Burn (Chapter Seven)

FRANK LARKIN READ OVER THE PASSENGER LIST, NOTING the names he knew and their stateroom assignments, particularly those that adjoined the owner's suite. The Silver Mist was due to sail in two days, and every detail had to be perfect. The assignment of the suites adjoining his owner's suite bothered him. On one side was a couple he didn't know, either personally or by name, and suspicion sharpened his gaze as he stared at the names, Ryan and Faith Naterra. Had they requested the suite next to his for any specific reason? Or had they simply requested one of the top suites – almost everyone had – and they'd simply been lucky enough to be among the first to sign up?

Frank didn't believe in luck. He also didn't believe in assuming there was no ulterior motive in asking for those suites. Rather, there was definitely an ulterior motive; everyone breathing had an ulterior motive. That ulterior motive might not involve him personally, but the possibility was always there.

Either way, he didn't know Ryan and Faith Naterra, and that made him suspicious.

His head ached. It always did, a dull, ever-present reminder that there was, after all, something he couldn't overcome. Briefly he massaged his temples; he knew that wouldn't ease the pain, but the action was so instinctive he couldn't stop himself. He had become so accustomed to the pain that most of the time, until recently, he'd seldom noticed it was there. Lately, though, he seemed to feel a small point of heat inside his head that was like a worm gnawing through his brain.

Was that the cancer? Could he actually feel the tumor growing? His doctor said no, but how could the bastard know? Had he ever had brain cancer? Had he ever had to live – yeah, fucking bad pun – with the knowledge that his brain was being eaten by disease and there was nothing he or anyone else could do to stop it?

The doctor had tried to explain that his brain wasn't being "eaten," that the disease was adding cells that didn't have the normal brain function, blah blah blah, and what the fuck difference did it make? It was killing him anyway. And he could still feel that kernel of heat. He could take the pain; it was relentless, but not excruciating. What he couldn't take was the enraging loss of control, the helplessness. Well, fuck that. He wasn't going to die curled in a ball, whimpering with pain and pissing himself because he couldn't control his bladder any longer. He would go out his way, and by God, no one would ever forget Frank Larkin.

But now wasn't the time, not quite. Before that time came, he had a lot of things to arrange.

"Find out about this Ryan and Faith Naterra," he said to Dean Mills, his head of security. "I've never heard of them, and I don't like it."

Dean was a stocky man in his early forties with close-cropped white-blond hair and sharp blue eyes. The stockiness disguised a powerful musculature that most people underestimated, but what Larkin prized him for had nothing to do with physical strength and everything to do with an extremely useful blend of intelligence and lack of ethics. Dean was ruthless in getting the job done, whatever the job happened to be. He looked briefly at the information the Naterras had provided when they booked the cruise, said "Will do," and went off to dig up every scrap of information about them he could find.

Larkin went back to the passenger list. Most of the names were familiar to him, even if he didn't know the people personally. Those who could afford this cruise belonged to a small, relatively close-knit group of the super-rich who had money to burn on something like this charity cruise, so being acquainted with most of them wasn't difficult, if you moved in the same circles. Larkin didn't, but he moved in a circle of movers and shakers that overlapped with them on social occasions.

He'd made a damn good living off these people, so it made good business sense to be familiar with as many of them as possible. Right now, he was raking in more money than he could count on his "green initiative" companies and programs. The rich idiots felt guilty about having so much money and were eager to do something to save the planet. Fine with him. He was more than happy to take their money and plant a stupid tree somewhere, just like a bunch of other hucksters who couldn't believe their good fortune. Most of the so-called green industries were nothing more than cons – the only green concerned was the folding kind – but if it made people feel better then he saw no reason why he shouldn't profit from it.

Still, the easy profits fed into his already intense contempt for the gullibility of the very people who bought his "products" and gave to his trumped-up causes. By and large, Americans were idiots, falling all over themselves in their asinine desire to "save the world," or whatever quixotic notion was in favor at any given moment. Some people admired their idealism, but they were idiots, too. The smart people saw how to make money off them, and seized the moment.

He'd made his share of money, manipulating government policy to set up conditions under which he could better run his cons, so that now he had more money than he could ever possibly use. Yet what good did it do him. No amount of money could provide him a cure, or even a reasonable treatment to give him more than another month or so – and he would still be deathly sick during that time anyway, which made the whole effort a waste of time.

Dean knocked briefly before reentering the spacious office, making Larkin aware that his thoughts had been drifting, wasting time that had become so precious, he almost refused to sleep until he was so exhausted he couldn't put it off any longer.

