When Hannah Gray discovers that her lover and business partner has implicated her in a massive act of insurance fraud, she flees Chicago rather than going to the police. An Adriatic cruise will help to clear her head, she reasons, and give her time to plan her next move.
On the ship, Hannah meets Renee Epstein, an elderly woman whose husband is also a fugitive, on the run from a top-secret government agency that wants to use his scientific research for a purpose he never intended. Scribbled into the couple’s guidebook is the formula for a powerful new energy source with incredible destructive capabilities. Hannah borrows the book, and shortly thereafter, the Epsteins are murdered. Suddenly Hannah is the target of an assassin whose talents are as unique as they are deadly.
Pursued from the Greek islands to Istanbul to the South of France, Hannah hopes to stay alive long enough to turn her bad fortune around. Thousands of miles from everything and everyone she knows, she decides to reinvent herself—or die trying.
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By John Altman
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2003 John Altman
All rights reserved.
The stateroom was ten feet square.
The walls were plain white plasterboard; a single lithograph hung above the bed, picturing six turbaned men on horseback. The carpets were a bristly, artificial blue. Opposite the door was a large, round, tinted window—a porthole, Hannah Gray supposed, although it was much bigger than she had thought a porthole would be.
Beneath the porthole was a low redwood table featuring a lamp, a vase of lilies, and a bowl of fruit. Against the left-hand wall, when Hannah turned back to face the door, were a small desk, a wall-mounted television, and a refrigerette. Against the right-hand wall were a single twin bed, a standing lamp, and a teak dresser. Atop the dresser was a clock radio, blinking 12:00.
Inside the refrigerette she found a bottle of champagne, two chilled glasses, Evian water, a jar of macadamia nuts, and a package of double-A batteries. Inside the end table she found two packets of Bonine motion-sickness pills, a plastic bracelet, a pair of foam earplugs, and a condom labeled Transderm Scop.
She picked up the condom, and turned it over in her hands.
After a moment, she replaced it, shut the drawer, and continued her inspection.
The bathroom was small and tidy. The entire cabin was small and tidy. Within five minutes, she had seen all there was to see; she dropped down onto the bed. The ship was rocking softly in the waves by the dock, making her stomach roll.
A loudspeaker behind the bed crackled to life and then emitted the voice of the cruise director, replete with false cheer:
"Ladies and gentlemen," the cruise director said. "Welcome aboard the beautiful Aurora II! As we look out our windows at the palace of the Doge of Venice, we see much the same thing that the envoys of the Comte Thibaut would have seen in April of 1201, when they first arrived to secure transports and warships for what would eventually become the Fourth Crusade ..."
Hannah didn't move. Windows, she thought.
Not portholes after all, but windows.
She felt a funny little flicker of disappointment.
She'd had windows back in Chicago.
Two hours later, the cruise director stood behind a podium in the lounge of the Aurora II, repeating her speech into a microphone almost word for word.
"As we proceed in the footsteps of the Crusaders, the past will come vibrantly alive. We will experience this remarkable journey much as it was experienced by these men so many centuries ago. When presented with the Hagia Sophia or the mosaics of St. Mark's, keep in mind the impression they might have given to these traveling rogues in the summer of 1204—"
The lounge sparkled: glimmering hardwood floors, shining silken wallpaper, and rows of portholes—windows—looking out onto the sun-dappled Mediterranean. At one end was the dining area, with glass chandeliers, lace-edged tablecloths, and ornamented bars built into the corners. At the other was the podium, set before a baby grand piano and a rack of stereo components.
An elegant, high-cheekboned woman of about seventy-five was introducing herself to Hannah. "Renee Epstein," she said in a stage whisper, and offered her hand.
Hannah took it. "Vicky Ludlow," she said, and smiled pleasantly.
The cruise director was still talking, filling her other ear:
"... reach the island of Methoni early tomorrow morning. This is only one of several spectacular islands we'll be visiting over the course of the upcoming week. We'll spend the day at Methoni and pull out tomorrow night, and on the morning of the eighth we'll be arriving at Valletta, Malta ..."
Renee Epstein was asking something; Hannah had missed it. "I'm sorry?" she said.
"Oh, I hope that's not too forward. I do have a way of putting my foot in my mouth sometimes. But it's a mother's prerogative, isn't it? To try to find somebody right for her son. He's a periodontist, my Charlie." She leaned in closer; her pitch dropped even lower. "Very comfortable," she said.
Hannah kept smiling. The woman reminded her of her grandmother—a New England blue blood, hair dyed black but with a single streak of gray near one temple, a calculated admission of age. Tight skin around the temples pulled the eyes into catlike slits.
"I hope that's not too forward," the woman said again.
"Not at all," Hannah answered. "But I'm afraid I'm taken."
"Oh! I didn't see a ring."
