Authors: Traci Hohenstein
he smell wakes her up. A smell of bitter coffee and cleaning solution. Something strong, like ammonia or bleach. She opens her eyes and takes a slow look around. She’s in a small room with a single dresser and a nightstand beside her bed. The blinds are closed, but a bit of sunlight peeks through.
Is it day or evening?
She isn’t sure. She feels pressure on her arm and looks down to see an IV line plugged directly into her vein.
She tries to remember where she is or how she got here. Did she have an accident, and is she in the hospital?
If so, then where is everyone?
Thinking about it makes her head hurt.
She tries to sit up, but her head is too heavy to lift off the pillow. She looks around for a button to push but can’t find one.
“Hey. Someone help me.” She tries to speak, but it comes out as a whisper. Her mouth is so dry. She needs some water.
Where am I?
She tries desperately to remember what happened. If only her head didn’t hurt so badly.
Then she starts to remember.
The cruise ship. She was on a trip with her friends. Key West. Shopping. Drinking margaritas. Getting back on the boat. Going to dinner and then dancing at the nightclub.
Maybe I have alcohol poisoning or passed out and hurt myself. God, my parents will be so pissed.
If only she could get something cold to drink and something for her head. It hurts so much to think.
Her mind flutters with more images.
Josh. The cute guy that worked at the club. He walked her back to her room. She hadn’t felt well. What else? She has a feeling something is eluding her.
She tries again to call for help, but her throat is so hoarse. Looking under the sheets, she sees that someone has put a long white T-shirt on her.
The door creaks open. She slowly turns her head toward the door.
“Ah, I see you’re awake. How are you feeling?” A woman with a thick accent walks with purpose into the room. She wears dark-green medical scrubs and carries a clipboard in her hand.
“I need some water. Where am I?” Her voice just above a whisper.
“You’re in a clinic. We found you unconscious on the beach. I’ll be right back with some water,” the woman says.
“Wait. Can I call my parents?”
“They’ve already been contacted, honey. Just rest now and I’ll be right back.” The woman leaves the room as quickly as she came in.
Something doesn’t feel right about this. But she is too tired to think about it more.
The nurse returns and gives her a sip of water before pulling a syringe out of her pocket.
“What’s that for?”
“It’s okay. Just something to help you relax a little.” The nurse puts the medicine in the IV.
Just as she mumbles a protest, her eyes get heavy and she slips into a deep sleep.
e ran Josh McCain’s name through our database, and he’s red-flagged,” Drake said.
Rachel and Drake had finished interviewing Governor Knowles, his wife, and some of the ship’s crew and then returned to the hotel to examine their notes. Cyndy had arranged for the hotel to provide a conference room for their use while staying there. She stayed behind on the ship with Phipps to review the rest of the security tapes.
“What does that mean?” Rachel asked as she took another sip of coffee.
“There are several reasons why someone’s name would be flagged in the system,” Drake explained. “Witness protection. Protected informant. The higher-ups at the FBI are trying to find out why McCain is flagged.”
“So Josh is hiding from someone?” Rachel said.
“More like Josh is not who we think he is. My guess is that Amber got caught up in something that he was involved in.”
Rachel twirled her long auburn hair around her fingers and thought about this for a minute.
“So let’s think about the possibilities. Amber meets Josh at the nightclub. Her friends said she was fine after dinner. She didn’t get sick until they got to the club. Maybe Josh slipped her something? Like a…What do they call it? Date rape drug?”
“Yeah. Maybe he drugged her?”
“So she started feeling ill, and he offers to walk her back. Then he rapes her and throws her body overboard?” Drake continued for her. “No, I don’t think so. She had roommates. He couldn’t know when they’d come looking for her. And Josh’s coworker Andy said there was never a problem with Josh. His supervisor said the same thing. He has an exemplary employment record on file.”
Rachel contemplated that for a minute. “Or maybe she had too much to drink. Her parents said she was taking medicine for headaches. Alcohol and medicine don’t mix well. She got sick and Josh was being a nice guy and offered to walk her back.”
“She could have had a seizure or something and had an accident. Josh got scared and tried to cover it up,” Drake added. “But where is Josh?” His cell phone buzzed. He answered and listened intently.
“We have another piece of the puzzle,” he said, hanging up. “That was Phipps. The body recovered from the Coast Guard was not Josh McCain. Our dead guy is Danny Pezzini, according to his driver’s license that was found in his wallet.”
“Who is Danny Pezzini?” Rachel asked.
“Small-time criminal. Two convictions of drug possession with intent to distribute.”
“How did he end up in the water?” Rachel asked.
“Don’t know. Looks like he was a passenger on the
,” Drake answered. “Phipps has a copy of the passenger manifest with Pezzini’s name on it.”
“That’s odd. No one reported him missing?”
“No. He was apparently traveling alone.”
“Think he’s connected to Amber and Josh?”
“Maybe so. I don’t believe in coincidences.”
There was a knock on the door and one of the governor’s aides poked her head in.
