December 2015, Guggenheim Museum
“If Padalecki’s informant is correct, then we should catch the bastard red-handed.”
“Well, he ain’t here yet.” That was a second person, one with a slightly higher register to his voice.
“We don’t even know whether this bastard is a he or a she.” The first voice sounded disgusted at that thought. “Nobody’s ever managed to catch The Green Tornado. Still the asshole shouldn’t have counted his chickens before they hatched the way he did. He’s getting too cocky, and this time it’s his loss. According to Padalecki, his informant squealed like a pig at the thought of being asked to fence something so well known. He knows what side his bread is buttered on.”
“Better be quiet, or the perp might hear us. Man, I could use a restroom right now. Stakeouts always do this to me.”
“We’ll be out of here with the perp in around five minutes. He’s supposed to get in here at nine, while security are on their debriefing and change of staff.” The conversation lapsed, leaving the hidden intruder to think certain thoughts.
The person in the air vent gave a sigh. Firstly, it was evident to The Green Tornado that tonight wasn’t going to be the night for making off with the largest uncut emerald ever discovered. Secondly, it seemed like it might be an extremely good idea to vacate New York for a while, at least until the heat died down and it was possible to stop falling over cops at every turn, and thirdly, the thought of that restroom was truly something that should never have been mentioned.
Sighing inwardly, the thief settled down to plot a way out of there as fast as humanly possible.
Jared cursed under his breath at the morons who had contaminated his crime scene. If it was even a crime scene. The bunglers insisted that it was, that The Green Tornado had been here. Jared wasn’t convinced. He turned to leave, but then something caught his eye. He looked around, trying to see what it had been. Another sweep of the room revealed nothing out of the ordinary. He supposed that it was just his mind playing tricks on him. He needed a vacation.
But something made him look again at the return vent in the corner. There was something odd about it, but he couldn’t quite say what. He removed the screws from the corners to check behind the screen, and a small object fluttered to the ground. Reflexively grabbing a latex glove from his bag, he used it to pick up the card. He wasn’t surprised to find an embossed white card with a green twister on the front. The Tornado had actually been here, and the incompetent fools had scared the thief off somehow. With a sigh, Jared twirled the card between his fingers and was surprised to see handwriting on the back. The cards were always blank on the back, the card itself the only message. This time, there was a note. A note for him, Jared was sure.
I think it’s time for a break
Remember the Lukka Kairi?
Wonder if that chef’s still there?
Commercial transport this time, I think
“Son of a bitch,” Jared yelled in frustration. The tidy script gave nothing away about the hand that had written it, not even gender. Always careful, his prey. He put the card in an evidence bag and handed it to one of the young agents who was part of his team. Disgusted with himself for failing to catch the bastard yet again, he stalked toward the door.
“A message?” the agent asked, obviously surprised. “He’s never left a message before, has he?”
“Nope,” Jared said shortly, not pausing on his way out of the building.
“But what does it mean?” the other agent asked.
“It means you should’ve called me before you fucked up the mission and let the asshole get away... again.” Jared reached the door, and tossed the remainder of his answer over his shoulder at the bungling agents. “Before you spooked the Tornado and sent him out of the country.” Jared slammed out of the crime scene and headed back to the office to turn in his leave request.
New Year’s Eve, 2015, Shadowy Government Agency, DC
He was expecting Matt to call in about now, and as his phone rang, the door opened and someone entered his office pushing the beverage cart. He concentrated on Matt’s coded introduction before relaxing and turning to face the person pushing the cart.
“Jeff, The Jackal is on to both of us. He’s somehow got all the...”
Those were the last words he heard as the person who’d brought in the cart removed a pistol with a silencer from a drawer beneath the tablecloth that covered it, pointed it between his eyes and fired.
The phone fell to the ground, and the killer bent, picked it up and disconnected the call, then laid it and the gun back in the drawer. After listening for a moment, the killer left the office with an unhurried gait, jauntily pushing the cart along.
January 2016, Scavenger of the Seas, Carnivore Cruise Lines
There was a long pause, during which Jensen fumed impotently. He was looking forward to charming the passengers with his musical ability, which accounted for the roll of sheet music under his arm and the guitar case strapped to his back.
Finally, the guard stabbed a finger onto his list. “Gotcha! Ackles, is it? Entertainment section. You’ll be in 2-14. Down the stairs to the left and head up towards the bow. The attendant will let you in.”
Hoisting up the rest of his luggage, Jensen inclined his head in a stately nod and headed onto the ship, excited to begin his cruise.
The cabin attendant was a young Asian man, who talked non-stop as he led the way down to the staff quarters. “Okay. I’m Osric, and I’m your cabin attendant for the length of your stay. That means I’ll bring you clean sheets once in a while. Just don’t push your luck the rest of the time. What are you in for? I mean how will you be entertaining our illustrious passengers?”
“I am a master of ambient noise,” smirked Jensen. “I’m the lounge singer that’s booked to be in the cocktail bar up on Deck 12.”
“Oh, cool.” Osric threw open the door to a small cabin. “This is yours for the duration. It’s not bad unless you need to stand upright or stretch. Be careful of the patrons up in that cocktail bar. Our last lounge singer was taken off the ship in Barbados suffering from extreme alcohol poisoning. He just didn’t know where to stop.”
“Thanks for the warning.” Jensen tossed his holdall onto the narrow bunk and looked around himself before stowing his guitar in a corner. “Good job I didn’t bring a cat with me,” he added. “Don’t think he’d enjoy me swinging him round in here.”
“Well, I’ll leave you to enjoy the delights of staff accommodation,” said Osric, from where he stood just outside the door. “You’ll need to be on the Promenade Deck at 4 p.m. to help wrangle the punters. We have the safety session, and you’ll have a section of the deck to take care of in the event that we hit an iceberg and sink like a stone. You’ll find the instructions in the drawer at the foot of your bunk along with your table number and all that good stuff. Ciao!” With that, he turned smartly and headed off to perform the same function for some other lucky passenger, leaving Jensen to contemplate his home, at least for the rest of the summer.
After a while, he sighed, opened the drawer Osric had indicated, and began to read the sheaf of notes that listed his duties while on board.
Shortly after Jensen had gone aboard, the gangplank was the scene of much fussing as a very beautiful but obviously high-maintenance blonde arrived at the dockside along with an entourage of tired looking hangers-on carrying her very handsome set of suitcases. The lady herself was exquisitely dressed in heavily embroidered silk and butter-soft leather, but her artfully made-up face wore a scowl that spoiled the entire effect.
“Your ticket, ma’am.” A uniformed officer with a badge that announced him to be Richard, the purser, stepped forward, and the blonde snapped her fingers to summon a small, very harried looking man forward.
“Well?” she tapped her foot, impatience personified. “Give him my ticket, Wester. Hurry up.”
The little man extended the required paperwork to Richard with a trembling hand and scuttled back to his position behind the blonde.
“Welcome to Carnivore Cruise Lines, Miss Cassidy,” said the purser, beaming in welcome as she sailed by him. “Benedict here will conduct you to your stateroom.” He gestured to another officer, who smiled and stepped forward to lead her to one of the more expensive cabins up towards the bow of the vessel. Wester, baggage in tow, staggered after her, only to be stopped by Richard as he attempted to set foot on the ship itself. “Very sorry,” said Richard. “But you must have a ticket in order to come on board.”
Wester nodded so rapidly it seemed as if his head might fall off. Pulling out a crumpled envelope, he displayed a second ticket — this time for a much cheaper cabin somewhere on the lowest of the passenger decks.
“Come Wester. Don’t keep the charming officer waiting,” called Miss Cassidy, and Wester straightened up as if stung and scurried after her, hauling her luggage with him.
As they disappeared into the ship, another blonde approached the purser, holding her papers out for him to peruse and then looking around her as if searching for someone. She wore a hat with a wide brim that shaded her face and a light summer dress that fluttered around her legs as she walked. Her only embellishment was a marcasite pin in the shape of an orca, and her suitcase was pasted with labels that suggested that she was a frequent traveler. Unlike Miss Cassidy, she walked hunched over as if apologizing for being there. Pausing while the purser ensured that her ticket and passport were in order, she seemed to try and shrink into the shadow of the ship, and once or twice she peered around as if expecting to be followed.
“You certainly do.” Dr. Collins indicated the empty gangway. “It was almost as if she thought she was being followed.” He heaved a sigh. “I do hope we’re not going to have mental health issues on this voyage.”
Jensen had read the information he’d been given several times and then gone to poke around and find the lounge where he would be working, hoping to familiarize himself with his surroundings before it was overrun with passengers. By the time 4 p.m. had come around, and the safety drill was to happen, he’d found his place on the Promenade. He was poised ready to do his duty passing out the life jackets and pointing out the muster station as the captain broadcast the details of what to do in case of emergency. He had around 100 passengers in his group and at first was too busy to pay them much attention, but it wasn’t long before he noticed the very large, very handsome specimen standing at the back.
He was rewarded with a dimpled smile. “You mean lifejacket, I hope?”
“I won’t tell if you don’t.” Jensen nodded approval as the lady he’d been helping struggled out of the lifejacket again. “I’m sure that Mrs. Elkins here will be glad to know the difference.”
As Mrs. Elkins giggled and handed the jacket back to him, the object of his interest moved closer. “I’m Jared,” he said, holding out his hand.
Shaking it, Jensen shivered a little. He liked his men big. Jensen wasn’t a small man, but this guy must have at least 3 or 4 inches on him, and Jared’s hand was large enough that Jensen’s own disappeared, enveloped in its grip. Jensen found himself wondering what those huge hands might do to a lover. He bit his lip. “Call me Jensen. First cruise?” he asked.
“Yep. What about you? I guess you’ve been doing them since forever.”
“Nah. First time for me too. I’ll be your lounge singer for the next ten days,” said Jensen.
Just at that moment, a cranky older gentleman demanded his assistance in getting out of his lifejacket, and by the time he was done, Jared had left the deck.
The drill was soon over, and Jensen followed a gaggle of excitedly chattering tourists into the body of the ship and made his way up towards Deck 12, to the aft lounge where he would be working. It was as yet empty of all but the bartender, a very good looking woman who called him over and slid a glass across the bar to him.
“Name your poison,” she said. “You’re going to need it to cope with some of these entitled jerks. I’m Sam, by the way. I was told by the staff grapevine that we were going to have a hot piano player. I’m guessing you’re it — unless I just won the lottery and there’s someone else who’s equally hot. Welcome to the Scavenger of the Seas.”
“Scotch, please,” said Jensen. “Can’t speak to the hot, but I’m definitely your new piano player. Just call me Mr. Bojangles.”
“Oh, God! If you actually do sing that, you’re dead to me.” She poured a healthy tumbler of scotch into his glass and smirked. “Our last incumbent did it every night, at least three times. I hope you’ve got some new music.”
“I do, too,” he grinned. “I can’t stand the stupid song either. I’m Jensen Ackles, but I answer to ‘Hey you’ and ‘Shut the fuck up’ just as readily.” He raised his glass to her and winked.
“Good to know,” said Sam. “Your instrument of torture is over behind the curtain there, if you’d like to go make sure it’s in tune. So far as I know, nobody’s poured beer into it yet. That’s the main hazard you may have to face. Seems that kind of thing doesn’t do pianos any good at all.”
“It really doesn’t.” Jensen went over to find it and was very pleasantly surprised to discover a grand piano, polished to a brilliant shine. A quick glide over the keys produced the sort of tone that he felt would be wasted on the kind of typical lounge music he was contracted to play. So far, everything seemed to be going to plan. He felt relaxed and ready for the change of scenery this job would bring.
It didn’t take Matt long to stow his things in his small, but adequate, stateroom. It wasn’t like he could expect Interpol to shell out the big bucks, after all. Full dinner service wouldn’t start until the following night — there wasn’t really time with a 6 p.m. sailing — but the dining room was open with limited service, and the buffet on the Promenade Deck was open already and included with the price of his ticket. He wondered if he should wait here for word about a meeting or go find something to eat. He’d discreetly flashed his badge as he boarded, asking Dr. Collins, the ship’s doctor, for an appointment with the captain. The doctor had said that he’d set it up and let him know.
He didn’t want other passengers to know he was a cop, so drawing attention to himself with meetings with the captain wasn’t in his game plan. He knew there’d be gossip among the staff, but hopefully he could keep his status from becoming common knowledge. He was still making up his mind about getting food when a soft knock interrupted his deliberations.
“Hi,” a short, bearded man with a bright smile greeted as he opened the door. “I’m Rob. I’ll be your cabin attendant for this voyage. If you have laundry, just leave it out for me in one of these bags. There’s also a menu of services available, from laundry to a large variety of food and snack items. Just fill out the form and I’ll take care of it, or you can call cabin services directly from your cabin telephone.” He went through the clearly familiar spiel, indicating the bags, forms and telephone as he referenced them. He gave a small bow and was backing out of the room when he stopped and continued, “Oh, I almost forgot. Doc Collins asked me to give you this.”
Matt inspected the seal, pleased to see no obvious sign of tampering, and then unfolded the note Rob had given him. The message informed him that the captain would be happy to receive him in his office on Deck 8 at 9 p.m. That left plenty of time for Matt to get himself something to eat and relax a bit before the meeting.
Jared took advantage of his height which allowed him to see over the heads of the throng of people crowding the rail to watch the shoreline fade as the ship pulled away from its berth. This was his first cruise, and while he was here to work, he was determined to enjoy at least some aspects of the experience. His thoughts drifted to the drop-dead gorgeous lounge singer who had monitored the safety drill. Jared wasn’t that experienced in these sorts of things — there wasn’t time for real relationships in his line of work, and he was uninterested in any other sort — but he was fairly sure he’d seen his interest returned in the man’s brilliant green eyes. He frowned at himself. These kinds of thoughts were the last sort of distraction he needed if he wanted a chance to nab his elusive prey.
The Green Tornado, now he was frustrating. Jared always thought of his nemesis as a man, although he didn’t really know why. He’d never had any reason to believe the thief was either gender over the other. He scarcely knew anything about him beyond his impeccable taste in jewelry and the ability to leave absolutely no evidence behind. Leaving a calling card to taunt him told him nothing except that The Green Tornado was a jerk!
Ever since Jared had almost caught the thief fencing an exquisite emerald and diamond brooch once owned by Queen Marie of Romania and then lost him in a marina in Orlando, Jared felt like the Tornado had been leaving the cards just for him. The brooch had later turned up in Nassau, and when Jared finally got permission to investigate — just to ask questions, no dispensation to act in any official capacity — the trail had led to Lukka Kairi Restaurant and Bar, where he was presented with an amazing meal courtesy of the damned Green Tornado, who had left specific instructions as to what should be served to him.
The chef himself had delivered the meal — a fabulous Bahamian dish consisting of fresh-caught fish braised in a savory coconut sauce, served with a green plantain preparation called mofongo — along with the ubiquitous white linen card with the logo he’d since become so familiar with embossed on the face. The local police had found no clues or leads, and Interpol had been just as flummoxed as he was. All anyone had was the knowledge that a local model-turned-businessman’s wife had purchased the incomparable piece of jewelry for a paltry $26,000 from a well-known local grifter who had since disappeared completely. All the evidence there was that The Green Tornado had been involved was contained in Jared’s card, which was, of course, entirely devoid of clues outside of the obvious, even after careful examination by the finest forensic talent available to the local law enforcement, Interpol, and the FBI.
So, yes. His quarry was frustrating. And getting distracted by gorgeous green eyes, freckles, and bow legs was certainly not going to help him catch the thief. Jared had bet a good part of his savings (even with his connections, ten day cruises weren’t cheap) on the notion that this time he’d catch the thief — or at least figure out who he or she was — so he’d better stay focused.
Most of the other passengers had wandered off, and the view of the coast had faded into the mist while Jared had been lost in thought. He shook his head and set off to find something to eat for dinner. And if he wound up in a lounge somewhat later, it would be because he needed a drink, and not because he hoped he might find an extremely hot, freckle-faced man singing there.
When Matt knocked on the door to the captain’s office, he was surprised when it was Dr. Collins who opened the door. But that suited him just fine; the more help he had in finding and apprehending The Jackal, the better. Dr. Collins introduced Captain James Patrick Stuart, who motioned him to have a seat in a comfortable chair in a cozy seating area on the other side of the office from his imposing mahogany desk. The captain and the doctor joined him, and before Matt had a chance to say anything beyond pleasantries and thanks for meeting him so promptly, the captain cut to the chase.
“Misha tells me you’re with Interpol,” Capt. Stuart said. “Since you flashed your badge, I presume that your presence here is official rather than for a holiday. How can we help?”
Matt took a deep breath before answering.
The captain seemed to want to be helpful, but Matt had found that most people reacted badly upon learning there was likely an infamous, international assassin in their vicinity, much less trapped on a ship with them. “Yes, I’m Agent Matthew Bomer with Interpol. We have reason to believe that The Jackal is aboard the ship.”
Dr. Collins reacted with a sharp indrawn breath, but Capt. Stuart just calmly asked, “Are the passengers in danger?”
“No, sir,” Matt answered. Honestly, it was as good a reaction as he could’ve hoped for. He would need both men’s discretion and probably their assistance too if he was going to catch his target. “We don’t believe so. We don’t believe they’ve ever killed anyone outside of a contract, and unless they feel threatened, they’re not likely to start. And my orders are to follow, identify, and limit any threat to civilians. If we can keep my presence here among us, then there’s no reason to believe anyone is in any danger.”
“Please,” the captain responded and smiled for the first time. “Call me James. So we’ll keep this just between us. I can grant you access to most areas of the ship — except for passenger quarters of course — without anyone thinking twice, if that would help. What else can we do?”
“Well,” Matt addressed both of them with his response, thinking that having the ship’s doctor involved as well was a stroke of luck, given the biggest lead he had. “The only information we have is that the killer has six toes on the left foot.” Aside from the fact that they can kill completely silently with garrote, knife, or even their bare hands. Facts he decided probably shouldn’t be shared at the moment. Not that any of that would be particularly helpful in identifying the suspect anyway.
“How in the world?” Dr. Collins interjected. “Where would you get information like that? Especially without any additional information about him.”
“I know, right?” Matt responded, lapsing into the slang idiom the interns used. “Why couldn’t there be anything useful? Height, weight, age, gender, anything. But at least it’s fairly distinctive. Anyway, I got the information from my boss’s file on The Jackal. Same place I got the tip that they’d be here.”
“Why don’t you ask your boss how he knew?” James asked reasonably.
“He’s dead,” Matt answered shortly, stoically ignoring the twinge he still felt at the loss of his mentor. “Killed by The Jackal, who then deleted the file. Fortunately, I was able to recover some of the contents. Perhaps the rest of the file had more information, but this is what I have right now. My team is trying to reconstruct all of the information Jeff had received in an effort to understand his conclusions, but we couldn’t let this opportunity slip away while we backfill the data. Besides, I trust his analysis and his instinct. He was rarely wrong.”
“I’m sorry for your loss,” James said, comfortingly. He was better at this than any of the colleagues who had actually known Jeff. Matt just nodded, and the captain, seeming to understand that he didn’t want to dwell on it, returned to the problem at hand. “Is there anything else we can do this evening?”
