The trawler stood out like a jewel on an endless expanse of rolling black velvet. Its deck was illumined by the glare of two floodlights mounted on the wheelhouse. The laptops in the wheelhouse cast electric reflections on the glass. The air was still and deathly quiet.
Lara was situated by the minisub's control console next to the helm. From there she could see James and Ryan working by the minisub. It was actually more of a robot, barely above three feet in length and another foot in width. Two many-jointed arms protruded at either side of the small plexiglass dome housing the guidance camera. One of the arms ended in a large clamp, the other held a welding torch. At the back of the yellow plastic body was a small prop and rudder. After performing a thorough check of the minisub Ryan and James hoisted it over the stern of the trawler and lowered it into the water.
Lara took over immediately, guiding the device downward. The visual was grainy and dark but she had been down this way before. With quick taps on the control surfaces she angled the minisub to avoid being carried off course by the underwater currents. James and Ryan entered the wheelhouse eager to see what progress had been made. Lara did not turn, she was focused on finding the Conceição. With only the sub's searchlight in the pitch black sea she needed a spot of luck and needed to be ready to jump on that luck. I'm coming Paul.
“There!” James nearly shouted as he thrust a triumphant finger at the corner of the video display.
Lara simply nodded. Despite the cold night air filling the room she could feel sweat beading on her forehead. She unzipped her jacket and wiped her palms on her cotton shirt, one hand at a time. The ship grew larger and larger in the view screen. The sub's searchlight played off the coral embedded in the timbers. The familiar entrance filled Lara's view. With forced calm she led the sub down the deck and into the hold. She knew exactly where it was.
She could never forget.
Another tap at the controls placed the chained box containing the Idol in her view screen. “Is that it?” James asked. Again, Lara nodded silently. She pushed forward on the controls and brought the sub within two feet of the box. Her right hand shifted seamlessly to the arm controls. Her thumb flipped the switch for the torch arm and began to move the blue light over the chains. They were caked with lime and yielded quickly. Lara held her breath as the box fell free and drifted to the bottom of the hold.
“Careful,” Ryan cautioned.
“Yes sir,” Lara returned. Her tone was tense, clipped. Her hands came back to the controls and guided the sub to the Idol's new resting place. Let's get this over with. As she neared the box her spine began to tingle. But it was not the gratifying sensation she often had when a difficult find was finally in her grasp. It was painful. It worked its way to her neck and up until it seemed to be compressing her skull. Her ears began to ring and she could feel the blood throbbing in her temples. Her hands came off the controls and clutched at her head. “Oh, God! Make it stop!”
“What's wrong?” James was already pulling her away from the controls.
“Get her down below!” Ryan ordered. “I'll take care of this.”
“That's bloody kind of you after putting her under so much stress!”
“Just do it!” Ryan's steel blue eyes were lit with fire. Lara began to thrash around, her hands clawing at her forehead. One of her fingernails drew blood.
“I can't hold her! Ryan, give me a hand!” James shouted. Ryan turned from the controls and clamped his hands on Lara's arms. She convulsed more violently. Ryan was surprised at her strength. This isn't normal, he thought. Why should she react this way now? He twisted her arms downward and in almost to their breaking point. This was not the way he preferred to do it but he needed her attention, now. Lara gasped and stopped thrashing momentarily. He fixed her eyes with his own and looked long and hard. What are you up to? Ryan whispered something that James could barely hear and Lara went limp.
“Get her down below,” Ryan ordered again, this time more reverently. “Strap her down if you have to but keep her immobile.” This time James complied. Carefully he carried Lara from the wheelhouse.
Ryan returned to the minisub controls and fixed the clamp arm around the box. He guided the device through the confines of the ship as quickly as caution would allow. Once back in open water Ryan relaxed a little. Out of curiosity he flipped open the nearest laptop and accessed the radar feed. I guess that explains it. What he saw forced his heart to his stomach. The momentary relief he had felt was replaced by distress. He was not in open water yet.
James laid Lara carefully on her cot. Her face was ashen but her breathing had returned to normal. “Come on Lara. Pull through this,” James whispered.
Lara's eyes fluttered open. “Stop ordering me around.”
James smiled weakly. A tear fell down from his cheek. “You gave us a real scare there.”
“You know better than to worry about me James,” Lara chided. She placed her hand on the back of his neck. The memory of that first kiss on the banks of the Nile, the way he used to hold her, was still fresh in her mind. Why did it have to be like this? Why not make things like they were? Lara questioned. She looked into those silver-blue eyes. He returned her look and it seemed as if he were asking himself the exact same questions. Now Lara remembered why she'd been avoiding James for the past year. Whenever they were together she couldn't help but want to be close to him again.
“Ryan wants me to strap you down.” James smiled that giddy smile of his.
“I'll bet he would like that,” Lara returned the smile.
“I don't really like him,” James whispered. He leaned a little closer to Lara.
“He's a necessary evil,” Lara made no effort to move away.
