Without a Trace… Chapter 7

Sarah chewed fervently on a wad of grape gum as the Boeing 757 touched down at Cancun Airport north of the village of Playa del Carmen in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. She removed her headphones and stared out the window to watch the plane taxi from the runway to the airport terminal.

Inside the terminal, she stood in line with her mom and Steve at the passport check-in area. The place was crowded with vacationers fanning themselves beneath a row of wobbly ceiling fans, and the temperature in the busy airport rose in proportion to the mass of warm bodies sequestered inside.

Sarah watched the tourists come and go from duty-free shops and smoky bars where international patrons drank Mexican beer and conversed in a multitude of foreign languages. Her mirrored sunglasses reflected the image of her parents fanning themselves with their passports. She spoke loudly to overcome the Spanish announcer on the speaker system broadcasting instructions to arriving passengers. “How much longer?” she asked her mom.

Leslie pulled her sweater over her head. “Not much,” she said, shouting over the jet engine noise from a departing flight.

Sarah knew her mother hated waiting in crowded airports as much as she did, but would hold her tongue to “set an example.”

Sarah sniffed the air. “It smells like warm Corona in here.”

“How would you know what Corona smells like?” asked Steve.

“I’ve smelled it at home when you guys drink it.”

“We don’t drink Corona,” said Leslie.

Steve gave a devilish grin. “Busted,” he told his precocious stepdaughter, who turned away to save face.

Sarah stared through her shaded lenses at a boy in cut-off shorts and a Van Halen concert shirt. He reminded her of a guy in high school, a junior she’d met at a home basketball game, only much cuter.

She nudged her suitcase with her foot when the line finally moved. Her jaw hurt from constant chewing as she molded the rubbery gum against the roof of her mouth and pushed with the tip of her tongue to blow a bubble. The lack of elasticity made it hard to form the bubble the way she wanted to. She laughed at her mom, who emptied her last orange Tic-Tac. “How many of those have you eaten?”

Leslie ran her hand through her bangs. The humid air had made her hair go flat. “I thought your orthodontist said ‘no gum?'”

“No he didn’t.”

“Did you pack the sunblock like I asked?”

Sarah took a tissue from her purse and wrapped the gum. “It’s in my suitcase.”

“You didn’t pack it in your carry-on bag?”

Sarah stuffed the wadded tissue in her pocket. “You never told me to.”

“You’re going to need it. The sun’s a lot hotter in Mexico than it is back home.”

“You don’t want to look eighty when you’re thirty,” said Steve.

Sarah rolled her eyes. She enjoyed Steve’s humor as much as she enjoyed detention for skipping class.

* * *

At the customs station, Steve faced a short, squat Mexican official with a handlebar mustache and slick, black hair. Steve presented three passports and waited for the officer to stamp the pages.

The officer examined the passport photos. Sarah resembled the girl in the photo, but Steve Chambers had lighter hair. Leslie Chambers had shorter hair and looked ten pounds lighter. He scrutinized the date of birth and the country of origin on all three passports before he stamped the pages and signaled for the Chambers family to move on.

“We better hustle,” Steve prompted as they made their way through the security check-in area. Near the exit, he could see the last few passengers boarding the twin-engine turbo prop outside.

“I’m not getting on that thing,” Leslie confided outside the terminal, afraid to board the puddle jumper for the final leg to Cozumel.

Steve took her hand and helped her climb the boarding ladder to the passenger cabin. “It’s a short flight,” he reassured her. “We’ll only be in the air a few minutes. Nothing’s going to happen, I promise.” He ducked inside the plane and chose the window seat. His spiked hair brushed the cramped air vents above. Compared to the spacious interior of the 757, the small turboprop felt more like a model plane than a full size commercial aircraft.

Leslie closed her eyes. Unable to hear herself think above the roar of spinning propellers, she focused her thoughts away from the plane, imagining herself on the beach with the sand between her toes. She pictured herself with a strawberry daiquiri in one hand and a copy of People magazinein the other. When the wheels left the ground, she watched the airport disappear through Steve’s window as the plane banked east and flew over the cerulean blue water spanning the distance between the Yucatan Peninsula and the island of Cozumel.

* * *

Buenos dias,” a Hot Spot Vacations representative greeted the Chambers’ family from behind the service desk inside the small Cozumel airport. He wore a gold cross necklace and a straw hat with a red bandana around the crown.

Habla usted ingles?” Steve asked with an awkward pronunciation.

Si. What can I do for you?”

“The name is Chambers. We booked a vacation reservation with Hot Spot Vacations.”

Si. I have your name on my list.” He handed Steve a clipboard with a pen attached. “Is this your first time in Cozumel?”

Steve read down the list of names until he found his own and scribbled his signature in the right-hand column. “Do you provide hotel transportation?”

The man pointed to a set of glass doors. “Right through there.”

“How far are the Presidente Suites from here?”

“About forty-five minutes.”

Steve followed Leslie and Sarah to the baggage carousel and found their luggage on the far side of the horseshoe configuration. He grabbed his first suitcase from between a duct-taped chest and a cardboard box with crumpled edges. Inspecting the hard shell case for damage, he looked up when he saw a tall, black man approaching from the employee-only entrance near the back of the airport.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the clean-cut stranger announced with a British accent. He wore a bright red Polo shirt with the words “Hot Spot Vacations” embroidered above the chest pocket. “May I have your attention for one moment please? My name is Ambrose. For those of you arriving with Hot Spot Vacations, I would like to welcome you to Cozumel. Once you have gathered your things, please sign in at the travel desk if you have not already done so. We have three vans waiting outside to transport you to your hotels. For those of you who are not traveling with Hot Spot Vacations today, please remain in the waiting area as your representative should be here shortly.”

Steve frowned at the sight of his wife and daughter gawking at the debonair man in Bermuda shorts with white knee-high socks and canvas sneakers. He gave Sarah the smaller suitcase and carried the heavier luggage himself. He led his family to the Hot Spot Vacations van outside and boarded with his dive bag on his lap.

“Is anyone staying at the Plaza Las Glorias?” Ambrose asked from the front of the van, settling himself behind the wheel. “If so, you need to be on the other van. This one is only stopping at hotels along the southern end of the island.” With no reply from the crowd behind him, he fastened his seatbelt and dropped the column shifter into drive.

