Chapter XVII

Lauren felt himself being trundled along through the bowels of the ship, carried by three men holding his ankles, his waist and one cradling his neck.  The pain from the effects of the electric stun gun was excruciating, but his inability to get a solid mental grasp on what was happening was even worse.  He couldn’t put together what was happening to him.  They carried him upstairs and down more corridors.  The general misery coursing through his body lessened to the point where the main radiation of pain came from his wrists, tightly secured behind his back by handcuffs.  Rationality began to come back to him, the longer they delayed in dealing with him.

He felt himself tossed, spinning through the air and waited for a violent impact.  His body bounced up and down on a couch, or bed of some sort.  One of the couches from the Lido deck, he remembered, once he bounced on the cushions happy to understand that he could remember at all when he’d been unable to only a few minutes before.  He felt a sense of limited relief, and then another wave of relief when he heard Ashton’s voice coming from the forward hatch.

“Yeah, so what?  Let the damn thing leave.  We don’t give a damn about the Navatek. We got what we need.  Maybe the Coast Guard, orbiting like powerless idiots out there that they are, will figure out that they’ve got no purpose out here and go back to their base.”

Lauren realized, from that sharp exchange, that Sharon and all the others would be heading into Honolulu Harbor unharmed and not interfered with.  The papers would be filed as promised.  Whatever kind of bureaucratic lawyer the U.S. Attorney was the man seemed to have a sense of integrity about him.  Even wearing handcuffs face down on a couch aboard the ship Lauren felt some hope that he might survive and actually get something out of the situation for himself and his family.

“Flip that asshole over and bring him to,” Ashton said, from behind him, to one of his men.

Lauren let them roll him over without protest.  As soon as he was back down, with his hands shoved into the crack of the couch pillows, he began working to see if he was going to be able to get one hand into his back pocket.  Everything might work out anyway, but it would be so much better if he knew he had any kind of option on gaining his freedom.  Being handcuffed made him totally helpless and at the mercy of any threat, even if it didn’t come from Ashton.

A glass of water filled with ice cubes splattered onto his chest and shocked Lauren, as the final remains of it were thrown into his face.  Lauren shook his head, trying to diminish the mental fugue caused by the stun gun.  The cold water helped clear his head and eyes.  He blinked up at Ashton’s pacing figure, as the angry man’s visage came into sharp focus.

Ashton stopped, turned, and then approached Lauren’s prone body.  “Did you think you were going to insert yourself into this deal, divide everything up and walk away with a fortune?” Ashton asked, a cruel smile playing across his facial features.

Lauren stared.  He’d served with men like Ashton.  Hugely powerful armchair predators when they faced weakened or secured prey.  They were dangerous only because, not living in the world of violence, they knew no restraint.  There were no ghosts or enemy goblins appearing in their dreams or late-waking hours.  Ashton was in all of his imagined macho glory, relishing being in a position of great power, able to dispense violence at a whim and unending humiliation in great unending waves.  The good part of it was that the man’s posturing gave Lauren time.  Sharon was apparently safe.  He could manage the rest, as long as he somehow managed to stay alive.

Lauren worked his right hand into his back pocket.  He felt the handcuff key he’d wisely stashed there and rolled his neck and shoulders to cover the movements.  He got the key between his fingers, but getting it out and then into the small hole at the base of one cuff was going to be a feat Houdini would have been proud to pull off.  Houdini had used canvas and sheets or wooden slats to cover his gymnastics.  Lauren knew that he was going to have to be more creative than that.

“Get Shapiro up here, Duncan,” Ashton commanded the largest of his men.

It was obvious by the way the big man moved, and his instantaneous obedience to orders, that he was likely some sort of clandestine service operative.  Special Forces Lauren guessed but could not be certain.

“Let’s get all the participants together in one cabin,’ Ashton ordered.  Duncan disappeared through the port hatch in response.  Lauren wondered how Tuck would handle the man and the situation if they were ever to meet.

