His senses jolted like a kick in the face, Brian snapped out of his chloroform state and imagined himself drowning in a frozen lake, alone, shivering in a dark space, condemned to die in a murky underwater tomb. A dream so real he could almost feel the frigid water on his skin.
When his eyes adjusted to the light, he found himself strapped to a wooden chair, his wrists and ankles bound with rope; a scarf wound tightly across his mouth and tied behind his head. The room smelled of blood and urine with a hint of gasoline fumes. A fluorescent ceiling light flickered above a wooden box positioned at the edge of a work bench beside a tripod-mounted video camera pointed in Brian’s direction.
Brian moved his head, trying to focus on the blurry figures in front of him.
Two men with ragged beards and black bandanas held AK-47s. Between the men, a dot of orange light glowed from the end of a lit cigarette dangling from the lips of a third man with missing front teeth and a forearm tapered to a stub where a hand once existed.
Brian swallowed dryly with the corners of his mouth pulled taut. He worked his wrists back and forth, twisting and turning against the banded sisal fibers.
“My name is Omar,” the man with the missing teeth explained, through a haze of cigarette smoke. As Brian stared, Omar inhaled deeply, burning the cigarette to within half an inch of his lips. “Do you know why you’re here?”
Brian shook his head, wondering what became of Seth, imagining the worst case scenario for his brother while his own recollection of events came back to him with startling clarity.
Omar stood over the box on the table, swiping his hand above the contents. Sweat drizzled through the hair in his scraggly beard and dripped. “Tell me, what is it you know about our plans and who have you told?” He signaled for the closest gunman to remove the scarf from Brian’s mouth and dropped the snub of burning tobacco on the floor.
Brian wiggled his jaw side to side.
The second gunman stepped forward, the butt of his rifle lifted to drive against the side of Brian’s head.
Omar held him back. “Not yet,” he said and turned his attention to the wooden box. He opened a sliding panel on the side.
Both gunmen shied away.
Brian noticed movement in the box but couldn’t make out the contents. “Who are you? Where’s my brother?”
“Your brother isn’t here.”
Brian strained his muscles against the ropes, his nostrils flaring, eyes wide with rage in his quest to break free and attack the man in front of him. “My father will kill you. All of you.”
“What does your father know about our plans?”
“Why don’t you ask him yourself?”
Brian spat at Omar’s feet. “Go to hell.”
Omar produced a pair of wooden blocks from behind the open box. He clapped the blocks together loudly, arousing the live contents. “This is your fate. To be here in this place without knowledge of how or why or for how long, but with the certainty that mine will be the last face you see before you die. Does this make you afraid?”
“If I die, I die.”
“Perhaps.” Omar clapped the blocks again, this time closer to the wooden box, from where the narrow, coffin-shaped head of a black mamba protruded through the opening.
The guards retreated toward the door, redirecting their attention from Brian to the nine-foot reptile the color of gun-metal grey slithering down the work bench and onto the dusty floor.
Omar ventured behind Brian’s chair, standing just beyond Brian’s peripheral vision.
Brian watched the snake gather itself and flick its forked tongue at the air to engage its sense of smell; its hollow fangs tucked flat at the front of its mouth.
Omar clapped the blocks again, sending the angry reptile in a frenzy. “Dendroaspis polylepis. Worshipped by some, feared by all—and for good reason. The first bite will greet you with burning pain, nausea, vomiting, and respiratory paralysis to make the last ten minutes of your life seem an eternity.”
Brian pressed his back against the chair, watching the snake maneuver about the room in an agitated manner. “What do you want from me?”
“I told you I don’t know anything.”
Omar clapped the blocks again.
This time, the black mamba circled back toward Brian’s legs. “I’m an American citizen!”
“You are nothing if not weak and arrogant like your government. And now both shall feel the wrath of our vengeance.”
Brian craned his neck to see the snake move side to side around the chair, whisking its silky-scaled body with deliberate, effortless motion. “I’m just a college student.”
Omar clapped the blocks. “Tell me, what does your father know about our plans?”
“Stop asking me! I don’t know! I don’t work for him.”
“We found you in safe keeping for a reason.”
“He was trying to protect us from you.”
“Or protect you from yourselves because you learned something you should not. Your brother accessed information from your father’s FBI. Now too many people are asking questions.” Omar reached in his pocket and produced a photo of Hilario Gonsalez. “How do you know this man?”
Brian kept his eyes on the snake moving about the room until Omar shoved the photo in his face. “I’ve never seen him before.”
“What have you told him?”
“Nothing! I don’t know who he is.”
“Then your brother, perhaps?”
“He doesn’t know him either. We have nothing to do with this man you’re looking for.” He followed the snake’s movements, watching it helplessly from his unmovable position in the chair.
“Who else have you talked to?”
“No one, and I wouldn’t tell you if I had.”
“You’re a brave man. Not unlike your father.” Omar clapped the blocks again, directing the agitated reptile away from his men cowering near the door. He pressed a button on the video camera. A red light came on. “You’re going to deliver a message to your father. One he will keep with him for a very long time.”
Brian watched the snake slither from side to side, its motion governed by fear as it propelled itself away from the loud clapping noise and found two obstacles in its path.
Brian cried out from the stabbing pain of sharp fangs piercing his lower calf. A burning sensation spread through his lower limb from the dendrotoxins injected into his bloodstream.
He lolled his head to the side. Saliva frothed at his mouth. His skin turned cold and clammy. His breathing shallow. His pulse rapid and feeble. His chest tightened with the partial paralysis spreading through his respiratory tract.
Across the room, Omar’s blurry image teetered back and forth behind the camera, floating in space above the floor as the loud blocks sounded again and again like a morbid anthem from a hangman’s gallows.
