Authors: Traci Hohenstein
achel got to the hotel bar early and sat at a table near the entrance. She ordered the house white wine and waited for Rick. She wondered what he wanted and, more importantly, what the hell he was doing in the Bahamas.
She remembered the first time she met Rick. She was just out of college and needed to buy a car. She walked into the local dealership in Miami and found a car…and a husband. She was looking in the window of a used SUV and someone behind her said, “This one has low miles and is a one-owner trade-in. Just got her yesterday.”
Rachel turned and saw a cute salesman smiling at her. He thumped the SUV’s roof.
She drove away with a new car and he walked away with her number. He waited a couple days before calling her under the pretense of checking in with her to see how the car was doing. They ended up making plans to meet for lunch the following day. After a six-month courtship, Rick asked her to marry him. The first night of their honeymoon, Rachel realized she was pregnant.
Rachel kept her job selling real estate while she was pregnant. When Mallory was born, Rachel hired a nanny. Rick had opened several new luxury dealerships with a new partner and was gone most of the time. Rachel tried to reduce her hours and spend more time with Mallory. She didn’t want her daughter raised by strangers.
The day Mallory disappeared the nanny had called in sick. Rachel was putting together a huge commercial deal and was up to her neck in negotiations. Rick was on his way out of town to open up a new dealership in Orlando. It was a beautiful day. She let Mallory play outside on the front lawn while she sat on the shaded porch and crunched numbers, trying to make the deal work. Rachel heard her phone ring inside. She called to Mallory, “Be right back, honey.” She was inside for only a minute—two minutes tops. But that was all it took. Mallory was gone when she went back outside.
Mallory’s disappearance took a toll on their marriage. Rick left. Rachel quit her job in real estate and put all her money in Florida Omni Search. Now she spent her days looking for Mallory—and all the other missing persons.
Rachel took a sip of the chilled wine and played nervously with the cocktail napkin, folding it into tiny squares and then shredding it to pieces. She checked her watch and realized Rick was late. She decided to wait five more minutes before leaving. It was unusual for Rick to be late. He was usually very punctual.
She’d last seen Rick two years ago, when they’d finally sold their last joint piece of real estate, a large residential lot in Pembroke Pines, which they’d bought as an investment when they were first married.
She remembered that day like it was yesterday. They were to meet at the title company and sign the closing papers. She got there early to avoid him. But just as she was signing the documents, Rick walked into the room. Rachel could tell that he’d started drinking again. His body looked swollen, not hard and lean like it had been before the divorce. His skin was pale and he had a faint sheen across his forehead. When he leaned in to give her a hug, his breath smelled so sour that she wanted to throw up.
The scene was awkward, and she just wanted to sign the papers and get out of there. Other than a couple of phone calls a year to update him on leads about Mallory, she never saw him or spoke to him. That was one perk of leading a busy life and traveling the country.
“Hello, Rachel.” A voice from behind her jarred her out of the unpleasant memory.
She looked up to see Rick standing at her table. He looked good. The beer belly, paleness, and sour breath had disappeared. He was tan and fit, wearing pressed khaki pants and a white polo shirt that hugged his biceps and chest. As he sat down, she could smell a mix of spearmint and clean aftershave.
“You look lovely.” Rick reached over and gave her a peck on the cheek. “Sorry I’m late.”
“Hi, Rick. Want something to drink?” Rachel asked as she waved over the cocktail waitress. He ordered a soft drink and waited for the waitress to leave.
“I’ve been following the story on the Knowles girl. How’s it going?”
“We’re following up on some leads,” Rachel answered.
“What about the friends who were on the trip with her? Someone had to have seen something. A girl just doesn’t disappear on a cruise without someone knowing something,” Rick said.
Rachel winced like he had hit a nerve. “Did you come all the way here just to talk about my case, or do you have something else in mind? Because I’m really busy,” Rachel said, sounding testier than she’d wanted to. She didn’t think she could deal with his small talk.
“I wanted to tell you something, and I thought it was better to speak with you in person,” Rick said, picking up his drink and taking a sip.
“Mallory?” Rachel asked. She held her breath, thinking about the picture she’d received.
“Oh, no. Is that what you thought?” Rick said. “No, not Mallory. I wanted to tell you that I got married. We’re here on our honeymoon.”
