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"We're too late. They're all dead."
The words drifted toward Noah Fielding as though they were part of a dream. Or a nightmare.
An all-too-familiar nightmare.
Other people spoke around him, the sounds reaching him in a confused babble.
As he hovered in a twilight zone between life and death, paralysis held him in a viselike grip. He couldn't move. Not even twitch a finger. He knew he wasn't breathing because a terrible weight pressed against his chest holding his lungs immobile. His limbs might have been sunk into cement.
Don't panic. You know you can get through this. Don't panic. He repeated the words over and over in his mind, fighting to ground himself.
A commanding voice cut through the shock and confusion around him.
"Get them out of there."
The order came from
Noah should know the man's name. He tried to call it up, but his mind had turned into a pool of treacle.
He felt hands on his body tug him. Someone grabbed him under the arms and pulled him from the experimental submarine, then laid him on the metal deck of the
Again, he drew a blank.
He could feel hot sun on his face and the boat rocking under his body. More sensations.
"Get the doc."
"It's too late for that."
His mind struggled to make connections. What language were the men speaking?
Farsi? Eighteenth-century French? Russian?
As they spoke, the words fell into a recognizable pattern. The men were speaking English. Late twentieth century. Or maybe twenty-first.
Twenty-first century. Yes. That was the time period. He remembered that now. And he clutched at the fact.
Were they speaking of a doc or a dock?
A sudden coughing fit shattered his concentration.
All around him he heard excited exclamations.
Noah's eyes blinked open and he stared up into the face of
Ken Dupont. The doctor. The doc.
When Noah struggled to sit up, the man put a hand on his shoulder. "Don't move."
He tried to speak and was caught in another coughing fit as his lungs struggled to function again.
Someone else spoke. "When we lost communication, we thought you were all dead. How did you get the sub out of there?" Captain Sampson was asking the question, his voice sharp. He was the one who had given the orders before.
Noah focused on him. "I
" Again he started coughing, cutting off his explanation. But the whole picture was coming back to him now.
He was ninety miles off the coast of Grand Cayman Island, on a scientific exploration shipNeptune's Promise. The mission was to test an experimental submarine called The Fortune.
This was the second day of diving. He and three other men had gone down into the 25,000-foot trench off the island. Everything had been fine, until Eddie Carlson had gotten over-enthusiastic and maneuvered them into a passage between two rock formationswhere the sub had gotten stuck. They'd tried everything they could to get out. But the craft wouldn't budge and they were running out of air.
There was no other submarine in the area that could dive so deeply. Nobody who could rescue them.
When the rest of the crew had passed out from lack of oxygen, Noah had willed himself to stay conscious. He'd staggered to the controls and made one last desperate attempt to free the machine. He remembered silently saying a prayer to any god who would listen as he backed up and rammed forward, like the driver of a car stuck in snow. Apparently the maneuver had freed them.
After that, everything was pretty fuzzy. But he must have set a course for the surface, because the sub had made it up here. Only it sounded like it had been too late for the rest of the crew.
Damn. They were all good men. Dead because he'd dragged them down there with him.
He caught himself up short in the middle of the accusation. They'd jumped at the chance to crew the sub. They simply ignored the risks.
In the background Noah heard people talking. Talking about him.
"Something I didn't like about that guy."
"He thinks he can do anything he wants 'cause he's got the big bucks."
"Probably hogged the oxygen."
He understood the need to assign blame. And understood that the rich, handsome adventurer, Noah Fielding, was a convenient target.
Still, he heard himself protesting, "No."
The captain's voice cut through the muttering of the crew, telling them to cool it until they had the full story.
Two men brought a stretcher and lifted Noah onto it. He knew it wasn't easy maneuvering his one hundred seventy pound, six-foot frame down the companionway, but they managed to do it without dropping him.
Below deck, he lay on the exam table in the infirmary, letting Dr. Dupont poke and prod him.
"You're in good shape. It looks like you were damn lucky," the medic said.
Noah pushed himself to a sitting position. "I've got an iron constitution. And that rebreather thing kept me going." His voice caught. "I'm just sorry it didn't save the others."
