Enemy Among Us: Chapter 65

Kriegel bit down on the end of his cigar. He lit the hand-rolled paper with a lighter and talked out the side of his mouth. “I haven’t had this brand in years,” he told Agent Parks seated inside the dimly lit, Miami field office with the shades drawn.

“Yes, Sir,” Parks replied.

“The smoke helps me think. Clears my head. My father and grandfather were the same way.” He blew smoke through the corner of his mouth and closed a folder with information he didn’t need Agent Parks to see. “Any word out of your department?”

“No Sir.”

“What about our friends at Langley?”

“They’ve been… somewhat less than cooperative.”

“And Agent Burns?”

“We’re still tracking her down.”

Kriegel blew smoke. “What about our crispy critter from Abdullah’s hangar?”

“The lab confirmed the dental records. The teeth belonged to Fayez Sayeed.”

“Any leads on our missing plane?”

“Sir?”

“From the hangar raid. Based on the fuel type and grade we found, we should be looking for some sort of small, commercially manufactured fixed wing aircraft.”

Agent Parks glanced at the folder on Kriegel’s desk, hoping for a sudden distraction to lure him away long enough to steal a glance at the file his boss didn’t want him to see. “We’re still working on it. There’s more than two thousand single-engine civilian aircraft registered in the greater Miami area alone. We simply don’t have the manpower to follow every lead.”

“Then get every state and local agency involved. We’re talking about a single-engine airplane. Not something you can hide in the back of a truck or a small garage. Focus on every airport or patch of land with a takeoff strip. I want this thing found yesterday.”

“Yes Sir.”

“What about our flight ban?”

“I’m still working it through Washington. The FAA won’t budge. Unless a plane falls out of the sky or we present a stronger case, the skies stay open for business.”

Kriegel chewed the end of his cigar and spit the wet tobacco in his trash can. “I’ll get the FAA Director on the phone and handle this one myself.”

“What about Director Hoffnagle? I understand he’s still not convinced we have a credible threat.”

“I’ll worry about Hoffnagle. You focus on your assignments. We might have a plane full of anthrax flying God knows where over Florida and no one in this bureau seems to give a shit about stopping it.”

Parks toyed with his own cigar from Kriegel. He despised the taste and merely feigned interest to earn Kriegel’s trust and respect. He wanted Kriegel’s head in a jar, but greater plans took precedence above his own. “How’s everything else from your end?”

“Like pissing in the wind. Hoffnagle wants another status report by end of business. He’s not convinced of a large-scale event, but he wants the President to put the National Guard on alert in Florida and D.C. just in case.” He blew smoke at Agent Parks. “How are you holding up? With your partner’s situation and all?”

“I’m good to go.”

“You sure about that?”

“Yes Sir.”

“The murder of Agent Rollins will not go unpunished. You have my word.”

“I appreciate it.”

“The CDC’s still working on a viable anthrax vaccine to combat this new strain Abdullah’s cooked up. So far nothing’s panned out. If this weaponized anthrax blows up in our face, we’ll have no way to stem the tide of casualties. Physically and politically.”

“And how does Agent Burns fit into all this?”

“Like a square peg in a round hole. I don’t trust her with McLeary. I need another agent to babysit her on a little field trip up north in two days.”

“Where?”

“The Canadian Science Center. They’ve been working with Doctor Beckam and the CDC. The canucks claim they’ve found a viable cure. I need you there to keep Burns in check. Make sure she doesn’t do anything stupid. If these meds turn out bogus, Burns will take the fall.”

“What about McLeary?”

“I’ll handle him.” Kriegel checked his watch again. “I have a meeting agenda to prepare. I need your A-game on this one, Parks.” He snatched the ringing phone off his desk. “This is Kriegel.” He pressed the phone to his ear, listening intently while the caller spoke. “Keep me posted.”

Parks extinguished his cigar in the ashtray on Kriegel’s desk. He studied the expression on Kriegel’s face. “More news?”

“Nothing I can’t handle.”

Enemy Among Us: Chapter 61

Kriegel kissed the space where Doctor Beckman’s soft, slender neckline met her fair-skinned shoulder and rolled out of bed, squinting at the digital alarm clock with his badge and gun resting beside it on the nightstand. He clenched the vibrating smart phone he’d shoved under his pillow and read the text message.

Stark naked at 0430 hours, he felt exhausted from a night of persistent sex with a woman whose lustful appetite often exceeded his own.

A quick shower and shave brought his brain back on line. Despite his hard-ass reputation at bureau headquarters, he preferred the field work instead of greasing the political machine in Washington, where decisions stemmed from money and influence with little thought to the men in the trenches.

He drove through drizzling rain, traveling east across the Woodrow Wilson bridge to the new crime scene along the Potomac River. Greeted by a pair of Virginia State Police officers dressed in wet weather gear, he stopped short of the cordoned-off crime scene and ducked under the yellow tape.

“Sir,” the first officer greeted him, inspecting the FBI badge Kriegel offered. “Over here… We found a badge and gun on the body. We called it in. The department routed the request to you.”

Kriegel followed the officers toward the river bank, where a partially-decomposed male victim lay face up with frozen eyes locked toward the heavens in a permanent stare. “Christ on a cracker. What happened here?” Kriegel directed his attention at the coroner about to unfold a new body bag.

The coroner pointed to the line carved inside the victim’s neck. “No obvious signs of physical trauma other than apparent strangulation from the bruising around his neck. Petechial hemorrhaging in the eyes supports asphyxiation as the likely cause of death.”

Kriegel inspected the victim. “No weight around his hands or feet. Someone dumped him in a hurry—or they wanted us to find the body.” He turned around when headlights flooded the area, and watched a government sedan pull alongside his car. He waited for the driver to get out and make his way across the yellow tape. “You shouldn’t be here.”

“I’m Special Agent Parks with Homeland Security. I was assigned to assist a bureau investigation.”

“I know who you are, son.”

“I got a call about an hour ago. My partner, Agent Rollins, has been AWOL since—”

“Take it easy,” said Kriegel.

“Shit!” Parks exclaimed. “That’s my partner!”

“Easy…” Kriegel tried to calm him down.

“What happened?”

“That’s what I’m here to find out. When did you see Rollins last?”

“Three days ago. He left our surveillance post on a coffee run and never came back. I tried his cell, his home, his beeper. He never answered.”

“What time three days ago?”

“A little after two a.m. Thursday morning.”

“And why am I just hearing about this now?”

Parks looked about the crime scene. He fidgeted with his hands. “I figured something personal must have come up. Something urgent. Our shift was almost up. I had his back when he was gone. Yesterday we were both off duty.”

“Did he say anything to you before he left?”