The ride through San Miguel carried guests along the waterfront street of Avenida Rafael Melgar where the onslaught of cars, mopeds, and pedestrians flooded the roadways in the center of town. Ferries docked at the city harbor directly across from the main plaza along the western side of the island. Within the plaza, local merchants sold souvenir trinkets near small cantinas serving hungry customers a taste of authentic Mexican cuisine. Along the waterfront, upscale retail shops displayed expensive clothes and jewelry.

Secluded behind acres of lush vegetation, the Presidente Suites offered its guests the best of both worlds. At just over five miles from the main plaza in San Miguel, the hotel was close enough for a quick dinner jaunt by taxi, yet far enough away from more impoverished parts of town.

When the van pulled into the wrap-around driveway, Leslie stared in awe at the meticulously landscaped garden encompassing the hotel’s entrance. The outside walls covered in pink stucco and yellow trim accentuated the plethora of fresh flowers. Towering palm trees added scale to the twelve-story structure, where guests entered through a domed foyer lined with Roman pillars and autographed paintings of ocean scenes.

Once outside the van, Leslie followed Steve and Sarah through the marble foyer decorated with crystal chandeliers and mahogany furnishings. Sprays of fresh flowers adorned the lobby where a pianist played softly behind a spiral staircase extending to the second floor dining hall. Vacationers frolicked between padded lounge chairs and thatched umbrellas behind large windows overlooking the private beach.

“Don’t look at her,” Leslie scolded jokingly when she caught Steve scoping out a tall blonde with a flawless figure and a rose tattoo on her ankle.

“Look at who?”

“They were on the plane with us. I saw you checking her out.”

Steve grabbed his luggage and walked with Leslie toward the end of the counter. “I’ve never seen her before.”

“You just keep your eyes on me, sailor, or I’ll make you drop and give me fifty.”

Steve grinned. “Is that a promise?”

Without a Trace… Chapter 2

Steve Chambers sat at his computer and stared out the window of his second-floor study while snowflakes cascaded through the barren branches of an overgrown oak tree in his neighbor’s yard. Beyond the tree, a cloud of condensation brewed from the dual exhaust pipes on his neighbor’s yellow Mustang convertible. The baritone sound from the small-block V-8 reminded Steve of the ’68 Cobra Jet he’d driven in college before “emissions control”became a four-letter word.

He didn’t envy his neighbor so much as wonder how a single dad could afford all the toys in his garage and put two kids into college on a government salary.

He bumped the mouse to deactivate the asteroid field streaking toward him from the center of his PC screen. He tapped the space bar with his thumb and focused his attention on the word “essay” centered in twelve-point Arial along the top of the blank page. White space filled the screen. The same white space that had lingered there for more than an hour while he watched the snow blanket his neighbor’s yard.

He ran his hand through his light brown hair. A touch of salt and pepper above his neatly trimmed sideburns betrayed his age. His mother’s side had blessed him with a warm smile, which he imparted to his wife Leslie every night when she returned from work. From his father’s side, he inherited chestnut-brown eyes, soft and comforting at times, yet commanding in the presence of the men in his former naval unit.

He rested his wrists on the foam pad in front of the keyboard and pounded the keys with his fingertips. His thoughts poured from a stream of consciousness, bantering about in his head while the muscles in his fingers worked frantically to keep up. Tired of waiting for the perfect opening to present itself, he brainstormed random sentences, drawing on previous experiences with the hope of adding value to his essay.

He’d been alone in his study since breakfast, procrastinating by reorganizing the file folders in his cabinet. He’d sorted mail, paid bills, and reviewed a portion of last year’s tax return to check for hidden exemptions he might have missed. Anything to distract him from sitting in front of the computer and engaging in the final phase of his interview process.

With Leslie at work and his stepdaughter in school, he had the house to himself. The quiet time brought peace of mind and gave him the opportunity to collect his thoughts without distraction from the teenage menace disguised as a high school sweetheart.

He’d interviewed twice for a teaching position at George Washington University. Now his fate teetered on the outcome of a single essay, an essay he’d spent days mulling over in his head, waiting for the perfect words to jump out and plant themselves on paper.

His stomach rumbled from a light breakfast and a morning workout that had depleted his mental energy.

He got up from his swivel chair and stretched his arms. A head rush met with momentary blindness. Spending hours hunched over the computer had left his muscles tighter than after spending a night in a submarine rack.

He touched the half-scale reproduction of a U.S. Navy Mark V diving helmet he kept on an antique credenza. Decommissioned from service in 1979, the copper helmet with its hinged faceplate had been a gift from Leslie at a surprise retirement party the year before. He picked it up and blew dust off a section of copper tubing protruding from the back. The simple design of the awkward device had proved its mettle in 1939 when Navy divers employed the Mark V to rescue thirty-three crewmen stranded aboard the U.S.S. Squalus submarine at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

In the foyer downstairs, sneakers chirped on the hardwood floor, followed by someone bounding up the stairs toward the bedroom across the hall.

Steve rubbed his forehead as Lady Gaga blared from his stepdaughter’s room. He knocked on Sarah’s door. “Could you turn it down a notch?” He knocked again, more forcefully this time. “Sarah, turn it down!”

The music stopped. The door swung open. At five-foot-two and barely a hundred pounds, Sarah’s frame almost disappeared against the stocky build of her six-foot, three-inch stepfather. “Don’t go postal on me,” she pleaded.

Steve pointed to the headphones on the dresser beside a high school tennis trophy and an eight-by-ten photo of the varsity gymnastics team. He’d purchased a new iPod for Sarah’s sixteenth birthday under the mistaken assumption his message would get across. He knew a car would have met with less resistance, but he couldn’t justify spending money on a teenage driver with a license still warm from the laminating machine. “Are your headphones broken?”

Sarah grabbed the headset. “They hurt my ears.”

“How would you know?”

“I’ve worn them.”

“When?”

Sarah put the headset on and rolled her eyes. She inspected her ruby red fingernails to avoid her stepfather’s gaze.

“Did school get out early?” Steve asked.

“No. I just cut class to come home and spend quality time with you.”

Steve shook his head at the blonde-haired, blue-eyed princess with braces. He could see her bed wasn’t made and her desk was in disarray—both minor issues in the grand scheme of life, but acts of defiance nonetheless. “Why do you always take a sarcastic tone with me?”

“I’m not sarcastic. You just ask stupid questions.”

“Did you have practice today?”

“It was cancelled.”

“Did you bring the trash cans in?”

