Their second night out, Jake entered the ship’s dining room and breathed in the fragrance of ginger and anise and other Oriental spices wafting from the evening buffet table. Paper lanterns festooned the ceiling. White tablecloths and pale rattan chairs gleamed against the rich turquoise carpet and faded cocoa walls.
Intricately carved pictures of rural Filipino life hung on the walls, reminding him of Nam. A boy on a water buffalo. Two workers in domed field hats, cultivating a rice paddy. A mother and baby outside a hut. The perfect setting to celebrate with Ginny tonight.
Ginny stepped in next to him, pretty in a red, sleeveless wrap-around dress. The first night at sea, the cruise had honored newlyweds. Tonight it was oldyweds’ turn. He wore the black polo shirt she’d given him before dinner as an anniversary gift. She had sewn a gold insignia of the Marine Corps on the pocket and embroidered Lt. Colonel Jacob A. Chalmers, USMCR, in tiny, neat letters beneath it.
“My brag shirt?”
“That’s what Marines do best.” The hug said there was no getting out of wearing it.
His gift to her gleamed under the soft light of the paper lanterns. Gift-giving wasn’t his strong point, but this one swelled his chest. The ring was a delicate white-gold band, set with four birthstones—a ruby for her, two sapphires for the twins, a peridot for him. In the tough months ahead, he wanted the ring to be a reminder of this evening and their happiness.
“Look, there are our guests.” Ginny waved to a young girl accompanied by a thin, white-haired woman standing at the other entrance to the room. “Crystal is eleven, and Betty is her great-aunt. Poor things were eating all by themselves last night.” For sure, Crystal and Betty would not lack dining companions the rest of the trip.
The four of them joined the buffet line, and Jake piled his plate high with rice and every vegetable and choice of meat offered. Though the fare was simple, a festive bottle of wine sat on each table, along with goblets and a pitcher of water. As soon as they sat, a waiter brought champagne in delicate, fluted glasses.
The captain called for toasts, and the chatter in the dining room hushed. Jake was the first to stand. “Twenty years ago I proposed to this lovely lady.” Applause rippled through the room as he pulled Ginny to her feet and put his arm around her. “She didn’t turn me down then, and she hasn’t since.”
He kissed her soundly and the room reverberated with hoots.
“Bragging is what Marines do best,” he whispered.
“Next to best.” She cast a sultry look at him and took his hand, laughing as they sat, fingers entwined.
When the toasts were done, Captain Emilio rose to make his rounds to the tables. Why so early? Was something special planned?
The captain approached their table. “Congratulations on your anniversary.” His gaze rested on the Marine Corps insignia and slid up to the two scars on the right side of Jake’s face. “Nam?”
“Dog. Pit bull.” Jake narrowed his eyes, waited to see if the bully caught the mimicry.
The captain’s lips thinned into a straight line. “Ladies, enjoy your meal.” His smile slid over them like a tanker over seaweed. He walked, shoulders rigid, to the next table.
“I got bit once,” Crystal said, “but it was just a puppy. It didn’t hurt much.”
“How long ago was that, Jake?” Betty put her hand on Crystal’s arm, as if to hush her.
“About forty years ago. I was two and didn’t know any better than to pick up her pup by its neck.”
“I bet all the girls swooned over you, you look so romantic with those scars.” Crystal’s blue eyes fluttered in demonstration.
He burst into laughter. “Quite the opposite. Does the nickname Jagged Jake or Chewy Chalmers sound romantic?”
“Oh.” The corners of Crystal’s lips turned down. “They call me Cry-Baby Crystal at school.”
“I was Shrimp,” Betty interjected. “Every year the kids got taller, except me.”
Ginny hunched her shoulders into a shrug. “With red hair, what else but the Freckled Freak?”
If he and Ginny had been alone, he would have slipped his fingers into that golden-red hair and pulled the woman he loved into his arms. Freckled Freak? He wanted to guffaw, belt out a good, hard laugh. The Freckled Freak had grown into a beautiful woman who still made his heart thrum. He’d never stop thanking God for her.
Without warning, sorrow slammed like a steel wrecking ball into his chest. Thank God? His lungs tightened in a sharp ache. When the doctors said Ginny would die of stage IV colon cancer at age forty-two?
“Jake?” Ginny’s hand pressed against his arm, and he steadied his eyes on hers. They crinkled at the corners, a sheen of moisture refracting light from the paper lanterns overhead, and he knew she was smiling bravely. Smiling for him.
He sucked oxygen back into his lungs and laid his hand over hers. They’d agreed not to let grief claw away their joy of being together.
“Dance?” He led her to the small dance floor and took her into his arms, cradling her against the jostle of other couples.
He’d lost control. He wouldn’t let it happen again. The cruise was only the beginning of the good things he’d planned for her.
* * *
Eve slipped out of her dress and hung it in the narrow closet. Thank goodness she’d already laid out a change of clothes on her berth. Captain Emilio had left the dining room sooner than she expected, and his wink as he passed her table had set her nerves to jangling.
Up till now, switching from prosecuting attorney to field agent had proved fun. She’d worked on the crew by first ordering room service, then gaining a tour of the galley, and eventually a trip through the entire ship. The crew loved her interest in them and eagerly answered all her questions.
