Without a Trace… Chapter 33

Still groggy from the drugs in her bloodstream, Sarah felt the floor spin beneath her in the darkened room. She heard a car door slam, followed by the sound of tires spinning on gravel. Vaguely aware of what had happened to her, she remembered being carried off a boat before she passed out. She also remembered the scent of cigar smoke, the same smell now wafting through the gap under the door across from her.

Coping with a pain in her lower abdomen, she tried to stand. Wobbly at first, she used her hands to feel along the wall until her confidence in her legs came back. A light switch illuminated the small room with its single boarded window and no furniture.

Squinting from the bright light above her, she recalled the man with the needle and the forceful prick in her arm; the sting from another injection intended to make her sleepy.

She tried the door but found it locked. She could hear screaming, followed by shouting in Spanish. She recognized the words, but she couldn’t make out the translation.

Keys jingled in the lock, prompting her to move backwards as two men entered, dragging the battered body of Chloe Johnson between them. Sarah recognized the girl from the boat before the men dropped her like a bag of mulch and retreated, slamming and locking the door behind them.

“Are you okay?” she said to the broken teenager. “What happened?”

Chloe Johnson crawled against the wall and assumed the fetal position. Her frazzled hair hung down around her face. Her torn shirt exposed her shoulders and the purple bruise marks on her arms.

Sarah touched Chloe’s cheek where a star-shaped impression had been hammered against her skin. “It’s all right.”

“Mmmmm…”

“Who are you?”

“Mmmmm…”

“What’s your name?”

Chloe jerked away from Sarah’s touch, shielding her face with her hands. “Chloe.”

Sarah stared at Chloe’s bruises. “Where are we?”

“In hell.”

“But we’re still alive.”

Chloe wiped her face with her hand. Snot oozed from both nostrils. “They’ll come for you next.”

Sarah shook her head, afraid to imagine what horrors awaited. “They’ll have to kill me first.”

Chloe repositioned herself with her back against the wall and her knees drawn up to her chest. “They won’t.”

“How did you get here?”

“They killed my family. My brother. Then my father.”

Sarah thought about Mom and Steve. “Are we still in Mexico?”

“I think so.”

“How long have we been here?”

Chloe shrugged.

“Can you walk?”

Chloe rubbed her legs. “It hurts.”

“You have to try. We have to find a way out of here.”

“How?”

Sarah touched the boarded window. “Help me find something to pry with.”

Chloe relaxed herself from her curled position on the floor, pondering on the girl’s words. Escaping from her captors would remove her from their physical presence, but the pain they’d already inflicted would follow her for the rest of her life. She’d no family to run to; no mother and father to rescue her and punish the men who hurt her. “It won’t do any good. They’ll find us.”

“No they won’t. Not if we run and hide.”

“They’ll find you. And they’ll kill you just like they killed my brother and my parents.”

Sarah pressed on. “What’s outside of here? Are we near anything? Somewhere someone might be able to help us?”

“I think we passed a hotel.”

“Where?”

Chloe rubbed her jaw. The swelling in her face had worsened since the men brought her back. “I can’t remember. It looked old.”

Sarah dug her fingers between the wood and the bottom of the window opening. She used her legs to push against the wall while she tugged on the wood plank nailed in place. “If we can get to a phone—”

“They’ll catch us first.”

“Not if we move fast.”

Chloe heard the words coming out of the girl’s mouth, and wondered how the silly bitch could believe what she was saying.

“How many men are there?”

Chloe stared at her hands. She pictured the men’s faces in front of her. On top of her. Breathing on her. Touching her in places they shouldn’t. Shouting and laughing with one another, then at one another. She remembered the pop of broken teeth in her mouth. “Four, I think.”

“Are you sure?”

“Four attacked me, but I heard other voices outside.”

“How far away is the hotel?”

“Far.”

“How far? A block? A mile? Ten miles?”

Chloe shifted her gaze to the ceiling, trying to recall what she’d seen on the ride to the house. Men’s faces kept blocking her thoughts. Mean, hateful faces, men on top of her, beating her, hurting her again and again. “It’s a long away. I heard music in the car when I saw the hotel. The song ended when we got here.”

“How fast were you going?”

“I don’t know.”

“How fast did it feel?”

“Fast.”

Sarah ran a calculation through her head. If an average song plays for three minutes and the car averaged sixty miles an hour, the distance traveled would be roughly three miles, assuming a constant speed. “We can make it if we run.”

“How can you know that?” Chloe moaned. “The hotel could be hours from here.”

“Maybe. But it’s a chance we have to take.”

Without a Trace… Chapter 28

Shotgun blasts erupted on the bow of the stolen yacht as clay fragments exploded in the sky like an afternoon fireworks display.

“Again!” Victor shouted with the twelve-gauge pump-action slung low at his waist.

Damon pulled a rope attached to a spring-loaded launcher, causing the metal arm to fling the next array of clay targets toward the sky.

In one fluid motion, Victor brought the butt of the shotgun to his chest, aimed down the length of the barrel, and squeezed the trigger.

The gun stock kicked against his massive pectoral from the recoil of the magnum shell.

Before the first target shattered into oblivion, he pumped the shotgun fore-end to slam another round in the chamber. He fired and reloaded and fired again until the hail of shotgun pellets turned the last of the falling fragments into dust.

Spent shells littered the deck. Smoke trailed from the heated muzzle. “I’m out.”

Damon handed him the box of ammo. “They’ll be here soon.” He cupped his hand over his mouth and coughed. “We should put this shit away.”

Victor reloaded. In the last few years, he’d made more enemies than friends and trusted no one except himself and Damon. Not one for cards and drinking games, he found comfort in more violent activities, or by his own definition, any sport involving guns or knives and targets—real or imagined. “Load the trap,” he told his friend. This time he chose a left hand position. “Pull!”

Damon tugged on the launch string. The spring-loaded throwing arm snapped sideways.

Victor fired again. “One more time.”

Damon prepped the launcher with the last four targets and sent them hurling toward the sun. This time he pulled the chrome-plated .45 from his shoulder holster and shot the flying discs before Victor could fire again. The targets broke into large chunks and fell into the water.

Victor brought the shotgun to his side. He wanted to punch his friend in the mouth but refrained when he noticed a boat in the distance, headed their way.

Damon laughed. Impressed with his own marksmanship, he holstered his gun and grabbed the empty clay target box from the deck. Exchanging drugs for money was dangerous business. Exchanging flesh for money, however, had a way of bringing out the worst in people, a lesson he’d learned with a bullet to the leg.

Barely half the length of the hundred-foot Sunseeker, the oncoming vessel enjoyed the benefit of greater speed and agility, allowing the captain of the smaller boat to pull alongside the yacht without compromising his defensive position.

Still armed with the shotgun, Victor stepped out to greet the men he’d been waiting for. “Carajo! Donde has estado?” he asked the first man who came on board.

“You’re late,” Damon added.

The Colombian buyer averted eye contact with Victor and signaled for his men to stay put. Puffing on a fat cigar, the fifty-something man with a thick beard and mustache wore Bermuda shorts and a flowered shirt with a straw hat and closed toe sandals. A braided gold necklace hung around his neck. “How do you say—” he floundered for the words in English. “Engine trouble.”

