Agent Burns rode shotgun with Jim McLeary in a red supercharged Saleen Mustang, traveling ninety miles-an-hour in the middle lane of Interstate 95, headed north toward Baltimore. She analyzed her decision to join Kriegel’s unit, weighing the pros and cons as if she’d had a choice in the matter. In reality, her decision was already made, with or without Kriegel’s buy-in. She needed more from her career than the job had given her so far. If not Kriegel’s unit, she would have pursued a position on another high-risk team even if it meant an early transfer from her current field assignment in D.C. Pomp and circumstance aside, the power she wielded with an FBI badge had earned her less respect with her peers than it did with the criminal element she’d worked hard to put away. Time logged behind a desk meant little. Time spent in the field locked and loaded, kicking doors and taking names meant everything.
She observed how McLeary kept his left hand on the leather-wrapped wheel and his right on the five speed shifter, firmly in control of his prized possession, with more than five hundred horsepower on tap. She braced herself every time McLeary floored the gas pedal to slingshot past slower moving vehicles blocking his immediate path.
With her back pressed into the contoured seat, she could only imagine what thoughts transpired in the realm of McLeary’s my-balls-are-bigger-than-yours persona. She’d ridden with agents like McLeary before. Even tougher, meaner, and in some ways more civilized men who judged their law enforcement skill by their prowess on the shooting range or their ability to serve knockless warrants in the most crime-ridden neighborhoods, where brute force tactics met with equal and opposite force from bad men with bigger guns and no qualms about shooting cops. Through it all, she’d thought less of herself as a woman in a man’s world and more as a tiny cog in a well-oiled machine prone to the occasional malfunction all machines tend to experience at one time or another.
She’d learned to ignore the innuendoes from her peers and stay true to herself, despite the anger and frustration she felt when her work landed in the basket of some half-baked, overweight, G-man wannabe who padded his career with waivers for physical fitness, marksmanship, or genuine stupidity.
In four years with the Metropolitan Police and five years working white collar crimes for the FBI, she’d never met anyone who could keep pace with her physically or mentally. And in those years of law enforcement, she’d learned to trust her instincts about people and their intentions. Jim McLeary proved no exception. A rotten apple at the core, McLeary represented the worst of the worst: a reticent, self-deprecating cop who’d gone off the deep end and hit his head in shallow water. Whatever Kriegel saw in him, she failed to recognize. “This car isn’t registered in our motor pool,” she finally said, dispensing with the awkward silence in favor of some form of conversation, regardless of how pointless it seemed.
* * *
McLeary focused on the road ahead. He knew Burns’ type and the list of distinguished asses she’d kissed to rise through bureau ranks without a felony conviction to her name, or a major case contribution worth mentioning.
Burns opened the empty glove compartment. “This vehicle isn’t registered with the FBI. It’s not even registered with Department of Justice.”
McLeary scanned the traffic patterns in his rear view mirror, searching for an unmarked cruiser he might have missed or a Virginia State Trooper hiding among slower-moving traffic. He’d wasted enough time at headquarters to not risk losing more over a speeding ticket from Deputy Dipshit. Though he imagined Agent Burns would take great pleasure in watching him receive a reckless driving citation in a car he’d borrowed from a federal impound yard.
Burns inspected her fingernails. “Did you steal this ride outright or buy it with the money you stole?”
McLeary ignored the comment from the agent more equipped to sell skin care than solve bank robberies.
Burns ran her hand through her hair. “Look, if we’re going to work together, we should at least pretend to engage in some sort of meaningful dialogue. Just pretend I’m one of the guys and talk about whatever it is you talk about.”
McLeary turned on the radio. He scanned the stations before stopping at a smooth jazz channel. He cranked the volume and opened the moon roof for air, content to let his partner flap her gums in a one-way conversation.
* * *
Burns grabbed the handle above her window, enduring the muscle car’s stiff ride and perpetual exhaust note reverberating in her ears. She felt the urge to say something, then recanted and reached for the ignition key instead.
With the flick of her wrist, she cut the power.
The Ford decelerated in inverse proportion to McLeary’s rising temper.
McLeary swerved toward the right shoulder and firmly applied the brakes. “Are you fucking crazy?” he shouted as the Mustang skidded to a stop in a patch of road debris.
Burns slipped the key from the ignition.
“Give me the keys.”
“I’m not going to ask you again.”
“Then how about I do the asking and you answer. It’s called a conversation.”
“You’re assuming you have something worthwhile to say.” He snatched the keys from his partner’s hand and brought the motor back to life.
Burns eyed him, saw how his pulse pounded in his temples.
McLeary put his turn signal on and waited for an opening in the fast-moving traffic. “If you ever pull a stunt like that again, you’ll be riding in the trunk.” He leaned forward, trolling the shoulder at twenty miles-an-hour in second gear until an opening presented itself in front of a tractor trailer. He mashed the accelerator and squealed the massive rear tires, pinning himself and Burns in their seats. He grabbed third gear at eighty miles-an-hour and swerved in front of the eighteen-wheeler, inviting a prolonged blast from the trucker’s air horn followed by an angry middle finger.
Burns squeezed the door handle with a Kung-Fu grip. “You think I’m crazy?”
“I think you’re a token candidate hired to fill a quota.”
Burns let go of the handle and parted a strand of hair from her face. “Because I’m a woman?”
“Because you’re not fit for the job.”
“Have you read my file?”
“I’ve read enough. You’re a vice cop who got tired of dressing like a hooker and finagled a position with the FBI. You investigated petty thieves milking clueless senior citizens out of social security money. No real field experience with the bureau. No felony arrests. No—”
“I was a lead investigator.”
