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
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
“He knows where to find
“He wants to
reconvene in the morning.” She glanced about the living quarters.
“Where are your boys?”
“I sent them
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
“I’m not responsible
for what happened this morning.”
“I didn’t say you
“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
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
“How did you do
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
“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
“Who else has seen
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
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
“I believe you were
better off without Bryant poking around where he didn’t belong. And now that
“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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“What about Seth and
“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
“It’s not your fault.
You can’t make sense out of it with logic or reason. Sometimes bad things just
“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—”
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.
Brian shouted from the cabin with Seth.
“Are you boys
hurt?” asked McLeary.
answered in unison, both white as ghosts with their hands still shaking.
McLeary ran the length of
the pier. “Stay down!”
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.”