“Mom said I didn’t have to.”

“I asked you to grab those this morning.”

“Why can’t you do it?”

“Because I’m busy.”

Steve pointed to the cigarette lighter partially hidden behind a box of pink tissues on Sarah’s nightstand. “Don’t let your mom catch you smoking.”

* * *

Sarah dialed down the attitude. She could tell by Steve’s expression he had the advantage again. She hated that about him—the way he could see through her deceptions. “When’s Mom coming home?”

“Soon.”

Not soon enough, Sarah thought. “Katey invited me to stay at her place tonight.”

“You better ask your mom.”

“But I have to call Katey with an answer in five minutes.”

“Then she’ll have to wait,” Steve countered. “Besides, you have school tomorrow.”

Sarah pointed to the television on her wall. A news reporter stood knee-deep in snow. “I wouldn’t bet on it.”

Without a Trace…: Chapter 1

Victor Mendoza stepped over a strangled woman’s body and emerged from the treeline beyond the moonlit backdrop of high-rise resorts and coastal landscapes laden with palm trees and cactus, near Aruba’s sandy shoreline. Clad in a black wetsuit and with a grease-smeared face, he moved with purpose across the powder-soft sand toward the shimmering essence of turquoise water forming the Caribbean Sea. He carried a canvas duffel bag in one hand and a scuba tank in the other. Long black hair draped down the back of his neck between his shoulder blades. Rippling muscles lined his tattooed forearms, emblazoned with the image of an eagle clutching a U.S. Navy anchor, trident, and flintlock pistol.

He placed the scuba tank upright on the beach extending out of sight in both directions along the eastern edge of the narrow island. Rolling surf lapped at his ankles while divi-divi trees swayed from the force of constant trade winds sculpting the chest-high shrubs into various Bonsai patterns.

He retrieved the dive equipment from the canvas duffel and secured the steel scuba cylinder to the BCD—buoyancy control device. From the bottom of the bag, he removed a pair of black dive fins. He slung the tank on his back, sliding both arms through the BCD before standing first on one leg and then the other to secure the fins on his feet as he looked out at a yacht anchored several hundred yards from shore.

Treading backward through the water, he bit gently on the regulator in his mouth and inhaled his first breath of compressed air. In front of him, the mountain of Hooiberg loomed above the center of Aruba’s landscape, providing him a final glimpse of the island paradise he’d enjoyed for the last few days.

Within minutes, he began moving with grace and power underwater, his well-rehearsed scissor kicks a polar opposite to the cumbersome motion of walking backward on sand. He swam with the current, which pushed him farther out to sea. Then he descended to a depth of twenty feet and equalized the pressure in his ears. Below him, moonlit schools of yellowtail fish circled colonies of dome-shaped brain coral while hundreds of blue tang darted back and forth near tube sponges and clusters of reddish-brown gorgoneas.

When he reached his destination, he ascended from his shallow depth, blowing tiny bubbles to release the compressed air from his lungs before he surfaced at the motor yacht’s stern. He removed and discarded his mask and scuba gear, then glided toward the hundred-foot vessel’s extended swim platform. He recognized the name $ea-Note painted in green letters across the transom.

He climbed the boarding ladder. Above him, a British flag extended from a brass-mounted pole above the starboard gunwale. Dripping on the deck’s carpet liner, he felt the massive boat sway gently from the endless waves brought on by steady tradewinds. Beside him, a queen-size sun pad doubled as a roof to the covered garage housing a sixteen-foot runabout.

Masking the sound of his own movement, he listened for conversation and other telltale signs of life while he approached the lower helm station.

Once below deck, he caught a whiff of brandy blended with the lingering scent of Cuban cigars. He found the spacious salon devoid of crew or passengers as he crept around a leather sofa arranged in an L-shape configuration beside a lacquered teak settee. Across the room, a ceramic elephant lay upside down at the base of a built-in entertainment center.

In the galley, teak cabinetry with holly accents surrounded the microwave and full-size refrigerator freezer. An overhead rack of wine glasses hung upside down above a wet bar with an open decanter and a brandy snifter with lipstick on the rim.

He opened a sliding drawer and chose a paring knife nestled in a velvet-lined tray. He checked the port stateroom first and found an empty berth with a hanging locker fronted by an oval mirror. An open door revealed an empty storage compartment where a damp towel hung from a brass rod above the toilet bowl. Dental floss spatter painted the mirror above the shallow sink.

He moved stealthily, proceeding to the starboard stateroom and pressed his ear to the polished maple door.

Inside the narrow cabin, he found an empty bed with a comforter folded neatly at one end. Sheets hung limp over one side. Above the bed, a full moon peered through a porthole, casting natural light on a flat screen television on the wall.

He gripped the knife in his right hand and touched his left to the brass knob on the panel closest to him. He exhaled between pinched lips, pulling the panel open to reveal an assortment of female clothing on wooden hangers. He stabbed the knife toward the back and inspected the lower space to find boat shoes, swim trunks, and a bottle of sunscreen lotion in a tote bag.

Convinced the room was empty, he continued through an aft companionway, extending to the master stateroom. Sweat trickled down the side of his face, following the contour of his chiseled jaw until a drop of perspiration fell away from his skin and landed on the carpet.

Veins twitched along his forehead when he entered the master stateroom to find the sleeping couple sprawled naked on satin sheets, oblivious to the stranger in their presence.

A gold watch glittered on the headboard’s built-in night table while an empty Dom Perignon bottle floated in a bucket of ice water. Silk roses extended from a crystal vase, their pink, symmetric petals in full bloom, basking in the light of immortality.

Awakened by a hand on her pillow, the woman opened her eyes and briefly glimpsed the knife-wielding stranger before a sweeping incision slashing from her trachea to her jugular vein silenced her attempt to scream.

Startled by his wife’s thrashing movements, the husband awoke with a six-inch slit below his chin, grasping at his own throat in a desperate attempt to stop the bloody flow.

Victor wrapped the bodies in separate sheets and hauled his victims through the side deck near the helm. There, he tied mooring lines around their ankles and weighted the corpses with anchor chain. One heave, and he watched the bodies sink below the surface before he rinsed his hands at the transom shower and settled in the captain’s chair at the helm.

In front of him, rows of rocker switches lined a walnut backdrop filled with radar panels and analog gauges assembled in a logical fashion. Radio and navigational aids complemented the independent throttle levers designed to control the twelve-hundred horsepower diesel engines.

