Without a Trace… Chapters 12-13

Dressed in casual clothes and Ray-Ban shades, Sarah and Leslie carried bags of merchandise through the town of San Miguel. Baked from a day in the sun, they blended well with the other tourists hunting for bargains among the local merchants who made their livelihood from the crowd of affluent visitors. Dwarfed by the cruise ships looming tall as high-rise buildings and long as city blocks, Sarah and Leslie continued across the seaside promenade toward the open-top rental Jeep parked across the street.

What began after breakfast as a visit to Mayan ruins had brought them back to town for a shopping excursion and a sightseeing tour of San Miguel. Lunch at a café outside the Plaza del Sol had followed a visit to the Cozumel museum housed in a former turn-of-the-century hotel. A cultural center for the people of Cozumel, the museum revealed the history behind Mayan civilizations, island wildlife, and undersea creatures inhabiting the Caribbean waters. While the air-conditioned building offered welcome relief from the sweltering humidity outside, the focus remained on shopping. Buying everything from leather purses to serapes and colored wool blankets, they spent the day at numerous craft shops and street-side vendors, detouring once for ice cream, then twice for bathroom breaks before continuing along the boardwalk to gawk at the diamond jewelry on display in storefront windows.

Exhausted from the heat, Leslie reached across the Jeep’s windshield and pulled a paper flyer from beneath the wiper blade. The ad for Chankanaab Lagoon looked interesting but not worthy of consideration, given the late afternoon hour.

“What’s that?” asked Sarah.

“Another tourist trap,” said Leslie. She read the fine print at the bottom of the page, recalling the description of the Lagoon in the travel guide they’d brought from home. “Maybe we can do this another day,” she said before she folded the paper in half and began to stuff it in her purse. When she realized she had enough brochures to start a bonfire, she discarded the unwanted page in a trashcan beside the curb.

“I’m hungry,” said Sarah as she climbed in the passenger seat. Sunburn covered her face and neck.

Leslie put the key in the ignition. “Me too.” She pushed the clutch with her left foot while depressing the brake pedal with her right. The engine churned when the starter motor engaged the flywheel, but the pistons refused to fire.

Confounded by the engine trouble, she let the motor sit for a moment, then turned the key again, pumping the pedal until she smelled gasoline.

“What’s wrong?”

Leslie slapped the steering wheel. “I don’t know. It ran fine before we got here.” She took a deep breath. Cars weren’t her specialty, but she knew the basics of the internal combustion engine and how any engine needed three things to start: air, gas, and spark. The gas she could smell; the air she could breathe. That left the battery. Since the motor was turning, she knew the juice was there to start it, which meant something was wrong with the ignition.

She turned the key a third time and pleaded with the Jeep to start. As before, the engine turned but refused to catch. “Screw it,” she told Sarah. “We can call the hotel and wait for a tow truck or grab a taxi and leave the Jeep where it’s parked.”

Sarah sat forward in her seat. “Will we get a ticket?”

Leslie climbed down from the driver’s side and flagged the first driver she spotted at the crosswalk. “If we do it’s not our problem.”

* * *

Exhausted from his underwater excursion, Steve returned to the Presidente Suites in a fisherman’s rusted pick-up and waved good-bye to the local Samaritan who’d offered him the ride. Famished from the dive, Steve entered the hotel lobby with his dive gear on his shoulder. Eyed by an entourage of new arrivals at the check-in counter, he headed for the elevators behind the winding staircase and pressed the eighth floor button.

Outside his room, he retrieved the computer-coded key from a hiding spot above the wall-mounted emergency lighting system. The door unlocked with a beep.

Chilled from the moment the burst of AC hit him, he adjusted the thermostat and opened the patio for fresh air.

For the most part, the dive had gone better than expected. The re-breather functioned properly with no surprises, allowing him to enjoy his clemency from the land-bound tourists at large. Diving meant freedom from the daily grind. A mental and physical escape from the stress of coping with his teenage stepdaughter. Diving also took him away from the crowded streets lined end-to-end with cruise ship passengers on leave. Instead of fighting the masses, he’d spent hours drifting over coral reefs teeming with underwater life. He’d floated with the barracudas and saw his share of moray eels. Surrounded at times by blue tang and butterfly fish, he’d also spotted a sea turtle and a nurse shark cruising for lunch. For himself, breathing underwater defied the human instinct for survival, a mischievous act he equated to peeking up the skirt of Mother Nature.

He hung his wetsuit on a towel rack and filled the bathtub with warm water. Anxious to clean his equipment, he unhooked the scrubber from the clamps securing it to the front of the re-breather harness.

“We’re back,” Leslie called out when she entered the room.

Steve placed the rebreather in the tub and left to greet his wife. He flinched when he saw the patches of indigo red along her arms and shoulders. “You got some sun.”

