Without a Trace… Chapter 40

Propped on a hammock stretched between two palm trees on the beach, Agent Smythe staked out the dive shop on the property of the Presidente Suites. A tiny microphone concealed inside the collar of his floral print shirt provided the communication link to his partner while he sipped from his virgin margarita in a plastic cup. Tinted glasses filtered the sun’s glare from his eyes while a straw hat pulled down on his forehead provided shade for his face and neck.

He swallowed the frozen drink, allowing the crushed ice concoction to melt on his tongue before he swallowed. Maintaining contact with Riker was the easy part. Getting her to stick to the script was a different matter. If Victor Mendoza was somewhere on the property, he kept himself well hidden among the mainstream crowd. And if his reputation had any semblance of truth, he wouldn’t go down without a fight. A shoot-out on the beach would be disastrous at best—and all out Armageddon at worst. With no way to control the hundreds of innocent bystanders parading on the beachfront property, a confrontation with Mendoza would lead to death, destruction, and most likely a hostage situation.

Smythe patted his shirt for his pack of cigarettes. He knew the scenario had the potential to end his career and ignite another flare-up between U.S. Law Enforcement and the Mexican Government. “Go easy,” he mumbled at the hidden mike. From a distance, he saw Riker mulling about the dive shop entrance near the docks where a dive boat floated alongside, with the name Diver’s Paradise airbrushed across the transom.

* * *

Riker pressed the transmit button on the transceiver and recorder clipped to her belt. Disguised as an MP3 player, the ubiquitous jogger’s aid could receive the signal from her partner’s unit from up to a mile away. “This is crazy,” she said with minimal movement of her lips. She’d heard Smythe’s comment loud and clear through the tiny earphone. Involving a civilian in an undercover investigation had been Smythe’s brain fart. She liked Steve Chambers as a person, but as a victim of a personal tragedy, he had the potential to do more harm than good. She ran her fingers through her hair, giving Smythe the signal she was prepared to enter the establishment and lose her visual contact.

She waited inside the shop for the owner to return to the counter. She kept her back to a group of divers browsing a wall of masks and snorkel gear. The smell of neoprene filled the room.

“I’ll be right with you,” the store manager announced when he entered. He strained to push the cart of dive tanks to the refill air station, though his well-tanned legs were hard as pistons from his flip-flop sandals to the frazzled ends of his cut-off shorts. Unloading one tank at a time, he placed each empty cylinder in a large tub of water. “Sorry ’bout that,” he said to Riker when he returned to the front of the store. He glanced at the young couple browsing the dive merchandise before returning his attention to the lady in front of him. “Would you like to see one?” he asked Riker, pointing at the dive computers in the case.

Riker put her hands on the edge of the glass and leaned forward. Her bikini top bulged with the effort. “Actually, I’m trying to find out where to sign up for a morning dive.”

“Right here.” The dive shop owner pulled a clipboard from a nail in the wall and took a pen from beneath the counter. “I run two trips a day. The first group leaves at eight in the morning and the second after lunch, around one.”

“Do you offer night dives?”

“Only on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We charge our normal rate plus an extra fifty for each diver.” He dodged his eyes away from the clipboard to the tanned breasts on display in front of him.

“How many divers do you take at once?”

“Typically six or eight depending on how many people sign up.” He slid a notebook on the counter. “Looks like we’re booked for today, but there’s still space available for tomorrow if you want.”

“How many crew do you take on board?”

“Usually three. Either myself or one of our dive instructors will go out with the captain and a pair of dive masters.”

Riker flipped through the pages of the sign-up log and found Steve’s name scribbled in the space for the previous week. “Is it the same crew every day?”

“When I can get them. There’s a high turnover here. Good help bounces from one place to another around the off season. The boat loads up at seven-thirty tomorrow morning. We leave at eight sharp if you’re interested.”

Riker took a business card from the counter and read the name and number. “Do you offer private dives?”

The owner smiled. “Not usually. But I’m willing to make an exception.”

* * *

Out of sight from the FBI’s surveillance operation directed at the dive shop, Steve searched the Diver’s Paradise for a scrap of torn clothing, a piece of jewelry, a note left behind—anything he could use to help him find his wife and daughter. Instead, he found nothing except the usual assortment of scuba gear and weight belts stowed in plastic crates beneath the passenger seating area.

He raised the bow’s forward hatch and climbed inside the compartment below deck. Sunlight poured inside the open hatch where orange lifejackets and spare scuba gear occupied much of the storage space.

Kicking an empty box aside, he discovered a spear gun with a broken power band and a barbed spear pitted from oxidation. He set the weapon on the floor beside the urine-stained seat on the boat’s manual head. He found an unfiltered cigarette smoked to the last half inch and an assortment of Hustler magazines with a white baseball cap wedged between them. He used his foot to push the magazines aside and reveal the hat with the words “Reece Bank” stitched across the brim. The hat seemed out of place in the otherwise filthy confines of the cramped forward cabin. Footsteps scuttled across the fiberglass deck above, prompting him to stuff the cap down the front of his pants.

Que hace usted?” a voice called out from the open hatch.

Steve moved aside and climbed out with his shirt hanging over his waist. “No hablo espanol,” he said to the stranger of Mexican descent. He recognized the man, but he couldn’t place where he’d seen his face.

Salga del barco,” the man answered.

“I don’t understand.”

Salga!” the man insisted, telling Steve to get off the boat. He pointed to the shore. “Tien que salir. Ahora!

Steve reluctantly complied to avoid a bigger scene and draw more unwanted attention. He climbed out on the wharf and shuffled past Riker, who followed him to the paved parking area behind the indoor exercise facility. Neither acknowledged one another until they came out of earshot from the resort staff lingering near the dive shop entrance.

“What the hell are you doing?” Riker demanded, her low, sultry voice turning harsh with the bark of a drill instructor.

“Searching the boat.”

“For what?”

“For anything. In case you haven’t noticed, my wife and daughter are still missing.”

Riker threw her hands in the air. “This isn’t a game you’re impeding! This is a federal investigation. You either follow orders or I’ll have you locked up!”

Steve fumed at Riker’s comment, his face a sunburned plaque of razor stubble and sleep-deprived eyes. “I was on the boat ten days ago with my wife and daughter and that maniac, Mendoza.” He stood aside when Agent Smythe approached from a group of tourists. “I can’t stand around and do nothing. That boat was the last place I saw my family alive.”

“You don’t get it, do you? Your very presence out here could jeopardize this investigation. Poking around is the last thing you should do if you hope to ever see your family again.”

“Then what do you suggest?”

“Get out of our way and let us do our jobs.”

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