* * *

Strapped to a bed, Leslie stared up at the cabin ceiling and swallowed saliva. Desperate for a drink of water, she’d abandoned her effort to scream with the duct tape across her mouth. Stripped to her panties and bra, she’d imagined worse things could happen.

Red, swollen skin lined her wrists where the nylon ropes secured her arms, stretched out perpendicular to her body. Every movement sent a wave of stinging pain down her sides. Her ankles endured the same fate from the chafed skin below her shins, where a second set of nylon ropes secured her legs to the bed.

For the first time in hours, she heard voices coming from somewhere inside the yacht, but she couldn’t make out the words. Parts of the conversation took place in Spanish, a conversation revolving around money. She heard two men’s voices, one she recognized and one she’d never heard before. She thought about Sarah, praying for her only daughter to remain unharmed. From the absence of Sarah’s cry for help, she wondered if Sarah was on board. Or whether she was still alive.

Leslie contemplated her options. Not having any idea where the boat might be, she needed more than access to a radio and a chance to call for help. She needed a miracle.

Without a Trace… Chapter 20-21

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.”

bookmark:Chapter 21

Chapter 21

image:flourish.png

Engulfed in darkness, Leslie awoke lying on her front, listening to the drone of diesel engines churning. Dazed and confused, she rolled herself off the single bed inside the yacht’s port cabin, where her body landed with a dull thud against the floor. Afraid of falling again, she groped her surroundings to steady herself in one position. Her mind was reeling to comprehend the how and why of her predicament. She stood upright clutching onto a locker handle until the feeling of vertigo dissipated a little.

Aware of water splashing, she staggered toward a porthole in the hull. A shooting pain stemming from her face and neck spread down her arms and legs. Conscious, but semi-lucid, she touched her hands to the porthole and stared out the darkened glass at the moon’s image reflected on the water. “Sarah?” she called out. “Sarah, are you in here?”

She probed her memory for a logical explanation as to what was happening. She’d recognized the men who helped her and Sarah on the beach. After that, her thoughts went blank. “Sarah? Sarah!”

Hugging the walls for balance, she crawled out of the cabin and made her way to the dimly-lit hallway outside. She bit her lower lip, unaware of the blood in her mouth as she continued along an L-shaped passageway leading toward the back of the yacht, where the smell of rancid meat made her gag. “Sarah?”

Guided by the ambient light from a lamp in the main salon, she struggled to open the panel in front of her. When she failed, she pressed her ear to the door and whispered, “Sarah, are you in there?” She grabbed the latch and tried to force it, using her upper body to leverage the flimsy metal. When her initial effort failed, she jammed her shoulder against the panel, using her body weight to force her way inside.

She stared at the master stateroom and the oval bed surrounded by hanging cabinets and a flat screen television mounted above an open locker. A putrid smell knocked her back. She covered her mouth and flipped the wall switch. Track lighting illuminated a macabre display of blood-splattered walls and ceiling.

She stumbled out, confused and disoriented as she moved to the front of the boat, unaware of the figure lurking in the shadows behind her.

Without a Trace… Chapter 8

Steve watched the bellhop push the luggage cart from the elevator along the open-air walkway overlooking the scenic garden eight floors below. Lighter than a featherweight boxer, the bellhop wore a gold hoop earring to match the gold lapels on his pressed white uniform. Sweat beaded on his forehead as he pushed the overloaded cart through the door to the Chambers’ suite.

“You can put those on the bed,” said Steve. He pinched two dollars from his Velcro wallet and offered the paltry tip.

The young man accepted the gratuity with feigned enthusiasm, flashing a crooked smile at Sarah who pretended not to notice. “My name is R-Randy. If you n-need anything else, l-l-let me know.”

Steve escorted Randy from the room and locked the deadbolt. He slid his wallet into his back pocket and sat on the edge of the king-size bed to gauge the firmness of the mattress. He heard Sarah open the sliding door to the balcony and watched her plop herself in a lounge chair positioned beside the patio table. Irritated by her sullen demeanor and sour attitude, he had no clue what set her off.

You’re playing with fire, he told himself, shifting his attention from the problem child to the pricey accommodations Leslie had chosen. Satisfied by the quality of the mattress, he admired the ample space the room afforded. A mini-refrigerator stored bottled water and a variety of canned sodas. A wicker basket on the mirrored bureau offered chips, crackers, pretzels, mixed nuts, and one-ounce samples of top-shelf liquor.

He watched Leslie open the patio doors to the spacious balcony. “Do you like it?”

“I love it!”

“I’m glad we’re here,” Steve confided. He got up and hugged his wife.

Leslie put her arm around his slender waist. “Thank you for doing this. I know it’s expensive, but it means a lot to me.” She unfolded a vacation brochure and read aloud. “It says they offer nightly entertainment in the bar beside the main dining hall. Tuesday is ladies night with free drinks after eight. They have lighted tennis courts on the premises and a jogging trail with exercise stations.” She read down the page and skimmed the next section with color photos. “They have two swimming pools, and one of them has a swim-up bar. They also have volleyball, bicycling, sailboats and paddleboat rentals. The building next door has a gym with treadmills, stationary bicycles, and free weights. They even have aerobics classes every morning.”

Steve took the cable guide from the nightstand and flipped through the pages of pay-per-view listings. “What about the dive shop downstairs?”

“It doesn’t say much.”

“How many divers do they take at once?”

“It doesn’t say.”

Leslie pointed to a picture in the brochure. “Look at this. We can visit the famous remnants of Chichen-Itza and tour the Mayan ruins. There’s also a place called Chankanaab Park with a lagoon and botanical garden. Sarah might like that.”

Steve examined Monday night’s line up. He read the listing of late-night programming starting at 2200. A slasher flick followed at 2300 with a caption below the title warning nudity, violence, and sexually explicit content. The movie summary described a serial killer stalking young women on a college campus. Another station showed a movie about a former strip dancer who finds true love with a cop assigned to protect her from a mobster who wants her dead.

“How does that sound?” asked Leslie.

Steve looked up from the glossy pages of movie listings and found his wife unpacking her suitcase. “How does what sound?”

“A dive tomorrow morning to get your feet wet. Our Hot Spot guide said the dive shop offers a complimentary orientation dive to all guests who stay five nights or more.”

Steve put the cable guide on the television and walked to the balcony where Sarah was stretched out on the lounge chair listening to music through her headphones. “I’ll sign us up.”

“When are we eating?” Sarah shouted above the music in her ears.

Steve waited for her to adjust the volume. “You wanna give us a hand?” He peered over the painted railing to view the landscaped shrubbery below. Carved in a circular pattern, bushes surrounded the kidney-shaped pool extending from the bungalow restaurant near the main building to the volleyball traps by the beach. A wooden bridge spanned the middle of the pool where a waterfall cascaded over swimmers who splashed around an artificial reef made of concrete and colored stucco. A poolside bar with underwater chairs provided refreshments for adults. “The pool looks refreshing.”

“I wouldn’t know,” said Sarah.

“Did you see the waterfall when we came in the lobby?”

