Burn (Chapter Seventeen)

LARKIN HAD TO GO TO THE CASINO SOON FOR THE FIRST of the cruise's organized charity events. All proceeds from the casino – from the entire cruise, actually – were being donated to charity but there were too many passengers for all of them to fit inside the casino at once, so the organizers had divided them into groups, based on their deck name and room number, and a hundred at a time were allowed in the casino for one hour. The person who won the most money in that length of time got a prize; Frank didn't know what the prize was, and didn't care. It would be something pricey, of course – this crowd would expect nothing less.

It occurred to him that this ship, this cruise, would become the stuff of legends, just like the Titanic. Everything the passengers did, the music they listened to, the fashions they wore, would be studied and analyzed as if all of it were important, when in fact none of it was.

He didn't have much of an appetite, but when he did eat he preferred to eat alone. On occasion he couldn't manage to keep down what little he ate, so privacy was important. Dining with the other passengers was out of the question; he didn't want anyone noticing that he didn't eat much and that he sometimes gagged on his food. No one knew he was sick, other than his doctor, and he wanted to keep it that way. He'd ordered a sandwich – tuna salad on a croissant, because God forbid anything as simple as regular bread should be served on this ship – some fruit, and a bottle of water, and he'd do what he could to choke down some of it before he was forced to make an appearance in the casino.

The tumor in his brain had taken away so many of the joys of life. The constant headache made him jumpy, and some days the pain was worse than others. He didn't dare take more than over-the-counter painkillers, because anything more would cloud his mind. He'd all but lost interest in food, though he knew he needed to eat, and he missed the enjoyment of a good meal. Sex was another appetite he'd lost. His body was rebelling against him, taking away all of life's pleasures, and it infuriated him. Wasn't it bad enough that he was going to fucking die? Did the damn cancer have to rob him of every possible bit of enjoyment and satisfaction? He was damned if he'd let it.

His personal steward, Isaac, took care of most of his needs during the cruise. Larkin didn't want a stranger in his immediate circle, not when what he was doing was so crucial. Isaac had been a loyal employee for years; he always did whatever was asked of him without complaint, no matter how demeaning it might be. Whenever it looked as if the man had had enough and was about to walk, Larkin would throw him a bone: a raise, a gift, maybe a vacation. Isaac would spend his final days sleeping in cramped crew quarters and doing as he was told. He'd die here, loyal to the end.

Maybe he should feel sorry for good old Isaac, Larkin thought, then gave a contemptuous laugh. If Isaac had had any balls, he'd have left a long time ago. Why should he feel sorry for a fool?

Isaac couldn't handle everything, though. Room service, for instance, would take twice as long if Isaac had to go to the kitchen and fetch the food, so he was relieved of that duty and Larkin tolerated the room service personnel. He was in the suite when he ordered room service, obviously, so it wasn't as if anyone would be coming in while he wasn't there.

A young man – his name tag read "Matt" – delivered Larkin's dinner. Larkin hated him on sight. Not only was he pretty in a tennis pro, surfer kind of way with curly blond hair and the innocent eyes of the terminally stupid, he looked as healthy and in shape as Larkin himself had always been. He hated the kid for his health, for his complete unawareness of his own mortality. What would it be like to not realize you were dying? Everyone was dying, but most people carried on in blissful ignorance. Larkin no longer had that luxury, and the unfairness of it made him want to slap the kid's stupid, pretty face.

"Good evening, sir," the idiot said cheerfully. "Where would you like your dinner?"

Shoved up your ass, Larkin thought, but didn't say it. Instead he indicated a small table near the doors that opened onto the balcony. "Put it there."

The kid unloaded the tray's contents, said, "Is there anything else I can get for you, sir?"

"No, just get out," Larkin said, his fists clenching as pain shot like a nail through his head. Sometimes it did that, the chronic headache turning hot and sharp before subsiding again. A wave of nausea followed hard on the heels of the pain.

The kid looked startled by Larkin's rudeness. "Uh … yes sir," he said, hurrying to the door. He was in such a rush that he tripped over his own big feet and fell, thudding to his knees. He dropped the tray and it rolled away from the klutz with an ear-shattering clatter, finally spinning to a noisy halt against the tall artificial ficus tree that had been placed against the wall near the door.

"I'm sorry," the kid blurted, scrambling to his feet. He popped up, reached for the tray, and damn if he didn't stumble again, barely catching himself on the container that held the tree, almost turning it over. He caught the tree, but dropped the tray again.