“How soon this ends is up to you,” whispered Omar, dancing away from the black mamba’s head darting from side to side until it struck Brian’s leg again, this time on the upper thigh, plunging its needle-sharp fangs into soft human flesh.
Omar dropped the wooden blocks when a barrage of gunfire ripped the snake into pieces.
“Administer the anti-venom,” Abdullah instructed when the gunfire ceased. Smoke curled from the muzzle of his AK-47. Spent casings rolled across the floor.
“What about our plan?” asked Omar.
“Sayeed is dead. Our plan has changed.”
Burns entered the detention center in the basement of the Hoover Building. She glanced up at the surveillance camera and imagined Kriegel watching her from his office, ready and able to castigate her every move with the temper of a losing Super Bowl coach at halftime.
She relinquished her service weapon at the guard station, inserting her Glock in the open metal drawer about to close like a grown-up version of her nephew’s hungry hippo toy.
“Open up on number four,” a voice said behind the glass partition. A gate of iron bars rose up from the floor and allowed Burns to enter the next compartment. A second gate opened to access the criminal population awaiting transfer to a more permanent facility.
Burns ventured outside McLeary’s holding cell. She found her partner standing with his legs shoulder-width apart, arms extended and bent slightly at the elbows, his head upright, almost hovering as if someone suspended it from a string. “What are you doing?” she asked.
McLeary remained motionless, his eyes transfixed on some imaginary point in space.
McLeary abandoned his T’ai Chi pose, and stared through the iron bars at Agent Burns. “You here to hammer the last nail in my coffin?”
Burns pulled her shirt open to expose her bare abdomen and bra, absent any microphone device. “I didn’t come here to hurt you.”
“Nice act. You should take it on the road.”
“I was never a witting participant. Kriegel used me to get to you.”
McLeary gripped the iron bars. His voice was horse. His eyelids sagged. “Save the Mea Culpa for someone who gives a shit.”
“I’m telling you the truth.”
“You’re telling me what you think I want to hear. Go home, Agent Burns.”
“I want to help you,” Burns replied, her eyes soulful, expressive, and sincere.
“You’ve done more than enough already.”
“I didn’t come here to fight.”
“Then why did you?”
Burns fastened her last shirt button. She touched the iron bars with her hands a few centimeters from McLeary’s. A rookie mistake she deliberately perpetrated in a subtle attempt to bridge an invisible gap of trust. “I’m here about your sons.”
“What about them?”
“The safe house was compromised,” said Burns, her voice cracking from the weight of the bad news she’d hesitated to convey.
The words apparently penetrated McLeary’s lofty manner and softened his chiseled expression. “Are they okay?”
Burns gleaned the tortured expression from the eyes of a man who cared deeply for his sons. McLeary was a thief but not a criminal, an enigma she’d failed to comprehend, only to discover her facile loathing simply masked a well of deeper feelings that surfaced in his presence. “Seth’s okay.”
“What about Brian?”
“Someone took him.”
“We don’t know.”
“You have to get me out of here!”
“I would if I could. Believe me.”
“Then get Kriegel on board. I want Seth in protective custody and the hostage rescue team on Brian.”
“We don’t even know where Brian is at the moment.”
“My boys are innocent in all this.”
“We’re doing everything we can.”
“Bullshit! Abdullah is your primary focus.”
“And the sooner we get to him, the sooner we get to Brian.”
“Assuming Abdullah’s involved at all.”
“If he is, it means we struck a nerve. He could be using Brian to get to you.”
“What do you know about what happened?”
Burns let go of the bars and averted her gaze from McLeary’s stare.
“God dammit, Burns! If you know something more, spit it out!”
“I have reason to suspect there’s a double agent in our organization.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Someone dropped a note in my mailbox several days ago.”
“And you’re telling me this now?“
“I’m not certain the intel is even credible. It could be another hoax.”
“That’s not your decision to make.”
“Like your call on Ali Muheen?”
“I shared that intel with the world, and no one listened. What you’re suggesting could pose irreparable damage to our case, if it hasn’t already.” He noted her body language. The way her eyes looked away when she spoke. The sudden distance, both physical and psychological, between herself and the cage in front of her. “You thought it might be me, didn’t you?”
“My gut told me this note was real. It also told me the double agent could be anyone or no one inside our unit. Or maybe an outsider brought into the fold after an extended leave of absence. I know now I was wrong to doubt you.”
“Does Kriegel know about this?”
Burns kept silent, but her expression spoke volumes. “I didn’t know who to trust.”
“Have you shared this with anyone in our command?”
“Kriegel’s a lot of things,” said McLeary, “but he’s not a traitor, despite the worst I’ve seen in him.”
“If someone’s been leaking information—”
“Then we’ve got bigger problems than we thought.” McLeary slammed the bars. Despite his apprehension toward Burns, he knew she spoke the truth. “It’s been a tough row to hoe. I deserve what’s coming to me. But my boys didn’t ask for this. The longer I’m in here, the more their lives are in danger.”
“I’ll talk to Kriegel about releasing you.”
McLeary shook his head. His eyes no longer willing to engage. “Save your breath. He’d rather eat his dead mother than risk his precious reputation to help me.”
Burns leaned closer to the cell bars. “I’m sorry. I wish there was something more I could do.”
“Get my laptop from the boat. There might be useful information on it. And look after Seth. He’ll be lost without his brother.”
“Does Seth know about me? About this circumstance?”
“He doesn’t know anything.”
“Good. Keep it that way. Promise me you’ll do everything in your power to protect him and find Brian, alive.” McLeary sat down on the cot against the wall. Angry. Defeated. Destroyed.
Burns let go of the bars. “I never figured you for a quitter.”
“I never figured you for someone who cared.”