Sarah removed her headphones. Her long, blonde hair fell between the plastic straps on the back of the cushioned chair. Her neck and face felt hot. “How come my room doesn’t have a remote control for the TV?”

“I thought it did.”

“I don’t have a refrigerator either.”

“You can use ours.”

“But it’s my own room. I should have my own stuff. I don’t even get an ocean view. How come you guys get this room and I get stuck in the dump overlooking the tennis courts?”

“I wouldn’t consider it a dump,” said Steve.

Sarah shrugged. “Are we diving tomorrow?”

“Maybe.”

“What time?”

“Early.”

“How early?”

“You don’t have to go if you don’t want to.”

Sarah got up from her chair. The plastic straps left a waffle cone impression on the back of her legs. “We’ll see.”

* * *

Steve stayed outside to enjoy the smell of the ocean air. He’d paid his tribute to the spoiled princess. Another conversation gone bad. Time and time again he told himself to ignore her trivial insults and disrespectful innuendo. He needed to connect with her again, at some level, even if it meant enduring the figurative kick in the face. Sarah wasn’t his child by birth, but she was his daughter—part of the package he bought into when he married Leslie.

Alone on the balcony, he looked down at the tourists sunbathing on the beach. Large boats floated on the horizon. Closer inland, snorkelers explored shallow waters while sailboard enthusiasts rode the waves.

Back in the room, he saw Sarah emerge from the bathroom in a string bikini. Baffled by how little her swimwear actually covered, he frowned disapprovingly at how much cleavage her top revealed. “You’re not going to the pool in that.”

“Mom said I could.”

“You need to cover up before you walk through the lobby.”

“We’re on vacation,” said Leslie in Sarah’s defense. “It’s her favorite swimsuit.”

“You call that a swimsuit? She might as well be naked.”

“That’s what girls are wearing these days.”

“Not by my standards. She’s a magnet for every horny boy running wild in the building.”

Sarah pulled her hair back and tied it in a bun. “I can’t help it if they think I’m hot.”

Leslie burned her eyes at Sarah. “Watch it, young lady.” Struggling to keep her cool, she turned to Steve and said, “Honey, it’s a resort. She can wear a swimsuit all day if she wants to.”

“But—”

“She’ll be fine.”

Leslie took a sarong from her beach bag and handed it to Sarah. “Why don’t you wear this until you get to the pool.”

Sarah snatched the silky accessory and wadded it in a ball. “Jesus, Mom, you’re as bad as he is. I’m sixteen. I’m not a child anymore.”

Leslie chewed her bottom lip. “Sarah, please don’t use that tone of voice with us.”

“What tone?”

“That’s enough!”

Sarah grabbed a room key from the dresser by the hallway entrance. “I’ll be at the pool,” she shouted and slammed the door behind her.

Steve threw his hands in the air. “I swear she thinks I’m her evil uncle or something. She has no respect for me anymore. Like the universe unfolds around her.”

“She’s a sixteen-year-old girl coping with adolescence. She needs time to adjust.”

“Sixteen going on thirty. Tell me you weren’t the same way growing up.”

Leslie hugged him. “I was worse.”

“I feel like I’ve lost her. No matter what I say or do she rebuffs me. In her eyes I’m always guilty.”

“Give her time. She loves you. She just doesn’t like being told what to do. Not by me. Not by her teachers. And certainly not by her stepfather.”

“Especially not by me,” Steve added. He grabbed his towel and sunscreen lotion from the bag on the desk. “I still don’t like her traipsing around this place half naked. Maybe I should go down and keep an eye on her.”

Leslie touched his arm. “You’ll only upset her more. She’s a big girl now. She can take care of herself.”

Without a Trace… Chapter 5

Steve pressed the decline button on the treadmill’s digital display and lowered the track to a five percent grade. Soaked in sweat from a five mile jaunt, he pumped his arms on a six-minute pace. Running made him feel young again. And stronger too, as he inched ever closer to his fiftieth birthday. He’d adjusted to his new phase of life, but not without some lessons learned. What he’d once achieved with a hundred sit-ups a day now took two hundred and fifty. A developed chest demanded a hundred push-ups instead of thirty. It’s a numbers game, he told himself, convinced the effort required to maintain an optimal level of physical fitness increased exponentially with each passing year.

He ran on odd days and swam on evens. Exercising in the early morning gave him energy and a chance to clear his mind.

Ignoring a cramp at mile six, he continued despite the dull throbbing in his shins. In a perfect world, he’d swim every morning at the community center, instead of running. But even at the crack of dawn, the eight-lane facility was always crowded with geriatric water aerobics pursuers and the high school swim team. For a short-term solution, the treadmill made the most sense.

He wiped his face with a hand towel as mile number seven approached. He felt the heat in his face and the taste of sweat on his lips. His back felt itchy. So did his scalp beneath his spiked, brown hair, glistening in the overhead lights. He kept his breathing at a steady cadence, inhaling through his nose and exhaling through his mouth in synch with the rhythm of his stride.

Carried by his runner’s high, he slowed his pace to appease the limits of his lower leg endurance. He pondered the essay he’d started the night before. Faced with a challenge he hadn’t tackled since college, he knew if he wanted to teach part-time at the university level, he had to come to terms with putting his thoughts on paper. The initial interview had gone well, and now a few paragraphs of simple prose were all that stood between him and a teaching position at George Washington University. With a military background and a graduate degree in electrical engineering, he had the tools he needed to instruct a class of graduate students. Putting it on paper was another issue. He could write well when he had to, but he dreaded the task, especially when a deadline threatened his chance of success. The Navy had given him strength, knowledge, and leadership experience, yet somehow failed to help him overcome his fear of putting pen to paper and expressing himself in words.

At the end of his run, he did a cool-down session before he stepped away from the treadmill and wiped his face with a towel. A swig of Gatorade from the mini refrigerator in the basement quenched his thirst.

Once upstairs, he heard Sarah’s alarm clock beeping and gave a token knock on her door. He pressed his ear to listen for signs of life. Why he bothered to knock at all, he didn’t know. She’d always ignore him, then oversleep and gripe about taking the bus to school.

Inside his study, he powered up his PC and tried to motivate himself to tackle the essay. It’s not rocket science, he told himself; although at times he wished it were. As a Navy diver, he’d learned the laws of partial pressure and the theories of mixed gas diving, concepts engrained in his brain from the onset of his career. He’d read them, applied them, and even taught them to other men.

“You need a shower,” Leslie announced from the office doorway in her robe and slippers. She kept her arms crossed, partially hiding the Hot Spot Vacations brochure.

Steve sniffed the air. “I had a good run.”

Leslie came in the room and touched his shoulder, blanketed with perspiration. “I can tell.”

Steve rubbed the back of his wife’s well-defined thighs from his cramped position behind his desk. He liked the way her skin felt supple, yet firm to the touch. “What are you hiding?” he asked coyly, his eyes fixated on the paper in her hand.

“Nothing.”

“You’re up to something. I can see it in your eyes.”

Leslie braced for her miserly husband’s response. “We need a vacation. I need a vacation. Someplace away from the cold and the snow and all the traffic.”

“I thought you loved the snow.”

“You know what I mean.”

Steve squeezed her ass gently and smiled. “Sarah’s out cold. We could start a vacation in the shower.”