"Sorry!" he yelped.

"Oh, for God's sake!" Larkin yelled over the din. "Just get out!"

"Yes, sir. Sorry, sir. I'm sorry." The boy lurched for the tray, grabbed it, and this time managed to get out the door without falling again. He even collected himself enough to say "Enjoy your meal, sir" as he launched himself into the passageway.

After the door had closed, Larkin stood there breathing hard, his eyes closed as he waited for the nausea to subside. When it did, he looked at the food with loathing. Enjoy it? "I wish I could."

Out in the passageway, Matt resisted the urge to whistle. Some things were just too easy.

WITH THE WAY THE EVENING was structured, with different sections of passengers being allowed in the casino for an hour at a time for the big Charity Gamble, there were times when none of the team was actually in the casino area keeping an eye on Larkin. Cael swore some to himself, then accepted the situation and adapted as best he could.

He and Jenner were in the first group, Larkin's group. The evening started out with the charity organizer, a buxom woman who glittered and sparkled and showed a lot of teeth, introduced Larkin as the host of the cruise and thanked him profusely for everything he'd done, blah blah blah. Cael felt Jenner's attention perk up when Larkin was introduced, and he inwardly rolled his eyes. Great. Now she had a name, and one she probably recognized if she paid any attention to politics at all. Still, she had been bound to learn his name eventually, so it wasn't really a big deal.

Larkin went to the blackjack table, where he began winning consistently though he didn't seem to be having any fun doing it. Jenner eyed him for a minute, then headed for the blackjack table herself. Cael grabbed her arm, reeled her back in. "Not on your life," he muttered, steering her toward a nearby slot machine.

"But I want to play blackjack."

"Uh huh. Play Double Diamond instead, and act like you're having fun." No way would he let her at the table with Larkin. She narrowed her eyes at him but began dutifully punching buttons and pulling levers, winning a little and losing more, while he surreptitiously watched Larkin.

Larkin was hosting the cruise, but for a host he didn't seem to want to mingle very much. Though he'd produced a big smile when he was introduced, after that he barely acknowledged most of the guests. To Cael, it looked as if he didn't like his fellow passengers very much, if the veiled contempt with which he watched them was anything to go by.

That in itself was surprising, because the people on the cruise were movers and shakers in their own right, with a lot of money behind them. If Larkin pissed off enough of them they could start talking to people in Washington with whom they had influence, and Larkin could very swiftly find himself on the outside, looking in at the power circle to which he had once belonged. If Larkin took no pleasure in hosting this cruise, he could've handed the duty over to someone else, one of the other co-owners. Why spend two weeks on the Silver Mist if hosting the cruise was such a chore?

Even the destination, Hawaii, and the possible meet with the North Koreans didn't explain why he was putting himself through an experience he didn't enjoy. Hell, he could have chartered a private jet and flown to Hawaii, then back the next day. There had to be another reason why he was on the cruise, because he sure as hell didn't look as if he were enjoying himself.

They had studied information on every passenger aboard the Silver Mist, and at first glance there was no one who could be an industrial spy or a North Korean operative, but appearances and background information could be deceiving; he and his own crew were proof of that. So far Larkin had interacted with very few people, speaking mostly to his head of security, Dean Mills, but the ones he had spoken to, they had gone back and looked at again, to see if there was any detail they'd missed. Maybe investments had taken a particularly hard hit; maybe some photographs had been taken that someone wished to stay hidden. But there was nothing, and frustration ate at Cael because his instincts told him he was missing something.

Larkin hadn't so much as turned on his laptop yet, so Faith's key-logger program hadn't yielded any results, pertinent or otherwise. Still, it was early.

After the hour for their group had passed, they had to leave the casino. There had been some big winners, but Jenner wasn't one of them; in fact, he'd seldom seen anyone who lost as consistently at a slot machine as she did. Faith and Ryan were in the next group, so Cael was confident Larkin would remain under close surveillance. Then there was a gap, with no one in the third group, or the fourth – two hours without anyone in the casino area watching him. But a number of people were standing outside the casino, watching the gaming, shouting encouragement or groaning with disappointment when a friend failed to win, and he intended to join them. He'd be able to photograph anyone Larkin spoke to, even though he couldn't get close enough to catch what was actually being said.

With Faith and Ryan on duty, Cael slipped his hand around Jenner's waist and steered her toward the bar next to the casino. "Want something to drink?"

