Without a Trace… Chapter 55

Ambrose drove the wrong way down a one-way street heading east across Cozumel away from the open-air plaza in San Miguel. “Are you two okay?”

Steve turned his head to look behind him, down the road. “How’d you find us?”

“I saw you enter the building,” Ambrose spoke above the road noise. “I drove around back to park.”

“Did you see who was shooting at us?”

“No.”

“One minute the police were helping us,” Leslie stammered, “and the next, they were trying to kill us.”

Ambrose drove beyond the crowded streets to a single-story apartment building across town.

Steve gripped the roll bar above his head for support. “Where are we?”

“My apartment.”

“We have to get help,” Leslie pleaded. “What if they followed us?”

“You’ll be safe here,” Ambrose reassured her. He glanced at the oval bloodstain on her shirt. “How bad are you hurt?”

Leslie covered the wound with her hand. “We have to find our daughter.”

“One step at a time,” said Steve. He helped Leslie from the Jeep and followed Ambrose to the first floor entrance at the back of the pink and white building. Watercolor paintings of divi-divi trees adorned the living room walls in the small apartment. In one corner, a drop cloth covered a wooden easel speckled with blue and green paint.

Ambrose returned from the bathroom with a box of cotton bandages and a bottle of rubbing alcohol. He handed Steve the alcohol and tore open a package of gauze. “Why was someone shooting at you?”

Steve pondered the question. “You mean, why were the police shooting at us?”

Ambrose looked up from the first-aid supplies. “I don’t understand.”

Leslie winced from the sting of the rubbing alcohol. “Why would the police try to kill us?”

“Because they’re involved,” Steve insisted, dabbing a cotton ball around the wound on Leslie’s side.

Ambrose cut a length of medical tape and affixed it to the gauze patch. “Involved in what?”

Leslie chewed her lower lip. “Our daughter’s disappearance.”

Ambrose crossed his arms above a small crucifix hanging from a gold rope necklace beneath his shirt. “Is this why you saw Lieutenant Mierez?”

“What do you know about him?” asked Steve.

“I know not to cross his path unless you’re looking for trouble. The police suspect you of killing a hotel maid.”

Leslie stared at her husband, her eyes fixated on his shocked appearance. “What? Who?”

“I never hurt her,” Steve insisted. “I found her snooping in our room. She ran out, and I followed her. Then I found her, dead.” He screwed the cap on the bottle of rubbing alcohol. “Someone killed her because she knew too much.” He pointed to Leslie’s wound. “You’re lucky the bullet only grazed you.”

Leslie forced a smile. “Tell me about it.”

“Where’s your daughter?” asked Ambrose.

“Somewhere in Cozumel,” said Steve. “An abandoned house. We don’t know exactly where.”

Ambrose rubbed the stubble on his chin. “There are several remote properties on the eastern side near the shore, mostly small cottages owned by local fisherman.”

“Are any abandoned?” asked Leslie.

“I’m not certain. I mostly travel the western side from the airport access road to the Presidente Suites. There are no abandoned properties on this side of Cozumel.”

“What about the lighthouse at Punta Molas?” asked Steve.

Ambrose focused on the wall in front of him, staring at his portrait of a black seductress in a string bikini and floppy straw hat. “What do you know about the lighthouse?”

“I know a woman died because she knew something about Punta Molas.”

Ambrose pulled a jug of water from the refrigerator. He took three glasses from the cupboard above the stove in the kitchenette and turned his back to Steve and Leslie as he poured. “You’re dehydrated,” he said to Leslie, handing her a glass of cold water. “Drink as much as you can.”

Steve took the glass from Leslie’s hand and gave it back to Ambrose. “You first.”

“This is filtered water,” said Ambrose. “It’s safe to drink, I assure you.” He drank from the glass before he gave it to Leslie. “You can trust me.”

Steve watched a cockroach scurry along the wall above the sink. “Tell me what you know about the lighthouse.”

“I’m not sure what I can tell you.”

“Is there any private property near there?”

“Not now. Several years ago a tour guide ran his business from the cross-island highway near Playa Bonita. His tours catered to the more adventurous crowd, people who wanted to view Cozumel’s natural habitat up close and personal. A hurricane destroyed the property.”

“Can you take us there now?” asked Leslie.

“It’s too dangerous at night.”

Leslie cupped her hand to her side and winced. “We have to try. Sarah’s out there somewhere—worrying, waiting, praying we’ll find her.”

“We don’t even know for sure if she’s there,” said Steve.

“All the more reason to go now. Every minute we waste is another minute Sarah’s in danger.”

Without a Trace… Chapter 51

Steve drove to the FBI safe house tucked away at the end of the hidden path. Bolstered by his discovery of the anti-personnel device and the empty Tic-Tac case, he had what he needed to light a fire under the FBI’s ass. For the first time in days, he felt a glimmer of hope. The Tic-Tacs were Leslie’s—he knew it in his heart. He also knew another visit to the Diver’s Paradise was in order. If Smythe and Riker wouldn’t listen, their superiors in Washington would take heed. So would the American Embassy in Mexico and every major news network he could contact.

He knocked on the back door of the single-story rambler half-expecting to meet Riker and Smythe with guns drawn from his unannounced visit. Instead, motion sensors activated a pair of spotlights to illuminate the area around the back of the house.

A generator hummed inside a padded enclosure from where strands of electrical wire snaked through a hole cut inside the stucco wall. “Hello?” he called out as he pushed his way inside the unlocked entrance. He heard a clack-clack-clack from the front of the lighted room where a length of spinning audiotape slapped the empty spool on the reel-to-reel player.

“Agent Smythe? Agent Riker?” He checked the whiteboard on the wall and read a series of numbers written in red marker. An oscillating fan stirred the air. On the counter, a monitor flickered with the image of the Jeep he’d arrived in. Glancing at a bank of monitors inside a bookshelf case, he noticed each screen revealed a different snippet of landscape from the sides and front of the safe house perimeter.

He rubbed the Tic-Tac case with his thumb, contemplating a return to the Presidente Suites to look for Smythe and Riker. Whatever they had on their agenda, it was happening somewhere else.

“Smythe?” he called again, noticing a wisp of steam rising from a mug beside the open microwave. Sniffing the fragrance of the herbal tea, he closed the microwave and heard a loud beeping noise coming from the room down the hall. “Agent Riker?”

He checked the bank of monitors. “Hello?”

He took a knife from the kitchen drawer and followed the hallway to the darkened bedroom where a cube-shaped alarm clock flashed the time at five-fifteen a.m. He flicked the lights on and watched a cockroach scamper from its hiding place behind the baseboard.

He knelt beside an open suitcase on the floor with women’s clothing tucked neatly beside a romance novel and a compact semi-auto .22. He recognized the Beretta Bobcat from a Guns and Ammo article on cancelable weapons. He laid the knife down and grabbing the weapon, pulled the slide back to find a round in the chamber.

“Find what you’re looking for?” Riker asked in a sultry voice from the end of the hall.

Employing his best sleight of hand, Steve kept his back to the FBI Agent and slipped the gun down the front of his pants, hoping Riker would account for the bulge as part of his”package”and not her backup .22. “I’ve been looking for you,” he said before he stood up and turned to face her.

“How did you get in here?”

“The door was open. Where’s your partner?”

“He’s out.”

“Where?”

“He had to run an errand in town.”

“How come you’re not with him?”

“How come you’re in my room?”

“Your clock was beeping.” Steve moved away from the suitcase and produced the Tic-Tac case for inspection. “I found this at the Punta Molas lighthouse.”

Riker examined the broken plastic. “What were you doing there?”

“Chasing a hunch. My wife eats these things like candy. I’d bet my life this belongs to her.”

“It could be anyone’s.”

“She’s somewhere on this island, and I need your help to find her.”

Riker was eyeing the bulge in the front of Steve’s pants. A bandage covered part of her forearm where a row of scratches peeked out from the edge of the cotton gauze. “I don’t think so.”

“Why not?”

“Because we may have already found your wife and daughter.”

Steve felt his legs buckle as if someone whacked him behind the knees with a two-by-four. “Where? When?”

“About an hour ago. The Coast Guard found an abandoned fishing trawler with a woman and a young girl who fit the description of your family.”

Steve swallowed hard. The room spun in circles. “Alive?”

“As far as we know.”

“Where are they now?”

“A few miles off the coast.”

“You have to take me there.”

“I can’t.”

“Bullshit you can’t!”

“It’s out of my hands. The Coast Guard has jurisdiction on this one.”

“Then I’ll go alone.”

Riker touched her hand on her holster. “I can’t let you do that.”

Steve walked toward the kitchen with his back to her; his eyes trained on the bank of video monitors, revealing a Nissan Sentra out front. He reached for the .22 in his pants and palmed it in his hand before he turned around to face Riker with his arms crossed above his chest. “Your tea’s getting cold.”