“No, but he was acting weird.”

“What do you mean?”

“Nervous. Squirrelly. I figured it had something to do with his divorce. He’d been caught up in the shit with his wife big-time.”

Kriegel watched the coroner load the body of Agent Rollins in the back of the van. He knew the agent’s wife through Doctor Beckam’s group of friends. “Rollins was a good man, a good field agent. He had skin in this game.”

“What was he doing here?” Parks asked.

“Nothing, as far as I can tell. The river carried his body here. His murder took place somewhere else.”

“I don’t get it…”

“Did you see or hear anything during your surveillance operation? Anything at all?”

“No Sir. It was quiet. No one came or went from the Sayeed residence.”

“Your partner didn’t kill himself. Someone wanted him dead. The more you can tell me, the better our chances of finding who did this.”

Parks strategized the conversation in his mind. How to steer the line of questioning where he wanted and how to shun any hint of suspicion toward himself. “I don’t know what to tell you. Rollins was devoted to the job, but he kept to himself outside duty hours.”

“I don’t need his life story. Something must have happened, recently. Something prompted him to walk off the job.”

“I’m not sure this is anything at all, but the night before our shift last Thursday, Rollins told me he was going to take some personal time. Said he had to meet someone.”

“Who?”

“He didn’t say.”

“Did he say what for?”

“I didn’t ask. I figured it was his attorney or something to do with his divorce.”

“What else can you tell me about him?”

“Sometimes he complained about money problems.”

“Who doesn’t?”

“I mean big problems. I think his divorce was sucking him dry.”

“Was he involved in something he shouldn’t be?”

“If he was, I didn’t know about it.”

“He was your partner.”

“Like I said, Rollins liked to keep to himself.”

“I understand,” said Kriegel. “The bureau has a lot of irons in the fire. We’re balls to the wall on this Abdullah investigation. I need you to focus on tracking Fayez Sayeed. We’ll find your partner’s killer. I promise.” Kriegel grabbed the ringing cell phone from his belt. “Kriegel.”

“Sir,” the female voice replied, “we have a problem.”

Kriegel recognized the voice from the cyber-crimes agent in his command. “Spit it out.”

“Someone hacked our network and copied top secret files from the Carnivore database. An alert from a proxy server pinged the NOC. We traced the hacker through a router in Singapore and a Unix box in Berkeley.”

“Cut to the chase.”

“We traced the hacker’s IP address to a bureau laptop registered to someone in your department. Special Agent Shannon Burns.”

Kriegel turned back to Agent Parks. “Sync up with Doctor Beckman’s team. Find out where they are on the vaccine supply.”

“Yes Sir.”

“And Parks…”

“Sir?”

“Watch your back. If Abdullah’s people got to Rollins, they could be gunning for you.”

Enemy Among Us: Chapter 58

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?”

“Of course…”

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?”

“Information.”

“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.”

Enemy Among Us: Chapter 55

McLeary ducked his head inside the back of the prisoner transport van and sat on the metal bench seat. A pair of handcuffs secured him to a cable bolted to the floor. The judicial process would be swift and certain, a proverbial slam dunk for Kriegel and his goons consumed by their own predilection and ignominious tactics. And as the back door slammed shut to envelop him in darkness, reality began to set in. There would be no case to close, no terrorist plot to disrupt, and no chance to reconcile his relationship with his sons. He had failed on multiple levels, embracing his fate as a father who would spend the next twenty years in a federal penitentiary alone in his grief and unforgiven in the eyes of those who meant everything to him.

He rested his head against the wall, angry at himself for trusting Burns despite his instincts that drove him to question her loyalties and motives. Duped by an amateur with a pretty face, he figured Burns had learned enough about the system to work her own agenda while she kissed Kriegel’s ass on her ascension through the bureau ranks. If an enemy of the state didn’t kill her, her own ignorance and inexperience would consume her in the end.

He put his hands together and prayed; not for himself, but for the sons he’d failed to protect.

* * *

Burns attacked the StairMaster with vigor. Her legs pumping like iron pistons, she’d climbed the equivalent of ten flights of stairs without breaking a sweat, her determination reflected in the mirrored wall in front of her.

Alone in a hotel fitness room, she’d caught the end of a local news report about the public’s fear of a large-scale anthrax attack. A stretch, she thought, having firsthand knowledge of the isolated incidents she’d reviewed during the course of her investigation. Terrorist-related or not, she felt confident the problem would be resolved with or without her assistance, and now, without the help of Jim McLeary.

She increased the resistance, forcing her heart and legs to work harder, diverting her frustration and anger away from Kriegel toward a meaningful cardio workout. Whatever his motives were, Kriegel had crossed the line, at least in her mind. The way he used her for his personal gain only seasoned her wound with salt. If she could have punched him and kept her career intact at the same time, she would have; maybe kicked him in the balls for good measure. Kriegel was an arrogant, unconscionable bastard, not someone she could learn from or respect.

She eyed the digital readout on the exercise machine’s front panel, wondering if Kriegel had the room bugged too. If he got to McLeary through her, maybe he could get to her through the maintenance crew or a surveillance technician disguised as the pest control man.

We all have something to hide, but McLeary broke the law.

Right or wrong, McLeary had admitted his mistake, using the death of his wife to justify his illegal actions, actions which tarnished the image of the world’s most respected law enforcement agency.

Then why do you feel so guilty? You didn’t put temptation in his hands. You didn’t help him steal the money. He made the choice on his own.

When she reached the fifteenth floor in her virtual stairwell climb, she imagined how much strength a fire fighter would need to climb the same distance with gear on his back and a high pressure hose in tow. She closed her eyes and held the support bars with both hands, steering her thoughts in other directions as she tried to deny her feelings for the man she’d struggled to understand; an unorthodox agent who’d scorned her with his sexist, narrow-minded comments; a man who kept her up at night with a passion in his eyes. Jim McLeary was a man of many faults, but murder wasn’t one of them. The operation went bad. The death of Agent Bryant was a tragedy everyone would have to live with.

She finished her workout and stepped off the machine to catch her breath and stretch while she pondered the note conspicuously delivered to her apartment mail box several days ago.

Watch your back. There’s a double agent in your house.

A prank in poor taste or a warning she’d failed to heed? Kriegel would have her head for not disclosing the contents sooner. But withholding the information was a gamble she’d been willing to take.