“Can I have a look at the passenger manifest?” He wasn’t sure what he hoped to find, but some background on his suspect pool might help him eliminate at least some of them. “And crew as well, particularly any new ones?”
The captain nodded at the doctor, who provided the documents he’d requested. Apparently, the request had been anticipated.
“Here’s a copy of the manifest and the jackets of the crew sailing with us for the first time. If you need other information, I can get that together for you. Or you can access the computer, if that’s easier. Let me know and I’ll get you set up on our system.”
“Thank you, Dr. Collins,” Matt responded gratefully. “This’ll really help.”
“Misha,” Dr. Collins corrected. “Please call me Misha.”
“Thank you, Misha,” Matt said agreeably. “And yeah, if I can just look at your records on the computer, that would be great. “Would I be able to look up more information on the passengers than just the list of names and cabins I have here?”
“I’ll give you access to everything except for their credit card and other financial information,” Misha responded helpfully. “I’ll talk to Richard and get that set up in the morning and let you know.”
“Sounds great,” Matt stood and shook their hands again in turn. “Thank you, Capt—” The captain raised his hand to interrupt, warm brown eyes twinkling, and Matt corrected himself with a smile. “James. Misha.”
Back in his cabin, Matt took a cursory look at the passenger manifest, but nothing caught his attention. Flipping through the crew files though, was a different story. Hmm. Ackles, Jensen. Jensen Ackles. J Ackles. Surely that couldn‘t be a coincidence. Well, he knew where he was going to start as soon as he got computer access.
The dining room was filling up when Jensen peeked in, trying to decide whether he was ready yet to mingle with the passengers to such a degree. He was about to back out and go find somewhere else to grab a snack when he was bumped from behind. Turning to find out who it was that had apparently come to dinner without his glasses on, he found himself face to face with an extremely handsome man with a pair of brilliant blue eyes. For a moment, he stood gaping, almost ready to turn and run but collected his thoughts rapidly as he recalled his present situation.
“I... it’s...” Jensen gave himself an internal prod. Okay, so the man was smoking hot. He was supposed to be working for the passengers, and slutting around on his first evening aboard would get him attention he neither needed nor wanted. “I thought I was going for dinner, but from the looks of it, the meal is half over. Besides, there are far too many people in there for me. I think I’ll just go on up to The Sound Garden and see if I can get some tapas or something there.”
“The Sound Garden?” Blue-eyes raised an eyebrow in polite inquiry, and Jensen once again felt the urge to lick him all over.
“It’s the bar I’m supposed to entertain people in every evening. There’s a truly beautiful piano up there, but I’ve got my guitar too. I wanna start doing some stuff that isn’t Barry Manilow inspired.” He lowered his lashes and licked his lips, knowing that he was interesting his companion when he saw the icy blue of those gorgeous eyes almost vanish as the man’s pupils dilated. “I’m Jensen,” he said. “Wandering minstrel and extremely poor sailor. I hope to God we don’t hit any turbulence. I’m not sure how I’ll cope.”
“Pleased to meet you, Jensen,” said the other, extending a hand to shake Jensen’s. “I’m Matt. I’m here for pleasure rather than for work. I’m celebrating a break-up, and a drink or two will be a good start. Mind if I accompany you?”
“Not at all.” Jensen turned to lead the way to the forward stairway. “A break-up? Yeah, I’ve had a relationship or two like that myself,” he said, smirking. “The bar is at the back of the ship with a view of whatever’s out there beyond the ship. Me, I’m more interested in a couple of shots of bourbon and a dish of popcorn shrimp.”
“You’re a simple man, I see.” Matt followed Jensen along the corridor and up the stairs, then paused on the threshold of the bar. It was, as Jensen had said, situated so that the passengers would be able to look out at the panorama beyond the ship. Right at that moment, the sun was almost gone and there were streaks of gold, orange and carmine spanning the sky. The sea itself had taken on a luminous blackness in the fading light, and each ripple and wavelet held an oily sheen reminiscent of hematite. He whistled softly as he gazed out at the view. “I think I want to move my bed into here for the rest of the cruise.”
Grinning, Jensen indicated the little platform where his piano and his guitar were stowed, waiting. “Be my guest. There’s plenty of room on the stage. You’ll be a darn-sight more of an attraction than me, especially if you sleep naked.”
Sam, who had spotted Jensen and was already pouring a couple of glasses of bourbon, let out a little snort of laughter. “Well, ain’t you a thoughtful boy? Did you bring him for me?” she asked.
“Naughty, naughty!” Jensen chuckled. “I think there’s something in the staff handbook about molesting the guests. They fine you if they find tooth marks on the punters!”
“Hey! I’m right here. Ease off on the asides.” Matt was smiling a little, and as he stepped up to the bar, he gave Sam a much wider smile. “Lovely lady, I hope you have good red wine back there?”
“I’ll leave it to you to say whether it’s good or not, but you get top marks for the flattery,” said Sam, smirking. “Just keep talking!” She foraged behind the bar and produced a bottle of Quieto 3 Malbec. “This is from Argentina. I don’t drink wine, but I’m told that it’s very good. Wanna brave it?”
“A 2009? I certainly do.” Matt smiled as he studied the bottle she’d held out to him.
While Sam was busy pouring Matt’s drink for him, Jensen had taken his glass and wandered over to the stage and was now sitting on the edge of it, busily tuning his guitar, his drink at his feet. Satisfied with the sound at last, he began to play a series of finger exercises but paused as Matt came over with his wine.
“Are you going to sing?” Jensen looked up as Matt picked up one of the chairs at a nearby table and brought it over. He sat down, looking expectant, and Jensen gave a chuckle deep in his chest.
“Well, all right. I already promised Sam not to sing anything like ‘Mr. Bojangles’, so we’ll have none of that.” He noodled around on the frets for a moment, and then something gelled and he launched into a riff that Matt recognized to be ‘Like Rock ‘n Roll on the Radio.’ Jensen’s voice was husky and sweet, and after a moment, Matt began to join in, harmonizing effortlessly.
“Dude!” As the song ended, Jensen smiled. “You’re better than me. That was awesome!” He launched into ‘Bad Company’ without giving it too much thought, and once again, Matt joined him. Sam, who had come out from behind the bar to listen, applauded them as the song came to an end.
“You guys! That was amazing.” It seemed as if dinner was coming to an end because one or two people had entered the bar, and Sam regretfully made her way back to the bar to attend to them. Setting his guitar back on its stand, Jensen rose to his feet and went to sit at the piano.
“It really was.” Matt rose to his feet too, his empty glass in his hand. “I hope to be back long before your performance is done. Meanwhile, you didn’t eat anything. Can I go find you sustenance?”
“Please.” Jensen gestured to the room at large where people were gradually drifting in. “My first break is at 10. I’ll be good and hungry by then.”
“Your wish is my command.” Matt went over to the bar and set down his glass, then blew a kiss to Sam from the tip of his finger and left.
Jensen watched him go and then began to play ‘As Time Goes By,’ letting his music take over as he began his shift.
He was almost done with a request from a newly-wed couple who had asked him for ‘Your Body is a Wonderland’ when he noticed Mr. Tall and Gorgeous from the deck safety drill sitting listening to him. He was nursing a highball and seemed lost in thought as he gazed at a small piece of paper, but as Jensen finished his song and rose from his seat at the piano to take a break the guy — whose body really did seem to be a wonderland — slipped whatever it was into his pocket, raised his head and joined in with the smattering of applause.
“You’re looking a little down in the dumps. Jared, isn’t it?” Jensen paused at his table on his way to the bar.
“Yeah, Jared,” said Tall & Gorgeous. “Nah. Not really. Am just thinking about life, that’s all.” Jared lifted his eyes to give Jensen a wan smile. “You know, sometimes what you’re supposed to do isn’t actually what you really need to do, and when they conflict, it can lead to all kinds of aggravation.”
“Yeah.” Jensen returned the smile. “I’ve been there. You want a drink?”
“Wouldn’t mind, thank you.” The smile widened. “Whisky and ginger for me, please.”
Drinks were swiftly obtained, and Jensen joined Jared at his table for the few minutes of his break.
“You feel like talking about it?” asked Jensen, but Jared shrugged as he raised his glass to Jensen in thanks.
“Still trying to decide what I should do, thanks.” He frowned. “Let’s say that you’ve spent the last six years of your professional life on a project, and you know that now’s the time and you’ll nail it down at last, but you’re told that you can’t do it and that some other bastard will take over from there. What would you do?”
“Dude, I’m the last person to be asking for advice. I’m on the run from my own problems.” Jensen laughed softly. “I guess I’d step back and evaluate the situation. Is that what you’re doing?”
“Not exactly.” Jared laughed again. “I mean, that’s not exactly who I am. I’m more the, ‘Do it! Do it now,’ type. Gets me into trouble every time, but I still do it!”
“So, I guess that the cruise is your way of dealing with your dilemma?” Jensen gave him a smile.
“Oh, I’m just jumping in with both feet and damn the consequences.” The laugh Jared gave sounded somewhat bitter, and Jensen was at a loss as to what to say in response. However, just at that moment, Matt arrived with Jensen’s promised food.
“Hello,” he said, placing a covered dish down in front of Jensen with a flourish. “Couldn’t find any popcorn shrimp, but you seem like a fish and chips kind of man. I hope I’m right. I rushed it straight up from the buffet kitchen.” He removed the metal cover and bowed, then proceeded to bring small jars of ketchup and tartar sauce from his pocket, following up with a knife and fork rolled into a napkin. “Dinner is served, sir.”
Jared was watching the display with his mouth open. “Where did you find him? Can I borrow him from time to time?” As Jensen began to introduce the two of them, Jared reached out and filched one of Jensen’s fries, making Matt laugh out loud.
“I can take you downstairs and show you where they came from,” Matt murmured as Jensen thwacked the back of his fork down on Jared’s knuckles and then continued to eat as if nothing had happened.
“Oh, man,” said Jared, rubbing his knuckles. “You’re really quick with a weapon.”
“So tell me, Jensen.” Matt looked interested in Jared’s observation, but then leaned forward to give Jensen a sweet smile. “I know you’re working right now, but how would you feel about a swim later?”
“Seriously?” Jensen paused in his chewing. “Can I take a raincheck on that? I think I’ve had enough excitement for one night, but another night, I’d love to.”
Matt nodded his understanding, and if he seemed disappointed, then that was only to be expected. Shortly after, Jensen rose with a fervent thank you to go back to finish his set, and Matt took Jared away to show him where to find his own fish and chips.
It was nearly 1 a.m. when Jensen took his next break. The evening had gone as well as could be expected. He’d only played ‘Mr. Bojangles’ once and ‘Piano Man’ twice — he couldn’t refuse the requests, after all. Hopefully Sam would forgive him. Jensen was surprised to see the blonde who’d been lurking furtively at the back of the bar approach. She’d stood out to him mainly because she’d clearly been trying not to draw attention to herself. She was pretty enough in an understated way but dressed simply, and most people probably wouldn’t have given her a second look. He’d noticed her only because she had an apparently nervous habit of playing with a pin depicting an orca that she wore. But as she made her way through the half-empty bar towards him, and he blinked at the sudden change in her.
She had pulled her simple ponytail up into a stylish twist and pasted a welcoming smile on her face. Her posture screamed for attention, and Jensen was stunned by the transformation. She would look at home in the most elegant surroundings, and Jensen could scarcely believe it was the same girl. He wondered what her story was.
“Nice set,” the girl smiled warmly. “Can I buy you a drink?”
“No need,” Jensen held up his still partly full glass. “I’m glad you enjoyed the music.”
“I did. Not what I was expecting.” She held out her hand for Jensen to shake. “I’m Alona. Alona Tal.”
“Jensen Ackles,” Jensen responded automatically and shook her hand. “What were you expecting?”
“I don’t know,” Alona answered, smiling and ostentatiously checking him out. “Less talent and more… Most entertainers in these places are aging, no-talent hacks counting on the captive audience.”
“Why don’t you tell me what you really think?” Jensen was careful not to sigh audibly. So much for keeping his head down. Two smoking hot guys sniffing around and now this … whatever she was. He couldn’t help but wonder which of them had an agenda and what it might be.
“I’m sorry,” Alona smiled, not at all apologetic. “You just surprised me, that’s all.”
“In a good way, I hope?” Jensen mentally kicked himself. He was so bad at this. He hoped that Alona didn’t get the wrong idea. The last thing he needed was someone like Alona hanging around all of the time. Well, Matt and Jared’s attentions weren’t going to help him keep a low profile either, but he couldn’t find it in himself to begrudge them. Alona, on the other hand… He’d have to try to let her down easy. “Was there something I could help you with? A request, maybe?”
“A request? Sure.” Alona’s smile broadened, and she winked saucily at him. “What time do you get off?”
“Umm…” Jensen stammered. This wasn’t going at all like he’d wanted. He’d sort of expected the odd cougar here or there, but nothing like this. What had he gotten himself into? “I’m here ‘til 3, but-”
“I’ll look for you then,” Alona smirked.
“But it’s been a long day, and I just want to get some sleep,” Jensen protested. “Love the pin, by the way.”
“Thank you. It was my mother’s.” Alona paused, looking hopeful, but then sighed. “Another time then,” she answered agreeably, nodding, and tucked a bill into the tip jar on top of his piano before heading back to her spot in the back of the bar.
“What’d I say about that song?” Sam approached with a fresh drink for him. She handed it to him and then propped a sign up next to his tip jar. “There, that should do it.”
Jensen laughed at the sign which read Please don’t ask me to play Mr. Bojangles. The bartender hates it. “Hopefully.”
“People always want to keep the bartender happy. It’ll work.”
The rest of the night was relatively uneventful. Sam’s sign appeared to be working because he hadn’t even heard the song mentioned again. Even though not all of the songs were among his favorites, Jensen just enjoyed making music. He lost himself in it, determined to ignore the slight blonde lurking in the back of the room.
By the time he finished his last set, Jensen had almost forgotten about her. He hung around, helping Sam clean up after his set and barely noticed when Alona slipped out of the lounge. Soon enough, they were done, and the two new friends set out for the crew quarters and a sorely needed good night’s sleep.
It was not quite midday when Jared woke the next morning. It took him a few moments to place the slight rocking sensation and to remember where he was. His head was still spinning from the drastically unexpected changes over the last few days. He didn’t exactly regret his choices, but he did think maybe he should. He must be crazy to drop everything and chase off after the prey that had confounded him for half a dozen years.
The elusive Tornado had very nearly cost him his career when he’d been fresh out of Quantico, still wet behind the ears. But even now there was something about the way the Tornado fascinated him. He hadn’t given it a second thought when the thief had dangled that clue in front of him. He’d barely taken the time to request leave, before he’d booked passage on the first boat he could find to the Bahamas. Not that he necessarily thought he’d be lucky enough to be on the same cruise as his quarry, but he was certain that he should keep his eyes open just in case.
In the meantime, he was determined to enjoy his first cruise. His stomach chose that moment to rumble, announcing that it was time for him to find something to break his fast. He showered quickly and went in search of coffee and something to eat.
He’d seen a sign advertising an omelet bar at the buffet on the Promenade deck the night before when Matt had shown him where to find the fish and chips. He lost no time heading back there, and sure enough, the buffet more than satisfied his need for sustenance and caffeine. Once fortified, he set out to explore the ship.
Near the top of the ship, on Deck 11, he found the Sports Deck, with a sparkling swimming pool and a huge, well-appointed fitness room. He noted the location of the gym, deciding to visit soon to work off all this food he’d been eating. He was just making his way down the stairs to explore Deck 10 when he came upon an elegantly-dressed blonde sprawled on the floor near the elevator clutching at her ankle and haranguing a frazzled-looking man.
Jared could see nothing wrong with the carpeting. In fact, it appeared newer and much more expensive than any carpeting on his passenger deck. The ridiculous boots she was wearing with the even more ridiculous heels, however, would likely cause anyone to trip. But then Jared never had understood the point of women’s fashion anywhere, much less on a cruise ship in full sail.
“I’m so sorry, Ms. Cassidy,” the woebegone Wester was apologizing obsequiously. “May I help you up?”
“I can’t stand on this ankle, you stupid little man!” Ms. Cassidy continued castigating the poor man.
Under most circumstances, Jared would be among the first to offer to help when anyone was injured or in need. But in this case, he figured he’d be just as likely to get sued as anything, so he decided to err on the side of caution. “I’ll just go find someone to help,” Jared offered.
Wester threw him a grateful look, and Ms. Cassidy said loftily, “That would be useful.”
Jared rushed down the stairs, looking for anyone who worked on the vessel. The first person he encountered was the cabin attendant Osric, and the two of them hurried back to Deck 10. Osric paused on the way to pick up a phone and ask someone to join them. Ms. Cassidy was still berating her groveling attendant. Osric quickly intervened and sent the pitiable man for a glass of water. Wester appeared thrilled to have something helpful to do that got him out of his employer’s presence. Soon enough, another individual appeared with a wheelchair, and the two crew members helped the woman settle into it and wheeled her off to the med bay with Wester trailing dutifully behind.
Jared shook his head as he continued his exploration of the ship. It took all kinds, he thought, grateful that he wasn’t in Wester’s shoes. Deck 9 had elegant suites and staterooms and a little marketplace with high-end shops offering things like handbags and jewelry as well as a large bar. Jared didn’t expect he’d visit Deck 9 much. Or Deck 8, for that matter, as it had the bridge, along with more accommodations, clearly still rather up-market. The further down he went, the less ornate the decor. Deck 6 was strictly a passenger deck with mostly modest staterooms and a few balcony cabins aft. Deck 5 was the Promenade Deck with most of the common areas, bars, as well as the buffet Matt had shown him the day before, where he’d also found the excellent omelet he’d had for breakfast. The Mezzanine Deck was on the fourth deck and had more common areas and a dining hall. The galley and two dining halls were on the Lobby Deck, and then Decks 1 and 2 were the lowest passenger decks. He’d been lucky enough to get a porthole cabin on Deck 6, which had given him a bit of a view outside, for the price of an inside room.
By the time he’d finished his exploration, it was just after noon, and he headed back to the Promenade to see what he could find for lunch. Hopefully he’d run into Matt or even Jensen, although he didn’t really expect to find Jensen up and about until much later.
Dimitri — call me Misha — Collins was sitting in his office with his feet on his desk, eating a late breakfast. He was prepared for the usual traffic, since he knew that some of the older passengers would be hitting him up for indigestion medication after indulging in the buffets the night before. He was just applying honey to his last piece of toast, when he heard the commotion in the corridor outside. Smirking to himself, he flung open the door, toast in hand, expecting to see a quarrelsome couple standing outside. Instead, there was a very skinny little man whose knees appeared to be buckling under the weight of an elegant, though apparently displeased blonde woman. A wheelchair was stationed in the corridor behind them, and there were a couple of staff members disappearing down the passageway, apparently feeling that their task had been achieved. Misha couldn’t find it in his heart to blame them. As Misha ushered the little man and his burden into the surgery, he noted that the woman’s vocabulary was both wide ranging and sufficiently inventive to raise blisters, and that she wasn’t at all happy.
“Put me down, you unspeakably cretinous little waste of skin!” she shrieked as he staggered into the surgery, red-faced and puffing so hard that Misha thought he would hyperventilate. Swiftly indicating the examination table, he waited as the poor man set his screeching, vociferous burden down with a thump in the midst of her derogatory tirade.
