Fayez Sayeed arrived in an underground garage and opened the rental car trunk to retrieve a Pelican case of unknown contents. He moved slowly, keeping a firm grip on the folding handle as if his life depended on it. He’d done as instructed without fail, driving for hours to random locations to ensure no one had followed him. Without stopping to eat or pee, he’d continued on the given routes until his prepaid cell phone rang and an anonymous caller gave the final directive.
He rode the elevator from the basement entrance to the lobby of the high-rise apartment building, holding the package at his side. Inside the mailbox room, he used a key he’d been given to unlock a specific box. He retrieved a postcard with a street address and an apartment number hand-written on the front. He read the generic note on the back and translated the coded message.
He rode the elevator to the twenty-third floor and followed the empty hallway to apartment 2312. He knocked four times slowly, then paused, and knocked again twice more. Commotion carried from the neighboring units. A baby cried. A woman argued with her man. The smell of cigarette smoke lingered in the hallway with the scent of strong perfume.
The door opened to a gas-masked figure in a biochemical protection suit with a HAZMAT strip clipped to his chest.
Fayez hesitated for a moment, wary of the men in protective gear huddled in front of a biological safety cabinet. You can do this, he told himself before he entered the apartment and heard the door close behind him.
“Put this on,” the man said, handing Fayez a gas mask.
Fayez set his package down and pulled his mask over his head. He followed the man to the back of the apartment. A card table sat in one corner with a fume hood and rack of computer equipment assembled beside a mass spectrometer and a portable liquid aerosol sampler.
The man behind the mask pointed to the table. “Set it here. Carefully.”
Fayez observed the man inspecting the case with a portable air analyzer. The man opened the case and removed a cardboard box wrapped in packing tape. He used a small knife to slice inside and remove a top layer of foam packaging to expose a pair of metal canisters the size of a child’s lunchbox thermos.
The man used his gloved hands to unscrew the lid from the first canister and dump the contents, the color and texture of talcum powder, onto a Petri dish.
His biohazard strip turned red.
“What is it?” asked Fayez.
“The spur of vengeance toward those who will pray they die a quick and merciful death as they suffer slowly and watch their families live in fear.”
Fayez backed away from the man in the rubber suit and tripped over an extension cord. He fell backward and knocked his mask against the edge of the wall hard enough to compromise the tight face seal and allow a miniscule amount of contaminated air to circumvent the filtration system.
Kriegel stared out the hospital’s ninth floor window overlooking the ground below. In the darkness, a dizzying array of blue strobe lights reflected off a dozen police and emergency response vehicles. “What the hell happened here?”
“We’re on it,” Burns replied, standing beside McLeary. She had blood spatter on her face. “Local PD’s got a man on every rooftop with a clear line of sight.”
Kriegel stepped away from the window and examined the victim’s pillow, speckled with skull fragments, pulpy tissue, and streaks of brain matter. An open handcuff dangled from the hospital bed handrail. “Did they find the shooter’s nest?”
“Not yet. It happened fast. I was going to bring you up to speed as soon as we—”
“Save it, Burns. I’m here now.” Kriegel focused a penlight on the floor and walls. “Did this corpse have a name?”
“Rodney Nito,” said McLeary. “We pulled his rap sheet. He was a two-time loser with a hobby of jacking cars. He did a three-year stint in Attica. No ties to any members on our watchlist or anyone associated with the Aryan Brotherhood.”
“Attica? That’s Gordon Gentry’s alma matter. Any other connection between this guy and the Chase Bank robbery?”
“We’re still exploring,” said Burns. “Someone wanted Nito dead. Someone with a sniper rifle and the skills to use it.”
“Any nut-job with a hunting rifle and a scope could have made the shot,” Kriegel argued. “I want to know who killed him and why.”
McLeary watched Burns wipe her face with a tissue while Kriegel gnawed the end of an unlit cigar. He thought about Kriegel’s arrogance and how he carried himself. The man was poison in an open flask, waiting to contaminate an unsuspecting person like Agent Burns who blindly followed him.
“You still with us?” Kriegel barked, aiming the penlight at McLeary’s face.
“Nito’s crew wasn’t after the money,” said McLeary, turning his head away.
“Have you been drinking on the job?”
“They never intended to steal the credit union cash. They wanted to test the vault’s biometric scanner.”
“Bullshit McLeary. I’ve seen the surveillance tape. They went for the teller stations just like the first four jobs. This time they got greedy and tried to tap the safe.”
“There’s more to it.”
Kriegel clipped his penlight in his shirt pocket. “And you know this how?”
Burns looked out the splintered window. A police helicopter circled with its spotlight pointed at the building across the street. “Who else knew Rodney Nito was here?”
