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 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.”

Enemy Among Us: Chapter 15

Agent Kriegel got out of his office chair, cracking his knuckles and mumbling to himself with the blinds drawn tight in the darkened room. The smell of stale cigar smoke lingered on his clothes. He could see McLeary’s head above his secretary’s cubicle, right where he’d like to view it through the scope of his sniper rifle. He’d drawn the line with Burns. Tried to warn her—reason with her—and yet somehow, and God only knew, she’d managed to heap a whole lot of trouble on herself before the ink on her transfer papers dried.

* * *

Burns entered Kriegel’s office with tentative steps, avoiding eye contact with the devil disguised in a pin-stripe suit.

McLeary followed.

“Shut the door,” Kriegel ordered. He tugged on his suit slacks to adjust the suspender straps. “Help me understand something. I gave you a simple assignment less than forty-eight hours ago, and now you’ve got my dick in a meat grinder and nothing to show for it. What the hell were you thinking? Chasing an armored truck through rush-hour traffic? Trading shots like you’re shooting a movie?”

“We were in pursuit,” Burns started.

“Pursuit of what?” Kriegel took a blank folder from his desk and opened it. “You see this?”

“Yes Sir.”

“Tell me what’s here.”

Burns studied the manila folder. “Nothing.”

“Exactly. Just like the back of the empty truck our guys hauled out of the Potomac River two hours ago.”

McLeary grabbed the empty folder and tossed it on Kriegel’s desk. “Don’t waste my time.”

“Shut your pie-hole McLeary. I’ll get to you in a minute.” Kriegel bit the end off a fresh cigar and spat in the trash can. “God dammit Burns. I figured you would have more sense, with your law school education and your Quantico test scores. Whatever you gained in knowledge, you’ve completely lost in common sense.”

“Sir?”

“Your gun—Agent Burns. The Arlington PD were kind enough to drop it off this morning. In case you forgot where you’d left it, they found it in the gutter a few blocks from the credit union. You’re damn lucky they recovered it at all. Losing your weapon in the line of duty is a fast-track way to end your FBI career.”

“It got knocked out of my hand.”

“Before or after you opened fire in public?”

“What was I supposed to do? Let the perps get away?”

“If necessary. Yes. You have to think on your feet, Burns. Make smarter decisions.”

“I was aiming at the tires, Sir. If McLeary hadn’t—”

“Save it Burns. I don’t know what Mickey Mouse games they played in your previous unit, but I run a tight ship and I’m short-staffed as it is feeding Homeland Security with agents I can’t spare. On top of that, the Director has his foot up my ass so far I can smell his toes.”

Burns looked at McLeary. The room felt hotter than Hell’s Kitchen in August. She’d heard the rumors about Kriegel’s temper but downplayed the verbose recollections her bureau colleagues had fed her until now.

Kriegel opened the blinds to peer at the landscape of high-rise buildings fanning out from his Washington office. He glanced at the city streets and the rows of parking meters jutting up from the sidewalks like match sticks. “How many parking meters do you think they have in Crystal City?”

“Sir?” asked Burns.

Kriegel closed the blinds. “I’m not asking you.”

McLeary crossed his arms. “What are you getting at?”

“I brought you into this mess to assist this investigation. Not fuck it up.”

McLeary checked his watch. “Is there a point somewhere?”

“You clipped a parking meter with your renegade stunt and took out the store front window of a bridal boutique operated by—guess who—because I really love this—the mayor’s daughter. Guess who was on the phone ten minutes after your little escapade with Agent Burns? And guess whose ass got chewed again?” He clenched his fist in the air. “I’ve got a U.S. Senator complaining about someone in a red Mustang tearing across a sidewalk café at fifty miles an hour. I’ve got Internal Affairs asking why one of my agents is conducting an investigation in a stolen vehicle.”

“Borrowed vehicle,” McLeary corrected him. “And you can tell Internal Affairs to—”

“Shut up, McLeary. You’re not in charge here. You’re a technical consultant who shot and killed an unarmed suspect.”

“He fired at Agent Burns with an automatic weapon.”

“The divers searched the river. They found no such weapon.”

“Then tell them to look again.”

Burns stepped forward. Weary of Kriegel’s exhortations, she felt compelled to defend her position before her new Section Chief raked her career across a bed of flaming coals. “He tried to kill us. We had authority to shoot back.”

Kriegel glared at Agent Burns. “And what about our mystery man your partner wounded on the bridge?”

McLeary shook his head. “He got away.”

“Did you see him?” Kriegel asked Burns.

“I never got a good look.”

Kriegel shifted his wrath to McLeary. “Did you identify yourself before you fired?”

“He shot at me. I shot back.”

“What if you’d missed?”

“I didn’t.”

“Did you order this suspect to stop before you put a bullet in him?”

“He couldn’t hear me.”

“Did you fire a warning shot?”

“I don’t fire warning shots. He tried to kill us. I returned the favor.”

“With a hundred civilians on the bridge?”

“They were in their cars.”

Kriegel felt his pressure rising. “And where’s the stolen money?”

“You’ll have to ask the guy who stole it.”

“Which one is that? The nimrod who got away or the DOA we pulled out of the river?”

“Maybe it sank.”

“Or maybe I’m looking at an encore performance from you, McLeary.”

“We never recovered any stolen cash,” said Burns.

“Then what the hell did they do with it?”

“Maybe the robbers made the drop before they reached the bridge.”

“Or maybe Santa Claus found it in his sleigh,” said Kriegel.

Burns cleared her throat. “What about our DOA? Have we at least identified the body?”

Kriegel opened another folder. “The prints came back to a Robert Mathews. An armored truck driver with a wife and two kids. His record’s squeaky clean. No wants, no warrants, no priors.”

“I don’t buy it,” said McLeary.

“I didn’t ask for your opinion.”

“You make this guy sound like some kind of hero. Clean record or not, he robbed a bank with deadly force. He got what was coming to him.”

“You’re out of control, McLeary. You’re impulsive, irrational, unreliable, and sloppy. You’re a danger to your peers, the American public, and this investigation.”

“Can I add something?” said Burns.

“Save it,” Kriegel grunted. “And if I were you, I’d think long and hard about what happened out there. And about your future with the FBI. I’m not here to be your friend. I’m not here to listen to your bullshit excuses. I want results. I want these thugs to stop shitting in my back yard. I want them caught and I want them behind bars.”

