The Illusion Of Propriety
A Shadow Short Story By Scarlet
(Note: This story, which uses the 1994 film's versions of Lamont Cranston and Margo Lane, is an homage to the great Agatha Christie's tale of murder and intrigue on board a cruise ship in the 1930's, Death On The Nile. So, if you've read the original, there's not much mystery in this one. But I love to rewrite old stories with different characters, and I hope you enjoy my take on a great old romp...S)
The cry of seagulls and the sound of ships' bells and whistles mingled in the warm tropical air of coastal Florida. Taxis, limousines, and other hired cars were letting passengers out at the edges of the docks, stopping just at the border of dream vacations.
One such taxi stopped at the entrance to the docks, and an attractive couple--he, a tall, imposing man with coal black hair and piercing blue-green eyes; she, a golden-haired beauty with creamy white skin and shining blue eyes--climbed out of the cab and awaited the unloading of their luggage. "Mr. Cranston," Margo Lane said, "this is positively scandalous."
Lamont Cranston gave her a mischievous smile. "It's not too late to turn back," he offered.
"Not on your life. But I wonder what New York Society will say about notorious playboy Lamont Cranston taking his latest trophy on a Caribbean cruise."
He put on his best stung-by-accusation look. "I will have you know that is a dreadful reputation..."
"...which you strive mightily to uphold."
"True." He tipped the cabbie, who had finished unloading their luggage onto the porter's cart. "As I recall," he continued, "this vacation was your idea."
"You asked what I wanted for my birthday," she replied.
"So I did." He smiled broadly. "It is scandalous, isn't it? An unmarried man and woman, together on a vacation? Dangerous territory for both of our reputations."
She giggled. "In case you haven't figured it out yet...I like things a little dangerous."
They kissed. "Happy birthday, Margo. I hope it's everything you wanted, and more."
"A week with you, out of New York, away from the shadows...it should be wonderful."
"Then let's get started."
Arm in arm, they headed up the gangplank marked Tropical Blossom.
Moments later, the porter finished unloading Lamont and Margo's luggage in their neighboring First Class cabin suites. Lamont offered a generous tip to the porter, who nodded his thanks and departed.
Alone in his suite, Lamont stretched tiredly. As badly as he hated to admit it, he needed this vacation. Being the sentinel of the shadows was a rough job, and very stressful. But it had taken several broad hints from Margo that they both needed some kind of respite from the never-ending stream of problems in New York to get him to finally take action, to plan this trip as part of her birthday present.
It was, indeed, scandalous for the two of them to go away together. Proper society men and women who were only dating did not plan joint vacations, and especially not to romantic destinations; even those couples who everyone knew were doing everything married couples did had to maintain at least the illusion of propriety. Good thing that neither of them really cared about protecting their image. His image as New York's most notorious playboy could hardly tarnish any further, of course, but her reputation as the odd debutante with the murky past and the certifiably loony family was also hardly sterling. Fortunately, they were both able to look past the labels and deep into each other's souls...and find the soulmate they'd both searched their whole lives for. What others said mattered not one bit; they had each other, and were deliciously happy for it.
She'd only placed one condition on joining him for this vacation: The Shadow had to stay home. She'd been adamant about that; this was to be a getaway for Lamont and Margo, not an excuse to pick up The Shadow's operations and move them to another destination. No hunting bad guys, no mind clouding, no hypnotic suggestions--none of it, she'd said. So, he'd put a damper on his normally active psyche and left behind the dark clothes, the hat and cloak, the red scarf, the chrome pistols. The only reminder of his other identity was the huge silver fire opal ring that adorned his left hand--and, with them well out of range of the transponder that Burbank used to send the frequency that made the stone glow, it seemed unlikely it would be anything but decorative jewelry this week.
Opening the steamer trunk the porter had delivered, Lamont began unpacking his clothes. He pulled out one suit, then moved toward what appeared to be a closet and opened the door.
Instead, another door, handleless, sat in the doorframe.
On a hunch, he knocked.
The handleless door opened, and Margo smiled at him. "Just now finding out it's not a closet?" she teased.
"I certainly did not expect this," he commented with a smile.
"Well, we did ask for adjoining cabins."
"So we did." He put on his best stern expression. "Scandalous. Absolutely scandalous."
"Whatever will people say?" she returned, equally haute.
"Ask me if I really care." He tossed the suit aside and pulled her into his arms.
They kissed deeply, fully, practically drinking each other in with every touch of their lips.
A knock at Lamont's door got their attention. They pulled apart and both sighed. "Even at sea, we can't get a moment's peace," she lamented.
He shook his head. "Don't move," he said, then headed over to the door to his cabin. "Who is it?" he called.
"The chief steward, Mr. Cranston," a British-accented voice returned from the other side.
Lamont opened the door. "Yes?"
"Terribly sorry to bother you, sir," the steward returned, "but Captain Baskerville requests the honor of your company at dinner this evening in the State Room, eight o-clock."
"I take it Miss Lane is also invited?"
"Yes, sir. I can deliver the message for you, if you like..."
"No, don't bother. We'll be there." He started to turn away, then turned back to the steward. "Oh, one more thing..." He reached into his pocket and pulled out a $20. "It's been a rough few weeks...and I could really use some peace and quiet."
The steward nodded knowingly. "I'll do my best, sir."
"Thank you." He closed the door again and returned to Margo, who was watching him from the adjoining doorway. "Now," he said, putting his arms around her, "where were we?"
"You didn't hypnotize him," she noted.
"No, I didn't. I promised you The Shadow would stay home this week."
She smiled. "You are wonderful."
"And you are irresistible." He pulled her close once more, and they once more fell into a rich, romantic kiss.
As the passion built, they both suddenly realized what was happening and stopped. For a long moment, they pulled back to look at one another.
"Remind me again of why we have separate cabins," Lamont remarked.
"The same reason I sleep in a guest bedroom when I stay overnight with you," Margo returned. "The illusion of propriety."
"Ah, yes. The illusion of propriety."
She smiled. "Think I'd better finish unpacking."
Again, they stood there in the doorway silently, looking at each other, as if trying to make a decision.
"On the count of three," Margo said finally, "we'll both take a step back and close our doors."
"On three," he agreed. "One..."
They each took a step backward. Then, they laughed.
"See you for dinner," Lamont told her.
"I'll be waiting," she replied.
They closed their doors.
Even on a ship full of handsome couples, they still made a striking pair. Lamont and Margo, now dressed to the nines, headed for the State Room arm in arm, seemingly as enchanted with each other as a pair of newlyweds.
So enchanted, in fact, that they didn't hear the giggling couple coming up behind them until they all collided.
"Goodness!" the man said in a light British accent. "Terribly sorry, friend--we weren't paying attention..."
"Neither were we," Lamont admitted. "Are you all right?"
"Just fine," the dark-haired woman responded, then looked at who she'd collided with. "Lamont Cranston," she said, a knowing smile on her face.
It took Lamont a moment to recognize her. "Alexandra Donatello," he replied, an equally knowing smile.
"Doyle," she corrected, holding out her left hand, its third finger adorned with a dazzling diamond and gold wedding band. "Mrs. Arthur Doyle." She hugged the man next to her, who was now eyeing Lamont suspiciously.
"Ah," Lamont replied. "Congratulations."
"Thank you." She shook her head, as if amazed to see him. "It's been years."
Margo cleared her throat.
"I'm sorry," Lamont said, turning to Margo. "Margo Lane, Alexandra Dona...I mean, Doyle, and her husband Arthur."
"How do you do, Miss Lane?" Arthur replied, extending his hand to Margo.
"How do you do?" Margo responded in kind.
"Miss Lane," Alexandra nodded.
"Mrs. Doyle," Margo answered, giving the woman a cool glance.
"So...what brings you here?" Lamont asked, trying to prevent frostbite from occurring.
"We're on our honeymoon," Alexandra gushed, giving her husband a hug. "Are you coming to dinner?"
"With the Captain? Of course."
"Good," she said in an insincere tone. "We'll talk more later." She turned to Margo. "Nice to meet you."
Margo just nodded.
The Doyles walked away, arm in arm, giggling like the newlyweds they were.
Margo looked at Lamont. "She's not blonde. I'm intrigued."
He sighed. "I was 22, she was 18, we were both filthy rich American heirs in Paris. It was the summer of 1920, and it lasted all of three months."
Margo gave him a surprised look. "Must have been a record for you."
"It was. But eventually, we both just got bored, and it ended. This is literally the first time I've seen her since." He turned her in his arms to face him. "And I'm sorry she's here because it makes you unhappy--and this is supposed to be a fun time for us."
She just smiled. "It will be. No matter what happens, it will be. We're together. That's all that matters."
They drew close to kiss.
"Young love," an older woman's voice called out. "How romantic."