“I’ll live without it.”

“What happened to your arm?”

“I bumped my elbow.” Riker smirked. She could sense Steve’s reluctance to stand in the same room with her. She also noticed the bulge missing from the front of his pants. “When did you get here?”

“A few minutes ago. I called Lieutenant Mierez and told him to meet me.”

Riker pointed to the phone. “You can’t dial out from here without an access code.”

“I used my cell.”

“Before or after you returned from Punta Molas?”

Concealing part of his hand in his armpit, Steve slid his finger on the trigger. “Where’s your partner?”

Riker unbuckled her holster. “Smythe’s been detained, indefinitely.”

Steve pointed the .22 at Riker’s head. “What the hell’s going on?”

“It’s a felony to threaten a federal officer.”

“So is murder.”

Riker reached her hand out for the gun. “It’s over.”

“Stay there or I’ll drop you where you stand.”

“I don’t think so,” Riker replied hotly.

Steve’s heart thumped faster in his chest. His thoughts scattered like rays of light through a prism. If he pulled the trigger and made the head shot he was aiming for, he’d murder a federal officer.

He squeezed the trigger, but the .22 didn’t fire.

Riker laughed at the startled expression on Steve’s face. “Gun control’s a bitch.”

Steve pulled the trigger repeatedly, but to no effect.

Riker pulled the Glock from her holster and aimed it at Steve’s chest. “This one works. I assure you. Now kick the weapon to me.”

Steve laid the gun on the floor and nudged it with his foot.

“It’s a prototype. Can only be fired by the registered owner. Some sort of biometric reader gadget. You should have seen your face.” Riker waved her Glock toward the door. “Now let’s go! My ride’s waiting.”

Without a Trace… Chapter 46

Steve sat handcuffed against the dirty cinder block wall with Lieutenant Mierez in his face and a migraine headache reverberating from the center of his skull. On the table in front of him, a red LED glowed from a mini tape recorder.

“Are you certain I can’t get you any water?” the Lieutenant offered.

Steve shook his head. “I want to speak with someone from the American Embassy.”

Lieutenant Mierez leaned his elbows on the table. “You have an American passport?”

“It’s in the safe in my room.”

Mierez pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his brow. “You know Senora Suentez?”

“Who?”

“Carina Suentez, the woman you pushed to her death.”

“I did no such thing!”

“You were arguing with her, yes?”

“What do you mean?”

“Guests heard shouting on your floor. A witness saw you chase Carina from your room.”

Steve watched the spools of tape revolving inside the mini cassette recorder. “That’s a lie.”

“Is it?”

“I saw her when I entered my room.”

“Did you argue with her?”

“I caught her searching through my wife’s clothes.”

“Why would she do that?”

“I don’t know.”

“Did you ask her?”

“She wouldn’t tell me.”

“So you argued with her for an answer?”

“No… Yes—we exchanged words when I caught her snooping.”

“She worked as a maid. Was it not her job to be there?”

“It was not her job to search through my wife’s personal effects.”

“Is this why you killed her?”

“I didn’t kill her!”

Mierez scratched an old razor nick on his chin. “What happened after Carina left your room?”

Steve rolled his shoulders to stretch the muscles in his upper back. Cramped from sitting, he wanted to contact Smythe and Riker as much as he wanted to speak with the American Embassy. “I ran after her. I heard a scream. When I came down the hall, I found her.”

“Did you see anyone else?”

“Just a bellhop from my hotel.”

“Randy Sanchez?”

“Yes. He must have come out of the elevator when your men arrived.”

“Mr. Sanchez claims he saw you leaning over the guardrail.”

“So?”

Lieutenant Mierez lit a cigarette and blew smoke in Steve’s face. “Perhaps he saw you push Carina?”

“I never touched her!”

“Then how do you explain her death?”

Steve stared at Lieutenant Mierez without blinking. Someone killed her. Maybe someone who thought she knew too much about bad things happening at the lighthouse. But which lighthouse? The one in Cozumel, or the one in her head?

“Senor Chambers?”

“I can’t explain it.”

Lieutenant Mierez stopped the tape and put the mini recorder in his pocket. “We’re done,” he said loud enough for the guard outside to hear.

Steve got up when the door to the small interrogation room swung open. “Does this mean I can use the phone?”

“Turn around.”

“Why?”

The Lieutenant unlocked the handcuffs and motioned toward the door. He inhaled from his cigarette, maintaining a stern look on his weathered face.

Steve rubbed his wrists. “Are you telling me I’m free to go?”

“For now, Senor Chambers. For now.”

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.”

Without a Trace… Chapter 35

Jostled by the harsh landing at Aruba’s international airport, Steve glanced out the window of the private jet and said a silent prayer for his wife and daughter. Agent Smythe occupied the seat beside him, typing furiously on a laptop computer. “You writing a book?” Steve asked the agent, who wore a mask of concentration.

Smythe ignored the comment and let his fingers dance on the small keyboard.

Steve unfastened his seatbelt and stretched his arms over his head. Helping the FBI meant helping himself in the process; at least he wanted to believe that. He had to believe that. He had few options with the Mexican authorities and fewer still with the U.S. Embassy. Stonewalled by the Assistant Deputy and his inept office, he grew increasingly hostile toward their unwillingness to tap the resources needed to help an American patriot.

Steve watched Agent Riker assemble her gear and put her cell phone in her bag. When the pilot cut the engines, she pulled the lever on the main cabin hatch and deployed the stairs.

Steve hustled beside Agent Smythe to the unmarked van waiting outside the hangar. A breeze carried the oily scent of jet fuel vapors rippling above the hot tarmac. “How far is the Coast Guard Cutter?”

Riker climbed in the front passenger seat and adjusted her pistol harness before turning her body against the bolstered cushion. “About an hour from the coast. The van’ll drop us at the marina. There’s a boat waiting there to pick us up.”

Smythe popped open his briefcase and fumbled for his sunglasses. “It’s a short ride to the Cutter, assuming the weather holds.”

Smythe closed his briefcase. “I checked the weather before we left. There’s a nasty storm front heading our way.”

Steve forced a smile. He knew on an average day, recreational diving anywhere in the Caribbean offered a welcome retreat from the rolling waves of the North Atlantic. He also knew the threat of bad weather could bring gusty winds, which in turn would bring high seas, strong currents, and a sharp decrease in underwater visibility. Well before three hundred feet below the surface, natural sunlight ceased to exist, adding further complexity to an already dangerous dive.

Staring out the van’s darkened windows, Steve watched Aruba’s landscape unfold at sixty miles an hour. Fringed with rows of palm trees, the beaches along the western shore displayed a plethora of white sand spreading out along the edges of the Caribbean’s ubiquitous turquoise water. He felt drained but not sleepy; awake, but not completely conscious, as if the family vacation he’d embarked on was merely a figment of his imagination; a nightmare gone awry in an otherwise perfect night’s sleep.

“You still with us?” Riker snapped.

Steve blinked, not from the agent’s harsh tone of voice, but from the whiff of garlic he caught from her breath. “Present and accounted for,” he replied without thinking. He sat upright in the vinyl bench seat as the van turned away from the main highway and proceeded along a gravel road to a pier extending from the shore, where a rigid-hull inflatable was tethered. An outboard engine mounted on a wooden transom revved in neutral under the control of the driver behind the center console.

When the van pulled up and stopped, Steve unloaded his duffel bag and slung the carrying strap around his shoulder. He assisted Riker and Smythe with their gear as well, loading the stowage compartments on the small boat before the van disappeared.

* * *

“Ahoy the bridge,” Smythe called out when the group arrived on board the Coast Guard Cutter.

“You couldn’t stay away, could you?” the Coast Guard Captain replied from a loud speaker. Eager to greet his arrivals, he left the bridge in his crisp, white uniform and extended a hearty handshake to Steve. “I’m Captain Martin. Welcome aboard the Chincoteague.”

“Steve Chambers. I assume you know these two.” He nodded at Riker and Smythe.

The Captain frowned. Tall and lean with a dark tan and brilliant blue eyes the color of a Colorado sky, he dressed the part of a movie star in command of a Coast Guard vessel. He wore an emerald class ring on his right ring finger and a platinum wedding band on his left. A graduate of the Coast Guard Academy, he’d quickly risen through the ranks as a helicopter pilot before his 20/20 eyesight faded. A twenty year veteran, he’d spent the last ten years piloting ships on search and rescue missions before taking a final assignment in Miami’s Seventh District.

Steve surveyed the Coast Guard Cutter. “I’m not sure how much you know about my situation.”

“I’ve been in touch with the FBI since yesterday morning. They filled me in on the details about your family. I sincerely hope this mission will be as valuable to you as it is to your country.”