“I’m serious, Steve. We haven’t been on vacation—I mean a real vacation—since our honeymoon.”

“We can’t afford it right now. Not on one salary.”

“Don’t think about the money. Just close your eyes and imagine us on the beach in Cozumel staring across the water. Warm water. We could swim. We could dive. We could lounge by the pool. No cold, no snow, no traffic…”

“Maybe this spring we can take a drive up to Maine and go sightseeing. We always talked about doing that.”

Leslie puckered her lips, molding her mature, sophisticated face into that of a little girl pouting for a new toy. “It’s too cold this time of year. I want sunshine and warm weather. I want to feel the sand between my toes. Don’t you want to walk on the beach with me and drink daiquiris by the pool?”

Steve leaned back in his chair. “The timing’s bad.”

“The timing is what it is. We’re not getting any younger.”

“What about the money?”

“We can pull from our savings. That’s what it’s for.”

Steve checked his watch and read 6:35 from the digital display. When the asteroid screen saver appeared on his monitor, the hypnotic hail of flying rocks drew his attention away from Leslie’s argument. He’d loved her from the day he met her a decade ago at a boat show in Annapolis she was attending with her ex-husband and six-year-old daughter. He wanted to give in to her idea and tell her he agreed. He wanted a vacation as much as she did, and with Sarah to contend with after school every day, he needed it even more. “What about my essay?”

“Take it with you. The change of scenery might inspire you. You said yourself you wanted a fresh start.”

“I meant in terms of finding a job.”

“And you’re doing that. Now it’s my turn to do something I want.”

Steve grumbled. “If I take this essay on the road, I’ll never finish it.”

“Why?”

“Because most of my attention will be focused on you.”

Leslie smiled. “You mean all of your attention will be focused on me.” She kissed him. “We could rent a Jeep and tour the island. Maybe visit the Mayan ruins.”

Steve took the brochure and examined the fine print at the bottom. The package deal included meals, diving, and a room at a five-star resort on the beach. “What about Sarah?”

“What about her?”

“We’d have to leave her with your folks while we’re gone, assuming they could take her for a week.”

Leslie frowned. “We’re not leaving Sarah with my parents. She’s coming with us.”

“Coming where?” Sarah asked, her eyelids barely open as she entered Steve’s study in her flannel pajamas and wild hair.

“Nowhere,” Leslie answered. “Go back to bed. School’s canceled again.”

Sarah turned away. “Yes,” she mumbled, “there is a God.”

Steve waited for Sarah’s door to shut before he lowered his voice and asked, “What about school? She can’t miss an entire week.”

“Why not? She’s in tenth grade. It’s not like she’s finishing her doctoral thesis. Her homework can wait until she gets back. She needs a break as much as we do.”

“What about your job?”

“I have three weeks of vacation time on the books.”

Steve wrapped his arms around her waist and looked up at her. “You really want this, don’t you?”

“Like you can’t imagine.”

“Then I’ll call the airline and book our flights.”

Leslie grinned from ear to ear, unable to contain her excitement. “I might have already done that. We leave on Monday morning.”

Without a Trace… Chapter 3

With the benefit of an early leave policy and the nod from a generous boss, Leslie Chambers left the parking lot in the federal building on Constitution Avenue in time to see construction workers place orange cones along the center of the right hand lane. The effort slowed traffic in all directions, leaving her with no choice but to stay in the left lane and drive her 2005 Camry two blocks out of her way.

She circled back for an hour, inching her way through snow-covered roads jammed until she found the interstate entrance and a ten-mile stretch of highway resembling a giant parking lot.

The road felt slick beneath the set of new Bridgestones as she merged into traffic, ignoring the hostile stares and occasional obscene gestures from other drivers. In front of her, the driver of an early model F-150 jockeyed for position around slower vehicles while an old Camaro with Maryland plates drifted sideways.

She checked the radio for a traffic report and smacked her hand on the steering wheel. A sea of brake lights swept across all lanes of traffic. The inevitable beltway bog-down had struck again. More than forty miles from home, she tapped the brakes to stop behind a dump truck hauling sand. She stared over the concrete barrier separating the outer loop of the beltway from the inner lanes hugging the perimeter of Washington D.C. and saw every lane of traffic moving in the opposite direction, not fast, but moving. She mumbled obscenities under her breath as an orange VDOT truck plowed a path for the traffic across from her.

She kept her foot on the brake and lowered the sun visor to check her makeup in the vanity mirror. Her button nose beckoned for a little powder and her lipstick looked dry.

She took her compact from her purse and applied a touch-up to look good for Steve. Then she adjusted the vent to blow air at her legs while a Subaru sedan cut between her car and the dump truck in front. She took her foot off the brake and continued in the stop-and-go traffic plaguing the interstate for miles. In her rearview mirror, a young driver in a Lexus 400 flirted with his eyes. Dressed in a purple tie, a black leather jacket and gold necklace, he swayed to the music thumping from a pair of subwoofers in his trunk.

She switched the intermittent wipers from slow to fast while the engine purred beneath the hood. She had plenty of gas and no room to drive. She wanted to lay on the horn and blast her frustration at the cars in front of her, but the effort would prove futile. And for all the noise and anger, she’d still be sitting in the same traffic in the same lane on the same side of the gridlocked road.

A stick of gum from her purse provided a mild distraction. Chewing the sugar-free spearmint erased the aftertaste from her last cup of coffee at work. An attempt at blowing a bubble produced a crack from the gum’s tiny air pocket she’d formed with her tongue. Her legs itched from the pantyhose she wore underneath her wool skirt. Her bra strap chafed her shoulders. Her lower back ached from sitting in the same cramped position.

Tired of negotiating the brake pedal in three-inch heels, she slipped off her dress shoes and worked the pedals in her stockinged feet.

The gum’s flavor disappeared along with what remained of her patience, leaving a bland taste on her tongue and her psyche. She craved something more, something to keep her hands occupied.

Don’t go there

But the seed was planted.

Subdued for the last few months, the once-dormant voice she’d worked so hard to suppress now emerged like an evil twin from somewhere in her subconscious mind; a place where the Marlboro Man liked to hide.

She turned the heat down and cracked a window. The icy air sent a chill through her body, a chill encouraging her to light a cigarette. And as much as she tried to fight the urge, she couldn’t.

She’d weaned herself from the patch two months ago. Six months prior, she’d stopped chewing the nicotine gum her doctor had prescribed for her, on account of how it upset her stomach.

She tapped the steering wheel with her nails. Sitting in traffic for hours was nothing new to her. It was an act she’d performed a thousand times before. But today was different. The stress was worse, and her resistance waned before she rummaged through her purse and dumped the contents on the seat beside her.

The chances of finding a forgotten smoke were bleak at best since she’d trashed her last pack more than a month ago at Steve’s request. He’d gone ballistic about the doctor finding spots on her lungs. They’re not cancerous, she’d argued with him, but she knew he was right. Now none of it mattered as she clung to the notion that at least one cigarette must have fallen out from the pack and hidden itself beneath the clutter from her Gucci bag. Loose change rolled on the floor while she poked at a breath mint case, a tube of lipstick, pens, sunglasses, napkins, and a gold hoop earring she thought she’d lost. She opened the glove compartment for the half pack of cigarettes she’d hidden beneath the owner’s manual. Hiding cigarettes from Steve had been a cat-and-mouse routine since she’d started dating him.

