Without a Trace… Chapter 60

Steve awoke to the sound of fading sirens.

“Okay Mr. Chambers—let’s get this tube out.” A female with a Mexican accent slipped a breathing tube from his throat.

Steve coughed—his throat was dry and painful. The woman—a nurse, he observed—moved away on silent heels. The room smelled of warm milk and disinfectant spray mixed with the scent of iodine solution. An intravenous line fed a solution into his arm. His vital signs appeared on a monitor beside his bed near a window overlooking the hazy, polluted landscape of Mexico City.

Momentarily perplexed by his new environment, he stared at the privacy curtain suspended around him until the sound of voices drew his attention to the small television mounted on metal brackets jutting out from the cracked plaster wall. The screen showed reruns of Knight Rider dubbed in Spanish.

He remembered the black Firebird and the premise behind the show. And though the lead actor’s name escaped him, he recognized the guy’s face from Baywatch. The same actor he used to joke about having to spend hours rehearsing scenes with busty swimsuit models in thong bikinis.

Feeling the urge to urinate, he checked under the covers, sighed at what he saw, then relieved himself via a catheter as he listened to tidbits of conversation from a woman whose voice closely mimicked Leslie’s. He noticed the empty chair positioned beside his bed with a pillow on the seat and a blanket draped over the back.

He thought hard about Leslie’s voice, and then as if she read his mind, she appeared from behind the curtain, an angel dressed in a flimsy paper gown with her hair pulled up in a bun. After several unsuccessful attempts to communicate verbally, he spoke to her with his eyes.

“I love you,” Leslie whispered. She drew the curtain closed. Then she covered Steve’s hand with both of hers and squeezed gently. “You’ve been asleep for ages since the surgery,” she said, kissing his forehead gently. “You had me worried.”

Steve tried to speak again. “G-ghhh.”

“Don’t try to talk yet. You’ve been on that tube for awhile.”

Steve tightened his grip on her hands.

Leslie lowered the guardrail to bring herself closer to the bed. “Sarah’s fine. The doctor has her under observation in the ward downstairs.”

Helpless to do nothing but imagine himself holding his Leslie, Steve yearned to speak to her, to engulf her and tell her how lucky he was to have her; how lucky he was to be alive.

“I thought he’d killed you,” Leslie started. “You saved our lives.”

Steve blinked. A tear seeped from the corner of one eye and rolled by his nose. The weight of Leslie’s head on his arm brought pain to his bandaged shoulder, but he didn’t care. He craved her touch; her warmth; her soothing nature.

A door opened, and Leslie turned to see the nurse approaching in her wrinkled uniform with a stethoscope draped across the back of her neck.

Necesita descansar, senorita,” the nurse said to Leslie.

“A little more time. Por favor.”

“No. Tiene que irse ahora.

Leslie let go of Steve’s hand. “Please. Un poco mas tiempo, por favor.

The nurse checked her watch and examined Steve’s chart. “Manana,” she said, shaking her head at Leslie.

Leslie kissed Steve’s hand and got up from the chair beside his bed. She watched the nurse perform the usual routine before she exited the recovery room and moped along the empty corridor to the elevator. She pressed the “Down” button and waited while a doctor in green scrubs and paper facemask passed in front of her. She hated leaving Steve alone. Part of her wanted to sneak back and ignore the nurse’s orders. Steve needed more than medical attention. He needed personal attention. The kind of attention only a wife could give her husband.

When the elevator doors opened, she got on and checked her reflection in the polished steel panels behind her. She pressed the second floor button and waited for the doors to close.

When the doors opened again, she made her way to Sarah’s room. From what the doctor told her, Sarah suffered only minor bruises. With treatment for hypothermia, her daughter’s temperature had returned to normal, leaving only Sarah’s mental state in question.

Leslie put her hand on the window overlooking Sarah’s bed. With Sarah resting safely under round-the-clock care, Leslie let her emotional guard down and ignored her doctor’s orders to remain in her own room and rest. Exhausted, yet too wired to sleep, she craved a cigarette like a junkie craved a fix. She needed something to sooth her nerves and put her psyche on an even keel. She’d palmed the sleeping pills the doctor gave her and left her bed to check on Steve.

Meandering outside the nurses’ station and the public rest room facilities, she headed to the lounge outside the gift shop and the cafeteria on the basement level. Propelled by a burning desire for a nicotine hit, she ignored the voice in the back of her head prompting her to stop, turn around, and go back the way she came; to shun the temptation by avoiding the source for a potential cigarette purchase.

Overcome by the shakes, she side-stepped a canvas bin full of dirty sheets and walked near a janitor pulling a mop bucket behind a cleaning cart. What started as a notion had elevated to a burning desire. She didn’t just want a cigarette. She needed one as though her life depended on it.

She stood outside the giftshop and cursed the “Closed” sign. A clock on the wall showed the time—3:15.

Cursing under her breath, she mulled outside the shop and debated about waiting another two hours for the cafeteria to reopen. Get a grip, she told herself, returning to the elevator.

She tightened the drawstring on her paper gown and returned to the third floor facility where a family of three waited outside the entrance to the nurses’ station. She hadn’t planned on sleeping, not with Sarah out of her sight and Steve having been uncomfortably close to death’s door. These things she thought of and more as she dipped in her shallow pocket to retrieve her two-day stash of sleeping pills. Better to fall asleep quickly, she convinced herself, than to spend all night worrying about circumstances beyond her control.

She put one pill in her mouth and tasted the saccharine flavor before she swallowed it. Her nicotine craving subsided to a dull throb, replaced instead by the onset of a migraine from the thought of visiting with the embassy representative in the morning. The same person who’d arranged for the hospital stay had also apologized for the unfortunate events necessitating the need for medical attention, as if fending off armed assailants and nearly drowning at sea were simply part of a vacation adventure gone awry. Grateful for the help, she could give a shit about the curt dialogue and the sugar-coated apologies. What she wanted was an explanation for what happened and legitimate reassurance it would never happen again, to anyone.

She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and returned to her room. Content to rest with her slippers on and wait for the nurse to make her rounds, she pushed a breakfast cart aside and pulled the blanket over her legs. The bed felt soft against her bandaged ribs. Aside from her roommate’s propensity to snore, she felt content in her surroundings, yet still at odds with her nicotine craving and the constant rocking motion she endured from her extended stay at sea.

She turned her head to face the window and heard a familiar cough—a deep, hacking cough that brought a shiver down her spine.

She sat up, telling herself to get a grip. She’d heard a patient with a bad chest cold. Nothing more.

Woozy but still alert, she yanked the reins on her runaway imagination, convincing herself the person she thought she heard was long gone. And though unfounded in its own right, her paranoia built upon her fear of the unknown—a fear rooted in her past, destined to torment her until she resolved the conflict within herself.

Crouching near the open end of the hall, she watched a short, stocky figure limp behind the nurses’ station and continue toward Sarah’s ward. She followed closely, her heart pounding in her throat as her worst fears came to fruition.

Ducking behind a janitor’s cart, she watched the man disappear around the corner. Convinced the man she saw was actually Damon and not a phantom dressed in hospital garb, she dug her nails inside her fists, paralyzed by the notion of a killer about to enter Sarah’s room.

Disculpe, senorita,” a doctor spoke from behind her, his unexpected voice nearly catapulting Leslie from her gown.

“He’s here!” Leslie told him as if the doctor somehow knew of whom she spoke. “Call the police! You have to call the police! NOW!”

Policia?

Si!”

Concerned for Leslie’s mental state, the doctor motioned for the duty nurse to call security. “This way,” he said in a thick Spanish accent. “Let me help you.”

Leslie ran to Sarah’s room and found her daughter asleep where she’d left her. The open privacy curtain revealed no one in the room. Dizzy from the pills and a sudden head rush, Leslie watched the elusive figure enter the elevator. She darted for the stairwell exit before an armed security guard rounded the corner. She climbed the steps two at a time despite the lag in her reflexes from the sedatives in her system. If it isn’t Sarah he’s after, it’s Steve!