“You think so?” James felt himself drawn to her. Slowly, tentatively, he closed that gap that had seemed so vast, so insurmountable, weeks before. He kissed her. She did not resist. Lara felt the flood of memories wash over her. The fear that had possessed her moments before seemed like only a distant nightmare. She wanted to lose herself in the moment, but James pulled back and as he did so that vast chasm between them seemed to reappear. “I'll go help Ryan.” James left without a backward glance. He couldn't look back.
Ryan worked furiously to free the box from the clutches of the minisub. He could not pull the minisub back on deck, nor could he just release the clamp on the arm from the control console for fear the box would plummet back to the depths. Normally, one person would release the controls while the other secured the item. But Ryan did not have time for this to be a two man job.
The sun was beginning to rival the glare of the floodlights as Ryan took a crowbar to the first of the three locks. Having to lean over the side of the boat gave him limited leverage and every time he pressed against the metal of the box it shifted away. Ryan swore under his breath and hacked at the lock. It came free. He repeated the process with the other two locks.
Hesitantly, he pried the lid back as best he could. He reached in and felt the cold metal of the bottom of the box. It was empty. No. No, it can't be... Ryan pulled out his hand and struck at the box repeatedly with the palm of his hand. “Come on! Where are you?” He struck it once more and heard a rattling sound. It sounds just like...maybe it is. Ryan slid his hand back into the box. He traced along the edge of the bottom until his index finger found a hole. A false bottom, of course! He lifted the thin metal sheet and his hand collided with the Idol. The sensation filled him with an exciting foreboding.
“Do you need some help?” A voice asked behind him. He turned to see James.
“No,” Ryan pulled the Idol free, grimacing as the lid sliced his hand. “I'll just put this down below and we'll be ready to make way.” Ryan said with feigned calm. He pushed past James none too gently and went for the stairs.
What is he up to? James moved to follow but a flashing in the wheelhouse caught his eye. It was the radar display. It showed two blips closing on the ship, and closing fast. “What the hell?” James muttered.
Lara was pondering what had just happened between her and James when a beeping sound intruded on her thoughts. It was her satellite phone. Lara reached into the duffel bag under her cot and pulled it out. She did not recognize the number.
“Miss Croft,” the voice was unfamiliar. “I have a message for you.”
“Who are you? How did you get this number?”
“Who I am is unimportant. Where the information I am about to give you came from is unimportant. What is important is how you act on this information. The American, Ryan Caruso, cannot be trusted. His claim to work for American Intelligence is a lie.”
“And why should I trust you?” Lara's tone was clipped. It often became so when dealing with manipulators.
“That is unimportant. Consider this a confirmation of your suspicions.” The line went dead. Lara sat still for a moment, her mind abruptly thrown into overdrive. Who could possibly know...? Unfortunately for Lara that question was too open-ended. Over the years she had become a magnet for mysterious men; some of it a result of her own doing, some of it not. That this unidentified caller knew she had suspicions about the American made her all the more so. Ryan had never given her overt cause to doubt him but perhaps that was the surest sign that something was wrong. Who could she trust? It was a dilemma she faced much more often than she would have liked. Lara rolled off the cot and headed topside. True or false she needed to find Ryan Caruso. She practically knocked James over as she emerged from the stairway.
“He's down below. I think you should see something.” James pulled her to the side of the boat and placed some large binoculars in her hands. “Just off the port quarter.”
Lara could see two speedboats perhaps thirty feet in length charging toward them.
Lara estimated that they would arrive in only a few minutes.
“Who do you think they are?” James queried.
“I have a feeling Caruso knows.” Lara turned and descended. “Keep an eye on our friends,” Lara added over her shoulder. Down in the cramped passage Lara remained silent, waiting. Tough experience had taught her that rushing into things often led to disaster. She heard the sound of heavy plastic cases being moved in the storage room towards the stern. Lara pulled the semi-automatic from her waistband and crept towards the hatch. Inside she could see Ryan working at a frenzied pace. Doing what she could only guess.
“Who are you?”
Ryan turned slowly as if sensing she had a gun trained on him. “What do you mean?”
“You don't work for American Intelligence.”
“Lara--.” Ryan began to stand. Lara clicked off the thumb safety.
“You will stay where you are thank you.” Ryan complied. “I received a phone call--.” She was cut off by the sound of feet rushing around on the deck above her. What sounded like a scuffle ensued.
“Miss Croft?” A familiar icy voice came from the stairwell. “Bring the Idol or I'll be forced to hurt yet another one of your friends.” The tone of voice itself was not threatening but the threat was. Lara had seen what had been done to Paul.
“Where's the Idol?” Lara asked Ryan. He gestured to the black case to his left. “Hand it over, slowly.” Her tone was calm but commanding. Ryan handed her the case. She opened it and verified that it indeed was the Idol.
“You don't know who you're dealing with,” Ryan said.
“That explains why I took up with you,” Lara said mock apologetically. She spun and buried the butt of her pistol in Ryan's temple. He buckled to the ground. Lara tucked the pistol back into her waistband and steeled herself for whatever was topside.