McLeary gazed at the porthole in the trawler’s main saloon and slammed an empty shot of Wild Turkey on the table by his loaded .45. Another day had come and gone with nothing but tragedy to show for his efforts. He’d suspected the target in question was not Ali Muheen. And now he regretted his decision to not press Kriegel, harder, for more time to investigate the anonymous tip. You’re not culpable, he told himself, pouring another shot from the half-empty bottle on the table.
You tried to warn them. They wouldn’t listen. This falls on Kriegel, not you.
He heard a noise and grabbed his gun. He released the safety and touched his finger to the trigger. Dry teak-wood creaked beneath his feet as he stepped sideways toward the double Dutch doors facing the starboard gunwale.
“It’s me,” said Burns.
McLeary lowered his weapon in disbelief. “Are you trying to get yourself killed?”
Burns appeared from the darkness. “I heard you were still here. Kriegel’s been looking for you.”
“He knows where to find me.”
“He wants to reconvene in the morning.” She glanced about the living quarters. “Where are your boys?”
“I sent them out.”
Burns touched the whiskey bottle. “I never took you for a man with self-pity.”
“You never took me for much of anything.”
Burns leaned forward, ducking her head as she entered the pilothouse. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“I’m not responsible for what happened this morning.”
“I didn’t say you were.”
“You don’t have to…” He set the gun down and settled in a sofa cushion with his arm across his head. “We were played. Someone wanted the FBI to look hard at a terrorist cell that wasn’t there. And Agent Bryant paid the price.”
Burns propped herself against the table. “The bureau’s pointing fingers. Kriegel thinks this case is imploding. The DEA suspects a drug cartel’s involved. They believe Muheen owed money and couldn’t pay. Maybe faked his own death in the airstrike raid and sent us on a goose chase.”
McLeary sat up and rummaged through a junk drawer in the cabin. When he couldn’t find what he wanted, he retreated downstairs to the berthing compartments and returned with a box of puzzle pieces. He dumped the cardboard cutouts on the table, letting them drop in a random pile detached from one another.
“What are you doing?”
McLeary dug his fingers through five-hundred puzzle pieces and turned them right side up. He studied the pieces for several seconds and fanned them around the table. Then he picked one up and placed it in the corner, followed by another and another until he had the puzzle framed.
Burns looked on. “How many times have you—”
“Once, counting now.” McLeary stamped piece after piece in place until half the puzzle came together in minutes.
“How did you do that?”
“Instant pattern recognition. Hypersensitive visual scanning. The ability to see the big picture from tiny pieces. It’s a gift. And a curse.” He formed the picture of a sailboat on the water in waning twilight. “Sometimes the piece you’re looking for, the one that continues to allude you while you’re pulling your hair out, is right in front of you, waiting to be put in place.” He sifted through the last hundred pieces and stopped. “I can’t tell you how I do it. I just see things from a different perspective than most.”
“Nice parlor trick. What does it have to do with anything?”
McLeary pushed the puzzle aside and retreated to an aft compartment.
* * *
Burns glanced about the cabin space void of any personal décor to lighten the dark wood finish on the floors and walls. The place lacked a woman’s touch, though it had a strange appeal from its water venue. In addition to the smells and the clatter from a bilge pump cycling on and off intermittently, she felt claustrophobic within the confines of the floating bachelor pad.
When a shoe box protruding from a small compartment sparked her curiosity, she propped the lid open and discovered an assortment of family pictures and colored slides. She held a slide between her fingers and held it to the light, examining the image of a young mother holding two babies swaddled in hospital blankets.
“Put it back,” said McLeary, emerging from below deck with a sheet of folded computer paper.
Burns held the slide for McLeary to see. “I thought they didn’t make these anymore.” She put it back in the box and watched McLeary unfold the color page. “What’s that?”
“A theory.” He pointed to the elaborate diagram with criss-crossed lines and arrows pointing from boxes with names, locations, times, and events. “I wrote a program to correlate every aspect of our investigation with the facts we know for certain.” He pointed to a box labeled Miami DEA Field Office. “Agent Bryant tracked someone believed to be Ali Muheen.” He pointed to another space on the diagram and traced his finger along a line connecting Ahmed Abdullah, Ali Muheen, Fayez Sayeed, Gordon Gentry, and Rodney Nito to several bank photos. “We found Muheen’s prints at the Chase Bank scene because Abdullah planted those prints for us to find.”