“I think we’re all in agreement here—”

“Negative, Agent Burns. Effective immediately, you and your sidekick are officially suspended. I want you both off this case, pending an internal investigation.” He turned toward McLeary. “Your gun’s with ballistics until this shooting is cleared. IA will contact you directly.”

Burns got up and shoved her chair. “What about the investigation?”

“The Director wants to formulate a new task force. Put some fresh boots in the field.”

McLeary shook his head. “We’re wasting time. We should check the local hospitals for gunshot victims and look deeper at this Robert Mathews.”

“Not your call, McLeary.”

“You hired me to do a job.”

“I hired you to crack this investigation, not throw shit on my face.”

McLeary smirked at Kriegel. “New suit?”

Kriegel looked at his pinstripe jacket in admiration. “Yes, as a matter of fact it is.”

“I hope it came with a pair of balls.”

Kriegel’s face turned crimson. He clenched his fists so hard his fingers turned white. “Get the fuck out of my office! NOW!”

Burns ushered McLeary out and heard the door slam behind them. “What the hell were you thinking in there?” She grabbed his arm. “This isn’t a hobby for me. I happen to like my job. I need this job. And I didn’t bust my ass to get this far in my career to have a screwup like you ruin everything.”

McLeary stayed silent.

“You think I owe you for tackling me on that bridge? If you hadn’t pulled your stupid stunt, we might have caught the other perp. Don’t expect any gratitude from me. Those shots were a mile wide. I was never in any immediate danger. I had the situation under control.”

McLeary jerked his arm away. “You’re welcome.”

Enemy Among Us: Chapter 10

At midnight, Fayez Sayeed arrived at the short term parking garage outside the main terminal at Baltimore-Washington International airport, where he parked a rented Cavalier on the second floor and took the stairs to the airport’s main entrance. He checked the monitors inside the terminal for Delta Flight 1227 and proceeded to the baggage claim area.

He mingled with the weary travelers crowded around him near the baggage carousel and watched pieces of luggage descend onto the rotating platform. Eager to complete his assignment, he edged himself closer to the moving conveyor belt and watched a scuba gear bag follow a soft-sided suitcase and an old trunk large enough to hold a body.

His instructions were simple: recover the blue suitcase with the orange smiley face stickers patterned in the shape of a crescent moon and transport the contents to an address he’d memorized. From there, he’d receive further instructions. A mission he could do in his sleep, and nothing like what he trained for as a child drafted out of his poor family life and into a world he knew little about; a world deeply rooted in God and discipline; a world that gave him shelter and put food in his stomach; a world that made a new life for him in exchange for his vow of faith, subservience, self-sacrifice, and secrecy. To meet a woman and fall in love had been his fate, but not his plan. To raise a family of his own and prosper in a foreign land took courage, for it was not his chosen path.

“Excuse me,” a businessman grumbled, dressed in a wrinkled shirt and tie as he elbowed himself between Fayez and a woman with her first piece of luggage. “Pardon…” He reached out and grabbed a blue duffel bag.

Irritated by the man’s persistence, Fayez stepped aside a few inches to give himself more space and allowed the stranger to carry his belongings through the crowd. He observed the next luggage dump making its way around and followed the bags closely with his eyes. Several travelers came and went, plucking their belongings one by one until the herd began to thin.

When the flow of arriving baggage trickled to a few pieces at a time, he doubled-checked the flight number posted above the carousel.

He scanned the terminal on the chance someone grabbed his bag by accident, but nothing obvious stood out. He checked his Blackberry email and re-read the encrypted message. As far as he knew, his instructions hadn’t changed.

He looked away from security cameras, contemplating his options. He checked his one-way pager and mumbled to himself. Failure was unacceptable. He’d prepared himself for too long, and sacrificed too much, to fail his first assignment.

Afraid to file a lost luggage claim, he typed a coded text message, but stopped short of sending it when he spotted his case making its way around the oval platform. He shoved the Blackberry in his pocket and bumped an elderly woman in his haste to grab the suitcase in front of her.

“Excuse me,” the woman apologized, snatching the blue suitcase with orange smiley stickers before Fayez could reach it first.

“That bag is mine,” said Fayez.

“Not this one,” the woman countered, drawing attention from her husband and a few travelers gathered around the carousel. She heaved the suitcase on top of her baggage cart. “All set,” she told her husband, who escorted her toward the lower level exit.

“Excuse me,” Fayez insisted, “you have the wrong bag.”

“This bag is ours,” the husband defended his wife.

“There’s no tag.”

“We never use those,” said the woman. “We always put stickers on our bags to identify them.”

Fayez reached for the suitcase then refrained when a pair of police officers entered the terminal. He stopped to discern their intentions, then he followed the woman and her husband outside the terminal toward the parking garage.

He reached inside his jacket for his weapon.

Not here. Not now.

He followed the couple to the elevator and stopped them before the doors opened. “Please!” he insisted. “This bag belongs to me!”

The husband thrust his arm out. “I don’t think so.” When the doors parted, he rolled the luggage cart inside the crowded elevator and pressed the fifth floor button. “We’re full,” he said as Fayez tried to force himself inside the jam-packed space.

Fayez cursed the stranger and took the stairs. He sprinted to the second floor where he’d parked the rented Chevy. Not wanting to draw attention, he backed the car out and drove to the fourth floor parking area, where a slow-moving Ford Aerostar with a broken tail light blocked his path.

He honked at the driver and watched the van maneuver from its narrow space, barely missing the rear quarter panel of the car beside it when the driver cut the turn too tight.

Fayez bumped the horn again, frustrated by the unexpected impediment blocking his path. “Move the fucking van!” he shouted inside his car. He rode the van’s bumper to the exit lane and gunned the engine to pass.

When he reached the fifth floor, he trolled along the end of each aisle, staring down the rows of cars until he spotted the elderly couple getting into a black Lincoln Towncar. Cognizant of the video surveillance cameras stationed at marked intervals inside the parking structure, he followed the Towncar outside the airport property and merged onto I-195, heading north toward Washington. Traveling just under the speed limit, he pulled alongside the Lincoln and lowered his window, signaling with his arm for the driver to pull over.

The Lincoln accelerated and changed lanes.

Fayez followed aggressively.

He checked the lanes around him, spotting a tractor trailer in his mirror with a lighted crucifix on the grill. He let the truck pass him and pulled along the Lincoln’s driver’s side. He lifted the silenced 9mm pistol from the passenger seat and fired a single shot through the window at the driver’s head.

