Enemy Among Us: Chapter 1

Chapter 1

December 1 through December 5

Special Agent Jim McLeary sat alone aboard a forty-seven foot trawler docked in a private slip near the back of a secluded Miami marina. Beside him, a tiny fan buzzed inside a slide projector at the edge of a folding table cluttered with bullets and loose change. He held a cheap flip phone in one hand and a .45 caliber Kimber with a satin silver finish in the other, staring through bloodshot eyes at the lighted image of his wife and twin sons cast through the projector lens toward a free-standing screen.

He was a month shy of fifty. His six-foot frame with broad shoulders, slender waist, and a thickset chest disguised the fragile persona hiding in refuge behind the cobalt blue eyes of a man who’d seen his life come undone in a series of bad decisions and misguided efforts to resolve them. Ravaged by the cumulative effects of an FBI career spanning more than twenty years, Jim McLeary had traveled to the dark side and back, confronting hardened criminals from all walks of life. Outside the FBI, he’d learned to cope with his share of problems, and for the most part, he’d embraced a day-to-day existence he neither loved nor loathed but had learned to accept for what it was.

He pressed the carousel projector’s slide-advance button and watched the specter of his twin sons fast-forward ten years from a preschool picnic to a summer swim tournament in a crowded Virginia suburb. Blessed with their mother’s angelic face and radiant smile, his fraternal sons had worn a badge of unstoppable determination, unyielding in their quest to win their respective heats and earn their father’s admiration.

The slide’s time stamp read 1995, a chapter in the life of Jim McLeary etched with emotional scars; a time governed by a call to duty from a belligerent unit chief—and a wife who’d abandoned him.

He rubbed the stubble on his chiseled jaw with the gun’s front serrations on the black matte slide, inhaling the odor of light machine oil impregnated in the carbon pores.

He placed the flip phone on the table and reached for the metal trash can heaped with newspaper clippings, unsolicited IRS correspondence, and a rumpled copy of the King James Bible. He pushed the Bible aside and retrieved a yellow sticky pad with a note scrawled in pen beneath an unlisted phone number for Seth and Brian McLeary. He tore the ragged square of paper and crumpled it in his hand. Then he stood up, snatched the phone, and sat down. An act of indecision he’d repeated twice before, pacing with the gun in one hand and the phone in the other.

The past was history, the present uncertain, and his future up for grabs when his stronger half convinced himself to open the mangled note and dial the stupid number.

The line rang several times before he heard a prerecorded message from a voice he likened to his own. He tried to speak, but the words sank in a trough of emotional quicksand. Despite the countless rehearsals and the steadfast determination to make a positive change in his life, he froze in his own mental torpor and hung up.

He tossed the phone on a sofa cushion and advanced the slide projector until the last photo of his sons passed across the lens, followed by a sheet of white light that blanketed the screen, depicting what remained of his life from the sequence of historic images stacked neatly inside a rotating tray.

Disillusioned, yet sober in his humble surroundings, he pinched a single bullet from the clutter of .45 caliber cartridges on the folding table. He pressed the fat, copper round in the empty chamber and closed the match-grade slide on the five-inch barrel with a left-hand twist. He held his life in his own hands, a power he both revered and feared. Despite his shortcomings, he’d done what he could for his boys, finding solace in the notion his sons would thrive without him.

Alone in his thoughts, he had a decision to make, perhaps the last decision he would ever contemplate. For what he’d failed to accomplish as a father, met with equal downfall in his marriage and career. Wracked with guilt and the ensuing doldrums from a life of solitude and lost resolve, he sought refuge the only way he knew how. In his mind, the scales of indignity and hope teetered back and forth, rising and falling with the slow, methodic rhythm of a large vessel’s wake rolling through the low-rent marina.

He squeezed his hand around the gun’s rosewood grip, his fingers pressed against the double diamond texture. He cocked the hammer and brought the loaded weapon to his head, squaring the Lasergrip sights at his temple. For the third time in two days, he crept closer to the rim of a rocky ledge, staring down at the cavernous void, prepared to take his final step from a life he would surrender in a violent discharge of expanding gas behind a two-hundred and thirty grain bullet capable of shattering his skull like a porcelain vase.