They stopped where they were and turned toward the sound.
A doddering old woman, overdressed in clothes much too young for her, walked unsteadily toward them, as if she'd had way too much to drink already. "Oh, don't let me interrupt," she stated. "Far be it from me to stop the onrush of the tides of passion..."
A younger woman came up behind her and took her by the arm. "Mother, you're going the wrong way again," she scolded. "Those are windows, not the railing." She gave Lamont and Margo an apologetic glance. "I'm so sorry," she began.
"Quite all right," Lamont excused.
The woman led her mother past them, steering her toward the staircase at the end of the hall. "Mother, you really must learn some decorum," they heard her say as they went down the long corridor.
Lamont and Margo turned to one another once more. "You meet the most interesting people on cruises," Margo commented.
"Indeed," he replied, then offered his arm. "Shall we go meet some more?"
She took his arm. "Let's."
Traditionally, dinner in the State Room with the ship's Captain on the first night of a cruise was a privilege reserved for the select passengers, the elite of the social elite aboard this vessel. Not surprisingly, being on the invitation list was a highly sought-after honor, which Margo was growing used to receiving when with Lamont. The Cranston name carried a lot of weight, and Lamont played the part of bon viveur perfectly, able to move in and out of social settings with the greatest of ease. It always struck Margo how smoothly Lamont handled the demands of what amounted to two separate personae: The Social Fixture and The Shadow. It had taken her a long time to realize that the two extremes were just vastly different aspects of his complex personality, aspects he played up or suppressed at will. The fact that he could carry off either act at all, much less both extremes, spoke volumes about his confidence in himself and his abilities.
"Sorry we're late," Lamont apologized as he and Margo approached.
"Not at all," the British-accented Captain replied, rising from his chair and extending his right hand. "Captain Ronald Baskerville. You are Mr. Cranston, I take it?"
"Yes." Lamont reached across to shake Baskerville's hand. "This is my companion, Miss Margo Lane."
"How do you do?" Margo said, extending her right hand.
Captain Baskerville took her hand and gallantly gave it a kiss. "Enchanted, my dear."
She smiled graciously in reply.
The gentlemen stood as Lamont pulled out Margo's chair for her, then slid it in as she sat down. He took his seat alongside her, and the wine steward poured them each a glass of white wine.
"You're just in time, actually," Baskerville commented. "We were just completing introductions. Your dinner companions this evening are the famous British illusionist, Arthur Doyle, and his new bride Alexandra..."
"Yes, we've met," Alexandra acknowledged, a cool tinge in her voice.
Lamont felt Margo's right hand take his left one firmly. He gave her hand a reassuring squeeze.
If Baskerville noticed the chill, he let it slip right by. "The famous novelist Delilah Coventry, and her daughter Alicia," he continued, with a nod to the older woman and her younger companion.
Lamont gave the two women a nod.
"And Boston attorney Kennedy Van Dyke and his wife, Rosalie," Baskerville finished.
Lamont raised an eyebrow. "Of Morehouse, Richards, and Van Dyke?" he asked.
"Why, yes," Van Dyke responded, impressed. "And you're Theodore Cranston's son, aren't you?"
"I am indeed."
"I knew your father. He was quite a businessman."
"So I've been told." He took a sip of his wine to hide any further reaction.
Margo didn't miss the edge in Lamont's voice. He seldom talked about his parents; what little she knew of them was that they were the classic cold and aloof upper-class parents. Father and son had been at loggerheads almost constantly--almost certainly due to the fact that both were unawakened projectors, with the strong Cranston will and temper that could overwhelm almost anyone but the other man. Yet she knew one of his greatest regrets was that they had not lived to see how he'd changed--how he'd become stronger, more mature, less selfish. He often commented how envious he was of Margo's close relationship with her father. She gave his hand a supportive squeeze.
"So," Rosalie continued, "what do you do, Mr. Cranston?"
He smiled mysteriously. "Anything I want to."
Alexandra laughed haughtily. "That's an understatement," she pronounced. "I believe you once told me, Lamont, that the Cranstons were richer than God."
"I think The Almighty probably has a better investment portfolio nowadays," Lamont returned.
"Ah, the lifestyle of the idle rich," Delilah commented. "Deliriously decadent--and fruitful material for romantic fantasies."
"Oh, please," Alexandra groaned.
Alicia patted her mother's arm. "Mother," she said gently, "I don't think most of these people are readers of romance novels."
"Their loss," Delilah stated. "There is nothing wrong with the world that a good, healthy dose of passion won't cure."
"That's a wonderful attitude," Margo chimed in.
As the first course was delivered, Lamont turned to Arthur. "So, you're an illusionist, Mr. Doyle?" he asked.
"Yes," Arthur replied. "Semi-retired, though. Now I just give the occasional parlor performance. I've had my fill of traveling from city to city, pulling rabbits out of hats, and the like."
"Now that's one trick I've always enjoyed," Margo noted. "How does one pull a rabbit out of a hat?"
Arthur put on his best serious expression. "First, Miss Lane, one must get the rabbit into the hat. After that, the rest is easy."
The rest of the meal went by uneventfully. Conversation settled into the meaningless chit-chat that society dinners were famous for, though Arthur Doyle did liven things up a bit by making a dinner roll disappear. Lamont settled into his people-watching mode, keeping careful mental notes on the personalities at the table. Right away, he could see the contempt Alexandra Doyle had for most of the people at the table, particularly Delilah Coventry, who seemed to pay her no mind as she regaled the table with quotations from her novels. Kennedy Van Dyke appeared to hold some kind of sway over Alexandra, though; she almost deferred to him on several occasions and even referred to him as "Uncle Kennedy" at one point. Alicia Coventry was clearly embarrassed by her mother's brash and often crude comments, and had found a sympathetic conversationalist in Margo, who he knew was bored to tears by this sort of formal occasion. Rosalie Van Dyke, like him, was a people-watcher, and she seemed particularly enchanted with Alexandra's dazzling jewelry, which flashed and flared as she conversed with her hands. Arthur seemed completely out of his element, overwhelmed with the entire society swirl.
Through it all, Lamont resisted the temptation to drift outside his own mind and into the others'. It had become a habit over the years, ever since The Tulku had opened his telepathic senses. He had quickly discovered how easy it was to assess a partner, or rival, or opponent, and was amazed at how great an advantage one could gain just by probing someone else's thoughts and gaining access to their strengths, their weaknesses, their likes, their dislikes, their hot buttons. The Tulku taught it as a defensive technique, but Lamont put it to maximum use regularly as an offensive technique--once you gained access to your opponents' skills, you could attack them more effectively. Mindful of his promise to Margo, however, he kept his observations confined to the surface level presented before him.
As dinner ended, the couples adjourned to the ballroom. Margo hooked her arm around Lamont's. "Feeling blind?" she whispered as they left the table.
He frowned, as that was exactly what he'd just been thinking. There was something inherently unfair about this; she was almost openly utilizing her abilities, while he was having to work to keep a tight rein on his. But, he reminded himself, a promise was a promise. "It does make people-watching more of a challenge."
She smiled mischievously. "I think you've just forgotten what it's like to only have five senses."
He nodded. "It might be good for me to be reminded every so often."
She gave his arm a squeeze. "I know it's hard."
"I'll manage." He turned to her as they reached the ballroom. "May I have this dance, Miss Lane?"
"I would be honored, Mr. Cranston."
They joined the Doyles and several other couples already on the dance floor.
It was odd how fast time moved while dancing, Margo thought. Only the occasional glance at the grandfather clock across the room gave any indication of how long they'd been on the floor. She felt so free, so light on her feet, that it hardly seemed possible over an hour had passed since dinner. Part of it had to do with her dance partner; Lamont was not only a very good dancer, but so physically strong that he could lift her and twirl her through the air with almost no effort on his part, eliciting "oohs" and "ahs" from the rest of the dancers as they whirled about the floor. But just as large an influence on the wonderful time she was having was the giddiness they both felt as they danced together, never losing contact with each other, revelling in the joy of being together. It seemed like a smile never left either of their expressions as they looked into each other's eyes and let the music take them places.
A man tapped Lamont's shoulder. "May I cut in?" he asked.
Lamont turned to the man and started to tell him no, then looked amazed. "Dan? Dan Roth?" he said, breaking into a broad smile of recognition.
"Long time, no see," Dan replied, equally pleased to see a familiar face.
The two men shook hands. "I'll say," Lamont laughed. "Two years, easily." He turned to Margo. "Margo Lane, Special Agent Dan Roth, F.B.I. Dan and I went to school together."
"How do you do?" Margo smiled, extending her right hand.
"Wishing I was as lucky in finding a dance partner as Lamont," he complimented, gently shaking her hand.
She started to offer thanks, then gasped as she looked at his hand...upon which was an agent's fire opal ring.
