Music City Madness: Chapter 17

Leland propped his guitar in its stand for a five minute break from the stage at a milepost honky-tonk way off the tourist map. The smoky place smelled of beer and vomit with broken peanut shells scattered about the scuffed, hardwood floor. He’d played in worse bars but never imagined he’d find himself unsigned after fifteen years of chasing gigs for gas money and food.

He left the stage and caught up with Sid at the bar. “Are you lost?”

Sid raised his drink. “I’ve heard you play at better venues.”

Leland signaled the female bar tender and ordered a beer on tap. “I’ve made less money at better dives.”

“It’s not the Bluebird Café.”

Leland accepted the mug of Coors Light. “No doubt.” He clinked his glass with Sid’s bourbon. “To better gigs and bigger dreams.”

“Amen,” Sid replied above the drunken banter from the sparse crowd of revelers in bootcut jeans and dirty shitkickers.

Leland drank to quench his thirst and looked around for Nicole. “I’ve been thinking about the session gig you mentioned.”

“Tim went with someone else.”

“When?”

“A couple days ago.”

“You just told me about it a couple days ago.”

“The wheels turn fast in Music City. His people brought on someone else.”

“You could have told me.”

“I just did. You’ve been in this game long enough to know gigs like that come and go in a hurry.”

“And I’m still playing in dumps like this.”

“It’s called paying your dues.”

Leland took another swig from his beer. “I’ve been paying long enough. Karma owes me. I can barely make rent anymore.”

“That’s what your day job’s for. You’ve got skills. And you’ve got heart. You also have a kid who adores you and an agent brave enough to stick with you.”

“Then stick around awhile longer. You might hear something you like.” Leland looked out at the ramshackle audience in the blue-collar outpost one bribe shy of a failed inspection from the county health department. “One door closes. Another swings open to smack you in the face.”

“Speaking of which,” Sid continued, “I had lunch with Brad Siegel from Capital Country Records.”

“Never heard of him.”

“He’s heard of you. I floated him one of your demo tracks. He wants to hear you play in person.”

“Don’t mess with me.”

“This is legit. Capital Country is a small studio, but they have big backers, and they generate a lot of attention.”

“When?”

“As soon as he gets back in town.”

“Seriously?”

Sid’s expression went from jovial to austere. “Do I look like I’m kidding?”

Leland shook Sid’s hand enthusiastically. “Thank you. Thank you very much.”

Sid held the handshake for several seconds, pulling Leland toward him without letting go. “I had to call in a lot of favors to make this happen. My reputation stands to suffer a lot more than yours if this doesn’t go well.”

“I won’t disappoint,” Leland vowed, still caught in his agent’s iron grip. “Are you going to let go, or are you coming on stage with me?”

Sid let go. “This opportunity with Brad Siegel is like a duel with black powder pistols. You only get one shot. Make it count.”

“I will. You have my word.” Leland finished his beer and let the news sink in for a moment. Then he took the stage again and slung his arm through the strap on his favorite guitar. He squinted from the overhead lights. He played the D string and adjusted the nickel white tuner to flatten the note. “Here’s a little ditty I wrote about life on the road,” he shouted out to the Pabst Blue Ribbon crowd in three-legged chairs on an out-of-true floor. “I hope you like it.”

He chuckled to himself, his spirits lifted as he tapped his foot in time with the upbeat tempo and finger-picked the strings on his guitar. “I call this one, my favorite honky-tonk.”

Four-wheel trucks and slide guitars

Jim Bean bourbon and cheap cigars

Long-sleeve shirts and boot cut pants

Big belt buckles and wide brim hats

In a place that no one knows

But everybody goes

Where a man can walk the walk…

My favorite honky-tonk

High speed fiddles and two-step clogs

Cold beer bottles and red hot sauce

Chiseled jaw lines and cowboy themes

Rodeo clowns and football teams

In a place we like to go

And everybody knows, by name

Where a man can walk the walk…

My favorite honky-tonk

Snakeskin boots and tight blue jeans

Red Bull cans and prom night queens

Hardwood floors and heel-toe moves

Big-time players and small-time fools

Where a man can walk the walk

In my favorite honky-tonk

That’s right…

My favorite honky-tonk

My favorite honky-tonk!

He heard the obligatory clap from the owner and a local fan who whistled through a toothless grin. “Thank you,” he spoke into the microphone. He waved to Nicole at the bar and cleared his throat. He moved the microphone stand a little closer and smiled broadly. “Let’s go with something a little different this time. A little less country and little more, love…”

He ducked from an empty PBR beer can thrown his way and ignored the drunken hecklers. “I wrote this song for someone very special. Never played it live before, until now.” He slowed the tempo with the next chord sequence and locked his eyes on one person in the room.

