Enemy Among Us: Chapters 27-29

Brian jogged along the well-lit path winding through the campus grounds, passing the dining hall and the new gymnasium to round the corner by the all-girl’s dorm. He’d met Marcy in her Freshmen year in a calculus class. She saw him as another dumb jock with a supercharged libido and the ego to match. She’d shot him down when he asked her for her phone number. A week later, she met Seth and fell head over heels for the brother with the brains and the bad sense of humor.

Let it go, he told himself, pumping his arms as he sprinted along the pavement leading toward the open courtyard. He’d survived three years in college on a computer-generated track scholarship he should have claimed legitimately if not for a sprained ankle that kept him from the state finals and out of the limelight when the scouts came hunting for new talent.

This time he dug himself in a hole so deep he needed all the help he could get to climb out. “Nothing worthwhile comes easy,” Dad would tell him. And now more than ever he needed Dad’s advice.

Throughout his life, he’d met physical, mental, and spiritual challenges head on, but nothing could compare to the decision he faced now. Figuratively speaking, he’d hit a wall at eighty miles an hour. Jumped from a cliff into shallow water. And landed on his head.

Nothing he could tell Seth would change what happened. A moment of weakness between himself and Marcy was just that, a moment, a single point in time when two adults made a bad decision, together, based on pure emotion without logic or reason or forethought about the impact their decision might have on others.

He ran faster, imagining he could sprint across the pond outside the arts and sciences building. He’d dreamed it many times: sprinting for a race with no finish line until he ran across a body of water, his feet barely touching the surface as he watched the ripple effect move outward from the point of impact. The dream was nonsense, of course, and he knew this, the way he knew he had no choice but to tell Seth the truth and beg his brother’s forgiveness.

* * *

Seth clutched a bouquet of roses with baby’s breath sprinkled between pink petals and flashed his student ID to the resident assistant on duty in Marcy’s dorm.

“You’re not allowed after hours,” the resident assistant told him flatly.

“I just want to drop these off.”

“You guys never learn, do you?” the resident assistant replied. “Hurry up.”

Seth headed for the stairs, his pulse pounding when he reached Marcy’s room and knocked softly on the door. When no one answered, he tried the door knob and found it locked.

He knocked again, checking his watch.

“She’s not there,” a girl in a wet towel and flip-flops told him.

“Do you know where she went?”

“I think the library.”

“Do you know when she’s coming back?”

The girl shook her head. “If you leave those by her door, I’ll make sure she gets them.”

Seth placed the bouquet on the floor with a sealed note in the middle. She’s probably with her parents, he told himself, frustrated for not texting her first.

He left the dorm empty-handed and empty-hearted. The speech he’d memorized fell flat like a bottle of old soda. He’d rehearsed his lines before he bought the flowers, hoping a visible gesture of good faith would help his words sink in. But now his master plan ended where it started with no one to blame but himself for the awkward situation he found himself in.

Back in his own dorm, he entered his darkened room with the crunch of broken glass beneath his feet. He found a busted lamp shade on the floor and his beloved MacBook upside down in his chair.

He groped for the light switch and felt the rush of air as the door slammed shut behind him. “What the—”

“About time,” said Roland, stepping out of the shadows.

“I tried to tell you,” Dimetrie added. “But I guess you college boys don’t think so smart.”

Seth walked backward. “Hold up,” he said with his arms extended. “We can talk about this.”

“You wanna talk,” said Roland, “Call Oprah. Your ring was fake.”

Seth took a wild swing at Roland and missed, enduring a bone-crunching punch to the front of his face, where a gold pinky ring left a small indentation in his chin.

* * *

Brian slowed from a finishing sprint to a steady jog. Covered in sweat from the five-mile run, he unzipped his sweatshirt and let the December cold circulate about his core. Shifting to a fast walk, he stretched his arms above his head.

He paced in front of Seth’s dorm, contemplating his decision over and over in his mind. Chances are, the baby’s Seth’s. Then again, what if I don’t tell him? What if Marcy doesn’t keep the baby? What if, what if, what if… Just suck it up and tell him.

He arched his lower leg back and grabbed his foot, stretching his quadriceps. His muscles felt tight when he bent over and touched the ground with his palms. What happened, happened. He could rehash the past or get on with the future. Either path would be a tough row to hoe.