People filed in from the forward cabin door, the one that led to the bridge.

Sergeant Yee was the first through, then Hiyashi, Trueson and finally Sharon, followed by more of Ashton’s men.  Lauren’s hopes sank, knowing now that Sharon had not gotten away.  No wonder they let the Navatek go, Lauren thought.  Trueson and Sharon carried their thick folders of papers.   Ashton was gathering together everyone and everything vital to the operation.  The Coast Guard, Air Force, and even Marine Corps could be outside with the Navy.  It didn’t matter. Ashton was making certain that the only things that mattered were what happened under his control aboard the ship.

The commotion of the arrival of the others allowed Lauren the time and diversion to work with his hands.  He squirmed and moved as little as he could.  Finally, while Yee and the U.S. Attorney argued loudly with Ashton, Lauren got the key into the cuff hole but didn’t get a chance to turn it.

“What’s he doing,” Ashton asked of his men, motioning toward Lauren.  Ashton had missed nothing, in spite of attending to his new guests.  One of the men rolled Lauren half over and checked his cuffs.  Unbelievably, the man rolled Lauren right back without doing anything else or noting that the handcuff key was stuck inside the hole that operated the locking mechanism…

“He’s still secure, sir,” the man said.

Lauren looked at the man closely but he would not meet Lauren’s eyes.  Had the cuff key, small as it was been missed in the man’s inspection?  Was the man trying to help him for some unknown reason?  Or was there a setup going on that might lead to the explainable tragedy apparently coming in the near future that involved Lauren’s violent passing?

“Sit ‘em down,” Ashton instructed.  Lauren noted that Yee hadn’t apparently been able to bring any of his men with him, and his handgun was missing from his holster.  Lauren couldn’t see Trueson’s piece because of the man’s coat but there was no faint bulge where there should have been one.  The man who’d checked Lauren’s cuffs grabbed him and pulled him to a vertical position.  “Bide your time,” he whispered into Lauren’s right ear.

Lauren readjusted himself, trying to figure out what ‘time’ the man might be talking about, but feeling better about possibly having a limited ally in the room.  Yee was pushed down to sit beside him, with Trueson at the other end of the couch.  Ashton grabbed Sharon’s upper arm and led her to the couch located across the wide thick coffee table separating the furniture.  He flipped her around and made to push her onto the couch but stopped.  He grinned down at Lauren, and then took his right hand and grabbed Sharon viscously between the legs.  She instantly recoiled back, falling onto the couch to escape the man’s grasp.

“That’s for my friend who won’t be able to use his arms for a year, or so, you rotten bastard,” he said to Lauren.  “You crippled him for doing almost nothing.”

Sharon’s expression remained flat.  She looked over at Lauren.  He detected the faintest of smiles scud across her eyes but nothing more.  The look would have scared Ashton half to death if he’d been capable of seeing it Lauren knew. Once again, the new Sharon he was coming to know seemed like an awakened avenging angel more than the woman he’d married.  The thought made Lauren feel warm for some reason he couldn’t quite put a finger on.

Lauren turned the key and felt the right cuff release from his wrist.  He worked the cuff slowly but steadily until his wrist was completely free.  He needed both hands totally operational, however, so he went to work on the other cuff.  He closed his eyes and started to bob up and down, his movements imperceptible to those around him while he worked.

“Gone Moslem on us Mr. Prince?” Ashton asked, feeling his triumph over reducing everyone in the cabin, save his own men, to a position beneath him and totally under his control.

Lauren continued to ‘daven,’ or move his upper body back and forth gently, mimicking Moslem students studying the Koran.  It was the only thing he could think of to keep any suspicion of his cuff work away from the hyper-aware Ashton.  He thought about the sexual move the man had made against Sharon.  He knew he could get to the four-ten and kill the man before anybody would be able to react fast enough to stop him, but killing Ashton wasn’t going to get them out of their predicament with all the other armed men present.  With both wrists free, Lauren suddenly stopped moving and opened his eyes.  Ashton was berating one of his men over his ‘lack of preparation.’  He spoke in a harsh whisper. Lauren made out only one word.  The lack of preparation for something to do with ‘thermite.”