She dug frantically, pawing over napkins, straws, and a tire pressure gauge, until finally, beneath the rubble of yellow Jiffy Lube receipts, she found the hidden soft-pack of Marlboro Lights. She took a deep breath, enjoying the almost religious experience as she stared triumphantly at the pack of cancer sticks. She’d found the Holy Grail; the golden chalice from the belly of a sunken galleon.

She could smell the aroma of fresh tobacco when she poked her fingers inside the pack. Then her eyes told her what her trembling fingers already knew: the pack was empty except for tobacco crumbs and a scrap of rolled notebook paper. She pinched the paper between her fingers and read the note: You’ll thank me later.

“Dammit!” she said out loud.

When traffic finally cleared, she put her foot on the gas pedal and accelerated to thirty-five miles-per-hour. She kept both hands on the wheel and merged near the Silver Spring exit. The Mormon Temple loomed in the distance like a castle on a hilltop, its rising spires indelibly cast against a backdrop of suburban landscape. Then the traffic slowed again, forcing another parade of red tail lights.

She stuffed her wallet back in her purse along with the rest of her sundry items, including a wrinkled vacation brochure she’d found on a bulletin board at work. Lured by the sexy marketing, she scanned the one-page flyer from Hot Spot Vacations, which featured Hollywood models posing as tourists on a beach surrounded by palm trees and turquoise water beneath clear, blue skies. The caption read: Come to Mexico, Where a Land of Enchantment Awaits You.

She imagined herself floating in the warm water, basking in sunshine while a tropical breeze swept over her glistening tan. She could almost taste the tequila in her salted margarita. She wanted a vacation. She needed a vacation. She deserved a vacation. Steve could dive, and she could shop. Sarah could park herself by the pool and stay out of trouble.

* * *

Steve climbed the basement steps two at a time and sprang for the kitchen as the smoke detector chirped from the ceiling. He grabbed an oven mitt from the counter and opened the oven to catch a blast of smoke in his face. He swatted the air with the insulated glove, his eyes burning as he tried to salvage the charred remains of a frozen turkey dinner.

He gripped the curled edges of the foil pan and dumped the dinner remnants in the garbage disposal to hide the evidence of his culinary experiment gone wrong, then flicked the hood fan on high.

The smell of burned food brought Sarah downstairs in her baggy jeans and oversized sweatshirt. “What happened?”

“Nothing,” Steve said sheepishly.

“You burned dinner again.”

“I tried to save it, but the food was too far gone.”

“Did you set the timer?”

“I never heard it beep.”

“When’s Mom coming home?”

“Soon.”

“Can we get pizza tonight?”

“No.”

“Why not? You cremated what was left of Mom’s turkey.”

Steve retrieved two cans of soup and a box of crackers from the pantry. “We’ll go with plan B.”

“I’m not eating soup and sandwiches two nights in a row.”

Steve took the opener from the kitchen drawer and started on the first can. “I thought you had homework to finish?”

“Not anymore.”

“What about your geometry assignment?”

“I’ve got all day tomorrow.” Sarah watched Steve dump the concentrated soup in a shallow pan barely deep enough to hold it. “You know you have to add water?”

Steve glanced at the directions printed on the side of the can. “I know.”

“Is Mom having dinner with us?”

“Depends on when she gets home.”

Sarah took the eight-ounce ladle from the center drawer and handed it to Steve. “Why can’t we just order pizza?”

“Because pizza costs money.”

“So does soup.”

Steve rinsed the empty Campbell’s can in the sink. “I’ll call you when dinner’s ready.”

Sarah pointed to the vacant stove element glowing red beside the smaller burner with the saucepan. “You turned the wrong burner on.”

Steve took three cereal bowls from the cabinet above the dishwasher. “You can set the table.”

“We’re out of napkins.”

Steve pointed to the brass paper towel holder on the kitchen counter. “Use those.”

“We’re out of clean silverware.”

“It’s in the dishwasher.”

Sarah opened the dishwasher and pulled a spoon from the silverware tray. “These are dirty.”

“I thought you ran it last night.”

“No one told me to.”

Steve retrieved three spoons from the silverware holder and washed them individually in the sink. “You have to take more responsibility, Sarah.”

“I’m not your maid.”

“I didn’t say that, but you’re living in a house your mom and I are paying for, and as long as you continue to enjoy a life of luxury I don’t think it’s unreasonable for you to help out from time to time.”

Sarah stirred the soup. “I wouldn’t call living in this dump a life of luxury. And I do plenty around here. In case you haven’t noticed, I also go to school full time.”

Steve felt his blood pressure rise. Instead of reciting his speech about how the real world works, he held his tongue and placed folded paper towels on the table. Twenty years in the Navy had taught him about maritime rules and regulations and how to cope with life at sea. He’d been to the bottom of the ocean and back. He’d rescued divers from the brink of death; salvaged crucial wreckage from downed planes; endured six months on a submarine without sunlight or fresh air. Yet everything in his service history paled in comparison to the trials and tribulations of raising a teenage stepdaughter.

Sarah brought the saucepan from the kitchen and placed it on a hot plate in the center of the table. She filled three glasses from the ice dispenser in the side-by-side refrigerator. “Do you think we could look at cars this weekend?”

Steve glanced out the kitchen window at the snowfall behind the screened porch. “Not in this weather.”

“Katey got a new Lexus when she turned sixteen. All my friends drive to school.”

“What’s wrong with the bus?”

Sarah shook her head. “Only freshmen and geeks ride the bus.”

“Why don’t you ride with Katey?”

“Because we’re on different practice schedules.”

“A car’s a lot of responsibility. You have to look at the big picture. Insurance. Gas. Tires. Oil changes.”

“I know, I know… Why do you always make life so difficult?”

“Life is only as difficult as you make it. I’m just trying to point out the obvious.”

“But everyone with a license drives their own car to school.”

“Who drives their own car to school?” Leslie asked as she walked through the foyer from the garage entrance. She dropped her purse on the sofa and hung her coat in the closet by the stairs.

Steve kissed her when she entered the kitchen. “I’m glad you’re home.”

“Me too. Traffic was a nightmare.”

“There’s soup on the stove if you’re hungry.”

“What happened to the turkey I left you?”

“Steve torched it,” Sarah answered without looking up from the table.

Leslie smiled at Steve. “Did you get any work done?”

“That depends how you define work and done.”

Without a Trace… Chapter 1

Victor Mendoza stepped over a strangled woman’s body and emerged from the treeline beyond the moonlit backdrop of high-rise resorts and coastal landscapes laden with palm trees and cactus, near Aruba’s sandy shoreline. Clad in a black wetsuit and with a grease-smeared face, he moved with purpose across the powder-soft sand toward the shimmering essence of turquoise water forming the Caribbean Sea. He carried a canvas duffel bag in one hand and a scuba tank in the other. Long black hair draped down the back of his neck between his shoulder blades. Rippling muscles lined his tattooed forearms, emblazoned with the image of an eagle clutching a U.S. Navy anchor, trident, and flintlock pistol.