The small man smiled apologetically at Misha and headed for the hills while she hurled epithets after him, her face contorted with fury. “Yes! Get out of here, you pathetic little weasel,” she yelled after him as he fled.
Turning to face Misha, she favored him with a smile and a fluttering of eyelashes.
“Oh, doctor,” she cooed, her attitude changing completely. “I hurt my ankle. You just can’t find good people these days, no matter how hard you try, can you? I tripped over the badly laid carpet on the stairs on Deck 10. Please make sure the person responsible for maintaining that deck is fired.”
“Umm... absolutely, Ms...?” Misha was sure that nothing he said would change her worldview, so he elected to try and discover just why she was there.
“Cassidy, but call me Katie, won’t you? I never stand on ceremony.” She fluttered her hands. “But if you wouldn’t mind taking care of my ankle for me? I’d be soooo grateful. There must be a shot of something you could give me to stop it hurting so very much.”
“Oh, yes. Certainly, Ms... Katie. Right away.” He moved to inspect the leg she was indicating. It was clad in a very elegant, very highly polished leather boot with a four-inch stiletto heel. “I‘m going to have to take off your boot, I’m afraid, or I won’t be able to see what kind of damage has been done.”
She frowned. “Do you have to?”
“I’m afraid I do,” he replied.
“Oh well. I suppose I can always put it back on after you give me my shot,” she said, waving him on. “They’re my favorite boots, you know,” she murmured.
“And they certainly are very nice indeed,” said Misha, removing the offending article and taking a look at the rapidly swelling ankle that was revealed. He gasped, then paused for a moment, his eyes widening as he took in the woman’s foot. “It... it looks as though it might be broken,” he said after a moment. “I don’t think you’ll be able to wear the boots again for a week or so.”
“But that’s ridiculous. It can’t be broken.” She pouted, fixed Misha with a look that announced that she was really not pleased. “Just let me have that shot, and I’ll be right as rain.”
Sighing, the doctor turned away and produced a syringe and a vial of sterile water. Swiftly injecting her, he gave her a reassuring smile. “Now I’m going to strap up your ankle so that it will stop it moving quite so much. I advise that you stay off it for today, and when we arrive in Nassau tomorrow, we’ll get an X-ray done.” As he was speaking, he was applying adhesive strapping to the affected limb and splinting it so that it was as immobile as possible. “Now, if I can escort you to your stateroom, you can rest for a little while. What do you say?”
“That sounds wonderful.” She watched as he pulled the wheelchair into the room with them, and turned it so that it stood ready for use.
“We’ll take the elevator,” he said. “I have a key.” He held out his hand to help her down from the examination table and into the wheelchair then handed her the boot that had been removed a few minutes earlier. She rewarded him with a sunny smile and squeezed his arm as he lowered her gently into the chair.
“I’m so glad to have met you, Doctor. I do hope you’ll stay and have a little drink with me before you have to return to your lonely surgery. You’ve been so kind; I’d like to get to know you better.”
“Of course I will,” he said as he pushed the chair out into the corridor once more and turned it towards the elevator which would take her back to her room. “I’d love that.”
Osric watched as Jensen finally emerged from his cabin and made his way towards the stairs that would take him to the upper decks and possibly something to eat. He definitely had to hand it to the man. Jensen was casually but neatly turned out, clean shaven and clad in a dark green Henley and jeans. Still, Osric was somewhat irritated by the fact that if Jensen hadn’t slept late, he would have been able to get all his tasks over and done with, and that would have freed him up to do what he’d actually come here to do. Muttering to himself, he pushed open the door to Jensen’s cabin and began to clean it.
He noticed that Jensen had stowed everything away neatly and made an attempt at making up his bunk. Shaking his head at the untidy effort, Osric pulled the bedding free and began to do it properly.
Humming as he worked, Osric made the bed, then went and cleaned out the small washbasin and shower, capping Jensen’s toothpaste and setting his razor and shaving cream onto the counter. He was just finishing when he heard a sound and poked his head out into the main cabin area.
Alona Tal was standing there, looking a little guilty. She was dressed casually in shorts and a T-shirt, but once again, she was wearing her orca pin. Osric emerged from the shower cubicle to face her.
“Uh, I was hoping to find Jensen,” she said, turning red.
“You missed him. He went off for breakfast about 20 minutes ago.” Osric flashed her a smile. “He said something about going up to the bar to practice, or something, once he got some food. I guess you could look for him there.”
“Oh, thank you. Yes, of course.” Alona nodded to Osric and headed out of the room, apparently relieved that he hadn’t commented on the impropriety of guests in the staff residential area. He watched her go with a smile of satisfaction and then gave the room a good once over, smoothed down the bed covers and left, locking the cabin behind him.
It wasn’t too long after that that Osric left the staff quarters, having dispensed with his crisp white jacket and orderly uniform in favor of jeans and a T-shirt advertising the joys of a long-ago Metallica concert. Making his way up a couple of levels, he found Wester slouching his way towards his own cabin.
“Do you drink?” the little man suddenly said as he drew level with Osric.
“Uh... once in a while,” Osric replied, somewhat surprised to be addressed.
“Well, come and have a drink with me. I need someone to talk sense into me.” Wester eyed Osric with such a beseeching gaze that he couldn’t say no.
“Just hold on a few minutes. I’ll be right with you.” Osric went to Alona’s door and unlocked it with his set of keys. “My girlfriend left her sunglasses,” he explained, knowing full well that he’d seen them tucked into the neck of Alona’s top a little earlier. “She wanted me to fetch them.”
“Women!” Wester sighed. “Can’t live with them. Can’t shoot them.”
“You’ve got it bad,” said Osric, as he efficiently searched everywhere in the cabin. “Do you suppose she even has a pair of sunglasses?” He shook his head, pulled out his phone and sent a text. “There. I told her to go buy a pair. Come on then. Let’s hit the bar.”
Jared made his way up to the top deck to the quiet little bar where he’d met the singer, Jensen, the previous night. He’d liked Jensen a lot, and Jared was somehow hoping that he could spend a little more time with the handsome pianist.
He made his way into the bar and over to the counter, where a man was polishing glasses with an air of great concentration. The only other occupants were a couple of young men sitting by the window, one of them the skinny, dark-haired guy that the clumsy, self-entitled woman had been haranguing that morning. His manic gestures and odd facial expressions seemed to suggest that he was approaching intoxication, if indeed he hadn’t reached it long ago. The other was Asian, and he seemed vaguely familiar to Jared. As he waited for the bartender to notice him, he saw that the skinny guy had burst into tears and was becoming more and more agitated.
“She treats me like shit! SHIT I tell you!” he yelled.
“She’s not a very nice person, is she?” That was the Asian guy’s contribution.
“She has guns, knives. She’s even got a fucking garrote. She threatened to cut off my nose if I tell anyone what she does.”
“Listen, Travis, you don’t have to stay with her if she’s that bad.” The other spoke so softly that Jared could barely hear him, but still he found himself engrossed in their conversation. He would have gone over to see if he could offer help, but at that moment, the bartender came over to take his order.
“Hey, what can I get you?” Jared half turned.
“I’ll take a beer,” he said, unable to tear his eyes away from the two oddballs with their strange conversation.
Putting a bottle of Shiner Bock down on the counter beside Jared, the bartender chuckled. Jared noticed that he was wearing a name tag announcing that his name was Steve and murmured his thanks as he lifted the bottle in a brief toast.
“Enjoying the floor show, I see,” smirked Steve, leaning against the bar for a moment. “You missed the opening act, where he was wringing his hands and telling the other dude that, ‘She makes me steal for her. I was never a thief ‘til I met her, and now I can’t get away.’ It was very moving.”
“Oh, really?” Jared shot another glance over at the little man, who now appeared to be quite drunk. Something twisted in his chest. Could this unlikely little man actually be the person he’d been chasing for so long or was his prey more likely to be the elegant woman who treated him so badly? Either way, he was so close to achieving his goal that he wanted to sing and dance.
He did neither, merely smirking at Steve and toasting the two oddballs on the other side of the room with his half empty bottle.
“I guess it takes all sorts, doesn’t it? If you ask me, he’s exactly the kind of guy that would be in an abusive relationship.”
“No kidding.” Steve had gone back to polishing the glasses, and Jared was about to take his departure to go find out just who the woebegone little man was when the door was pushed open, and Jensen came in.
He came over to Jared at once, his eyes crinkling up as he favored Jared with a grin. Steve passed over a beer without putting down the glass he was holding, and Jensen murmured a thank you. Turning to look at the pair by the window, Jensen raised a hand to acknowledge Osric.
“You know them?” Jared tore his eyes from Jensen’s profile to indicate Osric, who was waving back to Jensen with a cheeky smirk.
“The Metallica fan is Osric. He’s my cabin attendant.” Jensen turned back to Jared. “I saw the other guy when they were boarding. He’s PA to a flashy, arrogant blonde, and don’t quote me on this, please, but whatever she pays him, it’s not enough in my opinion.”
“I was getting that impression,” said Jared. “He’s been crying the blues about some woman who treats him like dirt.” The two of them watched as the man in question rose to his feet, took three steps and then fell flat on his face like a pole-axed ox. He didn’t get up, merely turned onto his side, stuck his thumb into his mouth and began to snore. Osric shrugged and came over to join them.
“Guess I’d better summon Doc Collins,” said Steve, reaching for the phone. “Looks like he needs a little hangover cure if nothing else.” He dialed the sick bay extension and the other two could hear it ringing. It continued to ring for several minutes. When nobody picked up, he turned to Jensen. “Don’t suppose you and his buddy over there could help me by giving him a lift back to his cabin? The doc isn’t answering, and I can’t leave the bar unattended.”
“I’d be happy to help, too,” said Jared as he studied the fallen PA, then turned to Osric. “Hey, you know the guy. What’s his name?”
“Travis,” said Osric. “I don’t really know him. Just met him, but he seemed like he needed a listening ear.”
Steve was on the phone to the purser now, trying to identify Travis’s cabin, and finally looked up with a smile. “He’s Travis Wester, apparently, and he’s on Deck 2, number 2104.”
“Got it.” Jared bent and gathered up Wester’s sleeping form, tossed him over his shoulder and turned to Osric and Jensen. “One of you lead on. I’ll do the heavy lifting if you show me where to go and make sure there’s a bucket for him when he wakes feeling the way I predict he will.”
Jensen crossed over to lead the way, pushing open the door to the bar, and Osric followed behind Jared. “I’ve got the keys to Deck 2 cabins. That’s my territory,” he explained.
“Works for me.” Jared was happy for a chance to check his unconscious burden out and even happier that Jensen was going with him. It seemed to him that he was making headway with solving his case, and that was the best thing of all.
Matt was holed up in his cabin, diligently looking through the passenger records on his laptop using the credentials Misha had left for him earlier that morning. Hopefully, this would prove to be more fruitful than his investigations had so far. He’d been so excited when he spotted Jensen’s name on the crew list the captain had provided, but so far, his interactions with the man had left him feeling confused. At first glance, the similarity between his name and the name of Matt’s quarry had to be more than coincidence, didn’t it? But Matt couldn’t seem to square that seemingly obvious possibility with the reality of Jensen. Every time he tried to consider whether Jensen might be his assassin, his thoughts refused to focus. Usually he trusted his instincts, but this time, he wasn’t sure if it was his instincts or his libido talking.
Shaking his head, Matt did his best to derail that train of thought. It’s not like even without his suspicions about Jensen that he would have any chance with him, not with Jared around. And Jared’s story wasn’t any more convincing than Jensen’s and just as light on actual verifiable details. The only thing missing was the suspicious resemblance of his name to the assassin’s moniker. But surely all of the evidence against both men was circumstantial and likely coincidental. He really didn’t have any more reason to suspect either of them than to suspect, say, Dr. Collins. Not that he did, but … essentially his investigation was nowhere.
Abruptly, he closed the laptop and set it aside. He wasn’t getting anywhere with that tack either. He needed a drink, and the only thing anywhere remotely resembling a lead was in that piano bar, so he might as well go there. And if that involved flirting with one or both of the extremely attractive men that were consuming his thoughts, even better.
Now, where did that thought come from? He’d never been the sort to be distracted by a pretty face before. Well, nothing for it but to have that drink and hopefully learn more about the men — and the case — before he went completely mad.
The Sound Garden was quiet this early in the evening. Jensen was at his piano singing ‘Wagon Wheel,’ and Matt was barely able to resist picking up the harmony line. Jared was seated at a nearby table, watching with rapt attention and barely noticed when Matt asked if he minded the company.
‘Wagon Wheel’ gave way to ‘Friends in Low Places’ which in turn led to ‘Shake it Off’, which surely must be a request, because Matt could see Jensen visibly wincing, presumably at having to play the ridiculous pop song. His range was impressive, both in pitch and variety. Matt and Jared flirted half-heartedly and watched him play. Matt wondered if perhaps Jared also had an ulterior motive behind his interest but quickly dismissed it. Jensen was a very attractive man, and Jared was obviously just responding to that.
Jensen’s set was over before Matt was ready for it to be. The bartender dropped off another round of beers and a shot of Jack Daniels for Jensen just as he reached their table.
“Thanks, Sam,” Jensen said, smiling warmly at her.
“The shot’s from the girl over there,” Sam replied, indicating a slight blonde sitting at a table in the corner.
Jensen looked uncomfortable for a moment before mumbling, “Thank her for me,” raising the glass toward the girl in the corner and then knocking it back.
Sam just snorted and headed back to the bar. Jensen shook his head and took a long pull on his beer. “Girl just won’t take a hint,” he grumbled.
“Maybe you need to be more direct,” Jared smirked. “Or just stop accepting the shots.”
“And turn down good alcohol?” Jensen exclaimed, apparently shocked. “Bite your tongue!”
“Suit yourself,” Jared returned. “Just don’t whine at me about all the pretty girls following you home.”
“Whatever,” Jensen said, flushing slightly before changing the subject. “You guys going ashore tomorrow?”
“Yeah, I thought I’d check out Nassau,” Matt answered. “You heard of any good places to eat?”
“Ooh, yeah!” Jared said excitedly. “There’s this great little restaurant and bar, and they have the most amazing Bahamian food.”
“That sounds perfect.” Matt was surprised to learn that apparently Jared had been to the port city before. He tucked that piece of information away, but didn’t remark on it. It seemed as though Jensen was a bit surprised too, if the slight widening of his eyes was any indication. Without his training, Matt would probably never have noticed it. He quashed the twinge of curiosity, shoving it aside to consider later. Neither of the two men had been exactly forthcoming with details about their past, but then neither had he. He had a cover all worked out, of course, but was happy that the friendship they’d struck up didn’t include much talk about anything very specific. It’s easy not to get tripped up on your backstory if you didn’t provide any. “You want to go together?”
“Umm,” Jared dissembled. “I don’t know what’s going on tomorrow. Can I get back to you?”
“Yeah, sure,” Matt answered easily, determinedly not reacting to the vague character of the response after the excitement from just a moment ago. “What about you, Jensen?”
“Yeah, I don’t know.” Jensen responded, just as indefinitely as Jared had. “I don’t know the protocol for crew on days in port. Not sure if I’ll have to do anything or when I can get away.”
“Okay,” Matt shrugged, intrigued despite himself. It probably wasn’t anything more nefarious than they’d said, or maybe they even had plans together. He cursed his skeptical mind for always looking for ulterior motives. It certainly came in handy in his job, but it did hamper his social interactions.
And so Matt and Jared found themselves heading toward their cabins, arms slung casually around each other’s shoulders. Matt wasn’t drunk exactly, just a bit buzzed, and he suspected that Jared was in the same condition. When they reached their deck, they parted cordially and each went down the passageway toward their respective cabins, calling a final ‘goodnight.’
Matt went through his nightly routine haphazardly, making sure to drink a glass of water to hopefully stave off whatever headache he might have in the morning. When he lay down, he fully expected his mind to review the odd moments in their conversations earlier as he usually would. But with his pleasant mood after the enjoyable evening, and the mellow buzz he had going, he just drifted off to sleep.
Excited to experience the port city, Matt eagerly disembarked with the first wave of tourists and set off to explore the area. The open-air Straw Market appeared to have materialized organically along the wharf and was already bustling. The wares ranged from hand-made Bahamian crafts to the more kitschy items normally offered to tourists. Food carts dotted the area, and Matt rued the amount of alcohol he’d consumed last night that made it unlikely he’d enjoy what was sure to be classic local fare. He did need to eat though and deciding to chance it, approached a likely looking vendor.
The vendor took one look at him and recommended something he called Fire Engine and assured him it was a classic breakfast choice in Nassau and perfect for him and his somewhat fragile condition. Matt wasn’t sure what condition the man was talking about, but for $2.50, he could hardly go wrong, so he ordered it anyway. It turned out to be steamed corned beef with tomato sauce, corn, sweet peppers, onions and other fresh vegetables. It sounded like an odd choice to Matt, but the local was very persuasive, and Matt soon had his breakfast. It fit the bill, tasty and filling and surprisingly soothing to his stomach. He only ate a small portion though, as he wanted to be able to enjoy a late lunch at Lukka Kairi before he had to be back aboard.
He picked up souvenirs for friends and family and a straw hat to shield his face from the tropical sun. He felt a slight twinge when he saw a beautiful oil-pastel drawing by a local artist depicting the view from the market overlooking the harbor, knowing that Jeff would have loved it. He almost passed it by, but in the end, he decided to buy it anyway for his own living room. By this time, it was after one o’clock and time to check out the restaurant. He’d had enough solitude, and his thoughts about the case were still chasing themselves without any sign of resolution. Even if the other two men weren’t there, a fine meal would provide a much-needed distraction.
His destination was right on the wharf, so he’d seen it while exploring the Straw Market. Painted steps led up to the second-floor restaurant, which was dominated by a huge mural of a scene from the indigenous Arawak culture. A small stage was tucked away in a corner, where a band was playing lively Caribbean music. The seating was roomy, and the huge windows showcased the beautiful view of the harbor from the balcony. The patio doors were folded back to provide the least obstruction and most access to the seating there. Matt chose an inconspicuous interior seat, well out of the way, but still with a nice view. He didn’t think there was a seat in the house that didn’t take advantage of the beautiful vista.
It wasn’t that he was trying to hide; it was just habit not to call attention to himself. And he had to admit he was curious why Jared had changed his tune so quickly when Matt had commented on his enthusiasm for the place. Not that the enthusiasm was unwarranted: the food was superb. The tamarind ribs were succulent with a wonderfully sweet and tangy sauce, the crispy broccoli was the best vegetable dish he’d ever had, and the guava duff capped off the meal perfectly.
He’d nearly finished when Jared walked in. Matt instinctively kept his head down while Jared looked around suspiciously, and Matt wondered what he was looking for. Jared finally chose a seat on the balcony, in clear view of all. He hadn’t even ordered when the chef herself (who Matt had watched prepare his own excellent meal) brought Jared’s to his table. From where Matt was sitting the dish looked like a grilled steak with an egg on top and some sort of hash — possibly sweet potato — and some of the amazing broccoli that Matt had enjoyed so much.
