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On Fire

By:Carla Neggers

On Fire
Carla Neggers

       Riley's only hope of clearing the old man's name lies in allying herself  with Straker. He is rude, cynical, frustrating. but they share a desire  to get at the truth. And a surprising passion that sets them both on  fire.

"You're not spending the night," Riley told him.

Straker's grey eyes levelled on her.

"Sure I am. Why else the backpack?"

Why else indeed. She should have connected the dots sooner.

"Then what?"

He shrugged.

"The morning will bring what the morning will bring."

"To hell with you, Straker. You have a plan and you know it. What is it?  Do you think Emile had something to do with the dead body? Do you think  he's going to contact me? Has already contacted me?" She thrust her  hands on her hips, in full outrage now.

"Are you going to follow me around just in case I'm up to something nefarious?"

"Nefarious?" He grinned.

"I've been in law enforcement for ten years, and I don't think I've ever used that word."

She all but sputtered.

"You listen to me. I do not need and will not tolerate a reclusive,  lunatic FBI agent with post-traumatic stress disorder in my hip pocket."

His eyes were narrowed; his body was rigid. She wasn't nervous, but she was on high alert. He said, "Two things."

"Okay."

"One, I don't have PTSD. I'd have PTSD if the guy shot his hostages.

He didn't. He shot me. So, no PTSD. "

She nodded.

"No PTSD."

"Two, you need a drink."

Caria Neggers finished writing her first book and mailed it off to an  agent four months after her first child was born. She was twenty-four  years old and so broke that she had to rent a typewriter. The agent took  her on, the book sold and since then she's become known for her wit,  humour and fast-paced stories, which regularly appear on bestseller  lists and have been translated into more than two dozen languages.



PROLOGUE:

:

Iviley St. Joe sloshed through three inches of frigid seawater. The  Encounter pitched and rolled under her, its old metal hull moaning and  creaking as it took on more water. Trapped like rats on a sinking ship,  she thought. Her stab at humor caught her by surprise-but it helped keep  her on her feet as she made her way to her grandfather.

They were in the diving compartment deep in the bowels of the ship, a  raging engine fire and catastrophic flooding cutting them off from the  rest of the crew.

After three decades at sea, the Encounter--the old minesweeper Emile  Labreque and Bennett Granger had had refitted as an oceanographic  vessel--was going down in the North Atlantic. There was nothing Riley  could do about it. More to the point, there was nothing her grandfather,  the stubborn, brilliant, visionary oceanographer Emile Labreque, could  do about it.

She grabbed his thin arm. He was seventy-five, wiry and fit, and he had to know what was happening.

He knew his ship better than anyone. He stared at the watertight door  that had shut fast against the fire and flooding, sealing them in the  bowels of the ship.

"Emile, we have to take the submersible," she shouted.

"We don't have any choice."

"I'm not going anywhere. The pumps will handle the flooding. The crew will put the fire out."

"The pumps won't do anything, and if the crew's smart, they're getting  into the life rafts now. Emile, the Encounter's sinking. If we stay  here, we'll go down with it."

He tore his arm from her grip. His dark eyes were wild, his lined,  leathery face and white hair all part of the legend that was Emile  Labreque. He took a deep breath.

"You go. Take the submersible. Get out."

"Not without you."

"I need to see to the crew."

"You can't. Even if you could get the doors open, the fire's too  intense. And if you didn't fry to a crisp, you'd drown. Sam will have to  see to the crew." Sam Cassain was the ship's captain, but Emile would  consider the Encounter and her crew his own responsibility.

Riley struggled to stay on her feet. Rats. We're trapped like rats.

She fought off panic.

"Emile-damn it, you know I'm right."

He knew. He knew better than she that the Encounter was lost. An engine  explosion, a spreading fire, a hull breach--they had only minutes.

"The submersible's only built for one," he said.                       
       
