The night was dark as charcoal. No moon. No stars. Just black. The cabin of the private jet was just the opposite: soft white tones framed by faux mahogany wood. The lights had been dimmed so the occupants could get some rest on their trans-Atlantic flight. Lara felt comfortable; she felt secure.
As her vision dimmed a tall man appeared and placed a blanket over her and pulled it up to her chin. She leaned her face against his hand and it caressed her cheek affectionately. She could smell the linen of his dress shirt and the faintest hint of expensive cologne.
“Thank you Daddy,” Lara whispered.
“Sleep tight Lara. We’ll soon be back home.” Through the narrow slits of her heavy eyelids she saw her father sit next to her mother and wrap his arm around her shoulders. She rested her head against his chest and smiled. Everything was as it should be.
Her family was returning from a month’s vacation in North America. She had marveled at the immensity of the pyramids in Teotihuacán, Mexico. She had explored the grandeur of the national parks of Canada and the United States. And just before returning home she had spent a whole day in the Smithsonian. Before leaving each site she had begged to have more time to look around. There was so much more to see! A month for an entire continent did not suffice. The trip had opened her eyes to the real breadth of the world she lived in. It kindled a desire in her to know the world.
Thinking about all she had seen and imagining all that she would see when she was older kept Lara from sleeping. She looked at her mother and father. They were so beautiful. Her father glanced at her and she pretended to shift position in her sleep to avoid letting him see that she was awake. One of the little games nine-year-olds are apt to play. She looked out the window at the black night. A light caught her eye, a tiny spark. Another followed.
Then the fire started.
She could see it engulf the wing through her window. The blackness was replaced by light. Awful flames. Voices were shouting. She was shouting. The plane was spinning. Her mother was thrown to the floor. Her father could not get to her. Neither of them could get to Lara.
And then blackness again.
But this was different. There was a shape in the blackness, even darker than black itself. It shifted position around Lara. It darted at her. Lara could feel her stomach tighten; her body tensed for the onslaught. But nothing happened. Nothing physical at least. But in that shape Lara could feel a malice and a madness. No. Please God no.
Slowly the darkness faded.
Lara's breath came in staccato gasps. Reflexively she clamped a hand down on her chest as if to strangle her fear. Her skin was cold and damp under the cotton tank top she was wearing. For a while she kept her eyes fastened shut, not wanting to face the possibility that her dream had in fact been reality. A few minutes passed and her breathing returned to normal. Her eyes shot open as she remembered where she was. The yellowish metal walls and stiff cots in the trawler boat's dormitory were a stark contrast to Lara's plush bedroom in Surrey. But this temporary disoriented state was nothing terribly new for her.
James was sitting on the cot opposite her, elbows on his knees with his left hand propping up his head. It was a relief to see him. “Lara, you were having a nightmare.” His slim face was etched with concern.
Lara was about to defend herself but then remembered that James was her bunkmate and had probably seen her with her eyes screwed shut and her body shuddering with fear. And he had seen her have nightmares before, but that was long ago...
“Do you want to talk about it?” James easily assumed the role of confidant. Lara had forgotten how much she missed that. The way they used to talk. He knew her so well. He still does, but this I can't talk about. Not with him. I'm sorry James.
She sat up in her sleeping bag and squeezed her forehead with her thumb and middle finger. “I've been having trouble sleeping.”
“That much is obvious. Why?”
“I don't know.” A lie. Lara quickly changed the subject. “Where's Caruso?”
“At the helm. This little tug won't drive itself.” James' concerned face broke ever so slightly into a smile. “He says we have another day before we reach the wreck.”
The word 'wreck' sent a small shiver down her spine. Lara tried to shake the feeling of darkness in that word. It was odd really, she had never associated that word with darkness until now. “Be a dear and make up some coffee if you would.”
“Sure.” James turned and ducked out of the confines of the dormitory.
“Black.” Lara called after him. Lara could already tell it was going to be a long day. Once he was gone she slid out of the sleeping bag and walked over to the small sink fastened to the wall near the hatch. She flicked on a bare bulb and looked at herself in the mirror. In between the cracks and chips and spiderweb pattern of rust she could make out the foreign face that was becoming all too familiar. Her eyes were sunken and hollow; devoid of the life that normally captivated those she came in contact with. Her tan features had paled and her skin had lost its healthy glow.
“I look like hell,” she muttered to the reflection.
James appeared in the hatch. “I've got coffee.” But he didn't offer her the mug. She looked at him and then realized why he had stopped. She was only wearing her underwear and the cotton tank top and he noticed. She caught in his stare a hungry look. A look she had noticed years ago when she became old enough to know what that hunger meant.
We're past this James. There's no going back. Lara retreated to the safety of her sleeping bag and crawled inside, mug in hand. She took a sip. Her face twisted into a grimace.
“You said black.” James smiled. This time it was a full, gorgeous smile. A nonchalant, presumptuous smile. He sat down on the cot at the foot of her sleeping bag and kept grinning that same giddy smile.
“James...things can't be...”
“Like they were. I know, I know,” James nodded immediately. He stood and began to leave. “You don't ever think about those days?”
“All the time,” Lara began. Her expression was demure. “That's why it's so hard.”
