Without a Trace… Chapter 59

Drifting aimlessly in the churning turquoise water spanning Cozumel and the Yucatan Peninsula, Leslie held the front of Sarah’s life vest, staring over her daughter’s shoulder at the endless expanse of rolling waves. Submerged to her chest, Leslie floated in an upright position while the wind-swept sea carried her body in a perpetual rocking motion.

“I’m freezing,” said Sarah, shivering from the loss in her core body temperature. Kicking randomly underwater, she grabbed hold of her mother’s vest. “How much longer?”

“I don’t know,” Leslie muttered, staring up at the stormy sky to witness streaks of lightning, silent and powerful, casting electrified arcs through the ether. Afraid to look down at the water, she kept her head up and forced a smile, even as the outline of the sinking speedboat faded from view.

* * *

Sloshing toward the bow of the crippled Scarab, Steve searched for a weapon of last resort. Angry at himself for casting his wife and daughter away, he’d done the right thing by removing them from a deadly situation. A decision he had no time to second guess. Prepared to confront his attackers, he grabbed a telescoping boat hook and eased himself over the side of the crippled speedboat. He swam along the hull out of view from the approaching vessel. A fast-moving storm brought dark clouds overhead.

He held his breath underwater, waiting for the inflatable to reach the Scarab from the stern. Poised with the boat hook, he heard the dull whine from the outboard motor.

He surfaced behind the Zodiac’s transom and quietly drew a breath. Inhaling a mixture of air and exhaust fumes, he saw two men: one in the dinghy, and one aboard the sinking Scarab with a sawnoff shotgun slung low at his hip.

Mendoza…

He recognized the tattooed killer who’d fled the burning yacht and left Riker to die. With no margin for error, he moved quietly and carefully, positioning himself in the midst of a torrential downpour. Bombarded by raindrops and the constant slap of churning waves, he ducked underwater again and tapped the bottom of the Zodiac near the transom. Coping with shotgun pellets lodged inside his upper back, he felt the current tugging at him as he watched Mendoza’s accomplice panning the shotgun at the surface.

Steve waited for the gun to pass above him before he thrust the boat hook toward his target, jabbing the man in the side with enough force to push him overboard.

The shotgun discharged and fell in the water.

Steve forced the gunman in a chokehold and used him as a human shield as Mendoza fired the second shotgun in his direction. Spent shells flew from the smoking ejection port until Mendoza expended the last twelve-gauge round. The killer scrabbled in his pockets, and Steve knew he had only seconds before the gun would be reloaded.

Showered in bits of human flesh, Steve pulled himself inside the idle Zodiac and jammed the throttle forward to launch the boat away from Mendoza’s position.

Determined to rescue his wife and daughter, he rode swiftly in their general direction and shouted into the wind.

“L-E-S-L-I-E! S-A-R-A-H!”

Hammered by the driving rain, he expanded his search pattern in a wider arch.

“L-E-S-L-I-E!”

His voice faded in the crackling thunder, followed by lightning arcs in all directions.

He wiped at the gash above his eye, circling the Zodiac for any sign of life. He negotiated the throttle while the small craft bobbed and rolled in the waves crashing over the bow. His vision obscured by the tumultuous sea state conditions, he saw bodies where there were none.

“LESLIE!” he screamed at the merciless wind blowing him sideways. He whipped his head back and forth, scanning the water’s surface, refusing to give up hope for his wife and daughter until an apparition appeared off the port-side bow.

He worked the throttle lever and steered toward the orange life vests bobbing in the water. He kept a death grip on the tiller bar and braced himself against the four-foot swells. Struggling for a better position, he maneuvered closer to his wife and daughter before he reached out and pulled them to safety.

“We heard gunshots,” Leslie gasped. “We thought you were dead.”

Steve turned the boat around to head for shore. With the isolated storm passing quickly, the rain subsided to a steady downpour, the winds dissolving into mild gusts. And with the calmer winds came calmer waters; a welcome reprieve from the tropical depression heading north.

Burdened with the weight of added passengers, the inflatable Zodiac felt heavy as the small outboard revved under load.

Leslie peered over Steve’s shoulder when the craft dipped sharply to one side. “What’s wrong?”

Steve hunched over the transom to inspect the motor mount where a length of dock line trailed away. His senses roused by a flash of danger, he felt Mendoza’s presence before he heard Leslie scream.

Like a creature from the deep, Mendoza threw himself at Steve, knocking him overboard.

Steve thrashed amidst a tangle of arms and legs, dipping his forehead to block a flurry of strikes intended for his face and neck. He twisted his body side to side, slamming his fist at Mendoza’s solar plexus to free himself from the initial attack.

Steve broke the surface with a bloody nose. An elbow to his chin dazed him for an instant. Then a rope encircled his neck tight enough to constrict his airway.

He grappled with the nylon pulled taut around his throat, whipping his body side to side before he sank below the surface, his life flashing before him in a random sequence of events. Consumed in darkness, he spat at the face of death, refusing to concede defeat despite the dire circumstances.

His family’s life depended on his survival, prompting him to fight back with the fury of a man who had nothing to lose.

He kicked his way to the surface with Mendoza on his back and maneuvered himself from the path of the oncoming outboard, throwing his attacker at the whirling propeller. The spinning blades snagged a length of Victor’s hair and jerked his head back. Chunks of bone and brain matter filled the water as the prop tore through the back of Mendoza’s skull.

Steve dragged himself inside the Zodiac and stared up at a patch of sky, dark blue between the clouds. Bleeding from the nose and mouth, he coughed up fluid in his lungs and said, “It’s over.”

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