Authors: Traci Hohenstein
uan Perez woke up with the worst hangover he’d had in years. The only thing that made it worthwhile was the fat roll of money in his pocket.
He rolled over and looked at the clock. It was almost noon. He couldn’t believe his wife had let him sleep in so late. They must have already docked in Freeport because he couldn’t feel the motion of the ship or hear the engines anymore.
Juan sat up in bed and took a drink from the water bottle sitting on his nightstand. Last night had been the best night ever. He’d won over three thousand at the craps table. Winning that much money had given him the biggest high he’d ever had. He’d turned his original hundred dollars into three grand and he didn’t want to stop.
So he’d moved on to the blackjack table, but his luck hadn’t held. Two hours went by like a blur until he was down to his last twenty bucks. How had that happened? He was headed toward the casino bar to drown his sorrows with his last twenty when the slot machine, lit up with flashing red, white, and blue lights, seemed to shout at him. He’d thought, what the hell, and put his last twenty in the slot.
As he pulled the handle, a beautiful cocktail waitress walked by. She wore a black miniskirt, and her breasts spilled out from the top of her tight, white V-neck sweater.
“Hey, you won!” She excitedly pointed to the machine behind him.
He shifted his eyes away from her ample breasts and turned around slowly. Solid bars of red, white, and blue lined up perfectly as the machine’s light on top flashed brilliantly and a siren went off.
“Looks like you won five grand. Good job.” The waitress gave him a big smile as she walked off, swaying her hips.
The pit boss came by and escorted him to the cashier’s office. The manager collected his tax information and doled out his winnings.
Juan had proceeded to the bar, his pockets fat with dough, and bought a round for everyone. Several drinks later he’d realized it was almost four in the morning. His wife, Danella, would be pissed. He’d promised her that he would spend only a couple hours at the casino before turning in. That had been around midnight.
He’d quickly made his way to the cabin. His luck had stayed with him. Danella was sleeping soundly when he quietly let himself in. He’d slipped out to the balcony to get a breath of fresh air before going to bed. He’d leaned against the railing and saw the ship heading to the Bahamas coastline. Just as he was heading back in to snuggle with Danella, he’d thought he heard a small splash. He’d leaned over the balcony and saw a life raft floating away from the ship. Juan remembered rubbing his eyes, thinking he was seeing things. The next instant, the raft was gone.
He must have had too much drink, he’d thought as he went inside. He’d slipped silently into bed and wrapped his arm around Danella. Within seconds, the life raft was forgotten and he was sound asleep.
Now, it was noon, Danella was gone, and he wondered again if he had hallucinated the lifeboat floating away from the cruise ship. He reached over and grabbed his pants off the chair. He felt around in the pockets, but the money was gone. Had he imagined winning the money, too? No. Here was a receipt for five thousand dollars from the cashier’s office.
So that solved that. Danella must have found the money while he was passed out and gone ashore to shop. Juan laughed out loud. That was his penance for staying out past his bedtime. His wife would spend every dime.
Juan got up and searched for some clean clothes. He hadn’t dreamed the money. And maybe the lifeboat hadn’t been a dream, either.
achel sat in a vanity room makeup chair, trying to enjoy being pampered. This wasn’t her first time in front of a camera, but butterflies still fluttered in her stomach every time she thought about millions of people watching her on TV. In just a few minutes she’d be on the set of
The Today Show
to do an interview with Ann Curry. Rachel’s company, Florida Omni Search, had found a missing Boy Scout in the Florida Everglades last weekend. It was a national news story, and she was thrilled to be a part of a successful recovery.
After what felt like an hour under the unnecessarily intense care of the hair and makeup crew, Rachel looked into the mirror. Her normally long and unruly auburn hair was now silky and shiny. She thought she looked younger than her thirty-five years and was amazed at the magic the makeup artists could do.
Kristy, one of the production assistants, came to escort her to the set. She looked like a former fashion model, tall and lean with faded jeans, a white peasant blouse, and brown suede high heels.
“You look great,” Kristy said as they turned the corner into the studio.
“Thanks. I’m a little nervous.”
“Don’t be. You’ll do fine. Just remember to take a deep breath and smile.”
The Today Show
studio was a lot smaller than it looked on TV. There was a news desk on one side of the small stage and a seating area on the other side. Booms, wiring, curtains, and unused props took up the rest of the space. Directly in front of her the crew was putting together the kitchen for the cooking segment that always aired last.
