the group in his disguise – of the subject's whereabouts, and had watched from a distance until Matt informed them that he had Larkin in his sights. For two hours this had continued, the three teams leapfrogging, keeping Larkin in view, until Cael found himself, with Jenner on his arm, at the colorful and crowded farmer's market.
Larkin weaved in and out of the crowd, stopping now and then to admire flowers, exotic fruits, and even exchange a word or two with the locals who had set up shop to sell their wares. He even stopped at a table of homemade preserves and nuts, spent several minutes admiring the offerings, and eventually made a purchase. Cael carefully watched the exchange, wondering if this was it, but he saw no exchange other than cash for what looked to be a jar of jelly.
Thank goodness the market was bursting at the seams with people. Cael had no trouble keeping a buffer of several customers between him and Larkin. A gray-haired man in a dark suit was easy to spot in the marketplace, which was teeming with casually dressed locals and tourists. It struck Cael that it was a stupid mistake on Larkin's part, to dress in a way that made him stand out in a crowd. Either he didn't care, or he thought he was smarter than everyone else and would spot anyone trying to follow him.
Maybe Larkin wore the suit because he needed the jacket to hide a weapon. Cael and his people hadn't been able to get weapons on the ship, hadn't thought they'd need them for surveillance, but security personnel had weapons – not many, but a few – and Larkin had connections with security through Dean Mills. While they hadn't seen him with a weapon in his possession, there had been moments when he'd been momentarily out of their sight, so it was possible. And since it was possible, Cael preferred to proceed as if Larkin was armed, especially when he and his people were not.
Cael would much prefer to do this job without Jenner in the mix, but if Larkin caught sight of him, it would be best if she were with him. They'd been inseparable since day one, a couple everyone was accustomed to seeing together. And considering where they were at the moment, he was doubly glad to have Jenner beside him. Bringing a woman to the market made perfect sense, but alone … alone he would stand out as much as Larkin did.
Eventually, Larkin moved through the length of the market and into open air. Cael remained beneath the cover of the tarp that shaded and sheltered the market, and spoke to Matt, who would be more easily able to move close without calling attention to himself.
The kid had already changed clothes – and wigs – a couple of times, and now had longish light brown hair, jeans, and a shirt much like the one Cael wore. The backpack was slung over one shoulder, and in that backpack were the shirts and wigs – as well as the equipment they'd need to hear Larkin's conversations from a distance. A flip of a switch, and the sound of any conversation could be amplified and recorded. Matt had designed the system himself.
Beyond Matt, Ryan and Faith were playing tourist. Faith shielded herself behind other people and wielded her digital camera like any enthusiastic visitor, taking pictures of the market, the people – and Larkin, especially as he crossed the street and neared an Asian man who waited beneath a banyan tree. The waiting North Korean, if the information Cael had collected thus far was correct, was obviously annoyed and anxious.
The North Korean was also wearing a suit. Did that mean he, too, was armed? Wouldn't it be a lucky break if these two shot each other? Yeah, he should be so lucky.
Cael took Jenner's arm and guided her to a position behind a tall display of birds of paradise, among other brightly colored flowers. She'd been oddly cooperative and blessedly silent today, but then he'd warned her, as they'd left the ship, that compliance today was mandatory. If she felt compelled to needle him, it would have to wait until tonight.
He put a hand to his ear, the ear containing the earbud that gave him access to the rest of the team, and listened. Matt repeated what he heard, though they'd have clearer, more complete audio on the digital recording in his backpack.
"Kwan," Matt said.
Okay, they had a name now.
On the opposite side of the street, Faith snapped pictures and laughed. It looked as if the colorful market was her subject, but she was in the perfect position to capture the North Korean's face. Kwan was likely a false name, but it would do, for now.
"Right to business," said Matt. He'd adopted a slightly loopy persona, and to anyone watching, it looked as if the long-haired man was singing to himself. He even swayed in time to imaginary music. People in the park actually walked out of their way to avoid getting too close to him. "Kwan is pissed. He's been waiting. Larkin just handed him something small. I can't make out what it is."
If Faith had gotten a picture from the right angle, maybe they could enlarge the photo and identify whatever had been passed between the two men: a flash drive or microchip, maybe. This could be it, not just a meeting but an actual passing of technology. Why like this? Why not transfer the designs, or whatever information was changing hands, electronically? No money had exchanged hands; Kwan wasn't standing there with a duffle bag filled with cash, so it was likely Larkin's payment, at least, had been electronic.