"Nothing suspicious," Dean reported. "They live in San Francisco, they've been married almost six years, no kids. He inherited money from his stepmother, who was one of the Waltons; she had no kids of her own, and she married Naterra's father when the boy was just three, so he was practically hers. He's dabbled in a few things, including Microsoft."

Nothing there that was suspicious. Larkin read over the printout Dean gave him, and even he couldn't find a single detail that gave him pause.

But would there be? Wasn't that the point of someone being in deep cover? He thought of the meeting that was set up in Hawaii, thought of how many governments were after the North Koreans, and said, "Change the staterooms. Shuffle everyone around."

"People chose – "

"I don't give a shit what they 'chose.' It's my fucking ship, and I want people moved around. I don't want anyone next to me who asked to be there, understood? If anyone complains, tell them there was a regrettable computer error and it's too late to make changes." As no one would board for another forty-eight hours, that was complete bullshit, but they wouldn't find out about it until they were actually on board, so the excuse would hold. And if it didn't … he didn't care. If dying had any benefit at all, it was that it was very freeing. He'd seldom followed any rule it didn't suit him to follow, but now he had absolute freedom, because nothing had any meaning.

He glanced back at the passenger list. While most of the passengers assigned to his deck were married couples – young and old, but mostly older because they tended to have the most money – there was one "couple" different from the rest: Sydney Hazlett and Jenner Redwine. Sydney was the daughter of J. Michael Hazlett, who had originally booked the cruise but then had to cancel for business reasons, and sent his daughter to represent the family instead. Redwine was some blue-collar dolly who'd won the lottery and hung around the fringes of Palm Beach society trying to fit in. But she and Sydney were best friends, and they were a known quantity. There wouldn't be even a hint of a threat from those two.

"Put Hazlett and Redwine in the Queen Anne Suite," he ordered. "And … Albert and Ginger Winningham in the Neptune." Most ships had numbered suites, not the Silver Mist. The suites in the lower decks were numbered, but on his deck each suite had some pretentious name to make them seem more important. Those particular suites were the ones on each side of his.

Albert Winningham was eighty-four and hard of hearing. His wife, Ginger, was arthritic and wore glasses as thick as the bottom of a Coke bottle. If Larkin had been in the mood to be amused by anything, he'd have laughed. He'd be perfectly safe, wedged between two airheads and Mr. and Mrs. Deaf and Blind.

Dean made a note of the arrangements. He would make certain the changes were made. "Anything else, sir?"

"Has the ship been swept for bugs?"


Something in Dean's carefully blank expression alerted Larkin that he must have asked that question before. He rubbed his forehead. "We can't be too careful," he muttered. "Are you certain the entire crew has been vetted?"

"All five hundred and twenty have had a thorough background check, and been interviewed twice, by either Tucker, Johnson, or me."

It was unfortunate that such a large crew was necessary, but the service on a luxury boutique ship had to be impeccable to help justify the exorbitant cost, and that meant crew had to be available to handle any possible detail. But as extensive as a background check could be, could anyone really trust what was found online? It seemed to Larkin that no check was ever thorough enough. He knew, because he had manipulated his share of them.

Dean was satisfied with the crew that was in place, so Larkin supposed that would have to do. If anything went wrong … well, Dean was expendable. Everyone was.

*  *  *

"WE HAVE A PROBLEM," Tiffany said flatly. "Sanchez checked the passenger list this morning. The suites have been switched around. Ryan and Faith aren't next to Larkin."

Cael sat up in bed, cell phone to his ear. "The paranoid son of a bitch," he muttered as he turned on the lamp, a mellow pool of light spreading across the floor. "Who has the two suites now?"

"An older couple, Albert and Ginger Winningham, have been put in the Neptune. That was the suite Ryan and Faith had, and the positioning was perfect. The suite on the other side, the Queen Anne, now has Sydney Hazlett and Jenner Redwine in it. The arrangement of rooms makes that suite more problematic, but do-able."

Cael went across the room to his computer and woke it from sleep mode, then pulled up the suite diagrams in question. All he had was the Platinum suite, which was the owner's suite, where Larkin would be, and the Neptune suite. The sitting room of the Neptune exactly corresponded to that of the Platinum.

"I don't have the Queen Anne," he said. "Can you shoot that to me?"

"Hold on."

He heard the tapping of keys, then a melodic tone on his computer signaled a message had just downloaded. He clicked on it, then opened the PDF that showed the floor plan of the suite in question.

"I see what you mean." The common wall between the two suites had the bedrooms situated on it. That was no problem from the Queen Anne side; if they had to use that suite, the room they'd be in didn't matter, but the fiber-optic surveillance they had to install was more likely to feed them useful information if it went into the Platinum's living room, rather than the bedroom. Still, as Tiffany had said, it was do-able. More difficult, but do-able. He'd need access to Larkin's suite, though, instead of just threading the wires through tiny holes between the two suites. The job had just become exponentially more dangerous.