Winded from the stairs, she ignored the cramps in her side and pushed the exit door open to gain access to the hallway. Sucking air in shallow spurts, she staggered beyond the water fountain and the open janitor’s closet to find Steve alone in his room. Her pulse raced.

For a moment, she questioned the integrity of her own mental state. Right up until a rush of air ruffled her gown as the door to Steve’s room slammed shut and a figure emerged from behind her.

Poised with a scalpel in one hand, Damon stood barefoot in his hospital gown, his eyebrows singed beneath a swath of gauze bandage wrapped about his head. Blood oozed from a deep incision in his chest where sutures tore away from his skin. His face wrought with anger, he made short, stabbing motions toward Leslie.

Flailing her arms, Leslie lost her balance and tripped on a stepstool, smashing her elbow on the floor as she fell. She crossed her arms above her head and kicked wildly in the air.

She screamed when a single gunshot rang out. Damon collapsed on the floor beside her.

Señora?” the security guard hollered across the room, his hands trembling around his duty pistol.

Leslie crawled away from Damon’s body and held her bruised elbow, Steve staring back at her from his bed. “I’m okay…”

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.”

Without a Trace… Chapter 57

Steve held Leslie back, as his own apprehension about the victim’s identity intensified. He gaped at the figure’s twisted limbs. Without turning the body over, he could tell from the hair and the hourglass shape the body was female, a girl with a bullet hole in her back and another to the side of her head where her skull had caved in. The presence of powder burns suggested the shot to the head came at point blank range. A blood trail suggested she’d crawled some distance before her killer put the final nail in her coffin.

Teeming with the fear of uncertainty, he turned the body over and discovered larva pervading the mouth and nostril cavities of the corpse’s face. Contorted by the force of the tumbling bullet impacting the skull from behind, the facial plate displayed a grotesque expression of death, a macabre display of the pain and suffering one human being could inflict upon another.

He covered his mouth in an effort to suppress the churning in his stomach. He’d observed dead bodies before, bodies submerged underwater, bodies destroyed by the force of a violent crash or dismemberment from flying shrapnel. But this was personal.

“Move!” Leslie warned him, approaching the girl’s remains. She stared at the body, moving closer to inspect the color of the hair, which appeared darker than Sarah’s but roughly the same length. With the face contorted, she couldn’t be certain if the victim was Sarah or not. “Sarah has a birth mark on her left breast. A brown, oval spot near her nipple.”

Steve grimaced at the prospect of peeling the girl’s shirt and bra to inspect her bare skin. When he heard the crackle of broken branches, he scanned the jungle for signs of movement. “Ambrose?”

Randy the bellhop emerged with a large-bore revolver in one hand and a blood-stained shovel in the other. “Get away from the body,” he ordered, the stutter mysteriously absent from his high-pitched voice.

Steve shuffled sideways, shielding Leslie from the path of the gun barrel. Perplexed by the sudden confrontation, he thought back to the Presidente Suites and how Randy suddenly appeared from the stairwell when the maid fell to her death. “What are you doing here?”

“Cleaning up the mess I left behind.”

“Put the gun down.”

Randy cocked the hammer and motioned toward the trampled path winding back through the dense jungle brush.

“Where’s Ambrose?”

“Let’s move!”

Steve took Leslie’s hand. Randy had lied to him from the get-go. The boy had played him all along, feigning interest in his family’s disappearance to further the elaborate abduction scheme. “You killed that maid, didn’t you?”

“Carina never could keep her fat mouth shut.”

“Where’s our daughter?”

Leslie stumbled on a tree root and momentarily lost her footing. “You can’t do this,” she argued, helping herself up to confront the skinny kid with a gun. “People know we’re here. They’ll be coming for us.”

Randy shook his head. “I don’t think so.”

“Tell us where our daughter is!”

“Keep moving!”

Leslie followed Steve to a clearing in the trees beyond the dilapidated rambler where she witnessed Ambrose bleeding from a gash in the side of his neck.

“Help me!” he pleaded from his prone position on the ground.

Steve moved toward the injured man but stopped when he felt the gun at his back.

Randy dropped the shovel at Steve’s feet and approached Ambrose from behind. He fired two shots at the man’s spine before he turned the gun on Steve and said, “Now start digging!”

Steve bent over and grabbed the shovel, contemplating whether he could swing it fast enough to knock the gun away without getting shot in the process. He drove the shovel head against the ground, applying pressure with his foot to sink the blade. “Let my wife go. You don’t need her for this.”

Randy checked his watch. Ahead of schedule, he had nothing but time on his hands before the rendezvous. “Not true. We’re going to be here awhile. We have a lot of bodies to bury, including yours.”

* * *

Steve ached from endless hours of digging. In his mind, he’d plotted numerous scenarios for escape. None of which came to fruition. “You didn’t have to kill Ambrose.”

“Shut up!”

Steve slammed the shovel home, digging a clump of dirt before slinging it over his shoulder.

Randy laughed, his boyish face occupied by a sinister smile.

Steve swallowed hard, fighting the temptation to ask the one question he feared the most. “Was that our daughter back there?”

Randy craned his neck toward where the girl’s body rested. He touched his hand on his face to wipe the sweat away.

Steve exchanged glances with Leslie. He could read her thoughts from her expression—she felt the same way he did. Given the opportunity to knock the gun away, he’d tear the homicidal punk a new ass and leave him for the vultures to fight over. But the kid was smart enough to maintain his distance. Just out of reach from the shovel and yet close enough to make good use of the last four rounds in his revolver.

Steve dug smaller clumps of earth now, stalling for time. Once more he found his world turned upside down. He’d seen enough, heard enough, and killed enough to wipe out a lifetime of pleasant memories. He’d failed with Sarah—and now with Leslie. His own stupidity for trusting Ambrose had been the catalyst for his demise.

Sweating profusely from the ongoing effort, he buried Ambrose’s body in a grave barely deep enough to accommodate the man’s six-foot, four-inch frame.

He dug slower on the second hole and thought about charging at Randy to absorb the last four bullets in the gun, affording Leslie a fighting chance to get away. The plan had merit. A suicide mission he could instigate at any moment and feel confident of its success.

“Hurry up,” Randy prodded, swatting at the nagging insects buzzing about his head.

Steve shoveled faster, adding to the three-foot mound he’d piled beside the trench he stood in. He stopped to stretch his back and legs. “Why are you doing this?”

“Money. Lots of fucking money. More money than I’ll see in a lifetime of hauling luggage.” He wiped his brow.

Steve dropped the shovel head in the dirt and propped his hands on the tip of the wooden handle. “You’re not a murderer at heart, but you kill as if it doesn’t matter. Someday it will. Someday you’ll wake up haunted by the faces of those you butchered.”

Randy paced between the freshly-dug graves, holding the gun at his side while he kicked at the dirt. “Spare me the sermon.” He stopped in mid-stride and aimed the revolver at the bushes. “Who’s there?”

Randy waved the gun in Steve’s face. “Turn around! NOW!”

“Oh God!” Leslie cried. “Please don’t!”

Steve faced the grave he’d dug for himself. Covered in dirt, he smiled at Leslie and said, “I love you.”

Randy pressed the muzzle to the back of Steve’s neck and squeezed his finger on the trigger.

“NOOOO!” Leslie screamed, her voice cracking from the strain on her vocal chords as a figure darted from behind a tree, swinging a rock-filled sock at Randy’s head.

Distracted by the sudden movement in his peripheral vision, Randy turned the gun away as a skull-cracking blow to his temple knocked his right eye from its socket. Stunned by the violent blow, he fired spasmodically in the air and toppled sideways at the ground.

Steve towered over Randy and kicked the gun away. He reached for the shovel. Driven by fear and rage, he raised the blade above his head and swung it hard in a downward arc at Randy’s head.