He raised the anchor from its tenure at the bottom of the sea and brought the big motors to life. Then he eased the throttles forward to bring the ten ton vessel on plane en route to the Gulf of Mexico.

Enemy Among Us: Chapter 75

Canadian Science Centre for Human and Animal Health Winnipeg, Canada

Agent Burns stepped out of her taxi under overcast skies. A gust of icy wind stung her face and sapped the moisture from her contoured lips. She stomped her boots on the crunchy snow and blew warm air on her hands while Agent Parks looked on, his appearance indicating indifference to the bone-chilling cold. Whatever Kriegel had in store for her, she hoped it was worth it. McLeary needed her help, and given the choice, she’d rather put up with him than contend with the new gorilla Kriegel paired her with. In her heart, she knew her mission went beyond one man or woman, as the fate of thousands teetered on the successful delivery of nothing less than a miracle cure.

“Ten months of winter, two months of bad hockey,” said Parks. He carried a hard shell briefcase in his gloved hand and his loaded service pistol on his hip holster.

Burns watched a cloud of condensation form in front of her face with every breath. Already her face felt tight and dry from the limited exposure to the elements. Her frozen toes tingled inside her leather boots. It’s too early for frostbite and too late to put on thicker socks, she told herself. “How cold is it?”

“Twenty-six degrees on average—in July.”

“I wish it felt that warm,” said Burns. She followed Parks along the freshly-plowed path toward the six-story building connected to satellite offices through glass-enclosed walkways. The wind cut through her jacket like a razor, chilling her core before she reached the sheltered entrance. Surrounded by bomb-sniffing guard dogs, surveillance cameras, and hidden sensors, she felt more secure than she did at FBI headquarters.

From the lobby, she noticed the open space beyond the guard’s station and the X-ray machines, where a sign read “No Firearms Allowed.” A female scientist in a white lab coat and glasses acknowledged her from the lobby stairwell.

“Good morning,” the scientist spoke with a French accent. “We’ve been expecting your arrival.”

Burns flashed her badge. “I’m Special Agent Burns.”

Agent Parks extended a hand. “I’m Agent Parks with Homeland Security. Good to meet you.”

The woman shook hands with both agents. “I’m Doctor Allison, Head of the Medical Microbiology Department.” She gave each agent a temporary badge and watched them sign the visitor’s log.

Burns clipped her badge to her sweater and followed Doctor Allison. She surrendered her weapon to the guard on duty. “I understand you studied internal medicine and infectious diseases at Berkeley. Rhodes Scholar at Oxford in ’82. Candidate for the Nobel Prize in ’96.”

“You’ve done your homework, Agent Burns.”

“Thanks for meeting us on short notice.”

“I hope we can be of help,” Doctor Allison replied.

“That’s why we’re here,” said Parks. He retrieved his briefcase from the X-ray scanner.

Doctor Allison waited for the guard to secure the agents’ firearms. “If you’ll come this way.”

Parks followed Doctor Allison and Agent Burns. “Our government is grateful for your assistance.”

Doctor Allison punched a key pad on the wall and stared into a retinal scanner. “Mine is grateful to oblige.”

“Access granted,” a synthesized voice signaled from a speaker in the wall.

“You’ll have to bear with me,” Doctor Allison told her guests, “our security detail can be challenging at times. We have more than a dozen labs and two hundred senior scientists on staff.” She used a key on her wrist lanyard to unlock a small compartment in the wall. Then she handed Burns and Parks a pair of pathogen detection stickers. “Clip these to your visitor’s badge. Make sure they stay there at all times.”

“You’re scaring me,” said Parks.

“Merely precautionary, I assure you. We operate at the highest levels of bio containment. We work with everything from Ebola and Marburg virus to Lassa fever and anthrax.”

“What grows inside, stays inside,” Parks quipped. He noted the surveillance monitor in the ceiling corner and counted eight guards at the entrance, all armed with submachine guns. Intrusion detection devices embedded in smoke detectors lined the corridor leading away from the main entrance. To steal what he came for would require cunning, artifice, and strict adherence to a well-rehearsed plan.

Doctor Allison slid her smart card badge through the optical reader for access to the biomedical storage facility. “This way,” she urged, escorting her FBI visitors through another series of sliding doors activated by the coded signal from the RF chip implanted in her badge.

Burns walked with Agent Parks beside her and thought about McLeary and his sons. This is my redemption, she told herself, reflecting on her call to duty and the oath she took to serve and protect. For once, she saw herself beyond the bureau’s political machine. A strong American fighting to make a difference with the help of men like Jim McLeary and Agent Parks who would give their own lives to protect the freedoms and way of life their enemies fought to destroy. And now, deep within the catacombs of one of the world’s most sophisticated biomedical research facilities, the reality of the situation enveloped her. The bureau trusted her. Lives depended on her.

Escorted beyond the administrative offices, conference rooms, and medical equipment labs, Burns followed Parks and Doctor Allison through the last secured entrance beyond the stark white corridors with windows overlooking research labs occupied by technicians in white coats, purple gloves, and protective goggles. Once inside the airlocked perimeter, she followed Doctor Allison across a raised-floor, climate-controlled room with refrigeration units mounted in the center of the six-hundred square foot space. An eye-wash station with an overhead shower and a pull-down lever occupied the far corner.

Doctor Allison approached the computer terminal and typed her password at the screen prompt. She slid her badge through the smart card reader and placed her thumb on the fingerprint scanner. A green light illuminated above the red and white infectious substance placard on the refrigeration unit, followed by a mechanical crunch of gears releasing the locking mechanism.

Agent Parks rested his metal briefcase on an empty table. He took a pen from his shirt pocket and laid it alongside the biohazard container made to look like an ordinary briefcase.

“The storage unit is on a timer,” Doctor Allison explained, opening the lower cabinet to reveal the supply of experimental vaccine vials. “The world’s best and brightest have been working around the clock to develop this,” she said as she carefully withdrew two vials and handed them to Agent Parks. “The human body is a complex machine. No two systems are identical. There’s no guarantee the serum will work uniformly or yield the same effect on everyone once mass-produced, but it will give you a fighting chance.”

Burns helped Parks seat the vials in the molded foam rubber lining inside the bottom of the briefcase.