Ann Curry walked onto the set and introduced herself. She explained how the interview would begin and which cameras Rachel should look into and when. Rachel fought off the butterflies and tried to remember Ann’s flurry of instructions. The lights dimmed and Kristy made the countdown to going live. The production assistant’s bony finger pointed at them with conviction.
“Good morning, we’re back with a special guest,” Ann Curry said, smiling into the camera. “Rachel Scott from Florida Omni Search is with us today. Rachel played an instrumental role in locating a missing Boy Scout, Casey Daniels, last week. Rachel, tell us a little about how you got involved with search and rescue.”
Rachel took a deep breath and smiled into the camera. “I co-founded the organization after my daughter, Mallory, disappeared several years ago.” She paused for a second. This was always the hardest part. Mallory had been only three years old when she’d vanished, and even though it had been five years ago, Rachel still felt a lump in her throat every time she thought about her precious little girl. “I became frustrated with the lack of progress from local law enforcement. Hundreds of people are reported missing every day, and there aren’t enough officers to help with those cases.”
“Your first case was a missing boy in your area.”
“Well, unofficial case. I was watching the evening news and saw that a toddler had been abducted from my neighborhood. I contacted his mother, Janine, and offered my support. We not only were able to track down her ex-husband, who had kidnapped her son, but we became fast friends. Janine Jensen and I founded Florida Omni Search.”
“What does Florida Omni Search do for families of missing loved ones?” Ann inquired.
“We’re a nonprofit private search firm that has over twelve hundred volunteers from all professions, including people who are trained in forensics. We have more resources and equipment than most law enforcement agencies. That’s why they routinely call us when there is a difficult missing person case.”
“Last Saturday you received a request from the Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office to help locate Casey Daniels.” Ann recounted the story. “How did you go about finding him?”
“The troop leader knew Casey’s last location, so that helped us narrow our search grid. We found Casey fourteen hours later, about seven miles from their campsite.”
“The Florida Everglades is a very unforgiving place—the dangerous elements, heat, snakes, alligators. It’s amazing that you were able to locate him so quickly.”
“The Everglades are definitely unforgiving. The day we searched, the heat index was over a hundred and five degrees. If you go off the beaten path, like Casey had, it’s easy to get lost because everything looks the same. Not to mention, the saw grass can slice through your skin.”
“What was his condition when you found him?”
“He was dehydrated and scratched up, but otherwise in good shape. I credit his troop leader, who did a great job teaching the boys survival skills and first aid. It was a successful recovery and a happy ending.”
“That’s great to hear. We’re all grateful for what you and everyone at Florida Omni Search do for missing persons and their families. Thank you for sharing your story with us.”
“Thanks for having me,” Rachel replied.
Ann looked into the camera. “When we come back, we’ll talk to Casey and his mom from the hospital in Palm Beach County.”
The show had provided a private car to take her back to the hotel, so Rachel graciously thanked the cast and crew and headed back, listening to messages on the way. One was from Drake Reynolds, an FBI special agent, whom she’d worked with on a couple of child abduction cases. Drake headed the CARD (Child Abduction Rapid Deployment) team from Washington. She quickly returned his call.
“We had a case come up that I hope you can help with,” Drake told her. “A girl was reported missing last night in the Bahamas.”
“What happened?” Rachel asked.
“She was on a cruise, and the crew officials think she may have fallen overboard.”
The town car had pulled up to the hotel and she handed the driver a generous tip. She walked into the hotel’s grand lobby and sat down on a sofa.
“That’s awful. Is the Coast Guard searching now?”
“They’ve had a cutter and a seaplane out since early this morning, but they haven’t found anything yet.”
Rachel tried to think if she could rearrange her schedule. “I was just headed to Tampa for the week. I haven’t seen my parents in a while. But I can send our Miami crew down there to help with the search. You know Red Cooper will do a super job.”
“We really need you, Rachel. As a matter of fact, you’ve been personally requested.” Drake paused. “The missing girl is Amber Knowles.”
The name resonated in Rachel’s brain.
. “The name sounds familiar…” she started to say.