With his free hand, he slid a quarter off the table and sat upright, shoulders back, chest out—his right index finger resting on the gun’s four-pound trigger.

He flicked the quarter with his thumb, launching the coin into the air, where it wobbled in a shallow arc before clanging off the teak-wood floor by his feet, bouncing and spinning until it settled on George Washington’s head.

What Jim McLeary failed to decide on his own, fate had chosen for him.

New Song: I Miss Them

Yesterday, their mom said hi

Came to see if I’m all right

And I told her so…

Now I can’t let go

Of the one thing on my mind…

I miss them

They grow too fast

Time moves on and I still ask

Forgiveness, when I get sad

They might be gone, but I’m their dad

Looking back on the times we had…

And think about how much I miss them

I learn to live with the pain inside

Ocean deep and ten miles wide

Lord knows how hard I’ve tried

But I still laugh and I still cry

Not a day in life goes by

When I miss them

They grow too fast

Time moves on and I still ask

Forgiveness, when I get sad

They might be gone, but I’m their dad

Looking back on the times we had

And think about how much

I miss them…

Now the walls are cavin’ in

To the point where I begin to wonder why

I do my best to occupy

My time alone…

This empty house don’t feel like home

‘Cause I miss them

They grow too fast

Time moves on and I still ask

Forgiveness, when I get sad

They might be gone, but I’m their dad

Looking back on the times we had

And think about how much

I miss them…

Hmmm hmmm hmmm

Man I miss them…

Oh God I miss them

This Ain’t Our Song

You were the one who wanted space to breathe in

Without a heart to love or hand to hold

Beyond the light, we hope to find forgiveness

But for you it’s always been about control

This ain’t our song

The note’s all wrong

When I wake up, I find you gone

No hesitation, life goes on

Despite our love, we both belong to someone else

A truth we hide within ourselves

Now the more he gives, the more he takes

I suppose we learn to live with our mistakes

When the bad outweighs the good in the life you lead

You get caught up in the fire

Lost in your desire

Consumed by what you want, not what you need…

This ain’t our song

The note’s all wrong

When I wake up, I find you gone

No hesitation, life goes on

Despite our love, we both belong to someone else

A truth we hide within ourselves

The more we leave behind, the more we stay

Without the strength to walk away

In a place we can’t deny what we both see

Defined by who we are and not the love that’s meant to be…

This ain’t our song

The note’s all wrong

In our hearts we both belong to someone else

Despite the truth we can’t convey

Without a chance to live and love another day

Emotions

May thoughts await in dreams untold

Along a stretch of lonely road

A barefoot stroll on powdered sand

Side by side, hand in hand

While stars align in open sky

And spirits soar where angels fly

As sunlight shines from heaven’s gate

To warm the hearts of those who wait

On whispers in a mild breeze

Or gentle stir of autumn leaves

For what was lost can now be found

When love and happiness abound

—J.M.

Valentine Surprise

Love is laughter young and old;

A shelter from the dark and cold.

Love is an unconditional design;

A bond between your heart and mine.

Love is unbounded by time and space;

A forever lasting warm embrace.

Love is strength and courage in times of need;

A reflection of the life we lead.

Love is comfort, safety, tenderness, and joy;

A smile revealed from my beautiful boys.

Love is red apple cheeks and sky-blue eyes;

Love is you, my Valentine. Surprise!

Armed and Dangerous: Screenplay Part 7

SIMON’S POV:

He sees Carl with the knife and steps in front of the coffee machine.  Steam rises from the stale pot sitting on the burner.  THE CLOCK ON THE WALL READS 12:20.

NATHAN AND MARY’S POV:

Nathan peeks through the blinds to see two police cars lingering out front with lights flashing.

                         NATHAN

          They’re not leaving.

Dirk holds his loaded .357 revolver at his side.

                         DIRK

          What about the car?