The note had cost her sleepless nights and stoked her fear of someone close to her playing for the other side. And now, with McLeary in custody, part of her hoped something bad would develop while he had a solid alibi, giving her a reason to trust him again. But there were too many variables. Too many shades of bad to contend with on a difficult investigation embroiled with terrorist factions, multiple law enforcement agencies, standard bureau politics, and plain bad luck. If McLeary was the problem, Kriegel had his man dead to rites. But if Kriegel was the one who turned, she had no clear path to follow, aside from approaching Director Hoffnagle himself to convince him a decorated FBI Section Chief with a record beyond reproach might be sabotaging his own investigation. The menagerie of what ifs made her head spin.

She grabbed an orange Gatorade from her gym bag. She thought about Seth and Brian at the FBI safe house and how she would break the news about their dad.Step up or step out, Kriegel had threatened her, his harsh retort replayed inside her conscious mind in an endless loop. She’d kept herself in the game despite her own reservations about working for a pig like Kriegel. If he’d wanted McLeary stuffed and mounted, he should have got his own hands dirty, not hers. Despite McLeary’s confession about the stolen money, he had saved her life—twice—and now the thought of his allegiance to anyone but himself, his country, or his boys made him the least likely candidate for a sinister double-agent.

Enemy Among Us: Chapter 52

At 0430 hours, Special Agent Carl Rollins used one arm to climb a steel rung ladder beneath a manhole opening. In his other arm, he carried a cardboard drink holder with two cups of hot coffee procured from a Starbuck’s around the corner and covertly transported from an underground utility service conduit.

He moved with grace and uncanny balance for a man his size, careful not to spill on his shirt as he climbed the vertical shaft from the underground tunnel to the road above. He emerged through an opening in the floor of a windowless work van with ladder racks and an orange safety cone mounted on the front bumper post. Positioned a conspicuous distance from the home of Martha Anne Sayeed, the van sat near an old diesel Mercedes sedan and a Toyota Tundra with a black camper top, the latter owned by the Department of Homeland Security—and loaded with a cache of weapons and HAZMAT gear should the need arise to use them. The work van had been parked for days in the same spot with a sliding panel between the passenger cabin and the cargo space in back. A pair of bogus parking tickets protruded from the windshield wiper to create the illusion of an abandoned vehicle.

Rollins balanced the coffee cups in the cardboard holder. Dirt from the ladder rungs speckled his buzz-cut hair and wire-rimmed glasses as he squeezed himself beside his lanky partner, Special Agent Wesley Parks, who manned the electronic surveillance station.

Parks removed his headphones and stood up to stretch. At six-foot-three, he had to stoop to keep his head from hitting the van’s headliner. He thought about a hot shower and a plate of his wife’s home cooking. After twelve hours crammed inside a cold van with his partner and an array of surveillance equipment fed from a bank of twelve volt batteries, he was ready for the next shift to relieve him. So far, the operation had proved a colossal waste of time. He had no doubt Fayez Sayeed was well trained in evasive tactics, and that he would execute his orders without question—severing all ties with his former life so as not to jeopardize his mission. “Thanks,” he told his partner, Agent Rollins. He sipped from his steaming cup. “I wanted a grandee mocha latte with extra syrup and light foam. This cup is buried in foam and doesn’t taste sweet at all.”

“I ordered what you asked for. You’re lucky I didn’t piss in it.”

Parks choked down the hot beverage. “You might as well have.”

“Next time it’s your turn,” said Rollins. “I saw a rat the size of my dog down there.”

“You have a Chiwawa.”

“What’s your point?”

“I’m saying it would be different if you compared your rat to a German Shepherd or a Great Dane. That would be something to run from.”

“I didn’t run from anything. I’m just telling you what I saw.”

“You’re still breathing hard.”

“I had to climb the fucking ladder one-handed. Not to mention I jogged most of the way to keep the coffee warm. It’s freezing down there.”

“Make sure you note that in your performance evaluation,” Parks taunted his partner.

Rollins peeled the tab back on his coffee lid and enjoyed the warmth from his beverage. “We get anything while I was gone?”

“You were gone ten minutes.”

“Twenty degrees made it feel a lot longer. Any news from Kriegel?”

“Nope.” Parks adjusted his shoulder harness to scratch an itch beneath the leather strap over his heavy wool sweater. “I guess no news is bad news. I can’t believe this Fayez Sayeed would be dumb enough to call home. Let alone show up in person. Aren’t these guys trained to inject themselves into our culture and then disappear at a moment’s notice?”

Rollins watched the flashing indicator light on the digital recording device. “All men are created equal, but no two are the same.” A monitor showed a wave pattern scrolling left to right as the wireless interrogation equipment tracked an incoming call from a cell phone in the Sayeed residence. Below the pattern on the monitor, a sound spectrograph mapped a database image of Sayeed’s voice pattern against the caller’s.

Parks adjusted his headset volume for his partner to hear. “The in-laws called five times since yesterday.”

Rollins checked the incoming number against known numbers in the terrorist database. “The voice sounds different. The number’s clean.” He sat on the floor with his knees apart and his jacket sleeves bunched up at his elbows. He wore his tie loose around his unbuttoned collar. A former FBI Agent, he’d transferred assignments to Homeland Security six months ago. With his divorce on the books and a twelve-year-old son who wouldn’t speak to him, he needed a change in his life—a new direction to distract him from his alimony payments and a bitchy ex-wife who’d rather sit at home and spend his money than get off her ass and find a job. He banged his secretary on occasion to relieve the tension—something his ex, and the judge, had failed to understand.

Parks listened to the phone conversation while he sipped his coffee. “I think I need to piss.”

“I put the bottle in the supply locker.”

“I can hold it,” Parks said on second thought. “Our shift is over in half an hour.”

Rollins searched the watchlist for known affiliations of Fayez Sayeed. “You don’t suppose he’s passing information through his relatives, using coded messages to relay his plans?”

“It’s possible,” said Parks, “but I doubt it. Sayeed’s probably out of the country by now and on to his next assignment. Whatever role he played with this family ended when he stopped coming home.”

“I’ll send the call data to Fort Meade. Maybe they can come up with something.” Rollins logged into his Homeland Security account and brought up his email.

Parks reached for a chocolate bar he’d squirreled away inside his jacket pocket and peeled the Hershey’s wrapper. He bit off a chunk and chewed.

Rollins salivated over the candy bar, hearing his partner crunch on the milk chocolate with walnuts. “You got any more of those?”

Parks shook his head. “Last one.”

“Liar,” said Rollins.

Parks peeled the wrapper another inch. He sipped his coffee, watching the video monitor through the steam in front of his face. “I say we wrap this up.”

“Wait… We got a bogie on foot.” Rollins used the joystick controller to adjust the pan/tilt/zoom camera disguised behind the van’s front grill. He watched a figure draw closer on the monitor—a woman in jeans and a thick ski jacket with a hood. He captured the woman’s facial image through the telephoto lens, which fed the data to a facial recognition system.

