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.

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.”

“When?”

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?”

“Soon.”

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.