McLeary stood near the window inside the Four Seasons penthouse suite overlooking the iridescent lights sprinkled throughout downtown Miami and Biscayne Bay. Dressed in khakis and barefoot loafers with a floral print shirt and a beige sport coat to conceal his weapon, he viewed his options for climbing out of the hole he’d fallen into, a deep chasm black as anthracite with slippery walls and nothing to grab onto. In a contest where second chances came seldom and second thoughts meant the difference between life or death, he’d played his cards at his chest without regard for the consequences of his actions. Alone in his own world, he’d learned a harsh lesson at the expense of another man’s life. Despite Agent Bryant’s propensity for getting under his skin, the man had displayed honor and integrity on a mission demanding the ultimate sacrifice.
He abandoned the window view and retreated inside the spacious suite carved from rich woods and Italian leather, marveling at how the lavish appearance and attention to detail blended seamlessly to mask the room’s arsenal of audio equipment, signal-masking tools for defeating counterintelligence measures, and a cache of specialized weapons. Courtesy of Uncle Sam and the masked man who set him free, he had everything from thermal imaging cameras and facial recognition software to an assortment of cleverly concealed short and long-range communication devices.
* * *
Burns arrived at the penthouse suite with Seth. “I got your message. How did you—”
“Shhh…” McLeary stepped away from the window and passed an RF bug sweeper over Burns and Seth. “You’re late,” he told Burns while he confirmed the absence of any RF emissions. He hugged Seth who leaned in and brought his arm over his dad’s shoulder.
“They got Brian.”
“We’ll get him back.”
Burns stepped closer to McLeary, resisting the urge to hug him. “How are you holding up?”
“Did you find my laptop?”
Burns produced the damaged unit with bullet holes through the shattered screen. “What’s left of it.”
“Can I see it?” asked Seth.
McLeary pointed to the adjoining suite. “There’s rations in the other room. You should eat something.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“I’m not asking. This is an FBI investigation. It doesn’t concern you.”
“It does when my brother is involved.”
McLeary ran his hand through his hair. “You had to bring him here?” he told Burns.
“He’s your son,” she whispered. “You can’t keep him in the dark forever.”
“Twenty-two,” Seth corrected.
“You put your brother’s life in danger.”
“Don’t hang this on me. I never asked to be involved. If you hadn’t brought us to Miami in the first place, we’d still be—”
“What? Playing the Maryland lottery? Defrauding the university? I taught you better.”
“When? You were never around.”
McLeary looked away. “Sometimes you have to play the hand you’re dealt.”
“Like you did with Mom?”
“That’s not fair.”
Seth glared at his father. “You wanna talk about fair? Let’s talk about my dead girlfriend and whether Brian’s still alive.”
Burns touched Seth’s shoulder reassuringly and looked at McLeary with raised eyebrows.
McLeary read her mind like the morning paper. “It’s too dangerous. I’ve already lost one son. I won’t lose another.”
“You won’t,” Seth spoke up. “I can help with this investigation.”
“What could you possibly know about this investigation?”
“I know enough.”
“This is way bigger than you can imagine, Seth.”
“All the more reason for my help.”
McLeary stepped out on the balcony. He saw himself in Seth’s eyes. The good and the bad. To involve Seth any further would only put his son’s life in jeopardy. But to deny Seth the chance to help his brother seemed a greater injustice. “No heroics. You stay behind the scenes and do exactly what I tell you. Understand?”
“Do you think Brian’s still alive?”
“If they wanted him dead, they would have killed him on the spot and left him there. They took him for a reason.”
Seth pointed to the damaged laptop in Burns’ hand. “What’s on there?”
“Statistical analysis of crime patterns,” said McLeary. “People, places, events, and times I correlated using two-dimensional spectral analysis and spatial regression with advanced interpolation techniques. I’ve been analyzing known events to try and correlate them with data from various agencies. If we can establish the links between these past events and model their behavior, we might find a way to predict Abdullah’s next move.”
“Like connect the dots?” asked Burns.
