Authors: Traci Hohenstein
ood morning. I ordered us some breakfast,” Rachel said as she opened the door to a tired-looking Drake.
“Smells wonderful.” Drake lifted the silver dome from one of the plates, which was covered with a large scoop of steaming scrambled eggs, crisp bacon, and chunks of hashed brown potatoes with onions and peppers. “Feeling better this morning?”
“Not really. Didn’t sleep much last night. I tossed and turned.” Rachel picked up her coffee mug. “Right now I need massive amounts of caffeine.”
“I sent the envelope to the lab this morning. We should hear something soon,” Drake said.
“Great. Thanks again for coming over last night. After Mike left, I didn’t know what to do. I called the office, and Gregg said he’d take a look at the photo we scanned and e-mailed him. It’s a long shot, but he might be able to tell if it’s authentic or if someone used age-progression software. Either way, I’d like to keep this quiet for now.”
“Sure. I think it’s a diversion, but we’ll see what the lab says.” Drake poured a cup of coffee and pointed to her newspaper. “What are you reading?”
“Our friend Stacy Case did an article about Amber,” Rachel said, handing him the front page of the
. “I got a copy from the newsstand downstairs.”
GOVERNOR’S DAUGHTER DISAPPEARS
FROM CRUISE SHIP
By Staff Reporter Stacy Case
Former Miami socialite Rachel Scott is in the Bahamas today with her search-and-rescue company, Florida Omni Search, assisting the local police force and FBI to locate Amber Knowles, daughter of Florida governor John Knowles. She was reported missing early Sunday morning from the
cruise ship when her friends and the school chaperone couldn’t find her.
Authorities believe that Ms. Knowles accidentally fell overboard. The
informed the Coast Guard after an extensive search of the ship failed to locate the teenager.
The FBI, which investigates the disappearance of American citizens abroad, is not authorized to hold a ship without evidence of a crime.
Governor Knowles and his wife, Sarah Knowles, have flown to Freeport and made a statement to the media. A reward of one million dollars has been offered to anyone who has information that leads to Amber’s safe return. A tip line has been set up in coordination with Florida Omni Search.
The FBI has worked with Florida Omni Search on several missing persons cases. Florida Omni Search recently made headlines when they found a missing Boy Scout alive in the Florida Everglades.
“She left our investigation out of the article as we asked,” Drake said.
“Her story is a little dated now. We know that Amber didn’t fall overboard,” Rachel commented.
“That’s best left under wraps until we know for sure. Any leads from the tip line?”
“I checked in with Janine this morning. Nothing. Not even the crackpots and psychics have called in, which is unusual.”
“Give it some time.”
“What’s planned for today?” Rachel asked.
“The cruise ship has left port. Amber’s two friends are staying with the governor and his wife for the rest of the week. Their parents have been notified and are on the way down. We’re heading over there this morning to talk to the girls again. I want to see if they remember anything else about the night Amber disappeared—if they saw anyone else talking with her or Josh.”
“You mean Shawn?”
“Yeah, they still know him as Josh.” Drake stood up and brushed toast crumbs from his shirt.
“Okay. Let’s get going, then.” Rachel put down her coffee cup, grabbed her bag, and headed for the door.
he governor’s rented villa was situated on a high bluff that overlooked a beautiful private stretch of beach. Drake and Rachel drove up the long circular driveway and parked the car.
“Impressive digs for the governor,” she commented as they walked up to the massive front door.
“The house belongs to a friend of the governor. It’s more private than staying at a hotel. Especially since he decided to run for president, security is a little tighter.”
Too bad they didn’t think about that before letting Amber take a cruise
. Rachel’s thought was interrupted by the front door opening.
A uniformed maid led them inside. “The governor and his wife are waiting for you in the sunroom.”
Drake and Rachel followed her through the house. The villa was surprisingly simple inside. Its terra-cotta tile floors were complemented by soft-blue and pale-yellow walls. Knickknacks, a vase of pale flowers, and a clear glass bowl of seashells and sand dollars decorated the villa. It was very calming and relaxing, and Rachel soon felt at ease.
Governor Knowles stood up as they entered the sunroom. Even though he was impeccably dressed in pressed navy slacks and a pin-striped button-down shirt with the sleeves neatly rolled up his forearms, he looked more stressed than he had the day before.
