Without a Trace…. Chapter 25

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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


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

“And you are?”

“Steve Chambers.”

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

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

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

“Did my wife return the Jeep?”

“I’ll have to check my records.”

“Did my wife say where she was going?”

“I don’t recall.”

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

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

“Did you see anyone else with them?”

“What do you mean?”

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

“Not that I remember.”

“Could you check on my wife’s Jeep?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you sure?”

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

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

“No, but her signature is on file.”


“Our home office.”

“I want to see it.”

“Mr. Chambers—”

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

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

“Can I talk to him?”

“He left yesterday.”

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

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

“Then give me his address.”

“Mr. Chambers—”

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

Ambrose shook his head.

“Anything at all?”

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

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

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

“Where is Chankanaab Park?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m sorry, but I have to go.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Without a Trace… Chapters 12-13

Dressed in casual clothes and Ray-Ban shades, Sarah and Leslie carried bags of merchandise through the town of San Miguel. Baked from a day in the sun, they blended well with the other tourists hunting for bargains among the local merchants who made their livelihood from the crowd of affluent visitors. Dwarfed by the cruise ships looming tall as high-rise buildings and long as city blocks, Sarah and Leslie continued across the seaside promenade toward the open-top rental Jeep parked across the street.

What began after breakfast as a visit to Mayan ruins had brought them back to town for a shopping excursion and a sightseeing tour of San Miguel. Lunch at a café outside the Plaza del Sol had followed a visit to the Cozumel museum housed in a former turn-of-the-century hotel. A cultural center for the people of Cozumel, the museum revealed the history behind Mayan civilizations, island wildlife, and undersea creatures inhabiting the Caribbean waters. While the air-conditioned building offered welcome relief from the sweltering humidity outside, the focus remained on shopping. Buying everything from leather purses to serapes and colored wool blankets, they spent the day at numerous craft shops and street-side vendors, detouring once for ice cream, then twice for bathroom breaks before continuing along the boardwalk to gawk at the diamond jewelry on display in storefront windows.

Exhausted from the heat, Leslie reached across the Jeep’s windshield and pulled a paper flyer from beneath the wiper blade. The ad for Chankanaab Lagoon looked interesting but not worthy of consideration, given the late afternoon hour.

“What’s that?” asked Sarah.

“Another tourist trap,” said Leslie. She read the fine print at the bottom of the page, recalling the description of the Lagoon in the travel guide they’d brought from home. “Maybe we can do this another day,” she said before she folded the paper in half and began to stuff it in her purse. When she realized she had enough brochures to start a bonfire, she discarded the unwanted page in a trashcan beside the curb.

“I’m hungry,” said Sarah as she climbed in the passenger seat. Sunburn covered her face and neck.

Leslie put the key in the ignition. “Me too.” She pushed the clutch with her left foot while depressing the brake pedal with her right. The engine churned when the starter motor engaged the flywheel, but the pistons refused to fire.

Confounded by the engine trouble, she let the motor sit for a moment, then turned the key again, pumping the pedal until she smelled gasoline.

“What’s wrong?”

Leslie slapped the steering wheel. “I don’t know. It ran fine before we got here.” She took a deep breath. Cars weren’t her specialty, but she knew the basics of the internal combustion engine and how any engine needed three things to start: air, gas, and spark. The gas she could smell; the air she could breathe. That left the battery. Since the motor was turning, she knew the juice was there to start it, which meant something was wrong with the ignition.

She turned the key a third time and pleaded with the Jeep to start. As before, the engine turned but refused to catch. “Screw it,” she told Sarah. “We can call the hotel and wait for a tow truck or grab a taxi and leave the Jeep where it’s parked.”

Sarah sat forward in her seat. “Will we get a ticket?”

Leslie climbed down from the driver’s side and flagged the first driver she spotted at the crosswalk. “If we do it’s not our problem.”

* * *

Exhausted from his underwater excursion, Steve returned to the Presidente Suites in a fisherman’s rusted pick-up and waved good-bye to the local Samaritan who’d offered him the ride. Famished from the dive, Steve entered the hotel lobby with his dive gear on his shoulder. Eyed by an entourage of new arrivals at the check-in counter, he headed for the elevators behind the winding staircase and pressed the eighth floor button.

Outside his room, he retrieved the computer-coded key from a hiding spot above the wall-mounted emergency lighting system. The door unlocked with a beep.

Chilled from the moment the burst of AC hit him, he adjusted the thermostat and opened the patio for fresh air.

For the most part, the dive had gone better than expected. The re-breather functioned properly with no surprises, allowing him to enjoy his clemency from the land-bound tourists at large. Diving meant freedom from the daily grind. A mental and physical escape from the stress of coping with his teenage stepdaughter. Diving also took him away from the crowded streets lined end-to-end with cruise ship passengers on leave. Instead of fighting the masses, he’d spent hours drifting over coral reefs teeming with underwater life. He’d floated with the barracudas and saw his share of moray eels. Surrounded at times by blue tang and butterfly fish, he’d also spotted a sea turtle and a nurse shark cruising for lunch. For himself, breathing underwater defied the human instinct for survival, a mischievous act he equated to peeking up the skirt of Mother Nature.

He hung his wetsuit on a towel rack and filled the bathtub with warm water. Anxious to clean his equipment, he unhooked the scrubber from the clamps securing it to the front of the re-breather harness.

“We’re back,” Leslie called out when she entered the room.

Steve placed the rebreather in the tub and left to greet his wife. He flinched when he saw the patches of indigo red along her arms and shoulders. “You got some sun.”

“So did you.” Leslie set her purse by the dresser and hugged him. “When did you get back?”

“Just now. You girls have fun without me?”

“Our Jeep broke down in San Miguel.”

“What happened?”

“It wouldn’t start. The stupid thing ran fine this morning until we got ready to leave.”

“How’d you get back?”

“We took a taxi.”

Steve scratched his hair. “Where’s Sarah?”

“She’s in her room getting changed for dinner.”

“What about the Jeep?”

“They’re going to give me a different one tomorrow morning.”

Steve gathered his dirty clothes off the bed and stuffed them in an open suitcase. “Be careful in the bathroom.”

Leslie swatted the air in front of her face. “Should I light a match?”

“I’m talking about my dive gear in the tub.”

“Can’t you leave your toys on the patio?”

“Not with this equipment. I have to clean it first.”

Leslie pulled her shirt over her head. Her neck burned where the shirt rubbed her skin. “Are you hungry?”

Steve watched his beautiful wife undress in front of him, noticing the stark contrast between her waistline and the sunburned skin below her thighs. “A little. What did you girls do all day?”

“Shopping, mostly.”

Steve glanced at the bags of merchandise on the floor. “Can we still pay the mortgage?”