He placed the scuba tank upright on the beach extending out of sight in both directions along the eastern edge of the narrow island. Rolling surf lapped at his ankles while divi-divi trees swayed from the force of constant trade winds sculpting the chest-high shrubs into various Bonsai patterns.

He retrieved the dive equipment from the canvas duffel and secured the steel scuba cylinder to the BCD—buoyancy control device. From the bottom of the bag, he removed a pair of black dive fins. He slung the tank on his back, sliding both arms through the BCD before standing first on one leg and then the other to secure the fins on his feet as he looked out at a yacht anchored several hundred yards from shore.

Treading backward through the water, he bit gently on the regulator in his mouth and inhaled his first breath of compressed air. In front of him, the mountain of Hooiberg loomed above the center of Aruba’s landscape, providing him a final glimpse of the island paradise he’d enjoyed for the last few days.

Within minutes, he began moving with grace and power underwater, his well-rehearsed scissor kicks a polar opposite to the cumbersome motion of walking backward on sand. He swam with the current, which pushed him farther out to sea. Then he descended to a depth of twenty feet and equalized the pressure in his ears. Below him, moonlit schools of yellowtail fish circled colonies of dome-shaped brain coral while hundreds of blue tang darted back and forth near tube sponges and clusters of reddish-brown gorgoneas.

When he reached his destination, he ascended from his shallow depth, blowing tiny bubbles to release the compressed air from his lungs before he surfaced at the motor yacht’s stern. He removed and discarded his mask and scuba gear, then glided toward the hundred-foot vessel’s extended swim platform. He recognized the name $ea-Note painted in green letters across the transom.

He climbed the boarding ladder. Above him, a British flag extended from a brass-mounted pole above the starboard gunwale. Dripping on the deck’s carpet liner, he felt the massive boat sway gently from the endless waves brought on by steady tradewinds. Beside him, a queen-size sun pad doubled as a roof to the covered garage housing a sixteen-foot runabout.

Masking the sound of his own movement, he listened for conversation and other telltale signs of life while he approached the lower helm station.

Once below deck, he caught a whiff of brandy blended with the lingering scent of Cuban cigars. He found the spacious salon devoid of crew or passengers as he crept around a leather sofa arranged in an L-shape configuration beside a lacquered teak settee. Across the room, a ceramic elephant lay upside down at the base of a built-in entertainment center.

In the galley, teak cabinetry with holly accents surrounded the microwave and full-size refrigerator freezer. An overhead rack of wine glasses hung upside down above a wet bar with an open decanter and a brandy snifter with lipstick on the rim.

He opened a sliding drawer and chose a paring knife nestled in a velvet-lined tray. He checked the port stateroom first and found an empty berth with a hanging locker fronted by an oval mirror. An open door revealed an empty storage compartment where a damp towel hung from a brass rod above the toilet bowl. Dental floss spatter painted the mirror above the shallow sink.

He moved stealthily, proceeding to the starboard stateroom and pressed his ear to the polished maple door.

Inside the narrow cabin, he found an empty bed with a comforter folded neatly at one end. Sheets hung limp over one side. Above the bed, a full moon peered through a porthole, casting natural light on a flat screen television on the wall.

He gripped the knife in his right hand and touched his left to the brass knob on the panel closest to him. He exhaled between pinched lips, pulling the panel open to reveal an assortment of female clothing on wooden hangers. He stabbed the knife toward the back and inspected the lower space to find boat shoes, swim trunks, and a bottle of sunscreen lotion in a tote bag.

Convinced the room was empty, he continued through an aft companionway, extending to the master stateroom. Sweat trickled down the side of his face, following the contour of his chiseled jaw until a drop of perspiration fell away from his skin and landed on the carpet.

Veins twitched along his forehead when he entered the master stateroom to find the sleeping couple sprawled naked on satin sheets, oblivious to the stranger in their presence.

A gold watch glittered on the headboard’s built-in night table while an empty Dom Perignon bottle floated in a bucket of ice water. Silk roses extended from a crystal vase, their pink, symmetric petals in full bloom, basking in the light of immortality.

Awakened by a hand on her pillow, the woman opened her eyes and briefly glimpsed the knife-wielding stranger before a sweeping incision slashing from her trachea to her jugular vein silenced her attempt to scream.

Startled by his wife’s thrashing movements, the husband awoke with a six-inch slit below his chin, grasping at his own throat in a desperate attempt to stop the bloody flow.

Victor wrapped the bodies in separate sheets and hauled his victims through the side deck near the helm. There, he tied mooring lines around their ankles and weighted the corpses with anchor chain. One heave, and he watched the bodies sink below the surface before he rinsed his hands at the transom shower and settled in the captain’s chair at the helm.

In front of him, rows of rocker switches lined a walnut backdrop filled with radar panels and analog gauges assembled in a logical fashion. Radio and navigational aids complemented the independent throttle levers designed to control the twelve-hundred horsepower diesel engines.

He raised the anchor from its tenure at the bottom of the sea and brought the big motors to life. Then he eased the throttles forward to bring the ten ton vessel on plane en route to the Gulf of Mexico.

Enemy Among Us: Chapter 81

McLeary entered the master control facility with his thoughts scattered like confetti on a gameshow stage. The reality of his situation closing in like the walls in a padded cell, he struggled to compartmentalize Brian’s situation and keep Seth in his prayers without coming unglued at the seams. Without his sons, he had nothing. Nothing except a mission he set out to finish in a vain attempt to make the world a better place by saving innocent lives entangled in a convoluted plot dreamed up by a band of cowards hiding behind a veil of holy war. “They’re targeting the monorail system,” he blurted at Kriegel, who looked incredulous at the notion of such an attack.

“How do you—”

“A hunch.”

“A hunch won’t cut it on this one, Mac. There’s too much at stake to risk another bad call.”

McLeary pressed on, undeterred by Kriegel’s lack of confidence borne more from his own mistrust than any evidence contradicting the potential target of opportunity. “How many men are covering the trains?”

Kriegel thought about the question, then deferred to the station manager running the network operations center from the main control console in the room.

“We have video surveillance at every station,” said the network operations manager. “We also have men positioned at every stop along the way.”

“What about inside the trains?”

“We do random patrols. At any give time, maybe three or four men depending on the volume of tourist traffic.”

“Per train?”

The manager shook his head. “The whole park…”

“How many trains are up and running?”

“Seven at the moment,” the manager replied, rising out of his chair to engage in discussion without constantly looking over his shoulder. “The express train runs directly from our location at the TTC. The other trains will pass the Magic Kingdom, Grand Floridian, Polynesian, and every stop in between.”

McLeary leaned over the command console and studied the monorail paths outlined on the plasma screen. He traced the colored lines with his finger until he found a common junction. “How fast can these trains reach the storage terminal?”

“Which ones?”

“All of them.”

Every train?”

McLeary looked at Kriegel. “The sooner we take control of this situation, the better.”

“Mac—”

“Trust me on this one.”

“We don’t have the manpower.”

