Without a Trace…. Chapter 25

Steve staggered into his room at the Presidente Suites, jittery from the four cups of coffee he’d consumed on the red-eye flight from Mexico City. He cursed at the blank message light on the phone by the bed. No call from Leslie or the Mexican authorities, no message from Randy the bellhop, and no message from Ambrose the Hot Spot Vacations representative. No message also meant no word from a kidnapper, at least not by phone.

The room remained as he’d left it, with soiled clothes on the floor and empty luggage by the dresser. He could tell from the fresh-laid sheets, the maid had cleaned again as if nothing was wrong. Business as usual with the mints on the pillow covers and fresh towels in the bathroom.

He took a shirt from Leslie’s dresser drawer and rubbed his fingers on the soft cotton. She’d given him the bottom shelf for his clothes while she claimed the top three shelves for her.

He read the pink, embroidered lettering on the front of the shirt. “Virginia is for Lovers” it said in cursive. He smelled the shirt, inhaling the scent of fabric softener, reminding him of the laundry room at home. Washing clothes was a chore he hated; a chore he endured only because Leslie helped him with the folding cycle. Doing chores with her meant quality time together.

The shirt also brought him memories of a time before they were married. He loved her then, but as time passed, his love had grown stronger until he couldn’t stand to be away from her. At the age of twenty-one, his first marriage had ended in disaster, but his marriage to Leslie had been the highlight of his life. He’d found his one true love at a time when he thought he could never love another woman again. Sarah was a bonus. He’d fallen in love with the sweet, charming girl the first time Leslie introduced her. And now, more than ten years later, the sixteen-year-old spoiled princess drove him crazy. Still, he loved her like his own. A reincarnation of her mother. A pint-size package with a dry sense of humor and a heart of gold. Beauty with an attitude.

He smelled Leslie’s shirt a second time, inhaling a trace of her perfume. He imagined it was all a dream. He’d overslept after the morning dive trip and never woke up. He’d asked his neighbors in the room next door if they’d seen or heard anything, and like everyone else on his floor, the answer came back the same. No one had heard anything. No one had seen anything. He’d searched his room and Sarah’s inside out. And in the end, he’d found nothing to point him in any specific direction.

He stuffed the shirt in the dresser and took a bottle of Evian from the mini refrigerator. He unscrewed the cap and gulped the cold water, contemplating what would happen if he picked up the phone and dialed the front desk downstairs. Lieutenant Mierez had promised to return his call when the police had information. Now the conversation seemed like a distant memory.

He needed a new game plan, a methodic strategy for finding his family. He didn’t buy the kidnapping idea. He couldn’t. To think the unthinkable showed weakness in the face of uncertainty. Wrestling with emotions he couldn’t begin to comprehend only made the situation worse.

He set the water bottle on the desk by the patio door. His gut told him Leslie and Sarah were lost on the island. The two of them were stranded somewhere, waiting for help to arrive. He’d seen the scenario many times before during his Navy tenure. Pilots shot down at sea who spent days waiting for a rescue party to find them. Crippled submarines and damaged ships had endured the same fate. For reasons of national security or even simple equipment failure, men would disappear for days until someone picked up their radio beacon or acknowledged their AWOL status.

What his own embassy couldn’t do for him, he’d do for himself. Starting with Ambrose and the issue with the rental Jeep, he drafted an interview agenda to include every bellhop in the lavish resort and every maid on duty for the last four days, and then the dive shop owner, the taxi drivers, and every guest in the building.

If it meant searching every hotel along the coast, he would do so, starting with the older resorts near the airport access road and working back toward Cozumel’s southern tip. If not elegant, the plan was simple in its logic: enlarge the wallet-size photo of his family and distribute hundreds of copies around the island. Then plaster Leslie and Sarah’s faces on every street sign in town.

He took a pair of night vision binoculars from his dive bag and stepped out onto the concrete patio overlooking the grounds below. The binoculars, built to military specifications, were a gift from a retired Marine Corp buddy.

A tool he once used for spotting boats on evening dive excursions, he now found useful for observing the beach at night.

* * *

At dawn, Steve approached Ambrose in the parking lot. “Wait!” he shouted before the tall, debonair vacation representative could slip away.

Ambrose nudged his sunglasses on the bridge of his nose. He wore Bermuda shorts and white socks pulled up to his knees. “Can I help you?”

“My family’s missing,” Steve announced. “They’ve been missing since the day before yesterday.”

“Missing?”

