Slumped on a padded bar stool in an upscale restaurant with valet parking and entrée prices steeper than a Broadway show, McLeary held a picture of his sons with their mother standing between them, her arms around both boys. Worn and faded, the small photo had endured several years crammed in the back of his bi-fold wallet, including a full wash cycle at the laundromat. “I’ll take another,” he told the bartender who filled a tall glass from the Michelob Ultra tap.
“Are you waiting for a table?”
McLeary rubbed his thumb along the photo’s tattered edge. “Not tonight.”
“That’s what my girlfriend always tells me,” the bartender quipped, his coy expression dissolving the moment his eyes met the glare from the FBI agent, who could break him in half without spilling his drink.
McLeary retrieved an airline itinerary from his jacket pocket beside his empty holster. His flight from BWI to Miami departed in four hours, giving ample time to reflect on the recent checkmark in his failure column. The more he thought about the bureau, the more he regretted his involvement in the robbery investigation. He’d struck out worse than a one-arm batter. The glory days were over, and his feeble attempt to rekindle the past reminded him of why things ended the way they had. However righteous the cause appeared, it meant nothing in the scheme of life. Banks were meant to be robbed, if not by thugs with guns, then by sleazy Wall Street suits who made more money than God with less integrity than a torpedoed hull. The bad guys would commit the crimes, and the police would chase them in a never-ending cycle of cause and effect, good versus evil, kill or be killed, and all that crap. Throwing bodies at a broken system kept the wheels of justice spinning, adding low-level criminals to over-crowded prisons while the real masterminds remained at large to perpetuate the cycle of wide-spread corruption and greed.
He drank from his chilled glass, enjoying the first beer he’d had in days.
He stuffed the picture in his wallet between a video rental coupon and a credit card.
“I thought you’d left for Miami,” said Burns, approaching from the lobby entrance.
McLeary sipped his beer and licked the foam off his upper lip. “You might want to wipe your nose. I still see Kriegel’s ass on the tip.”
Burns held a string tie envelope in her hand. “Are you always this crass?”
McLeary slapped a twenty-dollar bill on the bar loud enough to get the server’s attention. “Keep the change.”
Burns glanced at the female patrons in fur coats and expensive jewelry worth more than her car and wardrobe combined. “We need to talk.”
“Just hear me out. If you don’t like what I have to say, I’ll keep walking and let you finish your beer.”
“Just like that? Without sparing me one minute of your precious time.”
“You’re a fast learner.”
“How do you live with yourself, McLeary? Despite how you see things, the world doesn’t revolve around you.”
McLeary finished his beer. “Are we done?”
“That depends,” Burns blurted loud enough for every patron in the bar to hear, “on whether or not you’re still living on stolen money.”
“Good night, Agent Burns.”
“I didn’t come here to lock horns, McLeary. I need your help.”
“Sorry Sweat Pea. That ship has sailed.”
“Kriegel reassigned me to the case. I thought you should know—”
“Kriegel’s an idiot.”
* * *
Burns kept silent for several seconds, allowing the angry voice in her head to subside; the same inner voice she heard every time Jim McLeary opened his mouth. She didn’t need him to do her job. She didn’t want him to do her job. But as much as she hated to admit it, McLeary was on target about Kriegel. “For the sake of argument, let’s say you’re right. Kriegel is an idiot. It doesn’t change my motivation to catch these guys before they hit another bank and more innocent people get hurt.”
McLeary left the bar and worked his way through a large dinner party converging on the dining room. “I have a flight to catch,” he said without looking back.
McLeary pushed his way outside. “That’s it.”
Burns followed him to the parking lot and shoved an IAFIS report in his face. “We got a hit off the print you found at the Chase Bank robbery.”
“You don’t give up, do you?” McLeary grumbled. He snatched the paper and read the comparison results. “What do you want from me, Agent Burns?”
“I want your help.” Burns scanned the parking lot before she lowered her voice and said, “The print belongs to a terrorist named Ali Muheen. IAFIS pulled him from the Homeland Security watchlist. He’s number seven—”
“I know where he is on the list.” McLeary gave the paper back.
“Then tell me why he’s involved in robbing banks.”
“Maybe his credit card’s over the limit.”
“I’m serious, McLeary. Work with me on this—at least until we crack the case.”
McLeary pressed his hand on the Mustang’s roof. Out of time and out of options, he flattered Agent Burns with a question. “What exactly is your plan?”
“Start from scratch. Go back to Gordon Gentry’s restaurant in China Town. Maybe someone who knew him there can give us new direction.”
“Gentry was a career criminal with a long rap sheet. He wasn’t the brains behind the first robbery.”
“He knew enough to end up dead.”
“You’re assuming his death was intentional.”
“It wouldn’t be the first time one partner screwed over the other for a bigger share.”
“Or a chance to make a name for herself.”
“Are you really that shallow, McLeary?”
“Do Boy Scouts shit in the woods?”
Burns waited by the driver’s door. Her doubts about McLeary resurfaced like the tuna she had for lunch. “Kriegel has your gun in his office. Internal Affairs approved the shooting.”
