The steamy Puerto Rican air slapped Eric Peterson in the face as the sliding door automatically opened. He hesitated at the sudden temperature change, before he proceeded outside into the heat of the upper deck of the ship. Leaning on the rail, the sun beating down on the back of his neck, he scanned the diorama from the dock area to old town San Juan.
The old and the new intermingled amongst the ongoing construction, forming an interesting panorama. He wished he’d come in a day or two earlier to tour the area. He’d only received the information on the assignment a few days ago. He needed to get up to speed before the cruise ship sailed.
Eric turned his attention to the dock below, where boarding had commenced. A staggered line of passengers shuffled toward the main gangway.
His gaze snapped back to two women who stopped briefly for the ship’s photographer. The older woman was well dressed in a white, semi-tailored skirt and a pinkish blouse. She wore her silver hair in an elegant bun at the base of her neck. The jewelry around her neck and her wrist sparkled as it caught the sun’s rays, magnifying the light, shooting it back toward the sky. He had no doubt they were diamonds, probably high quality. If she was trying to draw attention to herself, she was certainly going to accomplish it.
Jewels were one of his areas of expertise and the main reason he’d managed to pull this assignment. That, and the short time he’d spent as a medic in the army.
His eyes lingered on the younger woman. She shone like a jewel in her own right--white-blonde, shoulder-length hair, gleamed in the sunlight. Her green colored sundress fit her body, revealing the promise of well-rounded breasts and a tiny waistline.
A strong desire to meet this attractive young woman gripped him.
He’d never felt anything like this before. He gave himself a mental shake.
It’s probably the motion of the ship. Yeah, that, or I’m just plain horny. It’s been awhile since I scored.
Eric’s continued to observe her as she proceeded up the gangway. The sundress she wore was some kind of soft material that draped and clung to that perfectly proportioned figure. He wondered if the color of the dress matched her eyes.
She glanced upward, smiling. He felt she was smiling just for him. Eric smiled back, resisting an urge to wave. This assignment was looking better and better. He watched her disappear through the entrance.
Work was his life. He was damn good at it and respected by his peers. To him, women were an enjoyable pastime. A smile flickered across his face. Yes, they were enjoyable, but that was all. He’d never let any woman interfere with his work. That’s why it had been awhile since he’d been with anyone.
Eric’s attitude toward women was based on what they could do for him. Usually it was sex, but occasionally they could help him with his job, like this time.
He glanced back toward the gangway, but the two women had disappeared. An elderly man with a cane had replaced them.
Disappointment slipped over him. This was a feeling that he knew well, although it wasn’t one he normally associated with women.
Because of his background and upbringing, he’d decided years ago that he wanted a career, with no strings or attachments, and no permanent involvements. He’d even taken a vow when he was in college, to remain single--though not celibate--his entire life. He had seen far too many bad marriages to even consider the possibility. It wasn’t in the cards for him.
Besides, there were too many beautiful girls to charm. It would take a lifetime to get around to most of them. And none of them wanted their man to be away on dangerous missions after they were married. They wanted a stay at home, family-orientated husband.
That left him out of the picture.
No, he was independent, happy to travel to different parts of the world, playing different roles, depending on his assignment. He had no one to worry about but himself. He had no intention of ever changing his lifestyle, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t meet and enjoy the company of a beautiful blonde.
Eric strode back to the sliding glass door. When it opened, it was the cool inside air that blasted him. He didn’t hesitate and stepped quickly inside. He chose the stairs instead of the elevator. He hurried down the steps, running his hand over the teak railings. He enjoyed the feel of the well-crafted wood. They were polished to a mirror-like shine with brass accents.
He took the steps two at a time and arrived at the main lobby area within minutes. Stopping before the last few stairs he paused where he had a good view of both the entrance and the lobby. It gave him a clear view of the passengers who boarded.
He relaxed against the wall and scanned the entire room. There was no sign of the blonde in the green sundress. She must have gone to her cabin. Slightly disappointed, he looked back to the entrance and skimmed over each person entered.
The passengers would appreciate the lobby with the huge teardrop crystal chandelier hanging over the comfortable pink sofas and glass coffee tables. Large bouquets of colorful arranged flowers in hues of pink and purple and blue sat on the corner tables. It had that welcome-to-my-home feeling.
A couple burst into the room. The man wore red plaid shorts, a yellow and orange floral shirt, brown socks, and black shoes. A straw hat was smashed onto his head, and a camera with a large lens swung around his neck. His large paw-like hand clutched an economy, used to be white, handkerchief, which he used to mop his florid face.
“Hurry up, Myra. Don’t take all day. We don’t want to waste any time. Not at these prices.” He yelled at the woman behind him.