“Me too,” Steve acknowledged. “I didn’t realize the FBI had jurisdiction over you.”

“They don’t,” the Captain stated matter-of-factly as Smythe and Riker advanced beyond the guardrail near the .50 caliber machine guns mounted on the foredeck. “If you’ll follow me, I’ll show you below.”

“Sir, if it’s all the same to you, I’m good to go right now.”

“Not with our equipment situation. The mixed gas readings on the air supply unit are inconsistent. We don’t know if the problem is with the gas or a busted gauge. My best man’s working on it.”

“How long before it’s operational?”

“Ensign Ngyne is top shelf. He’ll have it fixed by morning.” The Captain paused by the radar platform where the American flag hung from a pole in a polished brass socket. “Are you certain you’re up for this?”

“Absolutely, Skipper.” Steve wiped the sweat beading on the side of his head. “What do you know about the FBI’s investigation?”

“Not much more than you, I suppose. The Bureau’s been tight-lipped. I can tell you I’m not happy about this situation. I’ve been ordered to have a civilian engage in a deep diving exercise on my ship. The only reason I’m agreeing is because they condescended to provide me details of your record.”

Steve followed the Captain down the winding metal staircase inside the ship. “I take it you’re not a big fan of the Bureau?”

“Let’s just say I do what I’m ordered to.” The Captain pointed to a row of sleeping racks mounted against the ship’s bulkhead. Made from planks of wood secured to sheets of welded steel, the sleeping quarters provided minimal accommodations for the majority of enlisted crew. “Drop your gear and follow me.”

Steve threw his duffel on a bottom rack. Memories of close-quarter work on naval ships came flooding back. “This Cutter is an Island Class.”

“You know your vessels.”

Steve ducked under an overhead steam pipe. “She spans one hundred and ten feet length overall with a one hundred and fifty ton displacement. A maximum range of over three thousand miles. Max speed of twenty-six knots with a full complement of gear and a crew of fourteen enlisted men and two officers. One twenty-five millimeter machine gun mounted aft and twin fifty caliber guns mounted forward.”

The Captain slapped his hand on Steve’s shoulder. “I’m glad the Navy taught you something.”

Steve smiled to himself. Not a physical smile on his face, but an inner smile he hadn’t felt in days. He liked the Captain for who he was and what he stood for. Under different circumstances he could see himself tipping back a couple of beers with his new companion.

* * *

The Captain walked toward the bulkhead leading out to the upper deck. He knew in his heart what Steve Chambers wanted to hear. And as Captain of the vessel, he knew more was at stake than the lives of one wife and one daughter—no matter how badly Steve Chambers wanted to believe otherwise.

Without a Trace… Chapter 30

Agent Smythe answered his cell phone on the second ring. He knew who the call was from before he glanced at the caller ID. “Hello—”

“That was fast,” Barbara Smythe answered on the other end. “Is it a bad time?”

“You know this number’s for emergency use only.”

“Not for your wife.”

Special Agent Dale Smythe knew his wife had learned the demands of her husband’s job. She didn’t always like them, but over the course of her twenty-year marriage, she’d learned to accept them. He was quite aware that at times, she felt the FBI was as much a part of her as it was of him, like a big brother from out of town who tended to overstay his welcome.

“You sure you’re not busy?” she asked. “You sound distracted.”

Smythe crushed out his cigarette in an empty Diet Coke can on a card table with uneven legs. He wore his service pistol in his shoulder holster and a hot sauce stain on the front of his shirt. “Riker’s on an errand. I’m holding down the fort until hegets back.” He felt nervous and guilty every time he told the lie about his female partner. Barbara had never been a jealous wife—overly cautious about things at times, but never one to flare up over fraternization with a friend of the opposite sex. He nudged his glasses against his nose. In eighteen years with the FBI, he’d never had a female partner until his supervisor introduced him to Special Agent Wendy Riker. As a partner, she could hold her own in the field. As a friend, she had sex appeal and a look that would make Barbara furious if she knew how much time her husband spent with Riker and how often they shared all-night surveillance operations in the back of a small delivery van.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“Sitting on the bed naked. Just had a shower. Are you guys working late again?”

“Until the case is over.”

“When are you coming home?”

“I’m not sure. A couple weeks, maybe more.”

“The kids miss you. I miss you.”

“How’s Debbie’s science project coming along?”

“Good. She has to finish before tomorrow morning. The project’s due by third period. It’s probably the gaudiest volcano you’ve ever laid eyes on, but it works.”

Smythe sauntered toward the mountain of cardboard filing boxes stacked beside a four-drawer cabinet. He pulled the first manila folder from the second drawer and opened it to examine the copy of the hotel registry. The title on the top of the page read “Presidente Suites.”

“How’s David?” he asked, cupping the phone between his chin and shoulder.

“School’s been tough on him since you’ve been gone.”

“He’s still young. How tough could it be?”

“He’s a little boy. He doesn’t understand why you’re always gone.”

Smythe scanned the page. He’d read the list of names from the hotel registry the night before and found nothing peculiar, nothing tangible to point him in a specific direction, which forced him to probe deeper. Something bothered him about the names, but he couldn’t put his finger on it.

“Dale? Are you listening to me?”

“Huh? I’m still here.”

“Then pull yourself away from your work for five minutes and talk to me. Are you still on your diet?”

Smythe eyed the half-eaten bag of salt and vinegar potato chips on his desk. “Pretty much.”

“You promised.”

“You just worry about the kids. I’ll take care of myself.” He patted his stomach and felt it wobble beneath his shirt. “Look Chatty Patty, I’m kind of busy right now.”

“Too busy to talk to your wife?”

“It’s not like that. I’m swamped right now.”

“But I miss you.”

“I know…”

“What about Memorial Day weekend?”

“We’ll see. I miss you.”

“Tell the Bureau you need a break. They owe you for all your time away from home.”

“It doesn’t work that way.”

“Sure it does. Someone else can fill in for you while you’re gone. You’ve worked this out before.”

“Not this time. And you know it’s against protocol for me to use this line for personal conversations.”

“Screw protocol! I want my husband back!”

“And you’ll have him as soon as this investigation’s over.”

“Then no more special assignments.”

“No more special assignments after this. I promise.”

“I love you and I’m proud of what you do.”

“Thank you.”

“Tell Riker I told him to keep you out of trouble.”

“I will.”

“And please be careful.”

“I always am.” He hung up on his wife, still engrossed in the list of names from the hotel registry. He scanned from the top down until he got to Chambers, Steve. Part of him felt sympathy for the man and his missing family; part of him knew better than to let emotion interfere with his objectivity. Protocol dictated his investigation take precedence over any concerns Steve Chambers had for his missing wife and daughter.

He flicked the paper with his middle finger. Except for the hum of the generators outside, the place was almost quiet enough to feel lonely. When the nicotine craving merged with his caffeine headache, a cup of stale Java and a cigarette brought him back to life.

Careful not to spill on his keyboard, he set his mug beside the mouse pad and typed a flurry of notes. Grounded more in intuition than facts or hard science, he tried to formulate potential leads he could follow with Agent Riker, a partner he admired for her intelligence and ability to handle herself under pressure. He made an effort to get to know her on a more personal level. Having never worked with a woman before, he’d spent the first six months trying to understand her personality quirks. She was easy to talk to, but she had a stubborn side and refused to accept responsibility for mistakes. She also lacked the sense of humor his former partner displayed, but for the most part he could deal with her idiosyncrasies the way Barbara dealt with his.

He took another puff from his cigarette. This time he held the smoke in his lungs for a second longer before he exhaled through the corner of his mouth. You are your greatest nemesis, he told himself, remembering a phrase he read in an FBI manual about tracking serial killers. He had surveillance data on tape, phone records on paper, and dozens of photographs taken from the Presidente Suites. If Victor Mendoza was responsible for the disappearance of the Chambers family, he had yet to show his face on camera.

He saved his notes and pulled up one of the five missing persons reports on screen. Jamie Spears, a twenty-two-year-old girl from Richardson, Texas, was reportedly last seen arriving at the Presidente Suites six months ago with her parents and older siblings. Though relatives back home eventually reported the entire family missing, no evidence indicated foul play. The guest registry, credit card receipts, and interviews with airline personnel confirmed the family’s departure from Cozumel as scheduled.

He sipped his coffee and clicked the mouse on the file for Nina and Cindy Parkens, twin sisters both missing since July of 1998 and last seen on vacation at the Marriott Suites in Saint Thomas. He scrolled down the page and read how the parents put up a ten thousand dollar reward for any information regarding the disappearance of their daughters. From the data he’d accumulated, he saw the same pattern developing over and over: small families disappearing on vacation—and always families with one or two young adult children. Some of the families were very wealthy and some weren’t, a fact that continued to bother him since ransom notes were never found. For him, crimes without a motive were illogical. He had his own theories about what was happening, and Riker had hers. The presence of a serial killer seemed plausible, but the patterns of disappearance made the theory seem more and more unlikely as time went on.

