Currents of Vengeance

Part One


The Death Stalker


1


February 17, 2008 – Washington, DC


Michelangelo Clayton turned carefully onto his side to check the clock on the bedside table. With some relief, he noted that this simple maneuver was a little easier to accomplish than it had been a few days ago. He raised his head and squinted at the digits in the dimly lit room; Sunday, 11:14 a.m. Mick sighed and fell back against the pillow. For the past two weeks, he had spent most of his time in this charming blue and brown reproduction colonial-style bedroom. Now that he was feeling better, boredom was setting in, and he was looking forward to having Bill around for some company at least for part of the day.

A door had closed quietly at the other end of the house, and Mick was waiting to see whether it was Bill or the nurse who was supposed to visit two days a week to check his stitches and help him with his personal care. He never knew exactly which day she would show up and assumed that Aetna would soon curtail the visits, which was fine with him because he didn’t think he needed her minimal efforts anyway. 

Senator Bill Sawyer stepped into the bedroom with briefcase in hand. He wore a dark grey suit and a black and red striped tie over a dazzling white shirt, indicating that he had come from work. He glanced at Mick and walked directly to the window to raise the black-out pleated shade. Bright sunlight immediately penetrated the gloom, significantly improving the room’s overall ambiance. Then he returned to the foot of the bed and peered down at Mick.

Mick thought that his friend was still in decent shape for a guy who had little time to take care of himself. For some reason, at that moment he noticed for the first time that his sandy hair was beginning to thin a little in front. Otherwise, he still had the same freckled boyish look as when they met at Cornell more than twenty years ago. The two had been best friends since then, and after the events of the past seven weeks, their friendship had deepened.

“Hey buddy,” Bill was saying, “is there anything I can get you or are you going to get out of that bed? It’s almost noon, and I’m taking the rest of the day off so I'm thinking we should get you out on the terrace. It’s a beautiful day and not really that cold . . . anyway, we can sit in the sun.”

“Yeah, good idea. I’ve been thinking that I want to talk to you again about some of the stuff that happened on the cruise and ideas I have about Paul Denezza.” He pulled himself up as he spoke and managed a sitting position on the side of the bed. Bill stepped up and bent over to take his elbow. After helping him up, Bill let go and started for the door. Mick said to his back, “I’m so much better now. I don’t know how I can ever repay you for letting me stay here and for nursing me back to health.” 

Bill turned around to see Mick struggling with his bathrobe and returned to help him put it on. The deep chest wound had made his left shoulder stiff and reaching behind him was still a chore. He answered with a chuckle, “I think if I had a big hole in my chest and had lost half my blood supply you would do the same for me, right?”

“Let’s hope you never go through anything like this, but yeah, I guess you could count on me,” He tried to laugh without taking too deep a breath.

Mick proceeded slowly down the hallway and across the polished oak-planked living room floor to a set of French doors. Out on the grey and black flagstone terrace, he sat opposite Bill at a glass-topped iron filigree table. Before they became involved in a conversation, though, Bill suddenly excused himself and went to change into jeans and to get them both a beer.

Mick breathed deeply and looked at his surroundings, grateful that the pain in his chest was greatly diminishing. He gazed at the remaining red and gold leaves of the winter garden surrounding the perimeter of Bill’s back yard. The $3 million two-story brick row house on North Carolina Avenue had been beautifully restored, but only had seventeen hundred square feet. Bill had said it was plenty big enough for him, and besides, it was only about six blocks from the Russell Senate Office Building at First and Constitution where he spent much of his time. 

Bill soon returned to his seat and held out an icy bottle. “Here, try this, from the Blue and Gray Brewing Company in Fredericksburg. Lately, I’ve been trying to sample some beers from our great local micros.” They both chugged and leaned back stretching their legs out in front of them.

Mick held the bubbling amber liquid up to the light and studied the carbonation. Turning the bottle, he read the label—Blue and Gray Classic Lager—then took another sip and savored the smooth malty flavor. “This is pretty good and fairly light, which is probably a good thing for me right now since I’m out of training.”

He tried to draw a deep breath and leaned forward in his seat with his elbows resting on the table. With a subdued tone, he said, “You know, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I can do to make sure Denezza pays for at least part of what happened on the ship. There is no doubt that he hired those two crew members to get rid of his wife and now they’re both dead.” Bill swallowed and waved his bottle for him to continue.

Mick nodded. “His involvement will be hard to prove with no one left to give direct testimony. It’s all so damned complicated because Sidney Denezza is still alive and four others are dead . . . I don’t know, maybe there’s no one left who knew about Paul’s plan.” He shook his head and sipped his beer.

“So what do you think you’d like to do about it?”

Mick seemed to perk up a little. “OK, Tom Smythe, the security chief on the Sea Nymph was fired by World of Seas Cruise Line because of everything he supposedly allowed to happen on the cruise. Well, he tells me he intends to continue working with the Vegas FBI to try and prosecute Paul.”

Finally, Bill set his bottle down and leaned toward Mick. “Really? That is a little surprising under the circumstances.”

“I thought so too, but I mailed him the keys to the Range Rover, still parked where I left it at the Miami Marriott, and he’s driving up here to talk to me.”

Bill pursed his lips and pulled his legs under him. “Sounds like the two of you already have a plan in mind.”

“Well, one of the things we’re thinking is that someone needs to go back to the ship and talk to members of the crew to see if anyone else knew about Paul’s scheme. That’s the only way we’re going to get evidence to prove what he was doing if evidence even exists.”   

Bill stared across at his friend as he took another swallow of beer. Then he shook the empty bottle, pushed himself from the table and jumped to his feet. “Want another one?”

“Sure, but that had better be it for me.”

A minute later Bill returned and lowered himself into his chair. “I get the feeling there is something you think I can do to help, but I can’t begin to imagine what it would be.”

“You’ve already done so much for us by making that arrangement with your friend, Ray Alosa. If he hadn’t delayed Denezza at the Buenos Aires consulate causing him to miss the sailing, things would probably have been much worse.” Mick felt guilty about involving his friend even further, but he was desperate to make sure Denezza paid for his crimes. “And now you’ve done so much for me personally, I wouldn’t ask for anything else . . . only a little question and some advice.”

“Oh, oh, that even worries me.” Bill grinned and shook his head. “OK, what do you have in mind?”

“What Smythe and I have in mind is something I already tried to initiate with Ken, but I didn’t get very far over the phone. He’s sympathetic to my situation, but in a way, I think this is the last straw for him. Let’s face it, I haven’t been putting my full effort into the job for a couple of years and now living here with you is making it even worse.” Ken Worthford was the U.S. Assistant Comptroller General for Law and Justice at the Government Accountability Office, and Mick’s boss. As Director of State Law Enforcement Issues, Mick was responsible for the work of twenty analysts who conducted audits of federally funded law enforcement agencies. Even before his recent injury, he hadn’t been in a healthy emotional state and hadn’t been carrying the full weight of his position.

“We know Ken has always had a problem with our friendship. He thinks it’s a conflict of interest that I’m a member of Congress and you work for the GAO, and it doesn’t matter to him that we’ve been friends since college. In his mind, we should not have a personal relationship at all . . . but what did you say to Ken about Denezza?”

“Nothing directly about him; just that I want to lead a review of crimes on cruise ships and use that opportunity to go back to the Sea Nymph to interview crew members about the death plot.” 

“Wow, that’s huge—you would really get back on that boat?”

“Like I’ve said before, you wouldn’t have believed the situation on that ship, Bill. People were dying and all the cruise line seemed to focus on was making sure there was no inconvenience to passengers. Even if I had not been stabbed and the rest of the shit hadn’t happened, I would still think we should do some kind of study of the situation.”

“Yeah, I know all about that. Lots of Americans are on those ships, and more passengers are assaulted or disappear on cruises than most people realize. What did Ken say when you suggested the job?”

“He said no. He said that because GAO is not an enforcement agency and we don’t have much extra money in the budget for self-initiated work, it just isn’t feasible to go sailing off on a cruise ship . . . in his words.” Mick paused as if assessing whether he should say what he was thinking. He ran his hand through his dark wavy bangs and smiled at his friend.

“But Bill, I’ve been wondering, what if you or your International Relations Committee requests the assignment?” Mick knew that GAO usually accepts Congressional requests and when he first came back to DC after the cruise, Bill told him about Congressional hearings where victims and family members told stories about crimes committed against them on cruise ships. “Remember the hearings you talked about? Wouldn’t it make sense if you were interested in determining how widespread these problems are?”

Before Bill could answer, Mick rushed to finish his proposal. “And one more thing; I want to bring Tom on board—so to speak—as a consultant. He used to be an L.A. cop, and he worked on the Sea Nymph for ten years. Maybe the committee could request his assistance as well.” He sat back with a sheepish expression and waited for Bill’s reaction.

“So you just want a little advice, ha? OK, that is an interesting idea. Those hearings were held several years ago, and now it’s 2008, and we haven’t done a damn thing about it. My committee and others have talked about drafting some kind of legislation related to passenger safety on cruise ships, but it’s one of those issues that just gets pushed down the list of priorities, mainly because there’s a big problem due to the lack of jurisdiction in international waters.” He paused and looked away for a few moments. Then he drew his long legs under him and leaned forward with an earnest expression.

“Maybe this could be a way to get some information to help us formulate something.” Another thoughtful pause ensued while he stared across the yard. Finally he nodded apparently having made a decision.     “OK, tell you what, I’ll speak to Ken next week.” He saw Mick flinch and added, “I won’t tell him we talked about it. I’ll give him the history we already have on the hill, and try to get him to see that it’s only natural for my interest to be revived after all the press coverage of the Sea Nymph nightmare and your involvement in it.”

Mick smiled and leaned back in his chair. “Thanks, Buddy, you’re coming to the rescue again. I can’t wait to hear what comes of that conversation.”

They chatted amiably about other current events, but after about twenty minutes Mick was obviously becoming restless. “I’m getting a little tired. I think I’ll go back inside and I really should call Darcy, anyway.” His brow furrowed as he stared sadly at the flagstone floor—then seemed to catch himself. “I haven’t talked to her much since we got back.”

“OK, say hi to Darcy for me. I’m hoping to actually meet her before long. Has Rachael flown up from Buenos Aires to see her yet?”

“No, but apparently she has a break from college in about a week and plans to visit Darcy in Colorado Springs. Bill, can you imagine what it must be like for a mother and daughter to be meeting each other after almost twenty years apart?”

“I know it all seems amazing.”

“I still can’t believe how the cruise brought them together like that . . . and our role in it. Darcy is really working hard to overcome the guilt she was carrying all those years.”  

Bill’s face lit with a spontaneous thought. “Hey, I have an idea. Maybe Darcy and Rachael can fly out here during her visit. Rachael can stay in my other guest room, and it’s about time you and Darcy got to spend some time together.”

“Thanks, that really is a great idea, but I don’t know how she would feel about it. Part of me thinks I should back off a little, for now, just to give her time to build a relationship with Rachael. But I’ll tell her about your offer when I call.”

Bill squinted into the bright sun behind Mick’s chair for a few moments. “Good enough, but you know, I should think Darcy would want both you and Rachael in her life now.”

When he did not get a response, Bill changed the subject. “Oh, I almost forgot. I’m making us a dinner reservation at Sam and Harry’s for Tuesday. It’s time you got out of the house, and I’ve really missed our happy hours. It’s been since before you went down to your place on Marco Island, which was way before you went on the cruise.”

Mick felt a jolt of anxiety. “I’m a little anxious about how I’ll feel getting out in public, but I know I have to do it soon.” He sighed and pushed away from the table. “Thanks, I’ll be looking forward to one of those rare NY strips not to mention the great wine selection.” Mick sincerely wished he felt as enthusiastic as he tried to sound. 









