Agent Smythe answered his cell phone on the second ring. He knew who the call was from before he glanced at the caller ID. “Hello—”
“That was fast,” Barbara Smythe answered on the other end. “Is it a bad time?”
“You know this number’s for emergency use only.”
“Not for your wife.”
Special Agent Dale Smythe knew his wife had learned the demands of her husband’s job. She didn’t always like them, but over the course of her twenty-year marriage, she’d learned to accept them. He was quite aware that at times, she felt the FBI was as much a part of her as it was of him, like a big brother from out of town who tended to overstay his welcome.
“You sure you’re not busy?” she asked. “You sound distracted.”
Smythe crushed out his cigarette in an empty Diet Coke can on a card table with uneven legs. He wore his service pistol in his shoulder holster and a hot sauce stain on the front of his shirt. “Riker’s on an errand. I’m holding down the fort until hegets back.” He felt nervous and guilty every time he told the lie about his female partner. Barbara had never been a jealous wife—overly cautious about things at times, but never one to flare up over fraternization with a friend of the opposite sex. He nudged his glasses against his nose. In eighteen years with the FBI, he’d never had a female partner until his supervisor introduced him to Special Agent Wendy Riker. As a partner, she could hold her own in the field. As a friend, she had sex appeal and a look that would make Barbara furious if she knew how much time her husband spent with Riker and how often they shared all-night surveillance operations in the back of a small delivery van.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Sitting on the bed naked. Just had a shower. Are you guys working late again?”
“Until the case is over.”
“When are you coming home?”
“I’m not sure. A couple weeks, maybe more.”
“The kids miss you. I miss you.”
“How’s Debbie’s science project coming along?”
“Good. She has to finish before tomorrow morning. The project’s due by third period. It’s probably the gaudiest volcano you’ve ever laid eyes on, but it works.”
Smythe sauntered toward the mountain of cardboard filing boxes stacked beside a four-drawer cabinet. He pulled the first manila folder from the second drawer and opened it to examine the copy of the hotel registry. The title on the top of the page read “Presidente Suites.”
“How’s David?” he asked, cupping the phone between his chin and shoulder.
“School’s been tough on him since you’ve been gone.”
“He’s still young. How tough could it be?”
“He’s a little boy. He doesn’t understand why you’re always gone.”
Smythe scanned the page. He’d read the list of names from the hotel registry the night before and found nothing peculiar, nothing tangible to point him in a specific direction, which forced him to probe deeper. Something bothered him about the names, but he couldn’t put his finger on it.
“Dale? Are you listening to me?”
“Huh? I’m still here.”
“Then pull yourself away from your work for five minutes and talk to me. Are you still on your diet?”
Smythe eyed the half-eaten bag of salt and vinegar potato chips on his desk. “Pretty much.”
“You just worry about the kids. I’ll take care of myself.” He patted his stomach and felt it wobble beneath his shirt. “Look Chatty Patty, I’m kind of busy right now.”
“Too busy to talk to your wife?”
“It’s not like that. I’m swamped right now.”
“But I miss you.”
“What about Memorial Day weekend?”
“We’ll see. I miss you.”
“Tell the Bureau you need a break. They owe you for all your time away from home.”
“It doesn’t work that way.”
“Sure it does. Someone else can fill in for you while you’re gone. You’ve worked this out before.”
“Not this time. And you know it’s against protocol for me to use this line for personal conversations.”
“Screw protocol! I want my husband back!”
“And you’ll have him as soon as this investigation’s over.”
“Then no more special assignments.”
“No more special assignments after this. I promise.”
“I love you and I’m proud of what you do.”
“Tell Riker I told him to keep you out of trouble.”
“And please be careful.”
“I always am.” He hung up on his wife, still engrossed in the list of names from the hotel registry. He scanned from the top down until he got to Chambers, Steve. Part of him felt sympathy for the man and his missing family; part of him knew better than to let emotion interfere with his objectivity. Protocol dictated his investigation take precedence over any concerns Steve Chambers had for his missing wife and daughter.
