Without a Trace… Chapter 61

One Year Later

Seated in his office chair, Steve tore the month of June from his desktop calendar and wadded the paper in a ball. A sky-hook toss landed it in a plastic wastebasket beside his filing cabinet. Comfortable in his worn leather chair, he felt well-rested. A morning run had stretched his legs and back. A hot shower had rekindled his appetite and lured him to a hearty breakfast. He thought about the mail he’d collected from the day before, contemplating whether or not to open the one and only letter addressed to him.

Content to hibernate inside his study, he took a roll of address labels from the top drawer and paired them with a sheet of self-adhesive stamps beside a pile of bills.

He toyed with the letter opener, picking at the electric bill. It was his turn to shop for groceries, an agreement he and Leslie had reached in an effort to accommodate her new work schedule. Extending a gesture of good faith, he volunteered to cook dinner as well, with the caveat of eat at your own risk.

He slit the back of the power bill with the ivory-handled letter opener, dismissing the unopened George Washington University letter on his desk in front of him. Win or lose, the letter’s verdict meant nothing in the scheme of things. The earth would continue to revolve about its axis. The sun would still rise and fall. He had his family home safe. And he had his health.

What the hell…

He put down the electric bill and slid the metal blade inside the university letter to reveal the folded stationary dated three days previous. The black letterhead reflected the school’s logo in the header.

He stared at the salutation. Afraid to read the first sentence, he glanced away when a knock at the door caught his attention.

Sarah entered the study in designer clothes and with her hair blow-dried. Jewelry and makeup added a measure of sophistication to her youth. “Dad, are you busy?”

Steve put the letter down and smiled sheepishly. “Not anymore.”

“Can I see a movie tonight with Katey?”

Steve shrugged his shoulders. “Where?”

“Tysons.”

“What time?”

“Eight-thirty. But we’re meeting up with everyone at the mall first.”

“Who’s everyone?”

“Alyssa and one of Katey’s friends named Stacy. Alyssa’s boyfriend might come too.”

“Did you ask your mom?”

“I told her I might do something tonight. She said I should ask you first.”

Steve rolled his chair across the plastic carpet protector. His thoughts meandered back and forth from the letter to Sarah’s request. “You sure you’re up for this?”

“I’m fine.” Sarah nodded enthusiastically. “Can I go?”

“Sure.”

Sarah hugged him and kissed his cheek. “Who’s the letter from?”

Steve forced himself to scan the first few lines. “George Washington University. Looks like they offered me a teaching position at their satellite campus.”

“Does this mean you won’t be home all day anymore?”

“That depends. Can I leave you unsupervised this summer?”

Sarah took the letter and read it. “I’m just kidding. I like it when you’re home.” She gave it back when the doorbell rang. “That’s Katey. She’s driving us to the mall.” She grimaced when the doorbell chimed a second time. “Mom said I could ride with her.”

“How long has Katey had her license?”

“Since April. Her mom lets her drive to school.”

Steve leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms. “By herself?”

“She’s seventeen.”

“Keep the radio down. And watch your mirrors in the parking lots. And no texting! If she hits an object you can always replace it but if she hits a person—”

“Dad I know the drill. I have to go.”

Steve sighed. “Be home by ten.”

“The movie doesn’t let out until 10:30.”

“Eleven, then. No later. And come through the front this time so the garage door doesn’t wake me up.”

Sarah hugged him again. “Love you!”

* * *

Home from work, Leslie pressed the garage door remote on her sun visor and eased her car beside the blue recycle bins stacked beneath a row of hanging garden tools.

Greeted by a kiss from Steve when she entered the house, she slid her purse off her shoulder and took the glass of red wine he offered her. “What’s this for?” she asked, taking a sip of the California burgundy.

Steve walked to the kitchen and corked the bottle he’d left on the counter. “I thought we’d celebrate tonight.”

“Celebrate what?”

“You. Sarah. My new job.”

Leslie smiled. “You got the position?”

“Looks like it.”

Leslie put her glass on the table and hugged him. “I’m so proud of you! Why didn’t you call me with the news?”

“I just found out a few minutes ago. The letter’s been sitting on my desk all day. I couldn’t bring myself to open it.”

“Is Sarah home?”

“She left for the mall with Katey.” He adjusted the thermostat on the wall. “I told her to be back by eleven. She said she’d already talked to you about it.”

“I told her she could go if it was okay with you.”

“I guess we can’t keep her locked in here forever.”

Leslie touched his arm. “As long as she’s with Katey and her friends she’ll be fine.”

Steve kissed her again; this time, passionately as he pressed his lips against hers and felt her body go limp. “I missed you.”

“I missed you more.”

“You were smoking again, weren’t you?”

“Sorry.”

“Did you wear the patch?”

“It doesn’t work for me.”

“You have to give it more time.”

Leslie took her shoes off and placed them on the floor by the stairs. She rubbed her chest where her bra chafed the skin. “Maybe if I wear it on my forehead, the nicotine will soak in faster.” She took another sip of wine. “The FBI called me at work this morning.”

“The same agent who called before?”

“No, a different one. Some guy named Chen. He said the Mexican authorities are still investigating.”

Steve shook his head. “It’s been over a year.”

Leslie shrugged. “I’m just telling you what he told me.”

“The Mexican authorities are stonewalling.”

“What else did you expect? One of their own people tried to kill us. That’s not something they want to make public.”

“What about Hot Spot Vacations? Someone in their organization had to be involved.”

Leslie sipped her wine. “The FBI said they found no record of any company named Hot Spot Vacations.”

“None?”

“That’s what the agent told me. It’s like they disappeared without a trace…”

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