“To throw us off. To send this investigation in a million directions at once and distract us from his real end game. Muheen has been dead all along. Abdullah obtained Muheen’s prints and transferred them to the scene.” He pointed to the arrows stemming outward from the center of the diagram. The word “anthrax” appeared above a skull and crossbones symbol. “These events aren’t random. They’re all connected somehow by an organization with a terrorist agenda. Ahmed Abdullah is plotting something big, something right under our nose.”
Burns studied the confusing diagram, obviously trying to make sense of it all. “Have you shown this to Kriegel?”
“I don’t trust him.”
“Who else has seen it?”
“We’re not intelligence analysts, McLeary. Our job is to investigate the crime, apprehend the suspects, and file the reports.”
“Spoken like a true bureaucrat.” He folded the paper. “Keep marching to Kriegel’s orders and you’ll fall off the cliff with the G-men who came before you.”
Burns gave a look of disgust. “Are you kidding me? I don’t give a crap about Kriegel or his bureau politics. I’m in the business of saving lives.”
“Say it to yourself in the mirror ten times, then tell me if you still believe it.”
“At least I can look at myself in the mirror. And I can sleep at night. Can you?” Burns shuddered as the words spewed out of her mouth. “I’ve seen the way you carry yourself, the way you act when you’re alone—your closet paranoia about people who believed in you, people who counted on you to do your job. What happened to you McLeary? You used to be a good man, a good agent—a good father. If anyone can’t be trusted, it’s you.”
McLeary looked down at the floor. He saw Burns in a different light, wanting to explain his past and clear the air with the woman he’d spent more time with than anyone he’d met since his marriage abruptly ended. A road of solitude winds in circles, his father used to tell him. He ached for another drink or a bullet in the head. “I didn’t ask you to get involved. You came to me, remember?”
Burns checked the window. “Agent Bryant told me his theory about your little exploit with the stolen money from the evidence locker.”
“And you believed him?”
“I believe you were better off without Bryant poking around where he didn’t belong. And now that he’s gone—”
“You’re alive because of me, Agent Burns.”
“And a man is dead because of you.”
McLeary shuffled to the pilothouse and put his hands on the ship’s wheel. He stared at the boats in their slips across the water. “I stole the money. Two-hundred and fifty-thousand dollars. Cash.”
Burns approached him. “Is that why your wife left you?”
“Is that what Kriegel told you?”
“Am I wrong?”
“About a lot of things…” He kept his back to Burns and lowered his head, slouching as he stood at the helm, fighting the urge to share what he’d failed to tell anyone before. “I met my wife Melissa in high school our Senior year at prom. We had both broken up with our high school sweethearts the night before. I fell in love with her the instant I saw her. Her smile touched me in a way no woman ever had before. I assumed I’d never see her again until our paths crossed again in college. Neither of us knew each other by name, only by memory of our prom. I married her before I joined the Army. Seth and Brian were born three years later.”
He swallowed dryly, staring at a flashing red light on the buoy near the channel entrance. “Melissa used to dive with me and the boys when they were younger. Mostly lakes and quarries until we saved our pennies one year and splurged for a week vacation in Belize. The boys were thirteen. Melissa never loved diving the way I did, but she tolerated it because it made the boys in her life happy.”
He cleared his throat. “It was August, two thousand and four. I remember the event like it happened yesterday.”
Burns crossed her arms above her chest and took a deep breath. McLeary’s body language betrayed his own desiccation. “What happened?”
“We descended as a group along the anchor line into a limestone sinkhole called the Blue Hole. All thirteen of us, including myself, Melissa, and our boys. A circle of blue water one thousand feet wide and four-hundred feet deep in the middle of fucking nowhere.”