His mind raced. Larkin was notoriously suspicious of everyone and everything, but lately he seemed to be taking his paranoia to new extremes. So, even though Cael hadn't seen this coming, he wasn't really surprised. He just wished he'd thought of the possibility beforehand so they'd have a fallback plan. He hated having to improvise, because that upped the odds that something would go wrong.

"The passengers in the suites can't be moved again," he said, thinking aloud. "Larkin put them there for a reason, and if we have Sanchez switch them around Larkin will know something's up." A plan was forming, one that involved one of his group switching out with one of the people in either the Neptune suite or the Queen Anne.

"The old couple's very well known. Anything involving them will attract a lot of attention, plus I gather they aren't in the best of health." Tiffany might not know exactly what he was thinking, but she was sharp enough to know it would involve the passengers currently assigned to one of those two suites.

"What about the other two guys?" Two gays, obviously, which meant Tiffany wouldn't be of much use. He himself was paired with Tiffany – professionally, not personally – so perhaps he could move Matt into the primary position on this job. Cael was a little uneasy with that. Matt was damn good at what he did, but his acting skills didn't extend to portraying a convincing gay. Besides, Matt had already been hired on with the crew, so moving him to the passenger list would send up all sorts of red flags. No, he'd have to do this himself.

"Wrong-o," Tiffany said, having already pulled up their info on her computer. "They're both women. Sydney – spelled with a 'y' instead of an 'i,' is an heiress. Jenner Redwine won the Mega-Millions lottery several years back. They're best friends, but not lesbian. At least, if they are lesbian, they're so deep in the closet they could pass as garment bags."

"Are they, or not?" A tinge of impatience laced his deep tone. Although he appreciated the garment bag analogy, he didn't have time for humor.

"Going strictly by instinct … no. They're straight. And they're stand-ins for Sydney's father, who had to cancel. My reading is that Sydney was asked to take her father's place, and she asked a friend to go along for company. Hmmm. The suite that was originally booked was a two-bedroom, but the Queen Anne is just one bedroom."

"That could be a problem for them."

"No, it's okay. The king beds can be separated into twins. Besides," she retorted, "women don't have the same hang-ups about sharing a room that men do. With members of the same sex, that is."

He ignored the jab. Tiffany was always trying to ruffle his feathers – that was her nature. His attention to and concentration on the job was legendary, so of course she had to try to jolt him out of his mental tracks.

The sudden kink in their plans had kicked his mind into high gear. "Find out everything you can about Hazlett and Redwine. I want their travel plans, I want to know how they think, what kind of people they are."

"I'm on it."

"Ryan and Faith go to backup," he said. "We can't move them around again – that'll alert Larkin. You and I become primary."

"All right!" She sounded disgustingly cheerful. There was nothing Tiffany liked more than being in the front lines.

After hanging up, Cael did some research on his own. They had very little time to get a plan in place, so he had to lay as much groundwork right now as he could, which involved waking up some people who'd be unhappy about the hour. Tough shit. He was awake, doing his job, so they could wake up, too. He didn't have time to be considerate.

On this special charity cruise of the Silver Mist, before the luxury ship went into commission, he had chosen Ryan and Faith as primaries because they genuinely moved in some fairly rarified financial circles. It just so happened they both had a taste for adventure, and good skills. If Larkin hadn't shuffled the passenger list around, they would have been good to go.

Cael studied the faces he'd pulled up on the computer screen. Tiffany would do deep discovery on the two women, but he could get a feel for what kind of people they were. Hazlett was the prettier of the two, with dark blond hair and classically even features, but there was something soft in her expression. Redwine, on the other hand, was more cute than pretty, and the candid photos of her showed some attitude. The pictures he pulled up also showed that she changed her hair color about as often as she did her shoes. That could mean she had a streak of adventure in her, which meant she could be a liability. On the other hand, did Hazlett have the backbone to do what would have to be done?

It was a judgment call. Hazlett would be more pliable, more easily influenced, but her nerves might not stand up to the job. Red-wine's nerves would stand up fine, but she'd dig in her heels and cause problems the whole time.

He stared longer at Redwine's photo. Tiffany might dig up something that changed his mind, but he didn't think so. The job was what was important, and carrying off the ruse would take guts, which he didn't think Hazlett possessed. So … Jenner Redwine it was. If she gave him any trouble, well, he'd just have to handle it – and her.

"Hello, sweetheart," he said softly. "We're about to become lovers."