“Don’t worry.” Leslie unfastened her bra strap and slipped her arms out. Her breasts hung in tight formation on her chest. “Did you work on your essay at all?”

“I went diving.”


“I’ll tell you over dinner.”

Leslie stepped out of her underwear and tossed the pink lace panties in a plastic bag for dirty laundry. “Sarah wants to eat at Planet Hollywood.”

Steve took the television remote from the nightstand. “We can eat downstairs for free.”

“I thought we could try someplace else tonight. Sarah wants to, and frankly I’m tired of eating from buffets for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”

“But we’ve only been here two days.”

Leslie stood in front of him to block his view of the TV screen. “I know.”

“The resort’s all-inclusive.”

“That doesn’t mean we can’t go off the reservation and splurge for a meal somewhere else.”

Steve tossed the remote on the bed. “I still have to clean my equipment.”

Leslie pressed her lips to his and teased him with her tongue. She caressed his heaving pectorals with her fingertips before she pressed her naked breasts against his chest and slowly lowered her hands to his waist. “I’ll handle your equipment.”

Steve felt his swim trunks tighten at the front. Hot breath on his neck sent chills down his spine. “I’d prefer to eat somewhere other than Planet Hollywood.”

“When I get done with you,” Leslie whispered in his ear, “you’ll think you’re on Planet Hollywood.”

bookmark:Chapter 13

Chapter 13


Steve followed the Planet Hollywood hostess to a corner booth where movie soundtracks blended into background noise supplied by film clip medleys splashed on large screen monitors as part of the restaurant décor. Posters of Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and other cinema icons brought flair to the star-studded ambiance. A smiling portrait of Bruce Willis added wit to a granite-faced, squinty-eyed photo of Clint Eastwood hanging opposite a life-size mannequin of Judy Garland.

Steve faced the souvenir kiosk advertising a variety of jackets, shirts, and Planet Hollywood caps along with a variety of other overpriced merchandise. Light years away from the authentic Mexican café he’d hoped to dine in, he made the best of the situation by ignoring the loud music and diverting his attention to the laminated menu. He’d eaten at too many places like this before, during his stint in the Navy when shore leave provided the opportunity to eat anywhere but the officers’ mess.

“Do you know what you want?” asked Leslie, rubbing her foot against his leg beneath the table.

Steve scanned the menu a second time. “I’ll go with the cheeseburger well done. No fries.”

“Can we get an appetizer?” asked Sarah.

Steve focused on the menu prices. “Since when do you eat fried squid?”

“Since forever.”

“Define forever.”

Leslie looked at Steve and smiled. “Sarah used to order it when we lived in Virginia Beach.”

Steve raised his eyebrows in an awkward moment of silence. Virginia Beach referred to a time in Leslie’s life he knew little about, other than the fact that she was unhappily married to a guy named Bill, from Wisconsin. Virginia Beach stories bothered him because they kept him isolated from the family nucleus. He could never relate to Sarah’s biological father or the fact that Sarah maintained a love/hate relationship with him. Leslie talked freely about her ex when asked but never shared more details than she needed to.

“May I take your order?” a waiter offered, standing beside the table in pleated khakis and a short sleeve button down shirt. He spoke with a lisp from the stud in his pierced tongue.

* * *

Sarah sipped at her diet Coke while her mom and Steve ordered from the menu. Falling for the waiter with bulging biceps and a five o’clock shadow, she imagined herself French kissing him outside her locker in school. Her friends would swoon around him, especially Katey, who always felt the need to compete for the chance to date the hottest guys in school.

“And you?” the waiter asked, shifting his gaze to Sarah.

Sarah froze in the process of ordering the Caesar’s salad. She choked on her teenage inhibitions, her words lodged in her throat as she pointed her finger at the menu’s printed text.

“Is that it?” the waiter asked.

Sarah blushed. This time she managed to eke out a simple, “Yes.” She knew Mom was thinking the same thing she was. The waiter surpassed hunk status and entered the category of pure beefcake.

* * *

“I’ll take a bottled water,” Steve piped up before the waiter left. Confused by the mother-daughter vibe at the table, he snapped his fingers in Sarah’s face and said, “Don’t even think about it. His middle name is ‘Trouble.'”

“How do you know?”

“Intuition,” Steve said coyly.

“He’s harmless,” said Leslie. She rubbed the back of Steve’s neck where his hair had grown beyond the short bristle stage.

Steve smirked. “Why do girls always go for the bad boys?”

Sarah covered her face in her hands. “If you guys are going to talk about sex, do it somewhere else.”

This time Leslie blushed, surprised by her daughter’s timely comment. She changed the topic of conversation and refocused her attention on Steve. “Did you catch the dive boat this afternoon while we were shopping?” she asked.

“Not this time. I did a solo dive instead.”

Leslie shifted in her seat. “You told me you wouldn’t dive alone anymore.”

“I said I’d think about it. You knew I was bringing the equipment.”

“How long were you under?”

“A little over four hours.”

“That’s too long. Too dangerous.”

“The conditions were perfect.”

“This time. But what about next time? What happens when you get in trouble and there’s no one to help you?”

“Won’t happen.”

Leslie played with her napkin. “That’s a bunch of macho bullshit. You think you’re immortal and you’re not.”

Steve scratched the corner of his mouth. “It’s not a toy. It’s a very sophisticated underwater breathing apparatus used successfully for years—”

“I know, I know… I still don’t like it.”

“Did you see any sharks?” asked Sarah.

Steve changed his tone when he saw the irritated look on Leslie’s face. “No, not this time.” He played with his napkin. The food was taking too long, and he was dying of thirst.

* * *

Leslie reached for her over-sized beach purse where she’d hidden Steve’s presents. Although angry with him for pulling another stupid stunt, she couldn’t stay mad for long. Wanting to surprise him, she waited for another movie trailer to distract his attention before she placed a pair of gift-wrapped boxes on the edge of the table.

“What’s this?”

“It’s your birthday.”

“I said no gifts.”

“You know how I am about birthday celebrations,” said Leslie. “They’re important.”

Steve examined the small boxes before he picked one up and shook it. He tore the paper away from the ends to reveal a flimsy cardboard box. Inside, he found a baseball cap with the logo of a diver trying to swim away from the jaws of a shark ten times his size. More comic than gruesome, the embroidered scene covered the front of the cap where detailed stitching emphasized the panicked expression on the diver’s face.

“Do you like it?” asked Sarah.

“Very much.”

“I saw it and thought of you.”


Leslie gathered the torn wrapping paper. “The next one’s from both of us.”

Steve opened the neatly wrapped box and found a vial of Aqua for Men. The turquoise-colored cologne filled a small bottle shaped like a scuba tank. He unscrewed the cap and sniffed. The scent reminded him of a carpet freshener Leslie used at home. “I like it. Thank you. Both of you.”

