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Twenty miles off Land's End, England, 1 a.m., April 4th

It took twenty minutes via helicopter to fly from any one of the Scilly Islands to Penzance. Benjamin Pike had spent the first half of this relatively short trip convinced that the man sitting next to him intended to kill him before they arrived. It had been an excruciating, regret-filled ten minutes. Regrets made all the more painful because if he could have gotten to Penzance, he'd have made them right. He'd have talked to Max, told her everything. Fearing her anger or outright rejection wasn't a good enough reason to hold back, nor was it fair to her.

In the midst of his self recriminations, he spotted the lights of Cornwall's coast, appearing like bright, tiny gems on jewelers' velvet, and hope sparked in his chest. If they planned to kill him, surely they'd have done it by now.

He glanced at Tommy. His large, round head rested against the back of his seat and his arms were folded across his broad chest. It was too dark for Ben to make out his face, and he wondered if the man had fallen asleep.

By shifting, he was able to peer between the two seats in front and could make out the pilot's profile, cast in an eerie shade of green from the glow of the craft's instruments-the slash of a nose, the ubiquitous toothpick now gripped steady between his teeth. Krett seemed intent on flying the craft.

No, Ben decided, if these men had orders to kill him, he'd be sinking into the Atlantic by now, and his escorts would be on their way back to the island like a flight crew returning from a successful mission.

He ran a hand through his thick, white hair and wiped at the dampness accumulating on the back of his neck. Strange to be sweating a thousand feet above the ground in a helicopter without any doors. His face was numb with cold. He wiped his hand against his khakis, drew in a deep breath and expelled it. What if he had died without being able to explain any of this to Max? He clenched a fist and wrapped his other hand around it. He needed to call her as soon as he could get to a phone. Ask her to come here. Insist on it this time. She'd be confused at first, perhaps angry, but she had to understand how her destiny and the stone's were entwined. As was his. He refused to believe otherwise.

The helicopter bumped over some turbulence and Ben squeezed his eyes shut. He put himself back on the island, imagining what he'd say when he returned. Why had Murdoch been in such a damned hurry to get him off the island? He couldn't have known Ben's plans. Could he? Damn. He was so close. Thirty years, and it had finally come together like the pieces of a miraculous puzzle. He'd found the final piece-seen it, touched it. He could make it whole.

If only he'd gotten past Murdoch, Ben knew he could have explained. He believed in a world where reasonable minds prevailed. There had to be a way to recover.

After he called Max, he would call Antony. Within two hours, they'd be on their way back to the island. With any luck, they'd be there by morning. Murdoch would wait until then to report Ben's alleged misdeed.

Ben sucked in a deep breath and released it slowly. He visualized the stone, imagined holding it, feeling its warmth. Its greens danced and vacillated, cloaking the flame within. Consider your advantages, he told himself. Work from there.

Beside him, Tommy shifted his bulk and dropped his hands into his lap. Ben glanced out the door. It took a moment for him to re-establish his bearings, and when he did he knew something was wrong. They were still out over the water. England was on the right. They were heading north rather than east toward Penzance. Why? What was north? . . . Wales was north. He tried to swallow, but his throat constricted. Rhys Lewis lived in Wales. They weren't taking him to Penzance. They weren't going to kill him. They were taking him to Rhys Lewis first.

Ben's thoughts spiraled toward the inevitable outcome of that encounter. Once Lewis had Ben, he'd be able to control Max. Ben couldn't let that happen.

He glanced at Tommy, who perhaps was not here to kill Ben, merely subdue him. They weren't expecting him to go quietly. Despite the man's current state of repose, Ben knew that Tommy would enthusiastically thwart any attempts he made to hijack the helicopter. Which, he realized, was what he had to do. Soon.

When he looked at Tommy again, Ben saw that his head now rested on his shoulder. He had to be asleep. A plan formed. It was a desperate plan, but there were no sane ones available. If he could get his hands on Tommy's gun, he could threaten Tommy with it, forcing Krett to take him to Penzance. The hell with Penzance. Just get him down on Cornwall soil.