We met on the fairground

You felt like a long lost friend, of mine

We shared all our problems

You showed me the light at the end of it all

I need you tonight

I need you to hear

A secret I share from my lips to God’s ear

With all that we’ve learned

And all we’ve been through

At the end of the day, you’ll see…

I’m all in love, with you

Hmmm hmmm… with you…

You tingle my sens-es

When I feel the heat from the fire in your eyes

I reach out to hold you

Now I can al-most read your mind

The weight of your smile

The touch of your lips

The way that I feel under your fingertips

I need you tonight

I need you right now

You open the door to my heart somehow

With all that we’ve learned

And all we’ve been through

At the end of the day, you’ll see…

I’m all in love, with you…

Hmmm hmmm… with you…

Hmmm hmmm… with you…

I’ve fallen in love with you…

Hmmm hmmm, oh yeahhh…

I’m all in love with you…

I’m all, in love… with you…

Leland rested his guitar on a stand. “I’ll be right back,” he spoke into the microphone before he followed Nicole from the bar to a side exit that opened to the parking lot. “Hold up. Where are you going?”

Nicole pushed her way outside. “I can’t stay.”

Leland followed her to her car. “Then why did you come here tonight?”

“I need to tell you something.”

Leland hugged her. “I tried to call you but your phone kept going to voice mail.”

“I had to work a double shift.”

“Abby was pissed when you didn’t pick her up from school.”

“I’m not her chauffer,” Nicole snapped, her demeanor cold and indifferent. She unlocked her car. “I think we should see other people.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I want to see other people.”

“Where is this coming from?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Then why are you here?”

Nicole opened her door. “This doesn’t work for me anymore.”

Leland ran his hand through his hair. He spoke through clenched teeth. “What doesn’t work for you?”

“This relationship. Us. Your daughter. Our living arrangement. Everything.”

“What’s going on?”

“I don’t love you anymore, Leland. I’m sorry.”

The words hit Leland like a kick to the face. “Just like that?”

“I said I’m sorry.”

“You gotta give me something more than sorry. You don’t just wake up one day and decide to end a relationship like this without a reasonable explanation. It doesn’t jibe.”

“I can’t explain it.”

“Will you be home when I get back?”

“I have other plans.”

Leland curled his lips in disgust. “Does your plan have a name?”

“Does it matter?”

“How long have you been—”

“He’s going on tour with Carrie Underwood. He’s a drummer. He wants me to come with him.”

Leland winced, his face taut with anger. “Good for him.”

“Good for us. I’m not slinging burgers for the rest of my life. I want something more than hearing about your next audition for another gig. Or your next great song. I’m tired of waiting. You’ve taken this dream as far as you can, Leland. Some things aren’t meant to be. You’re a great musician. You’ll always have that.”

“I’d rather have you.”

“You’re obsessed with your music. You never stop to think about the people around you.”

“Who’s going to cover your share of the rent?”

“Our relationship is broken, and all you care about is money?”

Leland threw his hands up. “I care about not getting evicted.”

“You’ll figure something out.”

“Would you stay if I quit music?”

“I don’t want you to quit, Leland. I want you to do what you do. Just not with me in your life anymore.”

Music City Madness: Chapter 14

Confined to her doctor’s waiting room, Nicole passed the time reading gossip about the Hollywood elite in a recent issue of Us Weekly. She focused on celebrity photos revealing everything from wardrobe malfunctions in Milan to nanny issues in Malibu. She had no sympathy for the lifestyles of the rich and famous, whose personal problems seemed like a dream come true among the masses. Between the clothes worth more than she earned in a year and the custom handbags worth more than her car, she could only imagine what life was like on the other side of her eight-dollar-an-hour job.

Dressed in her work uniform, she watched a forty-something woman in mom jeans and sandals leave the water cooler with her cone-shaped cup to inspect the waiting area for a seat. Pretending to be mired in a full page article, she avoided eye contact and discretely placed a magazine on the empty chair beside her. She kept the patient in her peripheral vision—right up to the point where the woman snagged the magazine off the chair and claimed the spot for herself.

Nicole wanted to move without overtly rejecting the stranger encroaching on her personal space in a pink sweatshirt two sizes too big. Instead, she kept to herself and reached for another magazine from the coffee table. This time she opened an issue of National Geographic. Before she could skim the first sentence, the woman perked up and said, “My husband worked for National Geographic. He does photography. Mostly black and white, but he also shoots color. I always wanted to learn photography. I mean, I know how to use a camera. I just don’t know how to take pictures the way my husband does. How hard could it be, right? You don’t even use real film anymore. Point, shoot, and done.”

“Nice,” Nicole replied curtly.

“Are you here for Doctor Sanders or Doctor Hemsky?”

“Sanders.”

“Me too. He’s the best. If he hadn’t caught my tumor, I’d be rotting in a coffin by now. Makes you look at life differently, you know? Like maybe we shouldn’t take so much for granted. Doctor Sanders told me his wife had breast cancer at one time. Talk about a lucky woman. I mean, not that she was lucky to have cancer, but that her husband is a doctor.”

Nicole kept her face pointed squarely at her magazine, hoping Chatty Patty would take the hint.

“I’m Beth, by the way.”

“Nicole…”

“How long have you been with Doctor Sanders?”

Nicole flipped the page. “Not long.”

“Are you from Nashville?” Beth prodded.

“Just moved here.”

“Are you married?”

“No.”

“Any family here?”

“No.”

“I have an older brother and a younger sister. Got an uncle down in Baton Rouge. My folks retired in Pennsylvania. My husband’s family all lives in East Nashville. Born and raised. What kind of work do you do?”

