Without a Trace… Chapter 45

Agent Smythe leaned back in his chair and blew smoke rings at the plastic lampshade. He pinched a fresh Camel between his fingers while he held his cell phone to his ear. He knew his partner hated smoke inside the house, but he couldn’t bring himself to endure the humidity or the blood-sucking mosquitoes lingering outside like flying vampires.

“I can’t do that,” he told Barbara. He gestured in the air at Riker, pantomiming the conversation with his wife. “You know what I’m saying, Barbara. How many times do we have to relive this?”

“Can’t another agent fill in for you?”

Smythe could hear the anger building in her voice. “It doesn’t work that way.”

“Dale, I’m not talking about a trip to Disney World. I’m asking you to spend Easter Sunday with your family.”

Smythe pinched his cigarette between his lips and drew a long breath. The first cigarette from the new pack had eased his nicotine craving; the second gave him a sense of calm. “I love you.”

“Don’t change the subject.”

He held the phone away from his ear and smirked at Riker. He could still hear his wife’s bickering loud and clear. Even six inches away from his ear, her condescending tone grated his nerves. “Put the kids on.”

“They’re sleeping. If you want to talk to your son and daughter I suggest you catch the next flight home. Your partner can hold the fort without you.”

“Not this time.” He pulled the phone away from his hear and coughed. “I gotta go. I’ll call you back.”

“Dale—”

“I love you,” Smythe insisted before he abruptly ended the call. Family meant everything to him, but he had too much invested in the case to take himself out of the game. He blew smoke from his Camel. He could read the disdain on Riker’s face. “What? My wife’s a thousand miles away and she still finds a way to push my buttons.”

Riker swatted the air in front of her face, fanning the cigarette smoke away. She used the tool from the weapon’s cleaning kit to swab the inside the barrel of her service pistol. Sitting with the Glock dismantled on a rag, the gun-cleaning exercise gave her something to do with her hands, a task to pass the time while she waited for Smythe to end his call and focus his undivided attention on her. “You shouldn’t hang up on her.”

“Why not?”

“Because she’s your wife.”

“She’s a pain in the ass is what she is.”

Riker grinned. “I can’t imagine where she got it from.”

Smythe rubbed his knuckle at the itch beneath his nose. A maverick hair protruded like an ivory tusk. “You don’t know her like I do.”

Riker added a squirt of cleaning solution and worked the tool in and out of the barrel some more, removing propellant residue. She’d had her share of dates; her share of horny men groping her after a cheap dinner and a movie. She’d also been propositioned by gay women while working undercover in Manhattan, propositions she hated but somehow preferred against the company of a man she couldn’t stand. She liked men. She just preferred they keep their distance until she made the first move. “Have you heard from Steve Chambers yet?”

“Not since this morning.”

“Where’d he go?”

Smythe snuffed out his cigarette in an empty can. “His hotel. He said he needed time to himself.”

Riker finished her gun maintenance by wiping the surface with a lint-free rag and oiling the moving parts. She reassembled the handgun in less than a minute, making sure the slide mechanism moved smoothly. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

“You turning in already?”

“I’m spent.” She stood with her gear and wandered off.

Smythe plugged in a portable fan on his desk. He clicked the dial onto high and aimed the air at his face. Convinced he should leave the phone alone and let Barbara stew for a while, he turned his attention to the open laptop in front of him. Like it or not, he had paperwork to finish, and the more he dawdled, the longer it was going to take.

He clicked on the Firefox icon and waited for the browser to come up. He felt gassy from the beef and bean burrito he’d devoured two hours ago, and unfastened the button on his slacks. With Riker retired for the evening, he could climb off his duty horse and relax in front of the pale glow emanating from the monitor.

He checked his email, expecting the special investigations unit to have something tangible for him. He clicked on the first message regarding Pamela Stewart. The autopsy confirmed what he already knew but it didn’t tell him who killed her.

He entered the FBI database and searched Pamela Stewart’s name. The screen filled with entries of every Pamela Stewart it could find.

He searched within the results to narrow the field, probing for any connection he could find to his victim and why her life had come to such a grizzly end.

