Burns rode shotgun in McLeary’s rented Charger as they entered the parking garage below a covert DEA facility nestled within a cluster of high-rise offices outside a high-tech industrial park. Neither spoke on the elevator ride to the seventh floor task force office.
Burns flashed her badge at the guard on duty inside the office suite. “He’s with me,” she told the officer in uniform, pointing to McLeary beside her.
“You’re late,” Kriegel barked from the conference room window overlooking the Miami traffic below. He closed the vertical blinds and dimmed the lights. “Shut the door.” He motioned to Doctor Beckman who plugged her laptop computer into the video projection monitor on the table. “This is Doctor Candice Beckman, a senior pathologist with the CDC.”
McLeary shook her hand. “Doctor.”
Burns followed behind McLeary. “I’m Special Agent Burns. Nice to meet you.”
“Likewise,” Candice answered. She pointed to Agent Bryant seated across the room in jeans and a Miami Dolphins jersey. “I assume you all know Special Agent Bryant and his team with the DEA task force?”
“We’ve met,” said McLeary. He stared at Agent Bryant with contempt, recalling the face of a former accuser.
Kriegel snagged the wireless remote from the table and clicked the PowerPoint presentation to flash the image of a bearded man with a bloody face, half buried in the crumbled ruins of a deserted military bunker destroyed by a surface-to-air missile. “Special Forces snapped this picture from a drone three years ago in Afghanistan after an airstrike on an al-Qaida stronghold failed to neutralize the primary target.”
“Who is he?” asked McLeary.
“His name is Ahmed Mahmoud Abdullah, a radical fundamentalist and previous deputy chief scientist from Saddam Hussein’s former death squad. Abdullah’s believed to be responsible for conducting hundreds of lethal experiments involving aerosolized biological pathogens on civilians. Mostly women and children.” Kriegel paused to reflect. “As the photo shows, he was left for dead in the airstrike rubble until our friends at Langley uncovered new intelligence to suggest otherwise.”
Kriegel clicked the next slide to illuminate the picture of an airline baggage handler.
“Meet Marcus Noland, a former CIA asset killed in Amsterdam where he was working as a ground crew member for Transatlantic Airlines. Noland was feeding the Agency information on Abdullah’s whereabouts and his alleged plans for a wide-spread attack on U.S. soil.”
Kriegel clicked to the next slide, which showed a dead woman on her knees in a public restroom with her head in a toilet. “This photo was taken one week ago. Intelligence suggests Ahmed Abdullah assumed the identity of Marcus Noland to gain access to the airport facility where he got close to this woman, Carla Bonnnove, Marcus Noland’s girlfriend and ground crew shift supervisor in charge of baggage screening. He used her to gain access to a baggage sorting area. We believe Abdullah was attempting to smuggle something out of Europe and into the United States.”
“Smuggle what?” asked Agent Bryant.
“I’ll get there in a moment.”
Kriegel advanced the presentation, showing a bathtub full of partially liquefied human remains. “You’re looking at what’s left of Marcus Noland who took his last shower in an acid bath. This picture was taken by Rosie Uppal, a senior field agent sent to investigate Noland’s disappearance when he fell off Langley’s radar. A local asset found Rosie dead in her car.”
McLeary got up from his seat. “Why didn’t the Agency roll up Abdullah when they had the chance?”
“Because you know as well as I do Langley’s not interested in making arrests.”
Agent Bryant spoke up. “And what about Ali Muheen? How does he fit in?”
Kriegel advanced to the next slide, flashing the family portrait of Fayez Sayeed with his wife and three children. “We’ll get there.” He coughed to clear his throat. “This is a picture of Fayez Sayeed taken two years ago. A naturalized American citizen, loving husband, father, and well-respected GS-14 working for the IRS until he went AWOL from his job a week ago and fell off the grid.”
Burns shook her head. “What does he have to do with anything?”
“Before Marcus Noland was murdered in Amsterdam, he supplied the CIA with intel about an Iranian mole living in Washington D.C. Marcus never uncovered the mole’s identity, only that he had strong ties to Ali Muheen and Ahmed Abdullah. Marcus believed the mole was working with Muheen and Abdullah in conjunction with other members of a Lebanon-based radical Shi’a group who call themselves—”
“Hezbollah,” said McLeary. He rubbed his chin. “The same group who attacked the U.S. Marine barracks with a suicide truck in Beirut in ’83.”
