Burn (Chapter Twenty-two)

LARKIN OPENED THE DOOR TO HIS SUITE, HOPING FOR A respite, some peace and quiet, but instead of blessed silence he was assaulted by an unbearable noise.

Isaac, his private steward, was hard at work and hadn't heard the door open. How could he hear anything with the roar of the damned vacuum cleaner drowning out everything else? Larkin slammed the door; Isaac heard that.

He lifted his head and turned off the vacuum. "Mr. Larkin. I didn't expect you back so soon."

"Obviously," Larkin said as he stepped into the room.

Isaac was about Larkin's age, but he looked a good ten years older. He was too thin, his hair white instead of a distinguished gray, and he had deep wrinkles around his eyes and mouth. He wore years of hard menial labor on his face; his shoulders were stooped, his hands gnarled with arthritis. And yet Larkin was the one in pain, the one who was dying. Where was the fairness in that?

But if he had to die, he'd make sure he wasn't alone. Like everyone else on this fucking ship, Isaac was about to die, too; he just didn't know it yet. The satisfaction of that thought made Larkin feel a little better. Even his headache seemed to ease.

"Get me some aspirin and a glass of water," he said, crossing the room to the sofa and gingerly sitting down. Every movement, every sound hurt, but he couldn't let his pain show beyond this room. "I have a headache," he said softly as Isaac disappeared into the bedroom to fetch aspirin from Larkin's Dopp kit in the closet. Through the open door, Larkin noted the made bed and realized that Isaac's chores were almost done. Thank God.

Isaac did as he'd been instructed, as always, quickly delivering two aspirin and a bottle of water.

"Would you like a glass and some ice for the water, Mr. Larkin?"

"No, this will do." Two aspirin wouldn't make a dent in his pain, but he didn't want to rouse even Isaac's suspicions about his physical condition – though it was unlikely Isaac would be alarmed, even if Larkin had demanded the entire bottle. Isaac was not particularly intelligent.

After he'd swallowed the aspirin, Larkin snapped, "Come back later to finish your chores." He didn't need to offer a reason or make an excuse; Isaac simply followed orders, as always. He silently left, taking the damned vacuum cleaner with him.

When he was alone, Larkin went to his Dopp kit and grabbed a small handful of aspirin. He popped them all, washed down with long swallows from the water bottle. At this point, what did it matter if he ended up with an ulcer? Enough aspirin sometimes made the pain fade, and he needed that now. He needed just a few damn minutes with no pain.

Cancer had ruined him.

The sound of a knock on his door shot through him like a knife in his temple. If Isaac had come back, if he'd returned knowing that Larkin had wanted to be alone … he wouldn't live to see the bombs go off.

But it was Dean Mills at the door. Larkin let Dean into the suite, and gently closed the door behind him. A slam would've relieved some of his temper, but the sound … he couldn't take the noise.

Dean said, "Sir, a couple of the men have some questions about the getaway after the – "

"We're not going to discuss this," Larkin said sharply. "I have everything organized."

"But – "

"Do you think I'd leave anything to chance?" he snapped.

"No, sir," Dean replied, maintaining his composure as always.

Larkin never left anying to chance.

He'd needed assistance in carrying out his plan, and since none of the people he required for help were suicidal, he'd had to concoct a reason for their presence and what they were doing. A handful of security personnel, who had helped him bring the bombs onboard and place them, thought there was going to be a robbery on the high seas, during the return trip to San Diego. They believed they were going to rob all these rich people of their jewels and cash and then escape. The jewels and cash alone wouldn't make such a heist worthwhile, but added to the artwork that was supposed to be auctioned off, it would all add up to millions.

A million wasn't what it had once been, but it was still enough to entice a few morons.

Larkin had assured them that he'd taken care of all the details. They'd take a lifeboat, then be met by a larger boat that would take them all to South America. Once they were well away, the bombs would be detonated, so there would be no one left alive to identify the robbers.

The plan was full of holes, but that didn't matter, because the bombs would be detonated before the planned robbery, not after. So far he'd handled any questions he couldn't answer with an offhand or irritated assurance that he had the matter under control. Who were these idiots to question him? So far, the lure of a big payoff had kept them all satisfied.

There were nine bombs, all carefully placed to take the ship and its passengers to the ocean floor. When the time came, the would-be thieves would arm the bombs. A couple of them, Dean included, thought they had the triggers for those bombs, but in truth, Larkin had the real trigger. He'd choose his own exact moment of death … and the deaths of so many of the rich idiots who had either inherited their money or, like the Redwine bitch, won a fucking lottery. Stupid fools. None of them had earned their money, worked for it the way he had. They didn't deserve to have it, any of it. They didn't deserve to live.

AFTER ALL THE TROUBLE Jenner had caused him at lunch, Cael didn't think twice about handcuffing her to the chair that afternoon, and she hadn't asked him not to. She knew better. She still looked very pleased with herself, as he retrieved and set up his equipment so he could catch whatever had been digitally captured from Larkin's suite while he and Jenner had been on the deck, lounging around and lunching with their new friends.

"Yoga, my ass," he muttered under his breath.