Matt supplied the answer, keeping the team up to date on the exchange. "Seems Kwan is annoyed that the information had to be passed this way, but the weapon's designer is apparently old school, and didn't want his plans sent out over the Internet. Untrustworthy bastard, but lucky for us. Maybe he's met Faith," Matt teased.
Kwan dropped whatever Larkin had handed over into his jacket pocket, then patted it, to make sure it was well seated.
"Kwan wants to know if it's complete," Matt continued. "Larkin says no. Three months, maybe six if there are delays, and the prototype will be ready. The design he's been given is a good-faith exchange. Any decent scientist should be able to complete … Jesus Christ," Matt's voice sobered and dropped a level. "EMP? Did he say EMP?"
For a second, everything went still. Faith's smile faded. Ryan went very still. Cael didn't breathe. And then they all continued on as if they hadn't heard the words.
It was Kwan who turned away first. Larkin watched, seeming amused, before he headed for the street, a small brown bag containing his market purchase swinging casually in one hand.
"Ryan, you two follow Kwan while I call this in," Cael ordered, keeping his voice low. "Matt, make sure Larkin is headed back to the boat, then get busy. I want the surveillance tapes ready when I get back."
Since they'd started tailing Larkin, Cael and the others had been keeping a sharp eye out for Mills, or one of the other security guards. It was unlike Larkin to go out alone, unlike him not to have some sort of backup. Then again, it was likely that none of his people knew Larkin was a traitor. Who in their right minds would think an electromagnetic pulse weapon in the hands of the North Koreans was a good idea?
So what had Larkin and Mills been talking about the other night? If Mills wasn't in on the EMP deal, what sort of plans did the two of them have?
The job done, for now, Cael looked down at Jenner. He was surprised to find that she was watching Larkin as intently as he had been. She hadn't been able to hear Matt, but she had apparently been paying attention. Her eyes narrowed, and when she realized that he was watching her, she looked up and asked, "What the hell is he up to?"
JENNER WASN'T STUPID. In her thirty years she'd been up, she'd been down, but she had never been stupid. Larkin was into something dirty. She wasn't ready to accept without question that Cael and his people were the good guys; they had, after all, kidnapped her and Syd and they hadn't exactly been nice about it. She'd been handcuffed, ordered around, and manhandled.
But she hadn't been hurt; chafed wrists didn't count. And she'd been watching Cael, seen the split second of shock in his expression as he listened to the deck boy's running commentary. Then his gaze had hardened, and all she could think was that she was very, very glad she wasn't Larkin.
She hadn't entirely discounted the possibility that she wasn't caught between the bad guys and the good guys at all, but had gotten herself into a situation with bad guys and badder guys. On the other hand, she was leaning heavily toward coming down on Cael's side. He wasn't having clandestine meetings with North Koreans – yes, she'd heard one of the others mention that, and as far as she could tell he and the entire group were merely watching.
"Are you going to tell me what's going on, here?" she asked, trying for what seemed like the umpteenth time. Sooner or later she'd wear him down.
"I could make a scene here and now," she said softly. "Scream, cry, run like hell."
"Remember your friend," Cael said, and while she was beginning to think he was on the right side of things, as right as was possible given the situation, she was also aware that he was capable of doing anything to get his way.
That didn't stop her from challenging him, pushing him. How else could she find out what she wanted to know? "I don't think you'd have Syd hurt. Threatened, yes. Scared, absolutely. But not hurt."
"Are you willing to test that theory?" He leaned closer. "Are you willing to lose your phone privileges?"
"No." If she was learning him, he was also learning her. He didn't think she'd balk if he cut off her calls to Syd. He probably didn't really need her any longer, she thought. Their so-called relationship was firmly established in the minds of more than a few people. He could keep her completely confined to the suite, and no one would know any better.
Understanding didn't make her feel any better about the situation. He knew the calls were important to her, so he'd taken to using them as a threat, like she was a rebellious teenager. Phone privileges!
He put a hand to his ear, his attention diverted. "Copy," he said, not for the first time that day, and then he returned his attention to Jenner. "Larkin is headed back to the ship."
"You mean the field trip's over? Hip hip hooray."
"I have to make a call first." Cael took her arm and steered her away from the crowd. They walked at a fast clip to a nearby park. As they walked, Cael pulled a cell phone from his pocket and punched in the number. He stopped, silently ordered her to stay put, and walked away from her, just far enough so she couldn't hear.
