Deep Blue Ch. 12byWine_Maker©
Chapter Twelve: Paying the Piper
I lay on my back staring at the ceiling in the dark. The euphoric glow of the previous evening had worn off as the events settled into my mind; replaced by a lingering and unrelenting sense of unease. I couldn't get the growing feeling of wrongness to go away. I'd gone too far. We'd gone too far.
Glancing at the clock, I saw that it was almost 5 am. I sighed and shook Gretchen gently. She half-way woke up and I whispered to her that I needed to use the bathroom. She sleepily let me out of bed and was asleep again before I had the covers settled back over her gorgeous form.
After I'd finished my business, I made my way quietly out onto the balcony. The sky was dark and the moon was nowhere in sight, but the ship churned the sea behind us into a glowing green arrow pointing back in the direction we'd come. Leaning against the rail, I mutely watched, closed my eyes, and let the smell of the sea fill my senses.
I didn't fall asleep, but I did zone out. A gentle touch on my shoulders brought me back to the here and now. Even before I opened my eyes I knew it was Gretchen. Her scent mingled with the ocean and her hands moved in a familiar, welcome pattern on my shoulders, half caressing, half massaging me. Her breath tickled the small hairs on the back of my neck as she kissed me there.
"Trouble sleeping?" she asked quietly as I turned in her arms and leaned against the rail.
I nodded. "Yeah."
We held each other silently for a few minutes before she stepped back. I followed her to the table and we sat next to each other. She didn't prompt me any further, letting me get my thoughts together. I was grateful for that. I already knew what I was going to say, but the delivery was just as important as the message. At least, that's what she was always telling me.
"Last night was a mistake," I said at last. "It might work for some people, but it's not right for me. For us."
She nodded slowly and took my hands in hers. "I suppose my views on sex, as opposed to love, colors my opinion, but if it made you uncomfortable we'll never do it again. I love you and I only want you to be happy. "
I shook my head. "It's not that simple. Let me talk it out and see if what I'm feeling makes any sense to you." I took a deep breath and pushed on. "I like our new friends well enough, but we crossed the line when we had sex with them. I had a good time, I admit, but it was still wrong. The more I've thought about it tonight, the clearer it became. I wish I had seen it as clearly beforehand."
I watched her closely, worried about how she'd react to that. I needn't have worried. "That does make sense," she said seriously. "I never want to hurt you. We'll talk with them at breakfast and politely put the brakes on." She smiled wryly. "I'll want to talk with Trish before that, though."
I shook my head again. "No, I told you she was fine, and I won't go back on that."
"I don't want you to feel uncomfortable..."
"No," I said again, cutting her off softly. "This is complicated. What I'm going to say may sound hypocritical but I want you to hear me out. You, or even me, having sex with Trish doesn't bother me. The idea of both of us having sex occasionally with Ted and Lisa doesn't bother me. Our having casual sex with people we like as friends bothers me."
I rubbed my eyes with the palms of my hands. "Don't get me wrong. I think we'll end up being good friends with Keven, Sandy and the Bellers, if last night didn't screw things up. I'm just not comfortable with casual sex and orgies. For me, sex and love are tied together. I love you with every fiber of my being, with a totality I never thought I'd find, and that sometimes scares me. I love Ted and Lisa, too but in a different way. It's completely hypocritical, but I don't want to cut them out of our bed completely. I just can't do anything like last night again."
"I don't think you're being hypocritical," she said, pulling my hand to her lips. "I made a mistake and I'm sorry. I don't understand about Trish, though. Shouldn't I step back from her along with the others?"
"No. You asked me ahead of time, I gave you my blessing, and you gave Trish your word. I won't have either one of us go back on a promise. This isn't a matter of jealousy. Trish doesn't make me feel uncomfortable. At least not now," I amended. "Besides, I owe her big time. She saved the most important person in my world."
Her face lit up in a smile and she pulled me against her. "I love you, Hawk."
We held each other until the sun rose. Then we made our way past the still-sleeping Trish and showered together. Now this was how it was supposed to be.
I let Gretchen wake Trish up so they could talk privately while I went out to see who else was up for breakfast. It turned out we were the ones being slow this morning. Everyone else was already up. Ted and Lisa were sitting at the table talking quietly with the Bellers.