He noticed her looking at it, then spotted hers on her left hand. "Matched set," he observed, looking toward Lamont. "Some guys have all the luck."
"It just takes practice," Lamont returned, then gestured off the dance floor.
The three of them found an unoccupied table and three chairs, and sat down to rest for a moment. "So," Lamont said, "I wasn't aware the F.B.I. sent agents on pleasure cruises."
"They don't," Dan replied. "I'm on vacation, hoping to meet the girl of my dreams." He looked across the dance floor toward Arthur and Alexandra, who made a striking pair as they stepped through one formal dance after another.
"That one's taken," Lamont noted.
"So she is. Alexandra Donatello and Arthur Doyle, in the society whirlwind courtship of the year." He turned back to the couple seated with him. "So, what are you doing here? Bored with New York this time of year?"
"Not exactly. This is my lady love's birthday present." He gave Margo's hand a squeeze.
Dan smiled at Margo. "You're to be congratulated, Miss Lane. You've actually tamed him. I didn't think that was possible."
"It just takes practice," she smiled back.
"Oh!" Alexandra's voice shouted from the dance floor, clearly angry.
All heads turned toward the sound.
Alexandra was looking at the doorway at a somewhat plain woman standing by herself, a smug expression on her face.
Alexandra stormed off the floor in a huff, Arthur on her heels. He said something to the woman at the doorway, then headed after his wife.
The woman in the doorway smirked, then crossed the dance floor and snatched a champagne glass off a passing waiter's tray.
"What was that all about?" Margo asked.
"That," Dan observed, "is the ex-Mrs. Doyle."
"Really?" Lamont noted.
"Well, not exactly. Her name is Valerie Bonfamile. She was Doyle's stage assistant for years. They were rumored to be engaged, but he met Alexandra at a charity benefit in London a few weeks ago, and all that changed. If you believe the gossip, she's followed them everywhere since the wedding, turning up at every stop along the way on this honeymoon. Apparently, they thought they'd lost her when they came on this cruise, because Alexandra certainly looked shocked to see her."
"There you go, then," Lamont laughed. "She's unattached, and lonely."
Dan gave Lamont a sharp glare. "I don't think so," he said. "Hell hath no fury, etc., etc." He looked at his watch. "Good grief," he noted, "it's almost midnight. Think I'll go catch some shut-eye. We make port in Bermuda tomorrow. Should be fun." He shook hands with them both, then excused himself.
Lamont turned to Margo. "You look sleepy," he noted.
"It's been a busy day," she agreed, suppressing a yawn. "I never knew I could dance for hours."
"Neither did I. But then, the right partner makes time fly."
"You're silly." She squeezed his hand. "Would you be so kind as to escort me to my cabin?"
"I would be delighted." He offered his arm, and they walked off together.
Back in his cabin, Lamont tossed his tuxedo jacket onto a chair, undid his tie and the top buttons of his dress shirt, then made his way into the bedroom and dropped onto the bed, completely exhausted. He felt a tension headache coming on and closed his eyes, trying to deflect the pain away. No doubt the strain of keeping a much tighter than normal rein on his powerful psyche was catching up to him, and he longed to just let his mind go, let the day's tension drain away. But with Margo's sensitive receptive mind so close, he knew he couldn't; a burst of raw psychic energy that strong would probably overwhelm her. Maybe a walk on deck would do him some good, allow him to vent his mind where it wouldn't hurt anyone...
A gentle knock at the adjoining door got his attention. "Yes?" he called.
"Lamont? Are you all right?" Margo returned, concern in her tone.
"I'm fine." He pinched the bridge of his nose, trying to stem the pain behind his eyes.
Another tapping. "Lamont, open this door...please."
Sighing, he got up and opened the door.
Margo's worried expression looked back at him. "You've got a headache," she immediately observed.
He nodded. "It'll pass. I'm just tired."
She smiled indulgently at him. He was trying so hard not to worry her. "Want some aspirin?"
He shrugged. That was, of course, how everyone else dealt with headaches. "That might help."
She handed him the bottle of aspirin she had behind her back.
He took two tablets and handed the bottle back to her.
She shook her head. "Keep it. You might need it later."
He stroked her cheek softly and smiled. "Have I told you that I love you?"
She reached up and gently brushed stray strands of hair off his forehead. "In so many ways."
They kissed...tenderly at first, then deeply, fully, intensely, as if they never wanted the kiss to end.
Reluctantly, they both pulled back, once again mindful of how strong their passion was. "Careful, darling," Margo commented. "If we keep this up, we will shatter our carefully crafted illusion of propriety."
"I normally revel in shattering illusions," Lamont replied. "But we're both exhausted. And I know I'm not exactly thinking clearly right now."
She nodded. "On three?"
"On three. One..."
Neither one made a move.
"I think three came and went," she remarked.
"So it did," he returned.
Still, neither of them moved.
Finally, he pinched the bridge of his nose again as the headache returned.
"I think that's my cue to say you need some sleep," Margo joked.
"Probably," he admitted. He took her left hand and gave it a gallant kiss. "Good night, Margo."
She smiled. "Good night, Lamont."
They stepped back and closed their doors.
Parapsychologists who worked to produce a scientific basis for the belief in psychic phenomena speculated that telepaths, clairvoyants, precognizants, and other so-called "adepts" used more of their brains than the average person did. In particular, they speculated that one node on the frontal lobe was responsible for intuitive thought; the same speculation held that this node was extremely well-developed and extremely sensitive in psychics, who used it as a focal point for as-yet-undiscovered mental energies to read minds, see visions, predict the future. And Lamont Cranston thought his frontal lobe was going to explode if he didn't let those energies drain somehow.
He'd been lying still in the dark for almost an hour, trying to use the biofeedback techniques The Tulku had taught him to calm his mind, but there was just too much energy still there, still swirling through his mind. When he had been in training in Tibet, The Tulku would often drive him until he dropped with mental and physical exercises designed to strengthen and focus his mind and build his endurance; a side effect of the exercises, however, was to provide a sort of relief valve for the incredible reservoir of projective telepathic energy that he possessed. The Tulku used to tell him that he could always tell when Lamont had not exercised his mind enough during the day, because Lamont would end up with powerfully psychic nightmares caused by his mind seeking some form of release. Activities as The Shadow normally provided that release because of the mental and physical demands of hypnotic telepathy, but it had been two days since they'd left New York, two days since he'd last used those powers.
He sat up, rubbed his temples to try to calm his swirling thoughts again, then got out of bed and dressed. There was no sense in lying in bed any longer--too much risk of either falling asleep and into nightmares, or letting go too soon and hurting Margo. He headed out of his cabin and up to the main deck.
The breeze sweeping across the deck made the night air cool, but not unpleasantly so. Lamont stopped in the ship's bar for a snifter of cognac, then came back out on deck to stargaze.
"Another lonely soul?" a woman's British-accented voice called to him.
He looked across the deck.
The woman who had so upset Alexandra and Arthur earlier was also indulging in a late night visit to the bar, judging from the drink she held in her hand as she leaned across the railing further down the deck from him. Intrigued, he walked toward her. "Miss...Bonfamile, isn't it?" he asked.
"It is," she returned. "I didn't get your name, though."
"Lamont Cranston." He extended his right hand.
They exchanged a handshake. "I remember you now," she commented. "You were one of Alexandra Donatello's many boyfriends." She smiled. "Paris, 1920, wasn't it?"
He looked more intrigued now. "It was indeed. I'm afraid I don't remember you, though."
"I didn't think you did. Most people don't. I was the Plain Jane to Alexandra's dazzling debutante."
Lamont resisted once more the temptation to reach into her mind and find out why she'd come. He'd heard of men who followed their former girlfriends around, but never of a woman who was the pursuer. And that made him curious. "Quite an entrance you made this evening," he commented instead.
"Ah, that. You noticed." Valerie laughed. "I suppose you've heard all the gossip, too."
He swirled the cognac in its snifter and took a sip. "I tend not to put much stock in gossip. I prefer to hear the truth for myself."
"Truth." She took a swig of the mixed drink she held. "The truth is that Alexandra Donatello is a snake. She seduced my Arthur away from me. And to think I introduced them."
"So what are you trying to do--seduce him back?"
"Just making certain he doesn't forget me."
"Why not? She ruined my life. I want him to realize that he can do better." She took another swig of the drink. "Mr. Cranston, have you ever wanted to kill someone?"
"Many times." Another swirl of the snifter, another swallow of cognac.
"Then you understand how powerful a force revenge is." She pulled a snub-nosed .22 pistol out of her pocket.
He looked slightly alarmed. "Feel a need to be armed?" he tried to joke.
"Only for protection." She took another drink. "There are times, though, that I just want to put a gun to that witch's head and pull the trigger for what she's done to me."