The Lincoln veered off the shoulder and crashed through a bank of trees.

Fayez slowed along the shoulder and stopped to assess the scene. Then he jammed the transmission in reverse, speeding backward with his right arm on the passenger headrest as he craned his neck to view the wreckage through the Cavalier’s rear window.

Sparse traffic continued along the interstate.

Fayez jumped out with the engine running and approached the crumpled Towncar from the passenger side. The woman’s face had impacted the windshield, crushing her jaw into the back of her neck.

Fayez studied the lines of blood cascading down the front of her face like a colored candle in a bottle of cheap Chianti. He shot her twice in the head and walked calmly around the car to pop the trunk. Light rain began to fall in the frigid air as he opened his luggage and recovered the package he’d been sent to retrieve.

Enemy Among Us: Chapter 6

With his aircraft parked at the Schiphol Airport terminal under cloudy Amsterdam skies with a refueling truck pumping Jet A-1 and a food service vendor loading dinner meals in the galley, the captain of Delta Flight 1227 bound for Baltimore-Washington Airport left his seat in the cockpit and entered the first class cabin. A retired Navy pilot, Captain Michael Rainey had flown hundreds of sorties in Vietnam, honing his flight skills in a combat environment before transitioning to the monotonous grind of civilian aviation. “We got any fresh coffee back there,” he asked the tall, blonde flight attendant with red highlights and brilliant eyes the color of her blue topaz pendant.

“As a matter of fact, we do,” the flight attendant acknowledged the captain with her Dutch accent and a genuine smile. “Long flight?”

“No longer than usual,” said the captain. He took the paper cup of black coffee from his attractive crewmate. “I let my first officer do all the heavy lifting.” He sipped the coffee. Strong but not bitter; the way he liked it.

The flight attendant observed the captain’s hands. Masculine and strong like the man himself and void of any wedding band on his ring finger. She imagined what the handsome captain might look like under his uniform. “The flight was bumpy.”

“Turbulence. Bad weather’s been hovering on radar all night. When are we scheduled for departure?”

“Three hours.”

Captain Rainey smiled back. Divorced with no kids, he’d spent the last five years alone with the same flight schedules and the same three-bedroom ranch in Forth Worth, Texas. Over the years, longer hours and deeper pay cuts had dampened his enthusiasm for a civilian career he’d enjoyed for twenty years. Despite his loyalty to the airline and his length of service, he’d been treated like an artifact more than the veteran commercial pilot he’d become, a pilot with impeccable credentials and a spotless safety record.

On his sixtieth birthday, he’d eaten dinner alone at his favorite steakhouse, shared a bottle of French wine with a stranger he’d met at the bar, and ventured home with a full stomach and a nice buzz to catch the Late Show with Letterman. He had his career and his health, but nothing special to occupy his spare time aside from the occasional round of golf with his buddies who mocked him for spending too much time with his head in the clouds.

In the best shape of his life, he maintained a youthful appearance, despite his battlefield scars and a bitter ex who’d taken years off his life with her petty mind games. His doctor had given him a clean bill of health, with a caution about the dangers of smoking cigars. An eternal optimist, he looked back without regrets—except for one. Twenty-three years of marriage brought him a lot of things but never the one he wanted most—a son. And now, as he found himself staring into the beautiful eyes of a stewardess he’d flown with on multiple occasions, he couldn’t help but wonder how his life would change if given a second chance at love with a younger woman, a woman who adored him as much as he adored her, and who maybe, God willing, would bear him the son he never had.

“Would you like more coffee?” the flight attendant asked quietly, removing the metal thermos from its holder.

Captain Rainey stared through a portal at the fuel truck parked beneath the wing and thought, flowers are the key to a woman’s heart.

The flight attendant dipped her head and raised her eyebrows at the tall, distinguished gentleman with gold lapels. “Captain?”

The Delta Captain glided back down from the clouds. “Sorry…”

“More coffee?”

“No thank you.” He checked his watch and stepped through the first class aisle toward the main cabin door. “I’ll be right back.”

“Where are you going?”

“To stretch my legs. Don’t take off without me.”

* * *

Three miles east of the airport, a two-door Peugeot with a broken tail light and layers of diesel exhaust soot caked on the rear hatch sat with the engine running in a vacant space outside the three-story apartment complex in a quiet Amsterdam neighborhood. A steady rain tapped the roof of the car and blanketed the frozen ground.

The driver, Marcus Noland, wore a zippered airport jumpsuit over his thermal long johns. Two pairs of extra-thick socks kept his toes warm. He slid the seat back and crushed out a cigarette in the dashboard ashtray. He revved the engine and gave the horn another blast. When the effort failed to prompt his colleague from the building, he checked his look in the rear view mirror, toying with a fake mustache and goatee. He wore thick glasses with non-prescription lenses and a synthetic mole on his upper cheek. Special makeup concealed the scar above his right eye, a permanent mark from a rugby tackle that had sent him to the ER for ten stitches sewn by an intern with a hangover.

This isn’t happening, he thought, checking the clock again. He took his badge from the parking brake console and clipped the photo ID to his jumpsuit front pocket. Hot air roasted his ankles from the floorboard vents while his upper body still felt cold.

He laid on the horn, holding the button down for several seconds to underscore his frustration. His vision obscured through the foggy windshield, he wiped the cold glass with the back of his hand for a better view of the apartment building. For the first time in weeks, his colleague was late.

He dialed his cell phone and waited. When the voice mail prompt came on, he cleared his throat and spoke loudly. “This is Marcus. Where the fuck are you? We’re late. I’m freezing my ass out here.” He ended the call and inspected his facial features up close in the vanity mirror. Content with his appearance, he snatched the travel umbrella from the passenger floorboard and opened the driver’s door.

He sloshed across the lawn leading up to the stairwell entrance and climbed to the second floor. He knocked on apartment 2D. “Armand?”

He shook the wet umbrella at the ground and knocked again.

“Armand? Open up. Let’s go.”

He looked over the iron balcony at the idling Peugeot; its headlights pointed at the curb. This time he pounded his fist against the door. “Armand!”

He touched the door knob, and was surprised to find Armand’s apartment unlocked.

Inside the sparse living quarters he found a low-pile rug in the center of the hardwood floor beside a rumpled Koran. “Armand?” he called out, listening to the sound of running water from the bathroom down the hall. “We’re late.”

He noticed the thin plastic lining on the walls and on the floor beneath his feet. More plastic covered the chandelier above the small dining table.