“Governor Knowles is on his way here. He’s ready to release a statement to the media.”
he front of the hotel was packed with reporters when they stepped outside. Word had gotten out about the prominent governor’s daughter who had vanished from a cruise ship. Reporters threw out questions as they gathered before the podium microphones.
“Do you believe that Amber fell overboard?”
“Is the Coast Guard continuing their search for Amber?”
“Have you found any evidence of foul play?”
A pretty brunette reporter with CNN shouted loudest of all. “Is it true the Coast Guard found a body? Was it Amber?”
The media crew quieted down when Drake raised his hand up. “The governor will make a short statement and then we’ll answer a few questions.”
Governor John Knowles stepped forward and cleared his throat. He had changed into more casual attire with pressed khakis and a light-blue oxford shirt. Sarah was by his side and had changed into another sundress—this one of sunny yellow-and-white-striped seersucker fabric. She wore her blonde hair loose around her face. She stood ramrod straight and faced the camera with a somber look on her face.
“We have reason to believe that our daughter, Amber Knowles, met with foul play sometime after midnight on the
cruise ship.” Governor Knowles spoke loudly and clearly. “The FBI, local law enforcement, and Florida Omni Search are working together to locate her. They are expending every effort and using every resource to bring her safely home. We also want to thank all the volunteers who have stepped up to help.”
He paused for a second to gather his thoughts. “If anyone knows anything at all about Amber’s disappearance, please call the anonymous tip hotline. Amber’s mother and I are offering a reward of one million dollars for her safe return.”
Governor Knowles turned to look at his wife before continuing. “We beg you, if you know anything, no matter how trivial it may seem, please call. It could be that one small thing that brings Amber back to us. Thank you.” He stepped back and turned the podium over to the FBI.
The reporters went nuts, yelling out more questions as Drake stepped up. “Thank you, Governor Knowles and Mrs. Knowles.” He looked out at the crowd of media. “The governor is not taking questions. We ask that you please respect his family’s privacy during this difficult time. I can give you ten minutes.”
The pretty brunette raised her hand and asked the same question again: “Was a body found?”
“The Coast Guard found a male body about a mile offshore of Freeport. We have identified the victim. He’s an American citizen. We are not releasing his name pending notification of his next of kin. At this time we don’t know if he had anything to do with Amber’s disappearance.”
“The governor mentioned foul play. Do you have any suspects?”
“We’re still following leads. And that’s all I can tell you. Once we have other news, we’ll let you know. Thanks for your cooperation.”
Drake stepped off the podium and headed inside, leaving the reporters shouting questions to his back.
Governor Knowles and his wife were waiting inside the conference room. He paced the floor while Sarah sat quietly at the table nursing a cup of coffee.
“So, what’s next?” he asked, resting his hand on Sarah’s shoulder. “Governor, we’ll keep following all our leads to find Amber, but the cruise ship departs tomorrow. Unfortunately, we can’t hold them up any longer without evidence that a crime was committed,” Drake answered.
“How can you say no crime has been committed? Amber isn’t on that ship. Of
a crime was committed. She didn’t fall overboard like the captain is suggesting. I just know it.” Sarah gripped the table, her knuckles turning white.
“Not to mention the fact the Coast Guard recovered a body. This just doesn’t add up.” Governor Knowles scrubbed his face with his hands.
Rachel had seen that hopeless look before on parents’ faces when they were told their child hadn’t been found. She felt their pain. And she knew Drake was in a difficult position. They were all doing everything in their power to find Amber.
“We’ll continue to put up flyers around town and keep Amber’s face in front of the media. We’ll keep the private boats searching,” Rachel replied. “I have a forensics team that will be here later tonight with specialized equipment to facilitate a land search tomorrow. We’ll search along the coastline close to the cruise ship docks.”
Governor Knowles let out a long sigh. “Is there anything that we can do to hold the ship?” He directed his question at Drake.
“I’m afraid not. They have every right to leave. And your wife is right, Governor. Amber isn’t there. Somehow she got off the ship. We need to concentrate our efforts on searching the water and the island. We’re monitoring all private air and water traffic. And we have more people to interview,” Drake said.
Governor Knowles helped Sarah up. “Please keep me updated. We’re going back to the villa if you need us.”
“Thank you both,” Sarah said, with tears in her eyes.
Rachel waited until the door was closed. “That went well.”
“I wish we had more to go on,” Drake said. “I’m heading back to the
to see what Phipps and Cyndy have on those security tapes.”
“Sounds good. Let me know what you find out. I’m going to check in with my office to make sure that everything is in place for the search tomorrow,” Rachel said to Drake as he headed out the door. “I’ll meet you back in the conference room later?”
“Sure. I’ll call you if anything comes up before then.”
Rachel realized she was famished, so she stopped by the front desk to ask for restaurant recommendations. The front desk clerk directed her to the hotel restaurant, The Blue Palm, and recommended she try the fish tacos.
As she headed toward the Blue Palm, she heard her name called.
“Hi. Ms. Scott?”
Rachel turned and saw a petite blonde approaching her. “Yes?”
“I’m Stacy Case. Investigative reporter with the
.” She reached out her hand to Rachel.
