Authors: Traci Hohenstein
ome boys playing on the beach this morning found the boat and dragged it up to their house,” the policeman said as he pointed toward a bungalow. The faded-pink cottage looked in desperate need of repair. The shutters were barely hanging on and the paint was peeling in several places.
Mike had followed Rachel and Drake to the area of the beach that the police had cordoned off with crime scene tape. A small crowd had gathered around the yard just outside the tape’s perimeter.
“The boy’s mother found them playing in the boat and asked them where it had come from. They told her that it had washed ashore sometime last night. She had seen the news conference about Amber Knowles and called the police, thinking it might have something to do with her disappearance,” the policeman explained to them.
They walked down to the lifeboat. The black dinghy had
written in white script with the number
and a smaller set of identifying numbers painted on the stern.
“Why didn’t the crew tell us a lifeboat was missing when we interviewed them?” Rachel asked.
“Good question. They may not have known that it was missing right away,” Drake said.
“More important, how did it get off the ship without anyone noticing?” Mike asked.
Rachel thought about that for a few seconds. “
docked at Freeport in the early hours—before sunrise. It’s possible that whoever took it could have hidden somewhere on the ship, then used the lifeboat to get ashore.”
“Pretty hard to do and not have someone see you.” Mike walked around the boat.
“Aren’t most lifeboats equipped with some sort of emergency box? Like flares, water, first-aid kit?” Rachel asked.
“The ones on the cruise ship all have that. Plus ownership paperwork,” Drake answered.
Rachel peered into the boat. “Apparently this one doesn’t.”
“Anyone else have access to this boat?” Drake asked the policeman.
“Just the little boys, I think. We called you guys as soon as we found it.” He shrugged his shoulders.
“Maybe Shawn and Amber used this lifeboat to escape?” she asked.
Mike kicked the sand around with his shoe. “Shawn’s a smart guy. If he thought Amber was in danger, he would have done any and everything he could to protect her. Especially if he knew her father was the governor of Florida.”
“If she and Shawn got off the boat and made it to the island, where are they now?” Drake wondered aloud.
rake had driven Rachel back to the hotel so they could change and gather the search team together. Janine had arranged for a rental car company to deliver a SUV to her hotel so she would have transportation around the island. She didn’t want to rely on Drake to drive her everywhere.
Within a couple of hours, they were back at the site where the lifeboat was discovered. The east side of Freeport, where they’d found the
’s lifeboat, was a sleepy fishing village that was home to people who mostly made their money from selling their daily catch to restaurants. It consisted of tiny shotgun cottages with small sandy yards and rundown vehicles in the driveways.
Pulling a tube of sun cream out of her tote, Rachel slathered it on her arms and legs. She pulled her long auburn hair in a ponytail and put a Florida Omni Search cap on her head. This was what she lived for. It was what she did best. Finding missing loved ones.
Drake walked up to her. “Ready to go?”
“Yes.” Rachel walked up to the front of her group that had gathered for the search.
“We are going to work in the usual teams.” Rachel passed out the copies of the map to everyone.
Rankin Smartz led the search and rescue with his dog, Max, an adorable black Lab that Rankin had rescued when he was a pup. Phil, one of her tech guys, was in charge of all the specialized equipment. Scott, Georgia, and Steven were regular volunteers who donated their time and equipment when needed.
“Rankin and Max will start the search. Max can get Amber’s scent from the dress she wore the night she disappeared. Phil will work closely behind with the equipment. Georgia and Steven will help canvass the area with flyers. The rest of us will follow the search grid. Remember to call in if you find anything.” Rachel held up her walkie-talkie. “Let’s get started.”
Rankin gave Max a sniff of Amber’s dress, and the dog took off toward the street. “I think we got a hit,” Rankin said to Rachel as they quickly followed behind Max. Empty trash cans littered the street, and the smells confused the dog. He would take a few steps, sniff the ground, and then start moving again. Start, stop, and sniff.
“Good dog,” Rankin kept reassuring Max as they went down a couple of blocks.