He crept around the hallway corner, afraid he’d entered the wrong apartment by mistake when he heard a reciprocating saw engage its teeth in something hard.

“Armand?”

At the end of the hall, he found empty containers of sulfuric acid. The air stank with the fetor of rotten corpse.

He reached inside his jumpsuit for his weapon. Then he turned about-face to find a shorter and somewhat thinner, version of himself—an almost ethereal Marcus Noland clone with identical facial features and a pistol with a flash suppressor.

Two bullets punctured his heart at more than twelve hundred feet per second before his brain could register the magnitude of the trauma inflicted. He collapsed on the floor with his eyes wide open, his killer standing over him to retrieve the airport ID badge spackled in blood on the front of his airline jumpsuit.

* * *

The new Marcus Noland gripped the Peugeot’s steering wheel with gloved hands and drove away from the apartment complex. He stayed close to the speed limit but not below it, adjusting his prosthetic chin and human hair wig while he drove to Schiphol Airport.

Outside the employee parking lot, he pressed the badge against the RF reader and waited for the gate to open.

He proceeded through the employee entrance and stopped at the guard desk to present his badge for inspection. Shielded behind a one-way mirror, a video camera captured his facial image and compared his features to the previously enrolled high resolution photo stored in the security system’s central database.

“Have a nice evening,” the guard offered Marcus, convinced the man in front of him matched the face on the photo ID.

Once inside the employee entrance, Marcus took his time card from the rack on the wall and punched in.

“We’re getting new ones,” said a young woman with short, red hair and leather work gloves, in a matching blue jumpsuit. The female baggage handler pointed to the time clock. “They’re getting rid of the old ones,” she said, smiling coyly, her attention focused on the new boyfriend she hadn’t seen in days. “Management wants to install hand readers to keep us from stealing overtime.” She smacked his ass. “Why haven’t you called?”

“Busy…”

“You look like you lost weight.”

Marcus shrugged.

“Have you been on a diet?”

“No.”

“Are you high or something? You don’t seem like yourself. Like you’re happy to see me.”

Marcus stared at the badge clipped above the girlfriend’s chest. The green background on her picture signified her clearance for the secure inspection area.

“Stop staring at my tits,” the girl insisted halfheartedly while other workers congregated near the vending machines before the start of their shift. “We don’t have a lot of time.” She bit down gently on her bottom lip and took her boyfriend’s hand. “Come on… But you have to be quiet this time.”

Inside the farthest stall of the women’s restroom, she pulled off her gloves and French-kissed the man she’d only known a few weeks.

She unzipped her jumpsuit to reveal her naked breasts, her nipples hard and erect. She slid her hand along the front of his crotch and felt the small bulge in his pants. Then she reached inside and whispered, “I missed you last week. Where have you been hiding?” She slid her hand toward his pelvis in anticipation of the package she’d find. “Marcus?”

She withdrew her hand abruptly, bumping her arm against something hard inside his jumpsuit. She stared inquisitively at the face of the man she knew as Marcus—but with one eye that now appeared almost stationary.

“Who are you?”

She tried to move when Marcus brought a hand toward her face. A pin prick to her neck sent a powerful toxin to her central nervous system and left her paralyzed as if someone flipped a switch in her brain and cut the circuit to every muscle in her body. Her heart raced. Her blood pressure rose with an increase in perspiration to regulate her body temperature. Her stomach constricted to regulate the blood flow from her lower extremities and conserve her vital organs. She could see her arms and legs, but she couldn’t move them.

Marcus dropped the small injection needle in the toilet, where the tiny shard of chemically treated plastic dissolved in water.

Helpless, the woman watched her lover push her onto the toilet seat and prop her head to face toward him, chin up and slightly titled to the left. She could see, hear, and smell, but she couldn’t move a pinky finger or lift her tongue to the roof of her mouth. She moaned when she saw her assailant retrieve an eyeglass case from a zipper pocket.

“Shhhhhh,” he whispered as he opened the clam shell case and removed a pair of wires attached to a nine-pin connector and a miniature, ultraviolet optical scanner mounted inside a rubber eyepiece. He held the woman’s chin, positioning her head to inspect her eyes. Then he brought his hand to his own eye socket and pried his prosthetic eye from its orbital cavity.

He inserted the electrical connector in the back of the sophisticated device and pressed a small button on the optical scanner. A green light came on.

He cupped the eyepiece over the woman’s right eye, scanning her iris image for striations, pits, filaments and other distinguishable characteristics in the colored ring of textured tissue surrounding her pupil. When he heard someone enter the restroom, he peeked through the stall to see a baggage handler with a toothbrush in front of the mirror. He watched the woman spy the stall where his victim moaned louder for attention.

“Do it on your own time, Carla,” the woman scolded her friend, rinsing her toothbrush in the sink before she pushed the bristles in her mouth.

Marcus released the scanner from the front of Carla’s eye and removed the wiring harness. He waited for the other woman to leave, then he reinserted his synthetic eye and concealed the stolen biometric apparatus in his jumpsuit. He lifted Carla off the toilet seat and bent her forward at the hips, dipping her head in the water until her last air bubbles surfaced.

Outside the restroom, he proceeded directly toward the secure screening area and applied his badge to the card reader on the wall. A synthesized voice prompted him to position his face several inches from the mirrored iris reader beside a plaque that read, No Unauthorized Personnel Beyond This Point.

A beam of low-intensity infrared light scanned the colored image in his artificial eye, matching the gray-scale image stored in memory with the newly acquired image he’d copied from the donor iris.

A green light signified a positive identification. A server command disengaged the door with a mechanical crunch of gears.

Inside the secure work space, he hustled toward the conveyor belt assemblies routing luggage from the X-ray scanners to their final destinations on board Delta Flight 1227 bound for Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

Authorized ground crew wandered through the processing center.

“Marcus!” a shift supervisor called out. “We need you on the flight line.”

Marcus nodded.

“Now.”

Marcus searched the packages until he spotted the blue hard shell suitcase with yellow smiley stickers arranged in a coded pattern.

“Let’s hustle!” the supervisor prodded, herding everyone but Marcus from the room. “Your shift started twenty minutes ago.”

Marcus seized the supervisor’s hand and twisted the wrist abruptly in a joint lock, sending the larger, heavier man to his knees in excruciating pain. He stabbed the base of the man’s skull with a ceramic pen-knife, and pierced the back of the brain through the opening in the occipital bone.