"Yeah." Dupont walked to the door and stuck out his head. "You can talk to him now."
Captain Sampson came in, his gaze hard. "Do you remember what happened?"
Noah struggled not to tense up. He had nothing to hide. Well, nothing that mattered to Sampson or the rest of the crew of Neptune's Promise.
"It got pretty fuzzy at the end. I was functioning on hardly any oxygen, so I don't know if I can be perfectly accurate. The Fortune wedged into a rock formation. After Eddie passed out, I was able to shake us free."
"I thought you were just financing the expedition. I didn't realize you could operate the sub."
"I've picked up a lot of skills over the years," he clipped out, hoping that was enough of an explanationand hoping he wasn't going to have to fight his way out of here. He knew it was natural for the men to resent his miraculous escape and his money. He was alive. The crew who had gone down with him in the sub were dead. But that wasn't his fault. All he'd done was survive.
Neptune's Promise returned to George Town. As soon as the craft docked, Noah left the ship and headed for the luxury B and B where he was staying.
He knew the captain had already informed the men's families of their deaths. After closing the door to his room, he made condolence calls to the widows.
The deaths were like a raw wound in his gut. He couldn't bring the men back, but he could arrange to transfer a million dollars to each of the wives. At least that would make the next few years easier for them and their children.
Guilt gnawed at him. He and the crew had carefully gone over procedures, and the craft should have been safe. Maybe if he'd used another pilot, they would have avoided disaster.
Noah had liked Eddie Carlson, most especially his sense of humor and sense of adventure. Now Noah was second-guessing himself and thinking that the guy was too reckless to have been at the controls. If he'd stayed in open water, everybody would have come back alive.
Live and learn, he told himself.
Twenty minutes after he'd closed the door to his room, a two-man team from the local constabulary showed up. One was a brisk little dark-skinned cop named Inspector Danger-ford. In his fifties and balding, he was accompanied by a younger, taller assistant named Sergeant Wilkins, who mostly let his boss do the talking.
Noah knew the inspector's type. Nice and politeuntil he thought he had something on you. Then he'd get his sidekick to whip out the handcuffs and march you off to an interrogation room where you might or might not undergo some physical persuasion.
Noah had a lot of practice answering questionshostile and otherwise. Dangerford asked a lot of them in his soft island accent, approaching each point from several different angles, but he couldn't shake Noah's story that he'd strapped on the rebreather and hoped for the best.
From the first, it was clear the cops were just on a fishing expedition, hoping Noah would make some kind of mistake and incriminate himself in the deaths of the other men.
But he stuck to his guns, repeating the same story over and over. He hadn't done anything illegal or immoral. He didn't know why he was alive and the other men were dead.
Strictly speaking, that was the absolute truth.
At the end of the interview, Dangerford asked him to stay in town until the investigation of the incident was completed.
Noah politely declined, and because he wasn't under arrest for anything, they had to back off.
When they asked for his address, he gave them the condo he owned in San Francisco. He wasn't there often, but he paid the security staff to maintain his privacy.
Although he'd planned to stay on the island for a couple of weeks, he felt a sudden urge to get out of the sun. Picking up the phone, he booked a flight to the West Coast with High Fliers, a company that sold shares in private jet planes to rich passengers who wanted to travel in comfort to various destinations around the world.
As Noah's plane flew over Las Vegas, an interesting conversation was taking place in a studio apartment in a run-down part of the desert gambling oasis.
"You must be crazy." Olivia Stapler gave her brother a hard stare, struggling not to spit in his face after the hateful suggestion he'd made.
Pearson's response was a nasty smile. "If you don't do this, I'll tell Dad that you're working as a prostitute."
"That's a bald-faced lie!"
"What would you call it?"
"I'm working for an escort service."
His laugh was even nastier than the smile. "You expect him to believe that? An escort service in Las Vegas. He hated the idea of your coming here in the first place. Now he's going to know you're wallowing in sin."
A sick feeling rose in her throat. Her dad was in a nursing home back in Paterson, New Jersey. After two strokes he was paralyzed on one side and barely functional, and he'd always favored her brother.