When the door buzzer sounded, he got up and checked the peephole to find Riker staring back at him against a moonlit backdrop of trees and overgrown weeds. He unlocked the deadbolt and let her in.

“You expecting someone else?” Riker asked before she entered the safe house, doused in perspiration as she swatted mosquitoes from her face.

Smythe closed the door behind her. “Better to err on the side of caution.” A piece of dark meat chicken protruded from between his top front teeth. He could wiggle it with his tongue, but he couldn’t free it. “Still hot out there?”

Riker took a sip of bottled water. “What do you think?” Eager for relief from the humidity, she moved closer to the window air conditioner. “Did your wife call again?”

“She did.”

“Everything good on the home front?”

“As well as can be expected.”

“You find anything interesting in the hotel registry?”

Smythe took the folder from his desk and flipped to the highlighted portion he’d sorted through earlier. “I can’t pinpoint anything. The names match every cross-reference check I could think of. There must be at least thirty families at the Presidente Suites who match our profile. None are missing.”

“Except for the Chambers family.”

Smythe exhaled through his bulbous nose. “Exactly.”

“How many people checked out today?”

“Ten.”

“Do we know for certain if they all left Cozumel?”

“Based on the airline logs, every passenger was present and accounted for. Unless someone’s playing games with the data they’re sending us, we have to assume the information’s accurate.”

Riker put her face in the stream of cold air blowing from the vent in front of her. She could feel her dry contact lenses sticking to her eyeballs. Perspiration between her breasts began to soak through her bra. “I guess you ate,” she said, pointing to the bag of chips and the dripping mess inside a take-out food container.

“About an hour ago.”

“I thought Barbara put you on a salad and water diet?”

“She did, but I’m sweating off the calories every time I step foot outside this place.” He took a final drag then extinguished his cigarette in the empty soda can. “Any leads from the taxi service?”

“Not really. The car you tracked was rented to a French man named Miguel Lafaraez. I ran him through INTERPOL and came up blank.”

Smythe took a sip of coffee and winced. “What about the dive boat captain I interviewed?”

“The one with the scars and the crooked lip?”

“Yeah. Joseph somebody. You can’t tell me he doesn’t have a record.”

Riker took her shoes off. Her ankles ached from walking in cheap sneakers all day. “He came up clean.”

“I guess I owe you five bucks.” Smythe pulled his wallet out and threw a crumpled bill at her.

Riker caught the paper and unfolded it. “What about the other hotels?”

“I checked out four of them. Nothing suspicious came up except rumors about a missing boy at the Vista Marlo on the north side. Apparently a few years ago a kid swam too far from shore and drowned.”

Riker yawned as she walked to her bedroom. “I’ll finish up in the morning.”

“Don’t forget the bulb’s burned out in the bathroom.”

“I know. You keep missing the bowl.”

“I have better aim than most.”

Riker pointed to his crotch. “That’s not the rumor Barbara puts around.” Before her partner’s face turned red, she shut the door to her room and flicked the light on. She pulled her skirt down and unhooked her bra, tossing her clothes in a dirty laundry pile. She wrapped a towel around her torso and used a flashlight to navigate the bathroom.

She ran the shower until the water warmed up. Then she stepped inside and bowed her head under the low-hanging nozzle. She massaged her scalp and felt the warm water run down her back. She worked the soap on her ample chest, progressing from her breasts to her slender waist and finally to her contoured hips and thighs. At thirty-five, she considered herself to be in reasonably good shape. Running marathons remained a fantasy, but she could manage a fast jog for several miles without exhausting her lung capacity or her tolerance for pain.

She thought about her partner and his workaholic tendencies. More than once she’d thought about having sex with him, not because she found him particularly attractive, but because the doldrums of the job made her desperate for stimulation. Whether or not Smythe would actually rise to the occasion didn’t matter. She wanted the challenge. In a lot of ways, she found Dale Smythe a different breed than most men she’d dated because he cared about more than just himself. The way he cared about his wife and family drew him closer to her. He had what she’d never found—true love. The kind of love she’d never experienced with a man.

When she finished, she pulled the shower curtain open and grabbed her towel from the rack. She dabbed her face, leaving black mascara smudges on the beige terry cloth. Steam fogged the medicine cabinet mirror.

She considered calling Smythe for a fresh towel, a ploy she’d used successfully in the past to lure a man, and wait for human nature to takes its course. She knew Smythe would bring the towel; whether he’d set it outside the door or offer to bring it in made the challenge more enticing. Maybe not, she told herself, clinging to the notion of someone better coming along. A man with dark eyes and a chiseled jaw. A man with arms to hold her tight until she came from his violent thrusts. A man like Steve Chambers.

Stop it. She wiped a clear spot on the mirror. Forget about him.

Wrapped in the towel, she retreated to her room where she changed into shorts and her last clean shirt. She checked her watch on the wooden crate she used as an end table, the same crate she stored her backup piece in. The compact semi-auto provided a worthy addition to her standard issue Glock. She could wear it in her ankle holster with slacks or conceal it in a mini harness beneath a jacket. In a pinch, the gun fit nicely in her purse. She grabbed her phone and checked the voice mail she’d missed in the shower.

“Smythe!” she called out before leaving the privacy of her room.

Smythe swallowed a mouthful of potato chips. “What’s up?” he asked when Riker emerged from the hallway, her hair still dripping wet.

“I got a message from Lieutenant Mierez. A local fisherman caught a floater.”

“Male or female?”

“Don’t know. He said a body was found near the shore.”

“How long ago?”

“About an hour.”

Smythe grabbed the Polaroid camera from the table. “You thinking what I’m thinking?”

Riker took the house key from the hook on the wall. “Steve Chambers is already on his way.”

Without a Trace… Chapter 27

Live music played from a bar across the street from San Miguel’s oceanside promenade where Steve wandered among the masses loitering along the pier beneath a midnight sky. Dwarfed by the shadow of a cruise ship looming over him like a floating skyscraper, he studied the faces of strangers who passed in front of him, reading their expressions one by one as he made his way through the crowd.

He watched a father and his toddler son walk hand in hand while a mother pushed a stroller with twin girls. Are they innocent families on vacation, or cold, calculating killers disguised behind a veil of secrecy? Are they decoys sent to distract me, or novice kidnappers debating their next move?

He knew nothing but the time of night and his own apprehension about pursuing a cryptic message without contacting the police in advance. The same questions kept nagging him. Where are my wife and daughter? Who took them and why?

He slipped his right hand into the pocket of his dark blue windbreaker and squeezed the handle of the stainless steel dive knife he’d brought along for the ride. He stared at an older gentlemen in a gray flannel hat and button-down shirt.

The stranger wore a scraggly beard and stood alone at a payphone, his arms crossed at his chest.

Steve gave him a quick once-over and debated whether the man was involved in a plot to steal his family or a pervert exploring his options. Wary of the stranger’s intentions, Steve started to approach him until he saw the man step away to greet a woman returning from a public restroom.

Is the note a hoax? Or an ominous warning?

Steve questioned his own suspicions, bobbing and weaving through a cloud of doubt. Mentally prepared for whatever or whomever he might come in contact with, he hoped for the best case scenario, one placing his family in favorable circumstance a world away from harm.

He continued along the pier until he reached an information booth skirted by vendors peddling advertisements for vacation destinations within Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. He peered inside the window on the vacant kiosk, half expecting to find Leslie and Sarah tied back to back on the floor with red bandannas wrapped around their mouths and a look of fear carved on their faces—a madman holding them at gunpoint. Instead, he saw stacks of maps and tourist guides stuffed inside magazine holders.

“Move!” he grunted at a street vendor waving color brochures in his face and rambling about the legions of underwater sights and sounds at Chankanaab Lagoon.

Steve pushed his way through the bodies sweating in the seaside air. Assuming the person who wrote the note was actually there, he needed time to sort the friendly faces from those less approachable and more suspicious.

He grabbed a payphone handset on the fourth ring, confident the call was meant for him. “Hello?”

He paused for the other line to kick in, turning his head to look for someone nearby with a cell phone. “Hello?”

He heard a clicking sound followed by shallow breathing on the other end.

“Steve Chambers?”

“Who is this?”

“Go to El Loco’s Bar on Adolfo Rosado Salas.”

“Who are you?”

“Be there in twenty minutes. Alone.”

“Where’s my—”

The line went dead.

Steve checked his watch and unfolded a tattered pocket map. Standing near the edge of the pier beneath an arched streetlight, he traced a path to the center of Adolfo Rosado Salas, a road cutting through town several blocks north of his current location.