Leslie rubbed his forearm. “Sorry we didn’t get you more, but we figured the vacation was part of your gift as well.”

Steve winked at Sarah and put the baseball cap on his head. “Are you guys up for diving tomorrow morning?”

Sarah played with the straw in her soda. “Mom and I talked about touring the island tomorrow.”

“I thought you did that today when you went shopping.”

“We never got to see the Mayan ruins.”

Steve put his napkin in his lap. “Since when do you care about piles of old rock?”

“It’s more than piles of rock. Mom said—”

“We don’t have to visit old ruins,” Leslie interrupted. “I just thought you might enjoy the island, that’s all.” Her intuition told her Sarah was less than exuberant about a tour of the island. And moreover, regardless of how her daughter felt, she didn’t like her husband pouting in public. “Maybe we can do both.”

“You don’t have to,” Steve replied.

“But I want to,” said Sarah. “We never go diving together anymore.”

Steve shook his head. “I just want you to be happy,” he said as the waiter approached with a tray of drinks.

* * *

Unwilling to engage in a subtle argument about the following day’s agenda, Steve ignored his impulse to lecture. He wanted Sarah to have fun, but he wanted her to appreciate the natural beauty of the surrounding water as well. Convinced most kids her age could barely spell Caribbean, let alone dive to the depths of it, he wanted Sarah to take advantage of her open water skills and experience a part of the world most people never saw. “I had iced tea,” he told the waiter who passed him a glass of orange soda. He glanced at the front of the restaurant where the lobby was filling with patrons waiting for a table, including the strange couple he caught staring at Sarah during breakfast.

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?”


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


The Lieutenant leaned back and shook another cigarette from his soft pack. He offered one to Steve, who declined, then lit up and drew a lungful of smoke. “Your wife and daughter, what are their names?”

“My wife’s name is Leslie. My daughter’s name is Sarah. She’s my stepdaughter.”

“You have passports?”

“They’re at my hotel.”

The Lieutenant scribbled on a yellow legal pad. “What is your daughter’s age?”

“Sixteen. My wife is thirty-eight. The picture is old. My daughter was fourteen when it was taken. My wife’s hair is longer and darker.” Steve tapped his heel in synch with his fingers, losing himself in thought while the officer scribbled on notes. Whoever he’d spoken with at the hotel this morning, he would question again and again and again if necessary. The bellboys, the maids, the girl behind the gift shop register, and anyone else on the premises.

The Lieutenant looked up from his notepad. “Senor, I will keep your information on file. If we find anything, someone from this office will contact you.”

“When? How soon?”

“That’s impossible to say at this point.”

“What exactly are you planning to do?”

“One of my men will contact you as soon as we learn something.”

“What are you saying?”

“We have procedures to follow here. Just like in your country back home. If we find your wife or daughter, we will call your hotel and let you know.”

“How do you intend to find them?”

“Senor Chambers, I will do my best.”

Steve cracked his knuckles in an effort to vent his frustration. “Is it possible my wife and daughter were arrested? That they’re sitting in jail somewhere?”


“How can you be certain?”

The Lieutenant placed his notepad on the desk. “Please, Senor, your family is probably shopping, and as you said, ‘lost in town somewhere.’ You are on vacation. They are on vacation as well. Try to relax.”

“Don’t tell me to relax. How the hell can I relax when my wife hasn’t called me in days!”

“Senor, what do you expect me to do?”

“Your job. Get your men out there and start looking for my wife and daughter.”

“That’s impossible.”


“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?”


“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.


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?”

Without a Trace… Chapter 2

Steve Chambers sat at his computer and stared out the window of his second-floor study while snowflakes cascaded through the barren branches of an overgrown oak tree in his neighbor’s yard. Beyond the tree, a cloud of condensation brewed from the dual exhaust pipes on his neighbor’s yellow Mustang convertible. The baritone sound from the small-block V-8 reminded Steve of the ’68 Cobra Jet he’d driven in college before “emissions control”became a four-letter word.

He didn’t envy his neighbor so much as wonder how a single dad could afford all the toys in his garage and put two kids into college on a government salary.

He bumped the mouse to deactivate the asteroid field streaking toward him from the center of his PC screen. He tapped the space bar with his thumb and focused his attention on the word “essay” centered in twelve-point Arial along the top of the blank page. White space filled the screen. The same white space that had lingered there for more than an hour while he watched the snow blanket his neighbor’s yard.

He ran his hand through his light brown hair. A touch of salt and pepper above his neatly trimmed sideburns betrayed his age. His mother’s side had blessed him with a warm smile, which he imparted to his wife Leslie every night when she returned from work. From his father’s side, he inherited chestnut-brown eyes, soft and comforting at times, yet commanding in the presence of the men in his former naval unit.

He rested his wrists on the foam pad in front of the keyboard and pounded the keys with his fingertips. His thoughts poured from a stream of consciousness, bantering about in his head while the muscles in his fingers worked frantically to keep up. Tired of waiting for the perfect opening to present itself, he brainstormed random sentences, drawing on previous experiences with the hope of adding value to his essay.

He’d been alone in his study since breakfast, procrastinating by reorganizing the file folders in his cabinet. He’d sorted mail, paid bills, and reviewed a portion of last year’s tax return to check for hidden exemptions he might have missed. Anything to distract him from sitting in front of the computer and engaging in the final phase of his interview process.

With Leslie at work and his stepdaughter in school, he had the house to himself. The quiet time brought peace of mind and gave him the opportunity to collect his thoughts without distraction from the teenage menace disguised as a high school sweetheart.

He’d interviewed twice for a teaching position at George Washington University. Now his fate teetered on the outcome of a single essay, an essay he’d spent days mulling over in his head, waiting for the perfect words to jump out and plant themselves on paper.

His stomach rumbled from a light breakfast and a morning workout that had depleted his mental energy.

He got up from his swivel chair and stretched his arms. A head rush met with momentary blindness. Spending hours hunched over the computer had left his muscles tighter than after spending a night in a submarine rack.

He touched the half-scale reproduction of a U.S. Navy Mark V diving helmet he kept on an antique credenza. Decommissioned from service in 1979, the copper helmet with its hinged faceplate had been a gift from Leslie at a surprise retirement party the year before. He picked it up and blew dust off a section of copper tubing protruding from the back. The simple design of the awkward device had proved its mettle in 1939 when Navy divers employed the Mark V to rescue thirty-three crewmen stranded aboard the U.S.S. Squalus submarine at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

In the foyer downstairs, sneakers chirped on the hardwood floor, followed by someone bounding up the stairs toward the bedroom across the hall.

Steve rubbed his forehead as Lady Gaga blared from his stepdaughter’s room. He knocked on Sarah’s door. “Could you turn it down a notch?” He knocked again, more forcefully this time. “Sarah, turn it down!”