“Last two,” Doctor Allison announced as the light on the refrigeration unit turned yellow. She handed Agent Parks the remaining vials and slid the drawer closed. For a fleeting moment, she glanced at Agent Burns then back at Agent Parks, aware of something intangible she’d failed to notice before. The way Agent Parks studied her went beyond a natural curiosity about the opposite sex. She felt uneasy in his presence. More than a little uncomfortable. As if Agent Parks emitted a negative aura like a radioactive cloud discretely contaminating everything around him.

Don’t be ridiculous, she told herself, dismissing her unfounded reservations about a man she’d just met. A federal agent on a top secret mission. Was her bad vibe truly a cause for concern, or a warning, perhaps, from somewhere deep within her psyche? A sixth sense prompting her to avoid certain strangers on a subway or question the motive of a handsome stranger standing too close behind her at a bank’s ATM machine. These things she pondered without a shred of tangible evidence to support her unfounded concerns. “Be careful with those,” she told Agent Parks.

Agent Parks seated the last two vials in the briefcase and closed the lid. “We’ll take it from here,” he said bluntly and hustled toward the air-locked chamber ahead of Burns.

“Agent Parks,” Doctor Allison called out with a mild tremor in her voice as she noticed the sudden urgency in his movements. “You forgot your pen,” she said, a second before a powerful blast from the shaped explosive embedded in the pen’s composite frame blew off her left arm at the shoulder and hurled her against the refrigeration unit.

Carbon dioxide gas dispersed from the fire suppression system, dousing the laboratory in a smoky white cloud.

* * *

Momentarily blinded by the blast, a discombobulated Agent Burns staggered away from Agent Parks, her ears ringing, when she felt a fist pound her face and knock her against the wall. An arm around her neck choked her.

“In here!” a guard shouted above the pandemonium. Sirens wailed inside the secure facility. Flashing red lights illuminated the area outside the research lab.

Agent Parks let Burns slip through his arm and pressed his back to the wall for cover as the guard advanced. He touched his arm, where a portion of the synthesized transparent glove had torn away from his skin. Less than a quarter millimeter thick, the glove had remained nearly imperceptible to the untrained eye with Doctor Allison’s fabricated prints on each fingertip.

The guard spotted Burns first, pointing his weapon in her direction as he emerged from the sealed doorway and felt the brunt of Parks’ strike to his throat, crushing his larynx in a single blow.

Parks wrenched the gun away and shot the guard twice in the chest. He searched for Burns in the haze of white gas. When he failed to locate her, he took out his forged smart card with Doctor Allison’s fingerprint embedded in the microchip memory and proceeded outside the biocontainment lab.

* * *

Burns crouched behind a row of biohazard waste bins and pulled an emergency Draeger gas mask from the wall and slipped it over her face. She reached for her gun instinctively, touching the empty holster at her hip before she remembered surrendering her firearm when she’d entered the building.

“Are you all right?” she heard a voice call out. She stood up to see an armed guard check for Doctor Allison’s carotid pulse. “What happened?”

A bevy of security personnel swarmed the room perimeter. “Who are you?” a guard asked, the title “Chief of Security” imprinted on his badge.

Burns stood in silence for a moment until her short term memory came back. “FBI. I think my partner just tried to kill me.”

“We saw what happened on the monitor.”

“Where’d he go?”

“He entered another compartmented lab space. Biohazard four.” The Chief gave Burns a 9mm Beretta. “Don’t shoot unless you have to.”

Burns slipped the gun in her empty holster. She pulled on the straps securing the triple seal gas mask against her face. “What’s our move?”

“The facility’s in lockdown mode. All physical security devices will reject everyone but security personnel. He’s not going anywhere without an armed escort.”

Burns followed the team down a narrow hallway with biohazard placards on the walls. “Are you certain he can’t get out of the building?”

“He’ll never get off this floor.” The Chief of Security stopped Burns outside a secure hallway leading to a lab certified at biohazard four, a space allocated for the cultivation of viruses and bacterial elements capable of causing fatal disease in humans—for which vaccines are not available. “He’s in there.”

Burns grabbed at her lower back where a long sliver of broken glass had embedded itself. It was too painful to remove—she ignored it and pressed on.

The Chief swiped his badge at the smart card reader and pressed his thumb on the fingerprint scanner. Two shots rang out when he tried to enter. “Get down!”

Burns dropped onto her front and rolled beyond the security team. Three more shots punched through the secure door and slammed into the wall behind her.

The Chief took cover behind a water cooler. “He’s trapped in there.”

Burns weighed her options, her thoughts a jumbled mess. She knew what Jim McLeary would do. “Cover me!”

“Wait!”

Burns crawled forward and rose to her knees, peering over a half-wall partition to see a row of positive pressure suits suspended in a biosafety cabinet. From her vantage point, she could see the hooded figure removing large vials from a round storage unit in the glass-enclosed lab at the end of the sterilized hallway.

The Chief squeezed along side her. “Can you see him?”

“He’s behind the glass.” Burns stared at the biohazard symbol on the window below the level four label. “What exactly do you grow in there?”

“A fate worse than death, I assure you.”

“We’ve got to stop him.”

“We’ll intercept him when he tries to leave. There’s no other way out.”

Burns pointed to the suits hanging in the open cabinet. “He stole the vaccine. We have to do something.”

“We should hold our position.”

Burns reached for the safety cabinet. “He could destroy everything!”

“If he sees you coming, you won’t stand a chance.” The Chief crawled backwards and motioned for Burns to follow. “Take this,” he said, handing her his smart card. “There’s another access point on the opposite side adjacent to the refrigeration units. I’ll distract him. Swipe my badge once and press two-two-seven-zero to override the fingerprint ID.”

“What if he shoots the glass?”

“The lab’s self-contained. The perimeter walls are bullet-proof from top to bottom. You could launch a bazooka without penetrating the safety zone.”

Burns left the group and moved swiftly toward the second entrance. She donned a positive pressure suit with boots, gloves, and a self-contained breathing apparatus. She curled her hand around the 9mm Beretta the Chief had given her, pushing her gloved finger through the trigger guard. She spied Agent Parks from outside the air lock entrance near the back of the research laboratory. To her right, her view was obstructed by the overhead ductwork and interlocking damper systems designed to maintain negative air pressure. On the opposite side, a bevy of beakers, vials, sinks, and microscopes occupied several workstations flanked with air filtration units, biohazard waste bins, and a five-foot diameter autoclave partially shielding her from view.