Parks followed the woman on the video monitor and watched her proceed along the driveway of the Sayeed residence. He watched her press the doorbell and wait for Martha Anne to answer. “You’ll never get a hit on her. The background lighting’s off, and her face is too obscured.”

“I’ve got audio,” Rollins whispered as if the woman could hear him two hundred feet away from their sound-dampened van. He activated the beam-forming, multi-directional microphone and unplugged the headset to hear the conversation on the mini speakers.

“I know it’s early,” the woman’s voice mumbled.

“It’s all right,” Martha Anne Sayeed replied.

Rollins typed at the keyboard with his partner looking over his shoulder. “I’ll run the voiceprint through the database. See if I can match it to the facial image.”

“Anything?”

“The system’s still extracting facial features, eigenvectors…”

“Do we have a hit or not?”

Rollins moved the wireless mouse and scrolled down. “No match. The data’s inconclusive.” He flipped a rocker switch on the communication panel and pointed at the monitor again. “I’ll check the infrared.”

“What for?”

Rollins grabbed the control stick and panned the infrared camera concealed behind the van’s ladder rack assembly. Color images appeared on the thermal imaging display with red silhouettes imposed on a green backdrop. “Two bodies confirmed.”

“How many were you expecting to find?”

Rollins unclipped his radio from his belt holster. “Something doesn’t feel right.” He keyed the mic. “Remote, this is outpost, do you copy?”

“Affirmative,” replied the voice of an undercover agent on a rooftop with a rifle scope trained at the house.

“Do you still have a visual on the house?”

“Affirmative.”

Rollins looked at his partner then back at the infrared display, which showed both figures moving from one room to another. “I wanna take a closer look.”

“Are you nuts?” said Parks, spilling coffee on his shirt.

Rollins turned the volume up. “Another call’s coming in.” He pointed to the voiceprint on the screen. “Check this out.” He stared at the sine wave mapping across the screen in perfect syncopation with the prerecorded voiceprint from Fayez Sayeed. “It’s him.”

Parks donned the headset and listened to the voice. “Are you sure?”

Rollins double-checked the voice authentication system. “Ninety-two percent probability. I’m tracing the call… It’s coming from a satellite phone.” He waited for the number to appear on the monitor. “The woman must have brought the phone with her. Stupid bitch thought we couldn’t trace it.”

“Can we pinpoint Sayeed’s location?”

Rollins ran his hand through his spiked hair. After hours of agonizing boredom, he finally felt a burst of energy. “Done! Get Washington on the horn. This is huge.” He watched the call translation data scroll across the screen.

Parks stood up. “Nice work.”

Rollins grabbed his cell phone with his back toward his partner. “I’ll wake up Kriegel.”

Parks unplugged the wiring harness from the van’s communications panel and wrapped the ends around his hands. “Not this time.” He dropped the looped cord over Rollins’ head and cinched the wire taught around his neck, depriving further oxygen to the brain.

Rollins clawed desperately at the wire cutting into his throat. His eyes bulged from their sockets as the noose tightened across his esophagus and carotid artery, prompting death by cerebral hypoxia.

Parks deleted the recorded data and swapped the removable hard drive with a blank one. Then he lifted the van’s floor panel and descended through the manhole opening below.

Enemy Among Us: Chapter 49

McLeary paced beside the open window drapes in the tenth-floor hotel suite overlooking the Atlantic Ocean from Collins Avenue north of Miami Beach. He knew the room well, an FBI safe house on permanent retainer by Uncle Sam for witness protection transfers. “I want my sons to stay in protective custody,” he told Burns who kept her back to him with her cell phone against her ear. “I want them locked in here with an officer at the door and another at the nearest exit. No rookies. I want agents with time on the job.”

Burns nodded as she listened to the caller speak. She reached for a pen from the breakfast bar. She scribbled the caller’s message on her notepad and hung up. “Miami PD hauled your boat this morning. They matched a thumb print to Fayez Sayeed.”

McLeary stepped away from the window and glanced at his sons milling about in the second room. “They find a body to go with it?”

“Not yet. You think Abdullah sent him to finish what they started at Muheen’s apartment building?”

“It’s plausible.”

“Now what?”

McLeary flipped his phone open. “I’ll have two agents here in half an hour. As soon as Seth and Brian are secure, you and I are going for a ride.”

* * *

McLeary sliced his way through traffic as he drove toward the heart of Miami’s speedboat district on Ocean Drive. Oblivious to the cars around him or the excessive speed at which he traveled, he kept his thoughts to himself, compartmentalizing his guilt about Agent Bryant’s death to explore more important matters. With Seth and Brian secure, he found his last obstacle in the seat beside him. Too many aspects of his own investigation had gone astray. Regardless of Burns and her predilection for the FBI Section Chief above her, he felt a tenuous trust start to form between himself and his unofficial partner. Her swagger, her toughness under pressure, and her devotion to the job had chipped away his initial perception of the female agent who’d been shadowing him. And yet despite her redeeming qualities, she lacked direction and initiative outside Kriegel’s immediate chain of command.

“You wanna tell me where we’re going?” Burns shouted above the wind noise from the open sunroof.

“To see a friend.”

“Kriegel’s expecting us—”

“Fuck Kriegel. This case is personal now.”

“For whom?”

McLeary braked hard behind a delivery truck stopped at the intersection up ahead. He frowned at Burns. “You got a problem with me, then spit it out.”

“Look, I’m sorry about your wife and what happened, but it doesn’t change our situation. I need to know your head’s on straight.”

McLeary gunned the engine when the light turned green, screeching the rear tires to slingshot the Hemi Charger around the delivery truck.

Burns noted the cast of unsavory characters mulling outside the high-and-dry boat storage beside a warehouse along the river. “I gather Kriegel doesn’t know we’re here?”

McLeary parked by a forty-six foot Formula with triple outboards hanging from the transom sitting on a six-wheel trailer. He got out with Burns and approached a welder with rock star hair, a nose ring, and both arms sleeved out with tattoos.

The welder put his torch down and flipped his visor open. He whistled to a colleague who emerged from the warehouse with a submachine gun not quite concealed inside his denim jacket, the words “Death Before Dishonor” tattooed on his neck.

“You lost?” the man in the denim jacket asked, keeping both hands on his hips to accentuate his aggressive posture.

McLeary watched the welder disappear inside the building. “Hilario Gonsalez. I need to speak to him.”

“Who’s asking?”

“A friend.”

“You got a name?”

“McLeary. He knows who I am.”

The gunman glared at Burns, scanning her from head to toe. McLeary sensed the man knew her from somewhere. “Wait here.”

