Live music played from a bar across the street from San Miguel’s oceanside promenade where Steve wandered among the masses loitering along the pier beneath a midnight sky. Dwarfed by the shadow of a cruise ship looming over him like a floating skyscraper, he studied the faces of strangers who passed in front of him, reading their expressions one by one as he made his way through the crowd.
He watched a father and his toddler son walk hand in hand while a mother pushed a stroller with twin girls. Are they innocent families on vacation, or cold, calculating killers disguised behind a veil of secrecy? Are they decoys sent to distract me, or novice kidnappers debating their next move?
He knew nothing but the time of night and his own apprehension about pursuing a cryptic message without contacting the police in advance. The same questions kept nagging him. Where are my wife and daughter? Who took them and why?
He slipped his right hand into the pocket of his dark blue windbreaker and squeezed the handle of the stainless steel dive knife he’d brought along for the ride. He stared at an older gentlemen in a gray flannel hat and button-down shirt.
The stranger wore a scraggly beard and stood alone at a payphone, his arms crossed at his chest.
Steve gave him a quick once-over and debated whether the man was involved in a plot to steal his family or a pervert exploring his options. Wary of the stranger’s intentions, Steve started to approach him until he saw the man step away to greet a woman returning from a public restroom.
Is the note a hoax? Or an ominous warning?
Steve questioned his own suspicions, bobbing and weaving through a cloud of doubt. Mentally prepared for whatever or whomever he might come in contact with, he hoped for the best case scenario, one placing his family in favorable circumstance a world away from harm.
He continued along the pier until he reached an information booth skirted by vendors peddling advertisements for vacation destinations within Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. He peered inside the window on the vacant kiosk, half expecting to find Leslie and Sarah tied back to back on the floor with red bandannas wrapped around their mouths and a look of fear carved on their faces—a madman holding them at gunpoint. Instead, he saw stacks of maps and tourist guides stuffed inside magazine holders.
“Move!” he grunted at a street vendor waving color brochures in his face and rambling about the legions of underwater sights and sounds at Chankanaab Lagoon.
Steve pushed his way through the bodies sweating in the seaside air. Assuming the person who wrote the note was actually there, he needed time to sort the friendly faces from those less approachable and more suspicious.
He grabbed a payphone handset on the fourth ring, confident the call was meant for him. “Hello?”
He paused for the other line to kick in, turning his head to look for someone nearby with a cell phone. “Hello?”
He heard a clicking sound followed by shallow breathing on the other end.
“Who is this?”
“Go to El Loco’s Bar on Adolfo Rosado Salas.”
“Who are you?”
“Be there in twenty minutes. Alone.”
The line went dead.
Steve checked his watch and unfolded a tattered pocket map. Standing near the edge of the pier beneath an arched streetlight, he traced a path to the center of Adolfo Rosado Salas, a road cutting through town several blocks north of his current location.
Against a judgment impaired by desperation, he proceeded across the oceanside promenade, skirting taxis in the busy crosswalk extending to an alley of parked cars. The smell of urine filled the air as he wandered through a crumbling section of town set back from the outdoor cafes catering to cruise ship passengers and mainland tourists. It was a side of Cozumel not referenced by island tour guides or glossy pamphlets touting paradise on earth.
A stranger among the locals who endured impoverished housing along broken streets dotted with trash, he jogged farther from the edge of town, approaching more decrepit neighborhoods where unsavory characters lurked with questionable intentions, their cigarettes glowing in the dark.
Don’t cling to false hopes, he told himself as he passed the next street extending perpendicular to Adolfo Rosado Salas. Without knowing if the caller was a friend or foe, he assumed the latter and mentally prepared himself for a fight. He braced for a confrontation when he came upon several youths chugging warm beer outside the crumbling establishment known as El Loco’s bar.
Ignoring long stares and taunting words from the men at the entrance, he pushed through a set of swinging doors and took a step back in time.
More solemn than a drifter in a Hollywood western, Steve scanned the old sombreros seated at the booths around him, all staring. Their faces dried and wrinkled, they honored a code of silence among themselves, using gestures to communicate what they thought about Steve. Ocean murals covered the stucco walls. Dusty ceiling fans stirred the atmosphere of sweat and booze. Mariachi music played from a speaker mounted behind the bar, where chipped beer mugs hung from metal pegs beneath a lighted cabinet.