The music stopped. The door swung open. At five-foot-two and barely a hundred pounds, Sarah’s frame almost disappeared against the stocky build of her six-foot, three-inch stepfather. “Don’t go postal on me,” she pleaded.

Steve pointed to the headphones on the dresser beside a high school tennis trophy and an eight-by-ten photo of the varsity gymnastics team. He’d purchased a new iPod for Sarah’s sixteenth birthday under the mistaken assumption his message would get across. He knew a car would have met with less resistance, but he couldn’t justify spending money on a teenage driver with a license still warm from the laminating machine. “Are your headphones broken?”

Sarah grabbed the headset. “They hurt my ears.”

“How would you know?”

“I’ve worn them.”


Sarah put the headset on and rolled her eyes. She inspected her ruby red fingernails to avoid her stepfather’s gaze.

“Did school get out early?” Steve asked.

“No. I just cut class to come home and spend quality time with you.”

Steve shook his head at the blonde-haired, blue-eyed princess with braces. He could see her bed wasn’t made and her desk was in disarray—both minor issues in the grand scheme of life, but acts of defiance nonetheless. “Why do you always take a sarcastic tone with me?”

“I’m not sarcastic. You just ask stupid questions.”

“Did you have practice today?”

“It was cancelled.”

“Did you bring the trash cans in?”

“Mom said I didn’t have to.”

“I asked you to grab those this morning.”

“Why can’t you do it?”

“Because I’m busy.”

Steve pointed to the cigarette lighter partially hidden behind a box of pink tissues on Sarah’s nightstand. “Don’t let your mom catch you smoking.”

* * *

Sarah dialed down the attitude. She could tell by Steve’s expression he had the advantage again. She hated that about him—the way he could see through her deceptions. “When’s Mom coming home?”


Not soon enough, Sarah thought. “Katey invited me to stay at her place tonight.”

“You better ask your mom.”

“But I have to call Katey with an answer in five minutes.”

“Then she’ll have to wait,” Steve countered. “Besides, you have school tomorrow.”

Sarah pointed to the television on her wall. A news reporter stood knee-deep in snow. “I wouldn’t bet on it.”

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 75

Canadian Science Centre for Human and Animal Health Winnipeg, Canada

Agent Burns stepped out of her taxi under overcast skies. A gust of icy wind stung her face and sapped the moisture from her contoured lips. She stomped her boots on the crunchy snow and blew warm air on her hands while Agent Parks looked on, his appearance indicating indifference to the bone-chilling cold. Whatever Kriegel had in store for her, she hoped it was worth it. McLeary needed her help, and given the choice, she’d rather put up with him than contend with the new gorilla Kriegel paired her with. In her heart, she knew her mission went beyond one man or woman, as the fate of thousands teetered on the successful delivery of nothing less than a miracle cure.

“Ten months of winter, two months of bad hockey,” said Parks. He carried a hard shell briefcase in his gloved hand and his loaded service pistol on his hip holster.

Burns watched a cloud of condensation form in front of her face with every breath. Already her face felt tight and dry from the limited exposure to the elements. Her frozen toes tingled inside her leather boots. It’s too early for frostbite and too late to put on thicker socks, she told herself. “How cold is it?”

“Twenty-six degrees on average—in July.”

“I wish it felt that warm,” said Burns. She followed Parks along the freshly-plowed path toward the six-story building connected to satellite offices through glass-enclosed walkways. The wind cut through her jacket like a razor, chilling her core before she reached the sheltered entrance. Surrounded by bomb-sniffing guard dogs, surveillance cameras, and hidden sensors, she felt more secure than she did at FBI headquarters.

From the lobby, she noticed the open space beyond the guard’s station and the X-ray machines, where a sign read “No Firearms Allowed.” A female scientist in a white lab coat and glasses acknowledged her from the lobby stairwell.

“Good morning,” the scientist spoke with a French accent. “We’ve been expecting your arrival.”

Burns flashed her badge. “I’m Special Agent Burns.”

Agent Parks extended a hand. “I’m Agent Parks with Homeland Security. Good to meet you.”

The woman shook hands with both agents. “I’m Doctor Allison, Head of the Medical Microbiology Department.” She gave each agent a temporary badge and watched them sign the visitor’s log.

Burns clipped her badge to her sweater and followed Doctor Allison. She surrendered her weapon to the guard on duty. “I understand you studied internal medicine and infectious diseases at Berkeley. Rhodes Scholar at Oxford in ’82. Candidate for the Nobel Prize in ’96.”

“You’ve done your homework, Agent Burns.”

“Thanks for meeting us on short notice.”

“I hope we can be of help,” Doctor Allison replied.

“That’s why we’re here,” said Parks. He retrieved his briefcase from the X-ray scanner.

Doctor Allison waited for the guard to secure the agents’ firearms. “If you’ll come this way.”

Parks followed Doctor Allison and Agent Burns. “Our government is grateful for your assistance.”

Doctor Allison punched a key pad on the wall and stared into a retinal scanner. “Mine is grateful to oblige.”

“Access granted,” a synthesized voice signaled from a speaker in the wall.

“You’ll have to bear with me,” Doctor Allison told her guests, “our security detail can be challenging at times. We have more than a dozen labs and two hundred senior scientists on staff.” She used a key on her wrist lanyard to unlock a small compartment in the wall. Then she handed Burns and Parks a pair of pathogen detection stickers. “Clip these to your visitor’s badge. Make sure they stay there at all times.”

“You’re scaring me,” said Parks.

“Merely precautionary, I assure you. We operate at the highest levels of bio containment. We work with everything from Ebola and Marburg virus to Lassa fever and anthrax.”

“What grows inside, stays inside,” Parks quipped. He noted the surveillance monitor in the ceiling corner and counted eight guards at the entrance, all armed with submachine guns. Intrusion detection devices embedded in smoke detectors lined the corridor leading away from the main entrance. To steal what he came for would require cunning, artifice, and strict adherence to a well-rehearsed plan.

Doctor Allison slid her smart card badge through the optical reader for access to the biomedical storage facility. “This way,” she urged, escorting her FBI visitors through another series of sliding doors activated by the coded signal from the RF chip implanted in her badge.

Burns walked with Agent Parks beside her and thought about McLeary and his sons. This is my redemption, she told herself, reflecting on her call to duty and the oath she took to serve and protect. For once, she saw herself beyond the bureau’s political machine. A strong American fighting to make a difference with the help of men like Jim McLeary and Agent Parks who would give their own lives to protect the freedoms and way of life their enemies fought to destroy. And now, deep within the catacombs of one of the world’s most sophisticated biomedical research facilities, the reality of the situation enveloped her. The bureau trusted her. Lives depended on her.