Burns scribbled in her notepad. “What about Fayez Sayeed? Does he have any ties in the U.S.?”
“Homeland Security has his American wife under federal surveillance. So far she’s not suspected of any terrorist involvement. Fayez Sayeed came to this country to obtain a permanent residence and now he’s abandoned his American wife and children.”
“What do we know about his plans?” asked McLeary.
“Not much. We deployed a code yellow terrorist alert. State and local authorities have an all points bulletin on Sayeed. Hopefully they’ll get lucky and pick him up.”
“And what about Ali Muheen?” Agent Bryant asked again. “How does he fit into all this?”
Kriegel coughed. “We’re still piecing everything together. But we do know Muheen is a brother-in-law of Ahmed Abdullah, whose wife and son were killed in the airstrike photo I showed you earlier. We believe Muheen operated several terrorist training camps in Chechnya and the Pankisi Gorge region of Georgia. We also believe Muheen and his cohorts smuggled several experimental pathogens from a biodefense laboratory in Kazakhstan. Intelligence tracked him outside of Amsterdam, and most recently, Miami. We speculate he’s working in conjunction with Fayez Sayeed. As Agent Bryant can attest, the DEA’s had Muheen under surveillance for several weeks.”
Agent Bryant nodded. “For involvement with narcotics distribution. Now for all we know Muheen could be cooking up explosives instead of crack.”
McLeary looked at Burns, then at Agent Bryant, and finally at Kriegel. “Muheen is dead.”
“What are you talking about?” asked Agent Bryant.
“The man you’re watching is not Ali Muheen.”
Kriegel tossed the wireless control on the table, his posture telegraphing his disgust. “Have you been drinking on the job? Because the words coming out of your mouth don’t make sense.”
McLeary stood beside the conference table. “None of this makes sense,” he continued. “I received a tip two days ago from an anonymous source who believes Muheen is dead. This source also helped another colleague in Quantico decrypt a message from Gordon Gentry’s Blackberry we found in China Town, where a witness spotted Gentry getting into a sedan with Muheen.”
“Something about a magical kingdom.”
“And when were you planning to share this with the team?”
“I just did.”
It was obvious Kriegel struggled to keep a level head in front of Doctor Beckam. “What’s the connection?”
McLeary shrugged. “My money says Abdullah used Gentry to rob a bank. Gentry never knew the big picture. Neither did Rodney Nito and whoever else Abdullah’s team recruited to do their dirty work and sidetrack us from their real end game.”
“Which is what?” Agent Bryant chimed in. “My men have had Muheen under twenty-four seven watch for weeks. What makes you think your anonymous source is credible?”
“My gut,” said McLeary.
“Oh… well… why didn’t you say so in the first place? I’d trust your gut over credible intelligence sources any day.”
McLeary kept a tight face, deflecting Agent Bryant’s condescending tone with unwavering confidence in his own assessment of the anonymous caller’s credibility. “This wasn’t a crank call. This person had knowledge of Gordon Gentry’s Blackberry and the crypto skills to help an expert analyst uncover the coded message it was hiding.”
“So did anyone who worked closely with Gordon Gentry,” Kriegel interjected. “In fact, how do we know this mystery source of yours doesn’t pose a counter-intelligence threat? For all you know, he could be working with someone in Abdullah’s organization, dropping erroneous clues to disrupt our investigation. In fact, how can we trust that anything you’re telling us is true?”
“The same way we trust Agent Bryant never had inappropriate relations with barn animals.”
“That photo was doctored!” Bryant retorted amid a chorus of muffled giggles from his colleagues in the back of the room.
Kriegel gnashed his teeth. “God dammit McLeary! I warned you about pulling this sort of shit during my investigation.”
“You mean our investigation,” said Burns.