2



On Tuesday evening, Bill and Mick were sitting at Sam and Harry’s bar sipping champagne and munching baked spinach and Gouda with crab on baguettes. They were chatting about the approach Bill planned to take when he talked with Mick’s boss, Ken. They had already decided it would help their case if the FBI had a stake in the GAO request. So, Mick had called Special Agent Grant Murray in the Vegas field office to request his cooperation.

“Murray really wants to get Paul Denezza,” Mick was explaining without much enthusiasm. “It seems the bureau has had suspicions about his business operations for a long time or maybe something in his past, but they evidently haven’t been able to put enough evidence together to prosecute him. I’m thinking it might be a tax thing or maybe even a mob connection.” He paused to sip his drink and audibly sighed. “Anyway, Murray was delighted to sign on to our review and actually said that whatever methodology we come up with he wants us to include the Sea Nymph in our study.”

“Well, I can’t imagine Ken rejecting a request that has the interest of both the Congress and the bureau. I’ll try to talk with him tomorrow.”

Mick looked around at the familiar jazz motif. He couldn’t count the number of times he’d sat in this same spot after work with Bill, while Congressional staffers and occasionally other members passed by, often stopping to greet the popular senator on their way to the dining room. The environment had always been comfortable and stimulating, yet this time he felt nervous and jumpy in a way he could not recall feeling before. It must be something to do with the stress of my recovery. After all, he had come very close to dying on the deck of the Sea Nymph and then again in the Valparaiso hospital. 

The hostess came to tell them their table was ready. Bill stood and waited while Mick eased off his stool. As he watched his friend, he worried. Mick was not himself at all, and the change didn’t really seem related to his physical injury. Knowing him as he did, he noticed that his mannerisms—and seemingly his personality—had somehow dampened. He appeared emotionally flat despite his supposed new love relationship with Darcy.

They slowly made their way to the table and were soon enjoying their meal of rare steaks, baked potato heaped with sour cream, and lightly grilled asparagus topped off by a bottle of 1998 Napa Valley Mount Veeder Cabernet. As Mick slowly chewed, he leaned back and tried to relax. I can’t wait to get back to feeling normal. This uneasiness sucks. 









3



May 12, 2008 – Las Vegas


Paul Denezza sat rigid, keeping his eyes pointed straight ahead, as he made his way down Martin Luther King to the John Lawrence Bailey Memorial Building. He really hated this part of town and totally resented having to be here for the second time in three months no less. The neighborhood really didn’t look that bad now, but when he was a teenager this area had been the territory of predominantly black gangs, and he and his friends had risked serious injury to their souped-up Furies and GTOs, and to themselves, just by driving down the street. Of course, that had not stopped them from many Saturday nights of exhibition speed racing down Lake Mead Boulevard just to taunt the locals.

He turned left onto a Lake Mead that was much busier these days and made another quick left on Stella Lake. He caught himself absentmindedly thinking about John Bailey, the 48-year-old veteran FBI agent killed by a bank robber in 1990. Paul mused with characteristic meanness and hostility, the dumb ass stumbled onto the crime while he was off duty and somehow managed to botch his arrest of the gunman.

Opting for a parking place on the street behind the building rather than dealing with the FBI parking lot, he noted that he was about twenty minutes early for his appointment. He got out and stretched. Adjusting his three hundred dollar hand-painted tie, he swaggered across the street.

A little way up the sidewalk he decided he could use some coffee, so he stepped under the green awning of Gritz Café. Once inside and seated at one of the six metal tables in the tiny restaurant—little more than a takeout place—he stared out the window at the vast modern beige block and glass structure directly across the street.

A smiling waitress approached optimistically but was met with Paul’s surly expression. In his opinion, she was a typical bleached blond sun-dried sixty, wearing a short skirt above too-fat knees and a too-small tank top with flabby cleavage bulging out of the top. Mutton in lambs clothing is what his dad used to say.

She took his order, still smiling, and after a minute returned and set down his coffee and a glazed donut. He mumbled his thanks and took a bite as he looked around. Suddenly he realized that everyone in the place looked like a cop. He looked down at his donut and almost laughed out loud. Shit! Of course, this is just a bureau hangout. What the hell am I doing in here? 

He tried to relax, telling himself he had nothing to worry about. His first interview with agent Murray back in February had not resulted in anything detrimental as far as he could tell. Murray had asked him to describe his whereabouts during the time of the cruise and then asked for a detailed account of why he had taken a month-long journey around South America in the first place. He had answered easily enough that he was under a lot of stress from his business and had needed a rest, and he had also thought it would be good for his marriage. Paul chuckled to himself. That last point sure had been a nice touch.    

He knew nothing would come of today’s interview either. He didn’t see how anyone could connect him to Suzanne Moretti’s madness and murderous rampage on the ship, and all he had to do was remain calm and adamant about their friendship. It would probably look better for him if he were still married to Sidney, but divorce certainly wasn’t unusual these days. Anyway, he thought he could convincingly play the sad ex-husband who had planned the romantic get-away to try to save the marriage.

As he sipped his coffee and watched the building, taking care to avoid eye contact with the other patrons, his mood quickly deteriorated. He was barely able to contain his anger as he thought about how he would eventually exact revenge on Darcy Farthing and Mick Clayton, but especially on Tom Smythe. No matter what he may have done and how it had turned out, those assholes had interfered with his plans, and that was unacceptable. He truly believed that without their meddling he would have accomplished his goal…even if he had ended up alone anyway.

He ruled his world with an iron hand. That is simply how he lived and had known no other way ever since he learned from the pros about the importance of maintaining control in order to get what he wanted from life. 

His middle-class childhood in the old Huntridge neighborhood just off the Maryland Parkway circle had been relatively normal except that his mom was a part-time hooker. He laughed to himself when he thought about his den mother mom, enthusiastically entertaining cub scouts with homemade brownies, still dressed in her short low cut black sheath and spike heels, having just returned from work.  The thing was, in those days no one seemed to have any problem with it—seemingly not even her husband.

His dad worked as a pit boss at the old Aladdin Casino and as a fringe member of the mob. At the age of sixteen, things had started changing rapidly for Paul when his dad helped him get his first job. He started out as a busboy and room service waiter at the old Sands, and he knew that having an Italian heritage and the look had helped him fit into the casino environment back in the early seventies. He had paid close attention to the subtleties of what went on around him and had been more than willing to do odd jobs for the bosses; running messages, money, and suspect packages up and down the strip.

These errands gradually became more frequent and increased in importance. As a sort of compensation, he had asked Mario, the daytime pit boss, to teach him how to play poker. By the time he turned twenty-one he was so proficient at the game that Mario hired him as a shill to play for the house.

Quite simply, he became a world-class gambler. After a couple of years, he found himself playing for high stakes sponsors who flew into town with far more money than ability. He played with their cash, and they paid him twenty percent of his winnings. It quickly added up, and he knew how to save.

One evening, when he had finished raking in his winnings and was heading for the casino cage to cash in, a pudgy middle-aged guy sauntered over and struck up a conversation. The guy was Byron Cangey, the owner of the Athens Olympia, a small hotel and casino just off the sparsely populated south end of the strip. Cangey, what a puss, Paul remembered. After a little small talk, the man offered Paul a job. He was to play and cheat with Athens Olympia house money, duping customers and sending the winnings back into the casino. This was one of the mob’s infamous skimming techniques, but the bit-player Cangey was operating entirely on his own. Paul quickly assessed the situation and barely hesitated before accepting the position. 

Paul had been developing his Vegas contacts for ten years by then, and he knew the ropes. He played along with the illegal scheme for six months, gambling with high rollers and amassing a million dollars for his boss. One early morning after a particularly lucrative night, he presented Cangey with taped evidence of the fraud along with a threat to send it anonymously to the police and gaming commission. With several of his mob-wannabe friends lurking menacingly beside him, Paul had little difficulty persuading the owner to sign over his share in the business.

As it turned out, Cangey met with an unfortunate accident several months later. His brakes failed as he drove at an unsafe speed on a twisty road with no guardrail near Mount Charleston, not far from town. His lesser partners fell by the wayside as well when they realized the new owner had wise guy ties. That is how Paul acquired the Athens Olympia, which he subsequently expanded into the major hotel and casino complex it is today. 

Since then, Vegas had dramatically changed and the mob’s role in casino skimming operations greatly diminished, especially after Anthony Spilotro’s downfall and eventual demise in the 1980s. In the new Vegas family environment, Paul had engaged in only minor infractions of the law, that is, until he conceived of his failed plan to rid himself of Sidney. 

He shook his head as he thought about how lucky he’d been to dodge the bullet coming straight for him. His friend Suzanne Moretti’s murderous insanity was now legend in the press, and he was glad he left the cruise early and returned to his business before things got entirely out of hand. After returning home he followed all the media accounts of the cruise and the aftermath, and the relief he felt when he heard that Suzanne was gone was liberating

He had little contact with Sidney now that the divorce was just about final, and he knew his best bet for determining what was going on with Darcy Farthing and Mick Clayton was to cultivate his relationship with Brooks Larkin. He was pissed at Larkin too but knew it was more important—for now—to use the Vegas businessman rather than harm him. Larkin was Paul’s acquaintance and had provided travel services for many years, including arranging Sidney’s and his bookings on the Sea Nymph. He now understood that Larkin had manipulated those reservations to orchestrate a shipboard reunion between Darcy and Sidney.

He still could not get over the revelation that Larkin was also Darcy Farthing’s ex-husband and the father of her daughter, whom she had somehow found in Buenos Aires. Paul did not believe in coincidence, and he suspected Larkin had something to do with that reunion as well. 

Paul also learned that the ship’s security chief, Tom Smythe, was canned by World of Seas following the disastrous cruise. That revelation had made his day. He hated the guy for meddling in his affairs, but more than that for making him feel vulnerable and weak in a way he’d never before experienced. He promised himself that one way or another he would find out where Smythe was and make him pay in a big way. He would have to come up with something brilliant and untraceable to deal with him, and he was already working on that.









4



Paul abruptly stood, threw a $5 bill on the table and hurried outside into the already parching midday sun. He tried to put a bounce in his step and suppress his nervousness as he crossed the narrow deserted street, but he felt himself beginning to sweat under his expensive silk jacket, and that pissed him off. 

He entered the grounds through a gate in the low fencing, apparently fashioned to resemble stylized white pickets. Once inside, he proceeded through security and then rode the elevator to the second floor. He was disconcertingly familiar with the layout of the place and the location of Murray’s office, and this fueled his anger. By the time he approached the door, he was so worked up that he had to stop and take several deep breaths to release some tension. Finally feeling more in control, he stepped inside. 

The receptionist made a call, and within three minutes, agent Murray strode out of his office dressed in the cheap dark-suit uniform of the FBI and offered his hand. Paul shook it and looked into Murray’s grey-green eyes, slightly magnified behind rimless glasses. The now presbyopic ex-Navy seal was in his mid-forties, trim, with short dark hair and erect posture. He escorted Paul back to one of the interview—or interrogation—rooms, depending on perspective. 

After they seated themselves opposite each other at a small rectangular table in the scantily furnished government-green room, Murray stared silently at Paul for a full minute. Paul thought the agent probably just wanted to add to his anxiety, but Murray was actually noting Paul’s arrogant demeanor and trying to subdue his own anger, which was threatening to bubble to the surface. He hated this guy but didn’t want to show that particular emotion.

Paul was about five feet nine, a little stocky, but in pretty good shape. He looked fifty, but Murray knew he was actually fifty-eight. Olive skin, dark eyes, and wavy black hair befitted his Mediterranean features. What Murray noted most was the difficulty Paul was having hiding his supercilious expression, right down to the involuntary lip curl. Man, I want a piece of you so bad!  Finally, Murray leaned forward on his elbows and calmly began the interview.   

“All right Mr. Denezza, we are here to follow up on our last conversation regarding the cruise you took on the World of Seas Cruise Line’s ship, the Sea Nymph, this past January 2008. I will be taping this conversation. First, please describe exactly your relationship with Suzanne Moretti, the ship’s hotel manager.”