Max hesitated at the end of the street. Rankin bent down and gave him another sniff of the dress. “Come on, boy. Let’s find Amber.” Max started off again but stopped after a few feet and sat down.
Rankin rubbed Max’s head and gave him more words of encouragement, but the dog just whined softly.
“Nothing now,” Rankin said.
“Guess they found a vehicle or someone picked them up,” Drake said.
Rachel sighed. “Dead end.” They headed back to the pink cottage where the boat had been found.
“What now?” Mike asked.
“The police are canvassing the neighborhood. Maybe we’ll get lucky,” Drake said.
“I’m going to check in with the guys to see if the sonar equipment picked up something,” Rachel said as she started packing up her gear. She turned to see a girl of sixteen or seventeen watching her. She was dressed in long cargo pants and a white tank top, and she carried a black backpack.
“Can I talk to you for a minute?” the girl asked in a Bahamian accent.
“Sure.” Rachel smiled at her.
“I think I have some information about the girl you are looking for.” She looked around nervously.
achel took off her ball cap and wiped the sweat off her forehead with her arm. “Okay. Why don’t we go sit down over there and you can tell me about it.” Rachel pointed to a large palm tree that provided some shade from the heat—and some privacy from the other members of the team. Rachel thought the frightened girl might bolt if anyone else came over. Mike and Drake could be very intimidating.
The team had brought a large cooler filled with drinks, and Rachel grabbed some Gatorade for herself and the girl.
“I’m Rachel. What’s your name?”
“Shondra Myers. I live down the street.” She pointed toward the east end of the street—the spot where the dog lost the scent.
“Nice to meet you, Shondra. You said you know something about the missing girl?”
The girl nodded. She dropped her backpack on the ground beside her. Her eyes darted back and forth between Rachel and Drake.
“You can’t tell my parents or anyone else, because I’ll get into trouble.”
Rachel wanted to reassure the girl, but she didn’t want to make promises she couldn’t keep. “Shondra, I’ll do my best to keep this private, but you may have to make a statement to the authorities. Why don’t you tell me what you know and we’ll go from there. Okay?”
Shondra contemplated Rachel’s words for a moment before beginning. “I’m supposed to be grounded, but the other night I snuck out to meet some friends. While I was walking down this way, I heard an argument.” Shondra hesitated. She twirled her hair around her fingers. Her gaze shifted away.
Rachel followed her glance and saw Drake staring their way. She waved him off.
“It’s okay. Go on,” Rachel prompted her.
“I heard a girl yelling about something, so I hid around the corner to take a look. I saw a girl with blonde hair walking with some guy. I’m pretty sure the girl was the same one that’s on the flyers you guys are handing out. The one you’re looking for.” Shondra reached down and pulled out a flyer from her backpack. “This is her.”
“What did the guy look like?”
“It was dark and I couldn’t see that great, but he sounded kinda young. He had a white shirt on. It looked like a uniform shirt like my daddy wears. He’s a security guard at the Riveria Hotel.”
“But you’re sure it was Amber? How do you know, if it was dark?”
“Because she walked right under the streetlight and was closer to me. She had long blonde hair like the girl in the picture.”
“Which way did they come from?”
“From the back of that house.” She pointed behind her toward the pink house where the lifeboat had been found.
“Did you see anybody else with them?” Rachel asked.
“Not at first. They were walking and he was saying to hurry up. She was limping and telling him to slow down, that she hurt her foot.”
“What happened next?”
“I heard the guy say something about finding a car and calling somebody. That’s when the other guy showed up.”
“What other guy?” Rachel asked.
“I didn’t see where he came from. It’s like he appeared out of nowhere. Everything happened so fast. At first I thought they were all together. Then he pulled out a gun. A dark SUV pulled up and he made them get in.”
“Did you get a license number or the make and model of the SUV?” Rachel asked.
“Sorry. I got scared and didn’t get a good look. It was maybe an Escalade or something big like that.”
“What did the second guy look like?”
“He was big. He had a funny accent, but I couldn’t tell what he looked like.”
“If I showed you some pictures, do you think you could identify the man Amber was with?”