“We don’t have a choice. We’re talking about thousands of people contained in a small space with recirculated air and no immediate exit. The monorail fits the profile for a mass attack scenario. A lethal incubator full of women and children.”

Kriegel crossed his arms at his chest. He drew a deep breath through his nose and exhaled sharply as if the action would somehow purge the tension from McLeary’s intractable position. “Assuming you’re right, we can’t divert our manpower to this effort without exposing other targets.”

“The more passengers we transport around the park, the more likely we’re exposing them to a lethal threat.”

Kriegel rubbed his forehead. “What if you’re wrong?”

“What if I’m not? What if Beckman’s theory holds—”

“I’ve heard it before, Mac.”

“Then you know we need to quarantine these trains and get every passenger on board to a safe location.”

Kriegel turned to the station manager. “Pull up every schematic you have on this system. I want to know every detail. And get your pilots on the horn. Tell them to return to home base.”

The station manager looked perplexed and agitated. “I can’t proceed without authorization.”

I am your authorization,” said Kriegel.

“There’s nearly fourteen miles of track. This won’t happen in an instant.” The manager flipped a switch and grabbed the microphone stalk to alert the blue train bound for the Grand Floridian. “Monorail blue from Central.”

“Blue bye,” the pilot answered.

“Proceed beyond switch beams nine and ten and return to barn.”

“Ten-nine! What about my passengers?”

“Our diagnostics show voltage fluctuations outside the normal range. Return to barn immediately.”

“Ten-four, central. Be advised my ten-fifty-two is at least twelve minutes.”

“Ten-four.”

McLeary studied a monorail schematic from a three-ring binder. He skimmed the chapters on propulsion, braking, operations, and safety procedures. “How fast can these trains run?”

The station manager let go of the microphone stalk and swiveled his chair toward McLeary. “They top out at fifty-five miles-an-hour but we can’t rack-em and stack-em at more than ten.” He glanced at the electronic map to view the blue train’s signal heading toward the maintenance barn. He keyed the microphone to address the next train in route from the Epcot Center. “Monorail orange from Central.”

“Orange bye…”

“Proceed beyond pylon forty-five and return to barn.” He waited for the pilot’s reply and heard nothing for several seconds.

“What’s happening?” asked Kriegel.

“I’ve got a rookie on the orange train.” The station manager checked the timetable log and ran his finger across the pilot’s assigned route. “He shouldn’t be there,” he said, staring at the command console.

“Can you get the pilot on screen?” asked McLeary.

“No, but I can override his controls from here and divert the train with autopilot.” He typed a password on the keyboard and clicked through the maze of pop-up windows to pin-point the train’s auxiliary control panel.

“Can you bring him in alone?”

“Not entirely. Not without the pilot’s cooperation.” The station manager leaned into the microphone and watched the train’s LED remain stationary at the Epcot Center location. “Monorail orange from central, please switch to automatic.”

Minutes passed…

“I don’t like this,” said Kriegel.

“Excuse me!” a voice shouted from the back of the room, prompting Kriegel to acknowledge a woman from the Disney security team. “You should see this.” She pushed her way through the crowd of agents huddled over the master control console and adjusted the video surveillance display. She rewound a prerecorded segment from a video surveillance camera and pressed play. A figure dressed in a Mickey Mouse costume appeared on the station platform.

“What am I watching?” said Kriegel, staring at the image of a Mickey Mouse figure entering the monorail near the pilot’s compartment.

“Mickey Mouse doesn’t ride the monorail,” the woman replied.

“Where’s the train headed now?” said McLeary.

The station manager eyed the grid on his screen. “Magic Kingdom.”

Kriegel weighed his options in his head. “What’s their ETA?”

“Ten minutes.”

Kriegel turned to McLeary. “Can we get a team there in time to intercept their location?”

“Maybe. But if they see us coming—”

“There’s a maintenance hatch beneath the third car,” said the station manager. He pointed to the train’s location on the electronic map. “If you position yourself below the staircase on the rail support beam at pylon thirty, I can cut the power long enough to bring the train to a full stop above you.”

“I thought you said you can’t control the train without the pilot’s help?”

“We can’t force it to go where we want it to, but we can cut the power from the remote junction box.”

“Which is where?”

“The doghouse. It’s an underground power substation that feeds the main rail. From there, we can override the power supplied to the train.”

“What’s the status of your other trains?” said McLeary.

“I’ve got three more in route to the maintenance barn. Two are already there with a couple hundred irate passengers demanding answers.”

“Keep them there.”

“What am I supposed to tell the pilots?”

“Tell them to stay alert for suspicious activity. We’ll send a team to secure the area.”

Enemy Among Us: Chapter 79

At 0900, Kriegel followed McLeary through the labyrinth of office cubicles, each with a bank of video surveillance monitors operated by Disney security personnel. “This better be good,” he told McLeary, who pointed to a monitor depicting a black Lincoln Navigator with tinted windows parked in the section labeled Goofy thirty-nine.

McLeary reached over the security guard’s shoulder and pressed the zoom button on the camera joystick, causing the screen to narrow on the Florida license plate.

“The Lincoln’s been sitting there for two hours,” said the guard. “I didn’t think twice about it when it first arrived until I realized no one ever got out. I ran the plates. The vehicle’s registered to a Victor Jones from Sanford.”

“Did anything else pop up on this guy?”

“I ran his social through the system. Not even a parking ticket.”

Kriegel rubbed his chin. “And you’re certain no one left the vehicle?”

“I never left my post. If that’s what you’re asking me.”

“Work with me,” said Kriegel. “I’m not here to bust your balls.”

“The SUV caught my attention when it diverted from the middle parking space in the center row and moved to another section with fewer cars around.”

Kriegel focused on the image of the black SUV. He turned to McLeary. “Too easy.”

“A diversion?” said McLeary.

“Maybe.”

“Should we send a team?”

“Not yet. Not until we know what we’re dealing with.”

“Then I’ll check it out myself.”

* * *

McLeary drove Kriegel’s Towncar from the reserved space out front to the parking lot near the main entrance. He trailed a group of tourists until he reached row thirty-nine and stopped to look around, waving a mother and her baby stroller across his path.

He drove slowly behind the black Navigator to inspect the tinted rear window before he parked several car lengths up ahead and backtracked toward the suspicious vehicle on foot.

He brandished his Kimber .45 and approached the driver’s side from the mirror’s blind spot to work his way toward the front. Observing his reflection in the limo-black windows, he could only imagine what lurked behind the glass. Why did the SUV move away from the crowded center section? What if anything or anyone still lurks inside? Is Victor Jones another alias or a squeaky clean asset recruited by Abdullah’s men to do their dirty work?

He glanced at the crowded parking lot, diverting his attention with the thought of someone standing nearby, watching and waiting with a wireless detonation device. If he failed, his life could be the first of many to end in a massive explosion that would decimate the SUV and leave a crater in its wake. Or the first of thousands exposed to a deadly plume of weaponized anthrax spores.

He reached for the door handle and discovered it unlocked, his heart pounding in his throat as he found the front seat empty with the keys still hanging from the ignition.

He panned his gun toward the back and leaned around the driver’s seat.

A naked teenager shoved his hands in the air and shouted, “Don’t shoot!” A naked girl cowered beside him.