He looked at her for a long moment, trying to decide whether or not she was serious. "There's an old Chinese saying that says he who seeks revenge had best dig two graves."
She downed the rest of her drink. "Good thing I'm not an old Chinese, then." She hurled the glass across the ship.
It crashed against the deck and shattered violently.
"There," she said. "I feel better now. Good night, Mr. Cranston." With that, she walked away.
Lamont watched her depart, then rubbed his eyes and frowned. The headache was back, this time with a vengeance. He really needed to vent his mind now before he went mad.
Finding a chaise lounge, he reclined on it, looked up at the night sky, and let every barrier around his psyche fall away.
The burst of energy that shot out as he did shattered the snifter in his hand. Lamont barely noticed. It felt so good to let go. The tension, the headache, the strain vanished as wave after wave of psychic power poured forth from his mind, carrying him along with them. He floated in a stream of thoughts rushing all around him, feeling the ripple effects as his telepathic energies projected further and further. The sensations that came back were like echoes, thought patterns detected and reflected back to him. The late night revelers...the restless sleepers...the young lovers...
And then, something darker engulfed him like a tidal wave...something malevolent...something evil. It was a feeling of hatred, revulsion, resentment, that seemed to have no central source. He could sense jealousy, envy, greed, lust...and death.
Lamont immediately snapped out of the trance, the psychic barriers reinstating themselves to insulate him from further mental assaults. "My God," he whispered.
Someone touched him from behind. He leapt out of the lounger and whirled around.
"Easy!" Margo said, taken aback by his reaction.
Lamont breathed a sigh of relief. "You startled me," he said.
"No kidding." She looked at the stem of the broken snifter he still held between his fingers. "You O.K.?"
He noticed the stem and tossed the glass away in frustration. Technically, he'd broken his promise to her. He could not believe he had so little self-discipline that he couldn't have found a way to keep his mind in check even through the strain. "I'm sorry," he whispered.
She came over to him. "You let your mind go."
He nodded. "I should have been stronger than that. I can't believe I didn't try harder to push through it..."
"Sh-h." She put her arms around him and held him tightly. "I came up here to find you, to see if you were all right. I knew how badly your head was hurting...and I could not believe you were putting yourself through all of that for me. You can't believe how selfish I felt."
He put his hand under her chin and lifted it to face him. "You're not angry with me?"
She shook her head. "I've never felt so loved."
He smiled. "You are, my dear. You are." He kissed the top of her head, then held her close.
She couldn't help it. She started giggling.
"What's so funny?" he asked.
"Oh, Moe bet me that there was no way you'd last a week."
He smiled wryly. "I'll pay whatever you lost to Shrevnitz."
"Actually, he owes me $20."
He pulled back and gave her an odd look. "Oh?"
She blushed. "I didn't disagree with him. But I told him that you'd push yourself beyond the breaking point, literally cause yourself physical pain, and feel so guilty afterwards that you'd blame yourself for failing instead of me for putting such an impossible condition on you in the first place. He said that was crazy and you'd never do that."
Now he was laughing. "Shows which one of you knows me better."
Now she really looked embarrassed. "If I were you, I'd be furious at me."
"For putting a condition you knew I wouldn't be able to live up to on our vacation?"
"You must think I'm something horrible."
He took her face in his hands gently. "I think you know the answer to that."
They kissed warmly, deeply, fully, never wanting to break.
But break they did, taking a deep, cleansing breath and looking into each other's eyes again. "Ready to go back below deck?" he asked.
She hugged him. "Only if you come with me."
Arm-in-arm, they headed down to the First Class cabins.
"I guess this is good night," Lamont said as they reached her door.
"I guess it is," Margo replied.
They again kissed deeply. So deeply, in fact, that they could feel passion threatening to overwhelm them once again, and they broke apart.
"The illusion of propriety," she sighed.
"The illusion of propriety," he agreed. "Good night, Margo."
He watched as she went into her cabin, then he went into his.
No sooner had his door closed than he heard a knock at the adjoining door. He opened it.
She stood in the doorway, giving him a stern look. "All right, I've been about as patient as I can be."
He smiled and raised an eyebrow. "Are you often this forward, Miss Lane?"
She rolled her eyes. "Behave yourself." She turned serious. "I kept hoping you'd tell me why you were so startled by my coming up behind you. It is not possible for anyone to startle you...unless your mind is occupied with something strong. Your mind's a lot calmer now than it was when I found you earlier, but there's still some tension there. You were having a vision, but you snapped out of it before I saw anything. What was it?"
He looked away. "There's no way to put into words what swept over me earlier. It wasn't so much a vision as a feeling...just overwhelming darkness..."
She sought his gaze. "Let me see."
He shook his head. "No. I can't do that to you..."
"Yes, you can. Don't make me read it out of your head. And don't try to wall it off from me. If I've got as much power as you say I do, I need to learn what to do when something like this strikes."
Lamont looked at Margo for a long time. Her mind was getting stronger and more skilled with practice. She'd come so far in such a short period of time, but still...to put her through this...
"I am not afraid," she stated firmly.
"I know you're not." He took her hand. "Come with me."
She came into his room.
He led her over to the sofa and gestured for her to take a seat, then sat down next to her. "Look into my eyes," he said. "I won't let you get hurt."
"I know," she said.
Their eyes met, and the blending of their minds began.
Lamont reached out with his mind until he felt resistance, then began gently pushing against Margo's natural psychic barriers, slowly and carefully increasing the strength and frequency of the relaxing hypnotic suggestion he was projecting. This was still the hardest part--once her barriers fell, their minds meshed and melded easily. But her resistance to his hypnotic telepathy--or any outside influence--was still quite strong. In many ways, that was a good thing; it helped protect her still-developing psyche from too much stimulation all at once. But it made the beginning of this exercise a slow, difficult process.
The resistance began to break down, and his mind projected through it. Relax, Margo. Relax.
I know. He put his hand around the back of her neck, stroking her hair to soothe her. Are you certain you really want to see?
Yes. I really want to.
Then reach out to me.
Her resistance began to break down further. He could feel her mind beginning to open up, tugging gently against the edges of his own barriers. That's it, Margo. That's it. You're getting better at this.
Her mind opened wider, now pulling strongly against his protective barriers. Let me in, she urged. Let me see what you saw.
He took a deep breath, then focused the memory of that dark sensation into the forefront of his mind and opened a small portal into his psyche for her.
Suddenly, they were both experiencing that engulfing darkness--her, pulling it from his memory; him, seeing it rush into her mind.
It's so dark, her mental voice said, frightened. Oh, God, it's so dark...so heavy...so cold...Lamont...
That's enough. He closed the portal.
She was shaking. He put his arms around her, sending as strong a calming suggestion as he could. I've got you, he soothed. I'm sorry.
She took hold of his embrace and pulled it tigher around herself, trying to wrap herself in the strength of his arms and the calming frequencies he was projecting into her. That's what you saw?
What I felt. I didn't really see anything. It was just so overwhelming--so much anger, so much hatred. And then pure, raw evil all around me.
But who? Who's going to die?
I don't know. But it's definitely someone on this ship. And soon.
She was still shaking. Hold me...
He pulled her close to him. I've got you. You're all right. He laughed mentally. I tried to warn you.
Maybe next time I should listen. She sighed aloud and pulled his embrace even tighter around herself. How do you do it? If that happened to me all the time, I'd go mad.
Lots of training. Lots of practice. Lots of hours spent calming myself down after it happens. The Tulku taught me to focus in on my own heartbeat, and let the rhythm of it calm me down. It usually helps. Try it.
She tried to find the sound of her own heartbeat. I hear it. It's really pounding.
It will slow down as you relax. That's the beauty of it. The rhythm helps drive everything else out of your mind...then as you relax, it slows, which helps you relax more, until you reach a quiet, calm, safe place.
She closed her eyes, letting the pounding fill her head.
Sensing her need to find that quiet place, Lamont stopped projecting. He continued to hold her in his arms, gently stroking her hair and her back, keeping his own breathing and heartbeat as even as possible to help calm her.
"Did you know our hearts are beating together?" she whispered finally.
He put a hand on her neck and took her pulse. "So they are," he realized. "I guess we both needed that quiet, calm, safe place."
She laughed nervously. "Then why is your heart beating faster now?"
His fingers caressed her neck. "Same reason yours is."
The passion between them was becoming almost palpable. They pulled back and met each other's gaze.
"The illusion of propriety," he whispered.
"The illusion of propriety," she agreed.
Still they held each other dangerously close. "On three, we let go," he said.
"On three," she echoed. "One..."
Silence. Their eyes searched each other's gaze for some doubt, some inkling of indecision.
"I don't want to let go," Margo finally whispered.
He swept her into his arms as he stood up. "To Hell with propriety," he pronounced.