Leslie stared at the figure holding the sock full of stones. She rubbed her eyes at the crumpled face marred by dirt and scratches. “Sarah?”

“Mom, they killed her.”

Steve tossed the shovel in an empty grave. Overcome by his own disbelief, he watched his wife embrace their daughter. “We thought you were dead,” he mumbled, engulfing his wife and Sarah in his arms.

Sarah wiped the straggly hair from her eyes and pushed herself away. “I heard you calling me. They tried to kill me but I ran.”

“Let’s go!” Steve insisted, leading his wife and daughter beyond the front of the ramshackle cottage to the Jeep—which had two flat tires. “Shit!”

He glanced at Randy’s Sentra partly hidden in the brush. “This way!”

He found the keys in the ignition and started the engine. He jerked the transmission in drive and floored it. Dust swirled behind the car. Loose dirt clanged inside the fenders.

Steve followed the unmarked path until he reached the main road. He drove faster on the pavement, putting as much distance as he could between his family and the bodies.

Miles away, he recognized the waterfront property from the ride with Ambrose. The parade of resort hotels would appear in minutes, providing a familiar landscape outside the town of San Miguel.

A taxi traveling in the opposite direction disappeared in his side view mirror. He needed secure passage out of Cozumel to ensure his family’s safety. With no one but himself to trust, he had a short list of options.

Another oncoming vehicle approached. This time a Chevy cargo van slowed as it reached the Nissan. Steve glanced at the passing driver and mashed the accelerator to the floor. Their Nissan bounced on worn shocks and busted springs as the four-door sedan approached a curve beside near a steep embankment.

Steve drove in silence, anticipating what would happen when he finally brought his family safely home. There would be no testifying about the events that happened; no courtroom drama to re-live the nightmare his wife and stepdaughter had endured without him; no second guessing about what might have happened if he hadn’t found Leslie—or if Sarah hadn’t stormed from the jungle to save his life.

When he glanced at the rearview mirror, he saw the Chevy cargo van closing fast on his bumper. “Hold on!”

Sarah screamed at the moment of impact.

Overpowered by the two-and-a-half-ton van, the Nissan fishtailed from the metal-on-metal collision, leaving a trail of broken tail lights in its wake.

“Drive faster!” Leslie yelled.

Steve swerved to avoid an oncoming vehicle before a shotgun blast destroyed his driver’s side mirror and left a stump of broken plastic hanging from the door. “STAY DOWN!”

He cut the wheel back and forth in an effort to avoid the line of fire. But the heavier, more powerful van kept pace, forcing itself alongside the Nissan.

Another blast destroyed the rear window and showered the interior with pulverized glass.

Sarah clamped her hands over her ears and screamed again, doubled over in the passenger seat.

Steve took his foot off the gas and stood on the brakes, locking all four wheels as the force of inertia pressed him against his seatbelt. Skidding to a stop, he jammed the shifter in reverse, oblivious to the stray shotgun pellets lodged in his shoulder and upper back.

He spun the Nissan around and drove in the opposite direction away from town toward the beach resort he’d passed earlier. This time he kept one hand on the wheel while the other depressed the cigarette lighter in the twelve-volt receptacle on the dash. With no way to outrun the faster vehicle and nowhere to hide, he improvised on a childhood game.

The van zigzagged behind the Nissan with the passenger window down. The driver yanked the wheel hard right to sideswipe the smaller car and force it off the road.

Steve countered by pulling the red-hot lighter from its socket and tossing it at the gunman in the van’s passenger seat.

Caught in a wicked game of hot potato, the gunman flailed his arms, inadvertently discharging the shotgun at the van’s windshield.

The driver swerved—the van jerked sideways and rolled.

Steve witnessed the wreckage in his rearview mirror long enough to discern the fate of his adversaries, but oblivious to the moped rider in his path.

“STEVE LOOK OUT!” Leslie screamed.

Steve swerved to avoid the man.

A sudden turn to the left, followed by an over-correction to the right, sent the Nissan careening out of control until a massive palm tree brought the car’s momentum to a neck-snapping halt.

The blaring car horn drowned the squawk of wild birds and the hiss from escaping steam at the front of the crumpled hood.

Without a Trace… Chapter 51

Steve drove to the FBI safe house tucked away at the end of the hidden path. Bolstered by his discovery of the anti-personnel device and the empty Tic-Tac case, he had what he needed to light a fire under the FBI’s ass. For the first time in days, he felt a glimmer of hope. The Tic-Tacs were Leslie’s—he knew it in his heart. He also knew another visit to the Diver’s Paradise was in order. If Smythe and Riker wouldn’t listen, their superiors in Washington would take heed. So would the American Embassy in Mexico and every major news network he could contact.

He knocked on the back door of the single-story rambler half-expecting to meet Riker and Smythe with guns drawn from his unannounced visit. Instead, motion sensors activated a pair of spotlights to illuminate the area around the back of the house.

A generator hummed inside a padded enclosure from where strands of electrical wire snaked through a hole cut inside the stucco wall. “Hello?” he called out as he pushed his way inside the unlocked entrance. He heard a clack-clack-clack from the front of the lighted room where a length of spinning audiotape slapped the empty spool on the reel-to-reel player.

“Agent Smythe? Agent Riker?” He checked the whiteboard on the wall and read a series of numbers written in red marker. An oscillating fan stirred the air. On the counter, a monitor flickered with the image of the Jeep he’d arrived in. Glancing at a bank of monitors inside a bookshelf case, he noticed each screen revealed a different snippet of landscape from the sides and front of the safe house perimeter.

He rubbed the Tic-Tac case with his thumb, contemplating a return to the Presidente Suites to look for Smythe and Riker. Whatever they had on their agenda, it was happening somewhere else.

“Smythe?” he called again, noticing a wisp of steam rising from a mug beside the open microwave. Sniffing the fragrance of the herbal tea, he closed the microwave and heard a loud beeping noise coming from the room down the hall. “Agent Riker?”

He checked the bank of monitors. “Hello?”

He took a knife from the kitchen drawer and followed the hallway to the darkened bedroom where a cube-shaped alarm clock flashed the time at five-fifteen a.m. He flicked the lights on and watched a cockroach scamper from its hiding place behind the baseboard.

He knelt beside an open suitcase on the floor with women’s clothing tucked neatly beside a romance novel and a compact semi-auto .22. He recognized the Beretta Bobcat from a Guns and Ammo article on cancelable weapons. He laid the knife down and grabbing the weapon, pulled the slide back to find a round in the chamber.

“Find what you’re looking for?” Riker asked in a sultry voice from the end of the hall.

Employing his best sleight of hand, Steve kept his back to the FBI Agent and slipped the gun down the front of his pants, hoping Riker would account for the bulge as part of his”package”and not her backup .22. “I’ve been looking for you,” he said before he stood up and turned to face her.

“How did you get in here?”

“The door was open. Where’s your partner?”

“He’s out.”

“Where?”

“He had to run an errand in town.”

“How come you’re not with him?”

“How come you’re in my room?”

“Your clock was beeping.” Steve moved away from the suitcase and produced the Tic-Tac case for inspection. “I found this at the Punta Molas lighthouse.”

Riker examined the broken plastic. “What were you doing there?”

“Chasing a hunch. My wife eats these things like candy. I’d bet my life this belongs to her.”

“Tic-Tacs are candy. It could be anyone’s.”

“She’s somewhere on this island, and I need your help to find her.”

Riker was eyeing the bulge in the front of Steve’s pants. A bandage covered part of her forearm where a row of scratches peeked out from the edge of the cotton gauze. “I don’t think so.”

“Why not?”

“Because we may have already found your wife and daughter.”

Steve felt his legs buckle as if someone whacked him behind the knees with a two-by-four. “Where? When?”

“About an hour ago. The Coast Guard found an abandoned fishing trawler with a woman and a young girl who fit the description of your family.”

Steve swallowed hard. The room spun in circles. “Alive?”

“As far as we know.”

