Steve held Leslie back, as his own apprehension about the victim’s identity intensified. He gaped at the figure’s twisted limbs. Without turning the body over, he could tell from the hair and the hourglass shape the body was female, a girl with a bullet hole in her back and another to the side of her head where her skull had caved in. The presence of powder burns suggested the shot to the head came at point blank range. A blood trail suggested she’d crawled some distance before her killer put the final nail in her coffin.
Teeming with the fear of uncertainty, he turned the body over and discovered larva pervading the mouth and nostril cavities of the corpse’s face. Contorted by the force of the tumbling bullet impacting the skull from behind, the facial plate displayed a grotesque expression of death, a macabre display of the pain and suffering one human being could inflict upon another.
He covered his mouth in an effort to suppress the churning in his stomach. He’d observed dead bodies before, bodies submerged underwater, bodies destroyed by the force of a violent crash or dismemberment from flying shrapnel. But this was personal.
“Move!” Leslie warned him, approaching the girl’s remains. She stared at the body, moving closer to inspect the color of the hair, which appeared darker than Sarah’s but roughly the same length. With the face contorted, she couldn’t be certain if the victim was Sarah or not. “Sarah has a birth mark on her left breast. A brown, oval spot near her nipple.”
Steve grimaced at the prospect of peeling the girl’s shirt and bra to inspect her bare skin. When he heard the crackle of broken branches, he scanned the jungle for signs of movement. “Ambrose?”
Randy the bellhop emerged with a large-bore revolver in one hand and a blood-stained shovel in the other. “Get away from the body,” he ordered, the stutter mysteriously absent from his high-pitched voice.
Steve shuffled sideways, shielding Leslie from the path of the gun barrel. Perplexed by the sudden confrontation, he thought back to the Presidente Suites and how Randy suddenly appeared from the stairwell when the maid fell to her death. “What are you doing here?”
“Cleaning up the mess I left behind.”
“Put the gun down.”
Randy cocked the hammer and motioned toward the trampled path winding back through the dense jungle brush.
Steve took Leslie’s hand. Randy had lied to him from the get-go. The boy had played him all along, feigning interest in his family’s disappearance to further the elaborate abduction scheme. “You killed that maid, didn’t you?”
“Carina never could keep her fat mouth shut.”
“Where’s our daughter?”
Leslie stumbled on a tree root and momentarily lost her footing. “You can’t do this,” she argued, helping herself up to confront the skinny kid with a gun. “People know we’re here. They’ll be coming for us.”
Randy shook his head. “I don’t think so.”
“Tell us where our daughter is!”
Leslie followed Steve to a clearing in the trees beyond the dilapidated rambler where she witnessed Ambrose bleeding from a gash in the side of his neck.
“Help me!” he pleaded from his prone position on the ground.
Steve moved toward the injured man but stopped when he felt the gun at his back.
Randy dropped the shovel at Steve’s feet and approached Ambrose from behind. He fired two shots at the man’s spine before he turned the gun on Steve and said, “Now start digging!”
Steve bent over and grabbed the shovel, contemplating whether he could swing it fast enough to knock the gun away without getting shot in the process. He drove the shovel head against the ground, applying pressure with his foot to sink the blade. “Let my wife go. You don’t need her for this.”
Randy checked his watch. Ahead of schedule, he had nothing but time on his hands before the rendezvous. “Not true. We’re going to be here awhile. We have a lot of bodies to bury, including yours.”
* * *
Steve ached from endless hours of digging. In his mind, he’d plotted numerous scenarios for escape. None of which came to fruition. “You didn’t have to kill Ambrose.”
Steve slammed the shovel home, digging a clump of dirt before slinging it over his shoulder.
Randy laughed, his boyish face occupied by a sinister smile.
Steve swallowed hard, fighting the temptation to ask the one question he feared the most. “Was that our daughter back there?”
Randy craned his neck toward where the girl’s body rested. He touched his hand on his face to wipe the sweat away.
Steve exchanged glances with Leslie. He could read her thoughts from her expression—she felt the same way he did. Given the opportunity to knock the gun away, he’d tear the homicidal punk a new ass and leave him for the vultures to fight over. But the kid was smart enough to maintain his distance. Just out of reach from the shovel and yet close enough to make good use of the last four rounds in his revolver.
Steve dug smaller clumps of earth now, stalling for time. Once more he found his world turned upside down. He’d seen enough, heard enough, and killed enough to wipe out a lifetime of pleasant memories. He’d failed with Sarah—and now with Leslie. His own stupidity for trusting Ambrose had been the catalyst for his demise.
Sweating profusely from the ongoing effort, he buried Ambrose’s body in a grave barely deep enough to accommodate the man’s six-foot, four-inch frame.
He dug slower on the second hole and thought about charging at Randy to absorb the last four bullets in the gun, affording Leslie a fighting chance to get away. The plan had merit. A suicide mission he could instigate at any moment and feel confident of its success.
“Hurry up,” Randy prodded, swatting at the nagging insects buzzing about his head.
Steve shoveled faster, adding to the three-foot mound he’d piled beside the trench he stood in. He stopped to stretch his back and legs. “Why are you doing this?”
“Money. Lots of fucking money. More money than I’ll see in a lifetime of hauling luggage.” He wiped his brow.
