“Fuentes,” Lauren said the captain’s name, looking at the envelope of documents with the Letter of Marque on top, but making no move to take possession of it. He had the vague feeling he wasn’t supposed to actually possess it yet, or if ever, although he couldn’t think of why he felt that way.

“Where do you think we should meet that landing party when they get aboard, Fuentes?” Lauren asked.

Fuentes moved a couple of steps until he was right next to Lauren’s left shoulder. He was almost a head taller than Lauren, so he had to lean down to whisper into his ear. “The crew calls me captain. You don’t have to since you’re the new owner, but it would be helpful, I think. Nautical tradition means a lot, sometimes, when trying to exercise leadership and control over the crew.”

Captain Fuentes stepped back to where he’d left the envelope and the Letter, in front of the largest bolster chair, located in the very center of the bridge next to the main console. He smiled at Lauren before speaking again, this time in a normal tone of voice.

“The Lido afterdeck would be perfect. The top area behind the bridge,” he said, pointing over his shoulder toward the stern of the ship. “We use it as a quarterdeck when in port. Great view and nice ambiance.”

There was something about Jesus Fuentes Lauren didn’t like, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. The captain had a way about him that made it seem like he was completely subservient but just underneath that covering, he was something else completely. Lauren moved to the captain’s side, wondering what kind of private captain would request that the new, and totally unknown, owner of the vessel address him in a certain way. Who would take that chance, if he truly valued the job, or felt in the least that he could be replaced at a whim? It seemed a touch arrogant to Lauren and made him think about the captain more than he wanted to think. It could also be that the captain wasn’t the least afraid of losing his job because he knew things Lauren had no idea about. He removed the Letter of Marque from atop the ship’s documents, coming to a different conclusion than he’d had earlier about the powerful instrument.

“I will keep this on me for personal comfort, captain.” Lauren delayed a few seconds before adding the ‘captain’, to the end of the sentence.

“Let’s pay a visit to the old man and make sure he’s all right’” Lauren motioned to Tuck and his two minions, and then turned and made for the starboard bridge hatch on the opposite side of the ship.

“Shapiro,” the captain began, before cutting the rest of his sentence off. He followed up quickly with “I mean Wells is resting below in our infirmary. He won’t be of any further trouble and you need to consider that the landing crew, as you call them, is coming aboard as we speak.”

The Lido afterdeck was as perfect as it was easy to find. Lauren entered through a solid teak door with beautiful brass adornments inset along the bulkhead next to the starboard bridge hatch. The four men walked inside and stopped to wait, while Lauren walked along the port bulkhead and took a look around the whole cabin. Bookcases were everywhere, each shelf securing beautiful books with a single leather strap across the spines. Plush leather furniture was distributed about the deck and glass was all around, except where the cabin butted up against the back of the forward bulkhead on the other side of which was the bridge. The area was large but not so large that small groups might feel alone lounging there even if they were alone.

Warm comfort radiated throughout the room’s interior, even to the point of the starboard bulkhead having a seemingly functional fireplace. The interior reminded Lauren of the main living room of the fictional New Hampshire home where Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire spent so much time in the movie ‘Holiday Inn’. He walked over to the brick fireplace, where a large stack of hewn oak logs was perfectly stacked and piled next to it. Lauren leaned down to examine some of the wood, curiously. He surreptitiously slipped the special birdshot loaded revolver from his waistband and let it fall between two of the logs before he straightened up.

“Nice seasoned oak,” he said absently, before changing his tone, turning and then moving toward Tuck and his men. “Those men will come straight to this room I presume, so leave your guys here to tell them we’ll be right back. Take me to the infirmary, Tuck,” Lauren ordered, butterflies beginning to form in his stomach.

Lauren sensed that everything gave the appearance of being just fine, but the feeling that everything was anything but the ‘fine’ would not leave him.

Tuck flew down four sets of ladders skipping lightly but moving fast enough to make Lauren labor to keep up. They reached the bottom deck, or at least Lauren assumed it was the bottom ‘orlop’ deck as there were no more sets of stairs. Tuck led him toward the stern through a passage with many closed doors. The ship seemed much bigger on the inside than it had on the outside, Lauren realized.

“Orlop deck,” Tuck said, heading immediately over to the starboard staircase, and then going around behind it.

Lauren knew from his Coast Guard family upbringing that the Orlop deck was the lowest one in any ship. Usually, that deck was reserved for supplies, cables, and spare parts. But it seemed logical that the infirmary might be located there.

He went around the bottom of the staircase to find a hatch with a permanent ladder going down. He saw Tuck standing one deck down, waiting for him. Four decks later, he descended to find Tuck waiting again but with no more ladders to go down.

Tuck moved toward the bow of the ship in a narrow corridor, stopping before a more nautical looking metal hatch with the typical red cross for medical care painted on its white surface. Directly opposite the infirmary hatch was another, painted black with white letters that spelled out “BRIG.” Lauren was surprised. Shapiro’s, and now his own, private vessel had just about everything any small town might have. Tuck grabbed the main dogleg holding the infirmary hatch closed.

“Wait,” Lauren instructed.

He turned and stepped across to the brig hatch, and then opened it. A light went on automatically. Inside there was no jail or bars. The cabin was bare except for a small stainless steel sink, commode, and thin bunk. Hanging from a wall hook was a set of handcuffs. Lauren crossed the short distance, having seen the small handcuff key sticking out of a hole on one side of the Smith and Wesson cuffs. He pocketed the key.