Against a judgment impaired by desperation, he proceeded across the oceanside promenade, skirting taxis in the busy crosswalk extending to an alley of parked cars. The smell of urine filled the air as he wandered through a crumbling section of town set back from the outdoor cafes catering to cruise ship passengers and mainland tourists. It was a side of Cozumel not referenced by island tour guides or glossy pamphlets touting paradise on earth.

A stranger among the locals who endured impoverished housing along broken streets dotted with trash, he jogged farther from the edge of town, approaching more decrepit neighborhoods where unsavory characters lurked with questionable intentions, their cigarettes glowing in the dark.

Don’t cling to false hopes, he told himself as he passed the next street extending perpendicular to Adolfo Rosado Salas. Without knowing if the caller was a friend or foe, he assumed the latter and mentally prepared himself for a fight. He braced for a confrontation when he came upon several youths chugging warm beer outside the crumbling establishment known as El Loco’s bar.

Ignoring long stares and taunting words from the men at the entrance, he pushed through a set of swinging doors and took a step back in time.

More solemn than a drifter in a Hollywood western, Steve scanned the old sombreros seated at the booths around him, all staring. Their faces dried and wrinkled, they honored a code of silence among themselves, using gestures to communicate what they thought about Steve. Ocean murals covered the stucco walls. Dusty ceiling fans stirred the atmosphere of sweat and booze. Mariachi music played from a speaker mounted behind the bar, where chipped beer mugs hung from metal pegs beneath a lighted cabinet.

Steve approached the bar from the far end to keep his exit in his field of vision. Aware anyone around him could be his adversary, he held his nerves in check, attune to the random vulgarities mumbled in Spanish. No one nodded and no one waved. Most never blinked.

When he turned away, the conversations gradually returned to a normal level, punctuated by clinking glasses and rapid dialogue.

He checked his watch again. The caller said twenty minutes. He’d made it in eighteen.

He recognized no one from the dozens of patrons around him, until he noticed a Caucasian man and woman entering the bar from a back door entrance partially concealed by beer bottle cases stacked five high. He recognized the duo as the couple he’d seen in the back of the taxi he’d chased earlier. He kept his hand on the knife in his pocket and advanced on their position as they sat down. “Who the hell are you?” he asked, maintaining an arm’s length from the strangers’ table.

The woman spoke first, displaying a split-fold wallet with an FBI badge inside so that only Steve could see it. “My name is Special Agent Riker.” She flashed the badge long enough for Steve to read the FBI inscription beneath the picture. She pointed to the man beside her. “My partner, Special Agent Smythe.”

Steve studied the photo on Agent Smythe’s badge. The face in the picture had a mustache, but the man in front of him didn’t. “What is this?”

Agent Smythe leaned forward, exposing the semi-automatic pistol holstered beneath his Hawaiian shirt. He nudged the top of his dark-rimmed glasses on the edge of his bulbous nose.

Steve tossed the folded note on the table. “I suppose this is yours?”

Agent Smythe nodded.

“And you called the payphone?”

“Grab a seat,” said Agent Riker.

Steve complied. “Why the goose chase?”

Smythe glanced at his partner then back at Steve. “We had to be sure you weren’t followed.”

“By who?”

“That’s not your concern.”

“The hell it isn’t. Where’s my family?”

Riker placed her badge inside her purse. “We don’t know,” she said in a husky voice, a voice thick and heavy like molasses yet soft and sultry like a phone sex operator—a voice matching the heavy makeup she used unsuccessfully to cover the crow’s feet at her eyes. She wore the same denim short-shorts and bikini top she’d sported on the hotel grounds. “Has anyone tried to contact you?”

“What do you mean?”

“Has anyone tried to phone you or leave a note inside your room?”

“No one besides you.”

“What about the American Embassy?”

“How did you know I was there?”

“Just answer the question,” Smythe prodded. He looked at Steve with his ample gut pushing into the edge of the table.

“I was at the embassy. They made it clear they’re in no position to help me.”

“Have you made contact with anyone else outside your immediate family?”

“Tell me where my wife and daughter are.”

Riker produced an unconvincing smile. “We don’t know.”

“Then why have you been following us since we got to Cozumel?”

Riker propped her elbows on the table and laced her fingers together. “Because we’re all on the same team.”

“What team?”

Smythe lit a cigarette from a pack in his shirt pocket. He took a long drag from the unfiltered Camel and blew smoke away from his partner’s face. “It’s complicated.”

Steve shook his head. “It’s very simple: you either tell me what the fuck is going on, or I’ll contact someone in Washington who will.”

Riker leaned against the table, exposing her cleavage. “Agent Smythe and I are involved in an undercover investigation.”

“What kind of investigation?”

“Missing persons.”

“You’re investigating the disappearance of my family?”

“Sort of. Right now we’re investigating several missing persons reports in conjunction with an overall effort to locate and apprehend an individual we’ve been after for several months.”

“Who?”

Smythe scooted himself away from the table and sat up, stretching. He took another puff from his cigarette and flicked ashes on the floor. “We can’t share all the details of our investigation.”

“Then why are you wasting my time? Are you even aware my family’s been missing for three days?”

“Yes, we are aware,” Riker replied. “What my partner is trying to tell you is that we aren’t prepared to divulge certain facets of our operation. To do so could jeopardize the lives of other undercover agents involved.”

Steve bit his lower lip. “Then why did you contact me in the first place?”

“Because we need your help.”

“Why should I help you?”

Smythe blew smoke through his nostrils. “Because your family’s life may depend on it.”

Steve slammed his fist on the table. “Quit jerking me around or they’ll be sending replacements to investigate your disappearance.” He swallowed before he spoke again. “My life is swirling in the bowl right now, and I don’t give a monkey’s ass about the details of your undercover operation. I just want my family back.”

Smythe inhaled until the cigarette tobacco burned to within an inch of his fingertips. He dropped the butt on the floor and snuffed it with his shoe. “We’re investigating the disappearance of several people.”

“How many?”

“Thirteen.”

“How many Americans?”

“All of them.”

“What does this have to do with my family?”

“Maybe nothing, maybe everything,” Riker added in her satin voice. “The truth is we don’t know for sure. We know these people disappeared at various times from various Caribbean resorts. All were supposedly on vacation and none have been seen or heard from since they vanished.” She rubbed her eyes.

Steve noticed they were bloodshot and wondered why.

“Up ’til now, our investigation focused on entire families who disappeared all at once, usually a husband and wife with one or two teenage children. Your situation is unique in that your wife and daughter are missing without you.”

“So why am I still here?”

“We don’t know. So far money doesn’t seem to be a motive. Ransom notes never materialize.”

“How do you know these people didn’t drown or something?”

“Because a pattern’s evolved,” Smythe interjected. “People vanish every day in Mexico City, mostly from drug deals gone bad or murder for hire schemes. Money’s almost always the driving factor. The families we’re investigating have vanished from expensive resorts, families like your own, mostly middle-class with no criminal background or any history of violence. They simply fall off the face of the earth and go unnoticed until a relative or a neighbor or a coworker back home reports them missing.”

“Have you recovered any bodies?”

Riker toyed with an earring. “All we have so far are reports of missing persons. We’ve yet to locate any of them, living or deceased.”

“How do you know they didn’t want to disappear?”

Riker pulled a packet of photos from her purse. “The same way you know your wife didn’t leave you on her own accord. We’re playing off hunches right now, gut instincts telling us where to take this investigation. We’re also assuming these missing persons are victims and not fugitives from justice.”

Smythe took the photos from his partner and thumbed to the middle of the pile. “Our victims have no connection to the mob or any organized crime that we’re aware of.” He placed a picture face-up in front of Steve. The single mug-shot showed an olive-skinned man with long, dark hair and a chevron mustache. “Do you recognize this man?”

Steve shook his head. “Who is he?”

“His name is Victor Arellano Mendoza, a Cuban immigrant from Miami. He graduated Summa Cum Laude before enlisting in the Navy where he earned the rank of convicted killer after murdering his commanding officer.”

“What happened?”

“Mendoza wanted to be part of a Special Forces team, the Navy SEALs in Coronado, California. When he couldn’t hack the training, he blew a gasket and crushed his Lieutenant’s windpipe with his fist. His lawyer called it an unfortunate accident, but witnesses described Mendoza as a loner who was prone to losing his temper. He was court-martialed and sentenced to life in a maximum security prison. He served two years before he managed to escape, killing three guards in the process. That was two years ago.”

Steve studied the picture more intently before he pushed it back to Agent Smythe. “Why do you think he’s involved?”

Smythe looked at his partner.