Rachel let out a long breath. Relieved and irritated at the same time. “I think I would’ve liked it better if you’d called.” She downed the rest of her wine.
“It was a coincidence that we’re here when all this happened with the governor’s daughter. I heard you were in town and thought I would tell you in person.”
Rachel looked around the restaurant. “Where’s your new wife?”
Rick smiled nervously. “She’s at the spa getting a massage. I didn’t want this to be awkward between us.”
“Well, congratulations, I guess.” Rachel thought back to the picture of Mallory in her hotel room. Should she share that with Rick? After all, he was Mallory’s father. No matter that he deserted Rachel after Mallory had been kidnapped. Since she didn’t have anything concrete to go on, she decided she’d keep the photo quiet until she learned more. No sense in getting his hopes up. She reached into her purse and threw a twenty-dollar bill on the table. “Thanks for letting me know. I need to get back to work.”
“Rach, wait.” Rick grabbed her arm. A look of pain quickly passed on his face. “I just wanted to let you know that I haven’t given up on her. I’m still hurting, too.”
She nodded, pulled back her arm, and strode out of the bar, not looking back.
on’t let the name Asylum Harbor fool you,” said Matt Danbury, Stacy Case’s informant. She had gotten him to agree to speak to Rachel and Drake about his employment with
and the experiences he’d had while working at Cabana Cay.
“Asylum Harbor has pink sand beaches,” Matt said. “The color of the water is so bright blue it hurts your eyes if you stare at it too long. Plumeria is everywhere. It’s very tropical and lush, and they work to keep it that way. Cabana Cay, on the south end of the island, is more like a resort. Passengers can use the lounge chairs and umbrellas on the beach and get something to drink from the tiki hut. And next to that is a small restaurant that cooks up jerk chicken, conch fritters, and Johnny cake—all the island favorites. People can rent cabanas if they want…you know…
”—here Matt waggled his eyebrows—or they can rent Jet Skis, kayaks, or paddleboats.”
Matt shook his head. “It looks nice and inviting, but looks can be deceiving.” He leaned back in his chair and took a sip of his soda.
Drake, Mike, Rachel, and Stacy were all crammed in the conference room with Matt. They were enthralled with his description of the legendary island.
Rachel studied Matt. He was tall and skinny, and his dark hair was sprinkled with bits of gray along the temple and around his ears. He talked with a lisp.
“Matt, can you give us some background on your employment with the cruise line?” Drake asked.
Matt looked nervous. “Stacy said this was all confidential, right?” He looked back and forth between Stacy and Drake.
Drake looked at Mike for confirmation. “We’ll try to keep your name out of the investigation. Can’t make any promises, though,” Mike answered.
“I hope so. These guys are not people you want to mess with,” Matt said.
“Go ahead,” Stacy prodded him. “Tell them what you told me when we first met.”
“I started with SeaScape a couple of years ago. I was first put on the
, which ran the West Caribbean route—Tampa to Cozumel and Grand Cayman—doing baggage handling. Like when passengers check in, we made sure their luggage was delivered to their cabins. It’s routine stuff, but I learned my way around, and I found out that all ships have secret passageways that go from one end of the ship to the other. We called it the ‘rat maze.’ Anyways, after a year on the
, I put in a request to work on the newer ship,
. They didn’t have any openings in baggage, so I opted for bartending. I had a part-time job at a nightclub in college, so I knew my way around a bar. So I was promoted and moved to the new ship.”
“This is where you worked when you met Josh?”
Matt nodded. “Josh was hired on about six months after I started. He was a VIP host at the clubs, and it was his job to know everyone. He’d order bottles of champagne and top-shelf liquors for the VIP guests. Make them comfy, be at their beck and call, and make sure everyone had a good time. Josh and I become good buds. We were roommates for a while. I also worked with three other bartenders, and we rotated shifts. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Prior to Josh coming aboard, I started noticing something unusual.”
“What was that?” Drake asked him.
“Diego, one of the other bartenders, always got friendly with some of the customers. Mostly the younger women.” Matt paused and caught Stacy’s eye.
She nodded for him to go on.