"No, thanks," she said, probably because he'd asked her if she wanted anything. If he hadn't asked, he had no doubt she'd have demanded a drink.

"Then how about some ice cream?" There was a twenty-four-hour soft-serve ice cream bar, and it was already one of the most popular places on the ship.

"Thanks, but I'm not hungry."

Goaded, he said, "Just as well. If you ate a single bite, you'd probably burst every seam in that dress."

"Probably," she agreed. Damn it, what was wrong with her? He'd been in her company for only a little over twenty-four hours, and he already knew she gave as good as she got. But she seemed a little distracted, which made him wonder what she was thinking. Whatever it was, nothing good could come of it.

He found them two seats at a small table and got her settled. A cocktail waitress immediately appeared and without asking he ordered a teeter-totter for her and a beer for himself. He could have done with something stronger, but he wanted to keep his head clear. When he glanced back at Jenner, he found that she was leaning forward to see around him as she watched the action in the casino. She hadn't seemed all that interested in it when she'd actually been in there, so he looked around to see what had her interest.

A cold chill ran down him when he realized she was watching Larkin. Damn it all to hell, the little witch was getting too interested in what they were doing, and God only knew what she was capable of doing to satisfy her curiosity. Why couldn't she have stayed nicely frightened, the way she'd been at first … for all of, say, five minutes? After that, she'd been nothing but trouble.

He shifted his chair to block her view, and coincidentally to keep Larkin from perhaps realizing Jenner was staring at him as if he were a zoo exhibit. The last thing he wanted was to put the bastard on guard.

Jenner gave him a bright smile. "You know, you could leave me in Hawaii," she said, leaning forward so her low voice was almost lost amid the annoying jangle and singsong ringing of the slot machines adjacent to the bar. "I promise not to give away whatever it is you're doing. I'll get a hotel room, spend a week on the beach, and I'll be out of your hair. You could let Syd go, she could join me, and we'd all be happy. Perfect solution."

He mimicked her motion, leaning closer to her. Damn, she smelled good, and from this angle the low cut of her midnight blue cocktail dress was interesting – and that was putting it mildly. She didn't have much in the boob department, but what was there caused his gut to knot up, low and hard. He should get away from her. He needed to get away from her, but the job kept him there, on the front line, in harm's way. "Why would I let you go?" he asked, nuzzling her ear. "The entertainment value alone is worth the risk of pain and injury."

The green glint in her eyes promised retribution, but once again she refused to rise to his bait, which was just as well. The last thing he wanted was for her to deck him in public.

As much as he'd like to release her, for both their sakes, he needed her right where she was, to provide cover for him. Without her there, he'd have no reason to be in that suite – and the general policy of a cruise ship was that the staterooms weren't transferrable by the passengers. A passenger could cancel, but assigning anyone else to a stateroom was up to the cruise line. He couldn't take the risk that he might not be allowed back into the suite.

She would just have to suck it up.

The night wore on. Larkin greeted every group, then retreated back to the blackjack table, where he kept on steadily winning. For all the excitement or life in his face, he might as well have been watching grass grow.

When Tiffany's group was allowed in the casino she planted herself beside Larkin and tried her best to interest him, without even a hint of success. Frank Larkin had escorted some beautiful women in the past, had something of a reputation in that department, but even as exotic and eye-catching as Tiffany was she couldn't pull more than an irritated glance from him. Maybe her scene had scared him off, because Cael knew for a fact that Larkin had been watching; maybe she just wasn't his type. Getting her close to him would have been a bonus, but it wasn't happening.

Staying so close to Larkin could make him suspicious – just about anything could make the paranoid bastard suspicious – so Tiffany moved on and began flirting with a man whose wife was winning big at craps, not because she had a thing for older, married guys, but because that gave her a good angle to photograph anyone Larkin talked to.

As soon as the hour for the last group was over, Larkin tossed his cards on the green felt of the table and walked away, leaving his winnings there as all the proceeds were going to charity. They couldn't follow him en masse, so Tiffany said good-bye to her new friend and followed Larkin at a distance, moving through the crowd smoothly and naturally. Her prowling walk drew more than one appreciative glance from some men and a dagger or two from the women with those men, but on a ship filled with beautiful people she fit seamlessly. Faith and Ryan stayed at the nearby table they'd taken, as did Cael and Jenner.