Ben's heart thudded against his chest as he worked out the logistics. Tommy carried his gun in a shoulder holster beneath his left arm. Ben had seen it when the big man's jacket flopped open as he climbed into the craft. A big chrome revolver. Ben sat to Tommy's right so he'd have to lean across his body with his right hand to reach the gun. Unfortunately, Ben was left-handed, but he could play a decent game of darts with either hand, so he knew he could maneuver well enough. But it wasn't simply a matter of slipping the gun from its holster. He'd have to undo the holster snap and pull it free. The seat belt limited his range of movement. He considered releasing it, but he was literally inches from a long fall into the ocean that would kill him as surely as a bullet in the brain. If Tommy woke in the middle of this, Ben wanted a fighting chance. The steady vibration of the helicopter might help cover his movements. A drop of sweat slid between his shoulder blades and he shivered. This was insane, he told himself. Tommy was a trained killer. But he apparently had instructions not to kill Ben. Yet.

Get on with it, he told himself. If he thought about this much longer, he'd freeze up. He'd be in Rhys Lewis's living room and it would be too late. Too late for everything.

He edged around in his seat as much as the belt would allow. After looking to make sure Krett was still occupied with flying the helicopter, he gently lifted the edge of Tommy's wool coat. The smell of must and dried sweat rose in a wave and dissipated. Beneath the jacket he wore a light-colored shirt, which allowed Ben to make out the dark mass that was the holster. Holding his breath, he reached into the jacket and felt for the butt of the gun, then the holster, found its snap and, gritting his teeth together, nudged it open. It was like flicking on a switch. Grunting his surprise, Tommy jerked his head up and locked his huge hand around Ben's wrist, twisting.

It shouldn't have been much of a contest-Tommy outweighed Ben by at least fifty pounds. But his right arm was wedged between Ben and the seat, and he was fighting to hold onto Ben and get out from under him at the same time. Ben pressed his shoulder into Tommy, gaining traction by bracing one foot against the front seat; he could feel the rumble in the big man's chest as he struggled. Ben managed to snake his free hand across Tommy's belly toward the gun.

Just as he yanked the revolver from its holster, the helicopter dropped and swerved to the left. The momentum propelled Ben forward, throwing him off balance and freeing Tommy from his pin. Before Ben could recover, Tommy had one arm wrapped around his neck, the scratchy fabric pressing hard into Ben's windpipe. He grabbed for the gun, knocking it from Ben's hand. It fell between Tommy's feet, and he had to let go of Ben in order to go after it. Ben gulped air and dove first, but his seat belt held him back. He pressed the release, and when it gave, he lunged. Tommy caught him under the chin with the toe of his boot, and Ben gagged as bolt of pain shot up his jaw. This time Tommy reached the gun first and Ben thought he heard him cackle as he picked it up. Ben seized the thick wrist with both his hands and prayed for an adrenalin rush as he tried to wrench the weapon away.

A loud report set Ben's chest on fire. He pitched backwards. Colors swam in his head and blood surged up his throat. The helicopter lurched again and then the floor fell out from under him.

Falling, he thrashed wildly, but found only air. This was wrong. He hadn't finished. There was so much to do. To witness. Then, as the universe slowed, his panic receded. He felt no pain, only release. Like letting go and feeling your muscles sigh. But still he resisted. People needed him. He hadn't finished the fight. Pikes didn't give up. No, they don't. Then he experienced a moment of piercing clarity and all the pieces tumbled into place. This was his time. Spreading his arms, Ben closed his eyes and submitted himself to his faith in a legend and in a daughter who would have to find the answers herself. And as the black water rushed to him, he prayed that she wouldn't come to despise him for what he'd given her.

Hardcover: 483 pages
Publisher: Five Star (ME) (June 10, 2005)
ISBN: 1594142890