Special Agent Shannon Burns sipped from the water fountain outside the women’s restroom on the fifth floor of the J. Edgar Hoover Building along Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. The surrounding offices buzzed with testosterone from the packs of male agents in dark wool suits and laced wingtips gracing the halls, with blimp-size egos floating in their air of superiority. What they had on their collective agenda, Agent Burns could only guess. She’d sensed the glaring looks the minute she’d stepped on their turf in her heels and black slacks with a form-fitting blouse to hug her hourglass figure and accentuate the tight body she worked hard to maintain.
At nearly six feet, she stood taller than many of her bureau peers and held her own in the gentlemen’s club reserved for modern cavemen disguised as federal agents. A rough-around-the-edges girl, she preferred the slow burn from a shot of Southern Comfort to a bottle of expensive champagne. As comfortable in a barroom brawl as she was behind the podium at a charity event, she likened her spirit and tenacity to a modern Annie Oakley with the face of Olivia Wilde.
She wore her auburn hair pinned up with a neutral lipstick color to match her eye shadow and her clear-polish fingernails. She was armed with a letter of recommendation from her former FBI Unit Chief and some measure of influence with friends in high places, and nothing would stop her from advancing her career—except her own inhibitions about transferring to a unit with a reputation for chewing through agents like a German Maschinengewehr at close range—a unit run by a boss with the gravitas of an Arab prince and more clout than Hoover himself.
Don’t screw this up, she told herself, brushing a piece of lint from her blouse. Her watch read 1100, thirty minutes ahead of her scheduled interview time. An interview almost ten years in the making thanks to an archaic system geared more toward advancing the federal politics du jour than promoting worthy candidates from within the bureau ranks.
This morning, like most, she’d spent an hour in the gym and another hour primping her hair and makeup, including time to cover a pimple on her lower chin, a blemish she’d reminded herself not to touch during the interview with the boss she knew only by reputation. Hungry from skipping breakfast, she’d downed a cup of coffee at her office and checked her email before trekking downtown through morning rush hour to reach headquarters with time to spare.
She entered the women’s restroom and checked herself in the mirror. A small coffee stain marred her otherwise spotless jacket sleeve. Her C-cup breasts looked smaller since she’d lost ten pounds, molding her figure closer to the shape she’d strived to achieve. She dabbed the stain with a damp paper towel and left the restroom as prepared as she’d ever be without over-thinking her response to every standard bureau question about to be thrown at her.
“He’s ready for you, Agent Burns,” said a young administrative assistant poking her head above her cubicle.
“I’m early,” Burns replied, her stomach sloshing inside like a half-cooked omelet.
“The last door on the right.”
Agent Burns brushed her hand along her sleeve a second time—a nervous tick she’d inherited from her mother along with her pert nose and almond-shaped eyes the color of emerald green. Don’t blow this, she told herself, advancing with her chin up and her shoulders back. Her throat felt dry. Her heart pounded in her chest. She could fight hand-to-hand and kick down doors with the best of them, but when it came to job interviews, her poise slipped away like a loser on a one-night stand.
At the end of the hall, she knocked on the half-open door to the dark corner office with the shades pulled down, presumably to guard against the threat of sophisticated eavesdropping devices aimed at the windows.
“Take a seat,” Section Chief Charles Kriegel instructed his subordinate from behind a mahogany desk. He was wearing a dark wool suit with gold cuff links and a collar stiff enough to slide down. His forehead was fringed with thinning, silver hair, and he wore an American flag stickpin above his jacket pocket and a starched white shirt with a gold tie clip engraved with the U.S. Marine Corps emblem. Without looking up from the memo on his desk, he pressed the speakerphone button on his landline phone and entered his admin assistant’s extension.
“Chief Kriegel’s office…”
“Send all my calls to voice mail.”
“What if your ex-wife calls again?”
“Tell her I’m in the field.”
Agent Burns took a seat in the government-issue conference chair with bare metal arms and frayed upholstery, displayed in stark contrast to the opulent furnishings around her. In a room with darkened shades and a single, low-watt bulb inside a green desk lamp, she read the letters of commendation displayed prominently on the wall with a Marine Corps Sharp Shooter plaque and a polished FBI badge framed inside a rosewood box with glare-free glass. An Uncle Sam enlistment poster hung from the opposite wall beside an autographed photo of a candy apple red 427 Shelby Cobra complete with a Playboy model straddling the hood in a thong bikini and stilettos.
On the corner of Kriegel’s desk, a bottle of Viagra sat adjacent to a family portrait and a twenty-year service plaque with the name “Charles Kriegel” engraved in brass letters. A custom humidor sat behind the service plaque beside an FBI mug full of cheap pens. On the opposite wall, a poster of ground zero at the World Trade Center hung above an inch-thick roster made of fine parchment imprinted with the names of every man, woman, and child who’d perished in the towers on 9/11.