With the threat neutralized, he glanced around the luggage processing center and opened the suitcase to insert a metallic cylinder in the shape of a small coffee thermos between a stack of folded shirts and underwear. With the package secured, he closed the luggage and returned it to the conveyor belt before the remaining cases arrived from the scanner in the other room. Alone and unimpeded, he swiped his badge at the exit door leading back to the employee locker room facility. When a red light signaled access denied, he swiped his badge a second time without success and moved away from his primary egress point to an alternate exit that opened to a service depot for luggage cars and fuel delivery trucks. He put on his customized ear protection and pressed a tiny button on the side to activate a concealed communications device designed to scan short range radio frequencies and intercept two-way communications between airport security staff.

He climbed a flight of stairs and followed an employee entrance opening to the ticket area on the second level, where a portion of the building was under renovation. His immediate path blocked by armed guards patrolling the area with dogs, he swiped his badge to reopen the door he came through and inadvertently activated an alarm. A red dome light flashed on the wall above his head as passengers focused their attention on the spectacle unfolding in front of them.

He sprinted for the passenger departure gate, shoving travelers out of his way as he ran along the empty corridor and pushed through an emergency exit. He interpreted the angry Dutch dialogue in his headset and navigated on foot through the maze of hallways and secure screening areas funneling him back to the flight deck area by the cargo distribution center. Cut off from his primary egress points, he swiped his badge at another door while PTZ cameras in the ceiling relayed his movements to the central command center.

“Can I help you?” a voice boomed from the opposite end of the restricted corridor.

Marcus lowered his ear protection to rest the steel headband on the back of his neck. He turned to face Captain Rainey who held a dozen roses in a plastic wrapper.

Captain Rainey examined the crewman’s badge and compared the photo to the face of the harried baggage attendant. “What are you doing back here?”

“Lost.”

“This area is restricted to flight personnel only.”

Marcus pulled an airport map from his pocket and pointed to a specific location. “How do I get back to employee parking?”

“Who are you?”

Marcus reached inside his jumpsuit for the single shot weapon concealed inside a snapshot camera housing. The device housed a ceramic projectile with a powerful accelerant undetectable by conventional security means.

He offered the map to Captain Rainey as he pressed the camera’s shutter button to shoot him between the eyes.

The captain fell with a startled expression on his face.

Marcus tucked the camera in his pocket. Then he stole the captain’s badge and slipped through the flight crew hallway.

Enemy Among Us: Chapter 3

Special Agent Shannon Burns sipped from the water fountain outside the women’s restroom on the fifth floor of the J. Edgar Hoover Building along Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. The surrounding offices buzzed with testosterone from the packs of male agents in dark wool suits and laced wingtips gracing the halls, with blimp-size egos floating in their air of superiority. What they had on their collective agenda, Agent Burns could only guess. She’d sensed the glaring looks the minute she’d stepped on their turf in her heels and black slacks with a form-fitting blouse to hug her hourglass figure and accentuate the tight body she worked hard to maintain.

At nearly six feet, she stood taller than many of her bureau peers and held her own in the gentlemen’s club reserved for modern cavemen disguised as federal agents. A rough-around-the-edges girl, she preferred the slow burn from a shot of Southern Comfort to a bottle of expensive champagne. As comfortable in a barroom brawl as she was behind the podium at a charity event, she likened her spirit and tenacity to a modern Annie Oakley with the face of Olivia Wilde.

She wore her auburn hair pinned up with a neutral lipstick color to match her eye shadow and her clear-polish fingernails. She was armed with a letter of recommendation from her former FBI Unit Chief and some measure of influence with friends in high places, and nothing would stop her from advancing her career—except her own inhibitions about transferring to a unit with a reputation for chewing through agents like a German Maschinengewehr at close range—a unit run by a boss with the gravitas of an Arab prince and more clout than Hoover himself.

Don’t screw this up, she told herself, brushing a piece of lint from her blouse. Her watch read 1100, thirty minutes ahead of her scheduled interview time. An interview almost ten years in the making thanks to an archaic system geared more toward advancing the federal politics du jour than promoting worthy candidates from within the bureau ranks.

This morning, like most, she’d spent an hour in the gym and another hour primping her hair and makeup, including time to cover a pimple on her lower chin, a blemish she’d reminded herself not to touch during the interview with the boss she knew only by reputation. Hungry from skipping breakfast, she’d downed a cup of coffee at her office and checked her email before trekking downtown through morning rush hour to reach headquarters with time to spare.

She entered the women’s restroom and checked herself in the mirror. A small coffee stain marred her otherwise spotless jacket sleeve. Her C-cup breasts looked smaller since she’d lost ten pounds, molding her figure closer to the shape she’d strived to achieve. She dabbed the stain with a damp paper towel and left the restroom as prepared as she’d ever be without over-thinking her response to every standard bureau question about to be thrown at her.

“He’s ready for you, Agent Burns,” said a young administrative assistant poking her head above her cubicle.

“I’m early,” Burns replied, her stomach sloshing inside like a half-cooked omelet.

“The last door on the right.”

Agent Burns brushed her hand along her sleeve a second time—a nervous tick she’d inherited from her mother along with her pert nose and almond-shaped eyes the color of emerald green. Don’t blow this, she told herself, advancing with her chin up and her shoulders back. Her throat felt dry. Her heart pounded in her chest. She could fight hand-to-hand and kick down doors with the best of them, but when it came to job interviews, her poise slipped away like a loser on a one-night stand.

Breathe…

At the end of the hall, she knocked on the half-open door to the dark corner office with the shades pulled down, presumably to guard against the threat of sophisticated eavesdropping devices aimed at the windows.

“Take a seat,” Section Chief Charles Kriegel instructed his subordinate from behind a mahogany desk. He was wearing a dark wool suit with gold cuff links and a collar stiff enough to slide down. His forehead was fringed with thinning, silver hair, and he wore an American flag stickpin above his jacket pocket and a starched white shirt with a gold tie clip engraved with the U.S. Marine Corps emblem. Without looking up from the memo on his desk, he pressed the speakerphone button on his landline phone and entered his admin assistant’s extension.

“Chief Kriegel’s office…”

“Send all my calls to voice mail.”

“What if your ex-wife calls again?”

“Tell her I’m in the field.”

“Yes Sir.”