Escorted beyond the administrative offices, conference rooms, and medical equipment labs, Burns followed Parks and Doctor Allison through the last secured entrance beyond the stark white corridors with windows overlooking research labs occupied by technicians in white coats, purple gloves, and protective goggles. Once inside the airlocked perimeter, she followed Doctor Allison across a raised-floor, climate-controlled room with refrigeration units mounted in the center of the six-hundred square foot space. An eye-wash station with an overhead shower and a pull-down lever occupied the far corner.

Doctor Allison approached the computer terminal and typed her password at the screen prompt. She slid her badge through the smart card reader and placed her thumb on the fingerprint scanner. A green light illuminated above the red and white infectious substance placard on the refrigeration unit, followed by a mechanical crunch of gears releasing the locking mechanism.

Agent Parks rested his metal briefcase on an empty table. He took a pen from his shirt pocket and laid it alongside the biohazard container made to look like an ordinary briefcase.

“The storage unit is on a timer,” Doctor Allison explained, opening the lower cabinet to reveal the supply of experimental vaccine vials. “The world’s best and brightest have been working around the clock to develop this,” she said as she carefully withdrew two vials and handed them to Agent Parks. “The human body is a complex machine. No two systems are identical. There’s no guarantee the serum will work uniformly or yield the same effect on everyone once mass-produced, but it will give you a fighting chance.”

Burns helped Parks seat the vials in the molded foam rubber lining inside the bottom of the briefcase.

“Last two,” Doctor Allison announced as the light on the refrigeration unit turned yellow. She handed Agent Parks the remaining vials and slid the drawer closed. For a fleeting moment, she glanced at Agent Burns then back at Agent Parks, aware of something intangible she’d failed to notice before. The way Agent Parks studied her went beyond a natural curiosity about the opposite sex. She felt uneasy in his presence. More than a little uncomfortable. As if Agent Parks emitted a negative aura like a radioactive cloud discretely contaminating everything around him.

Don’t be ridiculous, she told herself, dismissing her unfounded reservations about a man she’d just met. A federal agent on a top secret mission. Was her bad vibe truly a cause for concern, or a warning, perhaps, from somewhere deep within her psyche? A sixth sense prompting her to avoid certain strangers on a subway or question the motive of a handsome stranger standing too close behind her at a bank’s ATM machine. These things she pondered without a shred of tangible evidence to support her unfounded concerns. “Be careful with those,” she told Agent Parks.

Agent Parks seated the last two vials in the briefcase and closed the lid. “We’ll take it from here,” he said bluntly and hustled toward the air-locked chamber ahead of Burns.

“Agent Parks,” Doctor Allison called out with a mild tremor in her voice as she noticed the sudden urgency in his movements. “You forgot your pen,” she said, a second before a powerful blast from the shaped explosive embedded in the pen’s composite frame blew off her left arm at the shoulder and hurled her against the refrigeration unit.

Carbon dioxide gas dispersed from the fire suppression system, dousing the laboratory in a smoky white cloud.

* * *

Momentarily blinded by the blast, a discombobulated Agent Burns staggered away from Agent Parks, her ears ringing, when she felt a fist pound her face and knock her against the wall. An arm around her neck choked her.

“In here!” a guard shouted above the pandemonium. Sirens wailed inside the secure facility. Flashing red lights illuminated the area outside the research lab.

Agent Parks let Burns slip through his arm and pressed his back to the wall for cover as the guard advanced. He touched his arm, where a portion of the synthesized transparent glove had torn away from his skin. Less than a quarter millimeter thick, the glove had remained nearly imperceptible to the untrained eye with Doctor Allison’s fabricated prints on each fingertip.

The guard spotted Burns first, pointing his weapon in her direction as he emerged from the sealed doorway and felt the brunt of Parks’ strike to his throat, crushing his larynx in a single blow.

Parks wrenched the gun away and shot the guard twice in the chest. He searched for Burns in the haze of white gas. When he failed to locate her, he took out his forged smart card with Doctor Allison’s fingerprint embedded in the microchip memory and proceeded outside the biocontainment lab.

* * *

Burns crouched behind a row of biohazard waste bins and pulled an emergency Draeger gas mask from the wall and slipped it over her face. She reached for her gun instinctively, touching the empty holster at her hip before she remembered surrendering her firearm when she’d entered the building.

“Are you all right?” she heard a voice call out. She stood up to see an armed guard check for Doctor Allison’s carotid pulse. “What happened?”

A bevy of security personnel swarmed the room perimeter. “Who are you?” a guard asked, the title “Chief of Security” imprinted on his badge.

Burns stood in silence for a moment until her short term memory came back. “FBI. I think my partner just tried to kill me.”

“We saw what happened on the monitor.”

“Where’d he go?”

“He entered another compartmented lab space. Biohazard four.” The Chief gave Burns a 9mm Beretta. “Don’t shoot unless you have to.”

Burns slipped the gun in her empty holster. She pulled on the straps securing the triple seal gas mask against her face. “What’s our move?”

“The facility’s in lockdown mode. All physical security devices will reject everyone but security personnel. He’s not going anywhere without an armed escort.”

Burns followed the team down a narrow hallway with biohazard placards on the walls. “Are you certain he can’t get out of the building?”

“He’ll never get off this floor.” The Chief of Security stopped Burns outside a secure hallway leading to a lab certified at biohazard four, a space allocated for the cultivation of viruses and bacterial elements capable of causing fatal disease in humans—for which vaccines are not available. “He’s in there.”

Burns grabbed at her lower back where a long sliver of broken glass had embedded itself. It was too painful to remove—she ignored it and pressed on.

The Chief swiped his badge at the smart card reader and pressed his thumb on the fingerprint scanner. Two shots rang out when he tried to enter. “Get down!”

Burns dropped onto her front and rolled beyond the security team. Three more shots punched through the secure door and slammed into the wall behind her.

The Chief took cover behind a water cooler. “He’s trapped in there.”

Burns weighed her options, her thoughts a jumbled mess. She knew what Jim McLeary would do. “Cover me!”


Burns crawled forward and rose to her knees, peering over a half-wall partition to see a row of positive pressure suits suspended in a biosafety cabinet. From her vantage point, she could see the hooded figure removing large vials from a round storage unit in the glass-enclosed lab at the end of the sterilized hallway.

The Chief squeezed along side her. “Can you see him?”

“He’s behind the glass.” Burns stared at the biohazard symbol on the window below the level four label. “What exactly do you grow in there?”

“A fate worse than death, I assure you.”

“We’ve got to stop him.”

“We’ll intercept him when he tries to leave. There’s no other way out.”

Burns pointed to the suits hanging in the open cabinet. “He stole the vaccine. We have to do something.”

“We should hold our position.”