But what had she discovered? Nothing. She shook out the cobalt blue, V-neck blouse and white, cuffed shorts and put them on, then plucked out the pins holding her hair in a French twist. Her visit in a few minutes with Captain Emilio had to look casual, like it was no big deal. No giveaways like trembling fingers or forgetting her name was Eva Gray.
She squinted into the tiny bathroom mirror and settled on a light application of lipstick, no powder. Okay, so she hadn’t discovered the hold stuffed full of drugs. But she had unearthed two puzzling events that sat like lead in her gut.
Why was the ship operating with a skeleton crew—maybe half what it needed? The men were scrambling from room service to meal preparation to the mechanics of running the ship. Then there was the fact that every member of the crew was sailing the Gateway for the first time. That couldn’t be a coincidence. Only Chester, the first mate, was an old timer. She blew out a breath, remembering how unfriendly and closed-mouthed the officer had been.
She slid her feet into high-heeled sandals and buckled the straps. Somehow those two discoveries were important. They pointed to something, but what? Three more days until they docked in Manila. She needed to pull things together.
She found Captain Emilio alone on the bridge, leaning over a map spread on a chart board. He had removed his jacket, and the back of his short-sleeved shirt was pasted in a line of sweat bracketed by his shoulders and running down his spine to his waist. He turned to face her as the wooden deck creaked under her sandals, his eyes constricted, hard, like a hawk sighting its prey.
Her breath froze, and for a second she couldn’t move, couldn’t think. Then he smiled, and the icy bullet in her lungs dissolved. Had she imagined animosity? She took a deep breath. This wasn’t going to be as easy as questioning the crew.
“We still on course?” She nodded at the map and forced a smile.
“We’re right where I want us to be.” His voice was deep, confident, a man used to getting his way. He stepped around the chart board, his eyes sliding appreciatively over her body. His hand pressed lightly against her waist as he guided her to a tray offering an assortment of drinks.
She stiffened at his touch, and his hand dropped.
“An after-dinner drink?” His eyebrows rose—over her choice of beverage, or over her reaction to his brash familiarity?
She delayed her answer, examining the offerings on the tray, regrouping to take over the reins of control. “How about a tour first?” She pointed to what looked like some kind of communication apparatus. “What’s this?”
“A single side band radio.” He explained it in detail and moved to the next piece of equipment and then another.
She lost interest at the third item. What she needed was some way to link him to the Romeros. The facial similarities weren’t enough, of course, to make a legitimate connection. But wasn’t it an interesting coincidence that Emilio, an Italian, commanded a ship that the feds knew ran drugs from Guam to the Philippines to Chicago, home turf of the Romero family?
If she could tie him to the family, or even just to Chicago, she might well have found the link that could secure a win for the Justice Department. Eight years of chasing Danny Romero would finally end with his backside in a corner he couldn’t slip away from.
The captain’s finger hovered over the last piece of equipment. “This is the radio locator beacon—the distress signal. It alerts other ships or aircraft that you’re in trouble and need help.”
Enough about equipment or she’d have to send out her own distress signal. She infused fresh curiosity into her voice. “How long have you been captain of the Gateway?"
Again the man rattled on. Definitely oriented to details. Her interest perked as his autobiography moved backwards through time. Vanity made one vulnerable. What question could she ask to lure him into a trap that would give the information she needed?
Captain Emilio stopped abruptly. His eyes narrowed, focusing on hers. “Where are you from, Eva?”
Exactly what she wanted to ask him. “Chicago. How about you?”
His eyebrows shot up. “Small world—my father lives there.”
Her heart leaped. The trap had caught its mouse.
* * *
Captain Emilio smirked as Evedene Eriksson, alias Eva Gray, clattered down the steep ladder stairwell. How her eyes had danced after he’d shared the information she so badly wanted to hear. A rather pathetic game of cat and mouse on her part, but worth it to see her think she was the cat, and he, the mouse.
He snorted. So, she should be done with her pitiful interrogation of him and the crew now that he’d revealed he was Danny Romero’s son. If only she’d been willing to offer herself in his bed to get the information out of him. He shrugged and picked up a microphone. Just as well. His mission tomorrow required all his attention.
For a moment he tried picturing his father’s face when the old man received the news of his son’s death. Would he crumple into tears at the loss, or scowl at what he perceived as incompetence?
Who cared? His father was a goner, whether through the Romero trial or through his emphysema. And so was Emilio if he didn’t make his escape now. Either he faked his death, or the other three Romero sons—the “legitimate” ones—would make it a reality.
“First Mate to the bridge,” he announced over the public address system.
Chester appeared promptly. He had been with the captain five years, and his clenched jaw said he knew his performance had better be up to snuff.
“The radio locator beacon can be moved now. Are both lighters set?” It was important to Captain Emilio’s purposes to not use the lifeboats. The flat-bottomed lighters rode high in the water and were used for brief sojourns of sightseeing in the shallow waters surrounding the outer Philippine islands. They weren’t necessary components for the sale of the ship.
“Yessir.” Chester reached into his pocket and produced two sets of ignition keys. His hand shook, and the keys clanked against each other.
“Don’t go getting soft on me.”
Chester shoved the keys back into his pocket and blinked several times. “We’re only supposed to take out the attorney.”
“You want to back out, now’s the time.”
“No sir.” The first mate swallowed and looked the captain in the eye. “The explosives are ready when you are.”
CONTINUED ON THURSDAY-FRIDAY