"The Aurora II is two hundred and seventy feet long," the cruise director said, "and forty-six feet wide. She accommodates eighty passengers in forty-four staterooms, all with ocean exposures. She's equipped with stabilizers for smooth sailing—although it's very common to experience some seasickness, especially in the first few days; I'll get to that in a moment—and she meets the latest international environmental and safety standards, including those of the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Department of Health."
She paused to take a breath. "I had an accident in the hotel," Hannah said quickly. "My ring went right down the drain. Straight into the canals, I bet. Gone forever. My husband's going to kill me."
"Oh, dear," Renee Epstein said. "What a pity."
"During our voyage, you'll want to make a point of taking advantage of the many luxuries on board the Aurora II. There are five decks on the boat. At the bottom is A Deck, housing the crew's quarters and the doctor's office. Above that is the Main Deck, with the passenger quarters and reception area; and above that is the Boat Deck, so named because it's the deck with the lifeboats. Also on the Boat Deck you'll find some more passenger quarters, as well as the salon, the library, and the auditorium. Then comes the Upper Deck, where we are right now, featuring the kitchen, and of course"—with a sweeping, inclusive gesture—"the dining room and lounge area. Finally the Sun Deck, accessible only from the outside stairwells, featuring everybody's favorite—the pool."
A ripple of laughter moved through the crowd.
"It may seem like a lot to absorb all at once," the cruise director went on. She was a handsome woman of about thirty, with twinkling eyes and an auburn wedge of hair, wearing the standard Adventure Dynamics staff outfit of navy top and tan slacks. "But don't worry, you'll become familiar with it. And by the end of the week, just when it won't do you any good whatsoever, you'll know it like the back of your hand."
More laughter. Hannah took advantage of the distraction to slip away from Renee Epstein, moving purposefully in the direction of one corner bar. She accepted a mimosa from a brown-eyed steward, flashed her best PR smile, and turned to find that the woman had followed her. "Have you done the reading?"
Hannah blinked. "I'm sorry?"
"The books they sent us. The background reading."
"Oh," she said. "No. I'm afraid I didn't get the chance."
"Well, that's a shame. To get the most out of a cruise like this, you should really do the reading.
A little background helps so much. I personally don't think it's necessary to do the whole list—there are fifteen, you know, five 'essential' and ten 'highly recommended.' But a sampling, I think, is a good idea. And one of the books they gave us is truly excellent. The Chronicles of the Crusades, by Joinville and Villehardouin."
Hannah sipped at her mimosa. "Hm," she said.
"Some historical context gives the whole experience much more ... resonance. Do you have a copy?"
"No, I'm afraid I don't. I must have left it at home."
"Then you'll need to borrow ours. We've both already read it—Steven finished in the hotel just last night."
"Oh, I could never—"
"Nonsense. Resonance," Renee Epstein said. "Come by our cabin after the orientation and I'll give you our copy. And you can meet Steven, if he hasn't locked himself in the bathroom. He's not feeling well, I'm afraid. But then, he never does well on cruises. Oh, and look at him when you speak to him—he's losing his hearing."
"I wouldn't want to—"
"You must try to get the full experience," Renee said forcefully. "And that means putting a little something into it, doesn't it? You don't want to be lazy, dear. A chance like this doesn't come along every day."
Hannah kept smiling, although her cheeks were beginning to ache. The smile, she thought, must be turning neurasthenic. She should turn away without another word; let the woman think what she liked.
"I absolutely insist," Renee said. "You really must read it. It is excellent."
"That's very nice of you. But I do need to unpack. Maybe after—"
"It won't take a minute. Come on," Renee said, and took her hand. "They're finishing up here anyway."
Hannah looked at the hand on hers. Thin bluish veins riddled the back; the fingers were delicate and spindly.
She may have found herself doing things, as of late, of which she never would have thought herself capable. But could she do this—pull her hand from that arthritic grip, and hurt an old woman who was only trying to be friendly?
Of course you can, she thought. And you will. Right now.
So she was surprised to hear the words coming out of her own mouth:
"That's very nice of you," she said. "Just for one minute. Thank you."
She could hear the husband—Steven Epstein, she remembered—vomiting from the bathroom.
Now Hannah's smile was apologetic. She felt very much the intruder, standing in this man's sickroom as his wife fluttered busily among their luggage, looking for the book and still talking a mile a minute.
"He's awful on cruises. Just awful. To tell the truth, after the last disaster I didn't think he'd ever agree to another one. Originally, I was planning on bringing my friend Martha on this trip. Martha and I have traveled together quite a bit lately. Two years ago we did Vietnam; the year before that, a cruise down the Nile. Next year we hope to do the Yangtze. But at the last second my Steven changed his mind, and decided to keep me company after all. There's a lesson there somewhere, dear." She raised her voice. "Did you take the Bonine? There was Bonine in the nightstand."