He climbed the stairwell entrance, stopping at the second floor to drink from the water fountain. His legs felt like Jell-O. His head felt stuffy.

What would Seth do if the roles were reversed? The fact that Seth and Marcy split up for two weeks didn’t justify what happened, but it was something Seth should know.

He knocked on the door outside his room. “It’s Brian,” he shouted above the noise from a live band rehearsing down the hall. He entered the ransacked space and found his brother on the floor, spitting blood in a trash can. “Seth…”

Seth smiled through a fat lip and a swollen cheek. Blood seeped from a cut on his chin. “You’re late.”

“What happened to you?”

“What does it look like? I got my ass kicked.” He touched his hand to his mouth. “I think I have a loose tooth.”

“Did you call security?”

Seth got up and stumbled to the mini fridge. He shook a handful of ice from the freezer tray and wrapped the cubes in a towel. “And tell them what? I owe money to a pair of psycho loan sharks who are going to kill me if I don’t pay them back.”

“For starters.” Brian picked up the broken lamp and placed it on the desk. He dug his phone from his pocket.

“Don’t… The last thing we need are police snooping through our school records.”

“Who said anything about our records? Just tell them what happened.”

“There’s nothing they can do.”

“You don’t know that.”

“I’m fine.”

“Have you looked in the mirror?”

“It’s not that bad. I think we reached an understanding.”

Brian threw his hands in the air. “About what?”

Seth cringed. “I give them five grand by tomorrow or they break my legs.”

“Five thousand dollars? Are you shitting me?”

“I can make it work.”

“How?”

“One of the numbers should have hit. I had it right this time.”

“How much money do you have in the bank?”

“A few hundred dollars.”

“What about your credit card?”

“I’m tapped out.”

Brian shook his head. “So am I, but we’ll figure something out.”

Seth pushed a finger around in his mouth. “We better do it fast.”

“Does Marcy know?”

“Not yet.”

“What are you going to tell her when she sees your face like this?”

“The same thing I told her last time. I got in a fight and lost.”

Chapter 28

Burns rode the hospital elevator to the sixth floor entrance with the man she thought she knew; a man she’d read about and studied; a man she’d heard about from other sources; a man who clearly had his mind on something other than his job. “Whatever personal problems you’re sorting through, I suggest you leave them at the door.” She stared at McLeary to gauge his reaction, searching for anything to indicate he’d heard and pretended to care. She watched his eyes, cold and unflinching as the stony expression on his face.

McLeary glanced over his partner’s shoulder to see a silver-haired doctor approaching from the waiting room area.

“Agent Burns?” the doctor asked, extending his hand. “I’m Doctor Jones. We spoke on the phone.”

“Shannon Burns.” She pointed to McLeary. “My colleague, Jim McLeary.”

“If you’ll come this way.” Doctor Jones brought them to a sparsely furnished office and took a seat behind his desk. “What can I do for you?”

Burns withdrew her black memo pad and flipped to a clean sheet. “We’d like to ask you about your former patient, Arthur Stevens. He was a witness at the Navy Credit Union robbery we’re investigating.”

Doctor Jones removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes. “Arthur was admitted two days ago with upper respiratory pain. Please, sit down.”

“Did he say anything about the robbery?” Burns asked, still standing.

The robbery? No, not really. He complained about a bad sinus headache and said he felt dizzy off and on. I ordered a CT scan to rule out concussion and consulted with the emergency room physician who’d examined him the day before.”

“You read patients to ascertain the root cause of their physical symptoms. I read people to ascertain the truth. Now, did Arthur say anything at all to you about the robbery?”

“Agent Burns, we’re walking a fine line between professional courtesy and doctor-patient privilege.”

“Former patient,” Burns added. “And you were the last person to see him alive.”

The doctor looked at McLeary. “She’s a firecracker.”

“Don’t sweat it,” said McLeary. “She’s all smoke and whistle but no bang.”

Burns shifted her weight from foot to foot, pondering the notion of her fist in McLeary’s face. “Just answer the question, doctor.”

McLeary held his hand up to disrupt the antagonistic vibe Burns kept putting out. “I think what my partner’s trying to ask is whether Arthur Stevens had anything to say at all, anything other than his medical complaints?”