BP, or before pregnancy, I'd have flipped a chair around and used it as a shield. But I'd have ended up on the floor if I did, so I sat down and quirked a smile. "I know how people hate this phrase, but we have to talk."
Lisa raised an eyebrow. "I was just about to say the same thing. You go first." The others looked at me attentively.
By the time I was done with telling them how I felt, they were nodding. Lisa grabbed my hand when I finally ran down. "Hawk, we couldn't agree more. That pretty much repeats the conversation we were having just before you came out."
"Don't get us wrong," Jo said, "last night was an amazing experience, but it was a one time thing for Earl and me."
Keven and Sandy nodded in agreement. "Sandy and I feel the same. We want to be friends, hopefully close friends," he paused and gave us a wry smile, "but maybe not that close. I'm glad we all came to our senses."
I couldn't have agreed more. We talked a little more and decided to keep the sleeping arrangements as they were. The common room, however, was off-limits for intimate relations.
Gretchen and Trish came out of the bedroom a few minutes later. I smiled broadly at Trish and held my arms up for a hug. She came to me uncertainly and I smothered her with a hug and a kiss on the lips. "It's okay. We're all okay. Park it."
She smiled shyly and sat down on Gretchen's other side. Ted and Lisa's smiles made her relax even more. "Good. I was worried. I don't want to be any trouble."
Changing the subject, I filled them in on the investigation so far. Skip's room had been tossed thoroughly. Everything had been dumped on the floor, probably while looking for something under the drawers. My bet was whoever did it was looking for the disk that Skip had waved around. I personally thought there was something more important on it than a dirty story. And judging from the disaster in Skip's room they hadn't found it. De Luca and his people were starting to look for prints and other forensic clues when I left for dinner. Hopefully the ship's search would wrap up this morning.
Once everyone had been updated, I made shooing motions. "Now you know everything. Go get breakfast and keep your eyes open."
Everyone but Gretchen left for the dining room. She motioned for me to stay and waited for everyone to leave before speaking. "I'm proud of you."
I raised an eyebrow. "For what?"
"For telling them all how you felt and not letting it get you worked up."
I grinned. "Yeah, I guess I do get on a roll when I'm upset. Usually. It must be a drop in my hormones or something." I took her hand in mine. "I want to eat somewhere alone, just the two of us. You want to try the sixties diner upstairs?"
"That sounds perfect."
We rose and walked to the door, hand in hand. Before we got close I saw a tan postal envelope on the floor just inside the door. The envelope was large enough for a sheet of paper to fit inside without folding it. I stopped Gretchen.
"That wasn't there when everyone left or someone would've said something. Someone just slipped it under the door. Go get me a towel."
Gretchen gripped my arm. "It might be a bomb or something."
I shook my head and slowly knelt in front of it. "I doubt that after the scanning they gave us and our luggage when we boarded. It's probably a death threat."
Her eyes grew huge and I grinned. "That would actually be a good thing. It'd mean I'm making someone nervous."
"You're making me nervous. Whoever this is isn't afraid to carry out that kind of threat." Without waiting for a response, she ran and grabbed a towel from the bathroom.
I used it to gently pick up the envelope and hefted it. It was light. I handed it to Gretchen and stood up. "Put it on the table."
I grabbed a pen and used the tip to open the folding metal clasp and peer inside. A piece of paper folded around something thin. Holding the envelope with the towel, I slid the contents on the table. A jewel case with an unlabeled DVD inside fell out of the single sheet of paper. I opened the paper carefully with the pen and read the single line.
Give me what I want or I'll ruin you.
It wasn't signed.
I frowned. "That isn't quite what I expected. Let's see what's on the DVD."
Using the towel and one finger I popped the DVD out and into the player. The DVD was already playing when I turned the TV on and the room was filled with the sound of heavy breathing and moaning. My mouth dropped open. "Holy shit! That's us from last night!"
There we were in living color. All of us were easily identifiable. I sure as hell hadn't seen anyone taking video so... I spun and looked at the cabinet by the door. It was about the right place. I opened it and looked inside but didn't see anything. Behind me I could hear Gretchen swearing.