“As I have said repeatedly, I met Suzanne here in Vegas at my hotel about a year ago when she was on vacation with her husband. She became a friend, nothing more.”

“What was your relationship with the crew members Ronaldo Ruiz and Plato Des Rameaux?”

“I had none. I knew that Ruiz was the cruise director in charge of entertainment on the ship, but I did not know Plato. I only know from all the press coverage that he was a cabin attendant and worked for Suzanne.”

“Do you understand that you were seen having conversations with this Plato?”

“Yes, that is what Officer Smythe told me on the ship, but at the time I did not know who he was. I was just being friendly to a crew member who happened to be in my vicinity.”

“Did you solicit these crew members and Ms. Moretti to kill your wife for money while you were on the cruise?”

“Absolutely not. As it turns out, Suzanne was apparently quite insane, and I have no idea what arrangement she might have had with other crew members, but I had nothing to do with it.”

“What information can you provide about the deaths on board the Sea Nymph?”

 “I have no personal knowledge about them. All I know is what the media has repeatedly reported. That is, Suzanne Moretti and possibly her husband committed the murders. I don’t know anything more.”

“What knowledge do you have about Ms. Moretti’s possible motive for her actions?”

“Once again, I have no idea about any of that. The woman was crazy.”

“Why did you abandon the cruise and your wife in Buenos Aires?”

“Someone stole my passport from my stateroom, and I had to go to the U.S. consulate to get a replacement. There was a delay in getting it done, and I could not make it back to the ship in time for the departure. You can verify that with Ray Alosa, a big shot at the consulate.”

“Why didn’t you fly to the next port and resume the cruise?”

Denezza hesitated. He thought he was doing well so far, but he had to be careful to sound logical. “I thought about it, but Sidney and I weren’t getting along all that well in the close confines of the ship. And anyway, I was getting nervous about being gone from the hotel for so long, so I made a quick decision to fly home. Actually, when I was on the plane, I had second thoughts about leaving Sidney behind, but in the end, I believed she would be fine, and she had her plane ticket to fly home from Valparaiso.”

The interview progressed in this fashion with Paul presenting a somewhat plausible explanation for everything he'd done—or not done. Finally, Murray said, “Mr. Denezza, this concludes the interview for today. Please understand that we might call you back at a later time with additional questions.”

Paul was seething with frustration and anger, but he tried to come across amiably. “Whatever you say, but this is a waste of your time and, more importantly, mine.”

Murray escorted him out into the lobby area, and he unceremoniously left the building. Jogging back to his car, he thought he'd performed well again, but made a mental note that if Murray had him back a third time, he would bring his lawyer along.










5



June 14, 2008 – Colorado Springs


“But Darcy, I still don’t see why you won’t come to Vegas with me this time. I thought we had fun there before.” Rachael shifted uneasily in her seat and looked away from me to study towering Pike’s Peak while she waited for my response. If I didn’t know better, I would think she was pouting a little. I knew my daughter loved being here on my deck so close to the mountain, but she was becoming more anxious the longer we talked about her upcoming trip.

“Rachael, it's tough for me to describe how I feel. You know that Brooks Larkin and I had no contact at all for eighteen years—from the time we were divorced until you and I went to see him in March. I absolutely don’t want to get into any relationship with him. Can you understand that?”

Having only recently been reunited with her myself, I didn’t want to say how uncomfortable I had been with my ex—her father. He had acted far too familiar under the circumstances, and I was still upset that he had interfered with my life and manipulated my travel reservations—even though it had turned out amazingly well for Rachael and me. I still didn’t understand what he was trying to do. I only wanted to focus on Mick and our budding relationship, and I just didn’t want to visit Brooks again. I watched her face—it was my face minus about twenty years, as she turned from the mountain, tossed her long blonde hair and looked back at me with those enormous cornflower blue eyes. 

“Yes, I guess I can understand that. But isn’t it more important for me to get to know my birth father and any other relatives I have that I never knew about?”

“Oh, Rachael, please don’t go there again now. I’ve tried to explain that I never got along with my parents and haven’t spoken to them for over twenty years either. I know it’s hard for you to accept because you had such a great childhood with Ray and Marianne . . . I mean your mom and dad. But we weren’t all lucky enough to have that kind of experience. I can’t just call my parents and start trying to explain everything even if I wanted to. If they have any smarts, they already know about all of this from the publicity about the cruise, but they have not tried to contact me.

“Besides, you did get to talk with Granny Elizabeth on the phone and I know you enjoyed that. Even though she lives in Liverpool, she’s in good shape for being eighty-four, and maybe we can get her over here on a trip or go there ourselves. I’ve told you she’s the only member of my family I ever got along with.” And that is ironic since she is my dad’s mother and he is even more of an asshole than Brooks was.

Rachael looked at me with a sad expression and shrugged in a manner that left no doubt that my sad family situation was a huge disappointment to my new daughter. “All right, Darcy, I’ll go to Vegas to see Brooks by myself and then fly home to Argentina from there.”

She paused and glanced back at Pike’s Peak with its tiny remaining patch of snow shimmering in the sunlight, and then turned her eyes to me with a small smile. “I still have to figure out what I’m going to do when dad gets reassigned to the embassy in Africa next year. I don’t want to go to Kenya, mainly because of school and I still want to get on a rowing crew you know.” 

“I know, and there are many schools here in the States where you could transfer and do that. Some are in the northwest and some back east. It would be wonderful for me if you came here to Colorado Springs or Denver, but I know those wouldn’t be the best bet for the rowing, especially if you still have Olympic aspirations.” 

“Oh I do, and my parents have said they support whatever I decide, but I know they would feel better if I move near you or Brooks so I wouldn’t be all alone.”

“Ray and Marianne are amazing people, and I am so happy that they are the ones who adopted you, Rachael.” I paused for a moment, wondering if I should say what I was thinking, then forged ahead.

 “There might be another option as far as your moving near to me is concerned. I wasn’t going to mention this yet but I might as well. Mick has asked me if I would consider trying to transfer or even quit Shrinden Pharmaceuticals to move to DC.” Rachael looked startled. “I’m thinking about it and please understand I haven’t decided yet, but Georgetown University and George Washington University both have excellent rowing programs. You couldn’t ask for a better school than Georgetown if you can get in and I bet you can. Bill Sawyer might be able to help with that.” 

“Oh, I had no idea you were thinking of moving. It would be great for you and Mick.” She hesitated and looked as if she wasn’t sure she should say whatever was on her mind. 

“What is it, honey?”

“Well, it’s just that I thought maybe I could be close to both you and Brooks somehow. I think Mick is great, but . . . that is just what I was thinking.”

So straightforward, just like me, even though I was out of her life from the time she was eighteen months old. “Rachael, I’m not going to have a relationship with Brooks. You simply have to accept that.”

“I know, but it just seems like it could be so perfect.” 

 Perfect, huh? If she only knew the nightmare I lived with him. I had explained it to her the best I could without making her father sound like a monster, but she had no way of understanding how horrible my time with him was. I had to admit, though, that something else was going on now. I didn’t completely understand my confused feelings, and that was the real problem.

When I took Rachael to meet Brooks, I confronted him and told him I knew he had used his business, American Travel Corporation, to manipulate Sidney and me so that we’d be on the same cruise. Before that, Sidney and I had not spoken since shortly after my divorce from Brooks. I demanded to know why he had done it. His response was that it was to get us back together and basically just because he could. But I couldn’t have been more shocked when he admitted he’d been keeping track of Rachael and me for fifteen years and that he only wanted to make amends for his behavior during our marriage. I couldn’t make myself believe him.

The next day when we met him for lunch, I have to admit we spent a strange and surprisingly pleasant couple of hours chatting. He appeared to be a completely changed man from the out-of-control alcoholic I married. I had some weird and unwelcome thoughts—I felt drawn to him somehow—and that was bizarre and wrong. 









6



That night, long after Rachael had gone to bed, sleep just would not come to me. I thought of getting up to take a Tylenol PM but decided maybe it would be better to let my thoughts flow and see where they led me. I hated that there was tension between us for the first time since we found each other. Her talk of moving to Colorado or Vegas to finish college when Ray and Marianne moved to their new post in Africa was great and totally understandable, but the whole business of her wanting to meet my parents and her notion that somehow she and Brooks and I could be some sort of family unit was distressing, to say the least. I just couldn’t believe how naïve I had been to think that I could isolate her with Mick and me and somehow pretend that her other blood relatives didn’t exist.

I thought about how Rachael had not really gotten to know Mick, and now she had so much more experience with Brooks. I wondered if Brooks would introduce her to his parents. During our short-lived marriage, I never got to know them and had no idea whether he even had a relationship with them. It couldn’t be worse than the one I don’t have with mine. I didn’t know much about Brooks either, and that was disconcerting now that Rachael was back in our lives. I knew I should be talking to him about our daughter, but I was just too uncomfortable around him. 

Then there was Mick, another source of stress and confusion. It was nice that he asked me to live with him, but something was nagging at me that would not let go. Traditionally, I have good intuition and perceptions, and lately, they were screaming that something was not right with Mick. He seemed distant and certainly wasn’t calling me as much as I thought he should.

For about the hundredth time, I thought about my visit to DC at the end of April, after Mick moved from Bill’s house back to his own condo. Bill had invited Rachael and me to stay at his place back in March, but Mick had not seemed very enthusiastic about it over the phone, so I waited another month and then made the trip alone. 

Mick’s condo was located just inside the Northwest quadrant of DC in Tenleytown, originally named for John Tennally, the owner of a roadside tavern. I was surprised to learn that during the Civil War the area hosted Fort Reno, the largest and strongest of a string of protective forts encircling Washington. When the war ended, the area became a home for freed slaves and slum-like conditions until the district razed much of the neighborhood in an early attempt at urban renewal. These days, Tenleytown is an affluent area of trendy shops and cafes along Wisconsin Avenue near the American University campus and the red line metro station. 

The week I spent there was wonderful because all I wanted was to be with Mick. But even though I saw that physically he had healed rapidly, he was very different from the man I met and fell hopelessly in love with on the ship. We shared a romance that was unprecedented for me. I had never been with a man who was so . . . well, so normal. Everything about him fit me perfectly not the least of which was his finely toned body and the passion he always brought to our lovemaking. No matter what, just being near him still made me hot, but in a way, I felt as if I had to get to know him all over again.

The worst of it was that he did not seem to have much enthusiasm for sex and that was completely unexpected. He just lacked his previous intensity and passion. Of course, I realized the intensely romantic environment on the ship was not like everyday life, and I told myself he just needed more time to get over the trauma he had suffered several months earlier. After all, I had the wonderful memories of the old Mick and wasn’t about to give up on him yet. 

Mick had returned to his work at GAO, so I had a lot of free time during the day. I enjoyed my first trip to DC as a tourist and visited all the major attractions, including the National Gallery and the Smithsonian. Typically, I slept in until around 9:00 a.m. and ate a light breakfast. Then I left the Cityline at Tenley Condominiums and walked up Albemarle Street to Tenley Circle at Nebraska and Wisconsin to hop onto the train. As an added bonus, cherry blossoms were in full bloom virtually everywhere, and the sight and scent of them helped soothe my stress and uneasiness.

The National Zoo at Woodley Park is only three metro stops from the condo, and I visited there several times. I loved strolling aimlessly through the park, stopping to look at whatever animals presented themselves for viewing along the way.

By far my favorite excursions were the tours of the Capital and the White House. During that first trip to DC, I finally met Bill Sawyer, whom I already considered a close friend because of his role in bringing Rachael and me together. Actually, it was his friendship with both Mick and Rachael’s father, Ray that enabled our meeting. One day he gave me a personal tour of the Congressional offices, including some areas that are not ordinarily open to the public—backrooms where the staffers work in unbelievably cramped spaces and where the real work of the Congress happens.