“Food management.”

Beth pointed to the uniform. “Gotcha. The chemotherapy must be stunting my brain. I’m usually not this dense. I had a mastectomy last month.” She paused to sip her water. “You’re not much of a talker are you? I used to be that way. Before my diagnoses. I lost my stamina for exercise, but I find the energy to run my mouth. Cancer’s been in my family for generations. I knew my time would come. My husband has been supportive. He pretends it doesn’t bother him, but he doesn’t look at me the same. I found a good plastic surgeon. I can give you his name if you want. If you give me your phone number, I’ll text his information to you.”

Nicole closed the magazine in her lap, her nerves chaffed from the ninety-minute wait for a ten minute follow-up consultation. “No thanks.”

“If you change your mind, you’ll know where to find me. First I have to finish with the radiotherapy. If the cancer doesn’t kill me, my armpits might. Can’t wear deodorant because it interferes with the treatment. As if getting flambéed with radiation after having my breasts surgically removed wasn’t bad enough, Doctor Sanders makes me stink like a homeless person when I’m here. I guess it’s better than the alternative. My mother died from breast cancer. Her mother died from it too.”

Nicole crossed her legs and imagined she was sitting on the moon instead of waiting for an appointment that could change her life forever. As much as she tried to ignore her new dance partner, the woman got her point across. Breast cancer wasn’t the end of the world, but it was close. And not knowing her fate for certain, one way or the other, made it worse. She’d endured another gauntlet of tests, subjecting herself to more discomfort and doubt than any woman deserved. Now she needed to hear the final verdict. Good or bad, she would accept the outcome.

“If your mother had breast cancer, your chances of getting it increase significantly,” Beth continued unabated.

“My mother’s fine.”

“What about your grandmother?”

“She died years ago.”

“From cancer?”

Nicole bounced her leg on her knee and maintained a pinched expression. She dropped her magazine on the table the second she heard her name called out and hobbled on a numb leg toward the nurse who’d summoned her. Her butt tingled from sitting too long.

She found the doctor’s office as cold and inhospitable as she remembered it, with the familiar gun-metal desk and the big iMac with the white goose neck lamp beside it. When the nurse left, she took her phone out and started texting the one person she needed most.

“Hands are shaking,” she typed. She waited several agonizing seconds for a reply.

It will be ok.

“What if it’s bad news?”

Don’t go there yet.

“I think I’m going to throw up.”

Stay calm.

“Wish U were here.”

Me 2. TTYS.

Nicole slipped her phone in her pocket when Doctor Sanders arrived unannounced and logged into his computer. “Your final lab results are here. Let me just pull them up and take a look.” He concentrated on the screen. “Your initial diagnostics showed micro calcifications. I see we did a second biopsy from the lower region in your left breast to look for infiltrating ductal carcinoma.”

“No more tests,” said Nicole. “I can’t stomach anymore of this. I don’t eat. I don’t sleep. All I think about are lab results. I’m so sick and tired of being squeezed and poked like some kind of lab rat. Whatever the verdict, just tell me and get it over with. I can’t take this anymore.”

Doctor Sanders moved the mouse to scroll the screen and review the patient profile. He maintained the same stony expression he had when he entered the room, unflinching and void of any concern or emotional response.

“How bad is it?”

Doctor Sanders typed a note. “How are you feeling?”

“Like I’m going to throw up.”

“Well don’t. Everything looks good.”

“What does that mean? No cancer?”

“No cancer. Go home. Have a glass of wine. My receptionist can schedule your next annual screening.”

Nicole started crying. “Seriously?” She wanted to hug her doctor. Instead, she went out and sent another text message to her man in all caps. “I feel like I won the lottery!”

Music City Madness: Chapter 8

Melissa climbed the staircase in her Belle Meade estate and hollered, “You’re going to be late!”

She entered Jonathan’s room first, aghast at the sight of dirty laundry strewn about an entire floor space larger than her first apartment. Exotic car posters covered one wall. A Miami Heat poster decorated a closet door. “I want your room cleaned up when you get home today. Put your dirties in the basket and bring them to the laundry room for me.”

Jonathan pulled a shirt over his head. “What about Adam’s room?”

“Same goes for him.”

“Yolanda always does our laundry.”

“Not anymore.” Melissa advanced through the bathroom to Adam’s adjoining cave. “Let’s go!”

Adam took his iPhone from the dresser. A Fender guitar stood upright in its stand beside a Marshall amplifier. Criss Angel posters covered the walls. “Where’s Tomás?”

“He’s bringing the car around.”

Adam shoved his dirty laundry in a pile. “I haven’t eaten yet.”

“You should have thought about that twenty minutes ago.” Melissa picked up a shredded air soft target printed with a zombie holding a flask of green toxic goo. “You need to work on your room too. With both hands. And a shovel.”

“Today?”

“Yes. And make sure you brush your teeth.”

Adam opened his sock drawer with his back to his mom and said, “I know…”

“All of them.”

* * *

Jonathan raced his brother down the stairs, bumping and shoving his younger sibling along the winding banister.

“It’s not a race!” Adam shouted.

