Authors: Traci Hohenstein
tephanie sat up on the couch and turned on the TV. The warm electronic glow illuminated the dark room. She rooted around on the coffee table for her pills. Her head felt heavy, her thoughts fuzzy, and her mouth dry. She was hung over. She shook a yellow pill from the prescription bottle and swallowed it dry. She picked up the remote just as a breaking news story came on. The headline at the top of screen said,
Florida Governor John Knowles Press Conference
. Stephanie turned up the sound. The news anchor reported that they were waiting on the governor and his wife to issue a statement about their missing daughter. Stephanie stayed rooted to the spot. Beads of sweat popped on her forehead. Her hands shook as she lit a cigarette.
A few seconds later, Governor John Knowles and his wife, Sarah, appeared on the screen. Stephanie’s eyes stayed glued to the television as she watched the governor step up to the podium, while Sarah stood deferentially by his side. They pleaded for the safe return of Amber. Even though Sarah appeared composed, Stephanie could tell she was panicked inside. It was killing her to stand there, helpless and fearful, in front of the camera.
Serves her right
, Stephanie thought as she picked up the phone. Her hands shook so badly that she needed three tries to dial the number she knew by heart.
Stephanie remembered when her little girl was born. She’d named her Hope. She was so tiny, just a preemie, with tufts of blonde hair and dark-blue eyes.
“Hey, it’s me.” Her voice was still thick from smoking and drinking all night. “I need to go to the Bahamas. Can you get me a plane ticket?”
She held the phone away from her ear as the voice on the other end yelled at her.
“Listen here. You’ve got to help me. I think my daughter is missing.”
he conference room table was littered with files, paper, empty coffee cups, and takeout food boxes. Rachel pulled up a trash can and raked off some soda cans and napkins into it.
“Have a seat.” Rachel motioned to Stacy. “Agent Reynolds should be here soon.”
She watched Stacy glance around the room. A whiteboard with colored lines drawn on it—the timeline for Amber’s disappearance—stood next to another board with photos of Amber and a diagram of the
cruise ship layout.
“So this is the war room?” Stacy asked, taking in all the details. “Impressive.”
Rachel nodded. “The police and FBI are still interviewing crew and passengers over at the ship.”
The door swung open and Drake walked in. “I got here as fast as I could.” He looked over at Stacy. “This is the reporter you called me about?”
Rachel could see the distrust on his face. She wasn’t sure about bringing Stacy into the mix of things, either—but something just felt right about her. Rachel made the introductions.
“Rachel says that you have information on the case?” Drake got right down to business.
“You understand that everything we talk about is off the record?” Drake instructed.
“Let’s hear what you’ve got.”
Stacy recounted the story she’d told Rachel at lunch.
“Who are your sources?” Drake asked as he leaned against the wall and crossed his arms.
“Ex-employees of the
and some former passengers. Obviously, I can’t give you names, but I think you’ll find that they’re reliable.”
“Stacy took a cruise on the
twice—the same itinerary as Melodie and Amber. Seven-day cruise through the Bahamas. Stop at Cabana Cay, the private resort owned by SeaScape,” Rachel explained to Drake.
“When I looked into cruise ship disappearances, I found out that fourteen people have vanished from various cruise lines in the last two years. Of those fourteen, five went missing from SeaScape cruises. The
is owned by the SeaScape corporation. All five of the disappeared were young women. I went to my boss with the story and he suggested that I take a cruise and see what I could find out.”
“When was this?” Drake asked.
“My first cruise was six months ago. While on the cruise, I befriended a couple of the employees. One was a bartender who had worked on the
for two years. I told him that I was a travel writer and working on an article about cruise ships. I didn’t think people would be open with me if they knew I was investigating missing passengers,” Stacy said.
“You’re right. They wouldn’t,” Drake said.
“The bartender and I became friends, and we exchanged phone numbers. He’s from the Miami area, too, and we have a lot in common. I didn’t get much information from him at the time, but a few weeks ago, he called me. He told me that he’d quit the
and he had information that I might be interested in.” Stacy paused and tucked a piece of her blonde hair behind her ear.