"What's that?" she asked sweetly. "I didn't hear you."

He didn't respond, but sat down with his equipment. Larkin had been on deck for a while, so there shouldn't be much catch-up work required. Cael watched Larkin's private steward cleaning, making the bed, vacuuming. Exciting stuff. Then Larkin arrived.

The exchange between Larkin and his steward was telling, personality-wise. Basically, Larkin was a shithead … a shithead who was taking a shitload of aspirin. Cael had already noticed that he often cradled his head when he was alone. Was he ill? Or just prone to headaches?

Then Dean Mills came in, and that was much more interesting from Cael's point of view. Getaway? What in hell did Frank Larkin have "in hand"? Other than his own dick, of course. Was Larkin planning on disappearing after the meet in Hilo?

Cael removed the earbud, retrieved the cord for the stateroom phone from his locked briefcase, and reconnected it as he did each time he ordered room service. He dialed, and in a calm voice requested extra shampoo, at the steward's convenience.

"What's going on?" Jenner asked as he removed the cord and once more locked it in his briefcase.

"Nothing," he replied.

"Seriously, you look as if you're worried about something."

He ignored her and went into the parlor, just in time for Bridget's knock on the door and her entrance on the heels of that knock. She carried several miniature bottles of shampoo in her hands.

"I think Larkin is up to something other than the Hilo meeting," he said in a lowered tone. The less Jenner knew, the better.

"Such as?" Bridget went into the bedroom area and Cael followed. She turned left, to go into the bathroom and deposit the shampoo. He glanced at Jenner, who was sitting cuffed and annoyed in her chair, spine straight, expression openly curious. Bridget came out of the bathroom and glanced at Cael, wondering about his silence. He nodded toward Jenner, and a light of understanding came into Bridget's eyes.

Jenner got it, too, and she didn't like it at all. "I'm in this as deeply as either of you," she argued as Cael and Bridget returned to the parlor. "Deeper!" she called after them. "And I didn't have a choice about it, either!"

Bridget grinned, and Cael briefly closed his eyes. He moved farther away from the door and lowered his voice even more. Trust her? That would be like trusting a teenage boy to drive across country the day after getting his license. "Have Sanchez keep an eye on Dean Mills and any other crew members he meets with on a regular basis."

"What did you hear?" Bridget asked.

"Treason may not be the only deal Larkin has going." He told her what he'd heard about the "getaway," and everything else Larkin had said. As he finished, he heard a thump, a scraping sound, then another thump. He froze. Surely not. She wouldn't. Oh, hell, who was he trying to fool? Of course she would.

He turned his head and there she was, clumsily lifting and dragging the heavy chair with her, moving it into the doorway between the two rooms of the suite.

"I saw the expression on your face," she said, sitting down in the chair as if its placement was perfectly normal. "Don't expect me to stay in the dark while you rally the troops." She narrowed her eyes at him. "Do I need to be worried about something or someone other than you? How bad is it?" Looking from him to Bridget and back again, she added, "I've never seen a weapon on any of you, and I think if you'd had them I would have. Do you need help?"

"I don't need your help," he said pointedly. "And I don't need a weapon." Though, damn, he'd love to have one right about now.

She snorted. Yeah, he had her intimidated, all right. "So you're telling me if I get out of hand you'll kill me with a paper clip?"

That was actually possible, but he didn't think she needed to know it. "I make do with what's available, when I have to."

Bridget was trying to keep from smiling, and in an effort to deflect the argument she said lightly, "Anything's possible. Samson slew a thousand men with the jawbone of an ass."

"What a coincidence," Jenner exclaimed, then jerked her head in Cael's direction. "We can use his."

Bridget's eyes almost bugged out in her struggle to hold in a laugh. "I'll get word to our man in security," she said, which was way more than she should have said in front of Jenner, and all but tore the door off its hinges in her haste to get out of the room before she exploded.

Cael scrubbed a hand over his face, hiding his own expression. He had to laugh, or he'd kill her. She thought he was worried? Larkin was selling classified stuff to the North Koreans, something else besides that was going on, and in the meantime he had to deal with her. Why should he be worried?

He really didn't like the idea that Jenner could read his expressions so easily that she'd looked at him and immediately realized something was wrong. It wasn't as if he was running around in a panic; he was concerned, but in control. Most people would say he pretty much had a poker face. Unfortunately, she wasn't most people.

"You aren't part of this," he finally said. "So don't make demands. I'll tell you everything you need to know."

"No, you'll tell me what tiny bit you think I need to know, which up until now has been nothing."

She wasn't afraid of him anymore, he realized, and if there had ever been an unwelcome thought, that was it. She was worried for her friend, but the fear was gone. That was a problem, since only fear would truly keep her in line. He didn't think he could seriously threaten her with physical harm, at least not seriously enough to make her believe it, because he'd have to go further than he was willing to take something like that – at least with her. But he did hold the key to her cooperation.

He said coolly, "One more word, and you won't talk to Syd today."

She knew him well enough to see that he wasn't bluffing, and she clamped her lips shut.

Oh, yeah. He was worried.