A short, thin woman shuffled through the entrance, a dozen steps behind him.
She wore a large, lime-green tee shirt with the map of Alabama on the front. It hung over a pair of brown cotton shorts, one size too small. A red scarf was tied over her mousy brown hair. She carried a humungous green plastic purse hooked over her shoulder. Large black sunglasses perched partway down her nose.
They both carried huge shopping bags that kept banging first into each other, then into the crew who were there to welcome them. An air of not--so--quiet desperation hung over them.
“So, where the hell do we go now?”
“Welcome aboard, sir. Do you have your boarding passes?” One of the female crewmembers asked.
“Yeah, yeah, you got them Myra?”
“Yes, George, I think so.” The woman put down her shopping bag, slipping the large green plastic handbag from her shoulder and balanced the bag on her knee. She started to fumble through it, yanking out a comb, then a pocket book, then shoving them back again, pushing things around inside the bag with her hands.
“I know I got them somewhere, George. Hold on, I think it’s here.” She wiped her forehead with a fist then dove back into the bag again.
“Damn it, Myra. I gave them to you so as you could hold them, not lose the damn things. You can’t ever find anything in that damn purse of yours.”
“Here they are.” She pulled them triumphantly out of her bag.
“It’s about time, damn it. I can’t depend on you for anything, gimme.” He grabbed the boarding passes and shoved them at the crewmember.
“Here, so, where the hell do we go now?”
The woman crewmember read the passes. “You’re cabin is to the right sir, on the main deck.”
“Okay, fine, hotshot, how do we get there?” The man mopped his face.
“The porter will show you.” She waved, and a porter appeared in front of them.
“Welcome aboard, sir. Follow me and I’ll escort you to your cabin. Can I carry anything for you, sir?” The porter flashed a bright smile.
“Y’r damn right, here take these bags.” The man shoved the shopping bags at the porter.
The man, George, sighed loudly. “I don’t know, Myra. I don’t know why people keep saying cruising is so great. Damn it, give me Nashville any day.”
“Once you’re settled in, sir, I’m sure you’ll enjoy the cruise.” The porter headed toward the corridor, with the couple shuffling along behind him.
“They took the damn passports, too. Damn it, Myra, I don’t know why a United States citizen should have to carry a passport on a cruise. You didn’t need one to go to Nashville. And then when you arrive at the damn ship they take it away from you. What the hell are they going to want from us next?”
Eric smiled. He could relate to these people. Maybe not the outfits they wore, or the man’s negativism, but the unknown. This was Eric’s first time on a cruise ship also.
He shifted his position and continued to watch passengers entering in a slow, steady stream. Many were well-dressed, wealthy passengers.
The right corner of his upper lip curled upward into a sneer. In his experience, the wealthy were mostly leeches and bloodsuckers, who took from society and gave nothing in return. They were too wrapped up in their own importance, separated from any vestige of the real world.
His father had worked for such a man when they lived in Switzerland. Eric had gone to school with his son, Philippe. Because of that, he’d had to cope with on-going public humiliation because of Philippe and his superior attitude toward the middle class and the poor. Philippe had been a snob and a real prick, taking great delight in pointing out Eric’s class distinction to everyone.
Eric’s smile was tinged with bitterness. He preferred the couple from Alabama. They were down-to-earth, real people. They looked like they were from a small farm somewhere out in the country. They may have been dressed in their brilliant floral shirts right off the souvenir shop rack, accompanied by those clashing Bermuda shorts, but they were real.
He might smile at their typical tourist appearance--the big camera slung around the man’s neck--but Eric had more respect for them than he did for the nouveau riche. He respected people who worked hard for their money. They were usually family-oriented and contributed to their community. They were the ones that kept a country together.
He shifted his position again, unconsciously pulling his shoulders back and tightening his abdomen. A tall, leggy, redhead with large breasts sidled through the main doorway. He found himself admiring a pair of shapely legs that seemed to go forever until they finally joined with an equally shapely body, most of which was displayed for the public to appreciate. She wore a pair of brief, tight white shorts and a sleeveless black tee shirt with a low cut V-neck. Her designer sunglasses hung from the V of her t-shirt.
The woman paused. She surveyed the room with a lazy gaze. She stopped to look at Eric an smiled. She bent down, supposedly to tie the shoelace on one of her runners. She wasn’t wearing a bra. She didn’t need one, and he appreciated the large, firm breasts that were exposed to him--and anyone else who wanted to look. Little was left to his imagination.
Eric felt his body respond. He smiled in appreciation. She straightened up and looked in his direction. She tilted her head to one side and made direct eye contact. She smiled an invitation in his direction and waited expectantly. He knew she expected him to come over and introduce himself. He doubted if many men ever refused her invitation.
