Steve caught a taxi from the Presidente Suites to the Mexican police headquarters in San Miguel.
Bustling with Cozumel residents and cruise ship tourists, San Miguel maintained a lively atmosphere with outside vendors peddling cheap merchandise to a bustling menagerie of foreigners searching for a bargain.
Mesmerized by the collage of female faces darting in and out of small shops, he followed his train of logic because it made indisputable sense to him and because it kept him from snapping his neck at every woman who vaguely matched Leslie’s description. He called out Leslie’s name repeatedly, wishing his eyes would stop playing tricks on him.
Sarah was another issue. Half the young girls he saw from a distance had Sarah’s features. Only from a frontal view could he tell without a doubt which girls looked too young or too old or too tall or too thin to be his daughter.
Fanning out from the main square, he detoured along cafes, jewelry stores, and any establishment where people congregated. He flashed the wallet photo to anyone in arm’s reach, convinced that statistically speaking, someone had to have seen Leslie or Sarah at one time or another in the last twenty-four hours; somewhere in the streets or in a cab or in the center of the plaza eating ice cream.
His gut had told him the moment he woke up something was wrong, and now he cursed himself for not approaching the police sooner. Searching the resort alone had been a waste of time, valuable time he could have spent with people who knew the island and the favorite local hangouts his wife and daughter might have come across.
He approached the bronze statue in the lobby of the two-story municipal building and studied the iron bars lining the outside windows on the lower level. Music blared from a street merchant’s radio outside the entrance of the Cozumel police headquarters.
“Can I help you, Senor?” a uniformed officer asked Steve outside the office of citizen affairs. At five-foot-two, the man’s head barely came to Steve’s chest.
Steve showed him the wallet photo. “I need to speak with someone about my wife and daughter. They’ve been missing since yesterday.”
“This is them?”
“Yes.” Steve wiped the sweat from his eyes. Ceiling fans circulated the stuffy air inside the cramped office space. “Have you seen them?”
“No,” the officer said bluntly and escorted Steve through a labyrinth of dark hallways leading to a smoky bullpen occupied by men in uniform. “Wait here,” he said, pointing to a metal desk with a gooseneck lamp and a stack of yellow papers piled beside an oval ashtray and a dirty coffee mug.
Steve checked his watch. His stomach grumbled. His neck felt tight when he turned his head. Like a video in rewind mode, he tried to play back yesterday’s events. He remembered the morning dive. He remembered rinsing the scuba gear. He remembered the look on Leslie’s face when she kissed him goodbye. After that, time stood still as if the earth had stopped rotating on its axis and simply drifted out of orbit with the sun. He made a mental note to call Ambrose about the Jeep and ping the bellhop about posting a missing persons sign. “Don’t be stupid,” he mumbled to himself. “They’re not missing; they’re just lost.”
He rubbed his temples. He’d skipped his morning shower in favor of searching the hotel grounds. Now the odor he smelled was his own.
“I am Lieutenant Mierez,” a voice said from behind Steve.
Steve turned to acknowledge the man with a breadcrumb in his handlebar mustache. “Are you in charge?”
The Lieutenant extinguished his cigarette in the ashtray and propped himself on the edge of the desk. Cheap tequila lingered on his breath. “Si. What is it I can do for you?”
Steve pushed the picture across the desk. “This was taken two years ago. My wife and daughter have been missing since yesterday.”
“Missing from where?”
“The Presidente Suites.”
“And you are guests there?”
“Yes. We arrived three days ago.”
Lieutenant Mierez examined the photo. “And you last saw them when?”
“Yesterday. Yesterday afternoon.”
“At your hotel?”
“Yes. We just got back from a dive trip that morning.” Steve ran his hand through his hair. “I’m sure they’re lost in town or something.”
“I see. And what is your name?”
“You are American?”
“Were you traveling with anyone besides your wife and daughter?”