Steve approached the bar from the far end to keep his exit in his field of vision. Aware anyone around him could be his adversary, he held his nerves in check, attune to the random vulgarities mumbled in Spanish. No one nodded and no one waved. Most never blinked.
When he turned away, the conversations gradually returned to a normal level, punctuated by clinking glasses and rapid dialogue.
He checked his watch again. The caller said twenty minutes. He’d made it in eighteen.
He recognized no one from the dozens of patrons around him, until he noticed a Caucasian man and woman entering the bar from a back door entrance partially concealed by beer bottle cases stacked five high. He recognized the duo as the couple he’d seen in the back of the taxi he’d chased earlier. He kept his hand on the knife in his pocket and advanced on their position as they sat down. “Who the hell are you?” he asked, maintaining an arm’s length from the strangers’ table.
The woman spoke first, displaying a split-fold wallet with an FBI badge inside so that only Steve could see it. “My name is Special Agent Riker.” She flashed the badge long enough for Steve to read the FBI inscription beneath the picture. She pointed to the man beside her. “My partner, Special Agent Smythe.”
Steve studied the photo on Agent Smythe’s badge. The face in the picture had a mustache, but the man in front of him didn’t. “What is this?”
Agent Smythe leaned forward, exposing the semi-automatic pistol holstered beneath his Hawaiian shirt. He nudged the top of his dark-rimmed glasses on the edge of his bulbous nose.
Steve tossed the folded note on the table. “I suppose this is yours?”
Agent Smythe nodded.
“And you called the payphone?”
“Grab a seat,” said Agent Riker.
Steve complied. “Why the goose chase?”
Smythe glanced at his partner then back at Steve. “We had to be sure you weren’t followed.”
“That’s not your concern.”
“The hell it isn’t. Where’s my family?”
Riker placed her badge inside her purse. “We don’t know,” she said in a husky voice, a voice thick and heavy like molasses yet soft and sultry like a phone sex operator—a voice matching the heavy makeup she used unsuccessfully to cover the crow’s feet at her eyes. She wore the same denim short-shorts and bikini top she’d sported on the hotel grounds. “Has anyone tried to contact you?”
“What do you mean?”
“Has anyone tried to phone you or leave a note inside your room?”
“No one besides you.”
“What about the American Embassy?”
“How did you know I was there?”
“Just answer the question,” Smythe prodded. He looked at Steve with his ample gut pushing into the edge of the table.
“I was at the embassy. They made it clear they’re in no position to help me.”
“Have you made contact with anyone else outside your immediate family?”
“Tell me where my wife and daughter are.”
Riker produced an unconvincing smile. “We don’t know.”
“Then why have you been following us since we got to Cozumel?”
Riker propped her elbows on the table and laced her fingers together. “Because we’re all on the same team.”
Smythe lit a cigarette from a pack in his shirt pocket. He took a long drag from the unfiltered Camel and blew smoke away from his partner’s face. “It’s complicated.”
Steve shook his head. “It’s very simple: you either tell me what the fuck is going on, or I’ll contact someone in Washington who will.”
Riker leaned against the table, exposing her cleavage. “Agent Smythe and I are involved in an undercover investigation.”
“What kind of investigation?”
“You’re investigating the disappearance of my family?”
“Sort of. Right now we’re investigating several missing persons reports in conjunction with an overall effort to locate and apprehend an individual we’ve been after for several months.”
Smythe scooted himself away from the table and sat up, stretching. He took another puff from his cigarette and flicked ashes on the floor. “We can’t share all the details of our investigation.”
“Then why are you wasting my time? Are you even aware my family’s been missing for three days?”
“Yes, we are aware,” Riker replied. “What my partner is trying to tell you is that we aren’t prepared to divulge certain facets of our operation. To do so could jeopardize the lives of other undercover agents involved.”
Steve bit his lower lip. “Then why did you contact me in the first place?”
“Because we need your help.”
“Why should I help you?”
Smythe blew smoke through his nostrils. “Because your family’s life may depend on it.”
Steve slammed his fist on the table. “Quit jerking me around or they’ll be sending replacements to investigate your disappearance.” He swallowed before he spoke again. “My life is swirling in the bowl right now, and I don’t give a monkey’s ass about the details of your undercover operation. I just want my family back.”