As we strolled around the quiet halls, I gently asked how he thought Mick was doing. It was apparent he had some of the same concerns as I did. Bill thought Mick was experiencing some turmoil that he was unwilling or unable to discuss. “I’ve been wondering if maybe it’s a reawakening of the depression he suffered following the deaths of his wife and parents. That horrible sequence of events a few years ago really knocked him out. I can’t think of any other reason for his behavior.”

Bill has known Mick very well for many years, so I trusted his judgment. There just didn’t seem to be anything either of us could do about it then. I was so impressed with Bill, not only because of his stature and position as a U.S. Senator but because I could tell that he was a genuinely good person and a great friend to have in any circumstance. I couldn’t help but wonder what had happened to his marriage, which had apparently dissolved shortly after his first election to the New York Senate seat. Even I realized it would not be appropriate to ask him about it.   

He marveled over my resemblance to Rachael, whom he had known for almost her entire life. How bizarre that he knew my daughter during all those years when I had no idea where she was. Ray and Marianne Alosa have been his good friends since shortly after they adopted Rachael in Albuquerque and then moved to DC. It was coincidental and shocking that his friendship with them and with Mick indirectly brought Rachael back to me.

 Forcing myself to return to the present, I tried to stop thinking about Brooks and Mick. I really wanted to sleep, but instead, my mind turned to my employer, Shrinden Pharmaceuticals. To make things a little worse, my managers had finally had enough of my personal problems. I had to admit that everything that had happened was having a detrimental impact on my work. I had never felt so ambivalent about my responsibilities. Several times I found myself daydreaming, and craving my laptop and my expanding manuscript, rather than tending to business—studying new drug protocols and setting up appointments with new clients. My boss had pretty much demanded that I get my head back on straight, and he made it clear that the company did not need any more publicity spilling over onto it.

As a result, I now had a two-week trip to North and South Dakota scheduled in the middle of July, ostensibly to supervise new sales representatives on their calls to doctors’ offices in ten towns. This was not the sort of assignment I typically was handed at this stage in my career, and it was apparent to me that I was being punished. 

After I’d exhausted my ruminations on all the topics that were keeping me awake, I was finally able to tuck my negative thoughts away and with a few cleansing breaths and pleasant thoughts about my good times with Mick on the Sea Nymph, I drifted off into a less than restful sleep.









7



August 5, 2008 – Washington, DC


Juggling his Starbucks and briefcase, Mick extracted his ID card and proceeded through GAO security at 441 G Street NW. He smiled at Verna, the security guard and crossed the wide corridor to join the surge of employees swarming toward the elevators. Up on 6, on autopilot, he wound his way through the maze of narrow aisles, taking a short cut to his office on the opposite side of the building. As he rounded the corner, he was a little dismayed to see two of the analysts on his team already sitting on the small sofa in the waiting area outside his office.

“Good morning, Mick.” Quickly jumping up, Eve Benton smiled at her boss as he turned the key and opened his door. She pushed past her coworker, Danny Silva, to enter the office right behind Mick and commandeered the seat directly across from his desk. Mick noted this aggressive display and sighed as he hoisted his briefcase onto the credenza next to his L-shaped work station. “Good morning to you, Eve and Danny.” He nodded at the two senior analysts, as he took a sip of coffee and sat down. “You’re at it early, I see. What’s going on?”

“Sorry to bother you before you get settled,” Danny apologized quickly, glancing at Eve before she got a chance to take over. “We have put together a tentative plan for the cruise-crimes job, and we're hoping you can take a look before we finalize it.”

Eve leaned forward not quite into Mick’s space, only because the width of the desk hindered her progress. She tossed her straight brown hair away from her face and favored him with a bright white smile. “Yes Mick, we think what we have is pretty good. Also, I wanted to talk to you about the possibility of putting a team together for the case study.”

Danny rolled his eyes before he could stop himself and Mick almost laughed out loud. What a competitive pair these two were. They were good at their jobs, but the political undertones of everything they did together were wearing thin on his already fragile psyche. He wished he hadn’t started working with them directly and had left his assistant director to interact with them.

He decided to take over direct supervision this time because the Sea Nymph was scheduled to leave port in January—and of course, the job was very personal. Planning a project like this always required a lot of time, but they had to be ready to go when the ship was. Well, technically he and Tom Smythe had to be ready.

“Sorry, Eve, we won’t have a budget for a team to do the case study. I’m going myself and taking Tom Smythe, the previous chief of security on the ship, with me. You know why, right?”

The twenty-eight-year-old woman actually stuck out her bottom lip for a moment. Her hair half covered her so-so features as she looked down in her lap then over at Danny’s smirk. “Oh yes, of course, I understand.” She suddenly sat upright, folded her hands on top of the notebook in her lap and looked at Mick expectantly.

Danny pulled a copy of their audit plan from his folder and handed it to Mick. “I thought you might like a hard copy rather than just looking at it on the screen.” 

Mick liked Danny. In his mid-thirties, he was bright, energetic, and always looked professional, which was no longer the case for many of the office’s employees. Danny might never get promoted here, but he was an outstanding project manager and probably would leave GAO for a better offer with another agency before long.

“Thanks, Danny. I’m anxious to get going on this so I’ll try to review your work today and tomorrow. I have to meet with Ken this morning, and I’m sure he’ll be happy to hear that we have a tentative plan. Will you two be around here for the next couple of days if I have questions?

Eve piped up. “Oh, of course, we’ll be here if you need us. Meanwhile, we’re looking at some early data coming in from our preliminary test locations and working on a pro forma we’ll use to extract the items we’re interested in. We’ve left a blank for that in the plan, but we’ll have it completed before the week is out.

Right, if you don’t kill each other before then. “Fine, go on now and let me get my bearings here. I’ll talk to you both later.” Mick was relieved to see the pair leave his office and close the door behind them. Why is it so hard to concentrate? He was still waiting for a full recovery to set in and although he was going through the motions pretty well, he was only sleeping a few hours a night, and he had lost weight.

Ordinarily, he would blame the GAO cafeteria for his lack of appetite, but he knew it was something else. Somehow he just didn’t feel like eating a lot of the time, and he hadn’t been working out or running as much as his doctor said he could and should. He just seemed to feel bad about everything.

He understood that he was still avoiding Darcy to some extent. He hadn’t called her nearly enough times since her visit in April. He told himself he was just too busy, and the truth was, he felt exhausted much of the time. He wouldn’t allow himself to wonder a great deal about the validity of these excuses and lacked the energy to ponder the cause of his depression. He just kept going through the motions and told himself he would feel a whole lot better once they nailed Denezza.

     He picked up the document Danny had left with him and riffled through it. The plan included a questionnaire to be mailed electronically to several cruise lines. The responses would provide data on the number of incidents of shipboard crime reported by victims or their families during 2008. This included complaints the passengers made to local law enforcement agencies when the ship returned to port. An electronic form would also be sent to the Florida, Texas, and California jurisdictions with cruise ship terminals, to request data from the law enforcement agencies. Once analyzed, these data would provide the meat of their findings on type and severity of crimes on cruise ships.

 The Sea Nymph would serve as a case study, which would require Mick to collect information from the crew and the ship’s log about complaints by passengers who had sailed on the ship during 2008. Of course, the real reason for selecting the ship was obvious. The case study would be as much about interviewing members of the crew to find out about Paul Denezza’s previous shipboard relationships as it would be to benefit the GAO project. It was not entirely orthodox for Mick to be the only GAO official going on the trip, but they had to minimize expenses. Ken knew the FBI was involved and he was willing to go along with the plan to use the audit for a dual purpose, since receiving a formal request to do just that from Senator Sawyer. The ship would sail a six-week west to east route from Los Angeles around Cape Horn to Miami at the beginning of January. Mick and Tom would ride along for the first four weeks and fly home from Rio. 

Mick knew the Sea Nymph had many of the same fifteen-hundred crew members as on their previous trip. He planned to talk with every one of them who could have any knowledge of the incidents and the deaths of their colleagues on that sailing.

As he left his office to meet with Ken, Mick reminded himself to mention the meeting Grant Murray had set up for later in the month at the Vegas FBI field office. Murray planned to take depositions from Mick, Darcy, Sidney, and other witnesses regarding the events on their previous cruise.









8



August 24, 2008 – Las Vegas


The trip to Vegas was like a cruise reunion with all the members present except for Paul. We were there to describe what happened on the evening of Suzanne’s final meltdown and to provide formal eyewitness testimony to agent Murray. Mick and I met Sidney in the lobby of the Bailey building and rode the elevator up to Murray’s office.

We were joined almost immediately by our new friends—our heroes—Don Freeburg and Charlie Scott who had just flown in from Seattle. It was good to see the guys looking healthy, and there was a tearful moment of greeting since it was the first time we’d seen them since parting under those awful circumstances in Valparaiso back in January. Sidney was a little overwhelmed. They were so instrumental and courageous in literally saving her life.

I had just returned from the Dakotas and had spoken to Mick by phone only twice during that three-week trip. I could not understand why he was acting so strangely and couldn’t help but wonder what the hell had happened to our beautiful romance. Now there was an uncomfortable awkwardness between us. We were sharing a hotel room because we were ostensibly a couple, but it just didn’t feel that way. Rachael was in town with us and also had a room at the MGM Grand. At this moment, however, she was visiting Brooks at his luxury suite high atop the Stratosphere.

Agent Murray called the meeting to order, and we all sat around his conference table. A pitcher of water and glasses sat on a tray in the middle, and that was all. He began to speak, and ten minutes later he’d thoroughly briefed us on what had happened so far with Paul and what he intended to get from this meeting with our little group.

Towards the end, he looked across at Tom and said, “Let me just say that Tom here has provided some physical evidence that he collected at the crime scenes on the ship. Some blood evidence helps, but fingerprints were not helpful due to the number of people who touch the railings.”

“The bottom line? If we're going to nail Denezza for hiring crew members to kill Sidney, we have to find someone else who knew about the plot. We know that Suzanne was insane and what she did cannot be linked directly to Paul. But, if he hired people to kill Sidney, he is equally guilty. Let’s take a short break and then we’ll begin taking the statements.”


*     *     *


“OK, Darcy. I feel like we’re back on the ship trying to decipher your mood. What is going on with you and Mick? Neither of you is acting normally. At least not the normal we came to know on the cruise.”

It was déjà vu all right, and I knew just what Don meant. I was standing with him and Charlie in front of a bank of snack vending machines contemplating an Orange Crush, my favorite drink—when a martini is not appropriate. I couldn’t help but smile at the two of them with their almost matching outfits: similar jeans and wildly patterned shirts.

I looked into Don’s grey-blue eyes staring out from his perfect face and felt the familiar sensation of being probed. I glanced briefly at his gym-carved body and thought fleetingly about how much fun I had with them on the cruise and how I still coveted Don’s long blond waves. Then I turned my back to him and inserted quarters into the machine. The can fell to the bottom, and I grabbed it. Then I moved on to stare at the candy bars and tried to decide between Snickers and M&Ms. I could feel their eyes drilling into my back as they waited for an answer.

“Look, Guys, give me a break,” I managed as I tried to swallow the first icy mouthful of fizzy orange heaven without choking. “As usual, you are perceptive to the point of irritation. I don’t know what is wrong with Mick. He isn’t the same at all. He wants our relationship to continue, I do not doubt that, but he seems emotionally flat and not interested in much of anything . . . except getting Paul the justice he deserves.”

Charlie glanced at his partner then lowered his chin and peered slightly up at me through his dark wavy bangs, a mannerism that was very familiar to me. “Darcy, here we go again. Have you even tried to talk to him? You know, asked him what is wrong? What happened to your usual direct approach and why are we having this type of conversation with you again when we only just got back together?” Charlie’s cherubic face twisted into a look of distaste. “And how can you drink that awful stuff?”