“Loser—”

“Boys! Knock it off!” Melissa yelled from the spacious eat-in kitchen downstairs. She wore her hair up with her skinny jeans and a silk top she’d purchased from a favorite boutique. She had a party to plan and a million things to do without having to referee her sons.

“Where’s breakfast?” asked Jonathan.

“The big closet with the food,” said Melissa.

“Where’s Yolanda?” asked Adam. He tucked in his shirt and cinched his belt another notch.

“Yolanda quit,” Melissa stated matter-of-factly. “She doesn’t work for us anymore.”

“Since when?” the boys asked in unison.

“Yesterday.”

“Who’s going to cook for us?” asked Adam.

Melissa emptied the dishwasher and stacked clean plates in the cabinet above the stove. “You two are able-bodied. It’s time you learned to do more on your own.”

Jonathan entered the butler pantry to search the well-stocked shelves for a box of Pop-Tarts or a chocolate chip granola bar.

“This sucks,” said Adam. “Why did Yolanda quit?”

“Because she caught you jacking off again,” Jonathan taunted his brother.

“Shut up—”

“You shut up.”

“Boys! Get your stuff together. Tomás is waiting in the car.”

Adam peeled the drapes back to inspect the circular driveway for the Bentley. “Which one?”

“Did you finish your homework?” Melissa prodded.

“We didn’t have any,” Jonathan replied when he emerged from the pantry. He tore open a granola bar and chewed hungrily.

“Did you bring your dirty laundry downstairs?”

“We will,” Jonathan mumbled between bites as he chewed.

“Did you feed the horses?”

Jonathan looked at his brother, who mirrored the same perplexed expression. “Tomás always does that.”

“Not anymore. You boys will need to start cleaning the stalls too.”

“We don’t know how,” said Adam, pouring himself a glass of milk from the side-by-side Sub-Zero refrigerator.

“Then you’ll learn.”

“No fair,” said Jonathan. He threw his granola wrapper on the counter and took a swig from the milk jug when his mom wasn’t looking.

“Don’t drink out of the jug,” Melissa implored.

Jonathan sheepishly wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “I wasn’t.”

“I also want the pool cleaned when you boys get home from school.”

“That’s not our job either,” Jonathan complained.

Melissa ventured toward her music studio. “It is now.”

* * *

Tomás drove a Lincoln Town Car around the driveway and waited. He snatched a folded copy of The Tennessean from the seat beside him and checked the sports section for the basketball scores.

Outside the car, thick clouds lingered with the threat of stormy weather. Then as if on cue, drops hit the windshield in a random stutter start before evolving to a steady rain. The sound reminded him of his parents and his childhood years growing up in Honduras before the El Salvadoran violence began. Now he enjoyed a good life in Belle Meade with the Hamilton family. A better life than he could have ever hoped for, though not without great sadness in recent times as he’d outlived his parents and buried his wife of forty years.

He trimmed the edge of his fingernail with a small pocket knife. When Jonathan and Adam climbed in back, he folded the blade and set the paper down to stretch his arm across the passenger seat. “Buenos días. Cómo estás?”

“Bien,” Jonathan replied.

“You bring your umbrellas?”

“Sí,” said Jonathan, sliding across the seat to make room for his brother, Adam, who quickly settled in beside him. He shoved his backpack on the floorboard in front of him. “Where’s the Bentley?”

Tomás waited for the boys to buckle their seatbelts. “It transformed.”

Jonathan looked at his brother and shrugged his shoulders.

“We have a new ride now.”

“But I liked the Bentley more,” said Adam.

Tomás followed the driveway to the end and waited for the iron gate to open. He looked at Adam in the rear view mirror and winked. “Me too.”

“Yolanda quit,” said Jonathan. “I had to serve myself.”

Tomás arched his eyebrows. “The injustice…”

“I’m serious. Mom said we have to clean the pool, too.”

“And feed the horses,” said Adam.

“Sometimes we learn the value of hard work by working hard.”

“And sometimes life just sucks,” Jonathan replied.

Tomás drove through the open gate. “Your life is what you make of it.” He merged with traffic and gunned the engine to pass a school bus before it slowed to deploy the mechanical stop sign.

Jonathan watched his home fade from view. “Are you leaving us too?”

“No Sir. I’m here for as long as your mother needs my help.”

“Can you cook?”

“Can LeBron James dunk a basketball?”

“Can we skip school today?”

“You trying to get me fired?”

“Never,” said Adam before his brother could reply. He leaned forward in his seat. “You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to our family.”

“Very kind of you young man, but you’re still going to school today.”

Music City Madness: Chapter 3

Melissa Hamilton left her keys inside her Mercedes coupe and tipped the country club valet with a folded five dollar bill from her Dolce & Gabbana clutch. Her mirrored glasses reflected the car’s glossy finish and the CASHVIL vanity plate. Dressed more for a red carpet stroll than a meeting with her talent agent, she wore her favorite pumps with her Donna Karan pants and sleeveless top to elevate her slender frame and her brown, shoulder-length hair with red highlights. Part Cherokee and part Irish, her facial symmetry and high cheek bones enhanced her almond-shaped eyes the color of burled walnut.