Steve dropped the shovel head in the dirt and propped his hands on the tip of the wooden handle. “You’re not a murderer at heart, but you kill as if it doesn’t matter. Someday it will. Someday you’ll wake up haunted by the faces of those you butchered.”
Randy paced between the freshly-dug graves, holding the gun at his side while he kicked at the dirt. “Spare me the sermon.” He stopped in mid-stride and aimed the revolver at the bushes. “Who’s there?”
Randy waved the gun in Steve’s face. “Turn around! NOW!”
“Oh God!” Leslie cried. “Please don’t!”
Steve faced the grave he’d dug for himself. Covered in dirt, he smiled at Leslie and said, “I love you.”
Randy pressed the muzzle to the back of Steve’s neck and squeezed his finger on the trigger.
“NOOOO!” Leslie screamed, her voice cracking from the strain on her vocal chords as a figure darted from behind a tree, swinging a rock-filled sock at Randy’s head.
Distracted by the sudden movement in his peripheral vision, Randy turned the gun away as a skull-cracking blow to his temple knocked his right eye from its socket. Stunned by the violent blow, he fired spasmodically in the air and toppled sideways at the ground.
Steve towered over Randy and kicked the gun away. He reached for the shovel. Driven by fear and rage, he raised the blade above his head and swung it hard in a downward arc at Randy’s head.
Leslie stared at the figure holding the sock full of stones. She rubbed her eyes at the crumpled face marred by dirt and scratches. “Sarah?”
“Mom, they killed her.”
Steve tossed the shovel in an empty grave. Overcome by his own disbelief, he watched his wife embrace their daughter. “We thought you were dead,” he mumbled, engulfing his wife and Sarah in his arms.
Sarah wiped the straggly hair from her eyes and pushed herself away. “I heard you calling me. They tried to kill me but I ran.”
“Let’s go!” Steve insisted, leading his wife and daughter beyond the front of the ramshackle cottage to the Jeep—which had two flat tires. “Shit!”
He glanced at Randy’s Sentra partly hidden in the brush. “This way!”
He found the keys in the ignition and started the engine. He jerked the transmission in drive and floored it. Dust swirled behind the car. Loose dirt clanged inside the fenders.
Steve followed the unmarked path until he reached the main road. He drove faster on the pavement, putting as much distance as he could between his family and the bodies.
Miles away, he recognized the waterfront property from the ride with Ambrose. The parade of resort hotels would appear in minutes, providing a familiar landscape outside the town of San Miguel.
A taxi traveling in the opposite direction disappeared in his side view mirror. He needed secure passage out of Cozumel to ensure his family’s safety. With no one but himself to trust, he had a short list of options.
Another oncoming vehicle approached. This time a Chevy cargo van slowed as it reached the Nissan. Steve glanced at the passing driver and mashed the accelerator to the floor. Their Nissan bounced on worn shocks and busted springs as the four-door sedan approached a curve beside near a steep embankment.
Steve drove in silence, anticipating what would happen when he finally brought his family safely home. There would be no testifying about the events that happened; no courtroom drama to re-live the nightmare his wife and stepdaughter had endured without him; no second guessing about what might have happened if he hadn’t found Leslie—or if Sarah hadn’t stormed from the jungle to save his life.
When he glanced at the rearview mirror, he saw the Chevy cargo van closing fast on his bumper. “Hold on!”
Sarah screamed at the moment of impact.
Overpowered by the two-and-a-half-ton van, the Nissan fishtailed from the metal-on-metal collision, leaving a trail of broken tail lights in its wake.
“Drive faster!” Leslie yelled.
Steve swerved to avoid an oncoming vehicle before a shotgun blast destroyed his driver’s side mirror and left a stump of broken plastic hanging from the door. “STAY DOWN!”
He cut the wheel back and forth in an effort to avoid the line of fire. But the heavier, more powerful van kept pace, forcing itself alongside the Nissan.
Another blast destroyed the rear window and showered the interior with pulverized glass.
Sarah clamped her hands over her ears and screamed again, doubled over in the passenger seat.
Steve took his foot off the gas and stood on the brakes, locking all four wheels as the force of inertia pressed him against his seatbelt. Skidding to a stop, he jammed the shifter in reverse, oblivious to the stray shotgun pellets lodged in his shoulder and upper back.
He spun the Nissan around and drove in the opposite direction away from town toward the beach resort he’d passed earlier. This time he kept one hand on the wheel while the other depressed the cigarette lighter in the twelve-volt receptacle on the dash. With no way to outrun the faster vehicle and nowhere to hide, he improvised on a childhood game.
The van zigzagged behind the Nissan with the passenger window down. The driver yanked the wheel hard right to sideswipe the smaller car and force it off the road.
Steve countered by pulling the red-hot lighter from its socket and tossing it at the gunman in the van’s passenger seat.
Caught in a wicked game of hot potato, the gunman flailed his arms, inadvertently discharging the shotgun at the van’s windshield.
The driver swerved—the van jerked sideways and rolled.
Steve witnessed the wreckage in his rearview mirror long enough to discern the fate of his adversaries, but oblivious to the moped rider in his path.
“STEVE LOOK OUT!” Leslie screamed.
Steve swerved to avoid the man.
A sudden turn to the left, followed by an over-correction to the right, sent the Nissan careening out of control until a massive palm tree brought the car’s momentum to a neck-snapping halt.
The blaring car horn drowned the squawk of wild birds and the hiss from escaping steam at the front of the crumpled hood.