“That’s the first intelligent question I’ve heard all night, Agent Burns. I suggest you find out. Interview every doctor, nurse, admin assistant, and janitor who knew about the patient in this room. I want to know why Rodney Nito was targeted—and I want the shooter in custody.”
McLeary rummaged his mental Rolodex. “What more do we know about Ali Muheen and his involvement in these robberies?”
“That’s what you’re going to find out. I want you and Burns in Miami for a meeting with our friends at the drug enjoyment agency. They’ve had Ali Muheen under surveillance for a month.”
“A month?” said McLeary. “And you’re just telling us now?”
“I was apprised of their operation a few hours ago.”
Burns turned away from the window and looked at Kriegel. “So what’s our next move?”
“Find out what the DEA has uncovered on Muheen and any connection between himself, Gordon Gentry, and this Rodney Nito.”
* * *
McLeary followed Kriegel and Burns through the swarm of reporters gathered outside the hospital. Greeted by cameras and microphones, the three marched beyond the media circus with a terse “no comment” from Kriegel.
“Who’s our point of contact when we land?” Burns asked Kriegel.
“He’ll find you.” Kriegel pointed to his cheek then back at Burns. High velocity blood spatter dotted the side of her neck. “Get yourself cleaned up first.”
Burns touched her face. “Looks like we’re headed south,” she told McLeary.
McLeary dug his vibrating phone from his pocket. “So is this investigation…” He flipped it open and pressed it to his ear. “McLeary.”
“Don’t talk, just listen,” said a sullen voice altered through a vocal distorter. “Nod if you can hear me.”
McLeary turned away from Burns nonchalantly and scanned the tops of several surrounding buildings. He nodded slowly.
“Muheen is dead. Decrypt the Blackberry.”
“Who are you?” McLeary whispered as the call abruptly ended.
“Who was that?” asked Burns.
McLeary followed the crowd of reporters with his eyes. “Wrong number.”
* * *
Standing inside the Dulles International Airport, McLeary gazed at the 757 parked at the terminal, with the jet’s ducted fan blades spinning slowly inside the engine cowling mounted beneath the starboard wing. As the plane was pushed back, he focused on the cone at the center of the spinning blades, producing an almost hypnotic circular motion as the blades spun to draw air into the gas compression stage, where intense pressure and heat would produce the requisite thrust at takeoff to launch the massive plane into the air.
He estimated the number of blades spinning around the impeller’s shaft, multiplying their estimated surface area by the number of revolutions per minute to calculate potential air flow between idle and full-throttle settings.
He watched the plane push back from the gate as Burns approached him from the snack bar with a magazine and a fresh pack of gum.
“You look tired,” said Burns, handing McLeary the sugarless gum he’d requested.
“What’s your take on the DEA? Do you think they’ll let us play in their sandbox?”
“I wouldn’t bet on it.”
Burns watched the 757 roll away from the terminal and rubbed the bruise on her elbow. She stuck her hand in her jacket pocket and withdrew an envelope with the initials JM on the flap. She nudged McLeary in the arm with the paper. “This is yours.”
“Your paycheck. Don’t lose it. The first two are live until direct deposit kicks in, assuming you’re around long enough to collect it.”
McLeary took the envelope and examined the check. Living frugal for so long, the concept of money seemed almost useless to him. He folded the check and scribbled H a p p y H o l i d a y s. He studied the simple words, recalling a mathematical encryption algorithm he’d learned in a graduate mathematics course taught by a five-foot tall Chinese professor with bad teeth and a propensity to smear chalk dust on the back of his pants. “Happy Holidays.”
“What are you talking about?”
“A message I found on Gordon Gentry’s Blackberry. Happy Holidays. It means something… It’s encrypted. Substitution, transposition. Caesar cipher. Monoalphabetic ciphers. Limited permutation of alphabetic characters.”
“Are you high?”
“We need a way to decrypt it.”
“Gordon Gentry is dead. I doubt the message is of any significance to us now.”
“We don’t know that,” said McLeary.
“The bureau needs you to stop bank robbers. Not dive into every rabbit hole you come across.”
“I’m going to Quantico. Alone.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Kriegel wants us in Miami.”
“Kriegel’s a fool.”
“Maybe, but he’s still the boss in charge.”
McLeary walked away. “Thanks for the gum.”
Burns started to follow him, then reconsidered in mid-stride. She had McLeary pegged from the start: a loaner with a shady past and an uncertain future; a man with no one to go home to and nothing to live for but the job; a man who would say or do anything to further his personal agenda, no matter how much it jeopardized his career. “What am I supposed to tell Kriegel?”
“Tell him to go pound sand.”
“He’ll be all over your ass for this.”
McLeary kept walking. “Good. Then I’ll know where to find him.”