Burn (Chapter Nine)

JENNER CHECKED HER WATCH AS THE PLANE LANDED IN San Diego. The flight was almost two hours late, and even though she wasn't worried about missing the ship – it didn't sail until four p.m. – the weather delay in Dallas had been both annoying and tiring. Despite her changed financial circumstances, she wasn't exactly a seasoned traveler. She had never been to Europe, for instance. A lot of the Palm Beach crowd would fly to Switzerland every winter for the skiing, but she wasn't interested in learning how to slide down a mountainside on two skinny planks, so she had no reason to go. One day she wanted to go to Australia, maybe, and there were a couple of other countries she'd like to see, but so far she simply hadn't traveled all that much.

When she did fly it was first class, but she didn't belong to any of the airlines' clubs and didn't really see a lot of difference between sitting in one place or sitting in another. Sitting wasn't what she wanted to do; she was too restless, too antsy after the long flight. So she'd walked the Dallas-Fort Worth airport for two hours, trying to get in some exercise, but constantly dodging around more slowly moving people or, worse, getting trapped behind them was about as relaxing as driving in rush-hour traffic. Still, at least she'd been moving.

She had tried to call Syd from Dallas, to let her know about the storm delay, but the calls went straight to voice mail. Syd was scrupulous about turning her phone off when she was in a restaurant or any other social situation, because she was so hypersensitive about disturbing or annoying others, but she often forgot to turn the phone back on right away. Jenner wasn't as polite; she would set her phone to vibrate instead of ring, but she never turned it off. What had once been a luxury was now an absolute necessity, like air, water, and Stuart Weitzman shoes.

By now, though, when Jenner hadn't shown up on time, Syd would have remembered to turn on the phone and tried to contact her. As the plane taxied toward the terminal, Jenner thumbed the power button on her phone and waited for the system to connect. All over the first-class cabin, she could hear the various tones that signaled almost every other passenger was doing the same thing.

There was no message. Maybe downloading messages from her carrier took a few minutes, though the guy beside her was intently listening to his messages. Just before the plane reached the Jetway she checked again. Still no message.

Surely Syd should have called by now. Maybe her message had been dropped. Jenner thumbed in Syd's cell number as the tone sounded that released passengers from their seats and everyone stepped into the aisle, gathering their carry-on bags. Jenner followed suit, slinging her bag over her shoulder and nodding a thank-you to the man who stepped back to allow her to join the queue that jostled and snaked its way forward. She still held the phone to her ear as she stepped off the plane, listening as the ringing stopped and the call went to voice mail. She left another message, then clicked off and slipped the phone back into her bag.

Even if Syd were late, too, which wouldn't have surprised Jenner, she would have called. Jenner began to feel a little worried.

Still, things could have happened. Syd's cell phone could have a dead battery, or have completely stopped working, and she hadn't discovered either of those possibilities until she was already on the ship. Her purse could have been stolen. Or she was on the ship, had been leaning on the rail of their balcony, and had dropped the phone overboard. Any number of things could have happened, which were all not only more likely but were also all better than the real worry she had, that Syd had been in an accident and couldn't call.

Jenner had notified the limo company that her flight would be late, but its actual arrival time had pretty much been anyone's guess, so she hoped no wires had gotten crossed there. The first thing she saw when she reached the baggage claim area, though, was a uniformed Hispanic man holding a sign that said "RED-WINE." She signaled him and he hustled over to collect her luggage, which took its own sweet time arriving. The carousel didn't start turning for a good fifteen minutes, and while one of her bags appeared almost immediately, the other didn't show up until most of the other bags were gone.

Every additional delay ate at her nerves. She hated being late, even by as much as one minute. The discipline of getting to work on time, clocking in, getting docked money if she was late, and the possibility of getting fired if she was late more than a few times a year, had drilled punctuality into her brain and habits. The fact that none of these delays were her fault, or under her control, almost made it worse because that meant she was helpless. She had to go with the flow, and the flow today was sluggish.

"Is this all your luggage?" the driver asked, pulling out the telescoping handles of each suitcase and gripping each one.

"Yes, that's all." Syd had taken a mountain of luggage, but Jenner had repacked several times so she could fit everything into just two bags. They were big bags, though, and so heavy she couldn't lift them. She just hoped she hadn't forgotten anything vital, because it wasn't as if she could run out and pick up whatever it was, though she imagined any decent cruise ship would be well stocked with whatever necessities might be forgotten by careless passengers. This particular cruise didn't include as many port calls as most cruises did, due to their destination and the nature of the cruise, so surely the shops onboard would carry a larger variety of items.

"How long will it take to get to the cruise ship terminal?" she asked the driver, once more checking her watch. Time was slipping away from her. "I don't want the ship to sail without me."

He grinned, a flash of white teeth in his dark face. "I'll get you there in plenty of time, I promise."

Thank goodness, traffic cooperated by being delay-free, helped by the fact that lunch hour had already come and gone and the evening rush hour hadn't begun yet. Sooner than she'd expected, the limo was pulling into the impressive loading area. The Silver Mist loomed over the terminal, which was itself easily three or four stories high. Jenner caught her breath at her first sight of the ship. While she knew it wasn't a huge ship, going more for luxury than quantity, the size of the thing still took her by surprise. She saw ships all the time, living where she did, but she'd never been this close to one before.

And the Silver Mist was beautiful. All of the cruise ships she'd seen were gleaming white, with different trim and sterns, but this one wasn't exactly white. It wasn't exactly gray, either, but somewhere in between. The paint gleamed and shimmered, almost like … a silver mist. Duh.