“Sort of. Ali Muheen’s fabricated fingerprint from our first crime scene at Chase Bank took us in a wrong direction. Then more faulty intel skewed our investigation.”
“Abdullah had us pinned all along.”
“We zigged. He zagged, perfecting his weaponized anthrax along the way.”
“Who’s Ali Muheen?” asked Seth.
“Go eat. I’ll get you when I need you.”
McLeary could almost hear the wheels turning in Burns’ head.
She asked, “How could Abdullah’s organization have our best people chasing their own shadows?”
McLeary waited for Seth to disappear in the other room. “Because there’s an enemy among us. A double agent, as you’ve aptly pointed out.”
“Someone in the FBI?”
“Possibly. But my money’s on someone closer. Someone within the intelligence community. A person with access to information from Langley.”
“What more do we know about Fayez Sayeed?”
“Enough to know he’s just a pawn in the larger game. A better question would be why would Ahmed Abdullah kill a ground crew member at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam and circumvent an iris scanning system to gain unauthorized access to a loading bay? He could have bypassed security and smuggled his package into the United States any number of ways, from any number of other countries.”
“Kriegel briefed us already,” said Burns.
“Kriegel knows more than he’s sharing. I took a crack at Gordon Gentry’s Blackberry. A friend at Quantico decoded a steganographic image on the screen to find a series of numbers, maybe part of a hidden code Gordon Gentry was never meant to see.” McLeary grabbed a notepad from the desk and scribbled 315507803140.
Burns studied the numbers. “Looks like a PIN code. Too long to be a social. Maybe a phone number?”
McLeary shrugged his shoulders. “315 is a New York area code. Probably pure coincidence. The first ten digits represent a valid phone number, but the line was disconnected two years ago.”
“What more do we know about Rodney Nito?”
“Another pawn, like Gentry. Hired by someone within Abdullah’s organization.”
“Terrorists don’t hire Americans to do their dirty work.”
“That’s an assumption. Prove it hasn’t happened before.”
“But why would a punk like Nito help a terrorist organization?”
“The oldest reason of all. As long as there’s easy money to be had, there will always be people like Nito and Gentry who’ll follow the devil himself to get it.” McLeary peered into the other room to check on Seth. “While Agent Bryant and the DEA pursued Muheen, or who they thought was Muheen, Abdullah set a parallel plan in motion.”
Burns handed McLeary the damaged laptop. “We could send this to Quantico for analysis. Fresh eyes couldn’t hurt.”
McLeary examined the computer. “We’re long on theory and short on proof. And I can’t trust anyone outside this room.”
“I appreciate the vote of confidence, but the proof is what we make of it. We’re not after Abdullah’s organization to prosecute them.”
“What are you saying?” McLeary asked, blindsided by his partner’s abrupt departure from her coveted code of ethics.
“I’m saying too many American lives are in jeopardy. FBI, CIA, DEA, Homeland Security… We’ve all lost someone close. This fight wasn’t personal when it started for me. It is now. I want Abdullah found, and I want him dead.”
“Those are big words.”
“I’m a big girl.”
McLeary opened the bullet-ridden laptop and tried to power it on. “It’s shot, literally.”
“Maybe we can still recover the disk.”
“I could do it if I had the right diagnostic tools,” Seth offered, returning to the room with a bottle of cold water and a bag of peanuts. He took the damaged laptop from his dad. “I could take a crack at your PIN code too.”
“How long have you been listening?”
“I was in the other room, not across state lines.”
“This isn’t a game, son. I don’t want you more involved than you already are.”
Seth gulped the rest of his water. “I’ve been shot at—twice. My pregnant girlfriend was murdered. My brother is missing. The die is cast for me. I’m up to my eyeballs in this shit whether you like it or not. You can choose to accept it or ignore it. Either way, I want in.”
McLeary shook his head, staring at his son. His face is pale—yet he looks hot. And it obviously hurts when he swallows. Despite his own misgivings about involving his son any further, Seth’s unyielding determination softened his position like a soaking rain on a drought-ravaged field. “What do you need?”