“Okay,” he said to Tuck, backing out and pulling the black hatch door closed behind him.

Tucked turned to the infirmary hatch. Behind him, Lauren quickly removed the handcuff key from his front pocket to his right back pocket, which he normally kept empty of anything.

Shapiro, or Wells, was lying back down on a flat narrow bunk. A man wearing a white outfit was standing by him with a syringe, holding it in the air as if testing it before administering the injection.

“Who are you?” he inquired, his dark eyes staring into Lauren’s own. He ignored Tuck as if the big man wasn’t even there.

“The new owner of this vessel,” Lauren replied. “Take him out of here and close the hatch, until I give you other orders, Tuck. I want Wells guarded and nobody sees him until I come back.”

“Yes, sir,” Tuck replied, calling Lauren sir for the first time, and obviously happy to do so in front of the arrogant ship’s doctor.

The doctor glanced down briefly at Tuck’s holstered automatic before putting the syringe on the top of a flat paper-covered tray near where the old man lay. He then stepped ahead of Tuck into the passageway. The hatch slammed shut behind the doctor, leaving Lauren, Tuck, and Wells inside.

Lauren sat on the only other bunk in the infirmary. He stared over at the old man, his eyes blinking slowly but his mind racing at high speed. The ship’s documents being ready, no signatures necessary, referring to Fuentes as captain, and then the momentary confusion as the captain had spoken of Wells were bothering him.

“What’s going on?” Lauren asked, leaning in close to the old man’s face. He waited.

The old man breathed in and out several times, closing his eyes each time for long seconds.

“You’re Shapiro, the real Shapiro, aren’t you?” Lauren asked.

The man stared back at him but again said nothing. His only answer was more deep breathing.

“This has never made sense,” Lauren said, keeping all emotion from his voice. “This hasn’t made sense from the beginning. I’m nobody. A down-on-his-luck veteran with post-traumatic stress and a tendency to get violent. I’ve walked into a situation that makes stepping into the rabbit hole of Alice in Wonderland look sane. I’m to do little or nothing but get millions and millions in cash, a house on Portlock, and a ship captain Nemo would have given his eyeteeth to simply tour. What’s really going on?”

The old man turned his head. A smile formed on his lips. “Of everyone in this rolling nightmare you deserve to know,” he whispered softly. “Besides, we’re in the same boat. That syringe is loaded with a painkiller. When you’re dead you don’t feel any pain, not that I’ve heard of anyway, but I sure feel a whole load of it right now.”

Lauren stood up and looked down at the syringe. It was filled with a yellow liquid. A bottle with the same color liquid sat next to it. “Fentanyl” its label read. Lauren had heard of the drug but never seen or been injected with it. The drug was a synthetic opiate more than ten times stronger than morphine. Half the bottle had been sucked into the syringe.

“I understand why they’d want you dead, with all that money at stake, and the simple fact they might not want you to say anything,” Lauren said. “But why me? How did I get into this? Sharon’s aboard the Navatek. Is she in danger too? Is anybody who they say they are in this thing?”

Lauren’s voice had risen as he’d gone on with his questions. The danger he’d sensed lurking around the edges of everything since stepping aboard the ship had suddenly become crushingly real.

Shapiro laughed out loud, his lungs convulsing to cough after the effort. He breathed deeply a few times before speaking again.

“I don’t know. I suppose they’ll kill you both if you get in the way, or both of you, if it suits them. Who’s to know? Those really were guys from the U.S. Attorney’s office though. That I know. Maybe the best thing you can do is get away from me, let them have everything and promise to keep your mouth shut. Even if you talk they’ll know that you might as well talk about UFOs or Yeti or the Boogey Man. Who’s going to believe you, once this is over?”

Something clanged against the metal hatch but the dogleg securing it didn’t move.

“They’re asking for you up on the Lido deck,” came distantly through the metal.

“Shit,” Lauren breathed. “I’m coming back for you,” he said to Shapiro, understanding that, once again, he’d learned nothing from the man.

He nodded to Tuck. Tuck opened the hatch in front of him. He got out, stepping over the lip of the hatch, and stood facing the bow, looking up the passageway, before bringing his attention back to the medical technician or doctor who was seated on the deck with his back against the Brig hatch.

Lauren turned to face Tuck. “Stay in the infirmary with him and don’t let anybody touch him. Anybody who comes for him, you shoot. That gets you fifty thousand more on top of what I owe you unless Shapiro dies, in which case you’ll get a whole lot less than money,” Lauren instructed. “Give me your cell phone.”

The big Seal handed his smartphone over and stepped through the hatch, holding it open, waiting. Lauren punched in the number of Shapiro’s phone, the one he’d foolishly left behind on the Navatek. He watched three men closing the distance from the bow at a trot. Sharon answered the phone.

“You’re in danger. Tell the U.S. Attorney that he is too. Get the Navatek out of there. They can’t stop you with everyone out there watching which isn’t the case on this thing. If the captain won’t move that bucket grab Trueson’s gun and stick it to his head. You’ve got to think of the kids.”

He tossed the phone to Tuck, as the three men reached him. He heard tuck close the hatch of the infirmary and the dogleg latches being engaged one after the other and locked from the inside to secure it. Then he grabbed and thrust face down on the deck, with his hands forced behind him.

“You seem to like using this little device,” a deep male voice behind him said, before Lauren heard an electric crackling, felt something solid jam into his neck, and then extreme pain lit up his entire body before he passed out.

<<<<<< The Beginning | Next Chapter >>>>>>

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