He couldn’t help but notice when a white card — could’ve been a business card — fluttered out when Jared shook out his napkin. Jared didn’t appear surprised, just glancing at the paper and slipping it into a pocket before tucking into his meal. Matt had a feeling that was the most important thing to happen here and wished he knew what was on that card. He’d just have to come up with some way to find out.
Matt was still nursing his second sky juice and trying to decide if he should approach Jared when Jensen came in. Jared seemed surprised to see him, and Jensen joined Jared at his table. He ordered the steamed fish which Matt had considered before ordering his ribs. Matt finally gave up his self-assigned role as a wallflower and walked to their table where Jensen was teasing Jared about waiting fruitlessly for a sultry Caribbean beauty. They both encouraged Matt to join them, and he agreed happily. He wouldn’t mind another of these excellent coconut concoctions, and perhaps he could find out more about why the other two men had acted so weird about the truly amazing restaurant.
Despite many attempts on all of their parts, none of them learned anything about anyone else’s intentions at the restaurant. Nonetheless, a good time was had by all, and for his part, Matt was again rather tipsy on their way back to the ship. He briefly wondered if anyone on the ship knew how to prepare Fire Engine, the delicious breakfast and apparently effective hangover cure he’d had that morning.
The ship had embarked early that morning after spending the night in the port of Nassau, and was now heading for St. Thomas, a two-day sail away. Miss Katie Cassidy sighed happily as she sipped her champagne mojito and stretched out on the lounger that she’d had Wester position to catch the sun’s rays. The day before, she’d had Wester and one of the crew members take her to get her ankle X-rayed, and just as Dr. Collins had told her, she’d fractured the darned thing. Now, sporting a plaster that immobilized her foot and extended to her mid calf, she seemed resigned to staying out of the pool and instead was amusing herself by driving Wester insane with her demands.
Wester himself was sitting a few feet away, looking sorry for himself. To be sure, she paid him well, and she knew he was actually enjoying soaking up the sun himself, but she really enjoyed messing with him. He was such a little weasel that it never failed to afford her amusement whenever his face turned purple in fury due to something she’d told him to do.
Smiling, she waved a languid hand to beckon Wester over and handed him her glass. “Another,” she murmured. “Chop, chop!”
Wester scuttled off to do her bidding, and she lifted her foot to look at it. “Damn!” It was going to make her tan horribly uneven, but at least it wasn’t a huge thing, and with a stocking over it, you almost couldn’t tell. It hurt to walk in the thing, but pain and she were old friends. She hadn’t gotten to where she was by wimping out when she was in pain, and a little thing like a broken ankle wouldn’t stop her from doing what she came for.
She sat up as Wester returned with a delightfully adorned cocktail for her. Taking it from him, she sipped it and waved him away, curling her lip as he scurried away, sweating profusely. This was the life, she thought, but then bit her lip. She really shouldn’t allow the hedonistic existence to get in the way of doing the job she was here for. She’d done some homework but wasn’t quite sure about her best way forward yet. It would come. This was only day three. She’d have the job done before they hit Fort Lauderdale again and be away long before anyone had any idea of what she’d pulled off.
As she mused, she saw Alona approaching. The girl was barefoot and dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, yet she was sporting a very attractive pin that was shaped like a killer whale. “Interesting,” she muttered. She waggled her fingers in greeting as Alona passed and was rewarded with a tentative smile before the girl moved on to her destination.
She considered her plan of attack as she watched Alona take a seat at the bar on the other side of the pool and order a drink. Perhaps she could make friends with the girl, although that would be terribly tedious. On the other hand, the girl really could use some grooming tips and it might be fun to get her up to scratch while waiting for her opportunity to possess that pin. Smiling as she decided that she’d do just that, she finished her drink and rose to her feet.
Wester was beside her at once, big frightened eyes transmitting, ‘Kick me, I’m a victim,’ to anyone who could read them. “Oh, do go away, Wester. I don’t need you right now. Perhaps you can go do whatever it is you folk like to do when you have time off.”
With that, she picked up her stick, flung on a gauzy swim wrap, and sauntered off without glancing back to see what Wester had decided to do. Whatever it was, she hoped it would be somewhere she didn’t have to see it.
Hitching herself up onto the stool at the bar next to where Alona was sitting, sipping on what looked to be a Shirley Temple, Katie flashed her a smile. “How are you enjoying the cruise so far?” she asked. “I’ve had my fun curtailed a little. I broke my ankle,” she continued, not waiting for Alona to answer. “So there won’t be any dancing for me.”
Alona shrugged. “I don’t dance,” she said. “I like being out here away from all the pollution though. The air is so clean and fresh. I can feel myself breathing properly again.” She turned towards Katie. “Did you know that around 40% of the ocean’s surface is covered by plastic? We’re killing our planet, one plastic bottle at a time.”
Blinking at the sudden intensity, Katie thought for a moment. Mentally writing Alona off as a tree hugger, she suppressed whatever sarcastic answer was forming in her head and bent herself to the task of cultivating the girl, tree hugger or not. “That’s horrible,” she managed. “All those delightful little fish, smothered.”
“Yes,” said Alona, warming to her topic. “You’ve no idea what terrible things it does to sea life. They get tangled up in plastic and die. We’re killing them. Plastic just doesn’t go away. It hangs around forever.”
“What a shame there isn’t something that will destroy all the plastic and clean up the mess. Although I suppose that would be detrimental to marine life too, so it won’t help.” That seemed like a safe thing to say, and Katie mentally congratulated herself as Alona nodded enthusiastically.
“But there is something!” Alona looked around herself suspiciously and then leaned in closer to Katie. “I know that there’s a way. I’ve seen the plans, but they are trying to suppress it.” As she spoke, she fingered the pin on her shoulder.
“Big business. They are trying their best to suppress the formula before it’s employed.”
“Formula?” Katie raised one eyebrow delicately. “Do tell.”
“I can’t,” said Alona, already backtracking. Katie saw the change and knew she had to think quickly or she’d lose the girl. Hopefully a change of topic would allay her fears, so Katie shrugged and indicated the orca brooch Alona was wearing.
“Thank you.” Alona smiled again, and Katie breathed an inward sigh of relief. “I always wear it. It reminds me of what we’re fighting for.”
Oh, God, here we go again, thought Katie. Aloud, she said, “What are we fighting for?”
“The planet.” Alona sounded very stern as she spoke, and Katie sighed. It was going to be a long afternoon, but hopefully, she would get what she needed out of it. “Do you know how many toxins are in our drinking water?”
Grimly, Katie formed her features into an attentive gaze and prepared to be lectured.
Osric was frustrated. He’d spent his time off loitering, waiting to get an opportunity to speak with Alona, but the blonde bitch who was causing all of Travis’s heartbreak was monopolizing her and didn’t seem to be planning to leave any time soon. He was going to have to be back on duty again in around thirty minutes, and so far, the day was a wash. It was enough to make him want to kill something — or someone. Yes, definitely someone. Someone blonde, perhaps.
He was about to give up hope and go back to his post, when he saw Alona suddenly rise to her feet and take her leave of the bitch, who, frankly, looked a little relieved. As she stepped towards the stairs, he took a deep breath. “In the name of the great World Turtle,” he said, softly.
To give Alona her due, she didn’t pause in her walk and merely murmured, “And the four elephants that ride on his back,” as she continued down the stairs. Neither of them noticed Travis Wester following. “You’re the one that’s going to get the formula to head office?” Alona sounded relieved. “I hid the paperwork in that piano guy’s cabin, just in case my dad’s goons were on to me and decided to search mine.”
“You did?” Osric frowned. “When?”
“Remember when I came looking for him that first morning?” Alona smirked. “I really hoped I could hook up with him, but sadly, I think he bats for the other side. What a waste!”
“Yeah. I’ve got a bet on with Steve, the daytime bartender, as to which of the two guys sniffing around him is going to land him.” Osric chuckled. “In the red corner, you’ve got Mr. Tall and Brooding, and in the blue corner there’s Blue-eyed and Stylish! They’re both doing their best to reel him in. I’ve got money on the blue-eyed guy. He’s obviously used to the finer things in life.”
Alona giggled. “Yeah. I know the guy you mean. Frankly, I think it’s a crying shame that all three of them won’t be contributing to the gene pool. They’re all gorgeous.” She paused. “Do you want to come to Deck 6 so I can hand over the chip without prying eyes? The paperwork for the delivery mechanism is down in his cabin, but I’ve got the chip with the formula on it. It’s hidden where nobody will ever guess.”
“I can’t.” Osric sounded really regretful. “I’ve got to go take fresh towels around my cabins and make sure it’s all nice and clean for the punters now. In fact, I’m five minutes late. Can I find you after I’m done?”
“Yeah.” Alona smiled. “I believe I’m going to go up to the bar and watch the competition. I think I might buy into your bet. I’m betting on Mr. Long, Lean and Lovely. I suspect he has what it takes.”
As they reached Deck 6, Alona paused. “See you later, Mr. Cabin Attendant. This is my floor.”
“Call me Osric,” smiled her companion. “I’ll come up to the bar once I get all my cabins seen to.” Whistling, he continued descending the stairs and made his way along Deck 2, to his store cupboard, where earlier in the day he’d collected all the fresh towels ready for distribution while the passengers were having their dinner.
Skulking in the shadows, Travis was using all of his considerable talent at remaining invisible. It had served him well in the past, and it was serving him well now. He’d seen Osric and headed towards him, wanting to see if his new friend would like to go for a drink later, but as he crept down the stairs behind the others, he realized just how amazingly lucky he was. He smiled as the two subjects of his attention parted, then proceeded on his own way, much closer to his goals.
Osric had completed service for 19 of his 20 cabins, and he’d saved the best one ‘til last. Pulling out his passkey, he unlocked the door to Jensen’s cabin and made for the bath to grab all the used towels so he could replace them with the fresh ones he’d brought. It was evident that Jensen had used the shower, and Osric wiped down the mirror, capped his shaving foam and cleaned the basin, then turned to go back into the stateroom.
He began to search, cursing himself that he hadn’t asked Alona exactly where she’d hidden the plans. Seriously, it wasn’t as if there were many places to search. The cabin was small. He checked all the drawers and the hanging space. He’d looked behind the mirrors and nightstands in case there was paperwork of some kind hidden there. He even looked under the bed, to no avail, knowing before he even crouched to do so that there would be nothing there. Finally, he turned his attention to the only other item of furniture in the room — the bed itself. It was still neatly made from his visit that morning, and he’d already checked under it. There seemed little point in stripping it down, since Jensen had already slept in it and would have undoubtedly noticed a sheaf of papers, even if they weren’t very bulky.
He stood for a few minutes, trying to decide if there was somewhere he hadn’t checked, and then it came to him. Dropping to his knees. He began to feel under the mattress.
His fingers touched what he was looking for, but he had no chance to extract it from its hiding place. The faintest of sounds alerted him but too late to do anything before the thin wire was wrapped around his neck and he was fighting for his life, knowing that it was the end for him. As the wire cut into his flesh, he lashed out with his foot, hoping that he could cause his assailant an injury that would be noticeable.
Up in The Sound Garden, Jensen’s reputation had begun to spread, and it was tough to find an empty seat as the pianist sang his way through classics, rockabilly and even, once, a song from Les Miserables, ‘Let Him Live,’ that caused one elderly lady to stuff several hundred dollar bills into his tip jar and rush away, weeping.
As Matt entered the bar, it seemed to be packed, but after peering around for a moment, he spotted Jared sitting in a corner over behind the main attraction, and glory be, there was an unoccupied seat beside him.
Swiftly procuring his glass of wine, a whisky and ginger for Jared, and a shot for Jensen, he wove his way through the crowd to deposit the shot on the piano. Jensen winked at him in acknowledgement as he sang his way through ‘Heroes’. Grinning at him, Matt returned the wink and blew a kiss before making his way back to where Jared sat watching.
“How about this crowd?” Matt wondered as Jared gratefully accepted the drink.
“Isn’t it something?” Jared replied.
“Remember that first night?” Matt reminisced. “I think we were the only ones in here other than Sam. Now I can hardly find a seat.”
“You’re always welcome to share my table,” Jared kindly offered. “As long as you return the favor if you get here first.”
“Sure thing,” Matt returned. “I’m glad to see Jensen getting the attention he deserves.”
“They seem to like him.”
“So do you,” Matt teased, hopefully keeping the slight tinge of jealousy he felt out of his voice.
“What’s not to like?” answered Jared. “Besides, you don’t seem to be completely immune to his charm.”
“Hell, nobody in this room is immune to his charm. Look at that guy over there. He’s practically salivating.” Matt sipped his wine, reflecting that he wouldn’t do anything with Jensen even if he could. Probably. Why did things have to be so complicated? Why couldn’t he just meet a nice guy without a manhunt for an assassin in the way?
“I don’t know,” Jared shrugged. “It’s complicated.” Matt’s thoughts being echoed back at him like that piqued his interest again. What could Jared have going on to complicate his love life? He’d very nearly convinced himself that last night’s suspicions had been in his imagination, but this brought it all back. He’d just have to stay alert and find a way to get a look at that card.
Suddenly, a nearby commotion broke him out of his reverie. He watched with idle curiosity as a fight broke out at a nearby table until one of the combatants broke a beer bottle and approached the other, brandishing his ad-hoc weapon menacingly. Matt reacted instinctively, moving to subdue the attacker before anyone got hurt, but was completely shocked when he found Jared there ahead of him. With the assailant safely disarmed, Matt turned to ensure the drunk’s adversary was contained.
With the disturbance resolved almost before it started, security, swiftly summoned by Sam, escorted the two drunk gentlemen out, and bar stewards quickly set the table to rights. Jensen started playing again and conversation around them went back to normal. Matt returned to their table while Jared went to the bar for another round. Matt thought that he had now got some idea what Jared’s complications might be; surprisingly, it didn’t appear they were much different from his own. Funny how life worked sometimes.
Jared dropped the shot off at Jensen’s piano, receiving a similar acknowledgement to the one Matt had gotten for his gift, and returned to their table with the other two drinks. Matt was just about to bring up Jared’s remarkable reaction to the bar fight when Jared beat him to it.
“So, which agency?”
Startled, Matt glanced around quickly before leaning closer to Jared and answering softly, so as not to be overheard. “INTERPOL. You?”
“FBI,” Jared answered just as quietly.
“I thought you couldn’t operate outside the States?” Matt asked in surprise.
“Oh, I’m not on a case,” Jared replied.
“Maybe not officially,” Matt insisted. “But you are looking into something.”
“Maybe,” Jared shrugged. “Maybe I’m just trying to clear my head.”
“Maybe we should get together and compare notes sometime soon,” Matt suggested. “Somewhere more private. We might be able to help each other out.”
“Okay,” Jared agreed. “Maybe breakfast or something.” Matt wondered if he had specifically suggested a time when Jensen wouldn’t normally be up and about. It would make sense for Jensen to be a suspect in whatever Jared was investigating, for many of the same reasons Matt suspected him. Except probably not the name similarity.
Jensen was just wrapping up when a wild-eyed steward that Matt didn’t recognize burst into the bar. He made straight for the piano and insisted that Jensen accompany him back to Jensen’s cabin. Matt and Jared approached to try to see what the fuss was about, and the steward turned to Matt. “Oh, there you are. Capt. Stuart said you should come as well. He has people looking all over the ship for you.”
“What’s this about?” Matt asked curiously.
“There’s …” the young man trailed off and then changed gears pleadingly. “Just come with me, please?”
Jensen made his apologies to Sam about not staying to clean up and she just waved them away. Then the three of them followed the young steward to Jensen’s cabin, with Jared tagging along uninvited.
“Has anyone found Mish—” Capt. James Stuart’s voice echoed down the corridor, and he corrected himself almost angrily. “Doc Collins yet? I sent for him ages ago!”
“We’ve looked in his office and everywhere else he might be,” a quieter, more timid voice answered.
“Clearly not everywhere, as you haven’t found him yet!”
“He’s not in his cabin. He hasn’t been in his cabin for at least two nights, Captain,” was the defensive reply. “It’s like he isn’t even on the ship.”
Just then, they reached Jensen’s cabin. Matt wasn’t sure what he had expected to find there, but it wasn’t a dead body. Maybe he should have, given his quarry, but he was as shocked as anyone. Jensen’s cabin was, if anything, even smaller than Matt’s, although that might have just been the lack of a window or even a porthole. Matt found himself appreciating his tiny window more than he thought he could. The space was completely packed with the three of them, James, and the several stewards apparently trying to remain inconspicuous. Their own escort had retreated quicker than Matt would’ve thought possible after successfully delivering them to their destination.
Matt took in the situation quickly and expertly. Jensen appeared to be even more shocked than he himself was, but that was no indication. His quarry was a good enough assassin that they wouldn’t react when faced with the evidence of their crime. Jared was apparently horrified, and maybe a little green, so clearly, homicide was not his area of expertise. The ship’s captain was losing his mind, and the stewards were hovering as unobtrusively as possible. Matt put a hand on James’s arm in an attempt to calm him.
“We should try not to create a panic,” he said quietly, but firmly. “Who all knows about this? Can we keep a lid on it for a little while? At least until we can tell people we’ve caught the perpetrator?”
“Just my people,” James answered, more calmly this time. Matt thought he might appreciate having someone else control this particular situation. Not that Matt could blame him. “And they know how to be discreet.”
Somehow, Matt doubted it would be that simple, but there was no putting the toothpaste back in the tube. Hopefully, anyone who’d heard the captain’s shouting wouldn’t have heard enough to realize that there had been a murder. And while he was sure the news would spread like wildfire among the crew, he had confidence in James’s ability to control that part of the situation and keep it below decks, as it were.
“Okay,” Matt asked, running through the standard fact-finding. “Do we know when he was last seen? Or who saw him last?”
The captain glanced at Jared curiously, probably wondering what he was doing here and if it was okay to talk in front of him. Matt glanced at Jared briefly, and when Jared shook his head minutely, Matt reassured James without blowing his friend’s cover.
“He’s fine.” They hadn’t had a chance to talk yet, but Matt didn’t want to interfere with the other agent’s investigation. Fortunately, Jensen didn’t seem to even notice the exchange and was hyperventilating in the corner of his cabin.
“Osric picked up the supplies for his cabin service about 8 p.m. He’d done all of his assigned cabins except this one. Not sure what was special about it; he’d skipped over it while doing the others,” one of the cabin attendants told the Captain.
“Maybe he knew I’d be gone until late,” Jensen woke from his apparently shocked daze enough to cut in. “Wanted to make sure to finish before the others needed their cabins.”
“Is that likely?” the captain asked the cowering steward.
“I don’t think so,” one of them responded. “It doesn’t take that long to turn down a cabin, and it usually takes longer to skip one and come back. We usually only do that if someone’s in their cabin.”
“That’s what I thought,” James nodded. “Do you see anything out of place, Jensen?”
Jensen started to answer, but Matt would rather rule him out as a suspect before he had any more input into the processing of the crime scene. He interrupted Jensen, “Let’s establish a timeline first. How long would it take him to service the other cabins on his schedule?”
James turned to the cabin attendant who had spoken up before. He looked like he was sorry he had done so. But he answered again anyway, “At least half an hour, probably more like 45 minutes. No more than an hour.”
“Jensen, what time did you get to The Sound Garden?” Matt asked.
