Without a Trace… Chapter 48

Steve drove south along Cozumel’s western shore in the darkness, navigating his rental Jeep over rugged, unmarked terrain to the southern-most tip of Cozumel where the lighthouse at Punta Celarain stood high above the coastline. Free from Lieutenant Mierez, he felt a new sense of urgency in his quest to find his wife and daughter.

The interrogation with Mierez had cost him valuable time, time he needed to explore the Punta Celarain lighthouse where the maid insisted bad things happened. Obsessed with her ominous statements, he stifled his own sympathy for her death, spending less effort pondering who might have killed her and more effort unraveling her cryptic words. For all he knew, the woman had made a pact with the devil, a binding agreement she no longer felt compelled to honor.

He didn’t buy the suicide angle. When she spoke she was scared. Terrified, maybe, but not crazy enough to kill herself over spilling her conscience about the lighthouse events.

But who would kill her? And why? What exactly did she know?

Ten days without a ransom note forced him to confront the worst case scenario: the possibility of life without Leslie and Sarah. He pictured himself on a lost re-run of Unsolved Mysteries, pleading with the nation’s television audience to come forward with any information concerning his family’s disappearance. A week ago he’d given zero merit to the notion of Leslie leaving him on purpose. Now he gave the theory a measure of credibility, adding further turmoil to his already muddled reasoning about what might have happened.

With the map unfolded on his lap, he followed the shoreline toward a stretch of dilapidated beachfront property extending perpendicular from the road. He’d reached the furthest edge of the map and the point from where most normal people retreated during daylight hours. The map, which had been his lifeline until now, was no longer of any assistance as he’d passed beyond the boundaries of inhabited terrain and entered a section of Cozumel seldom traveled by anyone except for locals who knew the region well.

Accompanied by the random cacophony of chirping insects and buzzing mosquitoes, he ignored the bites on his arms and legs while he steered over crumbled rock formations large enough to swallow a moped. To his right, the pounding surf hit the seashore with a vengeance, producing a powerful undertow capable of pulling the strongest swimmers underwater. To his left, hidden coves gave refuge to snakes, spiny creatures, crab spiders, and a host of other residents who fed at night.

He followed the trail to the base of the lighthouse structure, his headlights stabbing the darkness surrounding him. He killed the engine and lights and grabbed the dive light he’d brought with him.

Plodding over jagged landscape, he aimed the light at the ground as he parted low hanging branches away from his face. He thought about the maid he’d confronted in his room. Her tone, her body language, and the way she ran away convinced him her fear was genuine. Whatever details she knew about the lighthouse were important enough to get her killed.

He circled the base of the towering brick structure until he found an iron gate closed tight by a chain and padlock. The gate blocked intruders from reaching the single steel door which he could see was secured by a cipher lock. Even if he could breach the gate, the odds of guessing the cipher combination were a million to one.

He followed the footpath around the structure hoping to find anything that could verify the maid’s decree about bad things happening.

He panned the flashlight at the bushes to inspect for missing jewelry or torn clothing. He searched the ground for signs of footprints, expanding his radius a hundred feet from the lighthouse until he came full circle to the Jeep. He wanted to believe what the maid had told him. For all he knew, the bad things she spoke of were nothing more than constructs from a sick woman’s paranoid imagination. Her death, a suicide to escape her own deluded sense of reality.

People flip out all the time, he told himself. As a Navy diver, he’d seen the effects of increasing pressure at given depths. Nitrogen narcosis, oxygen toxicity, and simple fear of tight spaces had at one time or another caused even the most seasoned divers to temporarily lose control of their mental faculties.

He cupped his hands over his mouth and drew a deep breath before shouting, “LESLIE! SARAH!”

His voice trailed away in the wind. A faint echo returned. Without evidence to the contrary, he had little reason to believe they were anywhere near the lighthouse.

He tossed the flashlight in the passenger seat and took the cap off the bottled water. He gulped several ounces before pausing to catch his breath in the humid air. Maybe the maid wasn’t crazy. Maybe she was scared out of her mind about what would happen if she talked.