A soft voice, transmitted through the earbud Cael wore, said,

"Ghostwater Bar," as Tiffany informed them all of Larkin's destination. The man did drink, though not to excess. Last night he'd limited himself to two drinks, and not the ubiquitous Ghostwater, either. His preferred drink was scotch, straight up. He had no routine established yet – this was just the second night – so they had no idea what to expect.

"He's moving," came Tiffany's voice just minutes later. "I don't know why he came here, because he didn't get anything to drink. He's coming back toward the casino. Someone else needs to pick him up."

They all went on alert. Larkin reappeared very shortly, his expression blank, but Cael thought his eyes looked a little spacey Was he on drugs? He walked with purpose, though, if a little stiffly.

"Come on," Cael said to Jenner, urging her to her feet. Maybe Larkin was going to his suite, maybe not. God knew it was late enough, and the man had put in some long hours in the casino. Regardless, he wanted to keep Larkin in sight. If he didn't go to the suite, Faith and Ryan could shadow him, alert Cael to his destination.

He gripped Jenner's elbow as she looked around with interest, trying to spot what had galvanized him to action. She spotted Larkin in just a few seconds, and her attention riveted on him, her expression reminding him of a hound on the hunt.

Just to distract her, he said, "Smile."

She flashed him a very wide, very phony grin that reminded him of a shark.

He sighed as he increased his pace. "Never mind, Witchiepoo."

"Witchie who?"

"Look it up," he said.

Larkin went to the elevator, and the car left before they could reach it. Cael took out his cell phone and sent a swift text to Bridget, alerting her that Larkin was on the way up. His pulse kicked up a notch. If Larkin didn't go to his suite, they'd have to locate him. He didn't like having his target out of sight, even for a short while.

He stood with Jenner waiting for the next elevator, and before it arrived his cell buzzed a text alert. Swiftly he checked it, and breathed out a sigh of relief. Larkin had entered his suite. Everything was good.

A few more people hurried up and got in the elevator with them, so he and Jenner didn't talk, but he could tell she was bursting with questions. As soon as he unlocked the suite door and ushered her inside, she turned to face him, backing up as he moved forward. "So, why are you spying on Frank Larkin?" she asked.

"Get away from the door," he said, and swiftly turned around to open the door and check if anyone was in the passageway who might have overheard her. The hall was blessedly empty. Shaking his head, he closed and locked the door, then chained it.

Jenner still stood there, her eyebrows lifted as she waited for his reply.

"Well?" she prompted.

"None of your business. Get ready for bed while I check that everything's working."

He wanted to do more than that, he wanted to know if Larkin was on the phone with anyone, or if he'd finally fired up his laptop. Jenner gave him a frustrated look, but grabbed a pair of pajamas and disappeared into the bathroom, which meant he had a few peaceful minutes to himself. Earbud in place, he watched Larkin get ready for bed. When the light went out in the bedroom next door, Cael removed the earbud. Nothing. So far, they had squat.

Jenner was still in the bathroom, so he used the opportunity to strip out of his own clothes. He had the handcuffs ready when she reappeared, face shiny clean, and clad in another pair of pajamas with one of those flimsy tank tops – this one was pink, and had glittery stars all over it – and without a word he indicated the chair.

She glared at him as she sat, and he cuffed her to the chair. Irritated, she jerked at the cuff. "This isn't necessary. As long as you're holding Syd, I'm not going to do anything. You're doing this just to show me who's boss."

"Yeah," he agreed, going into the bathroom and taking the handcuff key with him.

There was a moment of stunned silence, then she half-shrieked, "You mean you admit it?"

"I get a lot of pleasure from it." Smiling to himself, he took care of business, brushed his teeth, and left the bathroom to find her still fuming. Oh, yeah. The truth was the truth.

She kicked at him as soon as he was within reach. He dodged back, laughing, though he wouldn't have found it funny if her foot had landed where she was aiming.

"Don't you dare laugh!" she spat, and kicked at him again. He caught her foot, then the other one, and deftly jerked her butt out of the chair onto the floor. He was holding enough of her weight that she didn't hit hard, but the jolt got her attention.

"Asshole! Numb-nuts!"

While she was down he freed her from the chair, and just as swiftly cuffed her to his left wrist. He picked her up and half-placed, half-dropped her on the bed. "Leave my nuts out of this," he said as he dropped the key into the drawer of the bedside table, then got in bed beside her and turned out the lamp.