“Yes, it should. She’s the daughter of John Knowles.” Drake cleared his throat. “The governor of Florida.”
s Rachel walked across the rain-soaked tarmac, the wind picked up and made a mess of her long hair. She had gotten to Jersey’s Teterboro airport in record time. The governor had arranged for his private jet to take her to the Bahamas, which was nice and saved a lot of time. A flight attendant greeted her and took her bag. The luxurious jet had six supple leather seats, a small kitchen, and conference area. Rachel immediately spotted Drake near the back of the plane and settled in next to him.
“Good to see you again,” Drake greeted her. “Thanks for coming. You remember Lee Phipps?”
Rachel nodded her head. Lee Phipps was well dressed in a dark-blue suit with a pinstriped shirt and tie. His black wingtip shoes were shined to a high gloss and his salt-and-pepper hair was slicked back with gel.
He looks like he belongs on Wall Street instead of the FBI
, she thought.
She remembered that everyone called him by his last name. “Hey, Phipps. Didn’t take you guys long to get here.”
“We were at a training exercise at Quantico when we got the call. Flew straight here to pick you up.”
“Bring me up to speed with what’s going on.” Rachel opened her purse and plucked out a ponytail holder to put her hair up with.
Phipps leaned forward and pulled out a piece of paper from a manila file. “Here’s what we got so far: Amber Knowles, seventeen years old, was on a cruise to the Bahamas with two friends when she disappeared yesterday sometime between midnight and two a.m. She was last seen around midnight when she told her friends that she wasn’t feeling well and returned to her cabin with a ship’s steward. When her friends went to check on her a couple hours later, the cabin was empty. They alerted the crew. The captain ordered a search of the ship. Nothing. He alerted the Coast Guard and the Bahamian authorities. One of the chaperones informed Governor Knowles, and he called us.”
Phipps looked grimly at the piece of paper.
“What about the Bahamas police? Are they investigating?” Rachel asked.
Phipps said, “Governor Knowles doesn’t trust the local law enforcement agencies to find Amber. He’s only too aware of what happened with the Natalee Holloway case. He doesn’t want any mistakes. But the actual investigation does fall under the Royal Bahamas Police Force since the cruise ship was in their jurisdiction.”
“Since Amber is an American citizen traveling abroad, the FBI can investigate as well,” Drake interjected.
“What’s happening now?” Rachel asked.
“The Coast Guard has been searching since four o’clock this morning, but they haven’t found anything,” Drake said. “Once we land in the Bahamas, we’ll go straight to the cruise ship and interview passengers and crew members who have come in contact with Amber during the cruise.”
“We believe that Amber was last seen with a crew member,” Phipps said. “Josh McCain. He was apparently escorting her from an onboard nightclub to her cabin. She’d gotten ill while partying with her friends. That much we got from the phone call from the governor. We’ll know more once we get there.”
“Any thoughts on Amber’s state of mind? You mentioned she was feeling ill.” Rachel directed her question to Drake.
“We have confirmation that she was drinking alcohol. I don’t know about any medications that she may have taken,” Drake answered.
“After my initial conversation with the governor, I think we can rule out suicide. Her friends and family insist she’s a very happy-go-lucky girl,” Phipps added.
“Any ransom demands?” Rachel asked.
Drake shook his head. “The family hasn’t received any.”
“Do you have anything on Josh?”
“We’re working on it. As soon as we heard Amber was missing, an agent from our Miami office flew straight to the Bahamas. We’ll be meeting with her as soon as we land,” Drake said.
“We have no leads, but it’s early yet.” Phipps leaned back and put on his seatbelt as the flight attendant alerted them it was time for takeoff.
A feeling of dread settled over Rachel. She knew firsthand what it was like to have a child disappear. She’d lived that nightmare when Mallory vanished into thin air. It was the unknown that still caused constant pain. What had happened to her daughter? Was she still alive? Was she being treated well? Rachel put those thoughts aside and concentrated on what Drake was saying.
“We heard about your interview on
The Today Show
. Congratulations on a successful rescue.” Drake leaned back in his seat and linked his fingers behind his head.
“Thank you. I practically came straight here after the boy was found.” Rachel yawned as she said it.
“Why don’t you try to get some rest? We’ll be in the Bahamas in about four hours, and I want to hit the ground running when we get there,” Drake told her.
Sleep sounded good to her. She’d been up since 3:00 a.m. getting ready for
The Today Show
interview. The flight attendant brought her a pillow and blanket. She didn’t think she’d be able to fall asleep, but the constant hum of the engines made her drowsy, and eventually, she drifted off.