The Lieutenant leaned back and shook another cigarette from his soft pack. He offered one to Steve, who declined, then lit up and drew a lungful of smoke. “Your wife and daughter, what are their names?”
“My wife’s name is Leslie. My daughter’s name is Sarah. She’s my stepdaughter.”
“You have passports?”
“They’re at my hotel.”
The Lieutenant scribbled on a yellow legal pad. “What is your daughter’s age?”
“Sixteen. My wife is thirty-eight. The picture is old. My daughter was fourteen when it was taken. My wife’s hair is longer and darker.” Steve tapped his heel in synch with his fingers, losing himself in thought while the officer scribbled on notes. Whoever he’d spoken with at the hotel this morning, he would question again and again and again if necessary. The bellboys, the maids, the girl behind the gift shop register, and anyone else on the premises.
The Lieutenant looked up from his notepad. “Senor, I will keep your information on file. If we find anything, someone from this office will contact you.”
“When? How soon?”
“That’s impossible to say at this point.”
“What exactly are you planning to do?”
“One of my men will contact you as soon as we learn something.”
“What are you saying?”
“We have procedures to follow here. Just like in your country back home. If we find your wife or daughter, we will call your hotel and let you know.”
“How do you intend to find them?”
“Senor Chambers, I will do my best.”
Steve cracked his knuckles in an effort to vent his frustration. “Is it possible my wife and daughter were arrested? That they’re sitting in jail somewhere?”
“How can you be certain?”
The Lieutenant placed his notepad on the desk. “Please, Senor, your family is probably shopping, and as you said, ‘lost in town somewhere.’ You are on vacation. They are on vacation as well. Try to relax.”
“Don’t tell me to relax. How the hell can I relax when my wife hasn’t called me in days!”
“Senor, what do you expect me to do?”
“Your job. Get your men out there and start looking for my wife and daughter.”
“Because other initiatives must take precedence over yours at the moment.”
“Not on my watch!”
Lieutenant Mierez drew a long drag from the nonfiltered cigarette and blew smoke in Steve’s face. “Then I suggest you contact your embassy. Perhaps they can tell you what it is you want to hear.”
Engulfed in darkness, Leslie awoke lying on her front, listening to the drone of diesel engines churning. Dazed and confused, she rolled herself off the single bed inside the yacht’s port cabin, where her body landed with a dull thud against the floor. Afraid of falling again, she groped her surroundings to steady herself in one position. Her mind was reeling to comprehend the how and why of her predicament. She stood upright clutching onto a locker handle until the feeling of vertigo dissipated a little.
Aware of water splashing, she staggered toward a porthole in the hull. A shooting pain stemming from her face and neck spread down her arms and legs. Conscious, but semi-lucid, she touched her hands to the porthole and stared out the darkened glass at the moon’s image reflected on the water. “Sarah?” she called out. “Sarah, are you in here?”
She probed her memory for a logical explanation as to what was happening. She’d recognized the men who helped her and Sarah on the beach. After that, her thoughts went blank. “Sarah? Sarah!”
Hugging the walls for balance, she crawled out of the cabin and made her way to the dimly-lit hallway outside. She bit her lower lip, unaware of the blood in her mouth as she continued along an L-shaped passageway leading toward the back of the yacht, where the smell of rancid meat made her gag. “Sarah?”
Guided by the ambient light from a lamp in the main salon, she struggled to open the panel in front of her. When she failed, she pressed her ear to the door and whispered, “Sarah, are you in there?” She grabbed the latch and tried to force it, using her upper body to leverage the flimsy metal. When her initial effort failed, she jammed her shoulder against the panel, using her body weight to force her way inside.
She stared at the master stateroom and the oval bed surrounded by hanging cabinets and a flat screen television mounted above an open locker. A putrid smell knocked her back. She covered her mouth and flipped the wall switch. Track lighting illuminated a macabre display of blood-splattered walls and ceiling.
She stumbled out, confused and disoriented as she moved to the front of the boat, unaware of the figure lurking in the shadows behind her.