An enormous parking lot was across the street, but she imagined very few, if any, of the passengers on this cruise had driven themselves to the terminal. The only vehicles she saw were limos. Her driver pulled up to the luggage area where a swarm of men were unloading, tagging, and reloading a mountain of luggage. She had printed her luggage tags from the Internet site, and the tags listed the suite number, which was how the bags were delivered to the correct staterooms.

As soon as the porter saw her luggage tag and looked at her paperwork, he said, "There was a mix-up on the suite assignments on this deck. When you get aboard, there'll be someone in a red jacket waiting in the elevator vestibule to tell you which stateroom is yours. Your luggage will be set aside until we get the correct number."

Her anxiety level ratcheted upward even more. She was tired, she was worried about Syd, and she didn't want to deal with mix-ups. She didn't want her luggage to be "set aside," because what if the ship sailed without it? But this was one more thing she couldn't control, so she mentally threw up her hands and gave up. "What am I supposed to do now?" she asked the porter. "I've never been on a cruise before."

He smiled. "Then you're in for an experience. You'll love it." He pointed toward the entrance to the terminal. "Go in there, and take the escalator up. The concierge will take care of you, get you checked in, and show you aboard the ship."

Syd had told her that the passengers who booked the suites were checked in separately, and before the others, but on this particular cruise everyone was a VIP, so she had no idea how the order of check-in would be handled. On the other hand, most people were staying in the smaller mini-suites, so the ones who had booked the most expensive suites would still get the star treatment. Maybe.

She followed the porter's directions, got private, individual service checking in, and was escorted to security, where her photo was taken and scanned into a facial recognition software program. She was given her key card and her ship's card, which she'd need for identification, drinks, and anything else she bought while onboard, then she crossed from the terminal to the ship via a covered walkway. A red jacketed attendant was there, checking room assignments and sending people in the right directions. When he saw Jenner's card, he called up and alerted someone to Jenner's presence, then directed her to the correct elevator with the assurance that someone would meet her when she got off the elevator at the penthouse deck.

The hallways, corridors – whatever they were called on a ship – were full of activity as people strolled around, crew members delivered luggage, and acquaintances stopped to talk and thus blocked the rather narrow passageway. Jenner saw a couple of people she recognized, but waved instead of stopping to chat. She wanted to get to the suite and find Syd. She reached the elevators and punched the "up" button for both of them, then got in the one that arrived first.

Another red jacket was waiting for her when the doors slid open. "Ms. Redwine?" the woman asked, smiling. "Please come with me, I'll escort you to your suite. I'm so sorry for the confusion. The suite you had booked was lovely, but I think you'll be very happy with the one you've been assigned. It's next to the owner's suite. Your steward, Bridget, is waiting for you."

The attendant started briskly down the corridor and Jenner followed; she wanted to ask if Syd had arrived, but at the pace the woman was walking figured she'd find out herself in about five seconds anyway. They passed an impressive set of double doors that had to be to the owner's suite, then stopped at the next door down as a compact but sturdily built young woman with coppery red hair and calm blue eyes approached. "This is Bridget," the attendant said. "Bridget, this is Ms. Redwine. I'll leave you to your duties." Then she hurried back the way she'd come, talking into her radio phone as she raced to meet more arriving passengers and conduct them to their newly assigned quarters.

"I'll be taking care of you and your quarters," Bridget said, swiping her own key card and unlocking the door. She held it open for Jenner to enter. "If there's anything you need, please don't hesitate to call me."

Jenner stepped into the living room part of the suite. In the past seven years she'd become accustomed to luxurious homes, but this room, in gold and white, screamed of elegance and old-world charm. The walls were decorated with oil paintings, not reproductions, and the frames were ornate. Beyond the wall-to-wall draperies was a sun-drenched balcony that called to her, even though they weren't at sea yet.

"Sydney?" she called. "Syd?" When there was no answer, she turned to Bridget. "My friend, Sydney Hazlett, hasn't arrived yet?"

"One moment," said Bridget, taking out her radio phone and punching in a number. Her smile remained calm and unflustered. Probably late-arriving passengers were part of the job description. A moment later she disconnected the call without saying a word to anyone.

Puzzled, Jenner said, "Is she here?" The words were scarcely out of her mouth when her own cell phone rang. Retrieving it from her bag, she glanced at the caller ID and breathed a sigh of relief. Syd – finally! "Never mind, this is her," she said to Bridget, turning away as she answered the phone. "Syd, I just got here. Where are you? I've left two messages."

There was a moment of silence, then Syd said in a tight voice, "Jenn. Do what they say."

Jenner halted. "What?" She had one of those moments of blank confusion, because while the words made sense, the context didn't.

"I'm okay, they haven't hurt me, but you have to do what they say or … or they will."

"What?" Jenner asked more forcefully, actually taking the phone from her ear to stare at it for a second before putting it in place again. "What are you talking about? Do what who says? Is this a joke?"

A man's voice, deep and unexpected, interrupted. "This isn't a joke, Ms. Redwine. Do what you're told, and at the end of the cruise both you and Ms. Hazlett will be released unharmed. Cause any trouble, and you won't see your friend again."

Her entire body seemed to lose all its heat. Shocked, abruptly terrified, Jenner began to shiver. "Who is this? Put Syd back on the phone right now."

Instead, the silence of dead air was all she heard. She looked at the phone again and saw that the call had been ended.

Gently, Bridget reached out and took the phone from Jenner's nerveless fingers, slipping it inside her own jacket. "There's no need to panic," she said. "We don't want to harm either of you, but we'll do whatever's necessary. As the man said, do what you're told, and you'll be all right."