“Where are they now?”

“A few miles off the coast.”

“You have to take me there.”

“I can’t.”

“Bullshit you can’t!”

“It’s out of my hands. The Coast Guard has jurisdiction on this one.”

“Then I’ll go alone.”

Riker touched her hand on her holster. “I can’t let you do that.”

Steve walked toward the kitchen with his back to her; his eyes trained on the bank of video monitors, revealing a Nissan Sentra out front. He reached for the .22 in his pants and palmed it in his hand before he turned around to face Riker with his arms crossed above his chest. “Your tea’s getting cold.”

“I’ll live without it.”

“What happened to your arm?”

“I bumped my elbow.” Riker smirked. She could sense Steve’s reluctance to stand in the same room with her. She also noticed the bulge missing from the front of his pants. “When did you get here?”

“A few minutes ago. I called Lieutenant Mierez and told him to meet me.”

Riker pointed to the phone. “You can’t dial out from here without an access code.”

“I used my cell.”

“Before or after you returned from Punta Molas?”

Concealing part of his hand in his armpit, Steve slid his finger on the trigger. “Where’s your partner?”

Riker unbuckled her holster. “Smythe’s been detained, indefinitely.”

Steve pointed the .22 at Riker’s head. “What the hell’s going on?”

“It’s a felony to threaten a federal officer.”

“So is murder.”

Riker reached her hand out for the gun. “It’s over.”

“Stay there or I’ll drop you where you stand.”

“I don’t think so,” Riker replied hotly.

Steve’s heart thumped faster in his chest. His thoughts scattered like rays of light through a prism. If he pulled the trigger and made the head shot he was aiming for, he’d murder a federal officer.

He squeezed the trigger, but the .22 didn’t fire.

Riker laughed at the startled expression on Steve’s face. “Gun control’s a bitch.”

Steve pulled the trigger repeatedly, but to no effect.

Riker pulled the Glock from her holster and aimed it at Steve’s chest. “This one works. I assure you. Now kick the weapon to me.”

Steve laid the gun on the floor and nudged it with his foot.

“It’s a prototype. Can only be fired by the registered owner. Some sort of biometric reader gadget. You should have seen your face.” Riker waved her Glock toward the door. “Now let’s go! My ride’s waiting.”

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.

Without a Trace… Chapter 45

Agent Smythe leaned back in his chair and blew smoke rings at the plastic lampshade. He pinched a fresh Camel between his fingers while he held his cell phone to his ear. He knew his partner hated smoke inside the house, but he couldn’t bring himself to endure the humidity or the blood-sucking mosquitoes lingering outside like flying vampires.

“I can’t do that,” he told Barbara. He gestured in the air at Riker, pantomiming the conversation with his wife. “You know what I’m saying, Barbara. How many times do we have to relive this?”

“Can’t another agent fill in for you?”

Smythe could hear the anger building in her voice. “It doesn’t work that way.”

“Dale, I’m not talking about a trip to Disney World. I’m asking you to spend Easter Sunday with your family.”

Smythe pinched his cigarette between his lips and drew a long breath. The first cigarette from the new pack had eased his nicotine craving; the second gave him a sense of calm. “I love you.”

“Don’t change the subject.”

He held the phone away from his ear and smirked at Riker. He could still hear his wife’s bickering loud and clear. Even six inches away from his ear, her condescending tone grated his nerves. “Put the kids on.”

“They’re sleeping. If you want to talk to your son and daughter I suggest you catch the next flight home. Your partner can hold the fort without you.”

“Not this time.” He pulled the phone away from his hear and coughed. “I gotta go. I’ll call you back.”

“Dale—”

“I love you,” Smythe insisted before he abruptly ended the call. Family meant everything to him, but he had too much invested in the case to take himself out of the game. He blew smoke from his Camel. He could read the disdain on Riker’s face. “What? My wife’s a thousand miles away and she still finds a way to push my buttons.”

Riker swatted the air in front of her face, fanning the cigarette smoke away. She used the tool from the weapon’s cleaning kit to swab the inside the barrel of her service pistol. Sitting with the Glock dismantled on a rag, the gun-cleaning exercise gave her something to do with her hands, a task to pass the time while she waited for Smythe to end his call and focus his undivided attention on her. “You shouldn’t hang up on her.”

“Why not?”

“Because she’s your wife.”

“She’s a pain in the ass is what she is.”

Riker grinned. “I can’t imagine where she got it from.”

Smythe rubbed his knuckle at the itch beneath his nose. A maverick hair protruded like an ivory tusk. “You don’t know her like I do.”

Riker added a squirt of cleaning solution and worked the tool in and out of the barrel some more, removing propellant residue. She’d had her share of dates; her share of horny men groping her after a cheap dinner and a movie. She’d also been propositioned by gay women while working undercover in Manhattan, propositions she hated but somehow preferred against the company of a man she couldn’t stand. She liked men. She just preferred they keep their distance until she made the first move. “Have you heard from Steve Chambers yet?”

“Not since this morning.”

“Where’d he go?”

Smythe snuffed out his cigarette in an empty can. “His hotel. He said he needed time to himself.”

Riker finished her gun maintenance by wiping the surface with a lint-free rag and oiling the moving parts. She reassembled the handgun in less than a minute, making sure the slide mechanism moved smoothly. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

“You turning in already?”

“I’m spent.” She stood with her gear and wandered off.

Smythe plugged in a portable fan on his desk. He clicked the dial onto high and aimed the air at his face. Convinced he should leave the phone alone and let Barbara stew for a while, he turned his attention to the open laptop in front of him. Like it or not, he had paperwork to finish, and the more he dawdled, the longer it was going to take.

He clicked on the Firefox icon and waited for the browser to come up. He felt gassy from the beef and bean burrito he’d devoured two hours ago, and unfastened the button on his slacks. With Riker retired for the evening, he could climb off his duty horse and relax in front of the pale glow emanating from the monitor.

He checked his email, expecting the special investigations unit to have something tangible for him. He clicked on the first message regarding Pamela Stewart. The autopsy confirmed what he already knew but it didn’t tell him who killed her.

He entered the FBI database and searched Pamela Stewart’s name. The screen filled with entries of every Pamela Stewart it could find.

He searched within the results to narrow the field, probing for any connection he could find to his victim and why her life had come to such a grizzly end.

Spending weeks without his wife had put a strain on his libido. He wanted to make more than love with his wife. He wanted sex. The kind of raw, animal sex that left him sore between the sheets. The kind of sex he hadn’t had since he was twenty and Barbara was tight as a drum.

He pushed his chair back and lit another cigarette. Then he stretched his arms behind his back and scratched his head. Gazing at a picture of his son and daughter, he reached his arm out to grab it and bumped a can of Coke he’d left on the corner of the table. More than half full, the drink spilled on the table and flooded a pile of papers on the floor.

He cursed himself under his breath, pinching the cigarette between his lips as he turned the can upright and used his other hand to contain the spill. With no towels or napkins readily accessible, he used the end of his shirt to wipe part of the table. He emptied the rest of the can in the sink before tossing it in the trash beneath the counter. He found a roll of paper towels and sopped up the remaining mess. Then he tossed the sticky wet paper in the trash, staring at the Reece Bank cap sandwiched between an old coffee filter and a rotten banana peel.

He pulled the hat from the refuse and held it under the lamp. What the hell? We never checked…

He grabbed a spray bottle of Luminol from his crime scene kit. He squirted the hat inside and out, then turned down the room’s lights. As he watched, what looked suspiciously like typical blood spatter appeared on the brim from the pale blue chemiluminescence. “RIKER!”

He took another drag from his cigarette and examined the Luminol stain more closely. A bloody thumbprint, he guessed. “Riker! get in here!”

* * *

Prompted by the inflection in her partner’s voice, Agent Riker rushed out of her room in her shorts and tee-shirt. Her damp hair hung limp across her shoulders. “What’s wrong?”