Riker nodded in agreement and put the photos in her purse. “All leads point to him.” She crossed her legs beneath the table and glanced at the new arrivals in the bar. “Two years ago a Coast Guard team from Miami’s 7thDistrict cited Mendoza for a reckless boating violation. They didn’t know who he was at the time, at least not until a week later when Miami-Dade filed a missing persons report for a family on a chartered boat Mendoza was hired to operate.”

“How could the Coast Guard not know he was wanted in the first place?”

“Bad karma, I guess. Sometimes communication between law enforcement agencies isn’t as good as it could be.”

Steve turned his head when a door slammed at the back of the bar. “I don’t see the connection.”

“Neither did we until a mother and daughter disappeared on vacation in Curacao followed by a family of four who vanished half way through their two-week stint in Saint John. Mendoza was spotted at both locations.”

Steve rubbed his temples. “Mendoza sounds more like a killer than a kidnapper.”

Riker nodded. “I agree, but we’re hoping there’s a connection between him and our missing persons.”

“What kind of connection?”

“That’s what we’re trying to find out. Maybe relatives who testified against him.”

“You’re thinking revenge?”

“Possibly. Or maybe our missing persons were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Mendoza’s a desperate man. He’s number two on our most wanted list.”

Steve slumped in his seat. More confused and frustrated than he was when he entered the bar, he wanted a stiff drink to cool his nerves. “My wife and daughter have no connection to this man. How can you know with any certainty that Mendoza’s responsible for their disappearance?”

“Because,” said Smythe, digging another cigarette from his crinkled soft-pack, “we have information.” He struck a match off the stucco wall beside him and lit up, squinting at the curled smoke rising from his hand to his face. “We have reason to suspect Mendoza is hiding in Cozumel.”

Steve leaned closer to the table. “Are you sure?”

“We’re confident.”

“Then why aren’t you talking to the Mexican authorities?”

Smythe tapped his matchbook on the table. “The Mexican government doesn’t appreciate American law enforcement snooping around and asking questions.”

“But American lives are at stake. I’ve already spoken to—”

“Lieutenant Mierez,” Riker added, finishing Steve’s sentence before he could spit it out. “We know, and we suggest you suspend all contact with him.”

“Why?”

Riker looked at her partner then back at Steve. “Because we suspect someone in the Mexican Government may be collaborating with Mendoza.”

“Who?”

“We’re not certain.” Riker uncrossed her legs and took her elbows off the table. Her lips looked dry and cracked. “If Victor Mendoza is on this island, we need your help to find him, and your wife and daughter.”

“Assuming they’re still alive…” Steve’s voice trailed away. He’d wanted to do more than drive around the island and pass out flyers of his missing wife and daughter. And now that Victor Mendoza gave him another path to follow, he dreaded the thought of where it might lead him. “Do you have children?” he asked Agent Riker.

“No.”

“What about you?” he asked Smythe.

Smythe coiled his cigarette in his hand. “A son and daughter.”

Riker looked down and began digging in her purse. “By helping us you’re helping yourself.”

“What are you saying?”

“Go about your normal routine. Let us shadow your movements. If we’re lucky, Mendoza will try to contact you.”

“You mean kill me.”

“We won’t let that happen.”

Steve looked at Agent Smythe. “Why not? You said yourself, no one gets left behind. I shouldn’t even be here right now.”

Smythe blew smoke. “You’re assuming Mendoza wants you dead. We think he wants your money. We believe he’ll contact you with ransom information, and when he does, we’ll have a realistic shot at catching him.”

“I don’t have money.”

“What about extended family? On your side or your wife’s?”

“My wife’s family is blue collar. I’m fourth generation Navy. Our lives have never been about money.”

Riker dragged a pager from her purse. “Right now we’re playing hunches,” she told him, her voice rising in intensity. “Mendoza’s a desperate man. He can’t run without money. The fact that you’re still here tells us he wants something from you. If he wanted to kill you, you’d already be dead.”

Steve ran his hand through his hair. Shot glasses slammed the counter on the bar behind him. The Mariachi music subsided into blustering arguments between drunken men too stubborn to know when to quit. “And what if you’re wrong?”

Riker glanced at her pager. “We don’t deliver guarantees.”

“Why were you following me and my family at the hotel?”

“We followed several families, not just yours.”

“If you knew they were a target, why didn’t you stay closer? You could have done something to help them.”

Riker returned the pager to her purse. “I’m sorry. If we could be in all places at all times, we would.”

“Then it’s up to you to make amends for this debacle. I’ll contact the American Embassy and let them know you’re working with me. Maybe that would spur the Deputy Chief into action.”

“I wouldn’t do that,” said Riker. “Further contact with the embassy could hamper our investigation.”

“Why? Because you suspect they’re involved as well?” Steve put his hand in his jacket pocket and adjusted the knife’s position against his side.

Smythe crushed out his cigarette and scooted out to let his partner slide away from the bench seat. “We’re asking you to trust us on this one.”

“While I’m waiting for Victor Mendoza to hunt me down? Assuming he’s even involved. What if my family’s stranded in Mexico City or lost in the jungle?” Steve rubbed his two-day growth of beard. He pointed to Agent Riker standing by the back door with a cell phone at her ear. “Who else is involved in this investigation besides you and your partner?”

“We have several field agents deployed at various locations.”

“In Cozumel?”

“Among other places.”

“And you’re confident of Mendoza’s involvement?”

“We are.”

“And if I play along with your charade, you’ll do everything you can to find my family?”

“We will.”

“Even if Mendoza’s not involved?”

Agent Smythe nudged his glasses on the bridge of his nose. “Play this game our way, and we’ll find your wife and daughter.”

Steve leaned back in his seat, reflecting on the useless embassy, the apathetic Mexican police, and how no one he’d talked to remembered seeing Leslie or Sarah on the hotel premises. “I’ll go along for now. But God help you if you’re wrong.”

Without a Trace… Chapter 20

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?”

“Steve Chambers.”

“You are American?”

“Yes.”

“Were you traveling with anyone besides your wife and daughter?”

“No.”

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?”

“No.”

“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.”

“That’s impossible.”

“Why?”

“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.”

Without a Trace… Chapter 16

The Johnson family watched Victor assemble their gear in preparation for their first scheduled dive aboard the Diver’s Paradise. The father of a teenage beauty queen with a warm smile and innocent brown eyes, Marvin Johnson kept watch over his seventeen-year-old daughter Chloe.

An investment banker and a devoted member of the Republican Party, Marvin Johnson believed in family values, lower taxes, and the right to life. He did not, however, believe in the need for his daughter to share conversation with a scraggly-haired, tattoo-laden deckhand who barely spoke without undressing his daughter with his eyes. “Help your sister with her gear,” he told his son, Robert.

* * *

A supporter of his father’s beliefs, twenty-two-year-old Robert Johnson showed interest in Victor’s tattooed emblems of an eagle clutching a golden trident. A recent graduate from Texas A&M, Robert pondered the notion of why anyone would mar their skin with permanent ink—though he himself wore a permanent picture of Porky Pig on his left buttock, the result of a lost dare at a college frat party. He had no regrets about the pig tattooed on his ass, but he also knew he could hide it from the world without exposing himself to ridicule.

* * *

At forty-eight, Mrs. Pamela Johnson enjoyed the fountain of youth, possessing the taut, wrinkle-free skin of a woman half her age. She took pride in her physical appearance but never flaunted the gift God gave her. Seated beside her son and husband, she admired her family through mirrored Ray-Bans. Not much of a diver herself, she’d been anticipating a Caribbean vacation for the weather, and shopping opportunities, as soon as Marvin received his Christmas bonus. Vacations for her family occurred twice a year: once in the winter between January and February, and once in the summer around July. This year, plans had changed on account of a lump in her breast. Although it was eventually diagnosed as benign, the medical scare had kept her out of work for several weeks and sent Marvin on the warpath trying to cope with her wild mood swings. She always ate a proper diet and got plenty of rest and exercise. On top of her healthy habits, her family on her mother’s side had no history of breast cancer, compounding her initial shock about the mammogram results. The cancer had an impact on her children as well. Chloe couldn’t sleep for weeks, and Robert threatened to skip his last semester and stay home. She’d pushed them both away by hanging tough and insisting she could manage on her own. Fortunately in the end, Robert graduated Summa Cum Laude in December, and Chloe received her university acceptance letters from her first and second choice schools.

She rubbed another coat of lotion on her arms and face. A novice diver who enjoyed the water, she knew enough about scuba to feel safe in the presence of a qualified instructor. Diving was okay for her, but the sport was really Marvin’s passion. Given a choice, she preferred tennis and golf, especially golf at the country club where she spent more time socializing with her friends than she did on the green. On the tennis court, she lacked the skills to compete against more seasoned players, but she held her own against the ladies in her neighborhood. If she got her wish, Chloe would follow in her footsteps and learn tennis just as Robert had followed in Marvin’s to finish school at Texas A&M. She admired her son’s conviction to graduate from college with honors in mechanical engineering. She admired her daughter’s conviction to earn an academic scholarship. Both children had their father’s drive for success. Both had grown up too fast.