“Would you mind telling that guy over there the story you just told me? He’s helping me try to find Amber.”
The girl hesitated. “Could we do this later? I’m late for work, and I’m already in trouble.”
“Sure. Why don’t we come see you after work? My friend Drake and I can meet you somewhere. Somewhere private and quiet.”
“I guess that would be okay. I work at the Riveria Hotel. Cleaning rooms. My shift is over at four p.m. There’s a small café called Julia’s next to the hotel. We can meet there.”
“Sounds good. Thank you, Shondra.” Rachel watched the young girl walk away. What luck! A witness that saw Amber and Josh/Shawn the night they disappeared.
Rachel motioned Drake over after Shondra was out of sight. “We have a witness.”
“That girl I saw you talking to?”
“Yeah. She said she saw Amber and two guys get into a dark SUV the night she disappeared.”
“Why didn’t you call me over?” He sounded pissed off.
“She had to go to work. Plus, she was nervous. She was worried we would tell her parents. I arranged for us to meet after her shift at a local diner.”
“Four o’clock at Julia’s Café. It’s next to the Riveria Hotel, where she works. We need some photos of Shawn to see if she can identify him. Think Mike can get those for us?”
Drake had seemed to calm down some.
“I’ll go talk to him now. I’ll meet you back at the hotel around three and we can drive there together.” He grabbed some water from the cooler. “Next time, you come get me when we have a potential witness.”
ulia’s Café was a small, cheerful restaurant that served local fare. Colorful paintings by local artists adorned walls painted a rich yellow, and chili pepper lights hung from the ceiling. There were ten small tables and a meticulously clean lunch counter. The air held a delicious aroma of spiced chicken, crispy fried onion rings, and fresh Cuban bread.
Rachel and Drake got to the restaurant a little early to get a bite to eat and catch up. Rachel was famished after working most of the day without a break. After looking over the menu, they decided to order conch fritters for an appetizer, fire-roasted shrimp with Cuban bread for Rachel, and Drake got the pecan-crusted grouper over spiced rice. Mike had left the search site to check in with his office.
Rachel was disappointed that they hadn’t turned up anything, but she hoped the lead Shondra had given them would amount to something. Rachel told Drake a little about what she knew of their witness. “Shondra’s dad is a nighttime security guard and she cleans rooms during the day at the hotel next door.”
“With her information and finding the lifeboat, it’s looking like the captain was wrong with his theory that Amber fell overboard. At least—as of last night—we know that she was still alive. Assuming your witness really saw her,” Drake said as they started on their dinner.
Rachel sopped up the sauce in her bowl with a piece of bread. She didn’t want to waste a single drop of it. “She was very reluctant to give me much information about herself. Said she was grounded the night it happened and wasn’t supposed to be outside.”
“How do we know that Shondra is telling the truth and not trying to get attention like some teenage girls tend to do?”
Rachel leaned over the table and stared into Drake’s eyes. “Because I believe her. She doesn’t strike me as the type of person who would make up something like this.”
“And you got that impression after only speaking with her for…what…ten minutes?”
“I think I have proven myself to you, or I wouldn’t be sitting here. If I didn’t think she was a reliable witness, I wouldn’t have arranged this meeting.”
“It’s not up to you to judge whether a witness is reliable or not. That is for me to decide. And let’s get one thing clear: You’re here because the governor requested you.”
“I see. This is about earlier.” Rachel paused while the waitress cleared their table. “She was scared and I was afraid she would bolt if you came over. I wanted to get as much information as I could while she was sitting there. We have never had this problem before.” Rachel wiped her hands with a napkin. “What’s going on?”
“Nothing. Just getting heat from the boss.” Drake anxiously glanced at his watch. “Speaking of which, it’s almost four thirty. I think she’s a no-show. How much longer do you want to wait?”
“Let’s give it a few more minutes. She’ll be here.”
While the waitress wiped down their table, the door opened and a young girl walked into the restaurant.
“There she is.” Rachel waved Shondra over.