She waited for the Chief to give the “thumbs up” signal before his security team distracted Agent Parks toward the far end of the laboratory.

Inside the lab, Burns kept the gun at her side. She took baby steps, aware of the potential consequences should she miss her intended target and bounce a bullet through her protective suit. Nice and slow with short movements and a calm determination to do what needed to be done. She imagined herself an astronaut walking on the moon’s surface for the first time, her movements stifled by the confines of her bulky gear.

She stepped over the body of a lab assistant with a torn hood and knelt down to feel for a pulse. She observed the young man’s blistered face, the way his skin appeared to boil from the inside out, leaving welts the size of quarters. His swollen eyes appeared lifeless despite an involuntary twitch and the faint hiss of air escaping through his singed esophagus.

With Agent Parks less than ten feet away and his back turned toward her, she raised the gun and aimed the sights at his spinal column. The thought of shooting an unarmed man gave her pause, despite everything Parks had done to jeopardize the lives of fellow agents and the arsenal of biological weapons at his disposal.

Parks caught Burns’ reflection in a stainless steel cabinet and raised his hands slowly. “So here we are,” he said through the microphone device affixed inside the airtight helmet. He turned to face Burns. “Are you going to shoot me or not?” He reached for the open box of bioweapon vials and removed one with a red liquid content. “It’s natural to be scared of what we don’t understand.” He dropped the vial and watched it smash against the floor, releasing an invisible cloud of death in the recirculated air.

Burns stepped forward, her finger pressed on the trigger hard enough to register the familiar tactile sensation but soft enough to avoid an accidental discharge.

Parks tossed another vial on the floor and stepped toward his partner.

“Put it down!” Burns ordered him, projecting the deepest, coldest, and most commanding voice she could summon.

“You won’t shoot in here. It’s against your protocol.”

“Don’t try me.”

“I already have,” Parks whispered. He lunged at Burns with uncanny quickness and snatched the gun by the barrel. He jerked the muzzle sideways from his torso, catching Burns off balance with his seamless footwork.

Burns grappled for control of the weapon, bending and twisting at her waist with both hands on the gun. She kicked her knee at her assailant’s groin but failed to make contact through the billowing layers of protective garment. Smaller, faster, and better trained, she leveraged her ability to adjust her balance and took down Parks with a hip throw to send him crashing against the autoclave cabinet.

Parks responded with a whirling round kick to knock the gun away and keep himself in the fight.

Burns knocked him on his heels with a powerful side kick, sending him against the double door refrigerator. Closing the gap, she jabbed at his hooded face until he blocked her second punch and grabbed at her suit.

Burns jumped sideways, keeping her balance as she steadied her defenses against the larger, more powerful adversary. She could see the gun on the floor across the room but reached for a fire extinguisher on the wall instead, blinding Parks with a blast of carbon dioxide before swinging the metal cylinder at his head.

Parks ducked, lunging at Burns to tackle her against the viewing window overlooking the security force assembled outside the lab.

Burns dropped the extinguisher and absorbed a flurry of blows to her midsection and the self contained filter mechanism mounted in the front of her suit. Then her world flipped upside down as she felt herself thrown toward the autoclave machine and landed on the floor, gasping for breath from her damaged air supply.

Parks kicked her repeatedly in the back, pounding her kidneys. She spat blood inside her mask. With Burns at his mercy, he activated the autoclave and depressed the foot pedal to open the large-diameter lid, spewing a cloud of super-heated steam meant for decontamination of biological waste.

Burns curled herself in a fetal position, her body reflexively protecting her vital organs as Parks grabbed her suit by the shoulders and hoisted her toward the scalding steam. Through her foggy mask, she saw a broken syringe on the floor beside her. She stretched her hand out but couldn’t reach it.

She turned her body, extending every millimeter of her reach only to see Parks kick the needle away.

Parks reached for the gun.

Burns gasped through her mask as the pain in her side signaled a second chance at life. She bent her arm around to grab a shard of glass from one of the large broken vials and jabbed it at the base of Parks’ rubber boot.

“STUPID BITCH!” Parks cried inside his hood, kicking his foot away. Inhaling from his contaminated air supply, he grabbed at the pistol and scooped it from its hiding place beneath the centrifuge station. But the victory was short-lived, as his limbs shook uncontrollably with the rhythmic convulsions of a grand mal seizure, his organs dissolving like molten rubber before expelling through his colon tract as he turned the muzzle toward his head, screaming, and pulled the trigger.

Enemy Among Us: Chapter 70

McLeary and Burns joined Kriegel and several FBI agents gathered in the radar room of the high-rise control tower overlooking Orlando International Airport. A somber mood resonated with the personnel in the room. “What do we know?” McLeary asked Kriegel.

Kriegel leaned over the air traffic controller seated at the tower’s main console and pointed to the blip on the radar screen. “We identified your son Brian in a video tape we recovered from an abandoned airplane hangar with suspicious ties to a foreign investment firm. We believe Abdullah left the tape behind to send a message.” Kriegel rubbed his temples. “The voiceprint from the pilot we’ve been tracking matches Brian’s voice from the tape. And as far as we know, he’s flying solo.”

“I want to see the tape.”

“It’s in evidence.”

McLeary watched the blip on the radar screen advance. “What is he doing up there?”

“He’s flying towards restricted airspace and won’t follow instructions from the controllers to change his heading. He’s been demanding to speak with you.”

“You get anything useful from the tape?”

“Nothing more than terrorist rhetoric about America’s pending doom.”

“Tell him to land the plane,” said Burns.

“It’s not that simple,” Kriegel answered. “They strapped him in a suicide vest. He was warned it will detonate if he deviates from his present heading or attempts to land. The Air National Guard scrambled an F-16 out of Patrick to intercept him.”

“Under whose authority?”

“Mine.”

“Let me speak to him,” said McLeary.

Kriegel pointed at the air traffic controller. “Call him.”

“Yes Sir.”

Kriegel handed McLeary a radio headset.

McLeary turned his back to the agents gathered in the room. “Brian, this is Dad. Come in, over.”

“Dad? I’m sorry. I screwed up bad this time.”

“Brian listen to me. I need you to focus. Look around the plane and tell me what you see.”

“Not much. The plane’s stripped.”

“Is there a package, a canister, or a payload of any kind?”

“Not that I can see.”

“Look again.”

“There’s nothing here!”

“Is there anything attached to the wings?”