Agent Burns took a seat in the government-issue conference chair with bare metal arms and frayed upholstery, displayed in stark contrast to the opulent furnishings around her. In a room with darkened shades and a single, low-watt bulb inside a green desk lamp, she read the letters of commendation displayed prominently on the wall with a Marine Corps Sharp Shooter plaque and a polished FBI badge framed inside a rosewood box with glare-free glass. An Uncle Sam enlistment poster hung from the opposite wall beside an autographed photo of a candy apple red 427 Shelby Cobra complete with a Playboy model straddling the hood in a thong bikini and stilettos.

On the corner of Kriegel’s desk, a bottle of Viagra sat adjacent to a family portrait and a twenty-year service plaque with the name “Charles Kriegel” engraved in brass letters. A custom humidor sat behind the service plaque beside an FBI mug full of cheap pens. On the opposite wall, a poster of ground zero at the World Trade Center hung above an inch-thick roster made of fine parchment imprinted with the names of every man, woman, and child who’d perished in the towers on 9/11.

Kriegel scrawled a note on his memo pad and pushed the paper aside. He wore a black chronograph on his inside wrist and looked up at Agent Burns for the first time since she’d entered his domain. He held his stare without blinking, his Roman nose protruding from his face like a yacht’s bow pulpit. “What are you doing here?”

“I’m a little early.”

“Better than a little dead.”

“The letter I received from headquarters said to be here—”

“I know what the letter said. I sent it. Why are you here?”

“Excuse me?”

“It’s not a trick question.”

“I’m here for my interview, Sir.” Agent Burns cleared her throat and brushed her hand on her sleeve.

Kriegel checked his watch. “I assume you know how to tell time.”

“Yes, Sir.”

“And yet you’ve been waiting outside my office for more than forty-five minutes.”

“Traffic was light when I left home. I got here earlier than I expected.”

“So you assumed I wouldn’t mind adjusting my morning schedule to accommodate your early arrival?”

“Sir?”

“I like to read the paper on the shitter after I check my e-mail and delete my voice mail messages. I come in early to accommodate my schedule, Agent Burns, not yours.”

“If you’d like me to come back later—”

“What I’d like is for you to tell me why you’re here.”

Agent Burns shifted uncomfortably in her seat. She felt warm beneath her blouse. “It’s an honor to be here. I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to work with your team.”

“Thrilled about what?”

“To join your team. I was told—”

“Do I look like an idiot, Agent Burns?”

“No Sir.”

“Burns, no one in their right mind is ever thrilled to work in a violent crimes unit. They get thrown in this cesspool because the job demands someone with their skills or because they sucked the wrong dick at headquarters. Now which was it for you?”

Agent Burns leaned forward in her chair. “Excuse me?”

“Did you pass your hearing test, Agent Burns?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Then tell me if you’re here because the job demands your skills or because you poked your mouth where it didn’t belong?”

“I have the skills,” Burns said hotly. “If you’d read my file—”

“I’ve seen your file, Agent Burns. You worked sex crimes as a vice cop with the Metropolitan Police before your brain fart about joining the FBI brought you here. By some aberration in the admissions process, you got accepted and made it through the training program. Since then, you’ve spent the last five years behind a desk investigating check fraud and various telemarketing schemes.”

“Among other crimes.”

Kriegel rolled his chair back and cracked the blinds. He opened the humidor lid and offered the contents to his visitor.

“This is a non-smoking facility.”

Kriegel removed a single stogie and sniffed the hand-rolled tobacco. He clipped the end with a cutter from his desk drawer. “This facility belongs to Uncle Sam, but this office belongs to me.” He lit the twenty-dollar Cohiba and blew several puffs of smoke, obviously enjoying the flavor of the Cuban cigar. “Get the door, would you?”

Agent Burns nudged the door closed.

Kriegel got up from his chair and settled himself on the edge of his desk, blowing smoke at Burns, who was trying to hold her breath. “So what makes you think you can handle violent crimes, aside from your recent experience in the art of washing checks and educating naïve senior citizens about the telltale signs of a telephone scam?”

Burns settled in for the good fight. “I finished the academy at the top of my class. I hold a black belt in Tae Kwon Do. I earned a distinguished service award for my efforts to bring down an illegal telemarketing scheme. And I can out-shoot any agent on your staff. Sir.”

“Very impressive—if we were hunting serial callers or trading shots at the O.K. Corral.”

“My work at the bureau has been exemplary. My performance evaluations reflect my professional achievements on the job.” Burns crossed her arms and rubbed her hands along her sleeves.

“So you like to break boards with your hands? That sort of shit?”

“If I have to.”

“How do you feel about breaking heads?”

“Sir?”

“Combat, Agent Burns. Boards don’t shoot back.”

“No, Sir.”

“Have you ever served your country?”

“Not in a military capacity. But my evaluations reflect my skills with—”

“Save it, Agent Burns. You sound like a politician.” Kriegel opened the personnel folder on his desk and flipped to the back. “You were also the youngest female promoted to Supervisory Special Agent in Racketeering Records Analysis. An advancement I’m sure you deserved.”

“With all due respect, I received my promotion because I earned it. Nothing was handed to me. I’ve had to study twice as long and work three times as hard to earn the same respect lavished on my peers, some of whom couldn’t hit a barn with a bazooka or run three miles without collapsing from cardiac arrest. I studied pre-law at George Washington and finished three semesters of law school at American University before I joined the Metropolitan Police.”

Kriegel blew smoke. “Why did you quit law school?”

“I didn’t quit,” Burns corrected. She avoided Kriegel’s stare. “I dropped out for personal reasons.”

“Which were?”

“Personal.”

“Your file indicates no one in your immediate family ever served in law enforcement or the military for that matter.” Kriegel rubbed his tongue on the roof of his mouth. He returned to his chair and swept his gaze at the front of her blouse. “So what in God’s name propelled you to pursue a career in law enforcement?”

“I felt a calling.”

“A calling? Burns, people find a calling to join the church or to squat and pee with the tree-hugging liberals in the Peace Corps. No one finds the urge to put themselves in harm’s way, much less drop out of law school twelve weeks from graduation to join the local PD and work vice. It doesn’t add up.”

Agent Burns rolled her shoulders. She crossed her legs, then uncrossed them again. “You mean for a woman?”

“Don’t put words in my mouth, Agent Burns. I run a tight ship. I don’t give a rat’s ass if you’re a man, a woman, or something in between. I need agents I can trust in the field. Period.”

“I was an only child. I fell into law enforcement because my interests led me there.”