"That won't help us," I said. "Grab a chair and look on top of this thing."
She was furious. Hell, I was furious, too. When she gasped, I knew she'd found something. I handed the towel to her and followed her back to the table where she set it next to the envelope - a camera the size of a matchbox with a little antenna.
"Sonuvabitch!" Gretchen ground out. "First he tries to kill me and now he's blackmailing my friends?"
I shook my head and slipped the camera into the envelope. "We need to go find everyone else. Come on." I pulled the DVD out of the player and slipped it back into the case. I stuffed it and the note into my jacket pocket. Then, leaving the envelope on the table, I led the way out of the suite and into the elevator.
Gretchen started to punch the button for the dining room deck but I stopped her. "We're not going to tell them." I punched the button for the deck the security offices were on. "The killer didn't leave this. It has to be that asshole, Price. Somehow he's connected to the guy with the trick glasses. Maybe he hired the guy to spy on Ted and Lisa. You can't imagine how much he hates them."
"So we're going to tell security?"
I shook my head and smiled humorlessly. "Hell no. First I get an update from De Luca. Then we find out where Price's room is. We'll get the original and any copies."
De Luca spotted me as soon as we walked through the door to the security section. He looked just as irked as yesterday as he motioned us into his office.
I sat down in one of the visitor chairs while Gretchen leaned against the wall. De Luca sat behind his desk and arched his fingers in a steeple in front of himself. I briefly eyed the red security passkey on his desk. That would be very nice to have but I couldn't see how I could get my hands on it. I put it out of my mind. I'd have to use what I had.
"The public areas of the ship have been searched," he said in a voice that still hinted of lemons. "The cabin search will be complete in another hour. There's still no sign of Mister Niccio."
That was about what I expected. "Anything from his room yet?"
De Luca shook his head. "We've collected a number of finger prints but the task of eliminating the staff is taking longer than I'd like. His laptop computer and computer storage material seem to have been removed." He shrugged. "It appears that someone wanted information from him. It seems you might be right. He had something that someone may have wanted badly enough to kill for."
I firmly repressed the urge to say 'I told you so.' "That just leaves a day to narrow down the killer. Do you have a list of the people who're here for the convention he was with?"
He passed over a printout of names, room numbers, and phone extensions. "This is only the people that signed up for the conference. If someone walked in they wouldn't be on this list. The convention organizer wasn't much help, I'm afraid. It seems secrecy is normal for this group. I'd imagine more than half the participants never signed up."
I spotted a few names I recognized but most meant nothing to me. With only a day to get to the answers, I wasn't feeling very confident. Luck was going to play a much larger role than I preferred.
"What about that guy Skip tore apart at the convention?" Gretchen asked. "What was his name?"
De Luca unpaused his computer and peered at his monitor. "James Carter, AKA Southland38. I've spoken with him this morning and he denies being involved."
I didn't even try to suppress the smirk from coming out. "I've never heard that one before. He certainly has the best motive. Does he have an alibi?"
"No. He claims to have been alone in his room."
I nodded. "How hard did you lean on him?"
"I didn't bring out the rubber hoses, if that's what you're asking. He can't prove he was there, but I can't prove otherwise, either."
"Then I better talk with him today. Skip met with a man in the casino before we set sail. I'd like to look at any video footage that might show us who that man was."
Gretchen set her purse down on the desk and helped me stand when De Luca stood up.
"The video is accessible from the monitors in the main surveillance room," he said. "Since the casino wasn't open when they met, the interior cameras were probably off. There are some in the bar that would've been on. And, of course, the cameras in the lobby next to the casino were on. This way, please."
He held the door open for us and we followed him to a door on the far side of the room. When he opened it, a dim room with many monitors greeted us. The man watching the bank of monitors from a Captain Kirk chair only spared us a glance.
Gretchen snapped her fingers. "I left my purse in your office. Be right back." She bolted out the door before he could respond. Good girl.
He stepped back toward the door but I put my hand on his arm to stop him.
"How long do you keep the video footage?" I asked.