A sliding metal door opened along the side of the warehouse beyond a dumpster and a stack of wooden pallets. “It’s all right,” Hilario Gonsalez offered, gesturing to his bodyguard. “I know this man.” Born from Columbian descent, thirty-three year old Hilario approached his former adversary in a silk suit and alligator skin loafers. He acknowledged Burns first, engaging her in a long, hard stare. “I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure.”

Burns responded by flashing her badge in his face. “FBI.”

“You are indeed.” He turned to McLeary. “I thought you retired?”

“I need a favor.”

Hilario walked away, waving his hand over his shoulder. “I’m all out of favors.”

“Just hear me out.”

“Forget it.”

McLeary followed him. “What if I can help your father?”

Hilario turned about-face and walked back. Wrinkles carved in the sun-dried skin across his forehead added years to his age. “What do you know about my father?”

“I know he’s facing the rest of his life someplace he’d rather not. I can’t take him out of prison, but I could make his time go easier.”

“And why should I trust you?”

“Because I’m the only friend your father has.”

“My father has many friends.”

“None with a badge and a gun who he can trust.”

“You sent my father to prison.”

“Your father sent himself to prison the day he followed his own path and got caught. I tried to help him. He wouldn’t listen.”

“My father built boats. What his buyers did with them was none of his concern. He came to this country with nothing and carved a good life for myself. My mother. My sister. He did what he had to do to survive.” Hilario shook a cigarette from a crumpled pack and propped it between his lips. He lit up and blew smoke through his nose and mouth. “You’ve got cohunes, McLeary. Coming here like this. My father put his trust in you and you betrayed him.”

“Your father betrayed himself.”

Hilario stepped inside McLeary’s personal space, an aggressive gesture prompting Burns to draw her weapon. “My father is twice the man you’ll ever be.”

“It’s cool,” McLeary said to Burns. He kept her in his peripheral vision along with the armed body guard who maintained a tactical position. “I respect your father for who he is, not for what he’s done. Don’t dishonor him by making the same mistakes he made. I’m giving you the chance to do something right.”

“By helping you?”

“By helping him.”

Hilario locked eyes with McLeary. “I run a legitimate business here. These boats you see… I build these for your government now.”

McLeary reached inside his blazer pocket. “It’s just a photo,” he told the body guard, retrieving a picture of Fayez Sayeed. “Have you seen this man before?”

Hilario blew smoke through his nose. He squinted at the picture. “Never.”

“He tried to kill us,” said Burns.

McLeary could tell her patience was waning on his fishing expedition.

Hilario inhaled a long drag. “We all have enemies.” Sweat trickled on his brow. He paused until a black Hummer passed the boat yard and turned the corner. Then he motioned for McLeary and Burns to follow him inside. “I’m not sure I can be of any help to you.”

“Let me be the judge of that.”

“And what exactly is it you want from me?”

McLeary pulled Hilario aside and strolled out of earshot from Burns. “I need information off the street.” He showed a photo array of Ahmed Abdullah, Ali Muheen, and Fayez Sayeed. “Anything you can dig up on these men.”

“Why me? You’ve got the badge and the gun.”

“And you have the eyes and ears in places a badge can’t reach. I’m also running out of time.”

Hilario thought about McLeary’s request. He thought about his memory of the FBI agent who kept his father in protective custody during a long trial process wrought with death threats and a failed assassination attempt. “If I help you, what assurance do I have about my father?”

McLeary put his hand out. “You have my word.”

Enemy Among Us: Chapter 45

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.”

“Why?”

“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?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t trust him.”

“Who else has seen it?”

“Just you.”

“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.”

Enemy Among Us: Chapter 40

Burns rode shotgun in McLeary’s rented Charger as they entered the parking garage below a covert DEA facility nestled within a cluster of high-rise offices outside a high-tech industrial park. Neither spoke on the elevator ride to the seventh floor task force office.

Burns flashed her badge at the guard on duty inside the office suite. “He’s with me,” she told the officer in uniform, pointing to McLeary beside her.

“You’re late,” Kriegel barked from the conference room window overlooking the Miami traffic below. He closed the vertical blinds and dimmed the lights. “Shut the door.” He motioned to Doctor Beckman who plugged her laptop computer into the video projection monitor on the table. “This is Doctor Candice Beckman, a senior pathologist with the CDC.”

McLeary shook her hand. “Doctor.”

Burns followed behind McLeary. “I’m Special Agent Burns. Nice to meet you.”

“Likewise,” Candice answered. She pointed to Agent Bryant seated across the room in jeans and a Miami Dolphins jersey. “I assume you all know Special Agent Bryant and his team with the DEA task force?”

“We’ve met,” said McLeary. He stared at Agent Bryant with contempt, recalling the face of a former accuser.

Kriegel snagged the wireless remote from the table and clicked the PowerPoint presentation to flash the image of a bearded man with a bloody face, half buried in the crumbled ruins of a deserted military bunker destroyed by a surface-to-air missile. “Special Forces snapped this picture from a drone three years ago in Afghanistan after an airstrike on an al-Qaida stronghold failed to neutralize the primary target.”

“Who is he?” asked McLeary.

“His name is Ahmed Mahmoud Abdullah, a radical fundamentalist and previous deputy chief scientist from Saddam Hussein’s former death squad. Abdullah’s believed to be responsible for conducting hundreds of lethal experiments involving aerosolized biological pathogens on civilians. Mostly women and children.” Kriegel paused to reflect. “As the photo shows, he was left for dead in the airstrike rubble until our friends at Langley uncovered new intelligence to suggest otherwise.”

Kriegel clicked the next slide to illuminate the picture of an airline baggage handler.

“Meet Marcus Noland, a former CIA asset killed in Amsterdam where he was working as a ground crew member for Transatlantic Airlines. Noland was feeding the Agency information on Abdullah’s whereabouts and his alleged plans for a wide-spread attack on U.S. soil.”

Kriegel clicked to the next slide, which showed a dead woman on her knees in a public restroom with her head in a toilet. “This photo was taken one week ago. Intelligence suggests Ahmed Abdullah assumed the identity of Marcus Noland to gain access to the airport facility where he got close to this woman, Carla Bonnnove, Marcus Noland’s girlfriend and ground crew shift supervisor in charge of baggage screening. He used her to gain access to a baggage sorting area. We believe Abdullah was attempting to smuggle something out of Europe and into the United States.”

“Smuggle what?” asked Agent Bryant.

“I’ll get there in a moment.”

Kriegel advanced the presentation, showing a bathtub full of partially liquefied human remains. “You’re looking at what’s left of Marcus Noland who took his last shower in an acid bath. This picture was taken by Rosie Uppal, a senior field agent sent to investigate Noland’s disappearance when he fell off Langley’s radar. A local asset found Rosie dead in her car.”