“Charlie is right,” Don said. I thought maybe he meant about the soft drink. “We didn’t go through all that hell on the ship and almost leave our little Penelope fatherless only to end up seeing you and Mick miserable. He is lucky to be alive, and you deserve happiness together. You are too smart to let this go on. There has to be an explanation for his behavior. Find out what it is!”

“I understand how you guys feel and what you are saying, but he won’t talk about it. I can’t explain it very well, but it’s as if the topic is off limits somehow and I guess now that I’m saying it out loud, that is what is tainting our whole relationship. He was always so open with me when we were on the ship, and we could talk about anything.”

Our little parlay ended abruptly when agent Murray’s assistant called us back into the meeting. My conversation with the guys upset me even though I knew they meant well and were right, as usual. I sat down at the conference table beside Mick and rested my hand on his thigh. He smiled at me and lightly patted it. I loved him so much and knew I wanted to be with him forever. I need you to reciprocate and get back to your old self.

Don and Charlie gave great dramatic performances as they explained in an animated fashion what they witnessed and experienced the night we were attacked out on the deck. They responded eloquently to all Agent Murray’s questions, and their eyewitness account left no doubt about Suzanne’s rampage. Ditto for Tom’s and Mick’s reports of the incident.

Then Mick, Tom, and I gave depositions about what we saw and heard on the cruise regarding the dead crew members, and Mick spoke at length about his prior knowledge of Paul and his informal surveillance of him during the cruise. Everything that happened—all the unlikely coincidences and especially the violence—came rushing back and it was all I could do to stay in the room while we rehashed the events. I sensed Mick was feeling the same way and at one point I could feel his body quivering with the effort to remain calm. 

All the testimony went well, but Murray recapped by saying that so far there was not enough evidence to arrest Paul for any involvement in the crimes that took place in his wake. Suzanne might have been the only person who knew what he was up to and she was dead. Tom’s conversations with her in the ship’s lock-up with no witnesses present, and considering her insanity, were not enough to link Paul to the crew deaths or the plot against Sidney. 

Murray looked at Sidney, who had been sitting quietly beside me. “Paul continues to run his hotel as usual and is acting as if nothing is wrong. He has not provided any useful information, but I am determined to find a way to link him to the murder for hire plot against you, Sidney.”

She had been strong throughout this ordeal, but overall she looked a little frail and had an air of vulnerability about her. As she listened, she looked down at her lap. Her shiny auburn hair, cut in a perfect jaw-length wedge, fell forward framing her pretty freckled face.

Suddenly she raised her head, and we all saw the angry flash in her green eyes as she looked around the table. “I know without a doubt that Paul wanted me dead and almost succeeded through Suzanne. I don’t care how crazy she was; it was all his doing from the beginning. If I had not minimized my take in our divorce settlement, he may well have come after me again and succeeded in killing me. He is also crazy in his own way.” 

 I grasped her hand, and she fell slightly toward me resting her head on my shoulder for a moment. “I guess we are finished here, right, agent Murray?” I asked.

“Yes, we are finished, but I want to talk with Mick and Tom about the GAO job. Will you two guys stay for a few minutes?”

“Sure,” Mick answered and moved around the table to sit closer to Tom and Murray.

I said, “We’ll all go on to the restaurant for lunch and wait for you. See you in a little while.”

Sidney and I drove together in Mick’s rental car with Don and Charlie following in theirs. On the way, Sidney talked more about how her life had changed. She was understandably very emotional as she explained how she felt about Paul’s betrayal. Wiping away a few stray tears, she told me again how he forced her to accompany him on the cruise and then ignored her. She now knew that he planned to return to Athens Olympia alone.

She also described the $5 million settlement with Paul with an agreement to leave all his other assets alone. Eventually, she would be able to do anything she wanted, but for now, she was living in a condominium just off the strip. She said she hoped she could eventually leave Vegas for good. 

I didn’t hesitate before asking, “Why don’t you come and stay with me in Colorado Springs for a while? I have a spare room for you, and it would be fun. Of course, I’ll be traveling a lot, but you would enjoy the fresh mountain air and relative quiet there.”

“Thanks, that is so nice of you. I might take you up on it. Something is keeping me here, though.” She looked over at me sort of shyly.

“Have you met someone, Sidney?”

“Well, sort of. I don’t want to say too much about it yet, but yes, I’ve found a man I think I care deeply for. I’m just not sure yet that the feeling is mutual.”

“Well, I’m happy for you anyway, and I hope it works out for you.” I didn’t let on, but I had an odd feeling about what she’d revealed . . . or hadn't. Her comment seemed a bit formal, and it wasn’t like her to hold back. Ever since renewing our friendship we’d talked about our lives like a couple of teenagers. Why isn’t she telling me more about a man she is obviously interested in? I decided not to push it and changed the subject.









9



Later that afternoon Brooks Larkin sat in his office on Main Street near downtown and not far from Las Vegas Boulevard. He was thinking about Rachael and their earlier lunch date. He could not believe how life had offered up this tremendous gift. Having his daughter back in his life just as he had always hoped he would was a blessing. Now, if he could just convince Darcy to give him another chance . . . his thoughts were interrupted by a knock on the door. It had to be Tom Smythe. Brooks felt a surge of excitement as he stood and stepped from behind his desk. 

He’d been waiting for Tom, and now he greeted him with a warm handshake and a squeeze to the shoulder. They sat down in chairs beside each other in a little seating area across from Brooks’s desk. The talk centered on how they’d known each other for five years only through many phone conversations, and how happy they were to finally meet in person. A few minutes of pleasant conversation followed as they caught up on their lives over the past few months. 

During a lull, Tom said, “By the way, I want to thank you for handling my reservations for this trip.”

“No problem. I wish you’d let me put you up at the Stratosphere or some other strip hotel, though.”

“That’s OK. The downtown joint is just fine, and I have to be careful with money until I find a new job. That reminds me, I have a question for you, Brooks. I’m wondering what kind of rapport you have with the new security chief on the Sea Nymph?” 

“Since you ask, it’s just not the same as when you had the job. I know things change and I probably can’t expect a collegial relationship like the one you and I developed, but the new guy seems unnecessarily standoffish and not very helpful when I have questions about my tour groups. Why do you ask?”

“I know the fellow, Roger Ramirez, and I understand that he is not as personable as he might be with the crew and passengers. I’m sorry you’re not getting the cooperation you would like.” Tom paused and measured his next words carefully. “I’m going to need his cooperation myself. I’m going to tell you something that will surprise you. Mick Clayton and I are going back to South America on the Sea Nymph in January. We’re going in connection with a project of Mick’s for the GAO and the FBI, but we’ll also be trying to get information about whatever it was Paul Denezza was doing on the ship. You know the FBI here wants to build a case to prosecute him and going back there appears to be the only way we have of doing it.”

“Yeah, I know about the FBI investigation from Darcy and Rachael, but I’m surprised you would go under the circumstances. I have known Paul for many years, and although we’re close acquaintances, I guess you’d say, I don’t trust him, and I can understand why the FBI is after him. He’s about as sleazy as they come and has a reputation here in town for having a suspicious history regarding how he got his hotel and money.”

Tom’s interest was obvious. “I’m sure Grant Murray would be interested in those suspicions.”

“Oh, I’m sure he is aware of the Vegas lore, at least I hope he is.” Brooks gazed out his window at the strip shimmering in the distance. “Coincidentally, I’ve been getting reacquainted with Sidney since she divorced Paul and we’ve gone out to eat a couple of times. You know I knew her back when I was married to Darcy because they were good friends then, like now. Anyway, it is beyond me how such a great girl could have been married to Paul. What a mismatch!”  

“I know what you mean. I got to know Sidney during the cruise, and she certainly deserves better.” Suddenly, Tom no longer felt in the mood for small talk, especially about the cruise. He was exhausted after his early morning flight and the deposition. After about ten more minutes, he told Brooks he wanted to go back to his hotel to take a nap. “Do you want to meet me later for dinner?” he asked.

“Great idea! In fact, I’ll pick you up, and we’ll go to an old local landmark restaurant, Battista’s Hole in The Wall, near the strip just off Flamingo. The place has a lot of local color complete with walls papered with celebrity pictures, and a full Italian menu with all the table wine you can drink. I know you’ll enjoy it. I’ll call you from your hotel lobby when I get there.”









10



Mick and I were enjoying ourselves at the award-winning Craftsteak restaurant in the MGM Grand. Chef Tom Colicchio was indeed living up to his reputation, in our opinions, as we savored the signature lobster bisque and Kobe skirt steak. My Ketel One martini made just the way I like it; icy, extra dry and slightly dirty was marvelous. Mick, who was usually a beer man, had ordered a Glenlivet single malt. This was something I had not seen him do before and I wondered if it was Bill Sawyer’s influence.

The restaurant had a business casual dress code, which is something almost unheard of back home in casual Colorado. In compliance, Mick looked handsome and very hip in a lightweight beige sport coat with an open-neck shirt in a subtle brown, beige, and blue paisley pattern. I thought I looked pretty good myself in my pale yellow—still my favorite color—sundress and fabulous Roberto Cavalli platform sandals with a 4-inch clear plastic heel. These brought me eye-to-eye with Mick, which I like. For some reason, even though I’m already five feet ten, high heels are one of my weaknesses.

I gazed around the spacious contemporary room warmed by red walls that melded seamlessly into the gently curved ceiling, then looked across at Mick. I suddenly had the feeling that everything would be all right now and I was thinking a little guiltily that it was a good thing we were alone. Rachael had not joined us, saying she was tired and wanted to stay in her room. Tom had also opted out in order to visit Brooks. The idea had taken me aback at first, but then I remembered about their connection through Brooks’s travel agency and Tom’s previous job with World of Seas. This was another of those weird coincidences.

Surprisingly, Mick and I were discussing our relationship and remembering the excitement we both felt when we first met. This is very good. Mick smiled at me and reached across the table to pick up my hand.

“Darcy, I want to ask you something important. But judging by the way I feel myself, it might be upsetting to you, and I want you to think about it before you answer.”

“If this is about me moving to DC I do need more time to think about it. I have to consider Rachael’s plans as well.” I was not prepared to discuss that subject right then.

“No, it isn’t about that although I’m hoping you’ll decide to come live with me. I’m going to do something I haven’t told you about yet.”

I watched him shift in his seat and take a deep breath. Oh oh, something is coming that can’t be good. Why do we always seem to have drama in our lives? I sighed back at him and squeezed his hand.

“OK, Mick. Spit it out, as Don would say. I can see that whatever this is it’s a big deal.”

“I’ve agreed—or rather decided—to go back to the Sea Nymph and do the case study for our cruise crimes job myself. Tom is going with me, and we plan to interview crew members to try to find out what Paul was doing.”

That was the farthest thing from my mind, and it left me speechless. I know I must have looked dumbfounded staring across the table at him while he went on talking. “Anyway, that is a done deal. What I wanted to ask you is . . . well, will you go with me on the cruise?”

“What? No, I couldn’t go back to that ship after everything that happened to us. How can you be doing it?”

 “Honestly, Darcy, I know how you feel. It took me a while to get over my repulsion at the thought of being back on that ship. But there is nothing more important to me than finding evidence against Paul.”

“Wow, I don’t know what to say.”

“Sidney is a friend to both of us, right? And I still feel some obligation to her. I hope you understand how I mean that. I would never have met you if I hadn’t taken the cruise to watch out for her. So in a way, she brought us together, right?”

“I guess so when you say it that way. Oh, Mick, I do want to be with you and if it could be the way it was between us before on the ship I would probably say yes.” I should have stopped there. “Do you think it could be?”

Mick’s face clouded over, and I knew I had touched on that nerve, that off-limits topic for him. I could feel myself getting angry and knew it would not help, so I tried to relax and wait for his response. I waited more than a minute. Then I sat back in my chair and brought my hand over to my side of the table.