He cast a second longing glance at the door and turned back to face the monitors. "The cameras are digital so there are no tapes that must be changed or removed. The footage is saved on computer hard drives and cleared after each cruise is finished, unless there's a reason to keep it. The drives are segregated from the other computers on the ship for security purposes." He tapped the man on the shoulder. "Let our watchdog sit down."
The man had the grace to grin at me briefly before he stood up. I sat down with a sigh. The pregnancy crap was really cramping my style. The controls didn't mean anything to me.
"How do I select the casino bar from before we set sail?"
"Let me do that, ma'am," the man whose seat I was in said. He reached past me and tapped a short series of commands on the keyboard. One of the monitors went blank and then came up with a picture of what looked like either a bar or a restaurant. On this ship it could've been both. The time-stamp on the top right corner showed it was playing before boarding had started the day we left port.
"Can you fast forward it and pause when any customers come in?"
"You bet." He slid a slider up and the picture began moving quickly. It wasn't as jumpy as fast forward on a DVD. The picture was still relatively smooth. When someone came in the door, he froze the picture. It was actually two people. A larger man was walking into the room with his back to the camera, his arms raised in some type of motion as he spoke with the now infamous Skip Niccio.
"Dammit, we can't see his face." I looked back at the door as Gretchen came back in with an apologetic smile for De Luca. "Are there any other camera angles that might show them?"
"Not inside. Let's see if they sit in the camera's field of view."
They didn't though. Almost immediately they made a left turn and were out of the camera's view. Fast forwarding showed them leaving one at a time but there was no better look at the other man's face.
"Let's see if one of the other cameras in the area caught them," De Luca commanded. His man complied and put three other cameras up and playing through the time before they entered the casino and just after. One of them caught the pair but the angle was bad.
The unknown man was still gesticulating in a way that was starting to tickle a faint memory. I tried to follow it and it vanished like mist in the sunlight. I just had to let it percolate and surface on its own.
"Well, that was a dead end," I sighed. I stood up and patted the man who ran the cameras on the shoulder. "Good work. Thanks."
"Shall we go back to my office?" De Luca asked.
"Actually, Hawk hasn't had her breakfast," Gretchen inserted. "I really need to see that she keeps her strength up."
De Luca looked more relieved than irked.
I let Gretchen pull me from the security center and to the elevator. She hit the button for the deck the diner was on.
I raised an eyebrow at her and started to say something, but she just shook her head.
"Not where we might be being watched." Her eyes flicked to the mirrored area below the readout. She was right. De Luca might be watching us even now. There'd be time enough while we ate.
Gretchen made me eat before she spilled the beans. She kept blocking the conversation from leaving the bounds of normal things. Only when we were making our exit did she open her purse for me to see her prize. Nestled inside was a red security passkey.
"I can't believe you took it!" I laughed.
"He shouldn't just leave something that important laying around."
"It wasn't lying around. It was in his desk in security," I pointed out.
"And yet I have it now. Obviously it wasn't secure enough. Are you complaining?"
I shook my head. "He'll know who has it as soon as he finds it missing."
She smiled at me sweetly. "He's a man. He'll backtrack to every place he's been since he saw it last looking for it."
"I'm not a man and that's what I do."
Her knowing smile was my only answer to that comment. "Let's see if Price is in."
We walked up to his door as bold as brass. I pounded on the door. "Open up, Price." That got no answer from inside.
Gretchen pulled out the key and I stood to help block any view of it. It was best not to take chances. The light blinked green and I pushed into the room.
It was a standard sized room with two twin beds. I expected to find it mussed, but it was as neat as a pin. There wasn't any computer or video equipment sitting out in plain sight.
"Look for any electronic equipment or computers," I said. "Keep things the way you see them. Let's not make this too obvious."
"Right." Gretchen started going through the dresser while I opened the entertainment center.
I hit the jackpot in the first cabinet. There was a laptop computer, two DVDs, and a plastic case that looked like a small suitcase. "Bingo." I handed Gretchen the computer. "See if you can get into that while I look at this case."
The case was heavier than it looked. I set it on the bed and popped the latches. Nestled inside, surrounded by foam, was a blocky piece of equipment with several computer ports on its side. There were also half a dozen smaller niches in the foam beside it. All but one of them was empty. I pulled out the identical twin of the bug in our room. There was also a coiled computer cable.