Spending weeks without his wife had put a strain on his libido. He wanted to make more than love with his wife. He wanted sex. The kind of raw, animal sex that left him sore between the sheets. The kind of sex he hadn’t had since he was twenty and Barbara was tight as a drum.

He pushed his chair back and lit another cigarette. Then he stretched his arms behind his back and scratched his head. Gazing at a picture of his son and daughter, he reached his arm out to grab it and bumped a can of Coke he’d left on the corner of the table. More than half full, the drink spilled on the table and flooded a pile of papers on the floor.

He cursed himself under his breath, pinching the cigarette between his lips as he turned the can upright and used his other hand to contain the spill. With no towels or napkins readily accessible, he used the end of his shirt to wipe part of the table. He emptied the rest of the can in the sink before tossing it in the trash beneath the counter. He found a roll of paper towels and sopped up the remaining mess. Then he tossed the sticky wet paper in the trash, staring at the Reece Bank cap sandwiched between an old coffee filter and a rotten banana peel.

He pulled the hat from the refuse and held it under the lamp. What the hell? We never checked…

He grabbed a spray bottle of Luminol from his crime scene kit. He squirted the hat inside and out, then turned down the room’s lights. As he watched, what looked suspiciously like typical blood spatter appeared on the brim from the pale blue chemiluminescence. “RIKER!”

He took another drag from his cigarette and examined the Luminol stain more closely. A bloody thumbprint, he guessed. “Riker! get in here!”

* * *

Prompted by the inflection in her partner’s voice, Agent Riker rushed out of her room in her shorts and tee-shirt. Her damp hair hung limp across her shoulders. “What’s wrong?”

Smythe grabbed a Mexican travel guide from a box of folders and flipped to the section on Cozumel resorts. “Look at this.”

“What the hell are you doing?”

“We missed it,” said Smythe, scanning the list of dive shops associated with resort hotels. “I can’t believe we missed it.”

“Missed what?”

Smythe crushed out his cigarette and blew smoke away from Riker’s face. He held out the Reece Bank cap. “Remember this?”

“I threw it away.”

Smythe pointed to a paragraph describing the Presidente Suites. He read the text out loud for emphasis, taking care to reference the sentence about the on-site dive shop and the Diver’s Paradise boat. “Steve Chambers found this baseball cap on the Diver’s Paradise boat.”

“So?”

“So he also witnessed Victor Mendoza aboard the same boat.”

Riker covered her mouth and yawned. “I still don’t follow you.”

“It’s just a hunch, but I’m wondering if the person who owned this cap actually worked for Reece Bank. If we search for employer records, we could match the employee names with the registry for the Presidente Suites. I know it’s a long shot, but we might get lucky and find someone who works for Reece Bank and has recently turned up missing. It might give us a connection to the Diver’s Paradise and Pamela Stewart.”

“What else have you been smoking?”

“You’re not hearing me—”

“We’ve been over this a dozen times, Dale. There’s no connection.”

“Because we had no reference point. We were shooting in the dark.”

Riker yawned again. “You think Pamela Stewart worked for Reece Bank?”

“It’s possible. If she did, it could tie us to Mendoza.”

“Or maybe the hat belonged to someone else?” Riker added. “You’re going in circles.”

Smythe gnawed on the tip of his thumbnail. Too wired to sleep, he felt the nervous energy spooling inside him. “But what if I’m right? What if—”

“You’re leaving the light on for Elvis.”

“Don’t you find it the least bit interesting?”

“The hat could belong to anyone, including a crew member or a diver who left it behind. Either way, it proves nothing.”

Smythe threw his hands in the air. “How do you explain the blood evidence?”

Riker glanced at the clock on the wall. “It’s two in the morning. I don’t have to explain anything right now. What blood evidence, anyway?”

“I sprayed the cap with Luminol and found what looks like a bloody fingermark—”

“Oh! That’s why you killed the lights.” She examined the cap. “Could be fish blood.”

Smythe took an evidence bag from the supply box and inserted the cap inside. Using red ink, he marked urgent on the label. “I’m sending it to the lab.”

“Why?”

“Because I’ve got a hunch I can’t ignore.”

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