“Gentlemen, ladies,” Doctor Beckman piped up, undoubtedly attempting to diffuse the lethal concentration of testosterone in the room. “Please… We’re spinning our wheels and going nowhere fast.” She commandeered the remote from Kriegel and advanced to her portion of the presentation. “Time is our enemy.” She waited for the grumbling to subside before she started. “I don’t give a shit about your personal problems or your political agendas. The fact is we’re likely dealing with an anthrax outbreak the likes of which we’ve never seen before.” She clicked to a slide showing a list of names appended to five different hospital images linked to a bank photo. “Doctor Michael Lewis uncovered the threat before it finally killed him. His autopsy confirmed hematoxylinophilic bacilli had completely filled his perivascular lymphatic space. Immunohistochemistry revealed B anthracis in affected tissues with an antimicrobial-resistant strain modified to increase virulence.”
McLeary read the charts on screen. “Translation?”
“Doctor Lewis, and staff at other hospitals, confirmed almost a hundred cases citing exposure to weaponized anthrax as cause of death.” She paused once she finally had the group’s full attention. “A portion of my team began the process of trying to identify the source of the infection, starting with background checks of all known or suspected anthrax victims at nearby hospitals in the Washington Metropolitan region. We cross-referenced the list of names and discovered all were members of one or more of the financial institutions that were recently targeted. We confirmed our findings. Most of our anthrax victims were present during the time of the robberies.”
“Which leads us to speculate,” Kriegel added, “about the strong possibility that our robbery victims were exposed to airborne contaminants.”
“Are we at risk?” asked McLeary.
“The probability is low.”
“How low?” asked Burns.
“I can’t give an exact figure.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means we don’t have all the answers,” said Doctor Beckam. “Anthrax doesn’t spread like the common cold. It doesn’t pass from person to person.”
“Unless it’s been genetically modified to do so,” McLeary added.
Doctor Beckman looked at Kriegel then back at McLeary. “Let’s not jump to unfounded conclusions.”
“But it’s possible…”
“In theory, perhaps. Though it’s highly unlikely without knowing the specific gene sequence or—”
“We’re still missing something,” McLeary argued. “Are you suggesting the bank robberies we’re investigating are ground zero for these anthrax attacks?”
“It’s one scenario.”
“Why would someone launch a bioweapon attack during an armed robbery?”
Burns rummaged through her notes. “Rodney Nito said someone paid him to rob the credit union. Maybe he and Gordon Gentry were recruited to do more than steal money?”
“They don’t fit a bioterrorist’s profile,” said McLeary.
“Maybe not,” said Kriegel. “But it fits with Ahmed Abdullah’s MO.”
Doctor Beckman clicked to the next slide. “Handling virulent biological agents in an envelope is one thing, but creating a weaponized version of anthrax spores lies beyond the reach of most terrorist organizations. It requires highly specialized skills and access to sophisticated equipment.”
McLeary shook his head. He stared at Doctor Beckman through pinched eyes. “Any crackpot with a degree in biochemistry and a quantity of anthrax material could pull this off.”
“We’re not talking about mixing fertilizers with diesel fuel, Agent McLeary. There are more than seventy different strains of anthrax. A potential enemy would have to isolate different strains before finding one sufficiently potent to work in a specific, weaponized format.”
“Like the Ames and Vollum strains?”
“Or worse… An aerosol release of fifty kilograms of dried anthrax containing several trillion spores over a city of five million would produce more than a hundred thousand deaths and nearly a quarter million incapacitating illnesses. The spores are odorless and nearly colorless in the atmosphere. They can also sustain their potency for decades.”
Burns tapped her pen on her notepad. “What about a vaccine?”
“Antibiotics are the first defense for victims already exposed. The CDC stocks Ciprofloxacin, although its effectiveness varies depending on the length of time from exposure and whether the spores were inhaled or passed subcutaneously through the skin. The Pentagon stores the military’s Biothrax vaccine. Right now that’s our best pre-exposure protection against known anthrax strains.”
“What about unknown anthrax strains?”
“Biothrax, or any vaccine we manufacture, is not a cure-all. No two people can be guaranteed the same level of protection. With the right anthrax variant and the right antigens, our best vaccine could be rendered ineffective. I’ve been in touch with Fort Detrick—”
“What are you saying?” asked Burns. “How effective do you think this vaccine will be? If at all?”
Doctor Beckman stretched across the table and turned off the slide projector. The darkened room fell funeral-silent with the cooling fan humming inside the projector housing. “A better question would be: how do we prevent the next attack from happening?”