McLeary got up from his seat. “Why didn’t the Agency roll up Abdullah when they had the chance?”

“Because you know as well as I do Langley’s not interested in making arrests.”

Agent Bryant spoke up. “And what about Ali Muheen? How does he fit in?”

Kriegel advanced to the next slide, flashing the family portrait of Fayez Sayeed with his wife and three children. “We’ll get there.” He coughed to clear his throat. “This is a picture of Fayez Sayeed taken two years ago. A naturalized American citizen, loving husband, father, and well-respected GS-14 working for the IRS until he went AWOL from his job a week ago and fell off the grid.”

Burns shook her head. “What does he have to do with anything?”

“Before Marcus Noland was murdered in Amsterdam, he supplied the CIA with intel about an Iranian mole living in Washington D.C. Marcus never uncovered the mole’s identity, only that he had strong ties to Ali Muheen and Ahmed Abdullah. Marcus believed the mole was working with Muheen and Abdullah in conjunction with other members of a Lebanon-based radical Shi’a group who call themselves—”

“Hezbollah,” said McLeary. He rubbed his chin. “The same group who attacked the U.S. Marine barracks with a suicide truck in Beirut in ’83.”

Kriegel nodded.

Burns scribbled in her notepad. “What about Fayez Sayeed? Does he have any ties in the U.S.?”

“Homeland Security has his American wife under federal surveillance. So far she’s not suspected of any terrorist involvement. Fayez Sayeed came to this country to obtain a permanent residence and now he’s abandoned his American wife and children.”

“What do we know about his plans?” asked McLeary.

“Not much. We deployed a code yellow terrorist alert. State and local authorities have an all points bulletin on Sayeed. Hopefully they’ll get lucky and pick him up.”

“And what about Ali Muheen?” Agent Bryant asked again. “How does he fit into all this?”

Kriegel coughed. “We’re still piecing everything together. But we do know Muheen is a brother-in-law of Ahmed Abdullah, whose wife and son were killed in the airstrike photo I showed you earlier. We believe Muheen operated several terrorist training camps in Chechnya and the Pankisi Gorge region of Georgia. We also believe Muheen and his cohorts smuggled several experimental pathogens from a biodefense laboratory in Kazakhstan. Intelligence tracked him outside of Amsterdam, and most recently, Miami. We speculate he’s working in conjunction with Fayez Sayeed. As Agent Bryant can attest, the DEA’s had Muheen under surveillance for several weeks.”

Agent Bryant nodded. “For involvement with narcotics distribution. Now for all we know Muheen could be cooking up explosives instead of crack.”

McLeary looked at Burns, then at Agent Bryant, and finally at Kriegel. “Muheen is dead.”

“What are you talking about?” asked Agent Bryant.

“The man you’re watching is not Ali Muheen.”

Kriegel tossed the wireless control on the table, his posture telegraphing his disgust. “Have you been drinking on the job? Because the words coming out of your mouth don’t make sense.”

McLeary stood beside the conference table. “None of this makes sense,” he continued. “I received a tip two days ago from an anonymous source who believes Muheen is dead. This source also helped another colleague in Quantico decrypt a message from Gordon Gentry’s Blackberry we found in China Town, where a witness spotted Gentry getting into a sedan with Muheen.”

“What message?”

“Something about a magical kingdom.”

“And when were you planning to share this with the team?”

“I just did.”

It was obvious Kriegel struggled to keep a level head in front of Doctor Beckam. “What’s the connection?”

McLeary shrugged. “My money says Abdullah used Gentry to rob a bank. Gentry never knew the big picture. Neither did Rodney Nito and whoever else Abdullah’s team recruited to do their dirty work and sidetrack us from their real end game.”

“Which is what?” Agent Bryant chimed in. “My men have had Muheen under twenty-four seven watch for weeks. What makes you think your anonymous source is credible?”

“My gut,” said McLeary.

“Oh… well… why didn’t you say so in the first place? I’d trust your gut over credible intelligence sources any day.”

McLeary kept a tight face, deflecting Agent Bryant’s condescending tone with unwavering confidence in his own assessment of the anonymous caller’s credibility. “This wasn’t a crank call. This person had knowledge of Gordon Gentry’s Blackberry and the crypto skills to help an expert analyst uncover the coded message it was hiding.”

“So did anyone who worked closely with Gordon Gentry,” Kriegel interjected. “In fact, how do we know this mystery source of yours doesn’t pose a counter-intelligence threat? For all you know, he could be working with someone in Abdullah’s organization, dropping erroneous clues to disrupt our investigation. In fact, how can we trust that anything you’re telling us is true?”

“The same way we trust Agent Bryant never had inappropriate relations with barn animals.”

“That photo was doctored!” Bryant retorted amid a chorus of muffled giggles from his colleagues in the back of the room.

Kriegel gnashed his teeth. “God dammit McLeary! I warned you about pulling this sort of shit during my investigation.”

“You mean our investigation,” said Burns.

“Gentlemen, ladies,” Doctor Beckman piped up, undoubtedly attempting to diffuse the lethal concentration of testosterone in the room. “Please… We’re spinning our wheels and going nowhere fast.” She commandeered the remote from Kriegel and advanced to her portion of the presentation. “Time is our enemy.” She waited for the grumbling to subside before she started. “I don’t give a shit about your personal problems or your political agendas. The fact is we’re likely dealing with an anthrax outbreak the likes of which we’ve never seen before.” She clicked to a slide showing a list of names appended to five different hospital images linked to a bank photo. “Doctor Michael Lewis uncovered the threat before it finally killed him. His autopsy confirmed hematoxylinophilic bacilli had completely filled his perivascular lymphatic space. Immunohistochemistry revealed B anthracis in affected tissues with an antimicrobial-resistant strain modified to increase virulence.”

McLeary read the charts on screen. “Translation?”

“Doctor Lewis, and staff at other hospitals, confirmed almost a hundred cases citing exposure to weaponized anthrax as cause of death.” She paused once she finally had the group’s full attention. “A portion of my team began the process of trying to identify the source of the infection, starting with background checks of all known or suspected anthrax victims at nearby hospitals in the Washington Metropolitan region. We cross-referenced the list of names and discovered all were members of one or more of the financial institutions that were recently targeted. We confirmed our findings. Most of our anthrax victims were present during the time of the robberies.”

“Which leads us to speculate,” Kriegel added, “about the strong possibility that our robbery victims were exposed to airborne contaminants.”

“Are we at risk?” asked McLeary.

“The probability is low.”

“How low?” asked Burns.