“So did you.” Leslie set her purse by the dresser and hugged him. “When did you get back?”

“Just now. You girls have fun without me?”

“Our Jeep broke down in San Miguel.”

“What happened?”

“It wouldn’t start. The stupid thing ran fine this morning until we got ready to leave.”

“How’d you get back?”

“We took a taxi.”

Steve scratched his hair. “Where’s Sarah?”

“She’s in her room getting changed for dinner.”

“What about the Jeep?”

“They’re going to give me a different one tomorrow morning.”

Steve gathered his dirty clothes off the bed and stuffed them in an open suitcase. “Be careful in the bathroom.”

Leslie swatted the air in front of her face. “Should I light a match?”

“I’m talking about my dive gear in the tub.”

“Can’t you leave your toys on the patio?”

“Not with this equipment. I have to clean it first.”

Leslie pulled her shirt over her head. Her neck burned where the shirt rubbed her skin. “Are you hungry?”

Steve watched his beautiful wife undress in front of him, noticing the stark contrast between her waistline and the sunburned skin below her thighs. “A little. What did you girls do all day?”

“Shopping, mostly.”

Steve glanced at the bags of merchandise on the floor. “Can we still pay the mortgage?”

“Don’t worry.” Leslie unfastened her bra strap and slipped her arms out. Her breasts hung in tight formation on her chest. “Did you work on your essay at all?”

“I went diving.”

“Where?”

“I’ll tell you over dinner.”

Leslie stepped out of her underwear and tossed the pink lace panties in a plastic bag for dirty laundry. “Sarah wants to eat at Planet Hollywood.”

Steve took the television remote from the nightstand. “We can eat downstairs for free.”

“I thought we could try someplace else tonight. Sarah wants to, and frankly I’m tired of eating from buffets for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”

“But we’ve only been here two days.”

Leslie stood in front of him to block his view of the TV screen. “I know.”

“The resort’s all-inclusive.”

“That doesn’t mean we can’t go off the reservation and splurge for a meal somewhere else.”

Steve tossed the remote on the bed. “I still have to clean my equipment.”

Leslie pressed her lips to his and teased him with her tongue. She caressed his heaving pectorals with her fingertips before she pressed her naked breasts against his chest and slowly lowered her hands to his waist. “I’ll handle your equipment.”

Steve felt his swim trunks tighten at the front. Hot breath on his neck sent chills down his spine. “I’d prefer to eat somewhere other than Planet Hollywood.”

“When I get done with you,” Leslie whispered in his ear, “you’ll think you’re on Planet Hollywood.”

bookmark:Chapter 13

Chapter 13

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Steve followed the Planet Hollywood hostess to a corner booth where movie soundtracks blended into background noise supplied by film clip medleys splashed on large screen monitors as part of the restaurant décor. Posters of Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and other cinema icons brought flair to the star-studded ambiance. A smiling portrait of Bruce Willis added wit to a granite-faced, squinty-eyed photo of Clint Eastwood hanging opposite a life-size mannequin of Judy Garland.

Steve faced the souvenir kiosk advertising a variety of jackets, shirts, and Planet Hollywood caps along with a variety of other overpriced merchandise. Light years away from the authentic Mexican café he’d hoped to dine in, he made the best of the situation by ignoring the loud music and diverting his attention to the laminated menu. He’d eaten at too many places like this before, during his stint in the Navy when shore leave provided the opportunity to eat anywhere but the officers’ mess.

“Do you know what you want?” asked Leslie, rubbing her foot against his leg beneath the table.

Steve scanned the menu a second time. “I’ll go with the cheeseburger well done. No fries.”

“Can we get an appetizer?” asked Sarah.

Steve focused on the menu prices. “Since when do you eat fried squid?”

“Since forever.”

“Define forever.”

Leslie looked at Steve and smiled. “Sarah used to order it when we lived in Virginia Beach.”

Steve raised his eyebrows in an awkward moment of silence. Virginia Beach referred to a time in Leslie’s life he knew little about, other than the fact that she was unhappily married to a guy named Bill, from Wisconsin. Virginia Beach stories bothered him because they kept him isolated from the family nucleus. He could never relate to Sarah’s biological father or the fact that Sarah maintained a love/hate relationship with him. Leslie talked freely about her ex when asked but never shared more details than she needed to.

“May I take your order?” a waiter offered, standing beside the table in pleated khakis and a short sleeve button down shirt. He spoke with a lisp from the stud in his pierced tongue.

* * *

Sarah sipped at her diet Coke while her mom and Steve ordered from the menu. Falling for the waiter with bulging biceps and a five o’clock shadow, she imagined herself French kissing him outside her locker in school. Her friends would swoon around him, especially Katey, who always felt the need to compete for the chance to date the hottest guys in school.

“And you?” the waiter asked, shifting his gaze to Sarah.