Burns reached for the safety cabinet. “He could destroy everything!”

“If he sees you coming, you won’t stand a chance.” The Chief crawled backwards and motioned for Burns to follow. “Take this,” he said, handing her his smart card. “There’s another access point on the opposite side adjacent to the refrigeration units. I’ll distract him. Swipe my badge once and press two-two-seven-zero to override the fingerprint ID.”

“What if he shoots the glass?”

“The lab’s self-contained. The perimeter walls are bullet-proof from top to bottom. You could launch a bazooka without penetrating the safety zone.”

Burns left the group and moved swiftly toward the second entrance. She donned a positive pressure suit with boots, gloves, and a self-contained breathing apparatus. She curled her hand around the 9mm Beretta the Chief had given her, pushing her gloved finger through the trigger guard. She spied Agent Parks from outside the air lock entrance near the back of the research laboratory. To her right, her view was obstructed by the overhead ductwork and interlocking damper systems designed to maintain negative air pressure. On the opposite side, a bevy of beakers, vials, sinks, and microscopes occupied several workstations flanked with air filtration units, biohazard waste bins, and a five-foot diameter autoclave partially shielding her from view.

She waited for the Chief to give the “thumbs up” signal before his security team distracted Agent Parks toward the far end of the laboratory.

Inside the lab, Burns kept the gun at her side. She took baby steps, aware of the potential consequences should she miss her intended target and bounce a bullet through her protective suit. Nice and slow with short movements and a calm determination to do what needed to be done. She imagined herself an astronaut walking on the moon’s surface for the first time, her movements stifled by the confines of her bulky gear.

She stepped over the body of a lab assistant with a torn hood and knelt down to feel for a pulse. She observed the young man’s blistered face, the way his skin appeared to boil from the inside out, leaving welts the size of quarters. His swollen eyes appeared lifeless despite an involuntary twitch and the faint hiss of air escaping through his singed esophagus.

With Agent Parks less than ten feet away and his back turned toward her, she raised the gun and aimed the sights at his spinal column. The thought of shooting an unarmed man gave her pause, despite everything Parks had done to jeopardize the lives of fellow agents and the arsenal of biological weapons at his disposal.

Parks caught Burns’ reflection in a stainless steel cabinet and raised his hands slowly. “So here we are,” he said through the microphone device affixed inside the airtight helmet. He turned to face Burns. “Are you going to shoot me or not?” He reached for the open box of bioweapon vials and removed one with a red liquid content. “It’s natural to be scared of what we don’t understand.” He dropped the vial and watched it smash against the floor, releasing an invisible cloud of death in the recirculated air.

Burns stepped forward, her finger pressed on the trigger hard enough to register the familiar tactile sensation but soft enough to avoid an accidental discharge.

Parks tossed another vial on the floor and stepped toward his partner.

“Put it down!” Burns ordered him, projecting the deepest, coldest, and most commanding voice she could summon.

“You won’t shoot in here. It’s against your protocol.”

“Don’t try me.”

“I already have,” Parks whispered. He lunged at Burns with uncanny quickness and snatched the gun by the barrel. He jerked the muzzle sideways from his torso, catching Burns off balance with his seamless footwork.

Burns grappled for control of the weapon, bending and twisting at her waist with both hands on the gun. She kicked her knee at her assailant’s groin but failed to make contact through the billowing layers of protective garment. Smaller, faster, and better trained, she leveraged her ability to adjust her balance and took down Parks with a hip throw to send him crashing against the autoclave cabinet.

Parks responded with a whirling round kick to knock the gun away and keep himself in the fight.

Burns knocked him on his heels with a powerful side kick, sending him against the double door refrigerator. Closing the gap, she jabbed at his hooded face until he blocked her second punch and grabbed at her suit.

Burns jumped sideways, keeping her balance as she steadied her defenses against the larger, more powerful adversary. She could see the gun on the floor across the room but reached for a fire extinguisher on the wall instead, blinding Parks with a blast of carbon dioxide before swinging the metal cylinder at his head.

Parks ducked, lunging at Burns to tackle her against the viewing window overlooking the security force assembled outside the lab.

Burns dropped the extinguisher and absorbed a flurry of blows to her midsection and the self contained filter mechanism mounted in the front of her suit. Then her world flipped upside down as she felt herself thrown toward the autoclave machine and landed on the floor, gasping for breath from her damaged air supply.

Parks kicked her repeatedly in the back, pounding her kidneys. She spat blood inside her mask. With Burns at his mercy, he activated the autoclave and depressed the foot pedal to open the large-diameter lid, spewing a cloud of super-heated steam meant for decontamination of biological waste.

Burns curled herself in a fetal position, her body reflexively protecting her vital organs as Parks grabbed her suit by the shoulders and hoisted her toward the scalding steam. Through her foggy mask, she saw a broken syringe on the floor beside her. She stretched her hand out but couldn’t reach it.

She turned her body, extending every millimeter of her reach only to see Parks kick the needle away.

Parks reached for the gun.

Burns gasped through her mask as the pain in her side signaled a second chance at life. She bent her arm around to grab a shard of glass from one of the large broken vials and jabbed it at the base of Parks’ rubber boot.

“STUPID BITCH!” Parks cried inside his hood, kicking his foot away. Inhaling from his contaminated air supply, he grabbed at the pistol and scooped it from its hiding place beneath the centrifuge station. But the victory was short-lived, as his limbs shook uncontrollably with the rhythmic convulsions of a grand mal seizure, his organs dissolving like molten rubber before expelling through his colon tract as he turned the muzzle toward his head, screaming, and pulled the trigger.

Enemy Among Us: Chapter 70

McLeary and Burns joined Kriegel and several FBI agents gathered in the radar room of the high-rise control tower overlooking Orlando International Airport. A somber mood resonated with the personnel in the room. “What do we know?” McLeary asked Kriegel.

Kriegel leaned over the air traffic controller seated at the tower’s main console and pointed to the blip on the radar screen. “We identified your son Brian in a video tape we recovered from an abandoned airplane hangar with suspicious ties to a foreign investment firm. We believe Abdullah left the tape behind to send a message.” Kriegel rubbed his temples. “The voiceprint from the pilot we’ve been tracking matches Brian’s voice from the tape. And as far as we know, he’s flying solo.”

“I want to see the tape.”

“It’s in evidence.”

McLeary watched the blip on the radar screen advance. “What is he doing up there?”

“He’s flying towards restricted airspace and won’t follow instructions from the controllers to change his heading. He’s been demanding to speak with you.”

“You get anything useful from the tape?”

“Nothing more than terrorist rhetoric about America’s pending doom.”

“Tell him to land the plane,” said Burns.