“I can’t give an exact figure.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means we don’t have all the answers,” said Doctor Beckam. “Anthrax doesn’t spread like the common cold. It doesn’t pass from person to person.”

“Unless it’s been genetically modified to do so,” McLeary added.

Doctor Beckman looked at Kriegel then back at McLeary. “Let’s not jump to unfounded conclusions.”

“But it’s possible…”

“In theory, perhaps. Though it’s highly unlikely without knowing the specific gene sequence or—”

“We’re still missing something,” McLeary argued. “Are you suggesting the bank robberies we’re investigating are ground zero for these anthrax attacks?”

“It’s one scenario.”

“Why would someone launch a bioweapon attack during an armed robbery?”

Burns rummaged through her notes. “Rodney Nito said someone paid him to rob the credit union. Maybe he and Gordon Gentry were recruited to do more than steal money?”

“They don’t fit a bioterrorist’s profile,” said McLeary.

“Maybe not,” said Kriegel. “But it fits with Ahmed Abdullah’s MO.”

Doctor Beckman clicked to the next slide. “Handling virulent biological agents in an envelope is one thing, but creating a weaponized version of anthrax spores lies beyond the reach of most terrorist organizations. It requires highly specialized skills and access to sophisticated equipment.”

McLeary shook his head. He stared at Doctor Beckman through pinched eyes. “Any crackpot with a degree in biochemistry and a quantity of anthrax material could pull this off.”

“We’re not talking about mixing fertilizers with diesel fuel, Agent McLeary. There are more than seventy different strains of anthrax. A potential enemy would have to isolate different strains before finding one sufficiently potent to work in a specific, weaponized format.”

“Like the Ames and Vollum strains?”

“Or worse… An aerosol release of fifty kilograms of dried anthrax containing several trillion spores over a city of five million would produce more than a hundred thousand deaths and nearly a quarter million incapacitating illnesses. The spores are odorless and nearly colorless in the atmosphere. They can also sustain their potency for decades.”

Burns tapped her pen on her notepad. “What about a vaccine?”

“Antibiotics are the first defense for victims already exposed. The CDC stocks Ciprofloxacin, although its effectiveness varies depending on the length of time from exposure and whether the spores were inhaled or passed subcutaneously through the skin. The Pentagon stores the military’s Biothrax vaccine. Right now that’s our best pre-exposure protection against known anthrax strains.”

“What about unknown anthrax strains?”

“Biothrax, or any vaccine we manufacture, is not a cure-all. No two people can be guaranteed the same level of protection. With the right anthrax variant and the right antigens, our best vaccine could be rendered ineffective. I’ve been in touch with Fort Detrick—”

“What are you saying?” asked Burns. “How effective do you think this vaccine will be? If at all?”

Doctor Beckman stretched across the table and turned off the slide projector. The darkened room fell funeral-silent with the cooling fan humming inside the projector housing. “A better question would be: how do we prevent the next attack from happening?”

Enemy Among Us: Chapter 32

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?”

“A hunch.”

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.

“I’m good.”

“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.”

“What?”

“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?”

“Tonight.”

“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.”

Enemy Among Us: Chapter 22

Slumped on a padded bar stool in an upscale restaurant with valet parking and entrée prices steeper than a Broadway show, McLeary held a picture of his sons with their mother standing between them, her arms around both boys. Worn and faded, the small photo had endured several years crammed in the back of his bi-fold wallet, including a full wash cycle at the laundromat. “I’ll take another,” he told the bartender who filled a tall glass from the Michelob Ultra tap.

“Are you waiting for a table?”

McLeary rubbed his thumb along the photo’s tattered edge. “Not tonight.”

“That’s what my girlfriend always tells me,” the bartender quipped, his coy expression dissolving the moment his eyes met the glare from the FBI agent, who could break him in half without spilling his drink.

McLeary retrieved an airline itinerary from his jacket pocket beside his empty holster. His flight from BWI to Miami departed in four hours, giving ample time to reflect on the recent checkmark in his failure column. The more he thought about the bureau, the more he regretted his involvement in the robbery investigation. He’d struck out worse than a one-arm batter. The glory days were over, and his feeble attempt to rekindle the past reminded him of why things ended the way they had. However righteous the cause appeared, it meant nothing in the scheme of life. Banks were meant to be robbed, if not by thugs with guns, then by sleazy Wall Street suits who made more money than God with less integrity than a torpedoed hull. The bad guys would commit the crimes, and the police would chase them in a never-ending cycle of cause and effect, good versus evil, kill or be killed, and all that crap. Throwing bodies at a broken system kept the wheels of justice spinning, adding low-level criminals to over-crowded prisons while the real masterminds remained at large to perpetuate the cycle of wide-spread corruption and greed.

He drank from his chilled glass, enjoying the first beer he’d had in days.

He stuffed the picture in his wallet between a video rental coupon and a credit card.

“I thought you’d left for Miami,” said Burns, approaching from the lobby entrance.

McLeary sipped his beer and licked the foam off his upper lip. “You might want to wipe your nose. I still see Kriegel’s ass on the tip.”

Burns held a string tie envelope in her hand. “Are you always this crass?”

McLeary slapped a twenty-dollar bill on the bar loud enough to get the server’s attention. “Keep the change.”

Burns glanced at the female patrons in fur coats and expensive jewelry worth more than her car and wardrobe combined. “We need to talk.”

“Not anymore.”

“Just hear me out. If you don’t like what I have to say, I’ll keep walking and let you finish your beer.”

“I’ll pass.”

“Just like that? Without sparing me one minute of your precious time.”

“You’re a fast learner.”

“How do you live with yourself, McLeary? Despite how you see things, the world doesn’t revolve around you.”

McLeary finished his beer. “Are we done?”

“That depends,” Burns blurted loud enough for every patron in the bar to hear, “on whether or not you’re still living on stolen money.”

“Good night, Agent Burns.”

“I didn’t come here to lock horns, McLeary. I need your help.”

“Sorry Sweat Pea. That ship has sailed.”

“Kriegel reassigned me to the case. I thought you should know—”

“Kriegel’s an idiot.”

* * *

Burns kept silent for several seconds, allowing the angry voice in her head to subside; the same inner voice she heard every time Jim McLeary opened his mouth. She didn’t need him to do her job. She didn’t want him to do her job. But as much as she hated to admit it, McLeary was on target about Kriegel. “For the sake of argument, let’s say you’re right. Kriegel is an idiot. It doesn’t change my motivation to catch these guys before they hit another bank and more innocent people get hurt.”

McLeary left the bar and worked his way through a large dinner party converging on the dining room. “I have a flight to catch,” he said without looking back.

“That’s it?”