A morning workout with her personal trainer had segued to breakfast with friends, followed by shopping at Nordstrom’s for shoes and a quick mani-pedi before heading to the private country club. Confronted with a choice between a dental appointment or a meeting with her haughty agent—slash personal friend and business manager—she’d reluctantly chosen the latter and postponed the dentist to accommodate her busy social schedule.

Inside the club’s posh surroundings, she climbed the staircase to the casual dining area overlooking the clay tennis courts and scouted a familiar figure waving her toward a table for two. “Been here long?” she asked her agent.

Sidney Irving, Esquire wiped his mouth with a linen napkin and stood up from his chair to hug Melissa. He wore his thick silver hair combed back with a neatly trimmed goatee to match. “Since yesterday.”

“Shut up…”

Sid moved a chair for Melissa. A big orange “T” advertised his Tennessee Volunteers belt buckle at the front of his pleated wool slacks. “You want a drink?”

“It’s ten o’clock in the morning.”

Sid scooted Melissa’s chair forward, his pinstripe Polo neatly tucked inside his substantial girth. “You look chic.”

“I got my hair highlighted.”

“I thought you were traveling?” Sid asked.

Melissa unfolded a cloth napkin. “Change of plans.” She recognized a movie producer and the young tart captivated by his attention. “You look very, debonair.”

Sid patted his stomach. A gold Oyster Rolex rattled on his wrist inside his sleeve pinned with silver cufflinks. “I can’t complain.”

“I saw your name in the paper the other day.”

Sid lifted his drink. “Innocent until proven guilty.”

“We’re all guilty of something.” Melissa scanned the menu in front of her. “I had a late breakfast.”

“The eggs Benedict are divine.”

“I’m not hungry.”

Sid moved his hands when he talked. “You look like you’re starving. Every time I see you, you’ve lost another five pounds.”

“Hardly.”

“And you don’t have five pounds to spare.”

Melissa flagged a waitress and ordered a wet scotch and soda, neat. “You’re very sweet, but I didn’t drive all the way out here to flirt.”

Sid pushed his plate away with broken potato chips and a half eaten dill pickle on board. “Who’s flirting? I’ve been busier than a one-legged man in an ass-kickin’ contest. Ten percent’s getting hard to earn.”

“Spare me The Prince and the Pauper routine. If you don’t sign me to a new record label, I won’t have ten percent to give anymore.”

Sid nibbled on potato chip crumbs. “Swapping labels doesn’t happen overnight. You can’t change horses in mid race and expect to win the heat. It takes time to manage, promote, and network. It’s a relationship game. We have to build a broader fan base. Make new connections with the right people.”

“My fans are my business. Connections are yours. Speaking of which, did you reach out to everyone for Wednesday’s event?”

“I did, but honestly, I’m not sure I like the idea.”

Melissa accepted her drink from the waiter. “I haven’t played a concert in seven years. I want my career back. Not next week. Not tomorrow. I want it now. I’ve worked too hard and sacrificed too much to sit around and wait for the perfect opportunity to float along. You’re my business manager. Get out there and manage.”

Sid leaned back in his chair. “I’ll take another bourbon,” he said, raising his empty glass to the waiter. “And make it a double this time.” He stroked his goatee as if deep in thought. Melissa Hamilton always reminded him of his older sister: obstinate, impulsive, and not afraid to speak her mind.

Melissa sipped her scotch. “What is it you’re not telling me?”

“I’m not withholding anything you don’t already know.”

“I’ve been off the pills for months.”

“I wasn’t going there…”

Melissa clasped her hands together. “I heard you signed a new starlet.”

Sid relaxed his shoulders to soften his posture. “I can’t talk about other clients.”

“I’m not asking for her blood-type. I’m trying to weigh the competition.”

“Ariea signed her to a one-year deal.”

“Who’s writing for her?”

“She writes her own material.”

“Of course she does.”

Sid tapped his finger on his empty glass. “Forget about her. Let’s talk about you.”

“As long as the next words out of your mouth involve a new record deal.”

Sid cleared his throat and prepared for battle. “Do you trust me?”

“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t.”

“Then I’ll be straight with you, Melissa. Hip-hop music has become the David to our Goliath. Gangsta Rap, Dirty South, Old School, West Coast, Latin Rap, Underground, Hard Core… You name it. They’re stealing our market share.”

“Don’t compare me to 50 Cent.”

“You’re missing the point. The music business is about business. Like it or not, it adapts to meet the strongest demand. The baby boomers are out. Generation X has moved in. Half the country music singles we cut never make it to the airwaves. The ones that do, all sound the same.”

Melissa turned around to catch a tennis match on the courts below. She could see the iceberg looming, but she couldn’t steer out of its path. “You’re trying to tell me country music is dead?”

“I’m saying things change. The younger singers are more in touch with the new demographic. Labels are circling the wagons around the most successful artists—the ones with the biggest audience.”

“And you think I’ve lost my audience?”

“Sometimes we’re victims of our own success. Your audience has matured. People change. Their tastes evolve. You’ve been off the grid for seven years. You haven’t cut a new album since the accident.”