“Not really. He seemed agitated. Said he was angry at how the police had inferred his involvement in the robbery. Apparently they had concerns about whether or not he knew the men who attacked him.”

McLeary made a note. “How sick was Mr. Stevens when you saw him last?”

“He presented with a fever and congested nasal passages with swelling of the facial glands. I diagnosed the flu and sent him home. Told him to stay off his feet and rest. Drink plenty of fluids. The usual.”

“Cause of death?” asked Burns.

Doctor Jones crossed his arms and leaned back in his swivel chair. “He came back the next day complaining of severe chest pains and frequent nausea. I admitted him and ran a battery of tests. The results were inconclusive. His blood panel came back normal. I gave him Tylenol to combat his fever, but ultimately his body couldn’t fight the infection.”

“What infection?”

“It’s complicated…”

“Then simplify it.”

Doctor Jones uncrossed his arms and sat up to grab a rubber ball off his desk. He squeezed the stress-relieving toy and looked at Burns. “Arthur Stevens died of respiratory complications.”

“Is that common?” asked McLeary.

“It’s rare, but it happens. We’ve lost three patients to the flu this season, including Mr. Stevens.” He pushed his chair back. “If you’ll excuse me, I have rounds to make.”

Burns closed her memo pad. “Thank you for your time.” When her phone beeped, she glanced at the caller ID and saw Kriegel’s name appear. She answered the call and heard her boss’s instructions as she followed McLeary from the doctor’s office to the bank of elevators outside. “That was Kriegel. INOVA Fairfax just admitted a patient with a large caliber bullet wound to his upper thigh. Kriegel believes it’s the robber you shot—the one who got away.”

Chapter 29

Still dressed in green scrubs, Doctor Lewis pulled the curtain around his John Doe patient in the hospital’s intensive care ward. He knew first-hand the damage a bullet could do to human flesh and bone. In this case, the bullet had fractured his patient’s femur and tore the artery supplying oxygenated blood to the lower extremities. After eight hours of surgery and several liters of AB negative, John Doe endured a miracle of miracles by not dying on the table.

He clipped his pen in his front shirt pocket and paid homage to the vending machine for another snack. Too old to pull double shifts and too young to know when to quit, he felt a cold coming on. His throat had been dry and itchy for days. His temperature had risen two degrees in the last half hour. You don’t have time to get sick, he’d told his third-year med students on their surgical rotation. If God can’t afford a day off, neither can you.

He pushed three quarters in the vending machine outside the closed cafeteria entrance. Then he felt the urge to vomit.

Like a migrant worker running with the bulls, he sprinted for the men’s restroom and burst through the nearest stall, hugging the porcelain bowl. The sight of dry diarrhea speckled on the inside rim kept the purge process flowing. He blew chunks of corn and rice along with remnants of a Caesar salad he’d eaten for lunch. Wave after wave, the vomit came, burning his esophagus and leaving a foul aftertaste in his mouth.

He’d endured the flu enough times to remember how bad the symptoms felt and how long the process lasted. But this time his symptoms felt different. More pronounced. More acute in his chest and throat. Symptoms he dismissed as a direct result of his cold medication wearing off. Go home. Drink water, get rest, and load up on Vitamin C.

He grabbed his coat from his office and approached the nurses’ station.

“Some folks were asking for you earlier,” a nurse said without looking up from her computer screen. “I was about to page you on the intercom.”

“Tell them I’ve left for the day.”

“They’re with the FBI.”

Doctor Lewis glanced at the woman in a dark suit by the drinking fountain down the hall. Tall and slender, she wore an hourglass figure with a gun on her hip beside her badge. “Great,” he told the nurse. “I finally spot the woman of my dreams and she’s packing heat.”

“You still afraid of guns?”

“Only when they kill people.”

He approached the FBI Agent by the water fountain. “I’m Doctor Lewis.”

Burns flashed her badge and pointed to McLeary. “I’m Special Agent Burns. My colleague, Jim McLeary.”

McLeary gave a perfunctory nod. “You recently admitted a patient with a gunshot wound to the leg?”

“John Doe. He’s in intensive care. I pulled a slug from his upper thigh. Nearly bled out on the table, but we managed to save him. Paramedics brought him in with a suspicious injury.”

“Suspicious how?” asked McLeary.

“The wound was at least a couple days old. Looked like someone tried to patch him up with an old shirt and a roll of duct tape. He’s lucky to be alive.”