McLeary lowered his weapon and took his finger off the trigger. “Sorry,” he mumbled with a smirk on his face. “Do your parents know you’re here?”

“Please don’t tell them,” the girl pleaded.

“Get dressed and get home.” McLeary touched the transceiver in his ear. “No joy,” he told Kriegel.

“What did you find?” Kriegel replied.

“A couple teenagers making out.” McLeary checked his watch and glanced at the crowded monorail transporting passengers along the concrete beam mounted two stories above him. “How many passengers does the monorail transport in a day?”

“Hold on.”

McLeary followed the train with his gaze. “Kriegel?”

“About a hundred thousand visitors. On a slow day.”

McLeary jogged back to his car. “Contact teams three and four. Tell them to meet us in the control room. I’ve got a bad feeling.”

Enemy Among Us: Chapter 77

Christmas Eve

Kriegel dripped Visene on his bloodshot eyes. His hands trembled from too much coffee and too little sleep. In less than twenty-four hours, he’d navigated a political powder keg within the bureau, convincing Director Hoffnagle he had the situation under control.

Alone in a back office of the Disney Security Headquarters in Orlando, he stared at the flashing lights on an artificial Christmas tree while he assessed every scenario he could think of without drifting from the center of his primary mission. In reality, the situation was anything but under control. Intelligence reports came and went like tabloid headlines. No one, not even Langley or the NSA, knew for certain where Ahmed Abdullah would strike or exactly when or how hard. Dealing with the unknown, the unpredictable, and the often fiendishly illogical mindset of terrorist behavior had kept him on the brink of a major meltdown. Unaccustomed to having an operation go sideways, he still carried guilt from the death of two agents, both murdered under his command while he struggled with his own demons and a waning resentment toward Jim McLeary—an agent who’d done more good than harm despite his reputation to the contrary.

He said a prayer for himself and the men waiting for a strong leader to emerge in the conference room next door, convinced he’d done everything within his power to assemble the best and brightest from federal, state, and local law enforcement. Men and women equipped to handle the worst Abdullah’s people could throw at them.

He straightened his tie when he heard a knock at the door.

“Kriegel?” McLeary prompted as he entered the office. “Burns just checked in. Agent Parks was the rotten apple.”

Kriegel put his shoulders back to regain a more commanding posture. “Parks?”

“He tried to blow up the science center. Burns thinks he murdered Agent Rollins and fed intel to Abdullah’s organization.”

“Is Parks in custody?”

“He’s dead.”

“Where’s Burns now?”

“Her flight left Toronto an hour ago.”

Kriegel stepped around McLeary and headed for the conference room. “Did she retrieve the goods?”

McLeary followed his boss stride for stride. “Burns recovered the new vaccine. Doctor Beckman’s team is set to rendezvous.”

Kriegel stepped behind the podium adjacent to a presentation screen, facing the crowded room with Disney’s security personnel, plain-clothed detectives from Orlando PD, Orange County Sheriff’s Deputies, and agents from the FBI, DEA, and Department of Homeland Security. He glared at his audience with the stern intensity of General Eisenhower commanding his troops on D-Day. “Listen up people. You’ve all been briefed. As a precautionary measure, we’ve applied additional teams to circulate around the park.”

“Sir,” an officer interrupted, “Exactly what kind of package are we looking for?”

Kriegel cleared his throat. “The suspicious kind.” He heard grumbling among the ranks and scanned the faces in the room. He was dumbfounded at how Agent Parks, a man he’d trusted with his life, could have slipped through the bevy of deep background checks, psychological profiles, full scope polygraph examinations, and most of all, years of trust garnered from peers, supervisors, and other members of the law enforcement family.

“What about the potential for a suicide attack?”

“At this point, we can’t rule anything out for certain. We have bomb-sniffing dogs on the premises. Their handlers have been briefed on the situation and will integrate with our teams accordingly.”

“Why don’t we just close the park?” a sheriff’s deputy asked.

“Unfortunately that’s not an option we were given.” Kriegel pointed to the back of the room. “Lights please.”

The lights dimmed and the presentation screen lit up with a map of the surrounding property. “Team one will patrol the shops, stores, and major attractions in Space Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain, and Fantasy Island. Myself and Special Agent Jim McLeary will lead team two from Tom Sawyer Island, Tomorrowland, and the monorail traffic station. Teams three and four will be scattered throughout the park to overlap our positions and cover any areas we leave exposed.”

“How credible is this threat?”

“We believe it’s for real.”

Kriegel signaled for the next slide, a black and white photo of Ahmed Abdullah with a full beard and a turban on his head. “We believe this man is behind the anthrax threat. His name is Ahmed Abdullah. Intelligence reports indicate he may be present, either incognito or in the open. Most likely, his appearance has been altered. Search for anything out of the ordinary. Expect the unexpected. We’re confident Abdullah will strike. He’s waited a long time and jumped through hoops of fire to perfect his poison. Until now, he’s been leading us around by the nose. That stops today. Blend in, stay focused, and secure the area. If you see, hear, taste, smell, or even feel something out of place, signal the other team leaders. And be discreet. We don’t want a widespread panic on our hands.”

“What about surveillance?” a female agent prompted.

“Disney security has every entrance and exit monitored. We have a human eye on every camera. Undercover officers at the ticket booths and bag search areas will oversee the baggage inspection. Infrared surveillance will monitor any indoor facility with insufficient lighting. Additional PZT cameras will capture every face and every license plate number at the parking toll booths. If Abdullah shows up to the party, we’ll know about it.”

“What about sharpshooters?” a member of the FBI hostage rescue team asked.

Kriegel drew a deep breath. “What makes you think I want rifles pointed at crowds of women and children?”

“What about an aerial threat?”

“We have the surrounding airspace secured and the Florida National Guard on standby.”

Whispers carried in the audience. “Does this mean we’re expecting an air strike?” an agent piped up.

“We need to cover all our bases.” Kriegel wiped his brow. “We’ve got one shot at this. One chance to get it right. National Security and Emergency Preparedness responders will be waiting in the wings. Pray to God we don’t need them.”

The teams dispersed. The overhead lights came on, and Kriegel stepped down to join McLeary and Captain Blevins from the Florida National Guard.

McLeary spoke first. “There’s nearly fifty square miles to cover with a few dozen officers, most of whom aren’t trained for this. We need to shut down the park.”

“Been down that road already,” said Kriegel. “Not an option.”

“Bullshit. You know as well as I do that’s exactly what Abdullah wants. He’s dropping the bait on the floor and we’re licking it up and asking for seconds.”

“It’s my op, McLeary.”

“I still don’t like it.”

“And what would you suggest we do? Call in the SEALS to take him out? So far he’s been a ghost who never stays in one spot long enough to get a bead on.”

“They got Bin Laden.”

“Bin Laden wasn’t camped out in our back yard. We need to run this operation as quietly and decisively as we can without alarming the masses. Whatever happens, we can’t let Abdullah beat us to the punch.”

“How long do we intend to continue this operation?” asked Captain Blevins, avoiding direct eye contact with McLeary and Kriegel, despite the sophisticated guise shielding his true identity.

“Until I stuff Ahmed Abdullah in a body bag.”