* * *

“Are we there yet?” Marvin asked the bald crewman attending to a length of rope with a galvanized fluke anchor secured at one end.

“Almost,” Damon answered. He tied a bowline knot on the other end of the rope, fashioning a small loop before dropping the nylon at his feet.

“You need a hat,” Pamela offered, noticing the red blotch on Damon’s scalp. “I have an extra one in my bag.” After pawing through makeup, sunscreen, and a half-liter of bottled water, she retrieved a crumpled cap with a Reece Bank logo imprinted on the front. A freebie she got at Marvin’s company picnic last summer, she felt glad to have an excuse to get rid of it. “Here you go,” she offered, getting up from her seat to offer Damon the cap.

Damon flopped the adjustable hat on his bald spot. The cap fit him like a glove with several strands of loose hair poking out across the back of his head. “Thanks,” he said matter-of-factly, turning to Victor who stood over the forward compartment hatch.

Damon let out a wet, hacking cough.

Bored with the long ride, the young Robert Johnson wandered about the boat until he came upon a spear gun mounted below an orange life ring. He touched his finger to the tip of the pointed barb screwed into the end of the aluminum shaft.

“I wouldn’t touch that,” Damon warned.

“You fish with this?”

“Sometimes.”

“What do you catch with it?”

“Big fish.”

Marvin joined his son by the helm as Victor dropped below deck. “How much farther?”

“Not much,” Damon answered.

“Why are we so far from land?” Robert asked. “I thought the reefs were closer to shore.”

“Not all of them,” Damon answered. “Sometimes the best diving is farther out where there are fewer boats and fewer divers in the water.”

Marvin lowered his voice. “What about emergency access to medical facilities?”

Pamela nudged him with her elbow. “Honey, give the man some credit. He knows what he’s doing.”

“Don’t worry,” Damon said, tying another loop at the end of a rope affixed to a string of lead diving weights. He pointed to a green sticker plastered on the outside of a red and white first-aid box beneath the portside bench.

Marvin stared across the lengthy span of open water. “I prefer shorter boat rides.”

“It’s high season,” Damon said to Pamela. “Many boats try to claim first dibs on a handful of dive locations. The reefs get crowded. You can’t enjoy the view when there are twenty dive boats competing for the same spot.”

* * *

Marvin wiped the sea spray from his sunglasses. “I suppose.” He sat beside his son, who held one arm overboard to let the water splash his hand. He watched his daughter climb the ladder to the fly bridge above the helm. “Careful up there,” he shouted over the monotonous drone from the diesel engines. He could feel the radiation from the sun baking his arms and legs. His face felt burned from the day before when he had taken the family snorkeling in a shallow lagoon near Playa del Carmen. Anxious to get wet, he adjusted the straps on his mask and snorkel so the rubber wouldn’t chafe his earlobes.

“Have you ever been to Saint Lucia?” Damon asked Pamela Johnson.

“No, I haven’t. But I’ve heard it’s nice.” Pamela adjusted her sunglasses while the boat made a gradual turn to port.

“Do you golf?” Damon asked.

“Yes.”

Damon wiped the sweat off his brow. He motioned toward the water, his gaze focused on Mrs. Johnson’s teenage daughter.

When the boat slowed to come off plane, the stern settled into position, leaving a giant wake behind.

Chloe climbed down from the fly bridge to suit up for the dive. She slipped on a two millimeter shorty that clung to her curves like shrink-wrap.

Pamela checked the air pressure from the gauge in her dive computer console. She gave her daughter a pat on the back and adjusted the zipper on her wetsuit. “That’s awfully tight on you, Chloe,” she remarked. The girl’s breasts pushed out from the front of the wetsuit.

Chloe took her mask from her bag. Fitted with prescription lenses, the mask compensated for her near-sighted vision without the hassle of wearing contacts underwater. “It’s supposed to fit tight.”

* * *

The boat trolled in a circle while the captain scanned the radar for the presence of other vessels in the area. Away from other dive boats and the threat of a Coast Guard patrol, he brought the engines back to idle and shifted into neutral. He used his binoculars to search the horizon and stomped his foot on the deck to signal his shipmate below.

“Is that a shark?” Robert asked, pointing at what looked like a dorsal fin slicing its away along the surface.

“Stop it,” Chloe whined, punching her older brother in the arm. “That’s not funny.”

“No I’m serious. I saw something in the water.”

Chloe cupped her hand on her mouth when a bloody clump of dead fish drifted in front of her. “I’m gunna barf,” she mumbled through closed fingers.

Marvin leaned over to view the chunk of floating debris for himself. “Looks like dead fish,” he said out loud. “Survival of the fittest, especially at sea.”

Damon lowered the swim platform and observed the school of hammerhead sharks circling the perimeter of the dive boat. He pulled a fillet knife from a sheath on his belt. “All we want is the girl.”

Chloe sat up in her seat.

“What?” asked Marvin, confused by the oddball statement.

“The girl,” Damon insisted. He pointed at Chloe with the knife.

Marvin pushed away from the side of the boat as Damon approached him with the knife. “What the hell are you doing?”

Robert moved toward his sister, his hands clenched in fists. “Dad, what is this?” He backed into his mother and sister when the captain aimed the spear gun at his chest.

“Step aside,” the captain ordered, his crooked lip distended from the corner of his mouth as he slurred his words. “Do what they tell you.”

Pamela wrapped her arms around her daughter, staring in disbelief at the sight of the shining blade in Damon’s hand. “Whatever you want—just take it. We’ll give you everything.”

Damon tossed the anchor rope at Marvin’s feet. “Put your foot through there.”

Marvin looked at his wife and daughter. “I’ll do no such thing!” He took his dive watch off his wrist—a thousand-dollar watch he’d bought at a specialty store in the mall. “Take this, take our scuba gear, take it all.”

Damon grabbed Pamela’s wrist and pulled her away from her husband and son. He controlled her body in one fluid motion, spinning and twisting her in a grotesque dance ending with his arm against her chest and the knife at the base of her throat. “Put your foot in the loop,” he threatened Marvin, “or I’ll gut her like a fish.”

“No!” Pamela pleaded.

Marvin slipped his foot in the loop and eyed the heavy anchor attached to the other end. “Don’t hurt my family.”

Damon tossed another line at Robert; this one with thirty pounds of diver’s weights attached.

Robert leaned over for the rope, shifting his weight from one leg to the other as he discretely positioned himself in a wrestler’s stance. He let his shoulders relax before inhaling a deep breath through his nose. The spear gun was less than ten feet away, and the captain holding it was sluggish at best. I can take him, he assured himself, drawing on the instincts he’d honed as a college wrestler. Afraid for his life, he buried his fear in the back of his mind and took the rope in his fingers, pretending to concede to Damon’s request. He tightened the muscles in his upper thighs, compressing them like giant springs before exploding toward the captain’s knees with a sudden burst of power, employing a takedown technique he’d used successfully in numerous wrestling matches. At the same time, the spear gun launched its razor-tipped shaft and missed its target before plunging into the open water.

Slamming the captain on his back, Robert pummeled the man with a flurry of punches, completely unaware of the long-haired figure emerging from the open hatch behind him.

“Son, watch out!” Marvin shouted as Victor approached from the forward compartment holding a machete.

Fueled by his own adrenaline, Robert ignored the initial blow near the base of his spine. Then a numbness permeated his lower body, where a warm wetness seeped down the back of his legs.

Robert reached his hands behind his back and felt a kidney protruding from the massive laceration.

Victor stood triumphant like a soldier in the heat of battle, blood dripping from his weapon of choice. Before Robert could defend himself, he hacked the blade against the boy’s fleshy side, cutting deep into organs and muscle tissue. He tied the rope to Robert’s ankle and shoved the weighted end off the swim platform. The effort left a crimson smear along the deck as Robert’s body slid over the transom and sank below the surface to join the feeding frenzy spurred by the floating chum.

* * *

Nearly catatonic, Pamela trembled at the gruesome sight. Unable to block the image from her mind and convince herself it was all a bad dream, she shut down inside, convinced her only son was still alive and the man with the knife to her throat was merely a figment of her imagination, an apparition concocted by a tortured imagination.

“For the love of God,” Marvin pleaded, “please don’t do this!”

Damon relinquished his grasp on Pamela and pushed the anchor off the edge of the platform, causing the coil of rope to unravel and snap Marvin’s leg out from under him.

Clinging to a dive vest as he fell, Marvin smacked the water and floated at the surface. Carried away by the current, he watched the boat drift away, the knot tightening around his ankle from the weight of the Danforth anchor pulling him down.