“Sorry, I can’t comment on the governor’s press conference,” Rachel said as she shook her hand. “You’ll have to contact his office for an interview.”
“No, that’s not why I’m here. I have some important information about the case,” Stacy said.
Rachel studied the girl standing in front of her. She was young, in her late twenties. Short honey-blonde hair, with a smattering of freckles across her nose and cheeks. She wore a pretty blue skirt and matching blouse, but somehow looked like she would be more comfortable in a pair of jeans and sweatshirt. Rachel thought she recognized her from the press conference earlier.
“And what would that be?” Rachel asked cautiously. Reporters had burned her before when her daughter had disappeared, promising information to lure her into an interview.
Stacy looked her straight in the eye. “I think I know what happened to Amber.”
was just heading to the restaurant to get a quick bite to eat.” Rachel motioned to the hotel’s restaurant. “Come join me.”
The hostess stand was empty and a sign read,
Stacy followed her to a table in the corner. Only a couple of tables were occupied in the late evening lull.
“I hear the fish tacos are good,” Rachel said, picking up a menu from the table. “Hotel clerk recommended them.”
“Sounds fine.” Stacy didn’t bother picking up her menu. “Thanks for taking the time to talk to me.”
A waiter came by and Rachel ordered the fish taco special and iced tea for both of them.
As soon as the waiter left, Stacy took a large folder out of her briefcase. Rachel watched as she dumped the bulging file onto the table.
“So you said you could help with the case?” Rachel began. “What do you want in return?”
Stacy feigned surprise. “What do you mean?”
“I’ve been doing this for a while. I know how it works.” Rachel tapped the file with her finger. “You’ll give me information if I give you an interview. Right?”
Stacy smiled at Rachel. “I know about your company, Florida Omni Search. I researched it when I found out that you were helping with this case.” Stacy paused as she collected her thoughts. “I’m sorry about your daughter. I know that you went through a hard time with her disappearance.”
“I’m still going through a hard time. It takes everything I have just to get out of bed in the morning. Looking for other missing people—like Amber—gives me hope. Hope that Mallory is still out there waiting to be found.”
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you. I just wanted you to know that I did my homework. I take my work seriously. I’m not just some reporter out to land a big story.”
“Again, I can’t comment on an ongoing investigation. You said you may know what happened to Amber.” Rachel waited until the waiter set down their drinks. When he left, she motioned for Stacy to continue. “Go ahead.”
“I know a lot about the cruise industry. I’ve been researching it for some time now as part of my crime beat, and I think this information will help with your search.” She paused and took a sip of her tea. “But you’re right. I would like to get an exclusive interview with you and the governor.”
“I can’t speak for the governor, but I’ll be happy to give you an interview once this is over.” Rachel took a sip of her tea.
Stacy smiled, but she put her hand on the folder. “Not good enough,” she said. “It has to be exclusive. And it has to be first. If it’s just you and not the governor…Let’s say I get two days’ lead time with my story before you talk to any other outlets.”
Rachel mulled this over. The reporter must think she really had something. And maybe she did. At this point, the investigators couldn’t afford to turn down any kind of lead. And she didn’t really mind giving this ambitious young woman an exclusive. Stacy reminded Rachel of herself.
“Fine,” she said. “Exclusive. Two days.”
Stacy slapped her hand on the large manila file folder and pushed it over to Rachel’s side of the table. “This is everything I’ve got on the cruise industry. I’ve been writing a series about crimes and mysteries on board ships, and I’ve developed sources—very good sources—up and down the food chain.”
The waiter came back and set down a huge bowl of chips and guacamole. Rachel was starving and immediately dug in. She picked up a warm chip, scooped a generous chuck of fresh guacamole on it, and popped it into her mouth.
“What kind of crimes are we talking about?”
“Let me start at the beginning. About nine months ago I got a call at the
from a woman named Brenda Sayers, whose daughter Melodie had disappeared on a family vacation cruise aboard the—wait for it—
“I think I remember reading about that. What happened?”
“Mrs. Sayers had read an article that I’d written about crimes committed against American travelers overseas.” She stopped and scooped up a chip. “The mother said Melodie had been hanging around and drinking with some of the ship’s employees. After a family dinner on the last night of the voyage, Melodie left to meet up with some people, and that was the last her mom saw of her. When she woke up around five in the morning, she realized that Melodie had never come back to the cabin.”
“What did they do?” Rachel asked. She helped herself to another chip.
“They alerted the crew, who conducted a search. The police and cruise ship officials reviewed the security tapes, and the last image of Melodie was of her walking down the promenade deck. Cruise officials insisted that she’d been drinking, and they had witnesses who confirmed it.”
“Did they say that she accidentally fell overboard?”
“You guessed it. The Coast Guard searched, but her body was never found. Mrs. Sayers believes that the cruise line covered up something. She made noise, got a lawyer. The cruise line offered her a million-dollar settlement. I got to wondering about how many other young women might have disappeared on cruise ships, so I started looking into it. And I’ve uncovered some pretty dirty secrets about the cruise industry.”