He held the eye contact and struggled with himself. It was a tempting offer. Eric started to take that first step and then jerked back. He was interested, but he wanted to wait and check out the other women who came on board. He wouldn’t have much spare time, and he wanted to spend it wisely. Red was certainly near the top of his list at the moment, right behind the petite blonde.
He returned her smile and imperceptibly shook his head. She shrugged and glided across the room to the elevator, hips swaying invitingly.
God, the way she moves promises so much. I must be a fool to turn it down.
She stopped in front of the elevator door, glanced over her shoulder to make sure he was watching. She licked her finger and ran it over her lower lip. When he still didn’t respond, she shrugged again. She gave him a slight wave and she stepped inside the elevator. The doors closed in front of her.
Eric continued to stare at the closed doors, remembering the beautiful, exciting view when she bent down to tie her shoe. He hoped he hadn’t made a damn mistake. It wouldn’t take her long to find a man that showed more interest than he had.
This could definitely be his best assignment yet, but it didn’t look like he was going to have any time to enjoy it. If he did manage to find a little time for the pleasures of life, his gut told him he would prefer to find that attractive young blonde and get to know her a better.
Eric grinned to himself. If he wanted to keep his job he’d better find the man, or woman, he was here to catch. Interpol had been working this case for months with nothing to show for it but some angry victims. This latest tip was the best thing they had come up with since the case started. He needed to review the passenger list again and identify his top suspects. He was sure the tip was solid. They were close. He would get them this time.
He turned back to the entrance in time to see a tall, swarthy, gentleman, probably in his mid to late thirties, saunter into the room. The hairs on the back of Eric’s neck stood on end and an electric shiver gripped his spine, creeping down vertebrae by vertebrae, as he observed the man.
A snake, the man reminded him of a well-oiled snake, ready to strike.
With his olive skin and black hair, slicked back, he was probably Latino.
His perfectly pressed white slacks and a white short-sleeved, designer golf shirt with a green and gold crest over the pocket looked expensive. The golf shirt was open at the neck revealing a thick gold chain. A navy cardigan hooked on one finger, hung casually over his shoulder. He carried a Pierre Cardin gym bag in one hand with his tennis racquet attached to the side.
The man nodded to the crew. He appeared familiar with them. It wasn’t his first cruise. He shook his head at the porter who approached.
Before leaving the area he moved to a corner on Eric’s left, opposite the entrance. He also had a clear view of the people who milled around the lobby, as well as those still coming on board.
He stood quietly, surveying the passengers, much as Eric was doing.
Eric watched the man skip quickly over the ordinary tourists. He concentrated only on the well-dressed passengers. Those who appeared to have money. The man’s eyes narrowed as he spotted a middle-aged lady wearing a diamond necklace and matching bracelet.
Interesting; I wonder whether he’s searching for women or jewelry or both. And what does he plan to do with whatever he finds?
Eric continued to observe the man, trying to read his mind, curious about his reasons for being aboard. He wasn’t here for the cruise, Eric was sure of that. He would have loved the older woman in the diamonds Eric had seen earlier.
What was his game? Was he a gigolo?
The swarthy gentleman appeared to be a man with a purpose. There was something about him...it bothered Eric. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it. He searched his memory for anything that might have showed up on the pre-sailing search, but nothing popped.
He’d check with Mickey later and see who the guy was and what his purpose was on the ship.
After a few more minutes, the man turned, proceeding quickly down the closest corridor.
Eric stepped down into the lobby and walked down the opposite corridor on the right--no that’s the starboard side of the ship. He needed to start using ship talk.
He checked his watch before he proceeded slowly along the corridor, becoming familiar with the ship’s layout. He moved meticulously up the ship, one deck at a time.
The corridors were longer than any hotel corridor where he had stayed. The ship had to be the size of two or three large hotels, at least. On the eighth deck he noticed the cabin style changing, becoming larger, with more window space and balconies. These were the suites.
On deck nine, the Bridge deck, were the most expensive suites: the owners’ suite and the four family suites. At the end of that corridor, with doors tightly closed, was the Royal Suite: the largest and most expensive accommodation onboard. This was the one he was particularly interested in checking out. If there were going to be any thefts, it would probably be here.
He stopped in front of the solid oak door, staring at the elegant paneling. He wondered who would be staying behind those closed doors.
Eric checked his watch again, and realized he was officially on duty. He raced down the hall, and punched the elevator button. He didn’t want to start his assignment off by being late. Not when he was already concerned about whether the woman, who knew his real reason for being here, was going to accept her role and support him or sabotage him.