                         NATHAN

          I don’t see it.

Dirk ponders the situation for a moment.  THE DINER PHONE RINGS.  Nathan answers.

                         NATHAN

          Where’s the car?

EXT. DINER – DAY

The Sheriff stands beside the SWAT Commander.

                         SHERIFF

          It’s on its way.

INT. DINER – DAY

Dirk lunges at Nathan and takes the phone away.

                         DIRK

                (to Sheriff)

          Thirty seconds.  Or I start shooting.

He slams the phone down and points the gun at Simon.

                         DIRK

          You, over here.

Simon reluctantly lets go of the hot coffee pot handle and comes out of the kitchen.

Dirk points the gun at Carl.

                         DIRK

          You too cowboy.

Carl slowly gets up from the booth.  He palms the knife in his hand with the blade behind his wrist.

                         DIRK

          Hurry up!

Dirk points the gun at Betty, then Abby, then back at Betty.

                         DIRK

                 (to Betty)

          And you.

Betty shakes her head.

                         BETTY

          No.  Please.

                         HAROLD

          My wife stays with me.

Dirk walks up to Harold and shoves the muzzle in his face.  He cocks the hammer and tells BETTY:

                         DIRK

          I won’t ask again.

Betty reluctantly joins Carl and Simon.

                         NATHAN

                 (jubilant)

          The car’s here.

                (beat)

          The cops are leaving.

Dirk shoves Betty, Carl, and Simon toward the front of the diner by the window.  Betty cries.  Carl waits to make his move.

                         DIRK

          Turn around.

Betty, Carl, and Simon turn around to face the front of the diner.

DIRK STUFFS CASH IN CARL’S POCKETS.

                         NATHAN

          What are you doing?

                         DIRK

          They’re small bills.

Dirk turns to Nathan and Mary.

                         DIRK

          Get everyone else in the back.

                         NATHAN

          Why?

                         DIRK

          If you wanna get out of here

alive, shut up and do what I

tell you.

Nathan points his gun at the other hostages.

                         NATHAN

          You heard him.  Let’s go.

Kelly, Lindsay, Darlene, Cheryl, Abby, Jon, and Harold are herded toward the back room area.

                         HAROLD

                (to Betty)

          I never cheated.

                         BETTY

          I know.

EXT. DINER PARKING LOT – DAY

Sheriff Thorton shakes his head.  He orders the patrol cars to move further away.

                         SHERIFF

          What if they don’t go for it?

                         SWAT COMMANDER

          They will.

                         SHERIFF

          What if this blows up in our face?

                         SWAT COMMANDER

          Then we go to plan B.

EXT. DINER BACK ENTRANCE – DAY

SWAT team members dressed in black prepare to storm the diner.

EXT. GAS STATION ROOF – DAY

A sniper lies in a prone position with his rifle trained on the car parked in front of the diner.

CLOSE ON: VIEW FROM SNIPER SCOPE.

The sniper sees the car and the front door entrance.

INT. DINER – DAY

Nathan forces Jon, Harold, Abby, Cheryl, Darlene, Lindsay, and Kelly toward the walk in freezer.  Mary stands off to the side AWAY FROM CHUCK’S DEAD BODY.  Jon hesitates to enter.

                         NATHAN

          You’ll be safe in here.

Nathan checks the back door peep hole.

CLOSE ON: NATHAN’S VIEW THROUGH PEEP HOLE

Nathan sees an empty parking lot.

BACK TO SCENE:

Harold waits for the girls to enter the freezer.  He looks back to see Dirk holding a gun on Betty and the two other men.

Nathan motions for Mary to get away from the door AND TAKES HIS EYES OFF OF HAROLD FOR A SECOND.

HAROLD SEIZES THE OPPORTUNITY TO WRESTLE THE GUN AWAY FROM NATHAN AND GRABS FOR THE .22-CALIBER PISTOL.

JON STANDS STILL.  PETRIFIED.  DOES NOTHING TO HELP.