“Nothing underneath them. I can’t tell if there’s anything on top of the wings. Don’t think so.”

Static crackled through McLeary’s headset speakers. “Brian… Brian do you copy?”

“His signal cut out,” said the traffic controller. “We’re diverting all air traffic to alternate sites.”

Kriegel glanced at the radar screen. “If he gets within ten miles of the no-fly zone, the F16 will intercept him.”

“He’s a decoy,” McLeary blurted. “Why else would they send him up there? They want us to track him, to divert our attention away from the real target.”

“We don’t know that,” said Kriegel, “not for certain.”

“Then give him a chance to divert.”

“It’s not an option.”

“What’s he heading toward?”

“Downtown Orlando, hotels, convention center, residential neighborhoods, you name it.”

“Nothing strategic…”

Kriegel read an incoming text message on his phone. “If this plane drops an anthrax load on a residential population—”

“I don’t buy it,” said McLeary. “Why would Abdullah send him here?”

“Because it’s a densely-packed civilian population.”

“So is Miami.”

“We’re dealing with a madman, McLeary. There’s not always a logical connection to everything he does or doesn’t do.”

“It still doesn’t feel right.”

“I don’t care what you feel. For all we know, this plane could be a modified crop duster with an anthrax dispersion device mounted under the wings or the fuselage or the tail.”

McLeary stared at Kriegel. “What if he were yours?”

“That’s irrelevant.”

“What’s relevant is the way we’re standing here with our thumbs up our ass instead of finding the real target.”

“Which is?” asked Burns.

McLeary shook his head. “I don’t know.”

Kriegel signaled for the other agents to leave. “Then you can’t know for certain this plane isn’t carrying a hundred pounds of weaponized anthrax.”

“We don’t know that it is.”

Kriegel put his hand out. “That’s a chance we can’t afford to take.”

“What if the plane is destroyed?” asked Burns. “Would that neutralize the threat completely?”

Kriegel looked at Burns. “What are you getting at?”

“He’s less than fifteen miles out,” the controller warned the group.

McLeary estimated Brian’s speed and time. “He’s four minutes to the no-fly zone.” He touched the headset microphone. “Brian?”

“Dad… can barely… hear you. Winds—”

“Say again?”

“Turbulence…”

McLeary covered the microphone and turned to Kriegel. “Can the F-16 pilot use his electronic countermeasures to jam transmissions in the air space? If he could block the signal to the vest’s transmitter, Brian could toss the vest and alter course.”

“Assuming it’s not triggered to detonate when he takes it off,” Kriegel cautioned him. “We don’t know how it’s rigged.”

McLeary watched the blips continue on the radar screen, one representing Brian’s plane; the other, the F-16 flying shotgun. “Brian can you hear me, over?”

“Can barely hear you…”

“Take off the vest. Wait one minute. Then toss it out of the plane.”

“Please repeat!”

“Take off the fucking vest and throw it out of the plane!”

“What frequencies?” the controller interrupted. “The fighter pilot’s asking what band you want him to jam.”

“Sweep the whole fucking spectrum!” McLeary shouted. “Just jam the signal!”

“There’s other traffic in the air,” the controller argued. “They’ll lose communication with the tower.”

“Any traffic on final approach?”

“Negative. We diverted all flights to—”

“They’ll survive a few seconds without an RF transmission. My son won’t.”

Kriegel looked directly at the air traffic controller. “Do it.”

The controller sent the message to the pilot. “It’s a go.”

McLeary glanced at the clock on the wall. Burns put her hand on his shoulder. The room fell silent.

Kriegel opened a cigar case from his jacket pocket and picked on the wrapper of a fresh stogie. He looked at McLeary. Then he glanced at the digital clock on the wall.

“There’s been an explosion,” the controller said.

McLeary studied the radar screen. “What happened?”

The controller looked away. “We lost the Cessna’s signal.”

McLeary watched the second blip disappear from the screen. “Brian!” He slammed his headset on the traffic controller’s station. “Get him back on screen. NOW! Bring him back, GOD DAMMIT! You bring him back on screen!”

Enemy Among Us: Chapter 68

Her words swallowed by the cacophony of supercharged engines howling in the aft compartment, Agent Burns gripped the sides of her bolstered seat as the turbulence from heavy chop splashed over the bow. Ride it out, she told herself with each successive motion of the boat’s modified V-hull punching through choppy seas at eighty knots. When McLeary flashed the okay signal, she gave a tentative “thumbs up” and commanded herself not to puke in front of him.

When the boat approached its destination, she heard the engines throttle back and felt the sleek vessel lose speed. The hull gradually came off plane and settled on the open water, pitching and rolling in the choppy Atlantic while one of the men dropped the hook.

Burns unbuckled her seat harness and donned her scuba gear with McLeary. “You sure you’re up for this?”

McLeary slipped his fins on and pressed the purge button to test his regulator. “The water’s calmer beneath the surface,” he told Burns.

“It’s not the water I’m afraid of.”

“You don’t have to do this.”

“We’re partners. We go together, or we don’t go at all.”

* * *

Hilario scanned the open water with thermal imaging binoculars, then passed them to his crew and checked the radar for approaching vessels. “If these men are down there, what chance do you have against them?”

“Better than fifty-fifty,” said McLeary. “I hope.”

“What do you need me to do?”

“Watch the water. I don’t want any uninvited guests trying to crash our party.”

“How long?”

“An hour, tops.”

Hilario grabbed McLeary’s arm. “And if you don’t surface? What then? I take the rap for killing two federal agents?”

McLeary unzipped a pair of duffle bags with underwater propulsion devices. “Too much worry will get you killed.”

“So will foolish stunts.”

McLeary unpacked a three-foot shark-stick with a barbed spear at one end and a waterproofed .357 Magnum cartridge used to drive it home. “Any word on the street about Abdullah?”

“The man’s a ghost. No one’s talking. Right now you’re the one with the biggest stick.”

“We’re losing time,” said Burns, holding a spear gun. She hunched forward with her scuba tank on her back and her fins on her feet, her mask and snorkel in place with her regulator in her hand.

“Swim to the anchor line and descend along it,” said McLeary. “I’ll be with you the whole time.”

Burns put her regulator in her mouth and did a backwards roll off the port side.

Hilario lowered a propulsion device to Burns who fastened her equipment lanyard to the handle and waited for McLeary to join her. “Watch your air,” he hollered to the agents bobbing up and down on the surface.