Smythe grabbed a Mexican travel guide from a box of folders and flipped to the section on Cozumel resorts. “Look at this.”

“What the hell are you doing?”

“We missed it,” said Smythe, scanning the list of dive shops associated with resort hotels. “I can’t believe we missed it.”

“Missed what?”

Smythe crushed out his cigarette and blew smoke away from Riker’s face. He held out the Reece Bank cap. “Remember this?”

“I threw it away.”

Smythe pointed to a paragraph describing the Presidente Suites. He read the text out loud for emphasis, taking care to reference the sentence about the on-site dive shop and the Diver’s Paradise boat. “Steve Chambers found this baseball cap on the Diver’s Paradise boat.”

“So?”

“So he also witnessed Victor Mendoza aboard the same boat.”

Riker covered her mouth and yawned. “I still don’t follow you.”

“It’s just a hunch, but I’m wondering if the person who owned this cap actually worked for Reece Bank. If we search for employer records, we could match the employee names with the registry for the Presidente Suites. I know it’s a long shot, but we might get lucky and find someone who works for Reece Bank and has recently turned up missing. It might give us a connection to the Diver’s Paradise and Pamela Stewart.”

“What else have you been smoking?”

“You’re not hearing me—”

“We’ve been over this a dozen times, Dale. There’s no connection.”

“Because we had no reference point. We were shooting in the dark.”

Riker yawned again. “You think Pamela Stewart worked for Reece Bank?”

“It’s possible. If she did, it could tie us to Mendoza.”

“Or maybe the hat belonged to someone else?” Riker added. “You’re going in circles.”

Smythe gnawed on the tip of his thumbnail. Too wired to sleep, he felt the nervous energy spooling inside him. “But what if I’m right? What if—”

“You’re leaving the light on for Elvis.”

“Don’t you find it the least bit interesting?”

“The hat could belong to anyone, including a crew member or a diver who left it behind. Either way, it proves nothing.”

Smythe threw his hands in the air. “How do you explain the blood evidence?”

Riker glanced at the clock on the wall. “It’s two in the morning. I don’t have to explain anything right now. What blood evidence, anyway?”

“I sprayed the cap with Luminol and found what looks like a bloody fingermark—”

“Oh! That’s why you killed the lights.” She examined the cap. “Could be fish blood.”

Smythe took an evidence bag from the supply box and inserted the cap inside. Using red ink, he marked urgent on the label. “I’m sending it to the lab.”

“Why?”

“Because I’ve got a hunch I can’t ignore.”

Without a Trace… Chapter 40

Propped on a hammock stretched between two palm trees on the beach, Agent Smythe staked out the dive shop on the property of the Presidente Suites. A tiny microphone concealed inside the collar of his floral print shirt provided the communication link to his partner while he sipped from his virgin margarita in a plastic cup. Tinted glasses filtered the sun’s glare from his eyes while a straw hat pulled down on his forehead provided shade for his face and neck.

He swallowed the frozen drink, allowing the crushed ice concoction to melt on his tongue before he swallowed. Maintaining contact with Riker was the easy part. Getting her to stick to the script was a different matter. If Victor Mendoza was somewhere on the property, he kept himself well hidden among the mainstream crowd. And if his reputation had any semblance of truth, he wouldn’t go down without a fight. A shoot-out on the beach would be disastrous at best—and all out Armageddon at worst. With no way to control the hundreds of innocent bystanders parading on the beachfront property, a confrontation with Mendoza would lead to death, destruction, and most likely a hostage situation.

Smythe patted his shirt for his pack of cigarettes. He knew the scenario had the potential to end his career and ignite another flare-up between U.S. Law Enforcement and the Mexican Government. “Go easy,” he mumbled at the hidden mike. From a distance, he saw Riker mulling about the dive shop entrance near the docks where a dive boat floated alongside, with the name Diver’s Paradise airbrushed across the transom.

* * *

Riker pressed the transmit button on the transceiver and recorder clipped to her belt. Disguised as an MP3 player, the ubiquitous jogger’s aid could receive the signal from her partner’s unit from up to a mile away. “This is crazy,” she said with minimal movement of her lips. She’d heard Smythe’s comment loud and clear through the tiny earphone. Involving a civilian in an undercover investigation had been Smythe’s brain fart. She liked Steve Chambers as a person, but as a victim of a personal tragedy, he had the potential to do more harm than good. She ran her fingers through her hair, giving Smythe the signal she was prepared to enter the establishment and lose her visual contact.

She waited inside the shop for the owner to return to the counter. She kept her back to a group of divers browsing a wall of masks and snorkel gear. The smell of neoprene filled the room.

“I’ll be right with you,” the store manager announced when he entered. He strained to push the cart of dive tanks to the refill air station, though his well-tanned legs were hard as pistons from his flip-flop sandals to the frazzled ends of his cut-off shorts. Unloading one tank at a time, he placed each empty cylinder in a large tub of water. “Sorry ’bout that,” he said to Riker when he returned to the front of the store. He glanced at the young couple browsing the dive merchandise before returning his attention to the lady in front of him. “Would you like to see one?” he asked Riker, pointing at the dive computers in the case.

Riker put her hands on the edge of the glass and leaned forward. Her bikini top bulged with the effort. “Actually, I’m trying to find out where to sign up for a morning dive.”

“Right here.” The dive shop owner pulled a clipboard from a nail in the wall and took a pen from beneath the counter. “I run two trips a day. The first group leaves at eight in the morning and the second after lunch, around one.”

“Do you offer night dives?”

“Only on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We charge our normal rate plus an extra fifty for each diver.” He dodged his eyes away from the clipboard to the tanned breasts on display in front of him.

“How many divers do you take at once?”

“Typically six or eight depending on how many people sign up.” He slid a notebook on the counter. “Looks like we’re booked for today, but there’s still space available for tomorrow if you want.”

“How many crew do you take on board?”

“Usually three. Either myself or one of our dive instructors will go out with the captain and a pair of dive masters.”

Riker flipped through the pages of the sign-up log and found Steve’s name scribbled in the space for the previous week. “Is it the same crew every day?”

“When I can get them. There’s a high turnover here. Good help bounces from one place to another around the off season. The boat loads up at seven-thirty tomorrow morning. We leave at eight sharp if you’re interested.”

Riker took a business card from the counter and read the name and number. “Do you offer private dives?”

The owner smiled. “Not usually. But I’m willing to make an exception.”

* * *

Out of sight from the FBI’s surveillance operation directed at the dive shop, Steve searched the Diver’s Paradise for a scrap of torn clothing, a piece of jewelry, a note left behind—anything he could use to help him find his wife and daughter. Instead, he found nothing except the usual assortment of scuba gear and weight belts stowed in plastic crates beneath the passenger seating area.

He raised the bow’s forward hatch and climbed inside the compartment below deck. Sunlight poured inside the open hatch where orange lifejackets and spare scuba gear occupied much of the storage space.

Kicking an empty box aside, he discovered a spear gun with a broken power band and a barbed spear pitted from oxidation. He set the weapon on the floor beside the urine-stained seat on the boat’s manual head. He found an unfiltered cigarette smoked to the last half inch and an assortment of Hustler magazines with a white baseball cap wedged between them. He used his foot to push the magazines aside and reveal the hat with the words “Reece Bank” stitched across the brim. The hat seemed out of place in the otherwise filthy confines of the cramped forward cabin. Footsteps scuttled across the fiberglass deck above, prompting him to stuff the cap down the front of his pants.

Que hace usted?” a voice called out from the open hatch.

Steve moved aside and climbed out with his shirt hanging over his waist. “No hablo espanol,” he said to the stranger of Mexican descent. He recognized the man, but he couldn’t place where he’d seen his face.

Salga del barco,” the man answered.

“I don’t understand.”

Salga!” the man insisted, telling Steve to get off the boat. He pointed to the shore. “Tien que salir. Ahora!