“What kind of information?” Drake asked.
Stacy opened her file and pulled out a sheaf of papers that were stapled together. “I hit the mother lode. He wants to remain off the record for obvious reasons, but he claims that the
was smuggling drugs. He thinks that the Cabana Cay resort is a meeting place for transporting the drugs. While all the passengers are off the ship enjoying the island, some of the employees are loading or unloading cocaine and marijuana.” She tapped the stack of paper. “Here’s a copy of the transcript of the interview I did with him.”
They waited while Drake read the transcript. Then he looked at Rachel. “Cabana Cay. That’s where the ship is headed next.”
“That’s not all. The island has an interesting story. Care to hear?” Stacy asked.
“Sure,” Drake agreed.
“Cabana Cay is a tiny portion of land that is connected to a larger island called Asylum Harbor. Asylum Harbor is sixty nautical miles south of Freeport. It encompasses hundreds of acres. When the cruise line bought the island, they built the resort Cabana Cay on the southern side of the island. That’s where the cruise ships dock and let the passengers play for the day.”
“I suppose a naturally occurring deep water port would be valuable to them,” Drake said. “Makes good business sense.”
“I think so,” Stacy went on. “Asylum Harbor is a nautical term meaning to provide safe shelter from a storm. Legend has it that in the mid–sixteen hundreds the pirate ship
encountered a storm while sailing to the Bahamas, which was an international hub for pirates at the time. The
hit a coral reef and was smashed to pieces. The ship’s captain, Jack McCormac, and most of his crew made it ashore at Asylum Harbor.”
“Where they lived happily ever after?” Rachel asked.
“Not even. After several days of waiting to be rescued, Kinder Bonham, one of the pirates who survived the wreck, went crazy. He killed Captain Jack and most of the crew members in their sleep. The
was said to have been carrying millions in gold and jewels from a heist in Jamaica. They say Kinder buried some of the treasure that had washed ashore before another ship picked him up. He died from gangrene before he could get back to claim the treasure.”
“And supposedly modern-day ships are still dealing in contraband fortunes there,” Rachel said. “How did SeaScape come to own Asylum Harbor?”
“An eccentric billionaire, Bert Lindem, sold it to the company for a dollar to spite his grandchildren. Rumor has it that, as part of the sale, Lindem wouldn’t allow SeaScape to change the name of the island. Something about bad luck. Anyway, who wants to vacation at an island called Asylum Harbor?”
“Certainly not me,” Rachel agreed.
“So to get around the deal with Lindem, SeaScape renamed just that southern extension of the island Cabana Cay. The company built the resort there and uses that part of the island as a destination for its cruise ships in the Bahamas. They offer a day of water sports, diving, and snorkeling tours for the passengers. Disney Cruise Lines and other ships also have their own private islands for cruise destinations,” Stacy explained.
“You visited Cabana Cay on your cruise?” Drake asked.
“What did you find out?” Drake asked.
“When SeaScape bought the island, Asylum Harbor already had three small bungalows and a main residence. The cruise line spent over twenty million dollars in renovations, mostly on the other side, the Cabana Cay side. It now has a restaurant, bar, dive shop, gift shop, first-aid station, and private cabanas. The small bungalows are residences for the SeaScape employees who run the island. The Asylum Harbor area is off limits to the passengers and even most of the staff, and not many people have seen that part of the island. At least that’s what my bartender said.”
“Did you see the anything suspicious while you were there?” Drake asked.
Stacy shook her head. “I didn’t, but my source told me that, one time, his boss asked him to help out when they were short-staffed. While he was unloading liquor and other supplies, he overheard a conversation that freaked him out.”
“What was that?”
“One of the guys who lived on the island said that they were waiting for a shipment of cocaine to come in. This guy implied that the
was using the island as a cover to transport drugs into the States.”
o what do you think about Stacy’s story?” Rachel asked Drake. The reporter had gone back to her hotel to work on her story of Amber’s disappearance.