The sun is shining so brightly it makes my eyes hurt. I sit on the porch watching Mallory playing with her dolls. Everyone always said she looked like the Little Mermaid with her long, red, wavy hair and bigger-than-life green eyes. I hear the distant ringing of the telephone.
“Mallory, Mommy will be right back.” I run into the house thinking Rick is calling me on his way to the airport. He probably forgot something, as usual. As soon as I get to the phone, it stops ringing. I look at the caller ID. Rick Scott Imports. Just like I thought.
I hit the speed-dial button and look out the window. There’s an indent in the grass where Mallory was sitting.
As I drop the phone and run out to the yard, I can hear Rick’s voice in my ear saying, “Hello, hello. Rachel?”
A chill runs down my spine.
“Mallory!” I run around the front yard looking for her. Screaming her name over and over. I can’t see her. I can’t find my baby. “Mallory!” I yell over and over.
She is gone. My baby is gone.
“Rachel, are you okay?” Drake asked as he touched her on the shoulder.
She woke with a start. Wiping the damp sweat from her forehead, Rachel took a deep breath and smiled at Drake. “Sorry, I guess I had a bad dream.” It had been a while since she’d dreamt of Mallory. When her daughter had first gone missing, the dream was a nightly occurrence. Over the last couple of years she’d had that particular nightmare only once every couple of months. Rachel smacked her lips. She was parched.
“I’ll get the flight attendant to bring you some water. We should be landing in the Bahamas in about half an hour.” Drake walked to the front of the plane where Phipps was talking on his cell phone.
Once Rachel heard that Amber Knowles was missing, she had to help. She knew the pain of losing a daughter and wondering if she was okay.
The morning that Mallory vanished, Rachel’s life as she’d known it came crashing down around her. Rachel had been a successful businesswoman. She’d had her own real estate company and held financial interests in several small businesses around Miami. Her husband, Rick, was successful in his own right. He owned a slew of luxury car dealerships around South Florida and was expanding into the Orlando area. They’d been part of Miami’s social elite. Rachel had thought she had everything—a dream mansion, a high-profile career, a gorgeous husband, and a beautiful little girl.
Until she lost Mallory.
After her daughter disappeared, Rachel spent all her time tracking down leads and working with law enforcement to find her daughter. Her business suffered, her friendships suffered, and her marriage suffered. Eventually, Rick filed for divorce.
Rachel sold her business and all the real estate she had accumulated. With the proceeds and the settlement she got from Rick, she amassed a small fortune. She invested most of that money in her new venture, Florida Omni Search. She put together a search-and-rescue team that rivaled that of any top law enforcement agency in the nation. With qualified forensic specialists came top-of-the-line equipment and technology. After Rachel solved a couple of high-profile missing persons cases, she captured the attention of the FBI and other agencies. It was no wonder that the governor requested her assistance with his daughter’s disappearance. Rachel was the best of the best.
She raised the shade on the jet’s small window and saw emerald waters dotted with a tiny sprinkling of islands. It had been a couple of years since Rachel had been to the Bahamas. Her last trip was just a quick weekend with girlfriends. They’d forced her to come because all she ever did was work, and Janine said they needed a break. It didn’t take an expensive therapist to tell Rachel what she already knew: Keeping busy and focused on finding missing people helped hide the pain of missing Mallory.
Drake came back with a cold bottle of water and handed it to her. Rachel took a long drink and instantly felt better.
“Thanks again for coming. I know how busy you’ve been lately,” Drake said.
“Busy is good for me. Although my parents were disappointed that my vacation plans with them were postponed. Dad thinks I work too hard. But what’s new?”
“Well, let’s hope that we find Amber safe and sound and we can wrap this up fast. Then you can take that vacation.”
Rachel looked at Drake. She’d always kidded him that he looked more like a college professor whom cute girls worshipped than an FBI agent whom criminals feared. He was very handsome with his six-foot-tall frame, wavy brown hair, and inquisitive hazel eyes framed with wire spectacles.
“Yes, let’s hope.”
The plane shuddered as the landing gear went down. She turned her attention back to the window. As they descended, she could see mammoth cruise ships docked along the port and wondered from which one Amber had disappeared from.
Drake’s cell phone rang, and he picked up. “Agent Reynolds.” He listened for a few moments, then said, “We’ll head straight there.”
Rachel and Phipps both sensed something was up and looked at him expectantly.
“That was the Coast Guard,” Drake said. “They found a body.”