Kriegel blew smoke from the corner of his mouth, touching his thumb and index finger around the nub of his cigar. “Nice story, but you still haven’t told me why you asked to be transferred here.”

Agent Burns inhaled through her mouth to avoid the smell from the burning cigar. At a minimum, she would leave Kriegel’s office with a headache and clothes that reeked of smoke. “I didn’t join the bureau to ride a desk and shuffle paperwork for a living.”

“Bullshit.” Kriegel leaned back in his chair. “For a former vice cop, you make a lousy liar.” He smirked at Burns. “Tell me why you left the local PD to join the bureau. And don’t sugar-coat it this time.”

Agent Burns cleared her throat. She hated the smell of cigar smoke almost as much as she hated Kriegel. “I was tired of serving justice in fishnet stockings and leather miniskirts. I was tired of working in a cesspool, to use your words. I wanted people to know I had a brain above my tits and ass.” She watched Kriegel eyeballing her, intently, like a tiger stalking its prey, unflinching in the moment before the attack. For the first time since she’d entered the Hoover Building, she wished she’d never landed the interview.

“Is there something on your mind, Agent Burns?”

“Yes, Sir.” She took a second to collect her thoughts before she asked her next question. “Why did you invite me here? A hundred senior agents applied for this position. Most have a military background and more time in the field. Why give me a second glance?”

Kriegel bit into his cigar and blew smoke through pursed lips. “Maybe I see something in you I don’t see in other agents. Half the women in this bureau were hired to fill a quota. Half the men signed up for the hard-on they get every time they flash their badge and gun. I’m not looking for average talent, Agent Burns. The bureau’s full of mediocrity. I need someone with their shit squared away. Someone who’s not afraid to kick ass and take names later, within the boundaries of the law. I like you Burns. You’re single without any dependents to support. You’re devoted to this organization. And you can hold your own in a fight. This job is yours if you want it.”

“Excuse me?”

“You heard what I said.”

“Yes Sir. It’s just—”

“Do you want it or not?”

“I want it,” Burns announced enthusiastically, if not somewhat surprised by how quickly the words shot out of her mouth.

Kriegel pulled the blinds and opened his office window to flick his cigar at the street below. “Then congratulations, Agent Burns. And welcome to my team.” He retrieved a .40 caliber Glock 23 from the floor safe. He holstered the loaded weapon at his waist and grabbed his rain coat from behind the door. “Now let me lay down some ground rules,” he said, pushing his arms through the sleeves. “If you want your career to keep making forward progress, you’ll follow my lead, no questions asked. Understood?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“You’ll report directly to me until I find a replacement unit chief I can trust to lead a second team.”

Burns followed him to the hallway outside the office, a little queasy from a tinge of buyer’s remorse at accepting an offer from an infamous section chief with impossibly high standards and questionable morals. “Yes, Sir.”

“This is my show, Agent Burns. My team. No one picks their nose or takes a dump without me knowing about it. Keep your personal shit personal and your work life at work. Distractions will get you killed faster than you can ask, ‘What happened?’ Keep your head in the game and we’ll do great things for God and country.”

Burns feigned a smile, mumbling a less than enthusiastic, “I won’t let you down.”

“Good. Your transfer is effective immediately.”

“Now?”

“Is there a problem with that?

“No, but my paperwork—”

“Fuck the paperwork. We’ve got a bank robbery to investigate.”

Burns followed Kriegel to the elevator, matching his pace stride for stride. “Bank robbery? I thought we dealt with violent crimes?”

Kriegel pressed the down button. “If you don’t think armed robbery is violent, you’ve got a lot to learn.”

In the basement garage, Kriegel started the government issue Chevy Impala SS and gunned the engine. Before Agent Burns could secure her seatbelt, he dropped the transmission in drive and peeled away.

Burns grabbed the handle above the passenger window. “Respect. I want respect. That’s the real reason I applied for the transfer to violent crimes.”

Kriegel squealed the tires as he turned into downtown traffic. “I know,” he said, cutting across two lanes without checking his mirrors first. “I just wanted to hear you say it.”

* * *

Burns ducked under the yellow crime scene tape outside the Chase Bank. The smell of stale cigar smoke lingered on her person. “Shouldn’t someone more qualified be assisting with this?” she asked Kriegel who advanced inside the bank lobby.

“That’s why I’m here.”

Burns blew a strand of hair away from her face. She’d served a short stint assisting her robbery/homicide division on the Metropolitan Police Department, a very short stint that had ended abruptly when her first case involved the rape and murder of a former vice cop. Aside from textbook training with the MPD and a broad-brush overview at the FBI academy, she had zero practical experience in armed robbery investigations. “Isolate, contain, negotiate,” she recited to her new supervisor with confidence.

Kriegel rolled his eyes. “This isn’t a hostage situation, Burns. Start asking better questions or start asking for another transfer.”

“When did the robbery occur?”

“This morning.”

Burns stepped over shotgun shell casings circled on the floor with red pen and observed the damaged video surveillance camera suspended by a single wire from the ceiling. “Any witnesses?”

“No one useful. This bank robbery is number six in two months. Same MO. Two-man job. One enters with a gas mask and drops a flash grenade. The driver waits outside.”

“Anyone on duty?”

“A rent-a-cop. He’s been admitted to Walter Reed. Poor bastard never saw it coming. Something in the smoke incapacitated him while our perp helped himself to the cash.”

“Are you assuming the perpetrator is male?”

“Statistically, I’d bet on it. Several bank employees pegged him at around six feet. Heavyset. Male voice.”

“Anyone get a look at his face?”

“Not with the gas mask on. We get the same description every time. Big guy with a gas mask and a shotgun.” Kriegel chewed his lower lip. “So far, the banks have all been hit at different times of day.”

Burns scribbled on her memo pad. “Who’s involved at the local end?”

“Arlington PD. But they’re chasing their tails.”

“What about the getaway vehicle?”

“We recovered a delivery van, or what’s left of it. The local PD found the van in an underground garage, along with a burned-up body.”

“One of our perps?”

“Don’t know. We haven’t got a positive ID yet.”

“Any lead on the van itself?”

“We traced the VIN number to a local flower shop. The owner’s clean. Reported the van stolen two days ago.”

Burns flipped the page. “Assuming the DOA was one of our robbers, what do we know about the perp that got away?”

Kriegel stepped toward the teller’s entrance and observed the powder burns from the close-range blast. “An officer said he saw someone running toward a stairwell entrance in the underground garage.”