“One night, a girl came into the club by herself. Her name was Melodie. Melodie Sayers. Maybe you heard of her from the news. She disappeared from the
, and the crew said she fell overboard. I worked the night she disappeared. Diego had been talking and flirting with her all night. While I was restocking the bar, I saw him hand a white tablet to Thomas Reese, the other VIP host on duty that night. Thomas served Melodie her drink. I think that Thomas and Diego gave Melodie some type of drug—like a roofie, maybe—to have sex with her. And I bet it wasn’t the first time. Diego flirted with lots of female passengers.”
Matt had everyone’s attention around the table.
“Thomas left his shift early that night, and I saw him leave the club with Melodie. That was the last anyone saw of her.”
“According to the police report, Melodie was last seen walking by herself along the promenade deck,” Stacy interjected.
“Maybe that’s what the report said, but that’s not what happened. I know what I saw. Thomas and Melodie left the club together. Do you want to hear what I think happened?” Matt asked the group.
“Go ahead.” Drake motioned for him to continue.
“We all know the video cameras are installed only around public areas. I think Thomas told Melodie he’d meet up with her later so there wouldn’t be any footage of them together. Remember those secret passageways? The ship has a lot of storage areas, too. I think he went to her cabin and took her somewhere else on the ship. My first thought was that he drugged her and raped her, and she accidentally died. With the amount of alcohol she drank that night coupled with the drugs, she may have had a seizure or stopped breathing. I think Thomas panicked and called Diego. I was with Diego when he got a phone call. He didn’t say who it was from, but I could tell something was wrong. Diego asked me to cover for him, and I didn’t see him again until later that night. When I asked where he went, he told me that the less I knew, the better. The next thing I knew, the captain called for a search of the ship for a missing passenger, Melodie Sayers. It didn’t take much to put two and two together. So I originally thought she was dumped overboard.”
“But you changed your mind?” Stacy prompted him.
Matt shrugged. “Yeah.”
“Later that day, the supervisors and security staff questioned all the staff. I kept my mouth shut.” Matt looked sheepishly at Stacy. “I should have said something, but…not my business, you know? Plus, I was afraid I’d lose my job. Anyway, the next day we docked in Cabana Cay, and my boss asked me to stay behind and help restock the ship—something that Diego normally did. But for some reason he asked me to do this. It was my first time behind the scenes at Cabana Cay.”
“Cabana Cay looks like a gorgeous place,” Rachel commented.
“It is, but Asylum Harbor, the north side of the island, is downright spooky. As soon as we docked, most of the passengers went ashore. Thomas and I took a golf cart over the sandy trails that run through the back of the island. It is like a big maze. Trails shoot off to different sections of the island. When you get to Asylum Harbor, where most of the island employees live and work, there is an electronic gate. You have to have a remote to open up. I guess it’s to keep nosy passengers away.”
“How far is that from Cabana Cay? I mean, would passengers wander that far off?” Rachel asked.
“About a seven- to ten-minute drive on the cart. On foot, it would probably take twenty minutes or so. Security is pretty good at keeping the passengers in designated areas,” Matt answered. “Anyway, Thomas drove. He and Diego usually went together on these missions while I stayed behind and worked the bar, because some passengers like to stay on the ship. So the bar is always open. While we were on the golf cart, I asked Thomas what happened with Melodie.” Matt reached for another can of soda. He popped the top and took a long swallow.
“Thomas acted like it was no big deal. He said, ‘That bitch was drunk and she fell off the ship.’ I asked him what had happened, but he got pissed and told me to mind my own business. So then I asked him where we were going and what we were supposed to do. He said that I asked too many questions.”
“What did you do while you were at Asylum Harbor?” Drake asked. Rachel could sense he was getting a little impatient.
“Thomas said we were supposed to be stocking the ship with items that were running low. I found this to be a bit unusual because we always restocked before the ship left Freeport. When I questioned it, Andy said we’d run out of certain liquors and had to restock from supplies at Asylum Harbor. This was not true because I know what we had on hand. Diego and I do inventory, and I’d know if we were out of something.”
“Where did you go to restock?” Drake asked.