Steve reluctantly complied to avoid a bigger scene and draw more unwanted attention. He climbed out on the wharf and shuffled past Riker, who followed him to the paved parking area behind the indoor exercise facility. Neither acknowledged one another until they came out of earshot from the resort staff lingering near the dive shop entrance.

“What the hell are you doing?” Riker demanded, her low, sultry voice turning harsh with the bark of a drill instructor.

“Searching the boat.”

“For what?”

“For anything. In case you haven’t noticed, my wife and daughter are still missing.”

Riker threw her hands in the air. “This isn’t a game you’re impeding! This is a federal investigation. You either follow orders or I’ll have you locked up!”

Steve fumed at Riker’s comment, his face a sunburned plaque of razor stubble and sleep-deprived eyes. “I was on the boat ten days ago with my wife and daughter and that maniac, Mendoza.” He stood aside when Agent Smythe approached from a group of tourists. “I can’t stand around and do nothing. That boat was the last place I saw my family alive.”

“You don’t get it, do you? Your very presence out here could jeopardize this investigation. Poking around is the last thing you should do if you hope to ever see your family again.”

“Then what do you suggest?”

“Get out of our way and let us do our jobs.”

Without a Trace… Chapter 37

“I’m good to go,” Steve announced to the group of enlisted men on deck. The men gathered around the coils of hoses extending from the surface-supplied air control center.

Steve took the helmet and the rubber drysuit from the top of the steel cabinet mounted beside a crane and pulley system. Recognizing the familiar gear, he put the dive helmet on and adjusted the air supply, checking it out. Made of woven fiberglass, the lightweight helmet offered the latest in deep-sea diving technology with a streamlined design, interchangeable fittings, upgraded valves, and a shatterproof visor.

“Sir, I wouldn’t do that,” said Yeoman Tate, a young recruit who manned the supply station controlling the oxygen content in the mixed gas system.

Steve pulled the helmet off and placed it on the metal cabinet. “Why not?”

“Sir,” Yeoman Tate replied, “the helmet fails under pressure. I tested it myself less than an hour ago. I wouldn’t wear it at any depth unless you’re expecting your next dive to be your last.”

Steve turned away from the Yeoman with a flat-top haircut and a high forehead. “Are you shittin’ me?” he said to Agent Smythe. “I thought you said this ship was well-equipped?”

Smythe lit a cigarette. “Don’t look at me. I didn’t vote for Obama.”

He had the look. Steve recognized it at once and secretly smirked as he watched the agent trying to ignore his queasy stomach. But it was obvious the unsettled sickness he’d have endured after breakfast was intensified from the rolling motion of the ship. He brought his attention back to more important matters. “There must be another option.”

Steve examined the helmet’s valve assembly. “What’s the problem?” he asked Yeoman Tate.

“A leak via the umbilical connector, Sir. If we had a spare I could swap out the old one and replace the seal—”

“There’s no spare on board?”

“None to fit this type of helmet.”

“Then we’re dead in the water.”

“Not quite,” the Yeoman answered, unlocking a storage trunk to retrieve a black canvas bag from the bottom of the locker. “Give me a hand with this,” he shouted to another Yeoman on deck.

Steve helped the crewmen unload the canvas dive suit and its box-shaped copper helmet. He recognized the clunky rig as part of the Mark V souvenir helmet he had on his desk at home, complete with a metal breastplate used to secure the helmet to the suit.

“What the hell?” Smythe asked, staring at the antique contraption. “I think I saw one of those in a movie once.”

Steve took the helmet in his hands. “It’s a collector’s item now, but it served as the U.S. Navy’s standard diving rig until they decommissioned it in ’79.” He examined the helmet and the seams on the canvas-rubber suit.

“It’s a proven design,” Yeoman Tate added. “A lot of companies still use these rigs for off-shore drilling repair.”

Steve set the helmet down and coughed when Smythe blew smoke in his direction. “How deep is the wreck?” he asked Tate.

“Her bow sits at just under three hundred feet below.”

“Do you understand the decompression requirements for that depth?”

“Yes sir, and I’ll be keeping a log of the dive and planning for the decompression schedule.”

“Is there a recompression chamber on board this vessel?”

“No sir, but Aruba’s medical facility has one.”

Steve looked out across the water at the island of Aruba, more than three miles out from the Coast Guard’s position. He’d read the FBI reports Smythe and Riker shared with him at breakfast—reports describing how the Coast Guard found the sunken ship and why the FBI wanted so desperately to identify it. “You ever worked a mixed gas rig before?” He put one leg inside the suit and pressed his foot in the integrated boot.

“Yes sir.”

“How many?”

“Two. Counting today.”

Steve forced his other leg inside the suit. As with any dive operation, he’d spent the night before planning for the unexpected by reviewing time and depth requirements, bottom contour plots, water conditions, and emergency procedures. With hundreds of dives to his credit, he knew the risks of underwater exploration, especially at triple digit depths. “Let’s do this.”

“You look like crap,” Agent Riker told Steve when she came on deck to see her partner headed in the opposite direction. She cupped her hand over her mouth and yawned. “Where’s he going?”

Steve shrugged.

Riker stretched her arms above her head. Her legs were tired from her workout the day before; her face sore from the sunburn on her cheeks and forehead. The sausage and biscuits she had for breakfast in the galley dropped another notch in her stomach. She scratched her scalp. She hadn’t showered in two days until she’d boarded the Cutter. It had been a quick salt-water spray, and now her hair felt greasy. As the only female on board the ship, she could sense the stares when she sauntered toward the group of men surrounding Steve. A certified scuba diver, she’d logged her share of time underwater, though mostly in lakes and quarries, with the exception of a two-week vacation in the Keys. She knew the basics of underwater breathing apparatus, but she’d never used surface-supplied equipment before.

Steve pushed his arms in the dive suit’s stiff rubber sleeves.

Yeoman Tate stepped up with the helmet, which bristled with valves at the sides and back.

Steve balanced himself as the weight of the bulky device was carefully guided over his head and onto the breastplate designed to fasten up and over both shoulders. More cumbersome than any dive rig he’d used before, the Mark V conjured memories of dive gear he’d read about in technical training classes but never dreamed of actually using. “She’s a dinosaur,” he said through the faceplate opening. When he sensed the weight was positioned squarely on his shoulders, he sat down while another crewman fitted him with heavy lead overboots.

Steve moved his arm for a crewman to fasten the helmet to the base of the metal breastplate. The weight of the suit’s components tugged on his back and shoulders. Even sitting still took effort to support his skeletal structure.

“What about your air supply?” asked Riker.

Steve pointed to a clump of hoses with metal sheaving woven around the outside. “The umbilical has my breathing gas delivery and recovery, fathometer, and communications lines. Once the faceplate’s screwed on to the front of the helmet I’ve only got seven minutes of breathing gas left before I hit the water.”

“Why?”

“Because they can’t turn the gas on until the suit’s fully submerged. Without the water pressure pushing against it, I’d inflate like the Michelin Man.”

“You don’t breathe regular air?”

Steve stood with the help of two crewmen. He walked with a robotic motion toward the crane and pulley assembly prepared to hoist him overboard. “It’s a gas mixture. Air blended with helium to avoid nitrogen toxicity.”

With the dive suit prepped and ready, Steve gave the thumbs up signal for Yeoman Tate to secure the faceplate to the helmet.

Steve watched the condensation from his breath forming on the glass two inches in front of his face.

A metallic voice said, “Okay, sir?” It was Yeoman Tate checking the comms system.

“Sure. Ready when you are.” Steve felt a tug on his shoulder harness as he was winched up and gently lowered into the sea.

“Good luck.” Inside the clunky helmet, the Yeoman’s words echoed like the voice of God.

Suspended by a strand of steel cable, Steve sank beneath the surface of the water a few feet. And then his descent was halted. He knew they were watching for gas leaks from his equipment. With his visibility restricted by the faceplate’s small porthole, he had a limited view in front of him, though he could look right, left and upwards through other ports.