Kriegel scrawled a note on his memo pad and pushed the paper aside. He wore a black chronograph on his inside wrist and looked up at Agent Burns for the first time since she’d entered his domain. He held his stare without blinking, his Roman nose protruding from his face like a yacht’s bow pulpit. “What are you doing here?”
“I’m a little early.”
“Better than a little dead.”
“The letter I received from headquarters said to be here—”
“I know what the letter said. I sent it. Why are you here?”
“It’s not a trick question.”
“I’m here for my interview, Sir.” Agent Burns cleared her throat and brushed her hand on her sleeve.
Kriegel checked his watch. “I assume you know how to tell time.”
“And yet you’ve been waiting outside my office for more than forty-five minutes.”
“Traffic was light when I left home. I got here earlier than I expected.”
“So you assumed I wouldn’t mind adjusting my morning schedule to accommodate your early arrival?”
“I like to read the paper on the shitter after I check my e-mail and delete my voice mail messages. I come in early to accommodate my schedule, Agent Burns, not yours.”
“If you’d like me to come back later—”
“What I’d like is for you to tell me why you’re here.”
Agent Burns shifted uncomfortably in her seat. She felt warm beneath her blouse. “It’s an honor to be here. I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to work with your team.”
“Thrilled about what?”
“To join your team. I was told—”
“Do I look like an idiot, Agent Burns?”
“Burns, no one in their right mind is ever thrilled to work in a violent crimes unit. They get thrown in this cesspool because the job demands someone with their skills or because they sucked the wrong dick at headquarters. Now which was it for you?”
Agent Burns leaned forward in her chair. “Excuse me?”
“Did you pass your hearing test, Agent Burns?”
“Then tell me if you’re here because the job demands your skills or because you poked your mouth where it didn’t belong?”
“I have the skills,” Burns said hotly. “If you’d read my file—”
“I’ve seen your file, Agent Burns. You worked sex crimes as a vice cop with the Metropolitan Police before your brain fart about joining the FBI brought you here. By some aberration in the admissions process, you got accepted and made it through the training program. Since then, you’ve spent the last five years behind a desk investigating check fraud and various telemarketing schemes.”
“Among other crimes.”
Kriegel rolled his chair back and cracked the blinds. He opened the humidor lid and offered the contents to his visitor.
“This is a non-smoking facility.”
Kriegel removed a single stogie and sniffed the hand-rolled tobacco. He clipped the end with a cutter from his desk drawer. “This facility belongs to Uncle Sam, but this office belongs to me.” He lit the twenty-dollar Cohiba and blew several puffs of smoke, obviously enjoying the flavor of the Cuban cigar. “Get the door, would you?”
Agent Burns nudged the door closed.
Kriegel got up from his chair and settled himself on the edge of his desk, blowing smoke at Burns, who was trying to hold her breath. “So what makes you think you can handle violent crimes, aside from your recent experience in the art of washing checks and educating naïve senior citizens about the telltale signs of a telephone scam?”
Burns settled in for the good fight. “I finished the academy at the top of my class. I hold a black belt in Tae Kwon Do. I earned a distinguished service award for my efforts to bring down an illegal telemarketing scheme. And I can out-shoot any agent on your staff. Sir.”
“Very impressive—if we were hunting serial callers or trading shots at the O.K. Corral.”
“My work at the bureau has been exemplary. My performance evaluations reflect my professional achievements on the job.” Burns crossed her arms and rubbed her hands along her sleeves.
“So you like to break boards with your hands? That sort of shit?”
“If I have to.”
“How do you feel about breaking heads?”
“Combat, Agent Burns. Boards don’t shoot back.”
“Have you ever served your country?”
“Not in a military capacity. But my evaluations reflect my skills with—”
“Save it, Agent Burns. You sound like a politician.” Kriegel opened the personnel folder on his desk and flipped to the back. “You were also the youngest female promoted to Supervisory Special Agent in Racketeering Records Analysis. An advancement I’m sure you deserved.”
“With all due respect, I received my promotion because I earned it. Nothing was handed to me. I’ve had to study twice as long and work three times as hard to earn the same respect lavished on my peers, some of whom couldn’t hit a barn with a bazooka or run three miles without collapsing from cardiac arrest. I studied pre-law at George Washington and finished three semesters of law school at American University before I joined the Metropolitan Police.”
Kriegel blew smoke. “Why did you quit law school?”
“I didn’t quit,” Burns corrected. She avoided Kriegel’s stare. “I dropped out for personal reasons.”