“We rode along this trail for about three miles before we came across a large plantation house. Thomas told me the house was used for visiting executives. Then we passed a row of bungalows—more staff accommodations, apparently—then a big warehouse. We pulled up to a side door, where a guy was waiting for us. We loaded a trailer with about twenty cardboard boxes. After that, we hitched it to the cart. The whole process took about fifteen minutes. I asked Thomas if the cart could pull a heavy load, and he just laughed. Said the golf cart was retrofitted for speed and towing capacity.”
“Did the guy waiting for you say anything to Thomas?”
Matt thought back. “No, not anything specific that I remember. I’m not even sure if he spoke English.”
“Then where did you go?” Mike got a lot more interested in the conversation.
“We took the same path back. As we passed the main plantation house, I saw something weird.”
“What was that?” Mike asked.
“Two people walking along a pathway that led from the house. It was just a quick glance in between the palm trees, but I saw a girl that looked a lot like Melodie Sayers. I told Thomas to stop and back up. I told him that I saw the girl who was missing, but he just laughed and said I was losing my mind.”
“What was she doing when you saw her?” Mike asked.
“Like I said, it was just a quick glance, but she was walking and the man was holding on to her elbow.” Matt stood up and motioned for Stacy to stand beside him. He grabbed her elbow. “Like this. He was kind of guiding her down the pathway. She looked a little unsteady on her feet.”
“What was she was wearing?”
Matt closed his eyes like he was remembering that day. “A pair of shorts and a T-shirt, I think. It all happened so quick.”
“What happened after that?” Mike prompted.
“We pulled up to the dock and loaded the boxes onto the tender. I suppose they were taken onto the ship. I went back to my cabin after that and slept until my next shift.”
“How long after that did you quit the cruise line?” Drake asked.
“When we got back to port the next day, I was told I was being moved back to baggage. No explanation about why. I had a really uneasy feeling since we left Asylum Harbor. I had a few days off before the next cruise, but I never went back. I didn’t want to work baggage again, and I just didn’t like the vibe. I think Johansen suspected something was wrong, too. When I told him what I’d seen, he said that I was better off not talking about it.”
“I met the other bartender, Johansen, when I took my cruise. He told me to talk to Matt and gave me his number,” Stacy explained.
“Where’s Johansen now?” Rachel asked.
Stacy and Matt looked at one another.
“Don’t know,” Matt said, shrugging his shoulders. “It’s like he fell off the face of the earth. After Stacy got in touch with me the first time about an interview, I tried to call him. His number was disconnected, and another friend from the ship said he’d just up and quit. No one knew how to reach him.”
Rachel looked to Stacy for confirmation. “Have you been able to find him?”
“No. We tracked him down to his apartment in Miami, but his roommate said he came home one day, packed up his stuff, and moved back to Mexico.”
“Is there enough evidence for us to look around Asylum Harbor?” Rachel asked Drake.
Drake rubbed his chin and looked at Mike. “No. We don’t know what to look for. It would just be a fishing expedition. We could never get a warrant.”
Rachel got up from her chair and looked Drake straight in the eye. “Can I speak to you outside?”
They exited the conference room. Drake leaned against the wall with his arms crossed.
“We have to get on that island. Amber could be there.”
“I agree that something strange is going on there, but let’s leave the drug investigation to the DEA. Our witness saw Amber forced into an SUV with Shawn. What makes you think she’s on Asylum Harbor?”
“Matt saw Melodie Sayers. It’s worth taking a look.”
“Matt thought he saw a girl that looked like Melodie. That’s not enough for us to storm the island and search for Amber. Now, Mike—he may have enough to go on with the DEA.”
“Were you not just with me at the governor’s house when he reamed us out? His daughter is missing, and while this might be a dead end, that’s a chance we can’t afford to lose.” Rachel threw her hands up in the air. “You wanted my help on this case. I’m telling you that Asylum Harbor is where we need to search next.”
“First of all, the governor requested you for this case. We didn’t.” Drake held his hand up when Rachel tried to interrupt. “Phipps and I have a meeting with the police department, and we’ll see what they have so far. While we’re at it, I’ll see about getting us on Asylum Harbor.” Drake walked back over to the conference room door. “But just remember, we have to do things by the book. I can’t go guns blazing onto the island without proper authority. We have to work together with the local police and DEA. I have to make the case in court.”
“I understand that, Drake. You have to do things by the book.” Rachel lowered her voice. “But I don’t, and time is ticking.”