They kissed deeply and dramatically as their emotions washed over them and swept them away.
It had been a long time since Lamont had awakened with someone else in his bed. As he opened his eyes, the beauty of the woman beside him took his breath away. Even asleep, she was an angel, an exquisite thief who'd long ago made off with his heart. Awake, she had been the most fantastic lover he'd ever had. He gently reached over and brushed the hair off her cheek.
Margo stirred, then opened her eyes. "Tell me I didn't dream it," she whispered, smiling at him.
He planted a kiss on her that would have awakened Snow White.
"Oh, my God," she said, stretching, "dreams do come true."
"Mine certainly did," he agreed.
She looked absolutely incredulous at what they went through together. Her face glowed with the bliss she tried find a way to describe. "I've never...oh, God, there aren't words for it. I did not know I could feel that way ever. The way our minds connected...is it always that way for you?"
He laughed. "I have never felt anything like that," he told her. "You reached me on levels I didn't know existed. Good God." Like her, he had no words for it. It had been a sexual experience on multiple levels; as their bodies joined, so had their minds, and the joy at finding themselves so tightly knit had reached them both on an emotional level unlike any they had ever reached individually or together. He'd lost track of how many times they'd made love; it was almost one continuous explosion of pleasure that never seemed to stop...though it was not as if either of them would have ever wanted it to stop. The experience had left them breathless, psychically drained, and emotionally spent, but it had been worth every second of it. He wrapped his arms around her, pulling her close. "No regrets?"
"Never. For the rest of my life, I will remember last night."
They lay together quietly, enjoying the closeness of their hearts, minds, and bodies.
"We could make some more memories," she finally suggested.
"We could," he agreed. "We could also spend the day in Bermuda. We are, after all, on vacation."
"The illusion of propriety?" she teased.
"I don't give a damn about propriety," he declared. "But there is a sightseeing trip on horseback planned that we signed up for when we boarded."
"That we did." She sighed. "On three, we let go."
He smiled mischievously. "Isn't that how we got here?"
A long pause as they looked into each other's eyes. They kissed again, deeply, fully, passionately.
Finally, they broke for air. "Three," Margo said.
"Three," he agreed.
They climbed out of bed almost simultaneously. "Join me for breakfast?" he offered.
She smiled. "As if I'm letting you out of my sight." She glared at him. "And don't you dare cloud my mind and disappear on me."
Lamont looked hurt. "I am shocked that..."
"...I can figure you out so fast?"
They both smiled, then laughed, and somehow managed to resist the temptation to kiss once more.
Margo headed for the adjoining door, still open to her cabin from last night. "Nice of you to get us a four-room suite," she observed.
"Wasn't it, though?" he agreed. "Plenty of room to spread out..."
She smiled suggestively. "...and if we get bored with your bed, there's always mine." With that, she headed off to dress.
The Tropical Blossom had a beautiful solarium on the main deck where passengers could enjoy the brilliant Caribbean sun without the hazards of eating outdoors, like wind or seagulls. Seating in the solarium was limited, and this morning Lamont and Margo enjoyed a meal at one table while Alexandra and Arthur sat at another. Both couples acknowledged each other with a simple nod, then kept to themselves through the meal, seemingly enchanted with just themselves.
They were soon joined by Kennedy and Rosalie Van Dyke, who took their seats at another table. Kennedy excused himself from his wife, then came over to Alexandra and Arthur's table, carrying a small portfolio. "So sorry to interrupt," Kennedy told them, "but I have those papers I said I needed you to sign."
"Oh, yes," Alexandra said. "Please, have a seat."
Kennedy sat down in one of the chairs, then handed her the portfolio and a pen. "You don't know what a relief it is that you finally got married," he observed. "I was beginning to wonder if I'd have to take care of your father's estate forever."
"I always thought that was a silly clause in Daddy's will," she laughed. "But at least now, I can finally settle down and figure out what to do with all this stuff."
He pulled out a document. "The lease on Armstrong Towers."
She read it for a moment, then signed it. "What am I going to do with a skyscraper?" she sighed.
"I'm certain you'll figure out something, darling," Arthur returned.
Kennedy pulled out another form. "The holdings in First Bank of Chicago."
She read it over, then signed it. "I own a bank, too. At least I'll always have somewhere to put my money."
Kennedy pulled out another form. "Some miscellaneous holdings."
She read it, then stopped. "I don't recognize a lot of these."
"Just some things your father bought late in life." Kennedy's eyes drifted toward the signature line.
She kept reading. "No, I don't think my father would have invested in some of these things. Are you certain this is right?"
"Of course, my dear." His eyes once more urged her toward the bottom line.
"Uncle Kennedy," she said, becoming annoyed, "I never sign anything I don't understand."
"You're more thorough than I, love," Arthur joked. "I never read a thing."
"Really?" Kennedy asked.
Arthur shrugged. "I reckon that's why I pay my lawyer such outrageous sums of money."
"Quite a foolish attitude, if you ask me," a man's voice interjected.
The three sets of eyes at the table turned to see Dan Roth coming toward them. "I mean," he continued, "I am a lawyer, and I don't trust lawyers any further than I can throw them." He smiled at Alexandra. "You're a very wise woman not to sign anything without a full explanation, Mrs. Doyle. And only an irresponsible attorney would try to make you do otherwise...wouldn't you agree, Mr. Van Dyke?"
"Of course," Kennedy replied, not very convincingly, as he took the stack of papers. "We'll finish this later." He got up and left the table.
Dan watched Kennedy take a seat next to his wife, all the while glancing back at Dan nervously. "I hope I didn't offend him," Dan commented.
"And what if you did, Mr...?" Alexandra replied.
"Roth. Dan Roth."
They shook hands. "Care to join us?" she offered.
He spotted Lamont and Margo nearby. "No, thank you," he replied. "I already have plans."
Dan nodded a good-bye and crossed to Lamont and Margo's table.
"Tell me, Mr. Roth," Margo observed, "are you always so forward?"
"In my business, you can't afford not to be," he noted. "May I join you?"
Lamont gestured over a chair. "Please."
Dan took a seat, thanked the waiter who poured coffee for him, then looked around the room for a moment before leaning in toward the center of the table. "The sun is shining," he whispered.
Lamont and Margo gave each other a sidelong glance. "But the ice is slippery," they both answered almost simultaneously.
Dan nodded a greeting. There was something about exchanging the code that was both relaxing and nerve-racking at the same time. It meant you were among friends...but surrounded by danger.
Lamont acknowledged the nod. "What do you need?"
"A sanity check," Dan replied. "Did I just see what I think I just saw?"
"If you saw a crooked lawyer trying to cheat an heiress out of her fortune," Lamont noted, "then you saw the same thing I did."
"What was that last document?" Margo asked.
"I think I know," Dan replied. "But I won't go into it here. I can tell you, though, that you were wrong about me last night."
"In what way?" Lamont queried.
"The F.B.I. does send agents on pleasure cruises...when they think there's money laundering involved."
An exchange of glances between the lovers. I could let things take their natural course, Lamont noted.
No, you can't, she returned. One of the obligations of an agent is to help other agents in time of need.
I will make this up to you.
I'm sure we'll find a way. He gave her hand a gentle squeeze, then looked out the many windows. "What a beautiful morning," Lamont said aloud. "Think I'll go for a walk on deck. Care to join me, Margo?"
"But we were having such a nice conversation with Mr. Roth," she interjected.
"Then why don't I join you?" Dan said, picking up the hint.
The three of them left the solarium together.
"The F.B.I.'s been on this for two years now," Dan told Lamont and Margo as they walked together around the deck. "Kennedy Van Dyke's been siphoning money from the Donatello estate to pay for the drug ring Giuseppi Donatello used to run. Dirty money comes in, gets run through holding companies, and clean money comes out."
"And now Alexandra's inherited all of that," Margo realized.
"Exactly. In order to keep the operation running, Van Dyke needs her to sign over the rights to those companies and accounts. I don't think he counted on her refusing to do so."
"Why hasn't the F.B.I. moved on this?" Lamont asked.
"Because we need proof. I've been following Mrs. Doyle since the wedding, trying to see if she was involved in the money laundering. I'm now convinced she knows nothing about it. I was hoping once Mrs. Doyle came into the estate after her marriage, she'd spot the irregularities and contact someone for help. But Van Dyke's one step ahead of us. If I can get my hands on that paperwork, we've got a way to haul him in."
"But not overseas."
"Unfortunately, no. Now that we're in Bermuda, we're subject to British law. I have no jurisdiction until we leave port tonight and we're back out in international waters. I'm convinced that's why Kennedy waited to pull them out until now--he may realize the Feds are right on his tail."
"What can we do?" Margo asked.
"Keep an eye on the Doyles. You're right next door to them, aren't you?"