“What?” sputtered Jensen. “Why?”
“It’s your room,” Matt explained reasonably. “We need to rule you out as a potential person of interest.”
“You think I did this?” Jensen’s voice was incredulous, and from the look on his face, he felt betrayed. There went whatever chance he might have had romantically with the other man. He hoped they could salvage their friendship, if not more. But he had to rule him out, and even if he’d much rather have gotten him to the pool so he could examine his feet, this was the opportunity that had presented itself.
“You could have seen something,” Matt soothed. “We need to establish timelines for everyone who might’ve been in the area.”
Jensen nodded, seemingly mollified. “My shift started at nine. I was probably there about five or ten minutes before that.”
Matt glanced at Jared, who nodded to confirm Jensen’s claim. So, the timing was extremely tight, but not totally impossible. Without an exact time of death, it was hard to be certain. In any case, he needed to see the man’s toes. If his questioning of Jensen’s whereabouts earlier hadn’t spoiled his chances, this awkward request surely would. Oh well, nothing for it but to see it through.
“So, it’s unlikely you could have seen anything, but not entirely impossible.” Matt said aloud. “Could you take your shoes and socks off for me please?”
“What? Why?” Jensen just looked confused again. Then Matt saw the comprehension dawn on his face. “Who are you?”
“What about Jared? Why is he in here? Is he a cop too?” Jensen asked as he sat on the edge of the bed to remove his shoes and socks, then looked up at Matt, lifting his eyebrow and holding his toes out toward Matt.
Jensen had nice, well-proportioned feet with toes just as pretty as the rest of him — what he’d been able to see of him anyway. Matt dragged his thoughts back to the matter at hand and sighed as his only lead evaporated. Two nice, ordinary feet with ten ordinary — pretty, his mind supplied — toes, and he was back to square one. Matt picked up the earlier thread of questions, as much to distract from Jensen’s question about Jared as to continue investigating. “Okay, thank you, Jensen. So, did you see anything odd? Can you think of any reason why this might have happened here?”
“Does this mean I’m no longer a person of interest?” Jensen asked somewhat snarkily.
Matt smiled. He couldn’t blame Jensen for the sarcasm. He’d probably react the same way in his position. Anyway, he was glad Jensen was not a killer, even if it did leave him without a suspect. “No more than anyone else. Now can you please answer the questions?”
“No idea. I didn’t see anything, and I can’t imagine why someone would…” Jensen shook his head, and his voice cracked as he trailed off, apparently realizing the violence that had happened in his room and not sure how to process it. Even if Matt hadn’t already been fairly sure he had nothing to do with it, his reaction would’ve been convincing.
“I wonder why they were here,” Jared mused. “Surely Osric wouldn’t have been a deliberate target. Maybe he interrupted someone in here or something.”
“Does anything look out of place?” Matt repeated the captain’s earlier question.
“Not that I can tell,” Jensen answered, still looking rather shaken.
“The bed,” the steward who hadn’t yet spoken started and then stumbled when all eyes turned to him. “Umm … the bed’s not right. Either he hadn’t done it yet which seems unlikely as it should have been done during morning service, or someone has messed with it.”
“Were you in here today?” the captain asked Jensen.
“No, I don’t think so,” Jensen answered. “Not that I remember.”
“We should—” the captain started, but was interrupted by another steward knocking at the door. Matt answered the door to find another frantic looking steward, who burst into speech as soon as he saw the captain.
“Capt. Stuart, sir,” he said breathlessly. “A passenger, he has sabotaged all of the communications gear! And the backup is missing and no-one knows how to fix it!”
“God dammit!” James exclaimed. “Of all the fucki—”
Matt interrupted him with a hand on his arm again. He understood the captain’s frustration but this could turn out to be a break in the case. “There’s little more we can do here, anyway. Can you get someone to secure the room, until I can have a look at that bunk? Also, we need to find out if any of the staff have seen anyone on this deck that didn’t belong.”
“Do as he said,” Capt. Stuart nodded and backed up Matt’s requests to his staff. Indicating the body, he continued, “What about him? Should we take him to sick bay? Misha has storage facilities there in case of emergency.”
“That’s a good idea,” Matt agreed, happy for a solution to that problem, at least. “Just try to do it discreetly. And we need to find the doctor. It looks clear that Osric was strangled, but I’d like to get the doctor to confirm cause of death, as well as the time.”
“My staff is looking for him,” James assured him. “I’m sure he’ll turn up. Although it’s very unlike him to go missing like this.”
Matt accompanied the captain to find out what was going on with the communications. He caught Jared’s eye and received a discreet nod, confirmation that Jared would make sure the crime scene was secured and keep an eye on Jensen. He hated to leave matters in the hands of civilians, but without any of his usual support staff here, he had no choice. At least he had Jared to help. And thank goodness the captain was helpful and cooperative. Matt admired James’s ability to handle the ship and his crew, but the other man was clearly out of his depth with murder and sabotage afoot. Matt would have to help him get his ship under control again, and that wasn’t exactly going to be a hardship for him.
Two of the cabin stewards headed down the corridor to the attendant’s station and returned with a gurney and a sheet. Solemnly, they proceeded to load the body of the slain man onto the gurney and covered him with a sheet. One of them was looking somewhat tearful, and both of them were tight-lipped. It dawned on Jared suddenly that both of these young men had known and worked with Osric, and it was plain that Jensen was affected too. He had slumped down, tears welling up as he watched silently.
As the stewards trundled the gurney away, another man appeared, evidently an officer, since he wore a uniform with gold braid. “Hello, gentlemen. I’ve been asked to seal the cabin and make it secure. I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave now.”
“What about me?” That was Jensen. ”Where am I supposed to sleep? What about all my things? You can’t lock them up. How am I...”
“I’ll have to ask you to pack the things you need and vacate the crime scene, please. I’m sure the purser will be able to find you a bed for the night.” The officer sounded sympathetic but it was obvious to Jared that he was determined to carry out his orders. Smiling inwardly, Jared reflected that this was totally not how the police would have handled the situation. As he watched Jensen cramming his few belongings into his suitcase he winced at the way the crime scene was being contaminated. Matt would have far less success once he began to examine the room than if everyone had been evicted straight away.
“Better make sure nothing is missing,” he murmured to Jensen. “If there is, it might be a clue.”
“Yeah. Right, Miss Marple.” Jensen looked and sounded utterly dejected, and Jared felt a rush of sympathy for this man, who was obviously shaken to his core and exhausted to boot.
“You can bunk down with me, if you like? Nobody’s using the other bed in my cabin.”
The look Jensen gave him was almost adoring in its gratitude. He could see the musician’s shoulders slump with relief. “Thanks,” he whispered. “It’s been a long night.”
Once his case was packed, the officer ushered them out into the corridor with a softly spoken ‘thank you, gentlemen’. Jensen stood for a moment looking lost as the door was locked and taped closed, and when he showed no signs of moving, Jared put his arm around Jensen’s shoulders and gently guided him up the corridor to the elevator, which had been left open in the excitement.
“Come on.” Jared led the way and pressed the button that would take them up to Deck 6. “You’re gonna like my place. It’s even got a little window, so you can see out.” Jensen gave him a wan smile.
“What can you see?”
“Water, mostly,” said Jared, grinning. “That’s a relief, too. If there was anything else out there, I’d be worried.”
Jared’s cabin was a little bigger than Jensen’s, containing not only a second bed but also the promised porthole, which indicated that dawn was breaking. Jared waited until Jensen had brushed his teeth and climbed into bed. Wishing him goodnight, he quietly left the room to go and find out what was going on with the ship’s radio. If he needed to, he would use the excuse of needing to tell Matt where Jensen was in case the detective wanted to question him again later.
The bridge was surprisingly quiet when Jared arrived. An engineer was on his knees beneath the console, all manner of tools laid out around him on the floor. Matt and James were leaning over a table towards the rear of the room. Looking around him very quickly, he spotted a forlorn looking Wester, cuffed and seated on one of the benches, with an enormous looking deck hand sitting beside him, cracking his knuckles ominously.
“She’s going to kill me,” lamented Wester as Jared came over to stand beside Matt and look down at whatever they were studying.
“The entire Nav system and most of the steering is out at the moment as well as the radio. It’s going to be navigation the old fashioned way until Tigerman over there can get the radar up and running.” James sighed, and Matt reached over to pat his hand. James shot him a brief smile before turning back to Jared. “It could possibly delay us before we can dock in St. Thomas.”
Nodding absently, Jared thought for a minute. He’d heard Wester complain up in the bar before he’d passed out, drunk, and the guy was still babbling on about his employer — he assumed that Ms. Cassidy was in fact his employer and not his relative — killing him. Frowning, he went over to sit beside Wester.
“Travis, isn’t it?” he asked.
Wester blinked at him. “Yeah? Why do you want to know?”
Jared shrugged. “Always good to be polite. When you say that ‘She’s going to kill you,’ are you talking about Ms. Cassidy?” He studied Wester’s face intently, saw the abject misery on it and things began to click into place. “You really think she is going to kill you, don’t you?”
“She said I shouldn’t get caught, because if I did, she’d kill me. She’ll find me and that’ll be it.”
“So, she knew you were going to come sabotage the boat? Why on earth would she condone that?” Jared caught Matt’s eye and indicated silently that he should get close enough to listen, but unfortunately, at that moment Travis seemed to realize he’d said too much and went silent. After a few minutes Jared realized he would get no further just chatting and clapped him on the shoulder, causing him to jump, before going back to where Matt and James were finishing their calculations.
“We’re not going to be able to put into port until tomorrow morning at the earliest by my reckoning. It’s possible that if Gabe here can get the instruments back online, we’ll be able to pick up speed again, but there’s no guarantee of that. Depends on whether he can work a little magic with the parts we have available.”
“Captain?” Jared didn’t particularly care if the itinerary was disrupted. “We have a killer on board, although right now we have no proof of who it is. I believe that I know, and I’d like to beg a favor. Can we have Wester there locked up somewhere that passengers ordinarily aren’t permitted? I think it’s important, and it’s definitely going to permit us to identify the murderer.”
James pursed his lips, considering. Matt studied Jared intently. “Are you holding out on me?” he said.
“Not really. I’ve just got this theory, based on something I heard and dismissed as drunken ranting.” Jared grinned at him, dimples flashing. “I just think we need to take good care of Wester for now.”
It seemed that James was about to say something, but Matt patted him on the hand. “It’s okay. We’ll look after him very well, won’t we?”
Over on the bench beside Wester, the crew member snickered and cracked his knuckles again. Jared winced, and Travis Wester wailed. “I’m a dead man,” he whimpered.
It was full daylight by now. Matt had announced his intention to search through Jensen’s cabin for any clue that might remain. James was needed on the bridge to assist with the repair of his equipment, and Jared made his way back down to Deck 6 and his cabin with the intention of getting a couple of hours sleep. If he was right, he would have another busy night coming up.
There were delicious smells of baking bread emanating from the bistro, and Jared went in to grab himself a snack and a non-caffeinated drink before heading along the corridor to his stateroom.
Jared awoke some time later to find Jensen watching him from where he lay in the opposite bunk. It was evident that he’d just woken up himself. He was sleep tousled, and as Jared watched, he gave a huge, bone-cracking yawn and snuggled down into his pillow again as if he intended to go back to sleep.
Sighing, Jared checked his watch. 2:30 p.m. gave him plenty of time to do the stuff that needed to be done, but he really ought to get up and get started. Jensen blinked sleepily at him, and Jared felt a shiver creep down his spine.
“You really ought to come with a government health warning,” he told Jensen.
“Uh... Thank you?” Jensen pushed himself up onto his elbows and rearranged himself so he was leaning back against the headboard, bare chest leading the gaze down to where the rumpled sheet revealed just the hint of a treasure trail. “Why is that? Did I fart in my sleep or something?”
“Good God, no. It’s just that you’re so distracting. I...” Jared faltered. He hadn’t really meant to say that. Finally, he gave a sigh and rose to sit on the side of his bunk. “Look, I don’t do one night stands and holiday flings, so when the cruise is over, will you go out with me?”
“Well, I don’t see what’s wrong with the present, but okay.” Jensen gave him a smile that lit up the little cabin. “We could start by finding some breakfast. I’m starving. My stomach thinks my throat’s been cut.”
Laughing, Jared pushed himself up to standing and went to the little bathroom to wash and shave, calling back to him, “You have the best ideas. Breakfast it is.”
“What if you were to find out that I wasn’t what you think I am?” Jensen sounded concerned.
“What do I think you are?” Face covered in shaving foam, Jared peered out at Jensen, frowning. “I dunno. If you have a wife and eight kids, better tell me now, and we’ll call it a day.”
“We all have our secrets, I guess, but nope. No wife, and no brood. No ties whatsoever in fact.” Laughing, Jensen rose to his feet to wait for the bathroom. “You look like Santa Claus like that.”
“How do you know I’m not?” Jared rinsed his razor and sluiced around the sink, then stepped into the minute shower beside it, dropping his boxers on the floor just outside the door. “I’ll only be a couple of minutes,” he called as he began to lather himself up. “Your turn next.”
It wasn’t long before he was stepping back into the cabin, towels around his hips and his hair. “All yours, man,” he announced as Jensen gathered together his toiletries.
“I want you to know that I’m really grateful to you, Jared,” said Jensen, smiling as he passed Jared, who was looking through the small closet for a clean pair of jeans. Jensen’s smile was perfect, white teeth, a hint of a dimple besides each sharp cheekbone, and his eyes showing just the hint of mischief. When Jared turned back, he was still standing in the doorway, shamelessly ogling, a broad grin on his face.
“Very nice.” The grin grew even wider if that were possible.
“You wanna see the rest?” Jared’s hands moved to the towel around his waist as if to unwrap himself, and Jensen laughed.
“I’d take you up on that, but I can hear your stomach rumbling from here. Go feed the inner man, before you pass out. I’ll come and find you once I’m clean and shiny again.” Jensen turned and put his razor and toiletries down on the sink, then stalked over to Jared and grabbed his face, pulled him down for a kiss and then chuckled as he evaded Jared’s grip and returned to the bathroom. “I’ll take a raincheck. See me later.”
Wide eyed, Jared stood for a minute before shaking his head and beginning to get dressed. As he heard Jensen step into the shower and start singing scurrilous lyrics to ‘La Donna è Mobile,’ his stomach rumbled again, loud enough to drown out Jensen’s voice. Calling out “Later,” to his guest, he left his cabin in search of breakfast, if such a thing could be had this late in the day.
Miss Katie Cassidy stretched and rose to her feet, a frown on her perfectly made-up face. Looking around, she still couldn’t see Wester anywhere, and that was most inconvenient. Reaching for her stick, she pulled herself up to standing and checked her watch one last time before turning to stomp off down to Deck 2 and his cabin.
Two of the three hottest men on the cruise were lounging against the railing beside the very stairs she’d tumbled down when she’d damaged her ankle. As she made her halting way over to the stairs, she slowed, and heard the very tall one say to Blue-eyes, “I don’t suppose he’s going to get very far even if he does escape...”
“He won’t escape, Jay,” said Blue-eyes. “Let’s face it. They’ve got him in that little break room just off the engine room. There’s always someone in there, and even if he had Houdini level escape skills, he’d be back in there within minutes.”
A cold flash ran down Katie’s back. She’d lingered as long as she dared, and Wester’s absence from her side just confirmed that he’d been caught doing something stupid — something that wasn’t in the plan. She was going to smack the stupid little man silly just as soon as they got off this ship. Carefully, she made her way down to Deck 2 and made for Wester’s cabin. There was nobody around at this time of day, and it was the work of a moment to let herself into his room. Wrinkling her nose, she pulled the camera bag out from his closet and removed the camera, lenses and charger that concealed the radio beneath them, then plugged it in at the socket designed for electric razors. What a good job it was that she hadn’t left all the arrangements for him to take care of. Switching on the device, she listened for a moment and then spoke.
“Jackal calling Wolf. Come in...”
There was nothing save for the soft hiss of white noise for several minutes, so she repeated her phrase. She almost leaped out of her skin when the radio crackled to life and a faintly accented voice responded. “Wolf here. What are your orders?”
“We’ll be ready for pickup at 2 a.m. with the objects. Don’t be late.”
“Confirmed. 2 a.m. it is. Wolf out.” The radio returned to its steady hissing, and she swiftly turned it off, stuffed the photography equipment back on top of it and zipped the case closed. Now her main task would begin. Checking her watch, she noticed that it was just after 3 p.m., and as she left Wester’s cabin with the camera bag slung over her shoulder, she made her way to the elevator that would take her up to Deck 6.
Stepping outside of the elevator, she stood for a moment, listening and looking around to make sure she was alone, then went swiftly to Alona’s cabin and knocked gently. There was no response, and she hadn’t really expected one, since she’d seen Alona a very short time ago, clad in a very pretty bikini, splashing around in the pool. She would have time to search the cabin thoroughly before the girl came back to change for dinner. Letting herself in with her skeleton key, she began to search the cabin.
Unfortunately, she didn’t have anywhere like as long as she’d hoped. It had only been 20 minutes or so before she heard the key in the lock, and sighing, she went to stand behind the door, unraveling the finely stranded bracelet she wore on her left arm. As Alona entered the room, Katie stepped up behind her and slipped the gold, cheese-wire garrote over Alona’s head, kicking the door closed as she did so.
It was all over in moments, and Katie, covered in blood from where the wire had cut Alona’s neck, dropped the body to the floor and knelt beside it to take the pin that the girl had been wearing on her swim wrap.
Just as she was making her way back to the elevator, Hottie number 3 smiled at her as he emerged from one of the cabins with his guitar strapped to his back, and she smiled back. “You know, I really must get a photo of you before this cruise is over. I swear, this entire ship is overrun with the most deliciously beautiful men. It’s more than worth the cost of the cruise, just for the eye candy!”
Hottie number 3 colored up magnificently, and Katie giggled.
“Thank you, ma’am. Will we see you in the bar tonight? I’ll play a song especially for you.”
“Oh gosh, I wouldn’t miss that for the world.” She thought for a moment, one crimson finger nail playing with her equally crimson lower lip. “Do you know ‘Mac the Knife’?”
“Of course, I do.” Hottie number 3 nodded and smiled, over his moment of confusion. “It’ll be just for you. What’s your name, so I can announce it?”
“I’m Katie,” she said, simpering a little.
“Well, hello, Katie. I’m Jensen,” said Jensen, holding out his hand and when she offered hers, raising it to his lips briefly. “Later, Katie. I need to go find food and then get some practice in so I don’t let you down. I want to be perfect for you.”
She frowned as she watched him amble away. Now she had another loose end to deal with.
It was mid-afternoon by the time Matt made his way to the omelet bar. Normally, it didn’t make a difference to him, but today, he was grateful for the nebulous quality of time on the ship and the crew’s determination to provide whatever the passengers wanted, whenever they wanted it. He wasn’t the only one taking advantage of the all-day breakfast offerings, and Matt glanced around as he waited for his meal. The seating area wasn’t crowded, and Jared was easy enough to spot. They’d talked about meeting this morning, but Matt was sure both of them had expected to break their fast much earlier in the day. Neither of them had foreseen the busy evening they were to have. In any case, Matt was glad he was here, and apparently alone. He grabbed his tray and made his way to Jared’s table.