No answer from the bathroom.
"Here we go," Renee said. She turned from a suitcase and handed a paperback book to Hannah.
On the cover, armored men with swords jousted, fired arrows, stormed castles, lay dying.
"Thank you," Hannah said, and backed toward the door. "So I'll see you at the welcome dinner ..."
"Steven. Do you feel well enough to come meet our guest?"
Still no answer.
"I hope you feel better, Mr. Epstein," Hannah called. "No need to come out. I'll see you later."
"Dear, don't rush off! Wouldn't you like a glass of champagne? I have some pictures of Charlie around here someplace. I understand that you're taken, of course, but perhaps you've got a friend ..."
"Thank you so much. But I do need to unpack. And thank you for the book. 'Bye, now!"
Hannah slipped outside and closed the door before the woman could argue.
She stood for a moment in the red-carpeted hallway by the Epsteins' cabin—47 was written on the door in gold-plated numbers—and then began to move back in the direction of her own stateroom. Her calves felt spongy and unreliable. She hadn't gotten her sea legs yet, she supposed. Or was sea legs another outdated term, like portholes?
She made the journey carefully, keeping one hand pressed against a wall for support, wondering if she had made yet another mistake in accompanying the woman to her room. The last thing she needed right now was to make new friends. So many mistakes, lately ...
No harm done, she thought. She's only being polite.
Don't get paranoid.
Even if they had followed her onto the ship—which hardly seemed possible—it was unlikely that their agent would have been an elderly woman with a recent face-lift. No, it would be a man in a suit, probably with mirrored sunglasses. No tie, but mirrored sunglasses and an off-the-rack gray jacket. But that wasn't accurate either, was it? If they knew where she was, they wouldn't send a man on board the ship at all. They would wait for her to go ashore before they arrested her.
But she was getting ahead of herself. There was nobody following her. Of that, she was nearly certain.
Once inside her stateroom, she locked the door. She tossed the paperback onto the bed and went to look out the window. One corner of the Church of St. Mark was visible behind a dilapidated warehouse, with the Italian flag flapping in a breeze.
The funny little flicker of disappointment occurred again.
It should have been very romantic and dramatic: docked at Venice, about to embark on a cruise through the Greek Isles. And yet the boat was filled with senior citizens, and somehow she already had received her first homework assignment. The Chronicles of the Crusades.
She looked out the window for another moment, staring through her own wavering reflection.
Then she turned, and moved toward her luggage.
She had overpacked.
As she transferred her clothes from suitcase to dresser, Hannah couldn't help but marvel at her own indulgence. The cruise would last only a single week. Yet she'd brought enough clothes to keep her occupied for a month, at least: blouses and halter tops and cashmere sweaters with sweetheart necklines, jeans and skirts and bikinis and Pashmina scarves. Her beauty regimen took up an entire small bag of its own. Judging from the contents of her luggage, she thought, one might almost assume that she never intended to go back home again.
But that would be untrue. She had come here only to clear her head. The opportunity had presented itself, she'd had the sick days to spare, and she'd been getting strange vibes from Frank. So she had packed—overpacked—and now here she was. But the situation, of course, was only temporary. When the cruise was finished, she would return to Chicago.
Where else did she have to go, after all?
After unpacking her clothes, she spread her papers on the bedspread and considered them. Two thousand dollars in traveler's checks, and another five hundred in cash. So of course she would go back. She couldn't live long on that money, not in the style to which she had grown accustomed.
A part of her mind spoke up: Don't forget the joint account, Hannah.
She hadn't forgotten. There were one hundred and twelve thousand additional dollars in the joint account back in the States. But if her feeling about Frank had been right, that account might soon be frozen. That money would be lost to her.
Next to the money was the brochure for the cruise, which Vicky had given to her during their meeting at the airport. Until now Hannah had only browsed through it. Her mind had been occupied with other things—unable to wrap itself around any of them, trying in vain to juggle all of them at once. Now she picked up the brochure and flipped through it cursorily.
Had the feeling about Frank been completely off base? Had it been only paranoia? Or had it been the opposite—too little, too late? Perhaps they would be waiting for her at the next port. And the following week her picture would be splashed across the front page of the Tribune, one of those grainy photos in which the criminal had a jacket draped over her head, trying to hide her face as men maneuvered her toward a waiting car. FUGITIVE IN MEDICARE FRAUD CASE APPREHENDED, the headline would read. International manhunt ends in arrest.
But no—there was no international manhunt. As far as the company knew, there wasn't even any fraud. She'd picked up a feeling from Frank, nothing more. Just a feeling. It was probably all in her mind.
Excerpted from Deception by John Altman. Copyright © 2003 John Altman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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