"Lamont is. I'm two doors down." She smiled.
"Close enough. Let me know if anything happens--especially if Van Dyke tries to get her to sign those papers again."
"We'll do our best," Lamont promised.
"Good." Dan sighed. "It's a real relief to find allies on board. I thought I was in this alone."
Lamont nodded. "Glad to be of service."
"It's part of the obligation we all have as agents," Margo added.
Dan nodded in agreement. "Too bad the man in black isn't here."
"Who?" Lamont challenged.
Dan rolled his eyes. "Right. Forget I said anything. I just wish we had reinforcements."
"Guess that means we have to make do with what we have," Margo noted. "And hopefully, it'll be enough."
They stopped talking as Arthur and Alexandra came out of the solarium, arm-in-arm, giggling giddily...until they ran into Delilah and Alicia Coventry.
"How fortunate I ran into you this morning," Delilah greeted. "I was hoping I might have a word with you, Miss Donatello."
"Mrs. Doyle," Alexandra retorted. "And I thought we were already having words...through our lawyers."
"Oh, it seems so silly to carry on that way. I thought we could talk this out, woman-to-woman."
"Mother, please," Alicia said, trying to steer the two women apart.
"There's nothing to talk about," Alexandra replied. "I think the lawsuit speaks for itself."
Delilah chuckled nervously. "The lawsuit...now there's something even more silly. Why you would be offended by one of my novels is beyond me..."
"Mrs. Coventry," Alexandra interrupted, "when you compare a woman named Alexandria deNatelle in the pages of some piece of trash called Heiress To Hedonism to a dog in heat, I do not see how I cannot be offended. And I believe the judge will see it my way. Now, if you'll excuse me..." She took her husband's arm once more and walked away in a huff.
"Whore," Delilah spat.
"Mother!" Alicia said, guiding her mother into the solarium.
Dan looked at Lamont. "Popular woman, isn't she?" the F.B.I. agent commented.
"She certainly has a way with people," Lamont agreed.
They looked out over the railing. "I think we all have our marching orders," Dan noted. "Until later?"
"Until later." Lamont shook his friend's hand. "Be careful."
They parted company.
Horseback riding was a traditional British activity, brought to most of its colonies by the military stationed there and spread through the culture among the locals by the visiting families. Such was the reason horseback tours of Bermuda were such a popular activity among tourists, and the guests aboard the Tropical Blossom were not immune to the lure. A group of a dozen tourists--among them the Doyles, Lamont and Margo, the Coventrys, the Van Dykes, and Dan Roth--set out on sturdy, well-trained mounts to tour the fascinating island with its pink beaches and magnificent views.
"What a beautiful place," Rosalie Van Dyke remarked.
"It is, isn't it?" Kennedy Van Dyke replied. "Wonder where we're going to stop for lunch?"
"Our guide might know," she remarked. "I'll ride ahead and ask."
"Be careful," he called as she did.
Further ahead, Alicia Coventry was watching her already tipsy mother try to stay on her mount. "Mother, hold onto the reins, for pity's sake," she urged.
"She's quite a handful," Dan Roth noted as he rode up alongside the young woman.
"She's fine," Alicia said shortly.
"Oh, of course she is. I meant no disrespect."
Alicia nodded. "I'm sorry. Mother says and does things that some people find offensive. They don't understand her...how hard she works...how much she loves life."
"Sounds like you do."
Alicia blushed slightly. "I didn't get your name."
"Alicia Coventry." They exchanged a nod. "What do you do?"
"I'm a lawyer. You?"
"I take care of Mother." She looked thoughtful. "You're a lawyer?"
They watched as Rosalie Van Dyke rode past them. Alicia again looked thoughtful. "Is it possible to libel the dead?"
He looked oddly at her. "Why do you ask?"
She shrugged. "No reason."
Ahead of them, Alexandra and Arthur Doyle were riding alongside each other. Arthur looked over at his wife, who kept looking over her shoulder. "What's wrong, darling?" he asked.
"Oh, nothing," she replied. "I just keep expecting Valerie Bonfamile to pop out of nowhere, like she has everywhere else on this trip."
He reached across and took her hand. "Relax, darling. She can't spoil anything if we don't let her."
She beamed. "You really are a magician. You make all my troubles disappear."
They started to lean across their horses to kiss.
"Excuse me!" Rosalie called as her horse came upon theirs a bit too fast.
The horses parted, and Rosalie rode through. "Sorry," she called.
"Careful!" Alexandra called. "You'll startle my horse!"
"Easy, love," Arthur urged. "Remember, we are on our honeymoon. Nothing can separate us."
On the road ahead of them, Margo tried to keep her own horse steady. "It's been years since I've ridden a horse," she said.
Lamont smiled as he expertly steered his horse along. "I haven't ridden since I left Tibet. But it's like riding a bicycle, I suppose--once you learn, you never really forget."
"You mean you're not part of the polo-playing set?" she teased.
"I despise polo," he returned. "I used to call it 'croquet on horseback'. It bores me."
"Excuse me!" Rosalie called, coming up behind them.
Lamont steered his horse out of the path and let her pass them.
"How much further is our guide?" she asked.
"Just ahead," he said, pointing to the man about a quarter mile up the road on horseback.
"Thank you," she said, riding on.
Margo rode up alongside Lamont. "She's in a hurry," she noted.
He nodded his agreement. "Wonder why? It's not like the tour's proceeding too slowly or anything like that..."
The ring of a pair of gunshots echoed around them. Everyone flinched, and the horses whinnied nervously.
"Whoa," Lamont urged his horse, tightening the reins to keep control. "Easy...easy..."
Margo struggled to hold onto her horse. "Whoa," she said.
"Pull tight and down on the reins," he said. "That will keep him steady."
"Alexandra!" Arthur shouted from behind them.
A horse shot past Lamont and Margo with Alexandra Doyle screaming in terror on its back.
Arthur tried to catch up. "Runaway mount!" he shouted ahead as he kicked his horse faster.
Lamont watched as the gap grew between Arthur and Alexandra. "He'll never catch her," he realized.
"Go," Margo urged.
Lamont kicked his horse to a gallop, leaning in tight against its body to cut wind resistance. Back in Tibet, Ying Ko had been one of the finest horsemen in the Himalayas; it added to his reputation as a ruthless warlord who could descend on a village like lightning. The evil butcher had long since been tamed--but his skills were still sharp as ever within the man who had tamed him.
He flew past Arthur, who clearly had no idea how to drive a horse to breakneck speed, nor regain control over one when it was racing out of control. Alexandra was just ahead, and she was barely managing to stay on the spooked animal. "Alexandra!" Lamont shouted. "Alexandra!"
She was screaming too loudly to hear him, clutching wildly at the reins, her feet out of the stirrups.
He frowned. No choice now; he had to make her hear him. Alexandra, grab the reins. Pull tight toward you in a downward motion.
Alexandra had no idea why she suddenly felt compelled to grab the reins, but she did so. The horse slowed somewhat, but was still running too fast.
Suddenly, Lamont was alongside her. Lean forward.
He turned himself side-saddle on his own mount, then grabbed the horn and the back of her saddle and leveraged himself across to her horse. He slipped his feet into the stirrups and reached forward to grab the reins. "Whoa," he urged the horse, pulling the reins tight and squeezing its flanks with his legs to encourage it to stop.
Slowly, the horse came to a stop.
Lamont breathed a sigh of relief, then turned his attention to his saddlemate. "Are you all right?" he asked.
Alexandra looked herself over, then looked back at him. "Where did you learn to ride like that?" she asked.
He smiled mysteriously. "I've learned a lot of things in fourteen years." He dismounted and helped Alexandra off the animal.
Her legs shook unsteadily as she stood up.
"Easy," he urged. "Are you all right?"
"I don't know," she said in a shaky voice.
Arthur caught up to them finally, looking relieved. "Allie, darling!" he said as he dismounted.
"Arthur!" she cried, throwing herself into his arms. She began to sob.
Arthur looked at Lamont, amazement at his horsemanship in his eyes. "Mr. Cranston...I don't know what to say...I can't thank you enough..."
Lamont gave a wave of dismissal. "Quite all right. I'd have her checked out by a doctor or a nurse, though."
The guide caught up to them next. "I'm terribly sorry, madam," he said. "We've never had a horse spooked that badly by a truck backfiring before..."
"That was no truck," Lamont said. "That was a pistol. A .45, to be exact."
"How can you be sure?" Arthur asked.
"I know guns. The ring of a .45 is so distinct that once you hear it, you never forget the sound."
The others began to arrive, including Dan Roth. "Who fired that gun?" he demanded.
"You heard it, too," Lamont noted.
"Hard to miss it. Sounded like it came from right behind us."