“Mick, can’t you describe to me what is wrong with you . . . what you’re thinking or feeling?”

“I love you. That’s all I know. I guess I’m just taking a long time to get over my injuries, and maybe almost dying myself stirred up the anxiety about losing Beth and my folks. But it isn’t about you, Darcy. Please believe me. I so want you to be with me on the ship.”

It was my turn to sit there in silence while Mick watched me and chewed his bottom lip. I knew I wanted to go with him, but I didn’t want to go back to the place where people died, and Mick and I almost joined them. 

Finally, I gave in. I guess I didn’t want to be left out of another important part of my own life. “All right, I’ll see if I can arrange to get off work, but I have to say that Shrinden is not happy with me right now and they might just fire me if I ask for a month off.” Then I had a brainstorm. “What if Rachael could go along too? She would have to take time off school, but it would be a good time for us to spend together while you’re working. It will be scary to be back on the ship, but maybe it would be good for us to confront it.”

“That’s great. I don’t see any problem with Rachael coming along. After all, this will be an uneventful enjoyable cruise, not the nightmare we lived through before.”

I thought maybe I was going a little crazy then because I felt a distinct shiver move down my spine and I know from experience that is never good. As I reached for Mick again and tried to recapture our previous mood, another thought kept trying to push its way forward, and I kept trying to push it back. It was something about Brooks. I understood that part of the reason I acquiesced about going on the cruise was that being out of the country seemed like a good way to avoid the confusing feelings I had about him.









11



Lilith Schrom unwound her long tanned legs from her new black BMW 3 Series convertible and stood up. Smoothing lap wrinkles from her tight brown silk wrap-around skirt, she slowly gazed around the parking garage. Glancing down at the car, she ran her hand lovingly over the soft top. After another quick survey of the area, and not seeing anyone about, she bent down and dragged her purple sequined duffel bag out of the back seat. Stretching her back up straight and hoisting the strap over her shoulder, with one more look around, she strode to the entrance of Players Paradise.

During the elevator ride down two levels, she tried to ignore the disgusting smudges on the walls surrounding her, but upon exiting her nose wrinkled involuntarily. This was not the sort of hotel she was accustomed to, and it seemed small and drab compared to the glittery strip establishments she frequented during the past several years.

Turning right into the casino, she followed the directions she'd been given. Thank God I will soon be back home, and I swear I will never come to his horrible city again. The gaming tables commanded her attention as she passed, but because of her tight schedule, she quickly looked away and did not hesitate. She hurried along to another set of elevators at the far back corner of the casino, opening the side zipper pocket of her bag as she approached. After stepping into the open car and inserting a room key into the security slot, she quickly pressed the button for the eighth floor before any other guests could enter. 

Lilith was thrilled to be living and working in the United States, and for the first couple of years after her arrival, she had traveled around the astonishing country whenever her schedule permitted. She loved everything about it, but her favorite spots had turned out to be Atlantic City and Las Vegas, especially the latter, for a while at least. Lilith found Vegas to be the more glamorous of the two, and the larger city offered complete anonymity. Not having anyone know about her visits was extremely important because when she was in town, she assumed an utterly different persona, that of a beautiful sexy player—far different from her normal dowdy life. 

 Sadly, she discovered way too late that her personality was far more addictive than she would ever have dreamed. Somehow over the past year, she amassed a debt of $200,000 at her favorite casino and could see no way to repay it. Worse, she could not seem to stop herself from playing blackjack and poker, even though her current losing streak extended back several months.

Her job at the Wilmore Neuroscience Laboratory near Boston did not exactly pay minimum wage, but still, her lucrative salary was not nearly enough to cover her mounting gambling debts.  Thankfully, several months ago she was offered an opportunity to wipe the slate clean by carrying out this assignment. It was so dangerous that a month passed before she could agree to the scheme. During that period her debt substantially increased. In the end, the new $50,000 car sweetened the deal considerably, and she reluctantly made the decision.

She knew very well that if she failed—or worse, was apprehended—her career and everything she’d worked so hard to achieve would vaporize overnight. No, she definitely did not want to return to Israel in disgrace, and so she must be cautious with what she was about to do.

She understood how fortunate she was to land her current position at the lab shortly after publishing her doctoral thesis in biochemistry at Tel Aviv University. Her work at The Adams Super Center for Brain Studies focused on deciphering brain activity related to devastating diseases. Amazingly, the results of her research there relating to potential cancer treatments or cures brought her instant recognition in Israel and later in the United States.  

For ten years now, she’d dedicated her life to running her experiments associated with treatments for cancer and diabetes in her narrow area of study, partially funded with grants from the National Institutes of Health. The fact that applied research teams were already using her basic research to develop methods of treatment and diagnosis for several cancers was a source of great pride.

She stepped out of the elevator and stood in the foyer for a few moments to get her bearings. At this time of the evening, virtually everyone would be either gambling or at dinner. Seeing no one in the immediate area, she consulted the sign that provided directions to the rooms. A short way down the hallway she stopped in front of a door.

Holding her breath, she rapped loudly and as expected received no response. Letting herself in using a housekeeping key, she went straight to the bed. A moment of intense anxiety came and quickly passed. Drawing in a deep breath and exhaling slowly, she gently placed her bag on the bed and carefully began to unzip it.  

In under three minutes, she completed her task and returned to the elevators. As she nervously waited for the car to arrive, she could hardly stand still. When the doors opened, a rather unremarkable middle-aged man stepped out. He nodded and smiled at her, then walked down the hall in the direction from which she had just come. She had an urge to follow him just to see which room he entered but decided her scientist’s curiosity would not serve her well in this case.

Following an anxiety-filled ride down to the casino, Lilith quickly retraced her steps to the parking garage and was soon driving down the exit ramp. The right thing to do was to continue straight to Interstate 15 and head east toward home, but before reaching the highway entrance ramp just two blocks away, she convinced herself that it would not hurt to spend one more hour trying to win back some losses. She’d just completed a scary job and felt lucky but wasn't about to stop at one of these shabby downtown casinos. Instead, she turned around, found Las Vegas Boulevard, and headed south toward the familiarity of the strip. 









12


Tom Smythe entered his room, threw his briefcase on a chair, and immediately undressed down to his underwear. He turned down the bed covers and set the alarm so that he could catch an hour’s nap before meeting Brooks for dinner, then slid between the sheets. Drifting into sleep, Tom thought about his earlier meeting with Brooks and about the deposition he gave to Agent Murray earlier in the day.

Only half awake, he rolled over to achieve a more comfortable position, but instead, was jolted wide-awake by an intense stinging sensation in his leg. Yelping involuntarily, he jumped from the bed. Obviously something had bitten him, and he threw back the covers expecting to see a spider of some sort. Instead, what he saw near the bottom of the bed boggled his mind, and caused his stomach to flutter.

Two very strange looking scorpions, each about four inches long, were curled into a sort of fetal position with their pointed tails wrapped loosely around their bodies. That they were scorpions was evident, but these were not the normal whitish arachnids he'd seen in the southwest desert. Their front claws were extremely thin, and the tails seemed fat in comparison to their bodies. But it was their color—a sickening pale greenish yellow—that made Tom’s skin crawl. No, this pair did not find their way into the hotel from the nearby open space.

Even as he thought about grabbing a towel from the bathroom to capture them, the pain in his right ankle and calf was fast becoming excruciating. Staggering the few feet to the bathroom, he yanked a bath towel off the rack. As he returned to the bed and threw it over the pair, gathering it up in a ball, his vision blurred and he began to wheeze. This was an unbelievably fast reaction, and a wave of panic suddenly overtook him. Attempting to clear his thoughts, he examined his leg and grew even more alarmed to see rapidly growing areas of swelling around two bright red sting marks. He was having an allergic reaction to venom and didn’t have a lot of time to waste thinking about it. His leg would not support him any longer, and he sprawled across the bed. Now panic did not begin to describe the feeling, as he grabbed for the phone.

He realized he was going to vomit and his throat was rapidly swelling shut. Gasping for air, he willed himself not to throw up. By the time he reached the hotel operator, his chest was pounding, and his airway was almost completely blocked. The room closed in around him, and the last thing he remembered was the operator’s voice urgently asking him what was wrong.


*    *    *


Brooks arrived at Players Paradise early. He did not want to wake Tom from his nap prematurely, so he was hanging around the casino playing some dollar poker machines. Suddenly, paramedics rushed through the front doors and flew into the elevator. He didn’t think much about it until they came back down about five minutes later. He walked over along with other curious patrons to watch them wheel the sick person out of the elevator.

Brooks couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw Tom on the gurney, pasty white with an oxygen mask over his face and pink foamy drool running down his chin from under the mask. A drip line hung from his arm, and one of the medics was holding the plastic bag in the air as they rushed through the casino. Brooks darted forward and grabbed for Tom’s hand. 

“What the hell happened?” he asked, jogging to keep up with the medics as they continued toward the front door. 

“Apparently the gentleman was stung by whatever is in that towel,” one of them answered as he pointed gingerly at the rolled up white ball riding along next to Tom’s covered legs. “Are you a relative?”

“No, I’m a friend. What’s in the towel?”

“We didn’t look, but we think he said they are weird-looking scorpions. It was hard to understand him. He’s in shock, but this looks like a serious envenomation.” 

“I just arrived to pick him up to go to dinner,” Brooks said breathlessly. “Where are you taking him? I’ll follow you.”

“UMC, that’s University Medical Center on West Charleston. It’s the only level one trauma center we have, and by the looks of him he’s going to need it,” he called over his shoulder as they wheeled Tom out the door to the waiting ambulance.

Brooks was in a state of bewildered shock himself, and as he followed them outside, he was trying to think of what he should do. Then he remembered that Mick and Darcy were also in town for the FBI meeting. While running to his car, Brooks called Darcy’s cell phone, glad he'd programmed her number into it as soon as he learned it. He caught her just as she and Mick were finishing dinner.









13



Brooks seemed frantic to explain something to me, but he wasn’t making sense. The thought leaped into my mind that something had happened to Rachael. “Is Rachael all right?” 

“No, not Rachael. It’s Tom . . . a scorp . . . on my way . . .” he yelled.

I could hear traffic noises in the background, and we obviously had a bad connection. “No, I know it’s you, Brooks. What do you want and why are you calling me now?”

Getting a call from him was so bizarre that I really thought he was making something up to try to get me to see him. He had caught me off guard, and I was flustered and embarrassed that he was calling while I was with Mick. “What are you trying to do, Brooks? Why are you calling me?” I was talking way too loud, and Mick was shushing me.

I looked at Mick helplessly, and he could readily see that I was stymied. Gently, he took the phone from me and asked Brooks what was going on. I was mortified, but when Mick finally made sense of what he was saying, we ran from the restaurant, caught a taxi in front of the hotel and told the driver to fly to the hospital. 

We found Brooks in the emergency room waiting area, and I introduced him to Mick trying for a light tone that didn’t do much to hide my confusion and discomfort. The two men in my life shook hands with a friendly greeting. I tried to shift my entire focus to Tom’s situation. I leaned toward Mick and asked Brooks, “What do you know about his condition?” 

“Nothing yet, no one has come out since they took him in there,” he said, pointing toward the double doors just down a short hallway. “He was somewhat lucid for a few minutes, and they asked him who they should call. He said there was no one. Do you think that’s true? I’ve known Tom for five years, and I just realized I’ve never heard him mention any family.” 

 I thought about it and realized I had never heard him mention family either. I told myself I would learn more about the man who had helped save Mick’s life, had lost his job for his trouble, and had dedicated himself to bringing Paul to justice. I looked at Mick and saw his frown. “What is it?” I asked.

“I just can’t believe this is happening. We have to find out whether this was an accident or someone put those scorpions if that is what they were, in Tom’s room.” 

“What do you mean?” Brooks asked, “that someone could deliberately use them as a weapon? I didn’t think a scorpion sting was that big a deal.”