While she could've made a pest of herself and followed him – what the hell was he going to do in a place so public? – she didn't. She let him have his space, and enjoyed a moment of her own.
Think, think. She hadn't been entirely clearheaded lately, and why should she be? Her life had been turned upside down, all because she'd had the misfortune to be reassigned to the suite next to Larkin's. First of all, she hadn't been hurt. Second, she could see for herself that Larkin wasn't who he pretended to be, not entirely. And third, Larkin had just had a quick, clandestine meeting with an Asian man who didn't exactly look like a Boy Scout. She'd take Cael over either of those two, any day. The devil you know …
Cael ended his call, faced her knowing that she hadn't moved, that she'd remained exactly where he'd left her. Her compliance, these past couple of days, had made him less vigilant. No, he was always vigilant; he never relaxed, but he was beginning to take her compliance for granted.
"So," she said as he neared, "what would you have done if Linda Vale and Nyna Phillips had been assigned to my suite?"
"I'd have improvised."
"Do you improvise often in your line of work?"
"More often than I'd like."
"Would you have slept with them?"
A quick grin flashed across his face. "I like them, but I'm not that dedicated."
"Tell me what's going on. I'll try to help."
At least he was being honest with her. She might not like the answer, but she knew he wasn't feeding her a line of bull.
They walked back toward the market. "I talked to my people in San Diego this morning," Cael said. "While you were in the shower." For a moment Jenner thought he was going to threaten Syd's safety again, and she stiffened, slightly. She was getting damned tired of that. But he said, "Adam complained that, for entertainment, Ms. Hazlett has taken to dressing the others like Barbie dolls."
Her heart leapt, as he gave her another name, another piece of the puzzle. Of course, Syd likely knew the name Adam, so it wasn't exactly earth-shattering information. For all she knew it wasn't even the man's real name. Still, the anecdote was priceless to her. "Female guards, I hope."
"God, so do I."
She could definitely see Syd dragging out her gowns and cocktail dresses and choosing the best ones for someone else. Whenever they shopped together, Syd was always thrilled to find something that was just right for Jenner. Knowing that she was doing the same sort of thing now, even if the subjects of her attentions were kidnappers holding her an unwilling hostage, made Jenner feel so much better that happy tears stung her eyes. Syd was still Syd. She turned her head so Cael wouldn't see her emotional response. "Thank you," she said when she was certain she could speak without a telling waver in her voice.
Damn it, she wasn't supposed to like him, but when he took her arm again, she was glad of the touch.
WHEN HE RETURNED to the ship, in the privacy of his suite, Larkin sat at the dining table in the parlor, the plate he had requested sitting in front of him. The fine china was almost entirely covered with thick slices of fresh baked bread. The smell was heavenly, awakening a remnant of a pleasant memory from his childhood. A silver spoon sat in the short, squat jar of pineapple and apricot preserves he'd purchased in the farmer's market.
For years, he'd been careful of his diet. Yes, he drank, and he'd tried recreational drugs a few times, but he prided himself on keeping fit. He worked out at an exclusive gym, and ate a rigorously low-carb diet. No bread. No preserves. No desserts. All for nothing.
He'd been indulging himself lately – hell, why not? – but nothing tasted as good as he thought it should. Some days he didn't want to eat at all. When the jar of preserves in the farmer's market had caught his eye all of a sudden he knew that was exactly what he wanted. There were plenty of jams and jellies to be had aboard the Silver Mist, but they were ordinary. The thought of them didn't appeal to him in any way, but the pineapple-apricot preserves were different. They were exotic, freshly made, a gourmet treat.
He was about to dip into the jar with the knife when a chilling thought occurred to him, freezing him in place. What if the preserves were poisoned? He felt as if people were watching him, all the time. Soon it wouldn't matter, but right now, having his plans go on without a hitch mattered to him more than anything else. He wanted to go out on his own terms, not someone else's. He didn't want to die writhing in pain, his insides torn apart by poison. No, when he went he'd be so close to a bomb he wouldn't even have time for a last thought, much less experience pain.
The old woman in the market might've seen him coming, and put this appealing jar of preserves right where it would catch his eye. Or else she'd swapped it for a special jar as she'd bagged his purchase, using sleight of hand. Who knew what these people were capable of? She hadn't looked Hawaiian, she'd looked more Oriental. What if she'd been a plant by that fucking Kwan?