James nodded again and disappeared through the hatch. Lara finished the coffee before leaving the safety of her sleeping bag. She donned a yellow neoprene jacket and black nylon trousers. Before venturing out into the hall she checked herself in the mirror once more. As she moved to the hatch a feeling of danger pressed itself into her consciousness. Lara had learned from her earliest days as a tomb raider to give these lingering instincts serious thought. But the feeling remained elusive.
Lara walked slowly to the duffel under her bunk and ruffled through it until her hands grasped a familiar series of nylon straps: her gun belt. She pulled one of her pistols, an H&K USP .40, from the belt and ejected the magazine. She counted the bullets and then rammed the magazine back into the grip. Slowly, methodically, Lara slid the action back and watched almost fascinated as a bullet slid into the chamber. Something moved in the hall and Lara quickly slid the pistol into the small of her back underneath the neoprene jacket.
The feeling passed and she ventured into the hall. James was waiting at the steep stairs that led up to the deck. “Is everything alright?” he asked.
“Why do you ask?”
“You look a little on edge.”
“I'm a tomb raider James, that's what keeps me alive.”
James leaned over her. “But we're not in a tomb, are we?” His tone was one of mock condescension.
Lara smiled weakly and pushed past him up the stairs. The sharp Atlantic wind topside forced her to zip the neoprene jacket up to her chin. When James arrived on deck he did likewise with his hooded parka. The sun had not yet peeked over the horizon but there were traces of light touching the feathery cirrus clouds high above. The ocean was rolling but calm enough for them to deploy the minisub when the time came. If the weather holds. Lara thought wryly, remembering Joaquim Alonso's account of the freak storm that had sunk the Conceição.
The pair made their way along the deck wet with spray to the wheelhouse. Lara pulled her braid from the recesses of her jacket before entering. In contrast to the broken-down appearance of the fifty-foot trawler's exterior, the wheelhouse had been transformed into a modern command center. Two wide laptops in thick kevlar cases sat astride the old ship's wheel. A small satellite receiver was pointed out the window. A third electronic device sat closed on the floor.
Ryan was at helm and it looked as though he had been all night. His shoulders sagged under the thick knit turtleneck he was wearing. But he still possessed that same air of rigid discipline she had noticed at their first meeting. He turned slightly as the door snapped shut. He gave a nod to the pair and resumed piloting.
Lara noted that his build was more muscular than she had at first supposed. The suit and overcoat had masked his broad shoulders and chest. His arms and torso stretched at the fabric of his turtleneck. The V-form of his physique gave the feeling of something solid. Lara found him at once more attractive and more dangerous. His steel blue eyes caught Lara's and she realized she'd been staring.
“We're about twenty hours away,” Ryan said as he glanced at a GPS monitor on one of the laptops. “Can you take the helm? I'm going to get some shuteye.” He let go of the wheel before she could even reply. Lara caught it and checked the bearing as Ryan left the wheelhouse without another sound. James leaned against the bulkhead to Lara's right.
“He seems like a nice chap,” he said somewhat sarcastically.
“He's tired,” Lara returned. “Life's a bugger when you're tired.”
Ryan sat down heavily on his cot in the dormitory. Being sleepy was not the problem. It was the stress that wore him out. He had taken every precaution but precautions had been taken before and so much had still been lost. Worst of all, the most unpredictable variable was the woman he needed the most cooperation from.
His thoughts turned to her. How much longer did she have? He could already see it beginning in that beautiful face of hers. She was strong but she had no clue what she was up against.
He peeled off his turtleneck and trousers and slid into a sleeping bag. He lay staring at the ceiling for a long time; sleep would not come. He shut his eyes, but in that self-inflicted darkness there were only faces. Faces he did not want to see but that he could not shut out. They were seared into his mind. And now he had one more: Lara's. It was so similar...
The onset of unconsciousness took him all at once, like a wave. At first there was nothing, but sure enough shapes and shadows began to tighten up and take form. It happened so often Ryan could even predict it in his subconscious. First, the road would appear. Off to the left was Tidal Basin. Cherry blossoms hung thick over its surface. Dusk was turning the Potomac into running gold.
Natalie was sitting in the seat next to him. Her long, chestnut hair rolled down onto her shoulders. She turned and smiled at him. His heart leapt a little. Even after three years of marriage she could still do that to him. He glanced down at her stomach. She was getting big; another month and she was due. That thought forced his heart into his stomach.
Then the other car would appear. It was around this time that he noticed that his own car was not moving. He had been noticing a snapshot of time, frozen in his mind. The next moments were always fast. Too fast. The other car veered out of its lane into his hitting him head on. He was thrown against the seatbelt. Instantaneously the dark figure was beside Natalie. Carlos was there. Ryan's fists clenched. He tore at the seatbelt but he could not get free. Natalie got out of the car. No! Don't! Not her, not her!
Then everything would slow down again. Too slow. Natalie walked toward the Potomac. Ryan screamed, he tore at his own flesh as if to rip himself out of the car. She walked forward, inexorably into the water. Everything so slow. Bit by bit she disappeared below that golden surface, that water that had been beautiful only moments before. Come back, he would whisper. But she could not hear him. She was below the surface.
And then she was gone.
Ryan bolted upright on the cot. Clutched in his extended left hand was his Glock 18, safety off. He never knew how it got there, but it always did. Like some sick practical joke tempting him to use it. Not yet. Not till the war is over.