“Where’s Jensen?” Matt asked as he sat across from Jared, then kicked himself mentally. It was only a few hours since he’d seen Jared, and Jensen had been up late again. And Jared was clearly fresh from his shower and hopefully at least a little bit of sleep, so if he knew where Jensen was, then Matt didn’t think he wanted to know about it. He wasn’t quite ready to concede his little rivalry with Jared for Jensen’s affections. None of this was important anyway, they had a murderer to trap. Not to mention whatever it was that Jared was investigating.
“He’s in the shower in my cabin,” Jared answered and then off Matt’s look, clarified, “No, nothing like that, or, at least, not—” he cut himself off, flushing and stammering a bit.
Yes, too much information, just as he’d thought. Matt saved Jared by cutting in quietly, “Well, that’s good then. We can talk. I got the impression you didn’t want people knowing that you’re law enforcement. Is that anyone? Or Jensen specifically?”
“Everybody,” Jared answered. “It’s not like I’m here on official business or anything.”
“Yeah,” agreed Matt. “But you don’t have to hide what you do for a living. Unless you are actually investigating something and think your suspect may be on board.”
“I don’t know what to think,” Jared sighed. “Maybe. I just haven’t found any reason to think he is on board. Or isn’t.”
“Why don’t you tell me what you do know?” Matt pressed.
“I’ve been tracking a jewel thief,” Jared said quietly, after looking around to make sure they wouldn’t be overheard. “High end stuff, museum heists, all the toughest jobs. I was the first one to figure out they were related. Then he started leaving calling cards.”
“Like the one at the restaurant in Nassau?”
“You saw that?” Jared asked, clearly surprised. “I didn’t know you were there yet.”
“Yeah, sorry,” Matt apologized. “Your demeanor changed when I showed interest in the place, and I was curious.”
“You suspected me of being your assassin?” Jared sputtered.
“No, not really,” Matt reassured him. “I mean, I wasn’t ruling anyone out, but Jensen piqued my interest more. His name is so much like the moniker the perp uses, and he signed up for the cruise just after—”
Jared obviously noticed his distress and cut in, “You don’t have to talk about it.”
“Thanks, but it’s okay.” Matt responded sincerely, then continued stoically. “They killed Jeff — my boss, mentor and friend.”
“I’m so sorry,” Jared said sincerely. “Was that when you started chasing her?”
“No, we were already closing in on her. Jeff had information that she tried to destroy. I managed to recover some of it, and that’s what led me here. Apparently, someone has figured out a way to clean up and destroy oil organically, which will also likely break down oil based products too. The whole formula and the plans for the delivery system were stolen, and she was hired to find them and get them back to the head of Globex Oil.”
“And now you’re about to catch her,” Jared said. “I know it won’t bring Jeff back, but it will be something at least.”
“Let’s not put the cart before the horse,” Matt cautioned. “But yeah, hopefully.”
“Any sign of the doc?” Jared asked.
“No,” Matt answered. “And that’s another thing. The last time anyone saw him was when your favorite blonde broke her ankle. James is starting to think something’s happened to him.”
“I suspect he’s right, unless some merry widow has him tied to her bed. Is the plan set for later?” Jared asked. “Are the people guarding Travis up to their part?”
“Let’s hope so. I’ve told them to make themselves scarce. I’d hate for anyone else to get hurt,” Matt answered. “But we should talk about your investigation. Do you think Jensen has anything to do with it?”
“I don’t think so?” Jared answered, his voice betraying his uncertainly. “I mean, it’s possible. And the timing of his signing on to the cruise is very curious. But he doesn’t seem like he could be such an accomplished, professional cat burglar. He seems so at home behind his piano. Or maybe I just find him so distracting that I’ve lost all objectivity.”
“Didn’t you think it was odd that he showed up in Nassau?” Matt asked.
“Not really,” Jared answered. “We had been talking about it the night before. Just like you showed up. And it’s not like The Green Tornado put in an appearance last time I was there. He just left his calling card.”
“The Green Tornado?” Matt asked.
“Yeah, that’s what his card has on it,” Jared answered, pulling out an attractive white linen business card embossed with the image of a twister in metallic green ink. “So that’s what we call him.”
“Makes sense,” commented Matt. “No gloves?”
“I already dusted it,” Jared reassured him. “Only prints were people from the restaurant.”
Matt picked up the card and flipped it over. Neatly handwritten on the back was:
Back to the boat
Not quite there yet
“So, he knows who you are, and he’s definitely on the Scavenger,” Matt noted. “How else would he have known to have this delivered to you?”
“Probably,” Jared shrugged. “At least the people at Lukka Kairi do. I tracked him there once before, years ago.”
“Was that the first card he left?” Matt asked.
“It was,” Jared confirmed. “It was only after he left that one that the brass believed me that the robberies were related.”
“And then they started coming regularly?”
“Yes. It was like he started signing his work.” Jared laughed.
“He seems pretty brazen,” Matt commented. “Does he always leave messages on the back?”
“No,” Jared responded. “The Guggenheim a few weeks ago was the first one. That’s what sent me to Nassau.”
“So, he’s flirting with you now,” Matt joked.
“What?” Jared exclaimed. “How do you mean?”
“It’s just an expression,” soothed Matt. “He’s trying to draw you out, get your attention.”
“Yeah,” Jared mused. “I guess so. I wonder why.”
“Hey guys,” Jensen approached their table. “Save any for me?”
“Hey you!” Jared turned to face him, a brilliant smile appearing on his face. It was beautiful to watch as their relationship developed, but pretty much confirmed for Matt that he had no chance with either of them. Not that he was particularly heartbroken, since he’d found himself distracted lately, not just by his own investigation, but by his growing admiration for the vessel’s captain. Didn’t mean he was completely ready to give up the game, though.
“I think we ate it all,” Matt teased. “I guess you’ll have to get your own.”
“I figured,” Jensen smiled at them. “Aleksei is already fixing it.”
“How are you holding up?” Matt asked.
“Much better, thanks. It’s amazing what a good night’s sleep can do for you,” Jensen answered. “Not to mention the company.”
“The company?” Jared exclaimed, sounding incredulous. “You were sleeping the whole time I was in the cabin.”
“Then maybe you should spend more time in your cabin,” Jensen snarked, then turned to thank the server delivering his rather impressive looking omelet.
“It’s not like there aren’t a couple of other things going on,” Jared sputtered.
“I guess,” said Jensen. “But I don’t see what it has to do with you.”
“Glad you’re feeling better. But speaking of other things going on,” Matt cut in. He didn’t really want to abandon Jared if tensions were escalating, but he was out of time. Jared could surely handle it. “I promised to meet James five minutes ago, and I really need to be there if we’re going to keep control of the situation.”
“Oh, shit!” Jensen exclaimed, looking at his watch. “I’m supposed to be up in The Sound Garden in 20 minutes. You guys go ahead; I’m just gonna finish up here and then go to work.”
“No,” Jared responded. “I’ll stay with you for a while, if you don’t mind.”
“No, seriously,” Jensen insisted. “It’s fine. I was just yanking your chain.”
“I know,” answered Jared, dimples popping as he grinned. “But what if I’d rather hang out with you?”
“Suit yourself,” Jensen shrugged.
“All right, guys,” Matt finished his coffee and waved as he headed off to meet James, trying to keep the inappropriate smile off of his face.
“Later,” muttered Jensen before taking another bite.
“I’ll catch up with you after a while,” Jared said, as if Matt needed reminding of their plan.
“So, what’s up?” Jensen asked after Matt had gone.
“Can’t I just want to spend time with you?” Jared asked, not sure how to get the conversation going in the direction he wanted. He needed to come clean with Jensen but wasn’t sure how to start.
“With everything else you’ve got going on?” Jensen said sardonically, then quickly recanted. “Sorry, it’s a reflex.”
“It can wait,” Jared answered, choosing to respond to the substance of the question and ignore the sarcasm as well as the apology.
“Okay,” Jensen shrugged. “I really don’t mind if you want to go with Matt though.”
“I’m kind of into you too,” Jensen smirked.
“Not like that,” Jared corrected, barely restraining himself from rolling his eyes at Jensen’s indifferent facade. “I don’t do casual relationships.”
“Honestly? Me either,” Jensen admitted. “I’m just not in a position to … commit to anything right now.”
“What? You have a boyfriend waiting for you back home?” Jared asked, hoping like hell it wasn’t the case. He didn’t think so, but you never know. “Or a girlfriend?
“Oh, no,” Jensen laughed. “Like I told you before. There’s nothing like that.”
“Okay then,” Jared shrugged, relieved in spite of himself. “I’m sure you’ll tell me when you’re ready.”
“Yeah,” Jensen said, clearly reluctant to share whatever was holding him back at this point. Jared could wait. He couldn’t imagine much that could be a deal-breaker for him.
“Speaking of …” Jared said, thinking he might not get a better opening. “I have something I need to tell you, too.”
“Should I be worried?” Jensen joked.
“I don’t think so,” Jared answered. “I’m an FBI agent. I don’t know why I didn’t tell you before, I just wasn’t telling anyone, and once I didn’t tell you, I didn’t know how to and—”
“Whoa, slow down,” Jensen cut in, laughing. “It’s fine. Don’t worry about it. None of us really shared much about who we are ashore. But I’m actually not surprised that you’re a cop with the way you handled yourself in the bar the other day and then how Matt involved you in his investigation. Though I did get the impression that you weren’t much more comfortable with a murder crime scene than I was.”
“I don’t know why I do that,” Jared said, flushing. “Babbling when I get nervous.”
“I think it’s cute,” Jensen responded, turning a bit pink himself. “But hey, I’ve gotta jet or else we’ll have annoyed bar patrons, never a good thing. You going to go meet Matt for whatever sting you two have cooked up?”
“Not yet,” Jared answered, happy not to have to lie or prevaricate about it anymore. “I’ll accompany you and help you get the bar set up, if you like.”
It felt nice to have Jared at his side on the way up to the bar. Sam greeted them warmly, clearly unsurprised to see them together. Maybe they were both a little slow on the uptake, but apparently, everyone else had figured it out before they did. Not that he hadn’t realized that he was developing feelings for Jared. It was just … complicated. Soon enough, he’d bare his own soul and hope that Jared didn’t run for the hills.
They worked together seamlessly, having quietly developed a routine for opening (and closing) the bar. They were halfway through their first drinks and had completed their chores a few minutes before the appointed time when Jensen took his place at the piano. He launched into ‘Sister Christian’ before the requests started coming in. He’d worked his way through ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, ‘Walking in Memphis’, and ‘Colder Weather’ by the time Katie came in. He’d really meant to mention her presence on their deck to Jared, but with things happening as they had, it had slipped his mind. He got Jared’s attention to make sure he didn’t slip out to meet up with Matt before his first break. Jared was very quick on the uptake and brought him another drink to cover their little interaction. Jensen announced Katie’s request and sang ‘Mac the Knife’ for her before taking his break.
“What’s up?” Jared asked as Jensen approached his table, closely followed by Sam with another round for their table courtesy of one of the bar patrons.
Jensen thanked Sam and answered quietly, “You know the blonde? Katie, I think she’s called?”
“Yeah,” Jared answered, narrowing his eyes. “Osric and I helped her to the infirmary once. She’d fallen and sprained her ankle.”
“I saw her on our deck earlier, just before I met you for breakfast,” Jensen said. “Wouldn’t she have a balcony suite or something up here in the nosebleed section? Why would she be on Deck 6?”
“I don’t know,” Jared responded, wheels obviously turning in his head.
“Also, I think that’s Alona’s dress she’s wearing,” Jensen went on. “I remember she had it on the first night, when she was hitting on me. Katie was wearing it earlier, too. And I’m sure that’s Alona’s pin. I didn’t notice it in the corridor earlier, but it’s definitely hers.”
“You have quite the eye for women’s fashion,” Jared quipped. “And jewelry.”
“I thought Alona was stalking me for a while.” Jensen tried not to get defensive. Surely Jared didn’t think he was actually into Alona? “And the pin … my dad collected old spy jewelry, and he was always looking for this particular piece. It was used by MI6 during the second World War. No-one in the community knew what had happened to it, and he was hunting for it most of my childhood. I’d know it anywhere. The marcasites are distinctive, and there’s a clever little compartment hidden in the body of the orca. Not that you’d know that from here, but I’m sure it’s the same pin. Or at least a replica.”
“I didn’t know Katie and Alona were friends?” Jared mused. “They just don’t fit, somehow.”
“I don’t think they are. Alona spent a lot of time in here, but I never saw this Katie person in here before.”
“Hey, I should go find Matt and make sure Alona is all right. Just be careful and don’t leave the bar, especially not alone,” Jared said in a quietly urgent tone as he started to rise from his chair.
“Sit. Finish your drink. You don’t want to attract attention.” Jensen stopped him with a hand on his arm. “You think this Katie’s involved with Osric’s murder?”
“It’s entirely possible. And you’re right, of course, about not wanting to cause any kind of disturbance though.” Jared nodded and settled back into his chair. “Thank you.”
“No problem,” Jensen said, smiling. It was in everyone’s best interest for them to catch this killer as soon as possible. “And it’s not like she’s going to do anything to Alona while she’s here.”
“Not to Alona, anyway. You just be careful. Watch your back,” Jared insisted again.
“Okay. Don’t worry. I’ll be careful,” Jensen reassured him. “There’s a house phone around the corner. The corridor is usually empty. You could use that to get in touch with Matt and have him meet you there. Will save you some time. After my break is over. Can’t be attracting attention, after all.”
That cut the tension as he’d hoped it would, and they enjoyed the rest of their drinks before Jared said goodbye and Jensen went back to his piano. He tried not to worry for the rest of his evening, but he’d grown accustomed to at least one of his friends’ presence while he played, and knowing what they were doing, that they were likely in danger… Jensen cut off that train of thought and deliberately immersed himself in his music for the rest of the evening. It worked well, as it so often had throughout his life. Good to know it still had that power when he needed it.
Jared finished his drink while Jensen rose to go join Sam behind the bar. Jared finally got to his feet and made his way out of the bar, pausing to exchange a couple of pleasantries with a pair of honeymooners who were both elderly and yet still starry eyed.
“Your young man has such a lovely voice,” said the old lady, a twinkle in her eye. “If I were 50 years younger, I’d give you a run for your money there.”
“Hey!” her husband shook his head at her. “What happened to ‘love, honor and obey’?”
“Oh, Stanley, you know I’d keep you around too.” She beamed at Jared. “Safety in numbers, after all.”
Jared felt the chill in the pit of his stomach as he watched Jensen chatting to Sam and swiftly took his leave of the two lovebirds to go and have a quiet word with Sam himself.
“Samantha, my one true love,” he murmured, trying to disguise the flood of terror that was coursing through him at the realization that Jensen was possibly in danger due to what he had told Jared. “Can I beg a favor?”
“Depends what it is,” she said.
“Just make sure that if anyone buys Jensen a drink that you don’t let anyone touch it besides you until it’s sitting on the piano?” Jared gave her his most soulfully beseeching expression, and she nodded.
“That I can do.” She smirked. “You think someone is likely to roofie him?”
“Something like that,” he said and then saluted her as he made his way out of the bar to the phone Jensen had mentioned.
Matt was on the bridge, and Jared didn’t wait to meet him, just told him to get himself down to Deck 6 as fast as he could and bring James with him. Then he took off, racing down to Deck 6. He hoped against hope he was wrong and that Alona would be fine but the cold fingers that clutched his heart told him he would be too late.
Matt and James had taken the elevator down and were waiting for him when he dashed into the corridor.
“What is it?” asked James, his face pale.
“Alona... Jensen said...” Jared was puffing from his race down the stairs. “Katie Cassidy’s wearing her clothes.”
“Oh, God.” Matt put his arm around James’s waist and squeezed him once. “Stay back. Let us handle this.”
Jared was surveying the door, wondering if they would have to get the cabin attendant to bring the keys, but when he turned the handle, the door proved to be unlocked. As he cracked the door, the smell of blood confirmed his worst fears. The girl was dead, and they were indeed too late.
Matt had crowded behind him, and Jared heard him gag slightly. “Nothing we can do for her now except put her killer behind bars where she can’t kill anyone else.”
“We should be putting into port by 0900 hours tomorrow,” said James, somewhat hoarsely. “We... we should leave the crime scene as it is? Or should we move her? Oh, God!”
Matt turned to help him, and Jared waited for the poor captain to regain a somewhat more normal color before suggesting that they find the steward and lock the cabin up until the Port Authorities could come and assist. James seemed to be in shock, and at first, he didn’t seem to register what Jared was saying, but after a while, he reached for his phone and called security, who took command of the situation. A few moments later, Alona was taken to join Osric in the sick bay refrigerator.
By this time, it was past midnight, and Matt was beginning to fret with the need to get down to the engine room where Travis was being held. James said he would go back up to the bar and ensure that Katie was still there. He told Matt that he would call back down to let them know when she left and then he intended to get stinking drunk.
They parted company as they reached the elevator, and James ascended to the upper deck once more. Matt and Jared made their way silently down to the area where the crew held sway and back to the engine room. The door to the break room was open, and through it, they could see Travis, who was curled into a ball and appeared to be fast asleep, his mouth open and drooling slightly. He’d been chained to the bulkhead and his ankles were cuffed as well. Neither Jared nor Matt acknowledged him as they tiptoed past him to the hiding place they’d been shown, behind the main engine block. Together they settled down to wait.
Time plodded by on leaden feet. Two or three of the engineers were quietly moving around, checking dials and adding observations to the sheaf of notes on the clipboard that hung from the noticeboard on the opposite side of the room from where Travis was sleeping. Beside the clipboard hung the keys to Travis’s cuffs, tantalizingly visible, but completely unreachable.
Time was marked on the ship with the use of bells, and each half hour, a bell sounded. The first time Jared heard it ring was at 1 a.m., when it rang twice. Matt gave him a whispered explanation that it would ring in increasing numbers with each passing half hour.
Ring it did. The strident sound signifying the half hour erupted at 0130 with three clanging sounds, and once again with four, signifying 0200 and the watch change. As the peal faded away, the sailors who had been diligently maintaining the ship’s engines mustered, then handed over the watch to the three who would be on duty until 0800. As they trooped out, Jared’s phone rang.
It was Sam. “Am I playing cops and robbers with you, my boy?” she asked. “The captain asked me to let you know when that blonde left the bar, and she just took off, so I guess that’s what you needed. I wish I knew what was going on. The captain is just a little under the weather at the moment. He seems to like Jensen’s playing. He had Jensen sing this really old song he said his father wrote back in the day. It was very sweet.”
“That... That’s awesome, Sam. Thanks. Just keep Jensen there with you for as long as you can, please. I’ll tell you all about it tomorrow.” He elbowed Matt as he put his phone back into his pocket. “She’s on her way. Turn on the recorder, and we’ll get whatever confession we can.”
As it turned out, they had to wait a further hour before Katie finally materialized. Her uneven step sounded loud on the bare floor despite the hum of the engines. Jared was fretting, beside himself with worry, knowing that Jensen got off duty at 3 a.m. and hoping against hope that he’d understood that he needed to stay in the bar with Sam and wait until Jared came back. Around the corner, Travis slept on, snoring softly.