“She gave us more information in two hours than we’ve gotten since we’ve been here,” Drake said.
“That story about the drug smuggling is huge, but we still don’t know what happened to Amber. Do you think the
could be engaging in human trafficking as well as drug trading?” Rachel asked.
“At this point, I think anything is possible. The next thing you know, somebody will call and tell me the sky is falling.”
As if on cue, Drake’s cell phone rang. He listened for a minute and then clicked off.
“We got a report back on Josh McCain.” Drake leaned back into his chair.
Rachel waited expectantly.
“Josh McCain is a fictitious name. His real name is Shawn Gibson, and he’s a DEA agent. He was working undercover aboard the
,” Drake said.
“Wow. I guess that’s why he was red-flagged in your system.”
“Yep. According to the DEA, Shawn, aka Josh, had been with the
for about six months and was working on busting a drug ring.”
“Stacy’s informant was right, then.
is working the drug trade.” Rachel chewed her thumbnail while thinking that over. “Does the DEA know where Josh…er…Shawn is now?”
“No. Mike Mancini is Shawn’s commanding officer. I’ve known Mike for several years—we worked on a big case when I first started out with the FBI,” Drake said. “We busted a biker gang in South Florida that was dealing meth and coke as well as running a prostitution ring. Mike had been undercover with the gang for two years. He’s cool, but he’ll want to protect his case and his agent. He’s heading down to the Bahamas now and should be here by tomorrow morning.”
“We find Shawn, we find Amber, is that what you’re thinking?”
Drake paced the room. “Quite possibly. He had evidence that the
was being used for drug smuggling. Mostly cocaine and marijuana. This DEA undercover operation has been in the works for over two years and involves multiple cruise ships. Now that we know, we’ll have to tread lightly so we don’t botch up their investigation.”
“Amber was with Shawn when she disappeared. So maybe she did see something she wasn’t supposed to,” Rachel said. “Wait a minute. The ring!”
Drake stopped pacing and turned to look at her. “What?”
“The ring we found. The initials were SMG. That could have been Shawn Gibson’s ring.”
Drake was already picking up the phone. “I’m calling the lab to see if they got anywhere with that symbol. We’ll ask Mike Mancini, too. Let’s see what information he can give us about Josh…er…Shawn.”
he diner had a 1950s decor, with red vinyl booths, Formica tabletops, and black-and-white checkered floors. The requisite jukebox sat in the corner, from which Elvis crooned something about blue suede shoes. This was something that you’d see in the States, thought Rachel, not the Bahamas.
Rachel and Drake ordered coffee while they waited for Mike Mancini to show up.
“You sure you don’t want to try the island burger or a slice of coconut pie?” the waitress offered.
“You twisted my arm. I’ll try the pie,” Drake answered.
“Same here,” Rachel agreed. “Sounds delicious.”
They were working on their third cup of coffee, the coconut pie long gone, before Mike strolled in.
Rachel watched as Mike took off his leather jacket before sliding into the booth next to her. His muscles bulged under his white T-shirt and his arms were heavily tattooed. A scar ran across the left side of his eyebrow. He didn’t look like a drug enforcement agent, she thought. More like the biker persona he used to be when he worked undercover. Mike exuded a toughness that Rachel found sexy.
Drake introduced the two.
“I used to work undercover,” Mike said, as though he were reading Rachel’s mind. “Biker gangs and drugs. It’s nice to be on the other side now.”
For once, Rachel found herself speechless. She didn’t believe in love at first sight, more like instant attraction. And there was something about Mike she found very appealing.
“Heard you’re interested in Shawn?” Mike asked.
“We think Shawn is one of the last people to have seen Amber. We have him on surveillance tape walking with her outside the ship’s nightclub. Later, a cabin steward saw them walking down the corridor toward her room. We obviously need to locate him,” Drake said.
Mike turned his coffee cup over and leaned back in the booth. “I’d like to talk to him, too. He hasn’t been in touch with us in over two weeks.”