Locking one arm through the partially inflated vest, he thrust his other arm in the water to free the rope. Salt water splashed his face, stinging his eyes and the tiny cuts on his sunburned lips. Concerned for the safety of his wife and daughter, he worked fast to break free from the rope.

When he finally glanced back at the boat, he saw the brilliant reflection of the sun’s rays glistening off the spear gun shaft. Clinging to the dive vest, he tried to duck underwater to avoid the twin-barbed spear flying at him. But the effort proved too little, too late.

The shaft pierced his chest below the clavicle and forced him to relinquish his hold on the vest. He sank quickly toward the bottom, rupturing both eardrums as he bled profusely in the shark-infested water.

Without a Trace… Chapter 7

Sarah chewed fervently on a wad of grape gum as the Boeing 757 touched down at Cancun Airport north of the village of Playa del Carmen in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. She removed her headphones and stared out the window to watch the plane taxi from the runway to the airport terminal.

Inside the terminal, she stood in line with her mom and Steve at the passport check-in area. The place was crowded with vacationers fanning themselves beneath a row of wobbly ceiling fans, and the temperature in the busy airport rose in proportion to the mass of warm bodies sequestered inside.

Sarah watched the tourists come and go from duty-free shops and smoky bars where international patrons drank Mexican beer and conversed in a multitude of foreign languages. Her mirrored sunglasses reflected the image of her parents fanning themselves with their passports. She spoke loudly to overcome the Spanish announcer on the speaker system broadcasting instructions to arriving passengers. “How much longer?” she asked her mom.

Leslie pulled her sweater over her head. “Not much,” she said, shouting over the jet engine noise from a departing flight.

Sarah knew her mother hated waiting in crowded airports as much as she did, but would hold her tongue to “set an example.”

Sarah sniffed the air. “It smells like warm Corona in here.”

“How would you know what Corona smells like?” asked Steve.

“I’ve smelled it at home when you guys drink it.”

“We don’t drink Corona,” said Leslie.

Steve gave a devilish grin. “Busted,” he told his precocious stepdaughter, who turned away to save face.

Sarah stared through her shaded lenses at a boy in cut-off shorts and a Van Halen concert shirt. He reminded her of a guy in high school, a junior she’d met at a home basketball game, only much cuter.

She nudged her suitcase with her foot when the line finally moved. Her jaw hurt from constant chewing as she molded the rubbery gum against the roof of her mouth and pushed with the tip of her tongue to blow a bubble. The lack of elasticity made it hard to form the bubble the way she wanted to. She laughed at her mom, who emptied her last orange Tic-Tac. “How many of those have you eaten?”

Leslie ran her hand through her bangs. The humid air had made her hair go flat. “I thought your orthodontist said ‘no gum?'”

“No he didn’t.”

“Did you pack the sunblock like I asked?”

Sarah took a tissue from her purse and wrapped the gum. “It’s in my suitcase.”

“You didn’t pack it in your carry-on bag?”

Sarah stuffed the wadded tissue in her pocket. “You never told me to.”

“You’re going to need it. The sun’s a lot hotter in Mexico than it is back home.”

“You don’t want to look eighty when you’re thirty,” said Steve.

Sarah rolled her eyes. She enjoyed Steve’s humor as much as she enjoyed detention for skipping class.

* * *

At the customs station, Steve faced a short, squat Mexican official with a handlebar mustache and slick, black hair. Steve presented three passports and waited for the officer to stamp the pages.

The officer examined the passport photos. Sarah resembled the girl in the photo, but Steve Chambers had lighter hair. Leslie Chambers had shorter hair and looked ten pounds lighter. He scrutinized the date of birth and the country of origin on all three passports before he stamped the pages and signaled for the Chambers family to move on.

“We better hustle,” Steve prompted as they made their way through the security check-in area. Near the exit, he could see the last few passengers boarding the twin-engine turbo prop outside.

“I’m not getting on that thing,” Leslie confided outside the terminal, afraid to board the puddle jumper for the final leg to Cozumel.

Steve took her hand and helped her climb the boarding ladder to the passenger cabin. “It’s a short flight,” he reassured her. “We’ll only be in the air a few minutes. Nothing’s going to happen, I promise.” He ducked inside the plane and chose the window seat. His spiked hair brushed the cramped air vents above. Compared to the spacious interior of the 757, the small turboprop felt more like a model plane than a full size commercial aircraft.

Leslie closed her eyes. Unable to hear herself think above the roar of spinning propellers, she focused her thoughts away from the plane, imagining herself on the beach with the sand between her toes. She pictured herself with a strawberry daiquiri in one hand and a copy of People magazinein the other. When the wheels left the ground, she watched the airport disappear through Steve’s window as the plane banked east and flew over the cerulean blue water spanning the distance between the Yucatan Peninsula and the island of Cozumel.

* * *

Buenos dias,” a Hot Spot Vacations representative greeted the Chambers’ family from behind the service desk inside the small Cozumel airport. He wore a gold cross necklace and a straw hat with a red bandana around the crown.

Habla usted ingles?” Steve asked with an awkward pronunciation.

Si. What can I do for you?”

“The name is Chambers. We booked a vacation reservation with Hot Spot Vacations.”

Si. I have your name on my list.” He handed Steve a clipboard with a pen attached. “Is this your first time in Cozumel?”

Steve read down the list of names until he found his own and scribbled his signature in the right-hand column. “Do you provide hotel transportation?”

The man pointed to a set of glass doors. “Right through there.”

“How far are the Presidente Suites from here?”

“About forty-five minutes.”

Steve followed Leslie and Sarah to the baggage carousel and found their luggage on the far side of the horseshoe configuration. He grabbed his first suitcase from between a duct-taped chest and a cardboard box with crumpled edges. Inspecting the hard shell case for damage, he looked up when he saw a tall, black man approaching from the employee-only entrance near the back of the airport.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the clean-cut stranger announced with a British accent. He wore a bright red Polo shirt with the words “Hot Spot Vacations” embroidered above the chest pocket. “May I have your attention for one moment please? My name is Ambrose. For those of you arriving with Hot Spot Vacations, I would like to welcome you to Cozumel. Once you have gathered your things, please sign in at the travel desk if you have not already done so. We have three vans waiting outside to transport you to your hotels. For those of you who are not traveling with Hot Spot Vacations today, please remain in the waiting area as your representative should be here shortly.”

Steve frowned at the sight of his wife and daughter gawking at the debonair man in Bermuda shorts with white knee-high socks and canvas sneakers. He gave Sarah the smaller suitcase and carried the heavier luggage himself. He led his family to the Hot Spot Vacations van outside and boarded with his dive bag on his lap.

“Is anyone staying at the Plaza Las Glorias?” Ambrose asked from the front of the van, settling himself behind the wheel. “If so, you need to be on the other van. This one is only stopping at hotels along the southern end of the island.” With no reply from the crowd behind him, he fastened his seatbelt and dropped the column shifter into drive.

The ride through San Miguel carried guests along the waterfront street of Avenida Rafael Melgar where the onslaught of cars, mopeds, and pedestrians flooded the roadways in the center of town. Ferries docked at the city harbor directly across from the main plaza along the western side of the island. Within the plaza, local merchants sold souvenir trinkets near small cantinas serving hungry customers a taste of authentic Mexican cuisine. Along the waterfront, upscale retail shops displayed expensive clothes and jewelry.

Secluded behind acres of lush vegetation, the Presidente Suites offered its guests the best of both worlds. At just over five miles from the main plaza in San Miguel, the hotel was close enough for a quick dinner jaunt by taxi, yet far enough away from more impoverished parts of town.

When the van pulled into the wrap-around driveway, Leslie stared in awe at the meticulously landscaped garden encompassing the hotel’s entrance. The outside walls covered in pink stucco and yellow trim accentuated the plethora of fresh flowers. Towering palm trees added scale to the twelve-story structure, where guests entered through a domed foyer lined with Roman pillars and autographed paintings of ocean scenes.

Once outside the van, Leslie followed Steve and Sarah through the marble foyer decorated with crystal chandeliers and mahogany furnishings. Sprays of fresh flowers adorned the lobby where a pianist played softly behind a spiral staircase extending to the second floor dining hall. Vacationers frolicked between padded lounge chairs and thatched umbrellas behind large windows overlooking the private beach.

“Don’t look at her,” Leslie scolded jokingly when she caught Steve scoping out a tall blonde with a flawless figure and a rose tattoo on her ankle.

“Look at who?”

“They were on the plane with us. I saw you checking her out.”

Steve grabbed his luggage and walked with Leslie toward the end of the counter. “I’ve never seen her before.”

“You just keep your eyes on me, sailor, or I’ll make you drop and give me fifty.”

Steve grinned. “Is that a promise?”