McLeary pushed his way outside. “That’s it.”

Burns followed him to the parking lot and shoved an IAFIS report in his face. “We got a hit off the print you found at the Chase Bank robbery.”

“You don’t give up, do you?” McLeary grumbled. He snatched the paper and read the comparison results. “What do you want from me, Agent Burns?”

“I want your help.” Burns scanned the parking lot before she lowered her voice and said, “The print belongs to a terrorist named Ali Muheen. IAFIS pulled him from the Homeland Security watchlist. He’s number seven—”

“I know where he is on the list.” McLeary gave the paper back.

“Then tell me why he’s involved in robbing banks.”

“Maybe his credit card’s over the limit.”

“I’m serious, McLeary. Work with me on this—at least until we crack the case.”

McLeary pressed his hand on the Mustang’s roof. Out of time and out of options, he flattered Agent Burns with a question. “What exactly is your plan?”

“Start from scratch. Go back to Gordon Gentry’s restaurant in China Town. Maybe someone who knew him there can give us new direction.”

“Gentry was a career criminal with a long rap sheet. He wasn’t the brains behind the first robbery.”

“He knew enough to end up dead.”

“You’re assuming his death was intentional.”

“It wouldn’t be the first time one partner screwed over the other for a bigger share.”

“Or a chance to make a name for herself.”

“Are you really that shallow, McLeary?”

“Do Boy Scouts shit in the woods?”

Burns waited by the driver’s door. Her doubts about McLeary resurfaced like the tuna she had for lunch. “Kriegel has your gun in his office. Internal Affairs approved the shooting.”

“You’re lucky I was on the bridge with you.”

Burns held her hand out. “You’re lucky you’re not in jail. Give me the keys. I’m driving.”

“Not a chance, Sweet Pea.”

“Technically you’re still under contract with the bureau and therefore still on the job. If Kriegel finds out you’ve been drinking on duty…”

McLeary dropped the keys in her hand and went around to the passenger side.

Burns climbed in and brought the engine to life. She nudged the accelerator, producing a throaty growl from the Mustang’s dual exhaust.

“There’s a valet switch under the dash.” McLeary pointed at the steering column. “Flip it down to cut the power back.”

“No thanks.”

“You think you can handle it?”

Burns slid the transmission in drive and mashed the accelerator to the floor. The supercharged big block responded instantly, lighting up the rear tires to leave parallel patches of smoking rubber behind. “You think you can handle me?”

* * *

McLeary entered the Chinese restaurant with Agent Burns through the back. He saw a waiter in rubber-sole shoes mop a path from the kitchen to the dining room entrance. Sauce pots simmered on a gas-fired grill beneath an assortment of utensils suspended from a wire rack.

When a manager in a black bow tie and white shirt with gold cuff links approached, Burns displayed her badge and said, “We’re with the FBI.”

“How did you get in here?”

“We need to ask your employees a few questions.”

“About what?” the manager replied in a heavy Cantonese accent. He spoke through chapped lips and crooked yellow teeth. “We are very busy.”

McLeary showed a picture of Gordon Gentry lying face-up on a slab in the morgue. “Do you recognize this man?”

“Perhaps this is not the time or place?”

Burns maintained a sideways glance at the chef dicing vegetables with a chopping knife the size of a small machete. “We can do this now or come back with a warrant to search the premises. Then we can escort your entire staff downtown for questioning.”

“That won’t be necessary.” The manager brought them to a tiny office in a hallway with red wallpaper and textured ceiling tiles. “The man you ask of worked for me. Washed dishes. Part time. Mostly weekends.”

“What can you tell us about him?” said McLeary.

“Always keep to himself. No trouble. Did his job and went home.”

Burns examined the office space. There was a Chinese calendar on the wall and a printing calculator on a desk littered with restaurant receipts. “Did you pay him cash?”

The manager looked at Burns, then back at McLeary. “I paid him cash every Friday. He work cheap. No trouble.”

“Yeah, we got that part,” McLeary added. “What can you tell us about his friends? Where he lived? Who he spoke to?”

“He spoke to no one.”

McLeary noticed a box of junk in the corner. “When did you hire him?”

“Six months ago.”

“You let Caucasians work here?”

“No one wants dish job anymore.” The manager stepped into the hallway and barked orders in his native tongue, prodding cooks and waiters to move faster.

“Do you mind if we have a look around?” asked Burns.

“Quickly, please.”

Burns closed her notepad and turned to McLeary while the manager disappeared in the kitchen fray. “Do you think he’s hiding something?”

“Maybe. Did anything turn up in Gentry’s apartment?”

Burns shook her head. “Kriegel sent forensics to toss his place. So far the lab’s turned up nothing to connect him to the Chase Bank robbery or Ali Muheen. Whatever Gordon Gentry had up his sleeve, he kept it to himself.”

McLeary headed toward the dish-washing station, where a nozzle hung from a spring-loaded water line above the giant stainless steel basin. A Salvadoran dish washer with a pencil mustache and a baseball cap scrubbed a kettle with a Brillo pad. McLeary tapped him on the shoulder and flashed Gentry’s picture.

The dish washer shrugged and kept working.

McLeary persisted. “Have you seen this guy before?” He grabbed the spray nozzle and held it away. “You speak English?”

Burns intervened, stepping between McLeary and the frightened worker. “My partner is an ape,” she said in Spanish. “Please ignore him.”

“I don’t want any trouble,” the dishwasher replied.

“I understand. But this man robbed a bank and killed two police officers.

“No INS?”

“No INS. We just want to know about this man in the picture.”

The dish washer relented. “He never spoke to me. I saw him maybe three, four times.”

Burns held a photo of a young, bearded, Ali Muheen in a white turban. “Have you ever seen this man before?”

The dish washer nodded. “Yes.”

“When?”

“A week ago. I carried trash outside and heard them arguing in the parking lot.”

“What about?”

“I don’t remember. He drove away in a black Mercedes.”

“Did you see the license plate?”

“No.”

Burns gave the dish washer twenty bucks. Then she wandered through the restaurant to find McLeary chatting up a pretty hostess in a red dress in heels. “We’re good.”

McLeary smiled at the hostess and nodded. He followed Burns outside. “You get anything from our dish boy?”

“Muheen was here.”

“When?”

“About a week ago. I’ll call Kriegel and get a team to sit on this place.”

McLeary examined a broken Blackberry phone with a busted screen.

“Where’d you find that?”

“Buried in the lost and found with a shirt and an empty wallet with no ID. Might be something. Might be nothing. I’ll dump the records.”

“You find anything else while you were flirting with the staff?”

McLeary shrugged. “Just a green card and some bad egg foo young.”