“Hi. Sorry I’m late. Someone didn’t show up for work today, and I had to do their work, plus mine.” Shondra was still wearing her work uniform—a light-blue dress with buttons down the front. The word
was stitched above the right breast pocket. On the left side, she wore a shiny bronze name badge that said,
Shondra Myers, Housekeeper
Rachel made the introductions and Shondra sat down next to her. “Please tell Drake what you told me this morning.”
Drake sensed her reluctance. “It’s okay,” he reassured her. “I’ll try to keep what you say confidential. Rachel explained your parents would be upset.”
Shondra nodded her head.
“Are you hungry? Would you like something cold to drink?”
“Just some ice water would be nice.”
Rachel called over the waitress and ordered for Shondra while Drake listened as she told her story.
After she was finished, Drake pulled out his cell phone and handed it to her. “I have some photos for you to look at. Can you tell me if any one of these guys is the one that you saw?” Two of the photos were of Shawn. One was his department photo and the other was taken before he left for his cruise ship assignment. Mike was able to e-mail them to Drake. The other photos were random agents from the force. He placed them on the table in front of her. “Take your time.”
“I’m really not sure,” Shondra said. “It was dark and he wasn’t near the streetlight. But he looks familiar. He turned around and looked in my direction when he got in the car. I saw part of his face.”
“I dunno. Probably seventy-five percent.”
“And Amber? How do you know that was her?”
“I got a good look at her when she was coming up by the house. There was a small porch light and she walked right under it. Then I saw her face again when she was forced in the truck. She looked just the picture on the flyers you were handing out this morning. Long blonde hair and pretty.”
“What was she wearing?”
“Shorts and a T-shirt. She walked with a limp.”
“Okay. Let’s go back to when you first saw Amber and the guy she was with. Did it look like he was forcing her?” Drake asked.
“No. I don’t think so. Like I said, she looked like she’d hurt her foot and he was helping her. I heard bits and pieces of their conversation,” Shondra told them. She closed her eyes tight like she was remembering.
“The girl was telling him to slow down, that her foot hurt. He was saying to hurry up, that he didn’t know how much time they had and they needed to get away somewhere safe. Check in or call somebody.” Shondra was quiet for a moment.
“They starting coming up to the street and I hid behind a corner. I looked up, and that’s when I saw the second man approach them. And then the dark SUV appeared out of nowhere. It didn’t have the headlights on, that’s why they didn’t see it at first. That second man had a gun. He forced them into the truck. Then they drove off.”
Drake and Rachel sat quietly, digesting the information.
“Did you get a look at who was driving?” Drake finally asked.
“Did you see anyone else?”
“No.” Shondra finished her water. “I need to get going. I have to fix my dad’s dinner before he leaves for work.”
“Here’s my card, Shondra. If you remember anything else, please call us. You’ve been a big help.” Drake said.
Rachel said, “Thanks for coming, Shondra. We really appreciate it.”
“I just don’t want my dad to find out. He’d be so mad that I was out that night,” Shondra said. “It was nice to meet you. I hope that you find the girl.” She got up quickly and left the café.
Drake sat with his back against the booth. He ran his hands through his hair and then rested his hand on his forehead. Rachel had a fleeting memory of her ex-husband, Rick, doing the same when he was deep in thought about something.
“What are you thinking?” she asked him.
“It fits what our theory has been all along. Amber and Shawn walked back to her room. Something happened while they were in her suite.”
“Shawn’s cover was blown or he got into some kind of altercation. Why leave the ship otherwise?” Drake thought for a minute. “Amber was there. She saw something. Or heard something. So now she’s in danger, too. Shawn must have found a way off the ship with her. They were close enough to port. Someone either followed them or alerted someone else to be on the lookout for them.”
“How does Danny Pezzini fit in? The body the Coast Guard recovered. Any word on that?”
“Until we get the autopsy report, I don’t know. Cyndy is working on that angle.”
“Thanks for the food. I was starving.” Rachel grabbed her bag and followed Drake out into the Caribbean sunshine. They walked past Lucaya Harbor, where expensive yachts bobbed in the crystal-clear waters, toward the parking lot.
“First, we’ll head over to the conference room and let Phipps and Cyndy know what we got.”