“I can’t imagine how, but doesn’t it seem odd that something this bizarre would happen when Tom is here to talk to the FBI? I . . .” A tall very slender doctor with thinning grey hair wearing a traditional white coat had suddenly appeared from around a corner about twenty feet from us. He was striding directly our way.

“Are you folks with Tom Smythe?” he asked before he even arrived.

“Yes, we’re his friends,” Mick answered. “What is going on?”

“I am Dr. Ed Milner, how do you do?” He offered his hand to each of us, and I couldn’t help but fixate on his serious demeanor and the piercing pale grey eyes scrutinizing us from a rather hawkish face.

“Since Mr. Smythe has no family, we will treat you as next of kin at his request. There is some paperwork that needs to be completed when we are finished talking if you would not mind. He is conscious but in extreme discomfort. He has suffered two stings from an unusual species of scorpion, which we have just now identified.”

Mick started to say something, but the doctor impatiently waved him off and continued. “Thankfully, he had the presence of mind to capture them. This is important for the identification, and so they cannot harm anyone else. We have anti-scorpion venom serum on hand, and it normally works quite well. However, in this case, he has two stings from a very dangerous species, and we estimate he has received nearly one milligram of venom, which is quite a lot.”

I wanted to interrupt his presentation with a few questions, but he obviously wasn’t finished, and he struck me as the type of person you probably should not interrupt. 

“One positive thing is the stings were on his lower leg, which allowed for slower absorption into the bloodstream. But he has suffered anaphylaxis, an extreme allergic reaction, which can cause paralysis and pulmonary edema. We’ll keep him for at least several days, and we cautiously predict that he will recover. He is very lucky he managed to get help quickly.”

Dr. Milner finally took a breath but held up his hand to forestall the question Mick was trying to ask. “I’m almost finished. We’ll let you know when you can go in to see him. It should be within the next hour. By the way, the Las Vegas police are sending over a detective to look at this situation, and I believe he will want to talk with you.” He looked at all three of us in turn, in what I thought was a very disconcerting way.

I glanced at Mick and suddenly felt clammy all over as I realized what Dr. Milner was talking about. I cleared my throat and managed to ask the doctor, “Why would the police be involved in a scorpion sting?” 

That set him off again. “It turns out that this is a fascinating and unique situation. You see, our normal southwest desert scorpions have a sting that is rarely lethal, but the pair Mr. Smythe encountered are definitely not native scorpions. I’d say there are about twelve hundred known species on the planet. Most are not very dangerous, but these two are specimens of the species, Leiurus quinquestriatus, the Israeli desert scorpion, also known as the Death Stalker. This is one of the deadliest scorpions on earth, and they absolutely came from the Middle East, not the Nevada desert. So, as an added precaution we have ordered an emergency shipment of anti-venom specifically made for Death Stalker envenomations, from Twyford, a German pharmaceutical company. It should be here by morning.”

Seeing our awestruck reactions to his lecture and perhaps feeling that he had found his audience, Dr. Milner was on a roll. “We have placed a call and sent pictures to an entomologist over at the University, and we are quite sure about the species. Also, we are familiar with the Death Stalker because it is actually medically famous for its venom properties. You see, all scorpions paralyze their prey by injecting a potent mix of peptide toxins, which are relatively short chains of amino acids. That is what is wreaking havoc with Mr. Smythe’s nervous system as we speak.

One of the polypeptides found in the venom of the Death Stalker, chlorotoxin, is used to treat cancer, specifically gliomas—that is to say, brain tumors. Basically, the chemical binds with and inhibits cancer cells while bypassing healthy cells.”

“There are several places in the U.S. carrying out research with chlorotoxin, including the University of Alabama, and only a research facility should have these scorpions. No one in their right mind would travel with them, and of course, it would be quite illegal to do so, but people do foolish things these days.” He shook his head and finally paused to see if we had any questions.

All three of us stared at him, and I’m sure we were all thinking the same thing at that instant. Mick had been right. This can’t be a coincidence, it just seems too diabolical. Mick shook hands with Dr. Milner and said, “Thank you for your explanation. We certainly would like to talk to the detective when he arrives. Please point us in the direction where the paperwork is required.”

At the hospital’s administration desk it quickly became apparent that Tom probably had no health insurance. Of course, he would have been insured with World of Seas, and that coverage disappeared with his job. Brooks immediately offered to pay Tom’s bill and signed as the responsible party.

After we walked away from the desk, he explained to us how well he had come to know Tom over the years. It made sense that he had numerous occasions to talk with Tom about the problems and mishaps of Sea Nymph passengers who were members of American Travel’s tour groups. 

“We hit it off and became friends, but only met in person for the first time a few hours ago. We were planning to have a late dinner together.” Brooks looked as if he was going to cry and that shocked me. “I can’t believe this is happening, but I’ll take care of whatever he needs,” he said, then turned his back on us to gaze out the window.

The connections among people and events just keep getting more and more complex, I thought, as I moved away from the two men and went to stand at another window overlooking the parking lot. Brooks’s sensitivity and generosity impressed and touched me, and I was fighting back the tears without understanding exactly where they were coming from. I glanced over my shoulder at Brooks. He looked good in perfectly fitted chinos and a form fitted polo shirt. Oh, oh, this isn’t a good time to feel drawn to him.

As I tried to reset my mind to think about Tom rather than Mick and Brooks, who were disconcertingly standing next to each other only a few feet away, I let my mind wander to the few facts I knew about the Death Stalker.

Dr. Milner had jogged my memory about this fascinating line of medical research. Shrinden does not sell a chlorotoxin-related medication, but I knew about clinical trials of TM-601, a synthetic version of the chemical used to treat malignant brain tumors. I had also heard about a combination of chlorotoxin and a fluorescent material that researchers at Seattle Children’s Hospital Research Institute have used to demarcate cancer cells from healthy surrounding tissue.

I also understood that only the most basic research would involve actual scorpions and as I tried to concentrate on what I had read about such efforts, I vowed to do a little digging of my own to find out as much as I could about where the Death Stalker specimens might have come from.









14


September 8, 2008 – Las Vegas

    

Paul’s anger escalated as he studied his eye-in-the-sky security screen. He had dismissed the technician on duty so he could conduct his surveillance in private, and now he watched in disbelief as Lilith strode through the casino and perched on a stool at her favorite blackjack table. She looked as glamorous as ever, with her lithe subtly curved body wrapped in metallic gold that barely covered her butt. The dealer, Lance MeKenna, nodded to her as she approached and then glanced up at the camera unobtrusively placed above his table.

Paul shook his head. The woman must be crazy to come back here. Can she possibly think I wouldn’t find out? Paul knew all about addictions and had known many hotel patrons over the years who were driven to lose any money that came across their palms. Worse, they were unable to curb their borrowing habit, even in the face of near-violent censure by casino bosses. Lilith Schrom was one of the worst gambling addicts he’d ever encountered.

Of course, her illness played directly into his hands when he needed someone to take care of Smythe. But her failure to follow through with that little job, and her apparent overestimation of the power of her weapon, plus her subsequent return visits to Athens Olympia, were becoming very problematic.

Paul reached over the console and pushed a button. In response, down at the table, Lance immediately beckoned to the nearest security guard. The burly man stretched, pulled his shoulders back and tried to pull in his gut. Then he pasted an intimidating scowl onto his already repulsive face as he approached and leaned down to hear what Lance had to say. He straightened up with a smirk and slowly swaggered to the opposite side of the table, where he took a position directly behind Lilith. With a firm, meaty hand under her elbow he bent down and whispered in her ear, “Mr. Denezza requests your presence.”

Lilith nearly jumped off her seat. She frantically glanced about the casino with a frightened expression that was almost comical. Lance smiled over at her and thought that the woman was probably in for a long night. He shrugged and began to deal the next round as Lilith slid off the stool and allowed the guard to escort her across the expansive ornate casino, past the cocktail lounge, and into the elevator.

Paul was waiting in the hallway outside his office when Lilith was delivered to him like the cheap package she was. He dismissed the guard, opened his door, and pushed her inside. “Sit down,” he commanded as he walked behind his desk but remained standing.

Lilith tentatively sat on the edge of the chair facing his desk. She tried to control her shaking hands by grasping the wooden arms as she looked up into his angry face. Several seconds went by before Paul spoke and this raised her anxiety to an almost intolerable level. She jerked back in her seat when he finally spoke.

“You just don’t get it, do you? Where do you think you are and who do you think you are dealing with? What part of don’t ever come back here did you not understand, Lilith?” Paul breathed deeply and willed himself to remain relatively calm. What he really wanted was to reach across the desk and backhand her across the room.

“I’m so sorry, Paul. I thought enough time had gone by that it would be all right for me to come back. I drove again, and no one knows I’m here. My coworkers believe I took a long weekend to rest and do some reading.”

“Lilith, you are such a stupid cunt for a bitch who is supposed to be so smart. LVPD and the crime lab are still investigating the scorpion attacks. It’s still all over the news and only a matter of time before they connect you with your research and Wilmore Lab. It isn’t as if there are that many places doing work like yours. I erased the record of your stay at the hotel during that time, but you can’t keep coming back here.” Paul’s voice was increasing in volume as he spoke, and finally, he leaned toward her and yelled, “Do you understand me, bitch?” Spittle flew from his mouth across the desk and landed on her cheek.

Lilith flinched and looked away toward the door as she wiped her face with the back of her hand. “Yes, Paul,” she whimpered, “I really do understand, and I won’t come back until you tell me it is safe.”

Paul looked as if he would pop a carotid artery as his face reddened alarmingly. He flew around the desk in a rage and yanked her up out of the chair by her thick dark curls. “I ought to eliminate you once and for all, you worthless slut.” He pushed her away, and she staggered to the far wall, sobbing with her hands covering her face as she slid down to the floor.

Looking at her with a belly full of disgust, he knew there had to be a final solution to this little problem. With a deep sigh, he slumped back onto his chair. While waiting for Lilith to regain her composure, he weighed his options. When she finally pushed herself to a standing position and glanced sideways at him with mascara streaming down both cheeks, he gestured for her to return to her seat. 

“I’m sorry I lost my temper,” he said, with no apparent sincerity. “Look, Lilith, I have an idea how you can redeem yourself and still erase your remaining casino debt. The venture with your little Israeli pets did not work out as planned but there might be a better way. First, I want you to explain some additional technical things about your work, all right?”

With relief, Lilith sagged and slumped in her chair. She was scared to death of Paul, but even more so of losing her job and reputation. She knew her life had spiraled way out of control and she was at a loss as to how to get it back on track. When she was at work in her lab in Watertown, just west of Cambridge, everything was fine. That is, until that urge rose from the depths, first tickling her spine like tiny air bubbles, but soon enough, chomping at her guts as it emerged to the surface, a full-blown obsession—and it always did—and then she had no will power to resist it. “Yes, Paul, anything you want. I will tell you whatever you want to know.”  









15


September 15, 2008 – Las Vegas


Brooks felt as if his life was settling back into its normal routine. He’d taken care of Tom at his penthouse suite atop the Stratosphere for over a week, following his release from the hospital. He was still worried about his friend, but Tom insisted he was well enough to travel to his own apartment in Ventura. 

How cool it would be if this were my normal life routine, he thought, as he gazed across his dining table at Rachael. He was listening to her talk about her tentative plans and the decisions she needed to make about her future. Still overwhelmed and overjoyed at having her back in his life, he found himself memorizing every word she spoke to him. Despite how out of control and hurtful he had been to her mother early on, for the past fifteen years he’d tried indirectly to make amends for his neglect, and it was finally paying off.

Rachael had been staying at Darcy’s house in Colorado for several weeks before coming to Vegas and would fly home to Buenos Aires tomorrow. He was overjoyed when she called to say she planned to visit him for a couple of days before heading south. Then she informed him that Darcy had just left Colorado to live with Mick in DC for a while, and this news dampened his mood considerably.