Lauren sucked his breath in.  Thermite.  A mixture of iron oxide, better known as rust, mixed with aluminum powder or shredded aluminum cans.  The mix was made up of eight parts of iron oxide and three parts aluminum.  Once ignited, by something as innocent as a Fourth of July sparkler, the mixture burned at five thousand degrees unstoppably until it was gone. It fed its own fury by using the oxygen bonded to the iron in the mix.  Thermite aboard a ship was a frightening prospect.  It would burn right down through a deck or two and then through the bottom of the hull.  The Germans had used it to make sure their subs were not captured by the Allies in World War II.

If the ship was to be sacrificed to the deep then what of the people aboard it? Lauren had come to consider himself expendable, but what of a United States Attorney and a Honolulu Police Department Sergeant of long-standing?  His mind worked over the problem, unable to chart a course through such complex waters wherein almost nothing was known about what potentially lay ahead. It came down to probabilities and the critical nature that might result when the probabilities gelled into reality.  If Lauren concluded that he and his wife were to be consigned to the deep, which they would not discover until they were tied to the sinking vessel, then all rules of engagement were off.  But was the situation one that was unsalvageable?  Lauren had to bide his time and wait, but if his handcuffs were checked again he would be helpless to do anything unless the man who’d let him slip past the first inspection was the one to perform the second…and that was only if he followed through in the same way.

Lauren looked over at his wife.  She was calm and collected, taking in everything that was going on without attempting to say anything. He wished he could have just five minutes to talk to her about the situation.  She would have something critically important to impart, he knew.   But it was not to be.  They could only look at one another.  She looked at him across the coffee table and then smiled and nodded as if she knew he had a plan and he should run with it.  He noted her hands were not secured in any way.

“Why is this man wearing handcuffs and what in the hell do you think you are doing,” Trueson asked Ashton.  “I want my gun back and I want to be returned to Honolulu, right now,” he demanded.

“I don’t get a damn what you want,” Ashton replied, his voice high and loud.  “This whole thing’s turned into a fiasco and you’re enabling it.  There was a plan.  All of this belongs to the government, specifically to a special patriot fund to be controlled by the president himself.  Nobody else gets a damned thing.  All of you are scum-sucking bottom feeders trying to cut yourself in.  It’s not going to work.”

Ashton turned away from Trueson to take in the rest of them.

“Look at me when I’m talking to you,” Trueson yelled at his back.  “I’m not some player in your game.  I work for the U.S. Attorney’s office here and I don’t care what you’ve got going with the president or anybody else.  You either stand down and let us all go or you personally are going in front of a grand jury in the very near future.”

“Diversion,” Lauren whispered across the table to Sharon, then canted his head sharply toward Ashton who’d focused his full attention back on Trueson.

Sharon jumped from the couch and ran to Ashton. Without pausing she grabbed him in a tight hug, turning him to face the bridge and away from Lauren’s position.

“What the hell…” Ashton started to exclaim.  Trueson rose to his feet.  Ashton’s men leaped forward to grab Sharon and peel her from Ashton’s body.  At the same instant, the hatch to the stairs leading to the lower decks flew open and Shapiro entered with Duncan holding one of the man’s arms and Tuck the other.

Lauren casually stood up in the chaos, walked to the woodpile next to the fireplace and found the shotgun-shell firing revolver.  Nobody seemed to notice him except the man who’d checked his cuffs.

Lauren grasped the pistol, pulled the hammer back into full cock and walked the distance to where Ashton stood, shaken from his encounter with Sharon.  The man finally took notice of him when he was only five feet away.

“Get…” Ashton started to order, but nothing more was heard as the loud explosion from Lauren’s revolver going off inside the cabin cut off any additional comment he might have been going to make.

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