“Did he get a look at him?”

“Dark hair, dark skin, thin build, late thirties, early forties.”

Burns looked up from her notepad and shook her head. She scratched her nose with the end of her pen. “Who’s our local point of contact? I’d like to know what their crime scene guys come up with.”

“So far, not much. I’ll have our guys go over the van again.”

Burns walked over to the open vault. “Was this open when we got here?”

“The perps never touch the safe.”

“Why not?”

Kriegel took an airline envelope from his coat pocket and handed a ticket to Burns. “That’s what I want you to find out. You leave for Miami tonight.”

“What’s in Miami?”

“Jim McLeary.” Kriegel pulled off his latex gloves and escorted Burns outside. “McLeary’s an expert in latent prints, among other things.”

“What’s his assignment in Miami?”

“Indefinite leave without pay.”

Burns tucked her notepad in her pocket. “I don’t follow you.”

“McLeary redefines the word special in Special Agent. Internal Affairs has had him under their thumb for months.”

“What for?”

“Stealing confiscated drug money.”

“When?”

“A few years back. A joint task force raid with the DEA netted twenty kilos of uncut cocaine and several hundred thousand dollars in cash. The bureau suspected McLeary’s involvement with a member of the Gonsalez Cartel but couldn’t make the charges stick.”

“Sounds like a rotten apple.”

“McLeary is a recluse. Hasn’t been the same man since his wife left him ten years ago. His own kids don’t speak to him anymore.” Kriegel took his phone from his jacket pocket and walked Burns back to the car. “I pulled his file for you. I suggest you look it over on the plane.”

Burns opened her door. “Of all the bureau resources in your command, why reach out to him?”

“Read the file, Burns.”

“I don’t understand.”

Kriegel waved his hands in front of Burns, pantomiming his frustration. “I don’t like wheat germ on my cereal but my doctor says I need more fiber to produce a decent shit. I’m not a fan of Jim McLeary, but we need him on this investigation.”

Enemy Among Us: Chapter 1

December 1 through December 5

Special Agent Jim McLeary sat alone aboard a forty-seven foot trawler docked in a private slip near the back of a secluded Miami marina. Beside him, a tiny fan buzzed inside a slide projector at the edge of a folding table cluttered with bullets and loose change. He held a cheap flip phone in one hand and a .45 caliber Kimber with a satin silver finish in the other, staring through bloodshot eyes at the lighted image of his wife and twin sons cast through the projector lens toward a free-standing screen.

He was a month shy of fifty. His six-foot frame with broad shoulders, slender waist, and a thickset chest disguised the fragile persona hiding in refuge behind the cobalt blue eyes of a man who’d seen his life come undone in a series of bad decisions and misguided efforts to resolve them. Ravaged by the cumulative effects of an FBI career spanning more than twenty years, Jim McLeary had traveled to the dark side and back, confronting hardened criminals from all walks of life. Outside the FBI, he’d learned to cope with his share of problems, and for the most part, he’d embraced a day-to-day existence he neither loved nor loathed but had learned to accept for what it was.

He pressed the carousel projector’s slide-advance button and watched the specter of his twin sons fast-forward ten years from a preschool picnic to a summer swim tournament in a crowded Virginia suburb. Blessed with their mother’s angelic face and radiant smile, his fraternal sons had worn a badge of unstoppable determination, unyielding in their quest to win their respective heats and earn their father’s admiration.

The slide’s time stamp read 1995, a chapter in the life of Jim McLeary etched with emotional scars; a time governed by a call to duty from a belligerent unit chief—and a wife who’d abandoned him.

He rubbed the stubble on his chiseled jaw with the gun’s front serrations on the black matte slide, inhaling the odor of light machine oil impregnated in the carbon pores.

He placed the flip phone on the table and reached for the metal trash can heaped with newspaper clippings, unsolicited IRS correspondence, and a rumpled copy of the King James Bible. He pushed the Bible aside and retrieved a yellow sticky pad with a note scrawled in pen beneath an unlisted phone number for Seth and Brian McLeary. He tore the ragged square of paper and crumpled it in his hand. Then he stood up, snatched the phone, and sat down. An act of indecision he’d repeated twice before, pacing with the gun in one hand and the phone in the other.

The past was history, the present uncertain, and his future up for grabs when his stronger half convinced himself to open the mangled note and dial the stupid number.

The line rang several times before he heard a prerecorded message from a voice he likened to his own. He tried to speak, but the words sank in a trough of emotional quicksand. Despite the countless rehearsals and the steadfast determination to make a positive change in his life, he froze in his own mental torpor and hung up.

He tossed the phone on a sofa cushion and advanced the slide projector until the last photo of his sons passed across the lens, followed by a sheet of white light that blanketed the screen, depicting what remained of his life from the sequence of historic images stacked neatly inside a rotating tray.

Disillusioned, yet sober in his humble surroundings, he pinched a single bullet from the clutter of .45 caliber cartridges on the folding table. He pressed the fat, copper round in the empty chamber and closed the match-grade slide on the five-inch barrel with a left-hand twist. He held his life in his own hands, a power he both revered and feared. Despite his shortcomings, he’d done what he could for his boys, finding solace in the notion his sons would thrive without him.

Alone in his thoughts, he had a decision to make, perhaps the last decision he would ever contemplate. For what he’d failed to accomplish as a father, met with equal downfall in his marriage and career. Wracked with guilt and the ensuing doldrums from a life of solitude and lost resolve, he sought refuge the only way he knew how. In his mind, the scales of indignity and hope teetered back and forth, rising and falling with the slow, methodic rhythm of a large vessel’s wake rolling through the low-rent marina.

He squeezed his hand around the gun’s rosewood grip, his fingers pressed against the double diamond texture. He cocked the hammer and brought the loaded weapon to his head, squaring the Lasergrip sights at his temple. For the third time in two days, he crept closer to the rim of a rocky ledge, staring down at the cavernous void, prepared to take his final step from a life he would surrender in a violent discharge of expanding gas behind a two-hundred and thirty grain bullet capable of shattering his skull like a porcelain vase.

With his free hand, he slid a quarter off the table and sat upright, shoulders back, chest out—his right index finger resting on the gun’s four-pound trigger.

He flicked the quarter with his thumb, launching the coin into the air, where it wobbled in a shallow arc before clanging off the teak-wood floor by his feet, bouncing and spinning until it settled on George Washington’s head.

What Jim McLeary failed to decide on his own, fate had chosen for him.