Kriegel scribbled on a whiteboard in the federal joint task force office, his back turned toward a dozen agents dressed in black camouflage with bullet proof vests, light body armor, and carrying gas masks. He wrote the name Ali Muheen in red letters beneath an eight-by-ten photo and underlined it twice. Then he put the cap on the whiteboard marker and slammed it on the table for attention. “Listen up folks,” he told the team as Agent Burns entered the room. “We want this man alive. He may hold the key to something bigger and more sinister than a dope dealer selling drugs. Keep your masks on and your eyes open.” He drew a short breath through pursed lips. “Our wiretap confirms our target is still inside, probably armed and will not hesitate to end your life by any and all means at his disposal. Blue Team, you’ll take the front entrance and hit the door. Green Team, you’ll cover the stairs and the elevator exits. The chopper will cover the roof. Miami PD will have a SWAT team in place to support our ground forces. Any questions?”
“Has the presence of anthrax in the apartment been confirmed?”
“No. We have no way to know for certain without compromising our element of surprise. You’ll wear the masks for precautionary measures.”
Another agent in the back raised his hand. “What about collateral damage?”
“We’ve made contact with as many residents as we can. There will no doubt be civilians in other parts of the building. Do not fire at Muheen’s men unless fired upon. This is a paint by numbers operation. Stick to the plan we rehearsed.”
“Have we confirmed how many men are inside?” asked another agent.
“We believe there are at least three men inside, possibly more.” Kriegel scanned the room for hands. “Anyone else? All right then. Let’s hit this hard and fast.” He pointed to Agent Bryant who stood by Burns, loading 9mm rounds in his clip. “Agent Bryant will take point, but I will be in constant radio contact with each team. Unless you hear myself or Agent Bryant call no joy, this thing rolls on. Are we clear?”
A dozen men nodded in unison and exited the room single file. When the room emptied, Kriegel approached Bryant and Burns. “Where the hell is McLeary?”
“We don’t need him,” said Bryant.
Burns checked her watch. “For our sake, I hope you’re right.”
* * *
McLeary sipped his coffee behind a booth at an empty Waffle House off Interstate 95. Alone in his thoughts, he rebuffed a waitress’s undivided attention. Without glancing in her direction, he could sense her making eyes at him as she pranced behind the counter and pretended to keep busy while the cook scrubbed the grill with a black griddle sponge.
McLeary set his coffee down and wiped his mouth with a napkin. He’d inhaled a golden brown waffle with butter and extra syrup, along with a plate of scrambled eggs and bacon to curb an appetite that had gnawed at him like a tape worm. Against his better judgment, he’d left his boys on the trawler alone. He’d called in a favor from a friend at the Sheriff’s Office and asked for extra patrols outside the marina entrance—an act to appease his own conscience as much as protect Seth and Brian. With Kriegel in charge of the investigation, he had other things to worry about—like whether or not Ali Muheen was actually dead. And if so, who was impersonating him and why? He kept the pieces of the puzzle sorted in his mind, unable to assemble the framework let alone start to fill in the gaps. The anthrax motive seemed obvious, along with the desire to kill innocent civilians. But the botched bank robberies didn’t fit. A terrorist faction wouldn’t go to such lengths to make a statement without a hidden agenda. There was something bigger in the hopper, waiting like a monster in the closet for a chance to show its ugly face.
He paid his tab with a fat tip and left. Aside from his contempt for Kriegel, Burns posed another issue. A G-man in a woman’s body, she fit the profile of a textbook agent trying to climb the bureau ladder by engaging in increasingly perilous assignments with the hope that her superiors would take notice and commend her with a nice promotion. She had heart, and she had guts. But she lacked perspective. The kind of vision she’d never find working under Kriegel’s thumb. Not unlike those who’d come before her, throwing themselves in harm’s way to earn points with bureau management, she would soon confront a stark reality: the bad guys shoot back.
* * *
Agent Bryant admired Burns from across the room. He could summon the nerve to kick a door down. He could spar with guys twice his size and twice as strong. He could hold his own in the line of fire. But he couldn’t find the nerve to ask her out a second time without feeling like he was setting himself up for another rejection. He had confidence in himself and his abilities, yet at times he faltered when it came to women, especially beautiful women who carried a gun and a badge.
Burns approached him, holding her gas mask by the straps. “Do you think we’ll really need these?”
Bryant stood tall with his shoulders back and his chest puffed out, striking the pose of a rooster about to forge his way inside a hen house. “You up for this?” he asked. Nice, Dean. Great line. What a way to win her over.
“I’m ready,” said Burns, blushing at the way Agent Bryant looked at her. She knew deep down she felt more terrified than she ever had in her career. Working under cover in vice busting perps on the street proved dangerous at times, but nothing more hazardous than she could handle. She’d learned from the best at the FBI academy. More discipline; sharper self-defense techniques; firearms training for close-quarters combat; evasive driving maneuvers. Her training also taught her to handle irate suspects and to use her speed and agility to overcome larger, more heavily-armed adversaries in the field. Moreover, she’d learned mental sharpness, honing the skills she’d practiced in high-pressure situations, where split-second decisions meant the difference between going home in one piece or riding to the morgue in a body bag.
Bryant fiddled with his gas mask. “Listen, I know what you said before about having a job to do, but I was hoping―”
“Where the hell have you been?” Burns shouted at a disheveled McLeary who strolled through the double doors beyond the guard station at the building entrance. “Kriegel’s pissed.”