“So was the Pink Panther.”
Burns looked away from her chauvinist side-kick to let her emotions decompress. Part of her wanted to throw in the towel; drive back to headquarters and smack Kriegel upside the head. A great opportunity or not, working in Kriegel’s unit lost its glamour the minute she’d found herself paired with a devil’s reject. She could deal with Kriegel’s idiosyncrasies, but McLeary was a different animal altogether. She’d started with an open mind and the willingness to take on any challenge the bureau gave her, but she never agreed to work a robbery investigation with a dinosaur like McLeary, much less an agent under investigation by Internal Affairs.
McLeary reached inside his blazer pocket and withdrew a folded map.
“Where’s your GPS?” asked Burns.
McLeary fumbled with the crinkled street map while he drove. “Don’t need one.”
“I can navigate while you drive.”
“I got it.”
“Clearly…” Burns propped her elbow on the window edge. “So what exactly is the beef between you and Kriegel?”
McLeary folded the paper in half with one hand on the steering wheel and glanced at a highlighted section in yellow. “Kriegel’s a prick.”
“That’s it?” She rolled her eyes in disbelief. “He sees you as a threat, doesn’t he? You make him and the rest of the bureau look bad.”
“Sounds like you’ve got it all figured out.”
“Not quite. What’s your relationship with the Deputy Director?”
McLeary ignored the question and drove faster.
Burns pointed at the exit sign. “You missed our turn.”
McLeary stuffed the map between the seats. He unwrapped a stick of gum and started chewing. “I have a stop to make.”
“We have a witness to interview. The Chase Bank security guard saw everything go down in front of him.”
McLeary veered the Mustang across two lanes and approached the next exit ramp for the Johns Hopkins University downtown campus. “He can wait.”
“Since your star witness lapsed into a coma at Walter Reed and became unavailable for questioning.”
“Why didn’t you tell me before we left?”
“You didn’t ask.”
Burns felt her core temperature rise another ten degrees. “You’re a treat, McLeary. A real piece of work. Maybe you don’t realize it or maybe you don’t care, but I’m the lead investigator on this case. Why Kriegel brought you out of deep freeze is a mystery to me. Maybe you were frat brothers in a former life, or maybe he’s not the man I gave him credit for. Either way, your job is to function in a consultant capacity, not as a Special Agent. If I submit a bad report to Kriegel, you’re back on your boat in Miami doing whatever it is you do when you’re suspended, assuming you still have a boat to go home to.”
McLeary followed the off ramp, hugging the road in the diminishing radius turn. “Are you married?”
“No,” Burns answered, uncertain where McLeary was going with his question.
“Do you have kids?”
“What has that got to do with anything?”
McLeary shrugged. “Do you?”
“Then it sounds like we both have nothing to go home to.”
* * *
McLeary flashed his badge at the Homewood campus security guard stationed in the kiosk outside the north gate. “Wolman Hall?”
The guard pointed the other direction. “You want the east gate. Wolman’s off Saint Paul Street by North Charles.” He raised the boom to let the Mustang through.
“What are we doing here?” asked Burns.
McLeary pulled a U-turn and backtracked to Wolman Hall. He parked along the yellow curb beside a fire hydrant. “Wait here.”
“McLeary…” Burns leaned back in her seat. Why she tolerated his actions, she didn’t know, but she’d give him five minutes before she reached out to Kriegel.
* * *
Seth poked at the laptop keyboard with his splinted index finger wrapped in gauze. Seated behind the flat screen monitor with headphones on, he listened to a string of Jimson Brown MP3s. Alone in his dorm room, he had more on his plate than he knew what to do with. And even as he tried to lose himself in the world of computer code, he thought of Marcy and how to present her with the ring.
A loud knock at the door broke the mood. Seth removed his headphones and reached for the loaded CO2 pellet pistol he’d risked expulsion to keep on campus in his room. “Who is it?”
“It’s Dad. Open up.”
“What are you doing here?”
“I came to talk.”
Seth laid the pellet gun on his desk. “I’m busy.”
“Just for a second.”
Seth opened the door six inches and blocked the bottom with his foot. “Your second’s come and gone.”
“What do you want?”
McLeary noticed Seth’s finger. “What happened?”
“I jammed it shooting hoops.”
“Since when do you play basketball?”
Seth pointed to the stack of books on his desk. “I’ve got homework. Send me an e-mail.”
“I have. You don’t reply.”
“Maybe you should take the hint.”
“Where’s your brother?”
“He went out.” Seth started to close the door. “I’m really busy…”
“What do you want from me? You want to just stand here and have a father-son conversation like everything’s cool between us? You’ve been gone for ten years. And now you just show up—”
“I moved to Florida, not Tahiti. Communication goes both ways…”
Seth pressed his leg against the door. “You flew to Baltimore to tell me that?”
“I’m on a case.”
“With the FBI?”
McLeary put his hand against the door to counter the pressure from his son trying to close it. “I can’t talk about it.” He marveled at the son he’d waited too long to reconnect with. Now he found himself confronting the mirror image of his younger self.
“Brian wrote you a letter last year. I told him not to, but he did it anyway. You never wrote back.”
McLeary fumbled for the right words. “I meant to. The time just sort of got away from me.” He looked down at the floor, then back at Seth. “It’s complicated.”
“So is my homework, which I need to finish if I want to graduate.”
McLeary pushed harder against the door. “Your mother would be proud of you.”
“Don’t talk about her.” Seth leaned his weight on the door until he felt his dad back off and let it close. “Just stay away from me.”
McLeary walked away defeated. “I can’t do that,” he said out of earshot from his son. “Not anymore.”