He smiled as he held out his hand to Rachel. “Nice to see you again, Rachel. Please come in and have a seat. Hello, Agent Reynolds.”
Rachel regarded Sarah as she stood up to greet them. Her long blonde hair was pulled back in a neat ponytail, and she was dressed casually in khaki Bermuda shorts and a billowy white peasant blouse. Her flip-flops revealed freshly painted bright-pink toenails.
“Rachel, Drake, is there any news?” Sarah asked hopefully.
Governor Knowles put his arm around his wife and said with a strained smile, “We’re hoping there’s been some movement since yesterday…” He nodded to the maid who let them in. “Bring us something cold and a pot of coffee, please, Nadia.”
Rachel and Drake sat down on the sofa opposite the Knowleses. The sunroom was minimally decorated with a sofa and loveseat covered in creamy-white denim, two casual wicker chairs, and a sea grass jute rug beneath a heavy glass coffee table. A ceramic bowl held tiny seashells and colorful sea glass. A sliding glass door led to a patio that overlooked the pinkish-colored sandy beach and emerald-green waters.
“Thanks again for coming. As you can imagine, this has been a very difficult time.” He patted Sarah’s hand. “Have you gotten any leads from the hotline?”
Rachel shook her head no and reiterated what Drake had already related to the governor. “But our witness saw Amber and Josh get into an SUV. We know somehow she got off the ship.”
“But she must not be in a safe place, or she would have called us.” Sarah twisted and rubbed her hands together nervously.
Nadia came in and set down a tray of lemonade and small sandwiches. A second maid, carrying a pot of coffee and cups, followed.
“Thanks,” Rachel said as she accepted a glass of the cool, tangy drink.
“We’re working closely with the DEA and the local police. Rachel has every available volunteer combing the area where the lifeboat was found,” Drake said as soon as the maids had left the room.
“What about this Josh guy? Or whatever his name is. You said he’s undercover DEA? What else do we know about him? How is he involved in this?” Governor Knowles stood and started pacing behind the small loveseat.
“Josh McCain is an alias. His name is Shawn Gibson. Mike Mancini, his boss at the DEA, says he’s a respected agent and a stand-up guy. He’s young, but has been with the DEA for some time now. Something happened on that ship that involved Amber. We think Shawn tried to get her to safety.”
“The DEA is investigating the
for drug smuggling?” Governor Knowles asked.
Drake nodded. “We think Shawn’s cover was compromised. Once they got off the ship, we’re not sure what happened. We’re working on it.”
“So where are they now?” he asked.
Drake went over what he’d already told the governor over the phone. “The witness who saw them forced into a dark SUV unfortunately did not get the tag information.”
“Is this a reliable witness? You said she was a teenager?”
“She identified Amber from our flyers. She wasn’t one hundred percent positive identifying Shawn,” Drake answered.
Sarah gasped. “Who the hell has my daughter?”
Drake and Rachel exchanged glances. “We don’t know. That’s a theory we’re working on,” Drake said. “We’d like to talk to the girls again to see if they can remember anything else about the night Amber disappeared. Something about Josh, maybe.”
Sarah got up. “They’re upstairs getting dressed. I’ll get them.”
They only had to wait a couple minutes until Nicole and Rowan joined them. Rachel thought they didn’t look much better than the last time she’d seen them. They both looked tired and upset. She couldn’t blame them. Their best friend was missing. And they were just about the last people to have seen Amber before she disappeared.
“I wanted to see if you remembered anything else about the last night you saw Amber,” Drake started once the girls got settled.
“No. We’ve both thought about that night constantly,” Nicole said while Rowan nodded in agreement. “All we can think about is what happened to her.”
“Tell me again about Josh. The first time you saw him,” Drake said.
“I don’t remember seeing him until we went to the club that night, but Amber mentioned him the first day of the cruise,” Rowan said.
“When was this?” Rachel asked.
“When we were walking up to the club, Amber said, ‘There’s the cute guy from the pool,’ and pointed at Josh. But she never talked to him until we got to the club,” Rowan said.
“Okay. So Amber saw him at the pool the first day on the ship, but never had a conversation with him until the night she disappeared?” Rachel clarified.
“Right,” Nicole and Rowan said in agreement.
“We walked up to the Aqua entrance. Josh introduced himself and walked us to a VIP room. I remember that he said he was from California and this was his first job on a cruise ship. He and Amber talked while Nicole and I went and got drinks,” Rowan added.