Peering around the engine casing, Jared saw Katie approach Travis and dig her good toe into his side. “Come on, little brother. Up and at ‘em. The wolf is at the door, so to speak.”
Travis came awake noisily. “Fuck! Get me out of these? My arm’s gone to sleep.”
She chuckled. “It was in good company then. You were snoring your fool head off.” She looked around her. “So who’s got the keys?” she asked. “And how come you don’t have armed guards all around you?”
“Oh, that’s easy,” said Travis with a smirk. “They think I’m just the simpleton that you bully into doing your dirty work, and I only did stuff to the ship because you threatened my life, you bad girl.” He winked at her. “I should’ve been an actor, don’t you think?”
“You certainly have enough ego for one,” she said. “Where are the damned keys if you want to get free?”
“The keys are over there, hanging on the pegboard,” he rasped. “Just hurry up. I really wanna get out of here as fast as I can. It won’t take them long to realize that we’ve skipped, and we need to get as much distance between us as we can.”
Katie limped over and collected the keys, then sauntered back to stand just out of his reach. “You didn’t ask me if I got it yet,” she said, twirling one blonde tress between her fingers.
“Of course you got it! You wouldn’t dare to come for me if you hadn’t got it.” Travis held out his hands. “Come on, sis, let me out.”
“Poor Alona won’t ever see those plans put into effect now, will she? She kind of lost her head.” Katie pouted. “She didn’t want me to have it. It would be no use without the plans though, and I already have those. Her daddy is going to be so happy.” She beamed at her brother as she patted the satchel she was carrying. Reaching for the keys, she dropped to her knees beside Travis and bent to unlock his wrists. “There! Don’t say I never do anything for you.”
He snatched the keys out of her hand and bent to release his ankles. “Hmph! You owe me one anyway for that idiot doctor when you broke the ankle. Thought he was a ladies’ man, but he got what was coming to him.”
“Hey! I had him under control. All I had to do was throw him off my balcony. You didn’t need to throttle him too. But it was fun to watch, so I forgive you.” She giggled. “Anyway, we should go. They’re waiting for us.”
“I should go anyway,” said Travis, who had finally staggered to his feet. He crossed to the far wall and grabbed a huge wrench. “I hate loose ends, so you had better stay here.” As Jared and Matt both emerged from their hiding place having recorded enough to put them both away for life, they saw Travis take a mighty swing and hit Katie in the side of the head with such force that the loud crunch was heard plainly.
She looked almost amused as she crumpled to the floor and lay still.
“Don’t move.” Matt was holding a pistol, and at that, Travis turned and laughed at him.
“Oh, look! It’s the strong arm of the law. You’re gonna have to shoot me, you know.” Travis wagged a finger at him. “What is it they say? You’ll never take me alive?”
“That’s what you think,” snarled Matt. He fired his gun, and to Jared’s surprise, a small dart flew from it and embedded itself in The Jackal’s shoulder. “That’s going to put you out long enough to get you to port. You’re going to stand trial for the murders of Osric Chau, Misha Collins, Jeffrey Dean Morgan and a whole host of others.”
As Travis followed his sister down to the floor of the engine room, Jared applauded. “Bravo! Just like an episode of Criminal Minds or something.”
“Idiot!” Matt laughed. “Let’s get him back into those cuffs and strap him to the bulkhead again. I think I’ll take the keys with me. Don’t want any other public-spirited accomplice releasing him.”
Jared nodded and bent to help re-confine The Jackal. “Who’d have guessed? There were two of them.”
Matt nodded. “Were is the operative word.” He had dropped to his knees to check Katie for a pulse and now lifted his head to meet Jared’s eyes. “She’s dead. He hit her so hard he broke her neck.”
Meanwhile, Jared had removed Travis’s shoes and socks to reveal six toes on each of the unconscious man’s feet. “Check her feet too. She called him little brother.”
“Yeah.” Jared frowned. “I have to go check on Jensen. I hope to goodness she didn’t get to him.”
Matt nodded. “Go get your boy. I’ll call James. He’s going to have a conniption. I just hope he doesn’t make me walk the plank. I’m sure he thinks that it’s my fault all this mayhem is going on.”
“You like him, don’t you?” Jared gave him a knowing smile. “I can see the charm there. He’s a bit solemn, but with all this stuff going on, I’m not surprised. I’d be chewing glass right now if I were in charge.” He frowned. “Sam said he was up in the bar getting drunk and getting Jensen to play requests for him. Might as well come with me.”
“I had still better get this body dealt with,” Matt replied. “See you in a few.”
As Matt crossed to the phone that was mounted on the wall, Jared raised his hand in a brief farewell and took off back up to Deck 12 to find out if Jensen was okay or not. When he finally burst into The Sound Garden, he found Jensen sitting on the edge of the stage with his guitar, singing ‘Wish You Were Here’ while Sam poured a tumbler of Jack for him. Steve, the other bartender, had produced a second guitar and was perched on the piano stool behind him, playing a counter melody and harmonizing. James was nowhere to be seen.
There were only a couple of patrons left in the bar, and Jared paused on the threshold, red-faced, to catch his breath. “Your wish is my command. Here I am,” he said, the smirk on his face hiding just how scared he’d been for Jensen.
The song came to an end, and Jensen rolled his eyes. “I see that you are. Be still my heart.” Behind him, Steve began to sing, ‘Now I’m Here.’
“Don’t be hating,” Jared pouted. “I was worried that she might have succeeded in taking you out.”
“Me?” Jensen’s eyes opened very wide. “Why would she want to do anything to me?”
“Material witness,” replied Jared. “You saw her leaving the scene of the crime, and I suspect she’d have wanted to get rid of you.”
“But now she’s been arrested?” asked Steve, bringing Jared a scotch.
“Not exactly,” said Jared. “She’s dead. Travis killed her.”
There were audible gasps. “You mean that weedy little shrimp who passed out on the floor the other day?” asked Steve. “That Travis?”
“Yep. That Travis.” Jared shook his head. “Let’s just say he was hiding his talents from us all.”
They all sipped on their drinks in silence for a while, then Jensen laid his guitar aside. “Okay. Take me home, please. I’m bagged.”
Nodding, Jared rose to his feet. “You got it, babe,” he said. “We’re gonna be putting into St. Thomas tomorrow morning, and I expect that the local police will want to speak to both of us. Not only that, but it’s 4 a.m. I could use a little sleep before they start to grill me.”
With that, goodnights were said, and the two of them left the bar.
Strolling down to Deck 6 was pleasant. The sea was still save for the wake that was churned up at the stern, and the moon shone almost full, turning what ripples there were to pearl as the phosphorescence enhanced the moonlight. In the distance, a playful dolphin cut through the air before plunging back down below the waves. It seemed to Jared to be exactly the kind of night for lovers to find each other.
As they reached the deck itself, Jared bent and planted a kiss on Jensen’s mouth. It was inexpert at first, almost missing its intended target, but Jensen got with the program and turned towards him, raising his face so that their mouths collided in earnest, lips and tongues sliding together as if they were two parts of a single whole. There were no comets, and the earth didn’t stand still, but the two men didn’t notice as they pressed together, lost in the exploration of each other. When Jensen finally stepped back to look at his companion, he had hearts in his eyes.
“Come on,” Jared’s voice was soft, and he took Jensen’s hand to lead him into the ship and down the passageway to their cabin.
Inside the cabin, Jared turned to Jensen, who seemed to be in a daze. “God, I want...” He lifted his hand to trail fingers down over Jensen’s face from the fine skin of his temple down over the rough jaw. “I can’t stop thinking about you,” he whispered.
“Don’t wanna hurt you.” Jensen closed his eyes at the gentle touch.
“You won’t, Jen. Not gonna happen.”
Jensen bit his lip as if lost in thought and finally seemed to reach a decision. “What the hell!” He reached for Jared, pressing up against him so that Jared could feel just how aroused he was. “You’re wearing way too many clothes.”
Laughing, Jared signified his agreement by pulling his T-shirt over his head and reaching down to his belt buckle, but Jensen beat him to it, fumbling with the catch and popping the button at the waistband of Jared’s jeans.
“Guh,” said Jared, unable to think of anything more coherent as he felt his jeans descend and warm hands cup his butt cheeks. It seemed that once Jensen had made his decision, he was all in and fully engaged in taking Jared apart, one piece at a time. Jensen’s jaw was rough, faint stubble scraping against his, sending tingles down his spine. Kisses were lazy at first, becoming firmer, more desperate, until he was groaning into Jensen’s mouth, his cock hot and hard against Jensen’s thigh. Pre-come leaked, making his boxers soggy, and Jensen shoved them down roughly, leaving him bare.
At that point it didn’t take long for Jared to realize that things would feel a whole lot better if Jensen were naked too, and he dropped to his knees, pulling and dragging until Jensen’s offending garments were scattered across the floor. From his position on the floor, he could see the whole of Jensen’s body, muscular thighs tapering to the slim waist and bracketed between them the man’s hard, glistening cock. Without any hesitation, he leaned in and sucked the tip into his mouth, causing juices to drip onto his tongue, sharp and salty.
He sucked for a moment longer, but Jensen tugged him upright. “Gonna come if you keep on doing that,” he said. Jared smirked around his mouthful of Jensen's cock and let his fingers glide over Jensen’s balls before he finally released the cock with a pop. Finally submitting to Jensen’s urging, he climbed to his feet and laughed as he shoved Jensen back onto the bed.
Jared followed him down and captured his lips again, licking his way into Jensen’s mouth. He pushed on Jensen's shoulder until he was lying flat on his back, then took a moment to prop himself up on one elbow so he could gaze down on him. Jensen's hair was sticking up in odd ends and spikes; his eyes were dark and shiny, and his lips were spit-slick and swollen. Jared just wanted to wrap himself around him and fucking own him.
It seemed that Jared had spent too long thinking about things. Jensen had claimed the moment. He’d fumbled into the nightstand, knowing — or at least suspecting — that there was lube there, grunting in satisfaction as he found it, flipped open the cap and coated his hand.
Jared felt fingers tickling down his treasure trail, scritch-scratching their way towards his cock, then past to circle his balls and down. There was lube, and a finger circling his hole, then two, and they slid round and round, dipped in and finally entered him, filling him, stretching while he loved Jensen with his eyes.
“Do it,” he muttered, reaching for the lube himself and reaching for Jensen’s cock, thick and sturdy. “Just let me feel you.”
Chuckling, Jensen added another finger and stretched him wider, until he thought he might split. “Don’t want to injure you, Jay. Don’t wanna hurt you.”
“Oh, fuck, please,” groaned Jared, and Jensen finally rolled to cover him, pull up his thighs and drive his cock inside him, one long slide until he could feel Jensen’s balls slapping his ass. Jared thought he might have cried out. The feel of Jensen, the sight of him, the slack mouth mumbling obscenities, all conspired to make him crazy.
Long thrusts stroked sweetness into his flesh, and Jensen rolled his hips, body slick and smooth against his, while Jared reached to take hold of his own cock, jacking it as he felt the curls of orgasm begin to rise, gather and pool at the base of his balls.
“Be right back,” muttered Jensen and went to find something to clean them up with, settling on one of the hand towels to wipe away the sticky residue.
“Get some sleep,” he murmured, dropping a final kiss onto Jared’s mouth before going to slip into his own bunk. “There’s no way we’ll both fit into one of these beds.”
A moment later, Jared was snoring softly, and when Matt knocked on his door the following day to tell him that the police wanted his statement, Jensen was gone.
After three attempts to wake Jensen and Jared, Matt eventually resorted to banging on the door loudly. He hoped none of the other passengers on Deck 6 were trying to sleep, but the St. Thomas police were getting impatient. They wanted to talk to everyone on board who had any involvement in the crimes before they took Travis and his victims to their police station. And Matt was sure the two men would much rather get that out of the way now so they could enjoy their day ashore.
When Jared finally opened the door, it was clear what they had been up to the night before. If the severely tousled hair and several suspicious looking marks on his neck and torso didn’t give it away, the distinct smell of sex sure did. Looked like they had finally figured their shit out. Their timing could’ve been better though, with the whole murder investigation and police officers needing to speak with them.
“Ugh, you stink,” Matt informed Jared. “You and Jensen better shower quickly. The police are waiting for you.”
“Jensen?” Jared asked, apparently confused. “He’s not there? When he wasn’t here I hoped he was already talking to the cops.”
“No,” Matt answered. “I was waiting as long as I could to come wake you. But they only have a few more interviews to do, and they need to get going.”
“Tell them to go on,” Jared said, sounding distracted as he looked around the room. “I need to find Jensen.”
“Do us all a favor,” Matt teased. “Have a shower first.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Jared muttered. “Get out of here. I’ll find Jensen, and we’ll come to the station.”
Matt left him to it and returned to speak with the officers. They weren’t happy to have two of their most important witnesses unavailable, but when Matt reminded them that Jared had been up with him all night trapping their killers, they were slightly mollified. An Officer Jackson did extract Matt’s guarantee that he would personally make sure they came in for questioning. Her people were already packing everything up for transport to the police station, and she glared at Matt as she left to make her own way back there.
Once she was gone, Matt found himself at loose ends. James was busy with the horrendous amount of red tape involved in canceling the rest of the cruise, compensating the passengers and arranging for their transport home. Not that he was personally making the arrangements, but as the ship’s captain, he was responsible for authorizing them and reporting to Carnivore Cruises. Matt didn’t envy him.
He really wasn’t surprised when he found himself in The Sound Garden. Sam took one look at him and poured him a bourbon rather than his usual glass of wine, setting the bottle on the bar next to him. “Damn, boy. You look rode hard and put away wet,” she said. “And not in the fun way.”
“Yeah,” Matt agreed, gratefully taking a healthy swig of the bourbon before grimacing slightly. “It was a long night.”
“Speaking of your long night,” Sam said. “Have you seen Jared? He promised to explain what was going on and never got around to it.”
“Last I saw him, he was just getting in the shower,” Matt answered. “He’s probably still in his cabin or combing the ship, looking for Jensen.”
“Oh, he’ll probably want this then,” Sam said, as if she’d just remembered. She held up a note with Jared’s name written on it. Matt doubted the omission had been accidental; she’d probably been trying to save his feelings or something in case he didn’t yet realize that Jensen was spoken for. “He left this for Jared while he was packing up his guitar.”
“Packing up his guitar?” Matt was utterly confused. Where would he be going just when he and Jared had worked things out? Why?
“Maybe I better ring Jared’s cabin,” Sam said. “Hopefully, he’s still there and this note can tell us something.”
“Good idea,” Matt agreed, and Sam put words to action.
“Jared?” Sam said into the phone. “It’s Sam. Jensen left a note for you up in the bar.” She hung up the phone and turned to Matt. “He’ll be right up.”
Matt drank a few more sips of his bourbon before Jared came racing in, holding his hand out for the note. Sam handed it over without comment, and Jared snatched it from her and tore it open.
“See you soon. This has all been a bit much for me, but I’ll find you when you least expect it,” Jared read aloud. His voice and expressions were calm and even, but Matt couldn’t imagine how he must be feeling.
“That’s a tough one, kid,” Sam said sympathetically. “But I get it. I’m of half a mind to turn tail and run and it wasn’t even my room the guy died in.”
“I agree,” Matt said. “He was pretty green at the crime scene. I think he’s handled himself pretty well, considering.”
“Crime scene? Wait? You’re a cop?” Sam looked back and forth between Matt and Jared. “You’re both cops?”
“Yeah,” Jared answered, nodding. “Sorry about that. I was going to explain it all and then things sort of got away from me. Thanks for your part, by the way. You were a big help.”
“I thought I was helping you set up some sort of tryst with your boy,” Sam sputtered. “I had no idea I was involved in some big investigation!”
“I’m sorry,” Matt apologized. Jared shouldn’t have involved a civilian, but they had so few resources. And it was unlikely her role would’ve been discovered and put her in danger. “We wouldn’t have involved you if we’d had any other choice. I know it can be upsetting to be around a murder, much less involved in the investigation.”
“Murder? Osric was murdered? Why?” Sam’s voice was understandably angry and confused. Matt kicked himself for upsetting her further by letting the cat out of the bag. He really shouldn’t have assumed she knew about the murder just because she’d known Osric had died in Jensen’s cabin. James’s attempts to keep the investigation under wraps had been much more successful than Matt had expected.
“I’m so sorry! I thought you knew…” Matt trailed off inanely. He really should be better at functioning with little to no sleep by now.
“No, I get it,” Sam reassured him. “You didn’t want to cause a panic. And I’m glad to have been able to help. I don’t understand any of it, but I was happy to contribute. You realize this makes it even more understandable that your boy ran off, Jared. His cabin steward was murdered in his room? And the young man he was just getting close to is a cop investigating the murder?”
“When you put it that way…” Jared’s voice trailed off, and Matt was sure he was unconvinced.
“Sam’s probably got the right of it,” Matt agreed. “And we’ve got to get to the station.”
“Of course,” Jared agreed, pouring a finger of Matt’s bourbon and downing it before heading for the door. “You coming?”
Matt drained his glass and followed his friend out the door with a smile and wave to Sam. “We’ll catch up later, okay?”
On the way to the police station, a small boy in threadbare clothing brushed against Jared before dashing into the crowd again. Matt was accustomed to tourist areas and tried to nab the would-be pickpocket. He was far too quick though. Matt didn’t think the kid had time to get anything, but he’d been so quick to run off, maybe his fingers were even quicker. “You should check your pockets, see if anything is missing.”
Jared made a show of patting himself down before pulling a small card from his pants pocket in surprise. “Where did this come from? How did he? I didn’t even feel anything!”
“They’re sneaky. At least he didn’t take your wallet,” Matt comforted. “What do you have there?”
“It’s one of the Tornado’s cards!” Jared exclaimed. “He’s never done this before. They’ve always been left for me, not delivered by accosting urchins.”
“It’s not that different to the Lukka Kairi. Is there a message?” Matt asked. “The last two have been breaks in the pattern as well, drawing you out here. Maybe this was his plan all along?”
“Maybe,” Jared shrugged and then read the card aloud, stumbling over the unfamiliar words. “El Valle del Espíritu Santo seems like a pretty village on a beautiful island. Wonder if I can find anything of interest there.”
“So he is luring you somewhere,” Matt commented. “The question is, why? Do you think he means you harm?”
“No!” Jared replied emphatically. “Everything I’ve learned about him has convinced me that he abhors violence. So many times, it would have been easier for him to at least knock out a witness, if not kill them, and he never has.”
“If he left witnesses, why didn’t you ever get a description?” Matt asked.
“Oh, we did,” Jared laughed. “We got so many descriptions, and had so many sketches done. According to the witnesses, he is tall, short, black, white, ginger, blond, blue eyes, green eyes — or maybe it’s a woman.”
“How do you know it’s the same person?” Matt asked. “And why are you so sure it’s a man?”
“I’m not completely sure it’s a man,” Jared admitted. “That’s just a gut feeling. But I am sure it’s the same person. There’s a style to all of these heists that’s almost as unique as a fingerprint. If I knew the city and the date, I could predict exactly what he’d steal and how he’d go about it. And there are details that are perfect, every time. I knew it was the same person well before he started leaving the cards, but I couldn’t convince my boss. But I know this guy.”