“My wife rented a Jeep from you a couple days ago. Have you seen it on the property?”

“And you are?”

“Steve Chambers.”

“Did your wife rent the Jeep at the hotel or the airport?”

“Here, in the lobby.” Steve produced the wallet photo. “My daughter Sarah was with her. Their first Jeep broke down and had to be towed back. My wife exchanged it for a different one.”

“I remember. Randy said you were looking for me. I left a message for you.”

“Did my wife return the Jeep?”

“I’ll have to check my records.”

“Did my wife say where she was going?”

“I don’t recall.”

“Did she mention anything about snorkeling or hiking or sightseeing in town? Anything at all?”

Ambrose shook his head. His pearl white teeth glistened between his lips when he spoke. “No.”

“Did you see anyone else with them?”

“What do you mean?”

“Were they with another couple? Or with anyone that seemed out of place?”

“Not that I remember.”

“Could you check on my wife’s Jeep?”

“I’ll have my assistant look into it and get back to you.”

“Now!” Steve insisted. “Please, it’s important.”

Ambrose leaned inside the front seat window of the Nissan Stanza parked beside him. From the dashboard he retrieved a clipboard with several copies of rental contracts. He scanned the first few pages until he came to Leslie’s contract. “The first Jeep was towed back on Tuesday night. Some kind of electrical problem with the starter.”

Steve wiped the sweat beading on his forehead. “What about the other Jeep?”

Ambrose motioned for Steve to follow him around the building where another fleet of rentals occupied the parking lot. He put his hand on the hood of rental twenty-seven. “According to my records, this is the second Jeep your wife returned. The one I provided her after her first one broke down.”

“Are you sure?”

Ambrose checked the license plate number with the number on Leslie’s paperwork. “I’m positive.”

Steve opened the passenger door and examined the front seats. “Did you actually see my wife return it?”

“No, but her signature is on file.”

“Where?”

“Our home office.”

“I want to see it.”

“Mr. Chambers—”

“I want proof she was here. That she signed for this vehicle.”

“My assistant handled the paperwork. I assure you it’s in order.”

“Can I talk to him?”

“He left yesterday.”

“Is there a number where I can reach him?”

Ambrose wiped the edge of his mouth. “He doesn’t have one.”

“Then give me his address.”

“Mr. Chambers—”

Steve ran his hands across the seats, searching the fabric and the space around the sandy floormats. “Did my wife say anything about where she was going?”

Ambrose shook his head.

“Anything at all?”

“Like I told you before, she didn’t indicate her destination to me.”

“Did you offer suggestions for places to visit, things to see?”

“I mentioned Chankanaab Park.” He looked down, and Steve saw his pager vibrating against his hip, heard the tiny sound it made. Ambrose unclipped the plastic unit from his belt. He read the short text message to himself. “I apologize, but I have another pick-up at the airport.”

“Where is Chankanaab Park?”

“A few miles south of San Miguel. There are signs along the main road before you get there.”

Steve inspected the Jeep and found a dent in the front bumper. He touched his fingers to the damaged chrome. Scratches covered the hood. “This car’s been damaged.”

Ambrose’s pager went off again. He shrugged. “It happens.”

Steve pointed to a broken hood latch. “How often?”

“Much of the island is unpaved. The roads can be unforgiving.”

“Was the Jeep damaged before you gave it to my wife?”

“I’m sorry, but I have to go.”

Steve slapped the hood in frustration. Disappointed by the lack of information, he thought about contacting Lieutenant Mierez again.

A broken headlight and a crack in the windshield lent support to his theory about the car’s involvement in an accident. He knew as well as Ambrose that traversing the island in any vehicle, even a four-by-four, could inflict incidental damage. But this particular Jeep had seen worse.

He tapped his knuckles against the five-gallon gas can mounted beside the spare tire in back. The rectangular canister rang hollow. The spare tire looked new.

He approached the driver’s side, where a glimmer of light caught his attention from a diamond stud earring wedged in the cushion of the driver’s seat. He pinched the silver stud between his fingers.

“Wait!” he shouted—when a burgundy Nissan taxi drove by with a man and woman in the back seat. He recognized them as the couple who were staring at Sarah during breakfast and then again at Planet Hollywood—the same couple he’d noticed at the check-in desk the day he first arrived.

He sprinted toward the taxi as it rounded the hotel driveway but couldn’t catch it. He hollered in desperation for the driver to stop, but the taxi accelerated, tearing along the access road flanked by overgrown palm trees.

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