Rosalie Van Dyke dismounted her horse and came over to the shivering heiress. "I'm a nurse," she said. "Here, let's have a look at those hands. Take off your jewelry so I can see them better."
"I'm all right," Alexandra said, waving her off. Then, she spotted something at the rear of the group and screamed.
Trying to follow her gaze, Lamont thought he spotted a familiar face. He moved to get a better view.
Sitting on the back of the last horse was Valerie Bonfamile. And she was smiling.
He glared at her, remembering her words from last night. But that .22 he'd seen last night didn't make that noise that spooked the horses. Someone else was armed.
"You!" Alexandra shouted at Valerie. "You! You!"
"You're incoherent, Alexandra, dear," Valerie called back in a haughty tone. "Scared you that badly, did it?"
"Get out of here!" Arthur bellowed at his ex-girlfriend.
She shrugged. "If you wish." She turned her horse around and rode away.
Something tickled at the edge of his mind. He immediately discerned Margo's thought patterns and opened his receptive center. Margo? Did you call me?
I certainly did, her voice replied in his head. Are you all right?
I'll be sore in the morning. But Alexandra's safe. Is everyone accounted for back there?
He heard her counting. I count thirteen, if you include the guide and Valerie Bonfamile.
That's everyone. And I don't suppose you see a weapon anywhere?
No. Lamont, what happened?
Someone deliberately spooked the horses.
No. She's carrying a gun, but not one that high caliber. Someone else fired those shots.
I don't know. He frowned. I can feel the evil in the air, but I can't find it.
It probably doesn't help that so many people hate Alexandra.
No, it doesn't. He frowned again.
"I want to go back to the ship," Alexandra said, still shaken.
"That might be a good idea," Lamont suggested.
"Does everyone agree?" the guide called.
Voices of assent answered.
Arthur gently walked his wife back to his horse, then helped her into the saddle and joined her on the animal's back. "Mr. Cranston...thank you again," he said.
Lamont nodded. "Just take good care of her," he urged.
Arthur nodded his thanks again, and he and Alexandra rode away.
Lamont retrieved and mounted his own horse, then took Alexandra's by the reins and led it alongside him.
The others rode off behind the guide until only Margo remained. My hero, he heard her say.
He actually blushed slightly. One of Ying Ko's few skills that was actually worth keeping.
Don't be so hard on yourself. She reached across and patted his shoulder. I've never cared about your past...who you were, what you did. If it made you what you are today, so be it. Because that's the man I love.
He smiled. I could kiss you.
Why wait? She reached for the reins of his horse to pull her horse alongside his.
Their lips met in a warm, loving kiss.
Now dressed for formal dinner, Lamont left his cabin and started to knock on Alexandra Doyle's door when a woman in a maid's uniform burst out of the room, sobbing uncontrollably, and ran down the hall. He watched her depart, then looked in the room.
Alexandra was lighting a cigarette and drawing deeply on it, sighing roughly as she blew out the smoke.
"I see you treat the hired help the way you always did," he said sarcastically.
She whipped around. "How long have you been there?" she snapped.
"Just a moment. What did you say to the poor girl? She looked distraught."
She snorted. "Hard to find good help these days. Lucille wants to run off with her boyfriend here in Bermuda. Only trouble is, he's still married. She claims he told her he was getting a divorce, and now she wants the dowry I supposedly promised her so they can go make a love nest together. I am not funding some British government stooge's divorce. She can wait until he's ready to marry her and pay for everything."
"That's what it really boils down to, isn't it?" Lamont noted. "Money is power to you. As long as you control the money, you can control the lives of many people who absolutely despise you otherwise. Your reputation hasn't changed in fourteen years."
She sauntered over to him, arrogance even in her feminine moves. "Since when did you start caring about other people? Or your reputation, for that matter?"
He shrugged. "I've been through three lifetimes in fourteen years. Had a fortune...lost it all...got it all back, and more. It's more enjoyable when you have other people to care about." He looked around. "Where's Mr. Doyle?"
"In the bar, playing poker with my lawyer and some others." She eyed him curiously. "Where's the trophy?"
"Margo is changing for dinner."
She raised an eyebrow. "You actually used her name. I'm impressed."
"I'm not bad with names. You should know that."
"Oh, I do. You wouldn't believe all the women I've met who've claimed to have been with the great Lamont Cranston. You knew their names...their favorite wines...their favorite food...their favorite flowers...et cetera, et cetera. All to indulge your reputation as New York's most notorious playboy. And you try to paint me as a controller."
"Even scoundrels can reform." He gave a glance to his ring, a reminder of just how great a reformation one scoundrel could have. "I didn't come here to spar with you...or to reminisce."
"So, why did you come?"
"I actually wanted to make sure you were all right. Quite a harrowing experience you had today."
She nodded. "I forgot to thank you," she noted.
"You're welcome." He paused. "Do you think those gunshots were meant for you and just missed?"
"Who knows?" She threw her hands in the air. "In case you hadn't noticed, I'm not the most popular person with some of the First Class passengers."
"I noticed. So you have no idea who would have wanted you dead badly enough to shoot at you?"
"Probably that horrible Valerie. The woman's following us around like a stupid puppy."
He smiled ironically. "Nice thing to say about an old friend."
"A leech, you mean. The only thing she ever did for me was introduce me to Arthur."
"I see. Anyone else?"
She looked at him. "Are you a policeman now, Lamont?"
"Amateur criminologist, actually. And the whole thing's got me curious."
"Well," she said, stepping back from the doorway, "if I think of something, I'll let you know." She closed the door on him.
He shook his head. "Some things never change," he observed aloud.
"In what way?" Margo remarked from behind.
He turned to her. "Every argument used to end with her closing the door in my face."
"I see." She started over to him. "What did you argue about this time?"
He met her halfway. "Nothing. I thought she might know why someone would be trying to kill her."
He raised an eyebrow. "You're jealous."
She scoffed. "Don't be ridiculous."
He took her in his arms. "She was, at the time, everything I deserved. I think I've developed much higher standards since then."
"Good. I'd hate to have to take her on myself to keep her away from you."
"Women fighting over me. That's a first."
"Don't flatter yourself. I won't let any of them near enough to fight."
"I like a woman with spirit." He pulled her close, and they dissolved into a rich, luscious kiss that seemed to last forever.
"Ah, the fiery passion of young lovers," Delilah Coventry called.
They broke the kiss and turned toward her.
"Oh, go on," she encouraged as she teetered toward them, obviously having indulged in a pre-dinner cocktail or two. "It's not often that such raw, unbridled desire unfolds openly, defying the social conventions of the day..."
"Mother, please!" Alicia Coventry said, coming up behind her and leading her away. "I am quite certain Mr. Cranston and Miss Lane do not want to find themselves in the pages of one of your books..."
Lamont and Margo looked at each other and laughed. "We are absolutely scandalous," she said.
"Whatever will people say?" he returned.
She looked toward the stairs to the dining room. "Shall we go find out?"
He offered his arm. "Let's."
When the waiter took Lamont and Margo to their table in the main dining room, they were surprised to see a carafe of red wine already on the table, its stopper removed so it could breathe. Lamont picked up the card lying next to it. "A token of appreciation for all your help," he read.
"Who's it from?" Margo asked.
"It doesn't say." He looked the card over. "Waiter?"
A waiter came over to them. "Yes, sir?"
"Do you know who this is from?"
"I believe Mr. Doyle had it sent over, sir." He gestured toward a nearby table, where Arthur Doyle had poured himself a glass of red wine and raised it in a toast to them. "Is there a problem?"
Lamont shook his head. "No, no. Just curious. Thank you."
The waiter nodded and walked away.
Lamont poured a glass and sniffed it. "Mm-m," he noted. "Chianti. Wonderful bouquet." He offered a toasting gesture to Doyle in appreciation.
Margo took the glass from him and sniffed it, then took a sip. "Mm-m. Very dry."
"Good. The drier, the better, as far as I'm concerned." He pulled out Margo's chair for her and slid it under her as she sat, then joined her and poured himself a glass. "To the end of a long day," he toasted.
"And the beginning of a long night," she added in a seductive tone.
"Hear, hear." Their glasses clinked and they both sipped. He looked at the glass oddly. "You're right. That is dry. Very smoky."
"Maybe it's not chianti."
He sniffed it again. "It's got the chianti bouquet. But there's something else. Maybe it was aged longer."
"It's making me hungry for Italian food."
"No such luck. I smell island cuisine. Some of the local dishes are quite spicy, though--the Spanish influence, you know."
"Started the party without me?" Dan Roth joked as he approached.
"Not at all," Lamont greeted, standing. "Join us, won't you?"
"Certainly." He took a seat. "What are we drinking?"
"Chianti--courtesy of Arthur Doyle, apparently. Pour you a glass?"