“Sounds like you have a crush on him,” Matt teased.
“Hardly,” Jared rolled his eyes. “I’ll save that for Jensen. But I’ve been chasing this guy for years, and I really need to catch him. Both for my career and the personal satisfaction.”
“So, go get him,” Matt advised.
“I plan to,” Jared responded excitedly, then sobered suddenly. “But what about Jensen? He said he’d find me, but I don’t think he’d expect me to go traipsing off to some random island in the Caribbean. What if I miss him?”
“I get the feeling he’s not going to give up on you that easily,” reassured Matt. “Besides, James and I will still be here wrapping this mess up for a while. I’m sure Jensen will look me up to ask after you if he shows up and can’t find you.”
“You’re probably right,” Jared agreed dubiously.
“Besides,” Matt pressed. “How long have you been chasing this guy? You can’t just let it go on the off chance that Jensen picks this moment to come back. You can be back in a couple of days.”
“Okay,” Jared finally agreed. “Now where’s this police station?”
“It should be just up here,” Matt answered, recalling the directions that Officer Jackson had given him. “That’s it, I think.”
The station was much like other police stations that Matt had been in around the world, only cleaner and the cops spoke English. Jared went off to give his statement, and the officer from the ship asked Matt, “Where is the other witness?”
“He was pretty traumatized by the whole thing,” Matt answered. “I think he’s gone somewhere to clear his head.”
“But you must understand that we need to talk to him,” Officer Jackson insisted.
“Of course,” Matt reassured her. “I’m sure he’ll turn up soon. We’ve gotten to be friends the last few days. I’ll see that he comes in.”
“Please do,” she agreed. “I will need to close the case quickly and make arrangements to get the victims back to their families.”
“You don’t really need him to close the case,” Matt reassured her. “His presence was firmly established elsewhere, and he didn’t even find the body. It was just in his cabin.”
“Nevertheless,” Officer Jackson insisted. “I should talk to him just to be thorough. He may know something.”
“I agree,” Matt said. “That’s why I talked to him. He didn’t remember anything then that was helpful. He did see one of the suspects — the fourth victim — later and established her whereabouts around the time of the third murder and that she was wearing the third victim’s clothing. That helped us to time our operation to trap the suspect.”
“Four victims?” Officer Jackson asked. “Why are there only three bodies?”
“We got them on tape admitting to throwing the ship’s doctor overboard,” Matt reminded her.
“Oh, right,” she said. “I’d forgotten. Glad I have you around to set me straight. Just make sure you bring my other witness as soon as you can.”
“Will do,” Matt answered, relieved that she’d accepted his explanation for the moment. Now Jensen just needed to turn up before he got Matt into trouble.
Just then, Jared reappeared from his interview, and Matt remembered the card. He asked Officer Jackson, “Do you know anything about a place called El Valle del Espíritu Santo? It’s supposed to be some village on an island.”
“Umm …” she answered, apparently searching her memory. “The valley of the holy spirit? Hey, Jim? Isn’t there an island with a church on it with that name just north of the mainland?”
“Yes,” Jim answered. “It’s on Isla Margarita. The island is mostly full of resorts, but has fallen on hard times with the political unrest in the rest of Venezuela. I wouldn’t recommend it.”
“Jared’s following up on a lead,” Matt explained. “Do you have any recommendations for transportation?”
“Unofficially,” Jared cut in.
“I’ll do you one better,” Jim offered, ignoring Jared’s clarification. “I have a buddy who has a charter service. I’m sure I can get him to take you over there. And get you in a registered cab that’ll be less likely to cheat you blind.”
“Wow,” Jared smiled, clearly grateful. “That would be great! When do we leave?”
“First light,” Jim answered. “It’ll take at least four hours to get there, and the museum there closes at lunch time. The church is open until five. Not much else in the village, and not really anywhere to stay without going back into Porlamar, unless you know someone.”
“Thank you!” Jared said, but Matt could tell he was a little disappointed that he couldn’t get started this afternoon. “I appreciate your help. I’ll be here first thing.”
“You should meet him at the airport,” Jim said. “Do you have any bolivar?”
“What?” Jared sounded confused.
“Venezuelan currency,” Jim explained. “From your reaction, I’m going to assume that’s a no. I’ll ask Julio to bring some. They’re incredibly cheap, and it’s a lot easier to get around if you have the local currency. You should bring $50 for the money. Don’t bring more; it’ll attract attention you don’t need.”
“What about the transportation?” Jared asked. “That must be expensive.”
“He owes me one,” Jim said. “Or several. But consider it a gift.”
“Thank you,” Jared said, smiling. He looked more relaxed than Matt had seen him since he had discovered Jensen was missing. Refocusing on his mission to catch The Green Tornado seemed to be just the distraction that he needed.
The sky was just beginning to show signs of the impending sunrise when Jared presented himself at the airport. Apparently, he was expected as he was escorted quickly through security that seemed more like what he’d expect at a federal building or courthouse than an airport. A narrow, inconspicuous door led him downstairs and onto the tarmac where a small twin-engine plane was waiting. Within 15 minutes, they were airborne.
The flight was long in the small plane, but Julio regaled Jared with talk of his travels around the islands. What he was doing during those travels wasn’t always clear, but his stories were entertaining. Jared thought it likely that Julio was a smuggler of sorts but found him fun to share stories with. His tales were intermixed with cautions about pickpockets and muggers, as well as other nefarious sorts in Porlamar and on Isla de Margarita in general. Jared found himself growing more nervous, but Julio assured Jared that he would help Jared find safe and reliable transportation to the village of El Valle del Espíritu Santo.
True to his word, Julio flagged down a cab and negotiated a rate well within the sum he’d exchanged for Jared’s American dollars. 25 minutes later, Jared was in his destination village. The cab driver didn’t know the Santiago Mariño Museum, but it couldn’t be that hard to find. The village wasn’t that big. He had barely started looking around when he was approached by a young boy asking him, “You look for El Tornado Verde, sí?”
“Yes,” Jared answered, bemused.
“I take you, sí?”
Seeing no better alternative, Jared was happy to agree. He nodded to the boy. “Sí, thank you. Uh, gracias.”
The boy smiled at him brightly and guided him down alleys and through a market square like only a native could. Jared was glad to have his help. The museum turned out to be a lovely traditional colonial house with mature trees and lots of greenery lining the path to the door. The signs indicated in English and Spanish that this had been the home of General Santiago Mariño, who was revered as a hero of the Venezuelan War of Independence.
Inside, Jared found paintings, furniture and other classic objects from this period in Venezuelan history, all helpfully labeled. What he didn’t find were any other people. The boy had disappeared before Jared had a chance to thank him. He had explored the house, and still hadn’t seen a soul, but he found patio doors thrown wide to allow in the breeze leading out to a beautiful garden.
Tropical flowers bloomed everywhere in barely contained chaos, but the paths were clear. Jared’s attention was drawn from the natural beauty around him to a man seated on a bench near the middle facing away from him. Could that finally be The Green Tornado? Surely it wouldn’t be this easy in the end.
As he walked around the bench, the seated man lifted his gaze to meet Jared’s, and Jared actually stumbled in shock. The man was Jensen! What was he doing here? Where was the Tornado?
“Hey, Jared,” Jensen said, almost timidly. Almost as if he were afraid of him. Why would Jensen be afraid? Surely he knew that Jared could never hurt him.
“Hey,” Jared asked, looking around for the Tornado. Jensen shouldn’t be here! “What are you doing here?”
Jensen didn’t answer, just continued sitting there, looking at him, waiting. Jared kept expecting him to say something, to offer some explanation, but he didn’t. Finally, the penny dropped. “You’re The Green Tornado?”
“Why what?” Jensen asked, not quite sure what Jared was asking. At least he hadn’t punched him yet — that had to be a good sign, right? Maybe he was too stunned to react and the violence would come later, or maybe there would just be indifference. Jensen wouldn’t blame him for either.
“Why are we here?” Jared finally clarified. “Why did you bring me here?”
“I wanted…” Jensen trailed off. Why was he here? What did he expect to gain besides more heartbreak for both of them? He settled for a partial truth. “I wanted to see if we could clear the air. I couldn’t keep … not lying exactly, but not telling you the truth either.”
“Damn straight you weren’t being honest with me!” Jared responded angrily. “Knowing full well I was hunting for you and then luring me to your bed!”
“That’s not how it happened,” Jensen responded defensively, standing and reaching for Jared before thinking better of it and lowering his hand. This was what he’d been afraid of. It was the obvious conclusion from Jared’s perspective. “I didn’t mean for … the last thing I expected was to fall for you! I didn’t mean to fall for anybody, especially not a fed! I didn’t even know who you were until the restaurant that day.”
“Then how did it happen?” Jared demanded, backing away from him. “What was the point of leaving the cards for me, for leaving the breadcrumbs that led me to this cruise? What was that all about if it wasn’t to screw with me?”
“I don’t know,” Jensen answered, shrugging. He’d been trying to figure out the answer to this one himself for months, years even. But he had to try, he had to give Jared something. “At first, it was an impulse. You fascinated me. Nobody else had ever gotten into my head the way you did. It was like you understood me. So I wanted to see what you would do. It was stupid, and I’m sorry. I never meant to hurt you.”
“Good job there,” Jared said bitterly.
“You have every right to be angry,” Jensen said resignedly. “Hell, I more than half expected you to punch me when you figured it out.”
“Then why are we here?” Jared repeated, clearly still confused and angry. “Why didn’t you just vanish? Did you want to rub salt in the wound?”
“No!” Jensen sputtered, then continued more calmly, stealing himself for the loss he knew was coming. “I … I couldn’t just go. Not without seeing you again. Not without at least trying to salvage this.”
“Salvage what?” Jared asked.
“Us,” Jensen clarified. “Jared, you must know how I feel about you. I couldn’t just leave without finding out if what you felt could survive what I’ve done.”
“No, I don’t,” Jared said. “I don’t know how you feel. I gave myself to you, told you I loved you, and you didn’t say anything. And when I woke, you were gone. How is that supposed to show that you feel anything for me?”
“I’m sorry,” Jensen said. “That shouldn’t have happened.”
“What?” Jared asked, clearly stung. “We shouldn’t have slept together, or I shouldn’t have told you I loved you?”
“I was determined not to let that happen,” Jensen answered. He had tried so hard to keep Jared at arm’s length, but he’d failed. And that’s why everything he’d ever wanted was ending like this. “And then Osric getting killed in my cabin, and bunking with you and … I was weak. I’m sorry.”
“I thought you wanted it too,” Jared mumbled, obviously crushed. Jensen thought at this point that Jared was just going to walk away, that he should walk away.
“I did!,” Jensen said urgently. “I wanted it more than anything. That was the problem. I just didn’t want it to be like that!”
“Like what?” Jared asked cautiously.
“I wanted to tell you the truth first,” Jensen said simply. “I wanted you to know who I was before we made love.”
“So, what now?” Jared asked. That’s the question Jensen didn’t have the answer to. He’d never expected to fall in love, or that it would feel like this. And with a cop! But here he was, head over heels, and Jared had said he loved Jensen, too. But that was before he really knew Jensen. Jensen was a thief, and Jared was a cop, and there was no way this could ever work. Jensen didn’t deserve Jared, anyway. He was an idiot to think this last-ditch effort to talk to Jared could change anything.
“I guess that’s up to you,” Jensen replied, leaving his heart in Jared’s hands.
“But I’m a cop. And you’re a thief,” Jared protested, echoing Jensen’s thoughts. “There’s no way this can work.”
“I don’t have to steal,” Jensen offered. “I have everything we’d ever need.”
“Then why did you?” Jared asked curiously.
“Adrenaline rush?” Jensen offered unsurely. “Because it was who I was and what I did, and I didn’t have anything else?”
“So, what?” Jared asked. “I quit my job, you quit yours, and we set up a bar somewhere you can’t be extradited?”
“Why not?” Jensen asked, shrugging and ducking his head. Jared had said it derisively, but he’d articulated the perfect scenario for Jensen. Too bad Jared would never be happy living it. “I mean, I would be happy with that. I would be happy with you, however we work that out. I love you. I mean, if you still feel the same?”
“I don’t know,” Jared answered, his voice cracking. “I don’t know if I can do this.”
Jensen’s heart broke as Jared turned and walked away.
Jared wasn’t sure how he’d made it the mile or so from El Valle to Porlamar, but he’d eventually found a taxi to take him back to the airport. Julio had finished his business on Isla de Margarita and was waiting for him. Probably sensing his mood, he was much less talkative on the flight back to St. Thomas. Jared made his way back to the ship, and Matt took one look at him and involved him in wrapping up the paperwork for the case. Jared tried to bury himself in the work but found himself going over the events of the past week with the growing certainty that he’d thrown away the best thing that had ever happened to him.
All of the passengers and most of the crew had gone back home, but the few who remained gathered in The Sound Garden the next evening. James and Matt had obviously worked out their relationship, and watching their easy camaraderie just made Jared sad. Matt expected an explanation, of course, and Jared hadn’t felt up to offering any until he had some alcohol in his system.
“It was Jensen,” Jared said, out of the blue.
“What was Jensen?” asked Matt.
“The Green Tornado,” Jared answered dully. He still didn’t know what to think of it all, but he was finally starting to realize that maybe the case didn’t matter as much as he’d always thought it did. “He offered to stop stealing.”
“What did you do?” Matt asked. If he was surprised, he covered quickly. James just looked confused, but didn’t comment.
“What choice did I have?” Jared asked in return, echoing the refrain that had been chasing itself around in his head. “I walked away.”
“Sometimes there are things more important than the case,” Matt answered, sneaking a glance at James before refocusing on Jared. “You just have to decide whether or not this is one of those times. And then live with what you decide.”
“But what can I do even if I do decide that he’s more important?” Jared asked despondently. “I’m sure I’d never see him again anyway.”
Jared was busy staring into his half-empty glass when he heard a familiar voice and finally noticed that something had captured his friends’ attention over by the bar. He turned to look and couldn’t control the smile that broke across his face when he saw Jensen getting another round for their table. If he’d still had any doubt about what he’d decide if given the opportunity, that uncertainty was erased by the joy he felt at the sight of Jensen’s face, and the sound of his voice teasing Sam at the bar.
“Hey, Jared,” Jensen said, his smile just as bright as the one Jared knew was on his own face. It was amazing how different the same words sounded than they had just a day ago. This was the confident man that Jared had fallen in love with. He didn’t know what soul searching Jensen had been doing, but apparently he’d come to some sort of realization as well. And his presence here spoke volumes. He continued, greeting the other two men, but his eyes never left Jared’s. “Matt, James. Good to see you.”
“Hey,” Jared answered. “Did you enjoy your time on the island?”
“I don’t know if enjoy is the right word,” Jensen replied. “But I did come to a realization.”
“You too?” Jared asked. “What was yours?”
“That it doesn’t matter if you have everything else in the world; if you don’t have what’s most important to you, you’ll never be happy,” Jensen said simply. “So, my future is in your hands.”
“That’s funny,” Jared said, smiling even bigger, if that was possible. “I’d pretty much come to the same conclusion.”
January 2017, Porlamar Aeropuerto
The two men descending from the plane at Del Caribe "Santiago Mariño" International Airport were both stunning. More than one of the holidaymakers traveling with them had cast longing looks their way, but they seemed totally engrossed in each other.
Making their way inside the terminal to collect their luggage and pass through customs, they walked in step, so close that their shoulders bumped with each stride. It took what seemed like forever before their luggage emerged from the conveyer belt and they were able to snag it.
Stepping out of the airport into the solid heat of the afternoon, they were relieved to be hailed by a familiar voice, and a white car drew up alongside the curb.
“You guys!” Jared hopped out of the car and clapped them both on the back before moving round to pop the trunk and stow their suitcases. “This is gonna be so fun,” he said. “I thought you were never going to get here. You took so long, I thought you’d been impounded for smuggling or something.”
James snickered. “We’d have been out of there a good half hour ago if we hadn’t had to fight our way through all the señoritas who wanted to take Matt here home to meet the family.”
“Well, we’d better get him out of harm’s way,” said Jared, holding the door as the two men settled themselves inside and then closing it with a flourish.
The road was dusty and rutted, and Porlamar was a strange mix of new skyscrapers and concrete buildings along the ocean’s edge that gradually changed as they turned away from the water to cross through the city. Soon they were driving through aging stucco and older, colonial style houses as they made their way to the quiet area where Jensen and Jared had set up home.
As they drew out of the main city, the road climbed a little and the view of the ocean was enough to keep them drinking in the scenery, so little was said on their journey. It wasn’t long before Jared pulled the car into a driveway paved with red brick and drove up to a building that looked to have been made from confectioners’ sugar. The walls were white stucco, with a wide porch that was roofed in red tile, and an archway with wrought iron gates that had been folded back in welcome. The archway led into a tiled foyer, and Jared turned to them.
“Come see Jensen, and then I’ll show you where your room is. You must be dying of heatstroke in those suits.”
James had taken his jacket off and tossed it carelessly over his suitcase while Matt, always dapper, smiled at him. “Lead on. We can take it.”
Jared led them out of a side door and across a little garden with a fountain of cherubs carved from marble. Partly obscured by a huge hibiscus, there was another door which led into a long, wide verandah, open on one side. At the far end was a stage containing a piano and a guitar on a stand, and against the wall of the verandah was a bar. Several patrons were sitting at tables around the bar, or leaning up against it, and standing behind the bar, beaming at them, was Jensen.
Later that evening, the four men sat around a table to enjoy a drink and catch up. The bar was full of people, most of them locals, out for the evening and prepared to party. Dress was casual, and even Matt had shed his suit for a Henley and jeans, while the other three were in shorts and tank tops. The fragrance of oleander and frangipani mixed with the warm breeze carrying the scent of the ocean. Jared couldn’t stop smiling as the four of them shared their tales of what had happened since their last meeting.
“It suddenly dawned on me,” said Jared, his arm around Jensen’s shoulders. “I didn’t fail after all. I caught The Green Tornado. What I did with him after that doesn’t matter.”
“It’s a good look on you,” smiled James. “You look relaxed.”
“He does,” said Jensen with a grin. “He’s writing a book. I’ve made him promise not to put me in it.”
At that moment, Sam came from behind the bar with a plate of tapas. “Hey, guys. It’s great to see you all together again, looking good. Steve put these together for you, and he’ll be on in five minutes to start warming up the crowd.”
As they all reached for one of the tasty morsels on the dish, Jensen turned to Matt. “While we’re tying up loose ends, what happened to the Wester guy?”
“Well, of course, once I delivered him into custody, my job was done, but I know that he was transported to Miami, and he’s been placed in solitary for his own protection. There are way too many of his victims out there waiting to take him out.” Matt gestured around at the bar, which was now packed with patrons. “I’ve resigned. Gonna try something with less blood involved.”
“And I’m going to be with him every step of the way,” said James, reaching to clasp Matt’s hand.
The noise in the bar suddenly became subdued as Steve stepped up to the mike at the front of the stage and began to play. The four men listened for a few minutes, and then Jensen rose to his feet, bent to plant a long, sweet kiss on Jared’s mouth, then straightened.
“Guess I’d better go to work,” he said.
“Break a leg,” murmured Jared and then turned to the others with a wink. “Yep, he’s gainfully employed at last.”