“It’s not that simple,” Kriegel answered. “They strapped him in a suicide vest. He was warned it will detonate if he deviates from his present heading or attempts to land. The Air National Guard scrambled an F-16 out of Patrick to intercept him.”

“Under whose authority?”


“Let me speak to him,” said McLeary.

Kriegel pointed at the air traffic controller. “Call him.”

“Yes Sir.”

Kriegel handed McLeary a radio headset.

McLeary turned his back to the agents gathered in the room. “Brian, this is Dad. Come in, over.”

“Dad? I’m sorry. I screwed up bad this time.”

“Brian listen to me. I need you to focus. Look around the plane and tell me what you see.”

“Not much. The plane’s stripped.”

“Is there a package, a canister, or a payload of any kind?”

“Not that I can see.”

“Look again.”

“There’s nothing here!”

“Is there anything attached to the wings?”

“Nothing underneath them. I can’t tell if there’s anything on top of the wings. Don’t think so.”

Static crackled through McLeary’s headset speakers. “Brian… Brian do you copy?”

“His signal cut out,” said the traffic controller. “We’re diverting all air traffic to alternate sites.”

Kriegel glanced at the radar screen. “If he gets within ten miles of the no-fly zone, the F16 will intercept him.”

“He’s a decoy,” McLeary blurted. “Why else would they send him up there? They want us to track him, to divert our attention away from the real target.”

“We don’t know that,” said Kriegel, “not for certain.”

“Then give him a chance to divert.”

“It’s not an option.”

“What’s he heading toward?”

“Downtown Orlando, hotels, convention center, residential neighborhoods, you name it.”

“Nothing strategic…”

Kriegel read an incoming text message on his phone. “If this plane drops an anthrax load on a residential population—”

“I don’t buy it,” said McLeary. “Why would Abdullah send him here?”

“Because it’s a densely-packed civilian population.”

“So is Miami.”

“We’re dealing with a madman, McLeary. There’s not always a logical connection to everything he does or doesn’t do.”

“It still doesn’t feel right.”

“I don’t care what you feel. For all we know, this plane could be a modified crop duster with an anthrax dispersion device mounted under the wings or the fuselage or the tail.”

McLeary stared at Kriegel. “What if he were yours?”

“That’s irrelevant.”

“What’s relevant is the way we’re standing here with our thumbs up our ass instead of finding the real target.”

“Which is?” asked Burns.

McLeary shook his head. “I don’t know.”

Kriegel signaled for the other agents to leave. “Then you can’t know for certain this plane isn’t carrying a hundred pounds of weaponized anthrax.”

“We don’t know that it is.”

Kriegel put his hand out. “That’s a chance we can’t afford to take.”

“What if the plane is destroyed?” asked Burns. “Would that neutralize the threat completely?”

Kriegel looked at Burns. “What are you getting at?”

“He’s less than fifteen miles out,” the controller warned the group.

McLeary estimated Brian’s speed and time. “He’s four minutes to the no-fly zone.” He touched the headset microphone. “Brian?”

“Dad… can barely… hear you. Winds—”

“Say again?”


McLeary covered the microphone and turned to Kriegel. “Can the F-16 pilot use his electronic countermeasures to jam transmissions in the air space? If he could block the signal to the vest’s transmitter, Brian could toss the vest and alter course.”

“Assuming it’s not triggered to detonate when he takes it off,” Kriegel cautioned him. “We don’t know how it’s rigged.”

McLeary watched the blips continue on the radar screen, one representing Brian’s plane; the other, the F-16 flying shotgun. “Brian can you hear me, over?”

“Can barely hear you…”

“Take off the vest. Wait one minute. Then toss it out of the plane.”

“Please repeat!”

“Take off the fucking vest and throw it out of the plane!”

“What frequencies?” the controller interrupted. “The fighter pilot’s asking what band you want him to jam.”

“Sweep the whole fucking spectrum!” McLeary shouted. “Just jam the signal!”

“There’s other traffic in the air,” the controller argued. “They’ll lose communication with the tower.”

“Any traffic on final approach?”

“Negative. We diverted all flights to—”

“They’ll survive a few seconds without an RF transmission. My son won’t.”

Kriegel looked directly at the air traffic controller. “Do it.”

The controller sent the message to the pilot. “It’s a go.”

McLeary glanced at the clock on the wall. Burns put her hand on his shoulder. The room fell silent.

Kriegel opened a cigar case from his jacket pocket and picked on the wrapper of a fresh stogie. He looked at McLeary. Then he glanced at the digital clock on the wall.

“There’s been an explosion,” the controller said.

McLeary studied the radar screen. “What happened?”

The controller looked away. “We lost the Cessna’s signal.”

McLeary watched the second blip disappear from the screen. “Brian!” He slammed his headset on the traffic controller’s station. “Get him back on screen. NOW! Bring him back, GOD DAMMIT! You bring him back on screen!”

Enemy Among Us: Chapter 68

Her words swallowed by the cacophony of supercharged engines howling in the aft compartment, Agent Burns gripped the sides of her bolstered seat as the turbulence from heavy chop splashed over the bow. Ride it out, she told herself with each successive motion of the boat’s modified V-hull punching through choppy seas at eighty knots. When McLeary flashed the okay signal, she gave a tentative “thumbs up” and commanded herself not to puke in front of him.

When the boat approached its destination, she heard the engines throttle back and felt the sleek vessel lose speed. The hull gradually came off plane and settled on the open water, pitching and rolling in the choppy Atlantic while one of the men dropped the hook.

Burns unbuckled her seat harness and donned her scuba gear with McLeary. “You sure you’re up for this?”

McLeary slipped his fins on and pressed the purge button to test his regulator. “The water’s calmer beneath the surface,” he told Burns.

“It’s not the water I’m afraid of.”

“You don’t have to do this.”

“We’re partners. We go together, or we don’t go at all.”

* * *

Hilario scanned the open water with thermal imaging binoculars, then passed them to his crew and checked the radar for approaching vessels. “If these men are down there, what chance do you have against them?”

“Better than fifty-fifty,” said McLeary. “I hope.”

“What do you need me to do?”

“Watch the water. I don’t want any uninvited guests trying to crash our party.”

“How long?”

“An hour, tops.”

Hilario grabbed McLeary’s arm. “And if you don’t surface? What then? I take the rap for killing two federal agents?”

McLeary unzipped a pair of duffle bags with underwater propulsion devices. “Too much worry will get you killed.”

“So will foolish stunts.”

McLeary unpacked a three-foot shark-stick with a barbed spear at one end and a waterproofed .357 Magnum cartridge used to drive it home. “Any word on the street about Abdullah?”

“The man’s a ghost. No one’s talking. Right now you’re the one with the biggest stick.”

“We’re losing time,” said Burns, holding a spear gun. She hunched forward with her scuba tank on her back and her fins on her feet, her mask and snorkel in place with her regulator in her hand.