“Can you tell us what he was involved in?” Drake asked.
Mike waited until the waitress had refilled their coffee cups before he spoke.
“We’d been trying to infiltrate cruise ships for some time—specifically the SeaScape Cruise Line. We think that the
is running cocaine and marijuana between ports. We got Shawn in place about six months ago. The last time we spoke, he confirmed that a big shipment was going down this week and that he had information about other things going on.” Mike blew into his cup before taking a sip of coffee.
“Like what?” Drake asked.
“Shawn said he had information about passenger disappearances. Specifically, Mary Ellen Caughlin.”
“I remember hearing about that,” Rachel said, her eyes still on Mike. “A newlywed on her honeymoon cruise fell overboard. They found blood on the balcony and her husband passed out in one of the hallways. The cruise line said she was drunk and fell overboard.”
“Yes, that was on the
. Also owned by the SeaScape conglomerate. Then another girl in her early twenties was on a family vacation and she was reported missing. Her family claimed she was depressed and possibly committed suicide,” Mike said.
Drake and Rachel exchanged looks. This was fitting in with what Stacy had told them about suspicious disappearances.
“Was the cruise line somehow involved in those disappearances?” Drake asked.
“That’s what Shawn thinks,” Mike said. He drained the last of his coffee and pushed the cup away. “He also said one of the bartenders was dealing drugs to other crew members and passengers. We were supposed to meet up after the ship got back to Miami.”
“How do you think that fits into Amber’s disappearance? Not to mention what happened to Shawn?” Rachel asked.
“I wish to hell I knew the answer to that. Shawn must have run into some kind of trouble. He would have found a way to check in with us by now,” Mike replied. “He’s one of our best agents. He wouldn’t have put Amber or any other passenger in harm’s way if he could help it.”
Drake looked down at his ringing phone. “Excuse me,” he said as he got up from the table, “I need to take this.”
Rachel pushed her hair back out of her face. “It’s been a long day.”
“Yes, it has.” Mike turned to look at her. They were sitting so close she could smell the fresh, clean scent of his cologne. She wished she had dressed a little nicer than the faded jeans, flip-flops, and white linen shirt she had on. “I’ve heard a lot about you and the wonderful things you are doing with Florida Omni Search.”
Rachel laughed nervously. “All good things, I hope.” She hated feeling like she had a schoolgirl crush.
“Drake speaks very highly of you. He told me last night when we spoke about the work you did on the missing Alabama businessman. And of course I heard all about the Boy Scout you rescued from the Everglades.” Mike smiled at her. “I saw you on
The Today Show
“What can I say? I found my passion. After years of selling cars and houses, I was burnt out.”
Mike nodded his head. “I’m sorry about your daughter. I know that must be hard.”
Rachel nodded. “After Mallory went missing, I couldn’t work, didn’t want to go out, and didn’t want to live anymore. I spent all my nights cruising the streets, thinking I could find her. Spent my days in bed trying to sleep away the pain. It’s better now, but you never forget. Do you have kids?”
“Yep. A ten-year-old daughter named Addison. I’d go crazy if I lost her.”
“That’s why I founded Florida Omni Search. I’d been so miserable. Then one day I was watching the news and saw that another boy in Miami had disappeared. Then a week later, a toddler from Orlando disappears. It was like one after another. All these kids were just disappearing without a trace. No one knowing what happened. Something in me just snapped. Here I was with all this money socked away in the bank and I knew that I had to find some way to help. I reached out to Janine, the missing boy’s mom from Miami, and we joined forces to find these missing kids.”
“You’re doing a great thing,” Mike said, reaching out and patting her shoulder. When he touched her, it felt like a current of electricity passed through her body.
Drake walked back into the diner and threw a twenty-dollar bill on the table.
“We gotta roll. A lifeboat was found in Freeport. The police traced the registration number back to SeaScape Enterprises,” Drake said.
Mike got up from the table. “Mind if I tag along?”