“Your file indicates no one in your immediate family ever served in law enforcement or the military for that matter.” Kriegel rubbed his tongue on the roof of his mouth. He returned to his chair and swept his gaze at the front of her blouse. “So what in God’s name propelled you to pursue a career in law enforcement?”
“I felt a calling.”
“A calling? Burns, people find a calling to join the church or to squat and pee with the tree-hugging liberals in the Peace Corps. No one finds the urge to put themselves in harm’s way, much less drop out of law school twelve weeks from graduation to join the local PD and work vice. It doesn’t add up.”
Agent Burns rolled her shoulders. She crossed her legs, then uncrossed them again. “You mean for a woman?”
“Don’t put words in my mouth, Agent Burns. I run a tight ship. I don’t give a rat’s ass if you’re a man, a woman, or something in between. I need agents I can trust in the field. Period.”
“I was an only child. I fell into law enforcement because my interests led me there.”
Kriegel blew smoke from the corner of his mouth, touching his thumb and index finger around the nub of his cigar. “Nice story, but you still haven’t told me why you asked to be transferred here.”
Agent Burns inhaled through her mouth to avoid the smell from the burning cigar. At a minimum, she would leave Kriegel’s office with a headache and clothes that reeked of smoke. “I didn’t join the bureau to ride a desk and shuffle paperwork for a living.”
“Bullshit.” Kriegel leaned back in his chair. “For a former vice cop, you make a lousy liar.” He smirked at Burns. “Tell me why you left the local PD to join the bureau. And don’t sugar-coat it this time.”
Agent Burns cleared her throat. She hated the smell of cigar smoke almost as much as she hated Kriegel. “I was tired of serving justice in fishnet stockings and leather miniskirts. I was tired of working in a cesspool, to use your words. I wanted people to know I had a brain above my tits and ass.” She watched Kriegel eyeballing her, intently, like a tiger stalking its prey, unflinching in the moment before the attack. For the first time since she’d entered the Hoover Building, she wished she’d never landed the interview.
“Is there something on your mind, Agent Burns?”
“Yes, Sir.” She took a second to collect her thoughts before she asked her next question. “Why did you invite me here? A hundred senior agents applied for this position. Most have a military background and more time in the field. Why give me a second glance?”
Kriegel bit into his cigar and blew smoke through pursed lips. “Maybe I see something in you I don’t see in other agents. Half the women in this bureau were hired to fill a quota. Half the men signed up for the hard-on they get every time they flash their badge and gun. I’m not looking for average talent, Agent Burns. The bureau’s full of mediocrity. I need someone with their shit squared away. Someone who’s not afraid to kick ass and take names later, within the boundaries of the law. I like you Burns. You’re single without any dependents to support. You’re devoted to this organization. And you can hold your own in a fight. This job is yours if you want it.”
“You heard what I said.”
“Yes Sir. It’s just—”
“Do you want it or not?”
“I want it,” Burns announced enthusiastically, if not somewhat surprised by how quickly the words shot out of her mouth.
Kriegel pulled the blinds and opened his office window to flick his cigar at the street below. “Then congratulations, Agent Burns. And welcome to my team.” He retrieved a .40 caliber Glock 23 from the floor safe. He holstered the loaded weapon at his waist and grabbed his rain coat from behind the door. “Now let me lay down some ground rules,” he said, pushing his arms through the sleeves. “If you want your career to keep making forward progress, you’ll follow my lead, no questions asked. Understood?”
“You’ll report directly to me until I find a replacement unit chief I can trust to lead a second team.”
Burns followed him to the hallway outside the office, a little queasy from a tinge of buyer’s remorse at accepting an offer from an infamous section chief with impossibly high standards and questionable morals. “Yes, Sir.”
“This is my show, Agent Burns. My team. No one picks their nose or takes a dump without me knowing about it. Keep your personal shit personal and your work life at work. Distractions will get you killed faster than you can ask, ‘What happened?’ Keep your head in the game and we’ll do great things for God and country.”
Burns feigned a smile, mumbling a less than enthusiastic, “I won’t let you down.”
“Good. Your transfer is effective immediately.”
“Is there a problem with that?
“No, but my paperwork—”
“Fuck the paperwork. We’ve got a bank robbery to investigate.”
Burns followed Kriegel to the elevator, matching his pace stride for stride. “Bank robbery? I thought we dealt with violent crimes?”
Kriegel pressed the down button. “If you don’t think armed robbery is violent, you’ve got a lot to learn.”
In the basement garage, Kriegel started the government issue Chevy Impala SS and gunned the engine. Before Agent Burns could secure her seatbelt, he dropped the transmission in drive and peeled away.