He backed the Jeep along the path winding down to the main road. Determined to come away with something tangible, he proceeded toward the northernmost portion of Cozumel, where according to the map, a second lighthouse stood at Punta Molas.

Escorted by the familiar sound of crashing waves, he drove until he reached the pavement. Without the benefit of daylight or a large search party, the lighthouse he left behind had nothing to offer except speculation about who or what might reside behind the gated entrance. If he could convince Lieutenant Mierez he had nothing to do with the maid’s death, perhaps he could persuade the man to let him explore inside the lighthouse.

Unlike Cozumel’s southern tip at Punta Celarain, the northernmost section near Punta Molas offered better air circulation, thanks to the constant trade winds traversing the island from the northeast. Devoid of shade trees and beachfront property, the immediate area proved a threatening gauntlet of rocky ledges and slippery grottos covered in layers of seaweed and sand.

This time he grabbed the night vision goggles before he trekked around the base of the second tower. Once again, the familiar sight of iron bars outside a single door entrance kept him at bay. Words painted on a wooden plaque read, “PELIGRO! No Entrada Illegal.

No trespassing, he translated from the Spanish warning. A crackling sound made him turn and focus on a spot beyond the Jeep.

Standing motionless, he waited for signs of movement. Hearing nothing, he turned his head slowly from side to side, panning his field of view with the goggles amplifying the ambient light.

Bad things. Very bad things.

“Who’s there?” he called out, aware of motion in his peripheral vision. Prepared for a fight, he tempered his breathing pattern and heightened his sense of awareness. He visualized multiple persons orchestrating a surprise attack—a group of people could overpower him, armed or not.

He glanced back at the Jeep. Prepared to sprint, he kept his shoulders relaxed and his knees bent slightly, moving slowly at first to discern the possible angles of attack.

Then he froze in place, not because of what he heard but because of what he felt.

He leaned his weight on his left leg and backed his right foot away from the length of fishing line stretched across the ground at his ankle. Nearly invisible to the naked eye, the translucent fiber reverberated like a plucked guitar string.

Steve swallowed his heartbeat in his throat. His temples throbbed from the sudden impulse of electric signals to his brain.

He stared at the line, extending between two tree trunks shrouded by low hanging branches. On the closest tree, he could see the line ran towards a small package wrapped and secured in place by insulating tape. Steve knew instinctively that there’d be a triggering device intended to detonate a charge of plastic explosive, probably C4, surrounded by nails or ball bearings. From his tenure in the Navy, he’d learned about underwater demolitions and how to recognize the threat of an antipersonnel device. Discovering the lethal bastard was one thing. Disarming it required skills he’d never obtained.

He retreated slowly until he came to a sheltered clearing between the water and another path covered in tire tracks. He’d stepped across the beaten path without realizing its existence. This time he noticed the sunken impressions left behind by a heavy vehicle. The tracks continued around the farthest edge of the lighthouse foundation where vines hung precariously over a sheet of brown canvas.

He pulled the camouflage aside and discovered a Jeep parked with gas cans in the back seat and a small outboard motor leaning against the roll bar. On the other side, a two-man inflatable with a wooden transom rested beside the passenger door. Clumps of dirt and dry seaweed clung to the bottom of the rigid hull where scuff marks raked the fiberglass along the bow.

He searched the seats and floorboards of the Jeep and found nothing notable. He checked the glove compartment and found nothing there as well. He thought about his FBI cohorts and what he’d tell them when he got back. Whether the maid’s prophecy of bad things had come true or not, he’d found a nasty explosive device meant to kill—and a Jeep well hidden from anyone who happened to wander from the main road.

His emotions heightened by the new discovery, he re-secured the canvas netting and propped the faux foliage above the fenders and hood. Leaving only his footprints behind, he stared at the ground and stopped in mid-step to retrieve an orange Tic-Tac case partially embedded in the dirt.

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