Sarah froze in the process of ordering the Caesar’s salad. She choked on her teenage inhibitions, her words lodged in her throat as she pointed her finger at the menu’s printed text.

“Is that it?” the waiter asked.

Sarah blushed. This time she managed to eke out a simple, “Yes.” She knew Mom was thinking the same thing she was. The waiter surpassed hunk status and entered the category of pure beefcake.

* * *

“I’ll take a bottled water,” Steve piped up before the waiter left. Confused by the mother-daughter vibe at the table, he snapped his fingers in Sarah’s face and said, “Don’t even think about it. His middle name is ‘Trouble.'”

“How do you know?”

“Intuition,” Steve said coyly.

“He’s harmless,” said Leslie. She rubbed the back of Steve’s neck where his hair had grown beyond the short bristle stage.

Steve smirked. “Why do girls always go for the bad boys?”

Sarah covered her face in her hands. “If you guys are going to talk about sex, do it somewhere else.”

This time Leslie blushed, surprised by her daughter’s timely comment. She changed the topic of conversation and refocused her attention on Steve. “Did you catch the dive boat this afternoon while we were shopping?” she asked.

“Not this time. I did a solo dive instead.”

Leslie shifted in her seat. “You told me you wouldn’t dive alone anymore.”

“I said I’d think about it. You knew I was bringing the equipment.”

“How long were you under?”

“A little over four hours.”

“That’s too long. Too dangerous.”

“The conditions were perfect.”

“This time. But what about next time? What happens when you get in trouble and there’s no one to help you?”

“Won’t happen.”

Leslie played with her napkin. “That’s a bunch of macho bullshit. You think you’re immortal and you’re not.”

Steve scratched the corner of his mouth. “It’s not a toy. It’s a very sophisticated underwater breathing apparatus used successfully for years—”

“I know, I know… I still don’t like it.”

“Did you see any sharks?” asked Sarah.

Steve changed his tone when he saw the irritated look on Leslie’s face. “No, not this time.” He played with his napkin. The food was taking too long, and he was dying of thirst.

* * *

Leslie reached for her over-sized beach purse where she’d hidden Steve’s presents. Although angry with him for pulling another stupid stunt, she couldn’t stay mad for long. Wanting to surprise him, she waited for another movie trailer to distract his attention before she placed a pair of gift-wrapped boxes on the edge of the table.

“What’s this?”

“It’s your birthday.”

“I said no gifts.”

“You know how I am about birthday celebrations,” said Leslie. “They’re important.”

Steve examined the small boxes before he picked one up and shook it. He tore the paper away from the ends to reveal a flimsy cardboard box. Inside, he found a baseball cap with the logo of a diver trying to swim away from the jaws of a shark ten times his size. More comic than gruesome, the embroidered scene covered the front of the cap where detailed stitching emphasized the panicked expression on the diver’s face.

“Do you like it?” asked Sarah.

“Very much.”

“I saw it and thought of you.”

“Thanks.”

Leslie gathered the torn wrapping paper. “The next one’s from both of us.”

Steve opened the neatly wrapped box and found a vial of Aqua for Men. The turquoise-colored cologne filled a small bottle shaped like a scuba tank. He unscrewed the cap and sniffed. The scent reminded him of a carpet freshener Leslie used at home. “I like it. Thank you. Both of you.”

Leslie rubbed his forearm. “Sorry we didn’t get you more, but we figured the vacation was part of your gift as well.”

Steve winked at Sarah and put the baseball cap on his head. “Are you guys up for diving tomorrow morning?”

Sarah played with the straw in her soda. “Mom and I talked about touring the island tomorrow.”

“I thought you did that today when you went shopping.”

“We never got to see the Mayan ruins.”

Steve put his napkin in his lap. “Since when do you care about piles of old rock?”

“It’s more than piles of rock. Mom said—”

“We don’t have to visit old ruins,” Leslie interrupted. “I just thought you might enjoy the island, that’s all.” Her intuition told her Sarah was less than exuberant about a tour of the island. And moreover, regardless of how her daughter felt, she didn’t like her husband pouting in public. “Maybe we can do both.”

“You don’t have to,” Steve replied.

“But I want to,” said Sarah. “We never go diving together anymore.”

Steve shook his head. “I just want you to be happy,” he said as the waiter approached with a tray of drinks.

* * *

Unwilling to engage in a subtle argument about the following day’s agenda, Steve ignored his impulse to lecture. He wanted Sarah to have fun, but he wanted her to appreciate the natural beauty of the surrounding water as well. Convinced most kids her age could barely spell Caribbean, let alone dive to the depths of it, he wanted Sarah to take advantage of her open water skills and experience a part of the world most people never saw. “I had iced tea,” he told the waiter who passed him a glass of orange soda. He glanced at the front of the restaurant where the lobby was filling with patrons waiting for a table, including the strange couple he caught staring at Sarah during breakfast.

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