Or maybe she was a serial killer, indiscriminately taking out tourists with her island charm and innocent-looking wares. Maybe all the pretty goodies on her table included some sort of exotic island poison?
He jumped out of his chair and stalked to the door, opening it on the guard he had posted there upon his return from Hilo. From here on out, he wanted one of his most trusted men with him at all times. He wasn't taking any chances.
"Tucker," he said, "get in here." Dean was also in the corridor, and the presence of his head of security annoyed him. Had the two men been talking about him? Did they plan something worse than poison for him? "You, too, Mills."
When the security guards entered the room, with Dean closing the door behind them, Larkin pasted a smile on his face. "You have to try this," he said in a friendly tone, Tucker the object of his attention. Dean stood back and watched with narrowed eyes, as he often did. "It's so delicious, I had to share with someone." He picked up a piece of soft, warm bread, and slathered on a thick helping of the preserves before handing it to the unsuspecting man.
"Thanks, Mr. Larkin, but I'm not hungry," Tucker said, suspicious at the unexpected overture and handling the slice of bread as if it were a hand grenade.
"But it's so good." He moved the offering closer. A slick layer of sweat sheened his grayish skin. "Try it."
"No, really, I'm – "
"Try it!" Larkin screamed, thrusting the bread at the startled man.
Tucker glanced back at his boss, and Dean responded with a subtle nod of his head. At that, Tucker accepted the bread and immediately took a large bite. He chewed, swallowed, commented on how good it tasted, and then took another bite – knowing that was what his employer required, but looking as if he really did enjoy the tastes. He finished every bit of the bread, while Larkin watched him closely, waiting for some sign that the preserves had been poisoned.
Tucker, unaware that he was supposed to have been poisoned, seemed fine. He wasn't at all bothered by what he'd eaten. Larkin talked for several minutes, about everything, about nothing, waiting for Tucker to fall to the floor and start slobbering, or writhe in pain. Nothing happened. Larkin asked questions about passengers and events, asked if Tucker had noticed anyone out of the ordinary watching him, but he barely paid attention to the man's answers.
When he was certain Tucker was unaffected, Larkin abruptly ordered, "Get out," and sat at the table once more. "You stay," he said to Dean, and his own personal bulldog obeyed, as he always did.
After Tucker closed the door, Larkin slathered preserves on another piece of bread and took a big bite, no longer worried about poisoning. He waited for a burst of fruity flavor on his tongue, but instead he tasted nothing but sugar. The preserves were too sweet, and the bread had an unpleasant yeasty taste. He took another bite, but it was as annoyingly disagreeable as the first.
He dropped the bread onto the plate, disappointed and angry. He'd rather have a Ghostwater, and he would before the night was done, but even that pleasure had to be tempered. He couldn't drink too much, because drunks talked. Too many drinks and he might let his facade slip and tell the people around him what he really thought of them, the stupid bastards. He might even tell them what he had planned.
That didn't leave many pleasures to enjoy in the few days that remained. Tiffany Marsters had tried flirting with him, soon after her break with Traylor, but she was too loud and ballsy. Even if he were was still capable of screwing her, he'd have thought twice about getting involved with someone like her. He preferred women who knew who was boss, and it sure as hell wasn't her.
"Mr. Larkin, is everything all right?"
Larkin's head snapped up. He'd forgotten that Dean was still in the room. "Do you want it?" he asked, pushing the plate away with contempt.
"No, sir. Thank you."
"It's not poisoned," Larkin assured him.
Dean was always calm and unruffled, but for some reason he looked startled. "I hope not," he said. Would he be this calm in his last moments of life? Larkin wondered. Or would Dean dissolve into pure, unadulterated panic?
The only pleasure Larkin had left was picturing the deaths of all those around him. In a way, it was too bad he wouldn't survive long enough to see it all come to pass. But he could imagine it, and sometimes the images were so real he felt as if he could touch them.
He hurt so badly some days, he didn't know how he could wait days for the end of his life. He had to wait, though; setting off the bombs while they were in port would seriously increase the number of survivors. When the ship went down, the few passengers who survived the blasts would find themselves literally in the middle of a massive ocean, wounded and in a panic, in complete darkness except for the light from the flames on the burning ship, until what remained of the ship sank and they were left floating on bits of debris in a black night unlike any they could imagine.
He wanted them all dead. He wanted the world to remember Frank Larkin, and how he took all these stupid sheep to the bottom of the ocean.
With luck, even the survivors wouldn't survive for long.