McLeary adjusted the wrist lanyard around his shark stick. “Just be here when we get back.”

* * *

McLeary kept his hand on the anchor line, sliding his fingers along the rope as he slowly descended through the seventy-two degree water with Burns an arm’s length away. He pinched his nose and blew gently through his Eustachian tubes to equalize the water pressure in his ears. Air bubbles gurgled from his regulator.

Descending to within ten feet of the sandy floor, he established neutral buoyancy and powered on his underwater light. He held the lanyard attached to the underwater propulsion device and touched his finger to the timer button on his dive watch. He checked his compass and placed a finger from each hand side by side to signal Burns: I lead, you follow.

Burns positioned herself above to the ocean floor and extended her arms with her propulsion device out in front. She followed McLeary through the water at two knots, assisting her propeller-driven scooter with long scissor kicks.

When they reached the abandoned research facility thirty meters from the base of a coral reef, McLeary noted the moonpool entrance and a wet room built in the center of the six-hundred square foot structure housing a lab facility, a small galley, and a narrow berthing compartment. Twenty-four inch portholes gave a view of the world outside the underwater housing, where a desalinization compressor produced fresh water. On the south side, a pair of cables supplied electricity from the hydroelectric generators. Near the north end, a bank of oxygen tanks and CO2 scrubbers replenished and recycled the habitat’s air supply.

McLeary abandoned his scooter and swam with his shark stick in the ready position as a school of yellow tang swam around the habitat’s massive support rails. He approached the lab from the stern and kept his eyes on the space beneath the moonpool entrance. There he unfastened his dive vest and laid his scuba gear on the ocean floor a few feet below the circular opening.

Burns did the same.

McLeary unscrewed the hatch and aimed the shark stick at the open space, kicking his feet as he pulled himself upright through the narrow tube. He pulled his gas mask on and helped Burns inside.

He panned a flashlight at the walls, reflecting shadows off the water and the artificial turf. The space felt cold and cramped.

In the adjoining room, he found a biological safety cabinet with rubber gloves and a filtered exhaust vent. He looked at Burns through his gas mask and pointed to several scuba tanks with missing first stage regulators.

Burns pointed to a set of closed doors.

McLeary nodded. He nudged the door with the tip of his shark stick.

Burns steadied her spear gun with her finger on the trigger. Instead of finding someone crouched in the corner, she came face to face with a suicide vest suspended from a hook in the wall.

“Back it up,” McLeary whispered through his mask. “Nice and slow.”

Burns lowered the barbed spear and mumbled, “Sorry” through her gas mask. She retreated with baby steps, careful to watch for wires or other impediments blocking her path.

“Don’t touch anything.”

“This place gives me the creeps.”

McLeary inspected the floors and ceiling before he entered the second room. Inside, he found canisters of chemical reagents lining a shelf along the wall. Notebooks written in Arabic depicted photos of lethal poisons with instructions for dispersing gas discretely packaged in an airtight container the size of a shaving cream can. He gathered the notebooks and zipped them in a waterproof bag. Then he panned a video camera at the room, filming symbols and equations scribbled on a white board until a flash of light caught his eye from the porthole beside him. He put his face to the dark glass and saw a scuba diver swim away. Air bubbles trailed behind him before the light extinguished and the image vanished in the sea.

McLeary checked the life support gauges on the lab’s control panel, which showed the oxygen concentration level rising above the maximum parts per million threshold, and the pressure inside the habitat increasing with it.

He adjusted the controls on the air recirculation system but couldn’t stop the flow of excess oxygen being mixed with the lab’s air supply. “Let’s go,” he said through his mask, retreating to the moonpool entrance. “Someone sabotaged the oxygen and pressure controls. I can’t back them off from here. The oxygen toxicity will kill us.”

Burns grabbed the wheel from the moonpool hatch and tried to force it open. “It’s jammed from the outside.”

McLeary put his hands on the four-spoke hatch and twisted his upper body, pushing against the floor for leverage. When the effort failed, he wedged the shark stick between the spokes and pulled, bending the aluminum shaft backwards from the force applied. “Find something stronger.”

“Could we break through the portholes?”

“They’re eight inches thick and the pressure would drown us.”

Burns stared at the ceiling and the length of pipe attached to the ventilation shaft. The air in her lungs felt pinched and tight. “I can’t reach it.”

McLeary lifted Burns and at her waist until she could reach the narrow pipe and pull with both hands, wrenching it free from the ceiling panel. Then he jammed the pipe between the wheel spokes, using the longer length of steel for more leverage. “Help me,” he said, his veins distended along his neck from the Herculean effort.

Burns pulled on the wheel. “It’s moving.”

McLeary leaned on the metal bar until he felt the hatch release mechanism give way.

Burns climbed down the circular opening and inhaled a final breath of oxygen-saturated air through her gas mask before submerging herself beneath the platform to retrieve her scuba gear. McLeary followed her to find their gear with both air hoses cut.

Burns passed her hand across her throat, giving McLeary the out of air signal. She looked up at the surface more than sixty-five feet above her, an ominous distance to cover on a single breath of air.

She dropped her weights and started a free ascent, air bubbling from her mouth as she slowly and carefully exhaled.

McLeary grabbed the back of Burns’ vest and kicked in sync with his partner’s legs, using his strength to help her rise faster.

Burns kicked hard until her oxygen-deprived muscles declined to heed the life or death command from her brain, her starving lungs begging for air as she strained to keep going despite the formidable effort required.

McLeary pulled on her vest, kicking forcefully to lift the weight of two divers, his lungs expanding slightly from the decrease in pressure as he rose toward the surface with Burns in tow. Desperate for his next breath to come, he gasped when he broke the surface, inhaling a splash of salt water while he rolled Burns on her back to keep her airway open.

He coughed several times with his arm around Burns’ chest, rolling and bouncing in the churning water, the first glint of morning sun reflecting off the waves to the east. He smiled when he heard Burns coughing, a sign her lungs were taking air. “You okay?” he shouted above the noise of a Coast Guard vessel approaching.

Burns held onto his dive vest.

McLeary eyed the vessel and watched Kriegel, standing on the starboard bow, raise a megaphone to his mouth as the ship drew closer. Then he scanned the water for Hilario’s missing boat, cursing himself for relying on someone he never should have trusted in the first place.

“McLeary!” Kriegel’s voice boomed through the amplified speaker. “We found your son!”

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.