“No leaks,” said Tate, and the descent resumed.

Gradually, the color spectrum faded. Red disappeared first, followed by shades of orange—and finally yellow at eighty feet. At one hundred and fifty feet below the surface, patches of green seaweed on underwater ledges looked gray in the absence of most of the light.

“Holding steady,” Yeoman Tate’s voice echoed inside Steve’s dive helmet. “Approaching depth of one-seven-five feet.”

“Roger that,” Steve replied. At well beyond the maximum depth for recreational diving, he used the underwater strobe affixed to a lanyard on his breastplate. His throat itched from the dry gas pumped inside the helmet via the surface-supplied umbilical. Hearing nothing but the gentle sigh as his breathing gas entered and was then recovered via the umbilical, he waited patiently for the crane to pay out cable and set him on the ocean floor. He closed his eyes and imagined Leslie’s skin against his body; her breasts against his chest; her lips against his own. He longed to hold her again and tell her everything would be all right.

At two hundred and fifty feet, sandwiched between millions of tons of water, he gained a new perspective on his family’s disappearance. If he hadn’t left them at the dive boat, Sarah and Leslie would be at home recovering from a week of sun and fun in Cozumel. Sarah would be back in school complaining about how the world mistreated her. Leslie would be returning from work complaining about rush-hour traffic. Dinner would be on fire. Sarah would argue for pizza. The neighbor’s new Mustang would taunt him from the driveway.

At three hundred feet below the surface, his view of the underwater world took on a new perspective as the flashlight beam cut a swath through the murky water. “I’m down,” he said when he felt his boots touch bottom. Blinded momentarily by the floating sediment, he slogged in the general direction of the wreckage. “I have visual contact,” he told the surface.

“How far from your position?”

Steve reached for a chunk of metal partially embedded in the sand. He touched his gloved fingers to the surface of the rusted fluke anchor from which a rusty chain snaked its way to the bow of the sunken boat. “About thirty feet.”

From the condition of the fiberglass hull he could tell the wreckage was fairly recent. “How long ago was this yacht reported missing?”

A moment of static was followed by a short reply. “Say again?”

“When was the yacht reported missing?”

This time Riker’s voice replaced Yeoman Tate’s. “About two weeks ago.”

Steve continued along the starboard side. The hull appeared much shorter than that of the yacht he’d expected to find. “This boat’s been down a lot longer.”

“Are you sure?”

“Positive.”

Steve followed the hull until he came to the point where the boat had broken in half over a large rock formation. A grouper emerged from a hole in the splintered fiberglass and swam out of view. Smaller, bullet-size holes appeared in random patterns near the boat’s stern. Evidence of fire damage appeared from the remnants of charred wood panels. Finding no name inscribed on the transom or anywhere else along the hull, he moved slowly to examine a shattered porthole. Shards of broken glass deflected the flashlight beam at a life preserver suspended above the forward cockpit.

“You still with us?”

“Roger that,” said Steve. “This boat’s definitely not the one you’re looking for.”

“Watch your umbilical.”

Steve made his way through the open hatch and aimed the light to view the remains of the empty cabin. He stepped back, enduring a mild bout of vertigo until his breathing caught up with the oxygen demand from his lungs. Aware of something in his peripheral vision, he craned his neck inside the helmet, turning his upper body to pan the light at the floating debris.

He saw nothing unusual at first, until a shadow moved against the hull. He blinked several times to refocus his vision. Trying to view the underwater world through the tiny portholes in his faceplate proved as difficult as watching television through a straw.

His heartbeat accelerated. His breathing came in ragged spurts. Whatever he thought he saw, it was large enough to cast a sizable shadow. “Take it up,” he said into the helmet’s microphone.

“Negative, sir.”

“Say again?”

“Sir, we have an issue with the crane assembly.”

“What kind of issue?”

“We’re working on it…”

* * *

Yeoman Tate stared at the hydraulic control assembly, baffled by the high pressure readings and the lack of positive feedback when he engaged the crane motor. From his vantage point above deck, he could see the cable spool stuck in the forward position.

He followed the protocol for troubleshooting the hydraulic system, stepping quickly through the list of probable malfunctions and the short term work-around required to ensure he could hoist his diver back on board before he exceeded the maximum bottom time limit.

* * *

Steve drew a deep breath. The effort to move about while in the heavy suit was taking its toll. Whatever he saw, or thought he saw, had given him reason to leave. Hallucination from bad gas mixture or dumb paranoia? He didn’t care which, only that he felt uneasy about standing at the bottom of the Caribbean in a dive suit from Grandma’s attic. “Tate? Come in, Tate…”

Static crackled from the speaker by his ear. Bitter for having agreed to help the bumbling idiots in the FBI, he contemplated what he’d say to them when he reached the surface. He was wasting time and energy, two commodities he had little to spare. By leaving Cozumel, he’d abandoned his family—or at least their last known location.

When the shadow reappeared in his peripheral vision, he let the door to his imagination swing open. Whatever he’d seen several minutes ago appeared larger than it had at first, and now moved through the water with ease. Sharks came to mind. Then legends of giant squid capable of sinking small boats and dispensing with the terrified crew. Sea monsters he’d read about in novels suddenly seemed plausible. So did his own mortality.

Until now, he’d been cavalier about his attitude toward the mission. His let’s-get-this-shit-over-with routine had snagged him by the balls. And in his haste to assist Smythe and Riker, he’d neglected to analyze the situation on all fronts.

“Hold tight.” Tate’s voice echoed inside the copper helmet.

Steve rose up from the ocean floor, defeated by his own fatigue and an inability to come to terms with why he had to be the one with the missing wife and daughter.

Why not a rich bastard who beats his kids and sleeps around on his wife? Why not a family of dopers who deserved to die?

Steve knew it would be a slow lift, and that there would be stages where he’d be stopped, suspended in the water column, and left to breathe off the gases he’d accumulated in his body after minutes at a three hundred foot depth. Alone in the underwater world, his fate rested with the skilled men on deck who kept the breathing gas flowing and carefully managed his gradual ascent.

After around forty-five minutes, at sixty feet from the surface, he noticed a plethora of marine life swimming around him. At ten feet from the surface, the sun’s rays cut through the turquoise water.

He was sweaty and cramped inside the canvas suit, and the exertion from the dive had sapped more of his energy reserves than he anticipated. The ocean swim the day before had worked his muscles close to the point of exhaustion, and now his upper body ached from the weight of the heavy dive suit.

When he finally broke the surface, he dangled from the crane-controlled cable, inhaling slowly to conserve the few remaining minutes of gas in his helmet. Water dripped from the canvas pants as he faced the massive hull of the Coast Guard Cutter.

Suspended above the deck, he watched the crane operator work a series of levers behind a glass-enclosed panel. Sweat drooled down his chest and back. Swaying from the cable, he sensed a hint of motion sickness stalking him. A subtle hint, almost imperceptible at first, then more pronounced as the seconds passed. He knew he was existing on the remaining oxygen in the gas mix in his suit.

“Almost there,” said Tate.

Steve hung helpless. I’m going to be anoxic in a minute. He’d breath off the oxygen and simply go to sleep and die. “Tate! Get this faceplate open or blow some oxygen into the suit!”

“We’ll have your faceplate off in a second,” said Tate, his voice tinged with a note of panic.

Steve touched the manual inflation valve on his suit in an effort to force more gas into his helmet. Nothing happened. He was breathing a little faster.

When his boots touched the deck, his body bore the full brunt from the suit’s heft, causing additional strain on his already exhausted muscles, muscles demanding more oxygen than his bloodstream could supply.

Without a Trace… Chapter 33

Still groggy from the drugs in her bloodstream, Sarah felt the floor spin beneath her in the darkened room. She heard a car door slam, followed by the sound of tires spinning on gravel. Vaguely aware of what had happened to her, she remembered being carried off a boat before she passed out. She also remembered the scent of cigar smoke, the same smell now wafting through the gap under the door across from her.