“Now you’re blaming me,” Melissa’s voice escalated. “I thought it was the hip hop moguls. Or my geriatric fans.”

“I’m your business manager. I see the facts for what they are. I don’t allow my emotions to obscure the truth. And the truth is, your music isn’t selling the way it used to. Your royalties are way down, and your merchandise sales flatlined years ago.”

“Don’t talk to me like an accountant, Sid.”

Sid claimed his refill from the waiter. “That’s part of what you pay me for.”

“What I pay you for is helping me negotiate a new contract. My last album went platinum. I was nominated for female artist of the year. I’ve played across the fifty states. I’ve toured Europe four times.”

“And you had a great run. I’m not discounting your previous success, but Nashville is all about sales volume. Stockholders control the labels. Labels want big money. They won’t record what they can’t sell.”

“Should I be worried?”

“You need to cut expenses. With a cleaver. Your mortgage is a drain, and after taxes, maintenance, staff salaries, horses, private school tuition, and—clothes—you’re spending more than your waning investments can earn.”

“I have plenty of money.”

“You won’t for long.”

Melissa rubbed her hands together. Goose bumps covered her arms. “This place is always freezing.”

“You need to think about your future. And your boys…”

“I am. They start public school tomorrow.”

“The school year’s almost over.”

“I’m trying, Sid. This isn’t easy for any of us.”

“You need to cut back more.”

“I have.”

Sid finished his double bourbon. “A lot more.”

“How much more?”

“Until it hurts.”

“I’m not selling the horses.”

“You can’t ride them anymore.”

“The boys can. And my back feels stronger every day.”

“Melissa…”

“Forget it, Sid. End of story.”

“Lose the Benz and the Bentley.”

“I look nice in those cars.”

“Then you’ll look nice on your way to the poor house.”

Melissa fidgeted with the silverware settings. “I’ll think about it.”

“Have you spoken to Tomás?”

“He’s nonnegotiable.”

“He can collect social security. Your boys will be old enough to drive themselves in a few years. Chauffer expenses are the last thing you need right now. Between the outrageous salary and benefits you extend him—”

“Tomás is family. He’s been a godsend to my boys. The only father figure they’ve had since their dad bailed on them.”

“You’re letting emotions cloud your judgment. As your agent and your business manager—as your friend—you need to make some hard course corrections. Soon.”

“Jesus, Sid. You sound like a bad country song. This is my life we’re talking about. And my sons’. I’ve worked too hard for too many years to get to where I am.”

Sid gave an empathetic nod. “And where you are is dragging you down a path you can no longer afford to go. Trust me.”

“I’m not throwing Tomás under the bus.”

“I’m not suggesting you desert him. I’m saying, get him off the payroll. He can remain in your life. Just not as an employee.”

“How would the boys get to school?”

“On a bus like everyone else.”

Melissa pushed her chair back. “We’re not like everyone else. My boys deserve better. I’m a country music superstar!”

Sid rocked his empty glass back and forth on the table. “Not anymore.”

Music City Madness: Chapter 1

“Melody and rhythm have a vibration that goes beyond ‘healing’ all the way to super-empowering, it really connects you to the central, limitless core force in the universe. Anyone can tap into this… it’s free, and all of human kind has used this power since the dawn of time.”

—Rory Block

Part I

A Better Teacher

April 26-30, 2010

Chapter 1

Thirteen-year-old Abigail Presley tapped her lilac, high top sneakers on the wet pavement outside an East Nashville rambler with a U-Haul trailer in the driveway. Her left arm hung awkwardly at her side in a long-sleeve top while she held an open golf umbrella in her right hand with her backpack slung over her right shoulder. She wore her strawberry hair in a ponytail with low-cut jeans that barely hugged her lanky hips. Mascara with black eye liner and a dark plum lipstick brought a measure of sophistication to her youthful appearance.

She collapsed the umbrella in light drizzle and stepped toward the brown two-door Stanza rolling up to the driveway. She shifted her backpack off her shoulder and opened the passenger door to hear the thumping bass from an Eminem track. “What took you so long?” she asked the driver, a petite platinum blonde in a white McDonald’s uniform with Nicole imprinted on a bronze name tag.

“I had to open this morning. Then I had to take an unscheduled break to come get you.”

Abby pulled the door shut with her floral print backpack on her lap and the wet umbrella wedged beside her seat. “I think the fast food gods will survive without you.”

Nicole adjusted the radio volume and drove away. “I can’t always leave work to come get you.”

“I can’t walk to school from here.”

“You could have taken the bus.”

Abby unzipped a side compartment on her backpack. “Not on my first day. My dad should have taken me.”

“He has an audition this morning.”

Abby gazed through her window with tranquil blue eyes the color of a Colorado sky. “I know,” she said assertively. She rubbed her hand on her damp pant leg.

Nicole shifted the Stanza into fourth with a noticeable clunk. “Are those my jeans?”

“Mine were dirty.”

“Where did you get the makeup?”

Abby twirled the end of her ponytail between her fingers. “I’m going to be late for school.”

“I don’t mind if you borrow my stuff, but your dad doesn’t want you to wear it.”

“My dad doesn’t get to choose my clothes anymore.”