Burns grabbed the handle above the passenger window. “Respect. I want respect. That’s the real reason I applied for the transfer to violent crimes.”
Kriegel squealed the tires as he turned into downtown traffic. “I know,” he said, cutting across two lanes without checking his mirrors first. “I just wanted to hear you say it.”
* * *
Burns ducked under the yellow crime scene tape outside the Chase Bank. The smell of stale cigar smoke lingered on her person. “Shouldn’t someone more qualified be assisting with this?” she asked Kriegel who advanced inside the bank lobby.
“That’s why I’m here.”
Burns blew a strand of hair away from her face. She’d served a short stint assisting her robbery/homicide division on the Metropolitan Police Department, a very short stint that had ended abruptly when her first case involved the rape and murder of a former vice cop. Aside from textbook training with the MPD and a broad-brush overview at the FBI academy, she had zero practical experience in armed robbery investigations. “Isolate, contain, negotiate,” she recited to her new supervisor with confidence.
Kriegel rolled his eyes. “This isn’t a hostage situation, Burns. Start asking better questions or start asking for another transfer.”
“When did the robbery occur?”
Burns stepped over shotgun shell casings circled on the floor with red pen and observed the damaged video surveillance camera suspended by a single wire from the ceiling. “Any witnesses?”
“No one useful. This bank robbery is number six in two months. Same MO. Two-man job. One enters with a gas mask and drops a flash grenade. The driver waits outside.”
“Anyone on duty?”
“A rent-a-cop. He’s been admitted to Walter Reed. Poor bastard never saw it coming. Something in the smoke incapacitated him while our perp helped himself to the cash.”
“Are you assuming the perpetrator is male?”
“Statistically, I’d bet on it. Several bank employees pegged him at around six feet. Heavyset. Male voice.”
“Anyone get a look at his face?”
“Not with the gas mask on. We get the same description every time. Big guy with a gas mask and a shotgun.” Kriegel chewed his lower lip. “So far, the banks have all been hit at different times of day.”
Burns scribbled on her memo pad. “Who’s involved at the local end?”
“Arlington PD. But they’re chasing their tails.”
“What about the getaway vehicle?”
“We recovered a delivery van, or what’s left of it. The local PD found the van in an underground garage, along with a burned-up body.”
“One of our perps?”
“Don’t know. We haven’t got a positive ID yet.”
“Any lead on the van itself?”
“We traced the VIN number to a local flower shop. The owner’s clean. Reported the van stolen two days ago.”
Burns flipped the page. “Assuming the DOA was one of our robbers, what do we know about the perp that got away?”
Kriegel stepped toward the teller’s entrance and observed the powder burns from the close-range blast. “An officer said he saw someone running toward a stairwell entrance in the underground garage.”
“Did he get a look at him?”
“Dark hair, dark skin, thin build, late thirties, early forties.”
Burns looked up from her notepad and shook her head. She scratched her nose with the end of her pen. “Who’s our local point of contact? I’d like to know what their crime scene guys come up with.”
“So far, not much. I’ll have our guys go over the van again.”
Burns walked over to the open vault. “Was this open when we got here?”
“The perps never touch the safe.”
Kriegel took an airline envelope from his coat pocket and handed a ticket to Burns. “That’s what I want you to find out. You leave for Miami tonight.”
“What’s in Miami?”
“Jim McLeary.” Kriegel pulled off his latex gloves and escorted Burns outside. “McLeary’s an expert in latent prints, among other things.”
“What’s his assignment in Miami?”
“Indefinite leave without pay.”
Burns tucked her notepad in her pocket. “I don’t follow you.”
“McLeary redefines the word special in Special Agent. Internal Affairs has had him under their thumb for months.”
“Stealing confiscated drug money.”
“A few years back. A joint task force raid with the DEA netted twenty kilos of uncut cocaine and several hundred thousand dollars in cash. The bureau suspected McLeary’s involvement with a member of the Gonsalez Cartel but couldn’t make the charges stick.”
“Sounds like a rotten apple.”
“McLeary is a recluse. Hasn’t been the same man since his wife left him ten years ago. His own kids don’t speak to him anymore.” Kriegel took his phone from his jacket pocket and walked Burns back to the car. “I pulled his file for you. I suggest you look it over on the plane.”
Burns opened her door. “Of all the bureau resources in your command, why reach out to him?”
“Read the file, Burns.”
“I don’t understand.”
Kriegel waved his hands in front of Burns, pantomiming his frustration. “I don’t like wheat germ on my cereal but my doctor says I need more fiber to produce a decent shit. I’m not a fan of Jim McLeary, but we need him on this investigation.”