If Pearson said Olivia was a prostitute, her dad would believe it, and it would kill him.
After delivering his threat, Pearson softened his approach.
"And there's money in it for you, too. A lot more than you ever saw."
"I earned good money dancing," she shot back.
He made a snorting sound. "In a chorus line?"
"Yes! And I had a featured part."
"Well, you had to kiss all that goodbye. So you might as well get used to being a gimp."
The cruel gibe made her want to rush her brother and beat him with her fists. But he'd only start slapping her around, and she'd be in worse shape than she was now. From where she sat, it was too bad she'd focused all her energy on her dance career, but she'd been young and sure that she had what it took to make it.
While she was still in high school, she'd saved money from her after-school job at Macy's. As soon as she'd graduated, she'd bought a bus ticket to Las Vegas.
With her long legs and years of dance training, she'd been instantly hired by one of the smaller reviews on the strip. Six months later, she'd applied to one of the top shows and gotten in. Her boss had told her she was on the fast track to being offered a starring role.
That was then. Her reality was a lot different now, after a drunk driver had plowed into her in the casino parking lot.
She was still trying to pay off her hospital bills and her physical therapy bills. She'd even reached the point where she knew she should apply for food stamps. Then, at least, she could be sure of eating regular meals.
Pearson must have seen the defeated look on her face, because he visibly relaxed. "It's going to be easy. I got the idea from that guy who ran for president. The one who got caught in a hotel room in L.A. with his mistress."
"That was a longtime affair."
Pearson waved her to silence. "Whatever. The point is, some men have a lot to lose if they get nailed in the wrong bed with a blond looker like you. Let me tell you how we're going to work it."
As she listened, she clenched her fists, her mind scrambling for a way to thwart her brother's plans.
Noah landed at LAX and collected his luggage from the flight crew, then picked up his Lexus hybrid in the private lot. Once he was on the highway, he pulled his cell phone from the glove compartment, plugged it into the cigarette lighter and called home.
His man, Thomas Northrop, answered.
"I've landed. I'm in the car and I'll be there in two or three hours, depending on the traffic."
"We're glad to have you back." Thomas paused. His voice was sober when he began to speak again. "I'm sorry about what happened on The Fortune. I know you have to be grieving for those men."
"Yes, thanks," Noah answered. He and Thomas were old friends. Or at least as friendly as a man like Noah could get with anyone. "Anything I should know about?" he asked.
"You have four e-mails from that doctorSidney Hemmings."
"Is something wrong?"
"He's inviting you to a medical research conference in Las Vegas. He says that would be the perfect opportunity for the two of you to meet. He's holding a complimentary place for you."
"Yeah, he mentioned it a couple of months ago. I'm still thinking about it," Noah answered. He'd been corresponding with Hemmings for fifteen yearsfirst by mail and then by e-mail. The doctor was doing some of the most interesting work in the field of longevity and he was a presenter as well as an organizer of the international conference.
Noah was caught between his innate caution and his desire to meet the brilliant researcher face-to-face.
"I'll think about it," he said. He'd detected a subtle note of disquiet in Thomas's tone. "Anything else?"
His chief of staff cleared his throat, then spoke in a halting voice. "Simon is home."
Noah sucked in a breath. Simon was Thomas's older son. And in following long-standing tradition, he should have been the one to take over from his father. But Simon had never been an easy child to deal with, and in his teen years, he'd exhibited some mental instability that had evolved into paranoid schizophrenic episodes.
Noah had paid for his treatment at a very expensive private mental hospital in the Bay Area. With medication, he'd been able to leave the hospital and had been living in Half Moon Bay, working at one of the many garden centers in the town.
"He quit his job and came home," Thomas said. "I think he might be off his meds."
"Thanks for the heads-up."
"Not your fault. We'll deal with it."
"He's been asking questions about you," Thomas continued. "Questions I won't answer."
"I'm sorry to put you in that position."
"As you said, it's not your fault."
They talked for a few more minutes about the young man as Noah drove north, looking with disgust at the brown haze hanging over the coastline.