Nicole checked her mirrors and changed lanes. In some ways, she saw her former self in Abby’s skin—young, naïve, and always mad about something. Cute boys were the center of her universe, and no one understood her problems. “I wasn’t talking about the clothes.”

“The makeup makes me look older.”

Nicole spied Abby reaching for a pack of cigarettes crammed inside a zippered compartment. “Don’t let your dad find those.”

“Find what?”

Nicole pointed to the red Marlboros.

“They aren’t mine.”

“You’re just holding them for a friend?”

“I’m thirteen. I’m not a kid anymore.”

“How’s your arm?”

Abby adjusted her position. “It’s fine.”

“I remember thirteen,” Nicole empathized. “Don’t be so quick to grow up.”

“You sound like my dad.”

“Your dad’s a great guy.”

“When he’s around.”

“He works hard for you.”

“He works hard for his music.”

“He loves you more.”

Abby curled her hand around the pack of cigarettes and stuffed them in her jeans. “Drop me off before we get there.”

“It’s raining.”

“I can hold the umbrella.”

Nicole slowed near the school zone. “Are you sure?”

Abby waited for the car to stop and got out. “I’m good,” she said, leaning left to shift the backpack on her right shoulder before she deployed her umbrella with the same arm.

“Your dad will pick you up,” Nicole offered as Abby kicked the door shut.

* * *

Abby plodded toward the school’s main entrance and shook her collapsed umbrella above a non-slip mat inside. She wiped the rain off her face with her forearm and observed the thinning herd of students scrambling to beat the final bell. A moment later, a towering, full-figured woman with a cinnamon complexion, braided hair, and a look to suggest she knew bullshit when she heard it, rolled up like a tank on enemy patrol.

“You must be Miss Presley,” the woman greeted Abby. “I’m Principal Hendrix. Glad you could make it this morning.”

“My ride was late.”

Principal Hendrix extended her left hand, which Abby grabbed awkwardly with her right as the final bell rang out.

“I’m new,” Abby stated flatly.

“Indeed.”

“My dad’s going to pick me up this afternoon.”

Principal Hendrix pointed to the clock on the wall. “Let’s get through this morning, first.”

“I don’t know where to go.”

“Follow me…”

Abby feigned a polite smile. She hated the new kid in school label—one she’d worn more times than she deserved. She trailed her new principal through a labyrinth of hallways with dented lockers and cinder-block walls painted dark brown to hide graffiti. A resource officer roamed outside the empty cafeteria decked with spirit banners. The school looked old. It smelled old, too, like the basement in the house she used to live in.

“You’ve been assigned to Mrs. Dotti’s homeroom,” Principal Hendrix instructed Abby outside a class full of seventh grade students. “She’ll have a copy of your schedule. She can show you to your locker and answer any questions you have. Your lunch rotation starts at 12:15. Good luck today. I suspect we’ll see more of each other soon.”

Abby took a hesitant step toward the hangman’s gallows, where rows of curious students stared in her direction. She kept a laser focus on the teacher at the front of the room with an open textbook in her hand. “Welcome,” she heard Mrs. Dotti greet her, followed by, “Take any open seat you like.

Abby loped along the perimeter toward a spot near the back of the class, her adrenaline pumping as she avoided eye contact with everyone in the room. She hated Nicole for making her late. She hated her dad for making her move again. She missed her school in Tulsa, and most of all, she missed her friends in her old neighborhood.

She set her backpack on the floor and leaned her dripping umbrella against the back wall. She shuffled between two desks, her sense of anonymity returning when the class faced forward again. But as she maneuvered to take her seat, she slipped on a patch of wet tile and fell sideways toward a student who pushed off to help break her fall, inadvertently dislodging Abby’s prosthetic forearm from the socket in her sleeve.

Chapter 2

Leland Presley weaved through morning traffic on Hillsboro Pike with his steel-toed boot gunning the accelerator in his ’85 RAM pickup before the light at Old Hickory Boulevard turned red. Worn windshield wipers stuttered back and forth as steady rain swept over the Nashville metropolitan area and continued toward the bluegrass pastures and wooded hills in Middle Tennessee.

He jabbed the buttons on the truck’s AM/FM cassette to catch the latest traffic update. Short on time and long on miles to a new club in East Nashville, he raced through yellow lights outside strip malls and modest residential properties built away from the sprawling horse ranches and long stretches of triple-rail fence that framed the picturesque landscape outside the city.

He veered sharply from the slower-moving lane near the I-440 overpass. His construction hat tumbled off the hard shell guitar case buckled against the seat beside him and rolled onto the passenger floorboard. He tapped one hand on the wheel and ran the other through his thick, brown hair with his long sideburns. Razor stubble paved his tan complexion, accentuating his emerald green eyes, vibrant and stirring like the Caspian Sea. A gold cross necklace rested against his well-defined chest.

He brushed his hand on his work jeans and unzipped the orange safety vest he wore over his red flannel button-down. Morning news reported another accident west of his location at Parthenon and Oman, where a two-car collision had brought morning commuters to a halt.

Stuck in the center lane between a packed school bus and a dump truck hauling fill dirt, he checked his blind spot and inched his front bumper behind a black Mercedes S500 coupe with tinted windows and a blinking left turn signal. The vanity license plate spelled CASHVIL.