Smythe inhaled until the cigarette tobacco burned to within an inch of his fingertips. He dropped the butt on the floor and snuffed it with his shoe. “We’re investigating the disappearance of several people.”
“How many Americans?”
“All of them.”
“What does this have to do with my family?”
“Maybe nothing, maybe everything,” Riker added in her satin voice. “The truth is we don’t know for sure. We know these people disappeared at various times from various Caribbean resorts. All were supposedly on vacation and none have been seen or heard from since they vanished.” She rubbed her eyes.
Steve noticed they were bloodshot and wondered why.
“Up ’til now, our investigation focused on entire families who disappeared all at once, usually a husband and wife with one or two teenage children. Your situation is unique in that your wife and daughter are missing without you.”
“So why am I still here?”
“We don’t know. So far money doesn’t seem to be a motive. Ransom notes never materialize.”
“How do you know these people didn’t drown or something?”
“Because a pattern’s evolved,” Smythe interjected. “People vanish every day in Mexico City, mostly from drug deals gone bad or murder for hire schemes. Money’s almost always the driving factor. The families we’re investigating have vanished from expensive resorts, families like your own, mostly middle-class with no criminal background or any history of violence. They simply fall off the face of the earth and go unnoticed until a relative or a neighbor or a coworker back home reports them missing.”
“Have you recovered any bodies?”
Riker toyed with an earring. “All we have so far are reports of missing persons. We’ve yet to locate any of them, living or deceased.”
“How do you know they didn’t want to disappear?”
Riker pulled a packet of photos from her purse. “The same way you know your wife didn’t leave you on her own accord. We’re playing off hunches right now, gut instincts telling us where to take this investigation. We’re also assuming these missing persons are victims and not fugitives from justice.”
Smythe took the photos from his partner and thumbed to the middle of the pile. “Our victims have no connection to the mob or any organized crime that we’re aware of.” He placed a picture face-up in front of Steve. The single mug-shot showed an olive-skinned man with long, dark hair and a chevron mustache. “Do you recognize this man?”
Steve shook his head. “Who is he?”
“His name is Victor Arellano Mendoza, a Cuban immigrant from Miami. He graduated Summa Cum Laude before enlisting in the Navy where he earned the rank of convicted killer after murdering his commanding officer.”
“Mendoza wanted to be part of a Special Forces team, the Navy SEALs in Coronado, California. When he couldn’t hack the training, he blew a gasket and crushed his Lieutenant’s windpipe with his fist. His lawyer called it an unfortunate accident, but witnesses described Mendoza as a loner who was prone to losing his temper. He was court-martialed and sentenced to life in a maximum security prison. He served two years before he managed to escape, killing three guards in the process. That was two years ago.”
Steve studied the picture more intently before he pushed it back to Agent Smythe. “Why do you think he’s involved?”
Smythe looked at his partner.
Riker nodded in agreement and put the photos in her purse. “All leads point to him.” She crossed her legs beneath the table and glanced at the new arrivals in the bar. “Two years ago a Coast Guard team from Miami’s 7thDistrict cited Mendoza for a reckless boating violation. They didn’t know who he was at the time, at least not until a week later when Miami-Dade filed a missing persons report for a family on a chartered boat Mendoza was hired to operate.”
“How could the Coast Guard not know he was wanted in the first place?”
“Bad karma, I guess. Sometimes communication between law enforcement agencies isn’t as good as it could be.”
Steve turned his head when a door slammed at the back of the bar. “I don’t see the connection.”
“Neither did we until a mother and daughter disappeared on vacation in Curacao followed by a family of four who vanished half way through their two-week stint in Saint John. Mendoza was spotted at both locations.”
Steve rubbed his temples. “Mendoza sounds more like a killer than a kidnapper.”
Riker nodded. “I agree, but we’re hoping there’s a connection between him and our missing persons.”
“What kind of connection?”
“That’s what we’re trying to find out. Maybe relatives who testified against him.”
“You’re thinking revenge?”
“Possibly. Or maybe our missing persons were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Mendoza’s a desperate man. He’s number two on our most wanted list.”
Steve slumped in his seat. More confused and frustrated than he was when he entered the bar, he wanted a stiff drink to cool his nerves. “My wife and daughter have no connection to this man. How can you know with any certainty that Mendoza’s responsible for their disappearance?”