She looked at him with an intense expression that seemed out of character for the lovely somewhat naive girl he'd come to know. “What do you think, Brooks, should I go on the cruise with Darcy? I guess I would really like to even if I have to miss some school. Actually, I’m really more concerned about missing a sculling crew that’s scheduled during that time.”

Brooks did not want her to see the mixed emotions he was feeling. It was a fine idea for her to spend time with Darcy so they could continue to bond, but the thought of them being with Mick in a quasi-family setting was extremely troubling. What he really wished he could do was undermine Mick’s hold on Darcy so he could get his family back together. He was experiencing an intense bout of jealousy at the thought of Darcy and Mick spending that time together with Rachael, but at least he would be able to use his daughter as an excuse to stay in touch while they were on the ship.

“I think you should go on the trip if you want to. It seems to me that the relatively few things you would miss at school would be outweighed by the opportunity for you to be with your mother. . . I mean Darcy.” 

Rachael nodded and looked out the window at the colorful view of the strip to the south. She felt good—really good—being with Brooks in his home. Despite Darcy’s warnings about her birth father, he’d been nothing but loving and charming towards her each time she visited, and she already thought the world of him. She still could not quite believe he could be her father, given that he and his life seemed so glamorous.

As she looked back at his movie-star-handsome face, she felt a familiar longing. She knew she should be grateful for all the recent changes in her life, and nothing could diminish the love and respect she would always feel for her parents, Ray and Marianne. But she just could not stop herself from wishing that Darcy and Brooks would get together and that she could spend time with both of them as a family.

Darcy had been clear that such a scenario was not possible, but after the amazing events of the past few months, Rachael now believed that anything was possible if you wanted it enough. She did not realize how much like her birth father she was in that regard.

After Rachael returned to her hotel, Brooks sat at the window staring down the strip and spent some productive time planning and scheming about the future. He was so close to having what he craved for so many years. He just had to come up with a way to get Darcy to come back to him . . . and Rachael. Fortunately, there would be an American Travel tour group on the ship, and as he knew from the previous cruise, that could be a real asset for him personally.

Meanwhile, the evening was young, and he had taken the entire day off—an unusual occurrence. He did not want to be tempted to work at home, as he often did. A nice relaxing dinner and some music sounded much better. He picked up the phone to call his assistant, one of his travel agents, who had also been a part-time lover for several years. For some reason, without thinking much about it, he dialed Sidney’s cell instead.

 








16



October 9, 2008 – Washington, DC


Rain, perhaps carrying a softening salty payload from the nearby ocean, formed a perfect sheet on the picture window overlooking Albemarle Street in Tenleytown. Unlike the sometimes muddy downpours we get in the Colorado high desert, maybe this east coast rain actually washes your windows for you, I thought. After returning from the gym in the condominium complex, I showered and gave significant thought to my attire. I settled on low-riding jeans, a turquoise long-sleeved T-shirt, and a wide silver studded belt—a more western look than one typically sees in DC.

Leaning back on the couch, I watched the storm exhaust itself, shifting from a driving torrent to a drizzle. Stretching my legs out and taking care to keep the three-inch heels of my palomino Fry boots off Mick’s seat cushion, I used the rare moment of total relaxation to gather my thoughts while I waited for Tom to arrive from the airport.

We hadn’t seen him since his release from the hospital and subsequent stay at Brooks’s suite in Vegas. In a week, Tom had recovered enough to fly to his apartment in Ventura, California saying that he had to decide whether to live in it or move somewhere else. Apparently, he had spent very little time there during the years he worked on the ship, and it was nothing more than an address and a place to keep his few belongings. Life had changed for all of us, but Tom might have suffered the greatest upheaval. 

At this point, my initial book sales far exceeded my expectations, although my publisher told me it was a no-brainer, given the advance (and free) publicity we endured. I would soon have an infusion of money from royalty payments, so I decided to take Mick up on his offer to move in with him—at least for a little while.

I took a leave of absence from Shrinden partly because I wanted this move, but also because the company refused to grant the month off I requested for the January cruise. So screw them, it is probably time to move on career-wise anyway.

In reality, I appeared to have a new career of sorts. I’d been keeping busy with travel to events and signings arranged by my publisher following the book’s July release. I suppose I should feel like a real author, but it was happening way too fast for me to settle into that persona quite yet.

The media was hounding me, and that was another reason to leave Colorado and hide out at Mick’s condo. Before I left home, an ABC network producer called asking if I would consent to an interview with Barbara Walters. The situation had gained sufficient critical mass that it was threatening to crush me, and I couldn’t bring myself to go that far into the limelight. I told him no and have wondered ever since whether it was a mistake. 

My relationship with Mick seemed to be progressing in some direction, but I wasn’t sure it was the way I wanted to go. He was acting more like his old shipboard self, which I hoped was his real self. Over the past couple of weeks, we made love several times, and his gentle, sweet attention to my needs was almost more than I could bear. Despite my lingering unease about Mick’s behavior, we both said we were relieved to be getting back the relationship—and some of the romance—we hoped for.

Amazingly, we were starting to look forward to revisiting the Sea Nymph, where it all began--and almost ended. We were practical enough to realize that our previous cruise was a huge anomaly, and this one would be perfectly normal. 

I was also enjoying an entirely new kind of social life and was thrilled with the excitement of frequent dinners at Sam and Harry’s with Bill and Mick, where at least once an evening, Bill would point out some famous political figure to me. They made me feel a part of their camaraderie, and I was very grateful to Bill for his friendship and his dedication to Mick. 

Mick was keeping busy with the final arrangements for the GAO cruise crimes job, as he dubbed it. World of Seas Cruise Line reluctantly agreed to participate in the study after quite a bit of back and forth discussion. Actually, the cruise line did not acquiesce until Bill called the CEO for a friendly chat. Truth be told, between Mick and Tom planning to conduct sensitive interviews with crew members, and my having written a book about the cruise from hell, we weren’t sure what kind of reception awaited us on the ship. 

I continued to visit the Smithsonian museums and toured federal buildings whenever possible always feeling like a tourist, and learning a lot of U.S. history. I hadn’t spent any time thinking about what I would do about my job at Shrinden, but that luxury would have to end soon. Rachael came to visit for a week in September, and we had great fun touring museums and galleries together. I especially enjoyed seeing her interact with Bill who was like an uncle to her. Seeing their mutual affection made me feel as if I was part of a functional, loving family and that was so ironic.

The security buzzer jolted me into the present, and I leaped up to unlock the door. I held it open and waited for the elevator to arrive. When Tom stepped out, I was shocked at how much weight he had lost but other than that he seemed fit. In fact, he looked younger due to the weight loss around his middle and the tight jeans, well-tailored Chambray shirt, and camel wool sport coat. Unfortunately, he was umbrella-less and quite wet.

“Darcy, I’m so happy to see you, but then I’m happy to see anyone these days,” he quipped, as he brushed at his jacket lapels.

“Tom, you look fine,” I laughed as I pulled him into an embrace despite the wetness. “Come on in and tell me what is going on with you and the investigation. Mick will be here in about an hour, and we hope you will join us with Bill Sawyer for dinner at Sam and Harry’s. Can I get you something to drink or eat now?”

“Just some water would be good, and Sam and Harry’s sounds great. Mick talks about the place so much, I feel as if I’ve been there.” He kicked off his loafers just inside the door and removed his damp jacket, placing it over the back of a dining chair. Then he crossed the living space to the black leather sofa and sat down, putting his feet up on the ottoman and leaning back against the cushion.

I filled a glass with crushed ice and water and returned to the living room. “So tell me how you’re really feeling and what is going on,” I said, settling down beside him.

“Honestly, I feel pretty good, and my leg hurts less all the time. I have to gain some more strength in it and get back some of the weight, but not necessarily all of it,” he chuckled. “I’m pretty pissed, though. There is no doubt in my mind that Paul is somehow responsible for what happened to me and that he did it to get revenge for my investigation on the ship. That guy is so dangerous we have to take him out one way or the other.”

“You know, I sent some information to Detective Sandoval, the LVPD cop who originally interviewed us at the hospital. My biochemistry background and pharmaceutical work paid off because I had collected a few papers on basic chlorotoxin cancer research. There were some good experiments by an Israeli graduate student who worked directly with the Death Stalker. I noticed that her bio indicated she moved to the U.S. to work on brain cancer remedies with the NIH. I hope they talk to her to see if she has any ideas. I assume they haven’t been able to find anything linking Paul to the attack?”

“Not yet, but I believe they will. Paul screwed up big time because let’s face it, not that many people have access to those research scorpions and it’s just a matter of time before they find the person who helped him. Anyway, Grant Murray is working with the police, and as determined as he is to get Paul, it will happen. I’m sure of it.”

“I hope you’re right, Tom.” I’ll never be at ease as long as that jerk is free to spend his considerable resources on ways to get revenge on you, Sidney, or any of us he thinks are responsible for spoiling his little plot. You guys have to find something helpful on the ship. It might be the only way.”









17


November 24, 2008 – Las Vegas


Grant Murray shifted the phone under his chin as he reached across the desk to retrieve a report written by LVPD detective Sandoval. “So you’re feeling pretty good, Tom? That’s great news. Yeah, I have it right here. Darcy might be on to something with the information she sent to Sandoval. Apparently, there is a woman from Israel working at Wilmore Laboratories near Watertown, Mass. It might be worth talking to her about how someone could get their hands on the scorpions. There doesn’t appear to be a connection between her and Paul, or even Las Vegas.

“Even so, Sandoval is trying to get some shred of evidence that would allow them to subpoena Athens Olympia records to match with people in the U.S. who work with the scorpions, including the woman Darcy found—Doctor Lilith Schrom. It’s a stretch, but it might turn up something of interest.”

Tom sighed audibly. “Part of me wants to go to the hotel and wring the information out of Paul, but I know that would only complicate matters, and he undoubtedly has an army of security shielding him.”

“Right, and interviews we did with a couple of Athens Olympia employees were not fruitful. The local car rental agencies and the airlines have cooperated, but it's tough when you don’t know precisely what you're looking for. A cursory search of their records for the days surrounding your attack didn’t produce any names matching the lists of employees at the chlorotoxin research labs.

“I guess the person could have come from another country or even driven to Vegas, Murray continued, “and it’s hard to see how they could have gotten the scorpions onto a plane in any event.” He paused to think about that for a moment. “I wonder if something like them would show up on the X-Ray if they were in a carry-on? I’ll have to check with TSA on that.” 

“Good idea, but I can’t imagine you could get through security with those things in a bag. I mean wouldn’t they have to be in a cage or container of some sort? Anyway, I hope not, for all our sakes.”

“Tom, another problem is that Paul was with about fifty other people at a fundraising event the afternoon and evening of the attack on you, and since he has no connection to scorpion research, there’s no reason to question him. But I still believe as you do, that there’s a tie to Paul.”

“Thanks for the update. There is a connection somewhere, and we’ll find it. Speaking of that, we’re good to go on the January cruise. World of Seas has agreed to provide access to the crew for interviews, with the assurance that there will be no publicity about the study before GAO delivers its report to Congress. As you can imagine, World of Seas management is not happy about all the press regarding their former captain and his wife’s involvement in murders, and they still deny that the captain did anything wrong.”

“I hope that doesn’t interfere with your ability to get information on the ship.”

“Me too. Suzanne’s confession to me before we left her in Valparaiso, and her insistence that the captain killed the cruise director were completely believable. I still can’t get over her death in that jail.

After a thoughtful pause, Tom said, “By the way, Grant, did you know that Darcy and her daughter, Rachael, are also coming along on the trip? I think they are very brave to go back there, and their presence will certainly make it more enjoyable. I have to admit, though, I’m still ambivalent about going back, including the fact that they fired me. I’ll handle it, though, because my main interest is in getting Paul to pay for his crimes, and I can’t see any other way.”