“You’re lucky I was on the bridge with you.”
Burns held her hand out. “You’re lucky you’re not in jail. Give me the keys. I’m driving.”
“Not a chance, Sweet Pea.”
“Technically you’re still under contract with the bureau and therefore still on the job. If Kriegel finds out you’ve been drinking on duty…”
McLeary dropped the keys in her hand and went around to the passenger side.
Burns climbed in and brought the engine to life. She nudged the accelerator, producing a throaty growl from the Mustang’s dual exhaust.
“There’s a valet switch under the dash.” McLeary pointed at the steering column. “Flip it down to cut the power back.”
“You think you can handle it?”
Burns slid the transmission in drive and mashed the accelerator to the floor. The supercharged big block responded instantly, lighting up the rear tires to leave parallel patches of smoking rubber behind. “You think you can handle me?”
* * *
McLeary entered the Chinese restaurant with Agent Burns through the back. He saw a waiter in rubber-sole shoes mop a path from the kitchen to the dining room entrance. Sauce pots simmered on a gas-fired grill beneath an assortment of utensils suspended from a wire rack.
When a manager in a black bow tie and white shirt with gold cuff links approached, Burns displayed her badge and said, “We’re with the FBI.”
“How did you get in here?”
“We need to ask your employees a few questions.”
“About what?” the manager replied in a heavy Cantonese accent. He spoke through chapped lips and crooked yellow teeth. “We are very busy.”
McLeary showed a picture of Gordon Gentry lying face-up on a slab in the morgue. “Do you recognize this man?”
“Perhaps this is not the time or place?”
Burns maintained a sideways glance at the chef dicing vegetables with a chopping knife the size of a small machete. “We can do this now or come back with a warrant to search the premises. Then we can escort your entire staff downtown for questioning.”
“That won’t be necessary.” The manager brought them to a tiny office in a hallway with red wallpaper and textured ceiling tiles. “The man you ask of worked for me. Washed dishes. Part time. Mostly weekends.”
“What can you tell us about him?” said McLeary.
“Always keep to himself. No trouble. Did his job and went home.”
Burns examined the office space. There was a Chinese calendar on the wall and a printing calculator on a desk littered with restaurant receipts. “Did you pay him cash?”
The manager looked at Burns, then back at McLeary. “I paid him cash every Friday. He work cheap. No trouble.”
“Yeah, we got that part,” McLeary added. “What can you tell us about his friends? Where he lived? Who he spoke to?”
“He spoke to no one.”
McLeary noticed a box of junk in the corner. “When did you hire him?”
“Six months ago.”
“You let Caucasians work here?”
“No one wants dish job anymore.” The manager stepped into the hallway and barked orders in his native tongue, prodding cooks and waiters to move faster.
“Do you mind if we have a look around?” asked Burns.
Burns closed her notepad and turned to McLeary while the manager disappeared in the kitchen fray. “Do you think he’s hiding something?”
“Maybe. Did anything turn up in Gentry’s apartment?”
Burns shook her head. “Kriegel sent forensics to toss his place. So far the lab’s turned up nothing to connect him to the Chase Bank robbery or Ali Muheen. Whatever Gordon Gentry had up his sleeve, he kept it to himself.”
McLeary headed toward the dish-washing station, where a nozzle hung from a spring-loaded water line above the giant stainless steel basin. A Salvadoran dish washer with a pencil mustache and a baseball cap scrubbed a kettle with a Brillo pad. McLeary tapped him on the shoulder and flashed Gentry’s picture.
The dish washer shrugged and kept working.
McLeary persisted. “Have you seen this guy before?” He grabbed the spray nozzle and held it away. “You speak English?”
Burns intervened, stepping between McLeary and the frightened worker. “My partner is an ape,” she said in Spanish. “Please ignore him.”
“I don’t want any trouble,” the dishwasher replied.
“I understand. But this man robbed a bank and killed two police officers.
“No INS. We just want to know about this man in the picture.”
The dish washer relented. “He never spoke to me. I saw him maybe three, four times.”
Burns held a photo of a young, bearded, Ali Muheen in a white turban. “Have you ever seen this man before?”
The dish washer nodded. “Yes.”
“A week ago. I carried trash outside and heard them arguing in the parking lot.”
“I don’t remember. He drove away in a black Mercedes.”
“Did you see the license plate?”
Burns gave the dish washer twenty bucks. Then she wandered through the restaurant to find McLeary chatting up a pretty hostess in a red dress in heels. “We’re good.”
McLeary smiled at the hostess and nodded. He followed Burns outside. “You get anything from our dish boy?”
“Muheen was here.”
“About a week ago. I’ll call Kriegel and get a team to sit on this place.”
McLeary examined a broken Blackberry phone with a busted screen.
“Where’d you find that?”
“Buried in the lost and found with a shirt and an empty wallet with no ID. Might be something. Might be nothing. I’ll dump the records.”
“You find anything else while you were flirting with the staff?”
McLeary shrugged. “Just a green card and some bad egg foo young.”