HAROLD BENDS NATHAN’S WRIST BACK UNTIL THE PAIN FORCES NATHAN TO DROP THE GUN.  HAROLD PUNCHES NATHAN IN THE FACE AND SHOVES HIM ASIDE TO REACH FOR THE GUN.  THEY STRUGGLE.

MARY CRACKS HAROLD UPSIDE THE HEAD WITH A FIRE EXTINGUISHER AND HAROLD COLLAPSES.

JON RETRIEVES THE GUN AND POINTS IT AT NATHAN.

                         MARY

          No!

                         JON

                (to Nathan)

          Don’t move.

Nathan steps toward Jon who FIRES ONCE AND HITS NATHAN IN THE TORSO.

DIRK’S POV:

Dirk steps away from the three hostages.  Carl pulls his KNIFE and attacks Dirk from behind – but Dirk sees it coming and spins, FIRES ONCE AT CARL – but Carl keeps charging and STABS DIRK IN THE LEG.  DIRK fires ANOTHER SHOT at Carl.  Carl collapses.

Dirk HOBBLES toward Nathan and Mary.  Jon ducks behind the freezer.  Dirk FIRES RANDOMLY at Jon and MISSES, hitting ABBY IN THE HEAD.

Dirk pulls the KNIFE out of his leg and chucks it.

EXT. DINER – DAY

SHERIFF POV:

Sheriff Thorton looks at the SWAT Commander.

                         SHERIFF

          What the hell?

                         RANDOM COP (VO)

          Shots fired!

The SWAT Commander gives the order:

                         SWAT COMMANDER

                 (into headset microphone)

          Go!

EXT. DINER REAR EXIT DOOR – DAY

The SWAT team lobs a stun grenade inside.  A LOUD BANG AND A BRIGHT FLASH GO OFF.  The SWAT team rushes in.

INT. DINER – DAY

Through the smoke, we see JON WITH THE GUN IN HIS HAND.

SWAT TEAM POV:

The SWAT team sees Jon rushing at them, waving his arms and mouthing DON’T SHOOT.

The SWAT team fires a BURST OF AUTOMATIC GUNFIRE.  JON IS RIDDLED WITH BULLETS.

EXT. GAS STATION ROOF TOP – DAY

The diner’s front door opens.

CLOSE ON: VIEW FROM SNIPER SCOPE

SWAT sniper sees two suspects in masks rush out toward the car.  HE FIRES TWICE, HITTING BOTH SUSPECTS IN THE CHEST.

EXT. – DINER PARKING LOT – DAY

Police converge on the two wounded suspects in masks.

INT. DINER – DAY

The SWAT team circulates through the SMOKEY diner.  Team members drag bodies away.

                        SWAT TEAM MEMBER 1 (VO)

          Clear.

                        SWAT TEAM MEMBER 2 (VO)

          All clear.

EXT. DINER REAR EXIT – DAY

SWAT team members and ambulance personnel assist the hostages.  Pandemonium.  People running, screaming.

Mary emerges with her mask off and averts her attention from the hostages who follow each other in a separate direction.

EXT. FIRST AMBULANCE – DAY

Paramedics lift Nathan (mask off) into an ambulance.  Mary approaches the paramedics.

                         MARY

          I’ll ride with him.

                         PARAMEDIC

          Who are you?

                         MARY

          His wife.

EXT. SECOND AMBULANCE – DAY

Paramedics load Dirk (ski mask off) into the second ambulance.

INT. SECOND AMBULANCE – DAY

Dirk pulls his oxygen mask off and unbuckles the straps holding him to the gurney. THIS IS THE FIRST TIME WE SEE DIRK’S BABY FACE.  WHAT YOU THOUGHT WAS A MONSTER FROM HIS ACTIONS IS A MAN WITH A 17-YEAR-OLD FACE.

DIRK STABS THE DRIVER IN THE THROAT WITH A SYRINGE.

INT. FIRST AMBULANCE – DAY

Mary holds Nathan’s hand in the MOVING AMBULANCE.  Suddenly it STOPS.