He flicked the paper with his middle finger. Except for the hum of the generators outside, the place was almost quiet enough to feel lonely. When the nicotine craving merged with his caffeine headache, a cup of stale Java and a cigarette brought him back to life.
Careful not to spill on his keyboard, he set his mug beside the mouse pad and typed a flurry of notes. Grounded more in intuition than facts or hard science, he tried to formulate potential leads he could follow with Agent Riker, a partner he admired for her intelligence and ability to handle herself under pressure. He made an effort to get to know her on a more personal level. Having never worked with a woman before, he’d spent the first six months trying to understand her personality quirks. She was easy to talk to, but she had a stubborn side and refused to accept responsibility for mistakes. She also lacked the sense of humor his former partner displayed, but for the most part he could deal with her idiosyncrasies the way Barbara dealt with his.
He took another puff from his cigarette. This time he held the smoke in his lungs for a second longer before he exhaled through the corner of his mouth. You are your greatest nemesis, he told himself, remembering a phrase he read in an FBI manual about tracking serial killers. He had surveillance data on tape, phone records on paper, and dozens of photographs taken from the Presidente Suites. If Victor Mendoza was responsible for the disappearance of the Chambers family, he had yet to show his face on camera.
He saved his notes and pulled up one of the five missing persons reports on screen. Jamie Spears, a twenty-two-year-old girl from Richardson, Texas, was reportedly last seen arriving at the Presidente Suites six months ago with her parents and older siblings. Though relatives back home eventually reported the entire family missing, no evidence indicated foul play. The guest registry, credit card receipts, and interviews with airline personnel confirmed the family’s departure from Cozumel as scheduled.
He sipped his coffee and clicked the mouse on the file for Nina and Cindy Parkens, twin sisters both missing since July of 1998 and last seen on vacation at the Marriott Suites in Saint Thomas. He scrolled down the page and read how the parents put up a ten thousand dollar reward for any information regarding the disappearance of their daughters. From the data he’d accumulated, he saw the same pattern developing over and over: small families disappearing on vacation—and always families with one or two young adult children. Some of the families were very wealthy and some weren’t, a fact that continued to bother him since ransom notes were never found. For him, crimes without a motive were illogical. He had his own theories about what was happening, and Riker had hers. The presence of a serial killer seemed plausible, but the patterns of disappearance made the theory seem more and more unlikely as time went on.
When the door buzzer sounded, he got up and checked the peephole to find Riker staring back at him against a moonlit backdrop of trees and overgrown weeds. He unlocked the deadbolt and let her in.
“You expecting someone else?” Riker asked before she entered the safe house, doused in perspiration as she swatted mosquitoes from her face.
Smythe closed the door behind her. “Better to err on the side of caution.” A piece of dark meat chicken protruded from between his top front teeth. He could wiggle it with his tongue, but he couldn’t free it. “Still hot out there?”
Riker took a sip of bottled water. “What do you think?” Eager for relief from the humidity, she moved closer to the window air conditioner. “Did your wife call again?”
“Everything good on the home front?”
“As well as can be expected.”
“You find anything interesting in the hotel registry?”
Smythe took the folder from his desk and flipped to the highlighted portion he’d sorted through earlier. “I can’t pinpoint anything. The names match every cross-reference check I could think of. There must be at least thirty families at the Presidente Suites who match our profile. None are missing.”
“Except for the Chambers family.”
Smythe exhaled through his bulbous nose. “Exactly.”
“How many people checked out today?”
“Do we know for certain if they all left Cozumel?”
“Based on the airline logs, every passenger was present and accounted for. Unless someone’s playing games with the data they’re sending us, we have to assume the information’s accurate.”
Riker put her face in the stream of cold air blowing from the vent in front of her. She could feel her dry contact lenses sticking to her eyeballs. Perspiration between her breasts began to soak through her bra. “I guess you ate,” she said, pointing to the bag of chips and the dripping mess inside a take-out food container.
“About an hour ago.”
“I thought Barbara put you on a salad and water diet?”