“Swim to the anchor line and descend along it,” said McLeary. “I’ll be with you the whole time.”

Burns put her regulator in her mouth and did a backwards roll off the port side.

Hilario lowered a propulsion device to Burns who fastened her equipment lanyard to the handle and waited for McLeary to join her. “Watch your air,” he hollered to the agents bobbing up and down on the surface.

McLeary adjusted the wrist lanyard around his shark stick. “Just be here when we get back.”

* * *

McLeary kept his hand on the anchor line, sliding his fingers along the rope as he slowly descended through the seventy-two degree water with Burns an arm’s length away. He pinched his nose and blew gently through his Eustachian tubes to equalize the water pressure in his ears. Air bubbles gurgled from his regulator.

Descending to within ten feet of the sandy floor, he established neutral buoyancy and powered on his underwater light. He held the lanyard attached to the underwater propulsion device and touched his finger to the timer button on his dive watch. He checked his compass and placed a finger from each hand side by side to signal Burns: I lead, you follow.

Burns positioned herself above to the ocean floor and extended her arms with her propulsion device out in front. She followed McLeary through the water at two knots, assisting her propeller-driven scooter with long scissor kicks.

When they reached the abandoned research facility thirty meters from the base of a coral reef, McLeary noted the moonpool entrance and a wet room built in the center of the six-hundred square foot structure housing a lab facility, a small galley, and a narrow berthing compartment. Twenty-four inch portholes gave a view of the world outside the underwater housing, where a desalinization compressor produced fresh water. On the south side, a pair of cables supplied electricity from the hydroelectric generators. Near the north end, a bank of oxygen tanks and CO2 scrubbers replenished and recycled the habitat’s air supply.

McLeary abandoned his scooter and swam with his shark stick in the ready position as a school of yellow tang swam around the habitat’s massive support rails. He approached the lab from the stern and kept his eyes on the space beneath the moonpool entrance. There he unfastened his dive vest and laid his scuba gear on the ocean floor a few feet below the circular opening.

Burns did the same.

McLeary unscrewed the hatch and aimed the shark stick at the open space, kicking his feet as he pulled himself upright through the narrow tube. He pulled his gas mask on and helped Burns inside.

He panned a flashlight at the walls, reflecting shadows off the water and the artificial turf. The space felt cold and cramped.

In the adjoining room, he found a biological safety cabinet with rubber gloves and a filtered exhaust vent. He looked at Burns through his gas mask and pointed to several scuba tanks with missing first stage regulators.

Burns pointed to a set of closed doors.

McLeary nodded. He nudged the door with the tip of his shark stick.

Burns steadied her spear gun with her finger on the trigger. Instead of finding someone crouched in the corner, she came face to face with a suicide vest suspended from a hook in the wall.

“Back it up,” McLeary whispered through his mask. “Nice and slow.”

Burns lowered the barbed spear and mumbled, “Sorry” through her gas mask. She retreated with baby steps, careful to watch for wires or other impediments blocking her path.

“Don’t touch anything.”

“This place gives me the creeps.”

McLeary inspected the floors and ceiling before he entered the second room. Inside, he found canisters of chemical reagents lining a shelf along the wall. Notebooks written in Arabic depicted photos of lethal poisons with instructions for dispersing gas discretely packaged in an airtight container the size of a shaving cream can. He gathered the notebooks and zipped them in a waterproof bag. Then he panned a video camera at the room, filming symbols and equations scribbled on a white board until a flash of light caught his eye from the porthole beside him. He put his face to the dark glass and saw a scuba diver swim away. Air bubbles trailed behind him before the light extinguished and the image vanished in the sea.

McLeary checked the life support gauges on the lab’s control panel, which showed the oxygen concentration level rising above the maximum parts per million threshold, and the pressure inside the habitat increasing with it.

He adjusted the controls on the air recirculation system but couldn’t stop the flow of excess oxygen being mixed with the lab’s air supply. “Let’s go,” he said through his mask, retreating to the moonpool entrance. “Someone sabotaged the oxygen and pressure controls. I can’t back them off from here. The oxygen toxicity will kill us.”

Burns grabbed the wheel from the moonpool hatch and tried to force it open. “It’s jammed from the outside.”

McLeary put his hands on the four-spoke hatch and twisted his upper body, pushing against the floor for leverage. When the effort failed, he wedged the shark stick between the spokes and pulled, bending the aluminum shaft backwards from the force applied. “Find something stronger.”

“Could we break through the portholes?”

“They’re eight inches thick and the pressure would drown us.”

Burns stared at the ceiling and the length of pipe attached to the ventilation shaft. The air in her lungs felt pinched and tight. “I can’t reach it.”

McLeary lifted Burns and at her waist until she could reach the narrow pipe and pull with both hands, wrenching it free from the ceiling panel. Then he jammed the pipe between the wheel spokes, using the longer length of steel for more leverage. “Help me,” he said, his veins distended along his neck from the Herculean effort.

Burns pulled on the wheel. “It’s moving.”

McLeary leaned on the metal bar until he felt the hatch release mechanism give way.

Burns climbed down the circular opening and inhaled a final breath of oxygen-saturated air through her gas mask before submerging herself beneath the platform to retrieve her scuba gear. McLeary followed her to find their gear with both air hoses cut.

Burns passed her hand across her throat, giving McLeary the out of air signal. She looked up at the surface more than sixty-five feet above her, an ominous distance to cover on a single breath of air.

She dropped her weights and started a free ascent, air bubbling from her mouth as she slowly and carefully exhaled.

McLeary grabbed the back of Burns’ vest and kicked in sync with his partner’s legs, using his strength to help her rise faster.

Burns kicked hard until her oxygen-deprived muscles declined to heed the life or death command from her brain, her starving lungs begging for air as she strained to keep going despite the formidable effort required.

McLeary pulled on her vest, kicking forcefully to lift the weight of two divers, his lungs expanding slightly from the decrease in pressure as he rose toward the surface with Burns in tow. Desperate for his next breath to come, he gasped when he broke the surface, inhaling a splash of salt water while he rolled Burns on her back to keep her airway open.

He coughed several times with his arm around Burns’ chest, rolling and bouncing in the churning water, the first glint of morning sun reflecting off the waves to the east. He smiled when he heard Burns coughing, a sign her lungs were taking air. “You okay?” he shouted above the noise of a Coast Guard vessel approaching.

Burns held onto his dive vest.

McLeary eyed the vessel and watched Kriegel, standing on the starboard bow, raise a megaphone to his mouth as the ship drew closer. Then he scanned the water for Hilario’s missing boat, cursing himself for relying on someone he never should have trusted in the first place.

“McLeary!” Kriegel’s voice boomed through the amplified speaker. “We found your son!”