EXT. FIRST AMBULANCE – DAY

Dirk approaches the driver’s door.  The driver opens the door to help and DIRK PUNCHES HIM IN THE FACE.

Dirk SLAMS the DRIVER’S HEAD IN THE DOOR and leaves the man on the road.

Dirk glances in the rearview mirror to see Nathan’s reflection.

                         DIRK

          Miss me?

EXT. DINER ENTRANCE – DAY

Dale and several deputies approach the dead suspects in front of the diner.  Dale pulls the ski mask off Betty’s head.  He reaches to pull the mask off the other suspect.

INT. DINER – DAY

Sheriff Thorton and several deputies trudge through the diner.  The SWAT Commander follows them.  THEY SEE JON’S BODY LYING FACE DOWN WITH A GUN IN HIS HAND AND A MASK BESIDE HIS BODY.  Two men carry a body bag out.

The Sheriff discovers Carl’s dead body lying face down.  Blood and broken glass covers the floor.  Sheriff Thorton shakes his head.  He sees the KNIFE.

                         SHERIFF

          Holy Mary mother of God.

The SWAT Commander points to Carl’s body.

                         SWAT COMMANDER

          We found him first.

The Sheriff takes his hat off and scratches his head.  He looks around the room and sighs.

Dale appears through the front door.

                         SHERIFF

                (to Dale)

          You find the others?

Long beat.  Dale hesitates to answer.

                         DALE

          There’s something you should see.

EXT. DINER – DAY

Sheriff Thorton stands over Betty and Simon’s unmasked bodies.

                         DALE

          I’m sorry Sheriff.

Sheriff Thorton squats beside his dead brother.  He gently closes Simon’s eyes.

The SWAT Commander joins them.

                          DALE

          I found a driver’s license for

Betty Meeks.  Her husband is on

his way to the hospital.

Sheriff Thorton charges at the SWAT Commander.  Dale restrains the Sheriff who takes a wild swing at the SWAT Commander.

                          DALE

                 (to SWAT Commander)

          You killed him.

The SWAT Commander is mortified.

                          SWAT COMMANDER

          I’m sorry.  We didn’t know.

                          DALE

          What happened to the third guy?

          The girl said there were three

men inside.  We found one in the

back and one up here with a knife.

          Where the hell is the third one?

                          SWAT COMMANDER

          He got away.

Dale lets go of the Sheriff.

                          SHERIFF

          Not for long.  Talk to everyone

who was in here.  Find out what

they saw, what they know…

                  (beat)

          Simon deserved better than this.

          I want every man on board.

                          DALE

          You got it.

EXT. AMBULANCE PARKED NEAR DINER – DAY

A deputy opens the driver’s door and THE DEAD PARAMEDIC FALLS OUT WITH THE SYRINGE STILL LODGED IN HIS NECK.

                         DEPUTY

                 (shouting)

          Sheriff.

INT. MOVING AMBULANCE – DAY

Dirk drives the stolen ambulance along the interstate.  No lights and sirens.  Nathan rides in the passenger seat with Mary beside him.  He’s bleeding from his bullet wound.  He sweats profusely.  Great pain.

                         DIRK

          We have to ditch this ride.

                         MARY

          We have to get home.

                         NATHAN

          I need a doctor.

EXT. INTERSTATE EXIT – DAY

The ambulance veers onto the exit ramp.

EXT. GAS STATION – DAY

The ambulance parks at a gas station.  A late model GMC pick-up sits beside the fuel pump as the owner goes inside to pay.  Dirk leaves the ambulance WITH THE DIAPER BAG.

                         DIRK

          Let’s go.

Nathan climbs out.  Mary follows.  THEY WATCH A STATE TROOPER PASS THE FRONT OF THE GAS STATION AND KEEP GOING.

                         NATHAN

          They’re looking for the ambulance.

Nathan tugs on Mary’s arm.  They jump inside the GMC pick-up with Dirk behind the wheel.  They take off as the truck’s owner emerges from the gas station with a drink in his hand.