“Because,” said Smythe, digging another cigarette from his crinkled soft-pack, “we have information.” He struck a match off the stucco wall beside him and lit up, squinting at the curled smoke rising from his hand to his face. “We have reason to suspect Mendoza is hiding in Cozumel.”
Steve leaned closer to the table. “Are you sure?”
“Then why aren’t you talking to the Mexican authorities?”
Smythe tapped his matchbook on the table. “The Mexican government doesn’t appreciate American law enforcement snooping around and asking questions.”
“But American lives are at stake. I’ve already spoken to—”
“Lieutenant Mierez,” Riker added, finishing Steve’s sentence before he could spit it out. “We know, and we suggest you suspend all contact with him.”
Riker looked at her partner then back at Steve. “Because we suspect someone in the Mexican Government may be collaborating with Mendoza.”
“We’re not certain.” Riker uncrossed her legs and took her elbows off the table. Her lips looked dry and cracked. “If Victor Mendoza is on this island, we need your help to find him, and your wife and daughter.”
“Assuming they’re still alive…” Steve’s voice trailed away. He’d wanted to do more than drive around the island and pass out flyers of his missing wife and daughter. And now that Victor Mendoza gave him another path to follow, he dreaded the thought of where it might lead him. “Do you have children?” he asked Agent Riker.
“What about you?” he asked Smythe.
Smythe coiled his cigarette in his hand. “A son and daughter.”
Riker looked down and began digging in her purse. “By helping us you’re helping yourself.”
“What are you saying?”
“Go about your normal routine. Let us shadow your movements. If we’re lucky, Mendoza will try to contact you.”
“You mean kill me.”
“We won’t let that happen.”
Steve looked at Agent Smythe. “Why not? You said yourself, no one gets left behind. I shouldn’t even be here right now.”
Smythe blew smoke. “You’re assuming Mendoza wants you dead. We think he wants your money. We believe he’ll contact you with ransom information, and when he does, we’ll have a realistic shot at catching him.”
“I don’t have money.”
“What about extended family? On your side or your wife’s?”
“My wife’s family is blue collar. I’m fourth generation Navy. Our lives have never been about money.”
Riker dragged a pager from her purse. “Right now we’re playing hunches,” she told him, her voice rising in intensity. “Mendoza’s a desperate man. He can’t run without money. The fact that you’re still here tells us he wants something from you. If he wanted to kill you, you’d already be dead.”
Steve ran his hand through his hair. Shot glasses slammed the counter on the bar behind him. The Mariachi music subsided into blustering arguments between drunken men too stubborn to know when to quit. “And what if you’re wrong?”
Riker glanced at her pager. “We don’t deliver guarantees.”
“Why were you following me and my family at the hotel?”
“We followed several families, not just yours.”
“If you knew they were a target, why didn’t you stay closer? You could have done something to help them.”
Riker returned the pager to her purse. “I’m sorry. If we could be in all places at all times, we would.”
“Then it’s up to you to make amends for this debacle. I’ll contact the American Embassy and let them know you’re working with me. Maybe that would spur the Deputy Chief into action.”
“I wouldn’t do that,” said Riker. “Further contact with the embassy could hamper our investigation.”
“Why? Because you suspect they’re involved as well?” Steve put his hand in his jacket pocket and adjusted the knife’s position against his side.
Smythe crushed out his cigarette and scooted out to let his partner slide away from the bench seat. “We’re asking you to trust us on this one.”
“While I’m waiting for Victor Mendoza to hunt me down? Assuming he’s even involved. What if my family’s stranded in Mexico City or lost in the jungle?” Steve rubbed his two-day growth of beard. He pointed to Agent Riker standing by the back door with a cell phone at her ear. “Who else is involved in this investigation besides you and your partner?”
“We have several field agents deployed at various locations.”
“Among other places.”
“And you’re confident of Mendoza’s involvement?”
“And if I play along with your charade, you’ll do everything you can to find my family?”
“Even if Mendoza’s not involved?”
Agent Smythe nudged his glasses on the bridge of his nose. “Play this game our way, and we’ll find your wife and daughter.”
Steve leaned back in his seat, reflecting on the useless embassy, the apathetic Mexican police, and how no one he’d talked to remembered seeing Leslie or Sarah on the hotel premises. “I’ll go along for now. But God help you if you’re wrong.”