           



       

"It'll handle two. Sam would have sent out an SOS by now. The Coast  Guard's probably already on their way. They'll pick us up before we run  out of air. "

"We'll have three, maybe four hours at most."

"It'll be enough."

Emile placed a palm on the watertight door, shut his eyes a moment.

The Encounter was as famous as he was, the base for his oceanographic  research, the documentaries he'd taped, the books he'd written. Now, its  day was done.

He turned to her.

"We're out of time. Let's go."

Five hours later, Riley numbly accepted a blanket from a Coast Guard  crewman and wrapped it around herself. The crewman was saying something,  but she couldn't make out his words. She'd stopped shaking.

Her eyelids were heavy, her heart rate steady. But her hands were clammy  and very white, and she simply couldn't make out what he was trying to  tell her.

I must be in shock.

Her throat burned and ached from tension and fatigue, from gasping for  air as oxygen slowly ran out in the tiny, cramped submersible she and  Emile had shared for almost four endless hours.

"My grandfather." She didn't know if her words came out.

"How is he?"

The crewman frowned as if she'd made no sense.

"Emile--my grandfather."

"We're going to get you some help, okay?" The crewman touched her arm through the blanket. "Just hold on."

"I'm not hurt." She felt as if she were shouting, but couldn't hear her own words.

"The crew--are they all right? They made it to the lifeboats?"

"Miss St. Joe" -Something in his face, his tone, sent a stab of dread straight through her. Oh God.

"How many? How many died?"

The eyes of the nearby crew turned toward her, and she realized she must  have shouted this time. The crewman winced. He was Coast Guard all the  way. Every death at sea pained him. He said nothing, and Riley knew.  There had been deaths aboard the Encounter. Not everyone had made it off  alive.

A man yelled, and she looked up and saw three crewmen holding back Sam  Cassain. He was tall and tawny haired, a thickly built man, a firebrand,  a good captain with a propensity for mouthing off. He would speak  first, think later.

Riley saw her crewman grimace, as if he wanted to protect her from Sam's words. Too late. She could make them out clearly.

"Five died," Sam yelled.

"Five. And it's your god damned grandfather's fault. The great Emile La- breque. He's responsible. He knows it."

"Who?" Riley clenched the blanket tightly around her, her fingers rigid, her stomach lurching.

"Who died? Sam, for God's sake" -He couldn't have heard her, but he shouted, "Bennett Granger's dead.

He fried in the fire. He never had a chance to make it to the lifeboats.  Think Emile should be the one to tell your sister, your brother-inlaw? "

Riley couldn't speak. Bile rose in her throat. Bennett Granger was the  chief benefactor and co founder of the Boston Center for Oceanographic  Research. He and her grandfather had been friends for fifty years. His  grandson had married Emile's granddaughter, Riley's sister. God. Who  would tell Matthew and Sig?

"Get him out of here," her crewman shouted.

"You mark my words, Riley St. Joe," Sam said, his voice deadly.

"I warned Emile. I told him the Encounter was an old girl and we needed  to take more precautions. He wouldn't listen. His mission always came  first. Now five people are dead. That's on his shoulders, not mine."

Riley struggled to get to her feet. The crewman held her by the elbow, keeping her from going after Sam--or from passing out.

"Don't," he said softly.

"There'll be an investigation. This will all sort itself out in due time."

"But Emile--my grandfather"

"He's in the infirmary. He'll be okay."

Every part of her, mind and body, was spent. She couldn't even lick her parched lips.

"The fire was an accident. It wasn't Emile's fault.

It wasn't anybody's fault. "

The crewman made no response, but his eyes told her everything. He  agreed with Sam Cassain. He believed Emile Labreque was responsible for  the explosion and the fire that sank the Encounter and killed five  people.

Riley clutched the folds of her blanket. Bennett.

Oh, God. She wished she could start the day over and save the Encounter,  save Bennett, save the crew. But the old ship was gone, and five people  were dead, and Emile . her grandfather, she thought, was doomed.                       
       

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