"Oh, no, thank you. Red wine gives me a terrible headache." He snapped his fingers for a waiter, who came over promptly. "Scotch on the rocks, please." He turned to the couple. "Anything for either of you?"
"Thank you, no," Lamont answered. "Mixing harder liquor with wine gives me a headache."
"Same here," Margo replied.
From their table, they could see Alexandra Doyle finally arriving to join her husband. "She looks none the worse for wear," Dan said.
"She's very lucky to be alive," Lamont noted.
"I'll say. Where did you learn to ride like that?"
Lamont took another sip of his wine. "A Tibetan warlord taught me."
The waiter returned with Dan's drink, and he offered a small tip and sent him away. "Either he was a great teacher, or you were an outstanding student. I have never seen anything like that. That was amazing."
"I try." He polished off the glass of chianti and poured another one. "Who do you think fired those shots?"
Dan sipped his scotch. "My money's on Valerie Bonfamile. Alexandra certainly seemed shocked to see her."
"I don't think so. She's armed--I saw her last night on deck, and she had a snub-nosed .22 pistol in her pocket--but she didn't fire the shots we heard."
"She's armed?" Dan looked alarmed. "Now I know she's involved."
"But that doesn't make sense," Margo interjected. "If that was a .45 that fired those shots, there's no way she could have fired it. She's no bigger than I am."
"She could have," Lamont noted, "but I doubt it. Like you said, if that was a .45--and I'm almost certain it was, because the ring of the shot was so distinct--the recoil would probably have thrown her off the horse."
"Then who?" Dan asked.
"Well, there are certainly no shortage of suspects," Margo said. "Seems like just about everyone we run into's got some kind of grudge against her."
"I'll say. Even that little Alicia Coventry asked me if it was possible to libel the dead."
Lamont raised an eyebrow. "There's a suspicious comment."
"Normally, I'd agree with you. But she was right next to me when the shots started, so I know she didn't fire them. And her mother was right in front of me--and too drunk to know which end of the horse she was facing--so that leaves her out, too."
Margo took another sip of wine and looked thoughtful. "Did Rosalie Van Dyke ride by you as abruptly as she rode by us?"
"She certainly did. I thought that was a little strange."
"Maybe she was trying to get out of the way of a gunshot," Lamont mused.
Dan looked at him. "Kennedy Van Dyke?"
"Entirely possible. Men have done worse things to protect the integrity of a drug network."
"I'll have to have a talk with him later. Might give me a chance to investigate some of that paperwork he tried to have Alexandra sign." They stopped talking as the waitress delivered their food. "Meanwhile, I'll think I'll investigate this delicious-looking plate. It smells wonderful."
Lamont took a bite. "Mm-m. It is wonderful. Some kind of pork dish, with island spices in the sauce."
Margo indulged in a bite as well. "Hot," she noted, quickly sipping her wine.
"I love spicy food," Lamont smiled, punctuating his statement with a sip of wine. "A nicely spiced dish and a good glass of wine--there is nothing better."
Dan drew a sharp breath after a bite. "Then you ought to be in Heaven," he said, "because this is hot." He snapped his fingers, and a waiter came over. "A pitcher of water," he said. "And keep it coming."
Many of the guests continued the party in the First Class parlor, an exclusive club on the main deck which afforded a beautiful view of the ocean in the daytime and the clear night sky after dark. Just now, however, sightseeing was not high on anyone's agenda; Arthur and Alexandra Doyle had engaged Kennedy and Rosalie Van Dyke in a game of bridge, while Dan, Lamont, and Margo looked on.
Or, at least, Lamont was trying to look on. He'd long ago given up cards as a social hobby because of the unfair advantage a psychic tended to have in such contests, but he still enjoyed watching others play because it was an interesting way to see into people's personalities without having to probe their minds. But for some reason, he was having trouble staying focused. Fatigue was beginning to filter through his mind, almost like a clouding fog. He didn't think he'd done enough to tire himself out this badly. Maybe the sea air's getting to me, he thought.
Margo, also looking sleepy, looked over to him. "Did you say something, Lamont?" she asked.
Lamont frowned. He hadn't meant to project that. "No," he said aloud. "Just thinking."
"You O.K.?" Dan asked. "You look like you're somewhere else."
"Just a little tired." He shook his head, trying to clear it.
The door to the parlor opened, and Valerie Bonfamile sauntered in, clutching a bottle of wine and an empty glass, clearly drunk. "So this is where the party went to," she said in a slurred voice.
Alexandra tensed and started to get up.
Arthur reached across the table and put a firm hand on her wrist. "Ignore her, darling," he said softly, "and she'll grow tired of the game."
Alexandra nodded, then took a deep drag off the cigarette she held in a long, jeweled holder.
"Trying to blow smoke, Alexandra?" Valerie said disdainfully. "As if you could just blow me away?"
Alexandra gave her a look that would freeze lava.
"Ignore her, darling," Arthur reminded his wife.
"Why don't you just make me disappear, Arthur?" Valerie taunted. "You used to, you know. Every night, as part of the act, you'd make the lady disappear. Why don't you do it now?"
"Your bid, Doyle," Kennedy prompted.
Arthur looked at his cards. "Two clubs."
Alicia Coventry came into the parlor, looking around chairs and under tables.
"Lose something, Alicia?" Dan called.
"My mother misplaced her stole," she said, glancing around the overstuffed couch. "Have you seen it? It's emerald green, and beaded..."
"Green, the color of envy," Valerie pronounced dramatically. "The color of Alexandra's eyes, too."
Rosalie sighed. The woman really was becoming annoying. "Three diamonds."
Alexandra looked at her cards. "Four clubs."
Kennedy looked at his hand. "Too rich for me. Pass."
"Most of the people in this room are too rich for me," Valerie said as she continued to make a spectacle of herself. "Poor little Arthur got seduced by dollar signs."
Arthur frowned. "Pass."
"Pass," Rosalie said. "Looks like you're the dummy, Doyle."
"Oh, he's no dummy," Valerie laughed. "He married Madame Moneybags over there. And left his poor little assistant to fend for herself."
"That's it," Alexandra declared. "I've had it. Arthur, you can play my hand. I'm going to bed." She got up and left the room.
"Mm-m," Margo said in a slurred voice as she stretched. "Bed. That does sound like a good idea."
Lamont once again shook his head to clear it. Maybe turning in early would be a good thing. "Come on," he said, helping her to her feet, "I'll walk you to your room."
"And not to yours?" she giggled.
Even he was stunned by her forthright response. "Scandalous, Miss Lane. Absolutely scandalous."
"You can say that again," Valerie said, toasting them with yet another glass of wine. "Scandalous how a man can just dump his longtime love for a rich witch."
Lamont sighed. Maybe going to bed would do everyone some good. He took Margo by the arm and led her out of the room. "Good night, everyone," he said as they left.
"See you in the morning," Dan called.
Lamont had no idea how they made it down the stairs together. Margo was as tipsy as he'd ever seen her. And he was so tired even his normally keen reflexes were betraying him as he found it hard to keep his balance and hers on the stairs. Wine never had this effect on him, yet he felt absolutely thick-headed, unable to concentrate, barely able to see straight.
Somehow, they made it to her door, still upright. "Last stop," he commented, opening her door for her.
"You're not coming in?" She looked hurt.
"I don't think so. Somehow, I don't think either of us is in the mood."
"Speak for yourself." She reached up and clumsily undid his tie, then fell into his chest and giggled.
She nearly knocked him over as she did. He took her by the shoulders and gently stood her upright again. "Miss Lane, you are drunk."
"So are you, Mr. Cranston," she accused in a slurred voice.
"I am indeed. Which is why I think we should probably spend the night in our own rooms."
"Your loss." She fell against the doorframe of her cabin, then giggled again. "Good night, Lamont."
"Good night, Margo."
She closed the door, and he headed for his own cabin.
Once inside, he shucked his jacket and pulled off the tie, then unbuttoned the top buttons on his dress shirt. Or, at least, he tried to; his fingers could barely work the pearl buttons, and he nearly broke one of them off trying to get it undone. Margo was right; he was drunk. No, not drunk, he corrected himself; he was absolutely plastered. And on three glasses of wine, yet. He never got this drunk, not even after two martinis on an empty stomach.
He staggered into the bedroom and collapsed onto the bed, feeling rubber-legged and dizzy. It wasn't only intoxication he was feeling; his skin itched horribly, as if he were breaking out in hives, and his nerves felt jangled and jittery. His thoughts were whirling, but it was as if someone were clouding his mind; he couldn't focus his psychic energies enough to detect anything clearly. The closest thing he could compare it to was the time Ying Ko had taken way too much opium and tried to wash it down with a plundered stash of vodka from another warlord's palace...
That's when it hit him like a brick wall. My God, I've been drugged.
The room spun violently around him as he blacked out.
(End of Part One)