“When we came back, Amber mentioned that she wasn’t feeling well. Josh had left and we asked Amber if she wanted to go back to the cabin. She didn’t want to ruin our evening, she said. After a few minutes, Josh came back to check on us, and Amber said she was leaving. I offered to walk her back, but Josh said he’d do it. That’s about it,” Nicole said.
She’d basically summed up what they already knew. “Did you take any pictures that night?” Rachel asked.
“Sure. I have a couple pictures of us at the club that night. Would you like to see?” Nicole asked.
Rachel exchanged glances with Drake. “Of course.”
“Let me get my laptop. I downloaded them from my camera last night.” Nicole left to get her laptop and was back within a minute. She booted up her Dell, found the file, and handed the computer over to Drake.
Rachel and Drake looked through the pictures of the girls. One showed Amber posing with Josh. She had her arm draped around his neck.
Drake started to flip to another photo.
“Wait! Go back.” Rachel leaned closer to the screen. “Can you enlarge this?”
“Sure.” Drake pushed the zoom button and the picture magnified.
“Is that who I think it is?” Rachel pointed to a man in the background.
Drake pushed his glasses up and peered at the screen. “Danny Pezzini?”
“Isn’t that the guy the Coast Guard found?” the governor asked.
“Yes,” Drake answered. “He was a passenger on the cruise.”
“Do you think he is somehow involved? What do I need to do to get some answers?” Governor Knowles directed his question at Drake.
“We are looking into Pezzini and any possible connection to SeaScape Cruise Lines.” Drake softened his voice. “With all due respect, Governor, let us handle the investigation. The last thing we want is Morrotti to know that we’re looking into his business. The DEA has had this undercover operation in motion for over two years now. I don’t want to compromise their involvement.”
“That’s what got my daughter into trouble in the first place! This DEA agent, Josh, or Shawn…whatever his name is! I want some answers and I want them now!” The governor clenched the sofa pillow.
Rachel could feel the tension in the room ratchet up a few notches. “John, I understand how frustrating this is. But you trusted me enough to bring me into this investigation. Please let us do our jobs.”
Governor Knowles sat down next to Sarah. Rachel could see some of the tension leave his face. The girls sat motionless, looking frightened. She felt so bad for all of them.
“I want to meet with Mike Mancini and hear for myself what he thinks happened on the
“I’ll let him know,” Drake assured him.
Drake cleared his throat. “Do you mind if I e-mail these photos to myself?”
“Sure, whatever will help,” Nicole answered.
“Thanks,” Drake said. “I want to send these to Mike as well. He’s tracking down possible members of Morrotti’s team. He might see something out of place.”
Rachel’s phone buzzed. She looked down at the number and let out a sigh.
“I need to take this. Be right back.” She pulled open the sliding glass door and stepped out onto the patio. A strong breeze had picked up and the palm trees swayed. A fragrant plumeria scented the air. “Rachel Scott,” she answered, even though she knew who was calling.
“Hi, Rachel. It’s Rick. You have a sec?”
“We need to talk.”
“Okay, then. Talk.”
“I’d like to see you in person.”
“Not going to happen anytime soon. I’m in the Bahamas working on a case.”
“I know that. I’m here, too.”
“Here where? In Freeport?”
“Yes. I wouldn’t call if it wasn’t urgent.”
Rachel sucked in a deep breath. “What’s wrong?”
“I can meet you at your hotel tonight for dinner,” Rick said, ignoring her question.
“How do you know where I’m staying?” Rachel asked, realizing that he’d probably called Janine at the office.
“Your office told me. Seven o’clock, okay?”
“Sure. Meet me at the hotel bar,” Rachel said before disconnecting.
She wondered why Rick was calling her now. She intended to find out, but she wasn’t too keen about meeting with him. She reentered the room. Everyone except John and Drake had left.
“Sarah took the girls out for shopping and lunch. I think they’re going stir crazy just sitting here.” Governor Knowles stood up from the couch.
“I’m sure it’ll be good for them to get out for a bit.” Rachel shook his hand. “We’ll keep in touch.”
Drake followed Rachel outside. “Everything okay?” he asked.
She nodded her head. “Just the office checking in.”
“Let’s head back to the hotel and call Mike. See what he came up with on Pezzini.” Drake started the car. “We need to step this investigation up a notch.”