McLeary turned his head as if to make eye contact with Burns. “The boys were green. They’d made deep dives before but not in open ocean seventy miles from land. We descended fast down a sheer rock wall. Reef sharks circled beneath us. I kept the boys at arm’s length. Melissa followed with a camera, taking pictures of everything in sight like some Japanese tourist.”
He paused to collect himself. “At ninety feet, the rock wall ended in an overhang. I’d burned through half my air when I turned to Melissa and saw her give me the ‘Okay’ sign. I checked the boys’ air and our time at depth. We’d all logged dives to that depth or greater, but this one was different. I could see it on Melissa’s face. Intoxicating. Nitrogen narcosis. She took a picture of the boys outside a cavern entrance, laughing behind her mask as she lost her sense of reason. I tapped my tank with my dive knife to get the boys’ attention—but they kept drifting out of reach, posing for the camera, falling faster, deeper with their mother who’d lost all perception of reality.”
He shook his head and clenched his fists. “I reached our boys and tried to force them to ascend. Melissa disappeared in the blackness. My tank was nearly empty when I swam after her. One hundred and forty feet. Then one hundred and fifty. Then one hundred and sixty. I tried to pull her up, but she just looked at me like I was crazy.”
He cleared his throat. “I tried to drop her weight belt but she kept falling. I was already out of air. I managed to get up to the boys and we buddy-breathed to the surface.”
He turned away from Burns and stared through the porthole, fighting to stem the tide of emotions rising over him. “She kicked away, disoriented, confused, irrational… Falling deeper, faster… In my dreams I still see her bubbles rising from the bottom of the hole. I’d watched my soul mate, my partner, the mother of my children slip away.”
He wiped his hand on his face. “Have you ever loved someone so much you’d rather die than spend the rest of your life without them? Have you ever stared for hours at a simple photograph and found yourself at a loss for words, where you feel as if your soul was stripped away from your physical body and left to wander aimlessly while you comb through dying embers searching for a way to get on with your life?”
Burns touched his arm and felt him pull away. Her eyes watered. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
“When my insurance declined to pay for a salvage operation to recover Melissa’s body, I stole the drug money from the evidence locker and hired my own team. I couldn’t move on with my life without getting her back. Without a proper burial. Without closure.”
“What about Seth and Brian?”
“What about them? They look at me and see the man who killed their mother, not the man who made the hardest decision of his life. They’ll never forgive me for what happened and I can’t expect them to. But what I did, I did to prevent one tragedy from becoming three. If I hadn’t stopped them, they would have followed her to her death.”
“It’s not your fault. You can’t make sense out of it with logic or reason. Sometimes bad things just happen.”
“My boys were too young. They never should have made the dive. I should have focused my attention on one person, not three.” He peered out the porthole beside the starboard door, curious as to why the lights along the pier were out while his trawler’s electricity stayed on. When he opened the door and stepped onto the gunwale, he met Seth and Brian on the pier. “How long have you been out here?”
The boys entered the main saloon, where Burns nudged the unfinished puzzle on the table. “Good night,” said Brian, removing his baseball cap to fan his hand through his hair. Seth nodded to Agent Burns and followed his brother below deck.
Burns looked up at McLeary. “I didn’t realize—”
“Shhhh…” McLeary touched his finger to his lips. He closed his eyes and drew a deep breath through his nose, filtering a foreign smell through his olfactory lobes. He heard the familiar sound of a gentle breeze skimming across the marina and felt an almost imperceptible vibration from the presence of someone moving across the bow above them.
He grabbed his gun and pushed Burns aside before a burst of silenced machine gun fire ripped holes through the trawler’s main cabin.
McLeary followed the line of fire, shooting several rounds of his own at the hidden target.
The sound of heavy feet clamored off the deck followed by a loud splash.
Burns drew her gun and ducked outside. She fired twice at a shadow in the water.
“Holy shit!” Brian shouted from the cabin with Seth.
“Are you boys hurt?” asked McLeary.
“No,” they answered in unison, both white as ghosts with their hands still shaking.
McLeary ran the length of the pier. “Stay down!”
“Anything?” Burns hollered back at her partner.
McLeary scanned the marina parking lot. “Someone wanted our attention.”
Burns lowered her weapon. “I’d say they got it.”