“She did, but I’m sweating off the calories every time I step foot outside this place.” He took a final drag then extinguished his cigarette in the empty soda can. “Any leads from the taxi service?”
“Not really. The car you tracked was rented to a French man named Miguel Lafaraez. I ran him through INTERPOL and came up blank.”
Smythe took a sip of coffee and winced. “What about the dive boat captain I interviewed?”
“The one with the scars and the crooked lip?”
“Yeah. Joseph somebody. You can’t tell me he doesn’t have a record.”
Riker took her shoes off. Her ankles ached from walking in cheap sneakers all day. “He came up clean.”
“I guess I owe you five bucks.” Smythe pulled his wallet out and threw a crumpled bill at her.
Riker caught the paper and unfolded it. “What about the other hotels?”
“I checked out four of them. Nothing suspicious came up except rumors about a missing boy at the Vista Marlo on the north side. Apparently a few years ago a kid swam too far from shore and drowned.”
Riker yawned as she walked to her bedroom. “I’ll finish up in the morning.”
“Don’t forget the bulb’s burned out in the bathroom.”
“I know. You keep missing the bowl.”
“I have better aim than most.”
Riker pointed to his crotch. “That’s not the rumor Barbara puts around.” Before her partner’s face turned red, she shut the door to her room and flicked the light on. She pulled her skirt down and unhooked her bra, tossing her clothes in a dirty laundry pile. She wrapped a towel around her torso and used a flashlight to navigate the bathroom.
She ran the shower until the water warmed up. Then she stepped inside and bowed her head under the low-hanging nozzle. She massaged her scalp and felt the warm water run down her back. She worked the soap on her ample chest, progressing from her breasts to her slender waist and finally to her contoured hips and thighs. At thirty-five, she considered herself to be in reasonably good shape. Running marathons remained a fantasy, but she could manage a fast jog for several miles without exhausting her lung capacity or her tolerance for pain.
She thought about her partner and his workaholic tendencies. More than once she’d thought about having sex with him, not because she found him particularly attractive, but because the doldrums of the job made her desperate for stimulation. Whether or not Smythe would actually rise to the occasion didn’t matter. She wanted the challenge. In a lot of ways, she found Dale Smythe a different breed than most men she’d dated because he cared about more than just himself. The way he cared about his wife and family drew him closer to her. He had what she’d never found—true love. The kind of love she’d never experienced with a man.
When she finished, she pulled the shower curtain open and grabbed her towel from the rack. She dabbed her face, leaving black mascara smudges on the beige terry cloth. Steam fogged the medicine cabinet mirror.
She considered calling Smythe for a fresh towel, a ploy she’d used successfully in the past to lure a man, and wait for human nature to takes its course. She knew Smythe would bring the towel; whether he’d set it outside the door or offer to bring it in made the challenge more enticing. Maybe not, she told herself, clinging to the notion of someone better coming along. A man with dark eyes and a chiseled jaw. A man with arms to hold her tight until she came from his violent thrusts. A man like Steve Chambers.
Stop it. She wiped a clear spot on the mirror. Forget about him.
Wrapped in the towel, she retreated to her room where she changed into shorts and her last clean shirt. She checked her watch on the wooden crate she used as an end table, the same crate she stored her backup piece in. The compact semi-auto provided a worthy addition to her standard issue Glock. She could wear it in her ankle holster with slacks or conceal it in a mini harness beneath a jacket. In a pinch, the gun fit nicely in her purse. She grabbed her phone and checked the voice mail she’d missed in the shower.
“Smythe!” she called out before leaving the privacy of her room.
Smythe swallowed a mouthful of potato chips. “What’s up?” he asked when Riker emerged from the hallway, her hair still dripping wet.
“I got a message from Lieutenant Mierez. A local fisherman caught a floater.”
“Male or female?”
“Don’t know. He said a body was found near the shore.”
“How long ago?”
“About an hour.”
Smythe grabbed the Polaroid camera from the table. “You thinking what I’m thinking?”
Riker took the house key from the hook on the wall. “Steve Chambers is already on his way.”