                         TRUCK OWNER

          Hey!

INT. HOSPITAL EXAM ROOM – DAY

Dale stands in front of Lindsay, Kelly, and Hilda with his notepad and pen.  The girls are visibly shaken with minor cuts and bruises but no serious injuries.

                         DALE

          How many robbers were there?

                         HILDA

          I told you, three men in masks.

                         KELLY

          One was a woman.

                         DALE

          Are you sure?

                         LINDSAY AND KELLY

                (together)

          Yes.

                         DALE

          Did you see her face?

                         LINDSAY

          She wore a mask like the others.

                         KELLY

          One of the robbers was her

boyfriend or husband.

The SWAT Commander arrives with Cheryl.

                         SWAT COMMANDER

          Officer.

Dale turns to see the SWAT Commander with Cheryl.

                         SWAT COMMANDER

          You should hear what she has to say.

INT. SHERIFF’S OFFICE – DAY

Sheriff Thorton looks up from his desk to see Dale BURST into the room.

                         DALE

          We got a lead.

The Sheriff stands up.

                         SHERIFF

          You found our third guy?

                         DALE

          Wrong gender.  A witness said

          one of the masked robbers

          was definitely a woman.  The

          other two were male.  A waitress

recognized one of them from his

voice.  A student in her math

class.  We’re searching school

records for a last known address.

The Sheriff grabs his hat off his desk and ushers Dale toward the door.

                         SHERIFF

          Good work.

                         DALE

          Where are we going?

                         SHERIFF

To bust some ass.

                         DALE

          Now?

                         SHERIFF

          Grab your vest.  These guys are

armed and dangerous.

INT. STOLEN GMC PICK UP – DAY

Nathan rides in the passenger seat with Mary beside him.  He winces from the bullet wound in his upper torso.  Dirk drives sporadically through traffic.

                         NATHAN

          Pull over.

                         DIRK

          We can’t.

                         MARY

                 (to Nathan)

          Hold on.

                         NATHAN

          Just get us home.

                         DIRK

          The cops will be all over you.

                         NATHAN

          Not if they don’t know where to look.

Without a Trace…. Chapter 25

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

“Missing?”

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

“And you are?”

“Steve Chambers.”

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

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

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

“Did my wife return the Jeep?”

“I’ll have to check my records.”

“Did my wife say where she was going?”

“I don’t recall.”

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

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

“Did you see anyone else with them?”

“What do you mean?”

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

“Not that I remember.”

“Could you check on my wife’s Jeep?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you sure?”

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

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

“No, but her signature is on file.”

“Where?”

“Our home office.”

“I want to see it.”

“Mr. Chambers—”

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

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

“Can I talk to him?”

“He left yesterday.”

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

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

“Then give me his address.”

“Mr. Chambers—”

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

Ambrose shook his head.

“Anything at all?”

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

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

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

“Where is Chankanaab Park?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m sorry, but I have to go.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”

“Where?”

“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

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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.”

“Thanks.”

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?”

“Yes.”

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

“No.”

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

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

“You have passports?”

“They’re at my hotel.”

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

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

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

“When? How soon?”

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

“What exactly are you planning to do?”

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

“What are you saying?”

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

“How do you intend to find them?”

“Senor Chambers, I will do my best.”

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

“No.”

“How can you be certain?”

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

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

“Senor, what do you expect me to do?”

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

“That’s impossible.”

“Why?”

“Because other initiatives must take precedence over yours at the moment.”

“Not on my watch!”

Lieutenant Mierez drew a long drag from the nonfiltered cigarette and blew smoke in Steve’s face. “Then I suggest you contact your embassy. Perhaps they can tell you what it is you want to hear.”

Without a Trace… Chapter 16

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

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

Damon let out a wet, hacking cough.

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

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

“You fish with this?”

“Sometimes.”

“What do you catch with it?”

“Big fish.”

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

“Not much,” Damon answered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

“Do you golf?” Damon asked.

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chloe sat up in her seat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No!” Pamela pleaded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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