Coping with a pain in her lower abdomen, she tried to stand. Wobbly at first, she used her hands to feel along the wall until her confidence in her legs came back. A light switch illuminated the small room with its single boarded window and no furniture.

Squinting from the bright light above her, she recalled the man with the needle and the forceful prick in her arm; the sting from another injection intended to make her sleepy.

She tried the door but found it locked. She could hear screaming, followed by shouting in Spanish. She recognized the words, but she couldn’t make out the translation.

Keys jingled in the lock, prompting her to move backwards as two men entered, dragging the battered body of Chloe Johnson between them. Sarah recognized the girl from the boat before the men dropped her like a bag of mulch and retreated, slamming and locking the door behind them.

“Are you okay?” she said to the broken teenager. “What happened?”

Chloe Johnson crawled against the wall and assumed the fetal position. Her frazzled hair hung down around her face. Her torn shirt exposed her shoulders and the purple bruise marks on her arms.

Sarah touched Chloe’s cheek where a star-shaped impression had been hammered against her skin. “It’s all right.”

“Mmmmm…”

“Who are you?”

“Mmmmm…”

“What’s your name?”

Chloe jerked away from Sarah’s touch, shielding her face with her hands. “Chloe.”

Sarah stared at Chloe’s bruises. “Where are we?”

“In hell.”

“But we’re still alive.”

Chloe wiped her face with her hand. Snot oozed from both nostrils. “They’ll come for you next.”

Sarah shook her head, afraid to imagine what horrors awaited. “They’ll have to kill me first.”

Chloe repositioned herself with her back against the wall and her knees drawn up to her chest. “They won’t.”

“How did you get here?”

“They killed my family. My brother. Then my father.”

Sarah thought about Mom and Steve. “Are we still in Mexico?”

“I think so.”

“How long have we been here?”

Chloe shrugged.

“Can you walk?”

Chloe rubbed her legs. “It hurts.”

“You have to try. We have to find a way out of here.”

“How?”

Sarah touched the boarded window. “Help me find something to pry with.”

Chloe relaxed herself from her curled position on the floor, pondering on the girl’s words. Escaping from her captors would remove her from their physical presence, but the pain they’d already inflicted would follow her for the rest of her life. She’d no family to run to; no mother and father to rescue her and punish the men who hurt her. “It won’t do any good. They’ll find us.”

“No they won’t. Not if we run and hide.”

“They’ll find you. And they’ll kill you just like they killed my brother and my parents.”

Sarah pressed on. “What’s outside of here? Are we near anything? Somewhere someone might be able to help us?”

“I think we passed a hotel.”

“Where?”

Chloe rubbed her jaw. The swelling in her face had worsened since the men brought her back. “I can’t remember. It looked old.”

Sarah dug her fingers between the wood and the bottom of the window opening. She used her legs to push against the wall while she tugged on the wood plank nailed in place. “If we can get to a phone—”

“They’ll catch us first.”

“Not if we move fast.”

Chloe heard the words coming out of the girl’s mouth, and wondered how the silly bitch could believe what she was saying.

“How many men are there?”

Chloe stared at her hands. She pictured the men’s faces in front of her. On top of her. Breathing on her. Touching her in places they shouldn’t. Shouting and laughing with one another, then at one another. She remembered the pop of broken teeth in her mouth. “Four, I think.”

“Are you sure?”

“Four attacked me, but I heard other voices outside.”

“How far away is the hotel?”

“Far.”

“How far? A block? A mile? Ten miles?”

Chloe shifted her gaze to the ceiling, trying to recall what she’d seen on the ride to the house. Men’s faces kept blocking her thoughts. Mean, hateful faces, men on top of her, beating her, hurting her again and again. “It’s a long away. I heard music in the car when I saw the hotel. The song ended when we got here.”

“How fast were you going?”

“I don’t know.”

“How fast did it feel?”

“Fast.”

Sarah ran a calculation through her head. If an average song plays for three minutes and the car averaged sixty miles an hour, the distance traveled would be roughly three miles, assuming a constant speed. “We can make it if we run.”

“How can you know that?” Chloe moaned. “The hotel could be hours from here.”

“Maybe. But it’s a chance we have to take.”

Without a Trace… Chapter 28

Shotgun blasts erupted on the bow of the stolen yacht as clay fragments exploded in the sky like an afternoon fireworks display.

“Again!” Victor shouted with the twelve-gauge pump-action slung low at his waist.

Damon pulled a rope attached to a spring-loaded launcher, causing the metal arm to fling the next array of clay targets toward the sky.

In one fluid motion, Victor brought the butt of the shotgun to his chest, aimed down the length of the barrel, and squeezed the trigger.

The gun stock kicked against his massive pectoral from the recoil of the magnum shell.

Before the first target shattered into oblivion, he pumped the shotgun fore-end to slam another round in the chamber. He fired and reloaded and fired again until the hail of shotgun pellets turned the last of the falling fragments into dust.

Spent shells littered the deck. Smoke trailed from the heated muzzle. “I’m out.”

Damon handed him the box of ammo. “They’ll be here soon.” He cupped his hand over his mouth and coughed. “We should put this shit away.”

Victor reloaded. In the last few years, he’d made more enemies than friends and trusted no one except himself and Damon. Not one for cards and drinking games, he found comfort in more violent activities, or by his own definition, any sport involving guns or knives and targets—real or imagined. “Load the trap,” he told his friend. This time he chose a left hand position. “Pull!”

Damon tugged on the launch string. The spring-loaded throwing arm snapped sideways.

Victor fired again. “One more time.”

Damon prepped the launcher with the last four targets and sent them hurling toward the sun. This time he pulled the chrome-plated .45 from his shoulder holster and shot the flying discs before Victor could fire again. The targets broke into large chunks and fell into the water.

Victor brought the shotgun to his side. He wanted to punch his friend in the mouth but refrained when he noticed a boat in the distance, headed their way.

Damon laughed. Impressed with his own marksmanship, he holstered his gun and grabbed the empty clay target box from the deck. Exchanging drugs for money was dangerous business. Exchanging flesh for money, however, had a way of bringing out the worst in people, a lesson he’d learned with a bullet to the leg.

Barely half the length of the hundred-foot Sunseeker, the oncoming vessel enjoyed the benefit of greater speed and agility, allowing the captain of the smaller boat to pull alongside the yacht without compromising his defensive position.

Still armed with the shotgun, Victor stepped out to greet the men he’d been waiting for. “Carajo! Donde has estado?” he asked the first man who came on board.

“You’re late,” Damon added.

The Colombian buyer averted eye contact with Victor and signaled for his men to stay put. Puffing on a fat cigar, the fifty-something man with a thick beard and mustache wore Bermuda shorts and a flowered shirt with a straw hat and closed toe sandals. A braided gold necklace hung around his neck. “How do you say—” he floundered for the words in English. “Engine trouble.”

* * *

Strapped to a bed, Leslie stared up at the cabin ceiling and swallowed saliva. Desperate for a drink of water, she’d abandoned her effort to scream with the duct tape across her mouth. Stripped to her panties and bra, she’d imagined worse things could happen.

Red, swollen skin lined her wrists where the nylon ropes secured her arms, stretched out perpendicular to her body. Every movement sent a wave of stinging pain down her sides. Her ankles endured the same fate from the chafed skin below her shins, where a second set of nylon ropes secured her legs to the bed.

For the first time in hours, she heard voices coming from somewhere inside the yacht, but she couldn’t make out the words. Parts of the conversation took place in Spanish, a conversation revolving around money. She heard two men’s voices, one she recognized and one she’d never heard before. She thought about Sarah, praying for her only daughter to remain unharmed. From the absence of Sarah’s cry for help, she wondered if Sarah was on board. Or whether she was still alive.

Leslie contemplated her options. Not having any idea where the boat might be, she needed more than access to a radio and a chance to call for help. She needed a miracle.