“Where is he?”
“The war room. We go live in three minutes.”
Bryant put his hands on his hips. An H&K MP5 submachine gun was suspended from a strap around his armored shoulder pad. “You missed the ops briefing,” he told McLeary.
“I’ve heard it before.”
“I thought guys like you were extinct?”
“I thought the DEA had a minimum age requirement.”
“Save it!” said Burns, physically inserting herself between the two men. “We’ve got a job to do.”
McLeary brandished his .45 and pulled the slide back to chamber the first round. He’d seen too many cases unravel and too many men injured or killed in the line of duty because someone in the chain of command ignored him. “We should stand down. Reevaluate the situation.” He slid his gun inside his holster and buckled the handle strap. “This thing is bigger than any of us want to admit.”
“Good thing you’re not in charge,” said Kriegel, approaching from the war room with two agents at his side.
“You need to call this off,” said McLeary.
“You need to get out of my way.”
“You’re putting men at risk without assessing all the facts.”
“Don’t undermine my authority, McLeary. This operation has been weeks in the making. The fact that you’re late to the party is your problem, not ours.”
“You won’t find Ali Muheen in there.”
“Then we’ll take down the men who work for him. One way or another, I’m going to pull the plug on these anthrax attacks.” He checked his watch. “Are you in or out?”
McLeary grabbed a gas mask from an equipment stash on a table and followed the team to the unmarked van outside.
* * *
McLeary rode with highly-trained operators carrying night vision goggles, flash-bang grenades, and enough firepower to bring down Godzilla. The decision to move ahead despite his objections exemplified the Kriegel he knew and loathed. He would keep his eyes in the back of his head and stay within arm’s reach of Agent Burns, who despite her corrosive attitude, had begun to appear more prominently in his thoughts. “I’m sorry,” he said to her, seated across the aisle in the van. “About the other night…”
“Forget it,” Burns replied. She pulled her gas mask over her head as the red cabin light signaled the van’s arrival at the scene.
McLeary jumped out and followed the Blue Team members inside Ali Muheen’s apartment building. He moved stealthily up the staircase with his gas mask on and his weapon locked and loaded. Flanked by other agents with the letters DEA displayed on the back of their yellow jackets, he followed Kriegel’s team leader. He kept the muzzle pointed at the ground with the safety off and his finger on the trigger guard, climbing two steps at a time to the ninth floor entrance. He followed Agent Bryant single file down the hall and waited for him to give the signal as the team gathered outside Muheen’s apartment door.
“We’re in position,” Bryant whispered, his voice crystal clear over the radio channel in Kriegel’s van.
“Copy that,” Kriegel answered. “Blue Team in position,” he informed the other units monitoring the covert frequency.
“Red Team in position.”
“Skybird good to go,” the chopper pilot acknowledged.
Agent Bryant used hand signals to communicate with the men behind him.
Another agent carried the heavy metal battering ram and swung it hard in a pendulum motion to break through the deadbolt mechanism and bust the door open.
Agent Bryant lobbed a stun grenade inside the apartment.
A loud boom sent a shock wave through the small foyer quickly filling with smoke.
“Go go go!” Bryant ordered.
A throng of federal agents charged inside and scanned the room for hostile targets.
McLeary kept Burns in sight, panning his gun to clear the room of any threats.
“Clear!” a team member shouted from the kitchen entrance while another inspected the empty bathroom hallway.
“Over here,” Burns ordered, standing outside a locked bedroom door.
“DEA!” Bryant shouted through his gas mask filter. Without hesitation, he reared his leg back and kicked the door open with his size twelve boot.
“Hands where I can see them!” he ordered the Middle Eastern man praying on a carpet runner with a copy of the Koran on the floor beside him. Shrouded in a wool blanket, the bearded man remained steadfast in his commitment to finish what he’d started in spite of the loaded guns pointed at him.
Burns filed in behind another colleague.
“Ali Muheen?” said Bryant, comparing the man’s face to the photo in his PDA. “Are you Ali Muheen?”
The bearded man lowered his face to the ground with his palms flat against the carpet. He mumbled to himself, acknowledging no one but the God he prayed to.
Bryant opened the Velcro pouch on his chest and withdrew a syringe and a portable DNA analyzer. He pushed his knee in the suspect’s back and plunged the needle in his arm. He inserted the bloody tip in the device and activated the unit.
Kriegel’s voice came over the radio channel. “Blue Team what’s your status?”
Bryant stared at the analyzer, waiting for the readout to display a comparison. “We have one subject in custody. Unarmed. All clear. Waiting for positive ID.” Two minutes later, he shook the analyzer when he read the negative result. “Negative,” he told Kriegel. “No match. He’s not our guy.”
“Copy that, Blue Team Leader.”
Bryant stood up and nudged the suspect with his boot. “Who are you?” He glanced at Burns before he took a plastic handcuff strap and secured the man’s wrists behind his back. “Get up!” he ordered, lifting the suspect by one arm as a second agent pulled the blanket away and revealed the suicide vest secured around his chest.
The man spit on Bryant’s mask and bit down on the wireless transmitter in his mouth.
“GET DOWN!” McLeary shouted, shoving Burns outside the room before a deafening blast rocked the floor with enough explosive force to blow a crater-size hole in the outside wall and splash the apartment with severed limbs and bloody chunks of human flesh.