He cut the wheel to go around the Mercedes driver yacking on her cell phone and leaned forward to gauge the distance between his truck and the S500’s bumper with the left turn signal still flashing. Too tight to make the turn, he cranked his window down and waved at the driver blocking his path. He bumped his horn to force the issue as precious minutes ticked away on the open audition he’d left his job site to attend.

He pressed the brake with his left foot and pushed his right on the gas, revving the engine to spin the rear wheels in place. When the distracted Mercedes driver finally inched toward the left lane, he lurched in front of her and caught a stiff middle finger in his rear view mirror.

He drove as fast as traffic allowed beyond The District and its ensemble of refurbished restaurants, galleries, and familiar honky-tonks along Broadway. He hung a left onto 2nd Avenue and drove toward the Woodland Street bridge. He snagged the first parking space he could find outside the new venue in the Five Points neighborhood. Then he unbuckled his jet black guitar case and grabbed his silver-sand Stetson from the makeshift hat rack mounted behind the truck’s bench seat.

He beat a path to the entrance and dipped his six-foot frame inside the refurbished honky-tonk to claim his spot in the cattle call line. He set his guitar case down and flicked the rain off his hat. He sized up the competition in front of him, aligned single file along a wall with autographed photos of Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Dwight Yoakam, Patsy Cline, and other superstars who’d played in relative obscurity before their careers went supernova.

He shuffled forward in line and spied the usual urban cowboys in button-down shirts and wing-tip Laredo’s with boot-cut jeans and tassel ties. He heard guitars out of tune and singers who couldn’t find the right notes if someone stapled them to their forehead. He heard the same tired lyrics to the same cover songs delivered without passion or connection to any person, real or imagined, in the live audience.

He watched the group of wannabe artists proceed one-by-one, lock-step toward the stage. And one-by-one, he saw defeated souls slouch away tuck-tailed and tarnished from the lukewarm response to their audition.

Undeterred, he rehearsed a new song in his head, where a few simple chords produced a melody to complement the lyrics he’d composed on a date with his daughter at a Taylor Swift concert.

When he landed his turn in the spotlight, he carried his guitar case on stage and acknowledged the impassive club owner who cracked peanut shells at the bar.

“Name?” the owner asked while he chewed.

Leland tipped his Stetson. “Leland Presley.”

“Nestley?”

Pres-ley,” Leland articulated slowly. He opened the guitar case with his sleeves rolled up, exposing a treble clef tattoo on his left inside forearm and a rustic wooden cross on his right.

“What are you singing?”

Leland removed his acoustic Gibson from the blue velvet lining. The scent of pattern-grade mahogany and Adirondack spruce brought the hand-made instrument to life. “I’m going to try something different this time.”

“How different?”

“A song I wrote for someone very special to me.”

“I’m touched, Mr. Presley. The stage is yours.”

Leland lifted the guitar strap over his head and caressed the vintage instrument against his body. He tweaked the steel E string with the nickel white tuner and strummed his pick above the single-ring rosette to produce a warm, balanced tone. Then he drew a steady breath and leaned toward the microphone to sing.

I can feel the music move you

On the country-western floor

A small town girl with big time dreams

Ain’t gonna settle anymore

But when you find your heart

All alone at night

Let me take your hand, and ask,

May I have this dance?

May I have this dance?

‘Cause you’re the one that I’ve been waitin’ for…

And I don’t think, I can hold out anymore

A daddy’s girl with angel eyes

And a smile to open doors

You want a man who wants to love you

For richer or for poorer…

But when you find your heart

All alone at night

Let me take your hand, and ask,

May I have this dance?

May I have this dance?

I can see the sunshine in your smile

When it comes to life and love I don’t keep score

And tonight I want you with me on the floor…

May I have this dance?

You’re the only one I’m waitin’ for

And I don’t think, I can wait here anymore…

May I have this dance?

Leland stepped away from the microphone. “It’s not my only song.”

“It is for now,” the owner replied.

“Are we good?”

“We’ll be in touch.”

Leland gently placed his guitar in the case and latched the lid. He stepped down from the stage and approached the club owner at the bar. “I hear that a lot. Tell me what you really think.”

The owner cracked another peanut shell and chewed. “This ain’t America’s Got Talent. I have a business to run.”

“And you’re not the Grand Ole Opry. I’ve heard one train wreck after another in here. I can out-sing any audition you’ve entertained today.”

“We’ll be in touch.”

“I really need this gig,” Leland persisted.

“So does everyone who comes through these doors,” the owner retorted. He wiped a pile of peanut shells onto the floor. “It takes a hell of a lot more than a pretty face to draw new business.”

Leland gripped his guitar case handle and adjusted his hat. “Yes Sir. But I bailed from my day job and drove thirty miles to get here. A job I might not have when I get back.”

“You from Nashville?”

“The buckle of the bible belt.”

The owner sipped his drink and chewed the ice. “You ever take voice lessons?”

“I’m self-taught.”

The owner gave Leland a business card with a handwritten phone number on the back. “If you want my advice, get yourself a better teacher.”

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.