“We’d like to ask him a few questions,” said Burns.

Doctor Lewis escorted the agents to John Doe’s room and pulled the curtain back to reveal a black male with curly hair and teardrop tattoos under one eye. His bandaged right leg hung in traction with an intravenous drip for the pain medication.

“These people are with the FBI,” Doctor Lewis explained. “They’d like to ask you a few questions.” He reviewed the patient’s chart. “Now might be a good time to remember your name,” he said before he left the room.

McLeary touched the bed rail. “How do you feel?”

“Like shit.”

Burns inspected the ream of gauze bandage wrapped around the patient’s thigh. “What happened?”

“What the fuck does it look like.” John Doe pointed his finger at McLeary. “That motherfucker shot me.”

Burns smirked at McLeary. “Why don’t you start by telling us your name?”

John Doe grimaced, presumably from the pain in his leg. He pressed his thumb on the analgesic drip machine.

That’s gotta hurt, thought Burns. “We’ll run your prints and get it either way.”

“How do I know you won’t kill me?”

“Because it’s outside our job description.” Burns made eye contact with McLeary who handcuffed the patient to the bed rail and clamped the tube to shut off the self-administered pain medication.

“Hey! You can’t do that!”

“Your name?” said McLeary.

“Rodney. Rodney Nito.”

McLeary held the clamp in place. “What was your involvement in the robbery?”

“I want a lawyer.”

McLeary kept a straight face. “I want a vacation in Aruba.”

“Fuck you!”

McLeary squeezed the bandaged leg until Rodney cried out.

“Maybe we can help you,” said Burns, pushing McLeary’s hand away.

“What kind of help?”

“The kind you’re not going to get with a lawyer in the room. Tell us what you know, and we’ll take the death penalty off the table.”

“I didn’t kill nobody.”

Burns looked at McLeary and winked. “One of your shots at us went long and took out a soccer mom in a minivan. She died at the scene.”

“You can’t put that body on me.”

“We already have. We recovered your weapon from the bottom of the river and matched your gun to the bullet we pulled from the woman’s neck.”

Rodney grimaced. “I didn’t mean for that to happen.”

“Doesn’t matter. You discharged a firearm in the commission of a felony. You’re still culpable for her death. Besides, we already have you on attempted murder for taking shots at us. You’re looking at the death penalty either way.”

“You’re full of shit. This state won’t kill me for something I didn’t do. My lawyer’ll make sure of that!”

McLeary sighed in disgust and said, “The good news is, the state won’t have to.” He locked the door to the intensive care room and brandished his .45. He cocked the hammer and pressed the muzzle to Rodney’s head.

“What the fuck? You said you wouldn’t kill me!”

“I changed my mind.”

“I was there, all right?”

Burns scribbled on her notepad, ignoring McLeary’s draconian tactics despite her instincts to the contrary. “Who hired you?”

Rodney talked faster. “I never saw the dude who hired me. Only spoke to him by phone. He offered cash up front. More when the job was done.”

“How much?” said McLeary.

“Two grand. All I had to do was drive.”

“Who were you working with?”

“I don’t know. Two guys. One had an accent. The other acted nervous all the time like he never robbed a bank before.”

“What kind of accent?” McLeary pressed him.

“Hindu, Pakistani, whatever. Some gibberish I heard before.”

“And where were you?”

“I drove the truck. The other two went inside to do the deed.”

“What did they look like?”

“I never seen their faces. They wore gas masks the whole time.”

“Give us a name,” said Burns. “Who set this up?”

Rodney winced. “Man I told you I don’t know. I never saw their faces. The whole deal was set up over the phone.”

“Who paid you the two grand?”

“I don’t know. I found an envelope in my car.”

“And you don’t know anything more about these mystery men who hired you?”

“Like I told you, they kept their shit private.”

“What about the caller?” asked Burns. “Did he sound white, black, Hispanic, Asian?”

“He talked like a white dude. All serious. Stiff. Like your partner with a stick up his ass.”

“What did you do with the money?”

“Never had it.” He swiped his hand across his sweaty face—the pain in his leg unbearable. “Someone must have grabbed the dough.” He swallowed hard. “Man, either shoot me or turn the juice back on! My fucking leg is killing me!”

McLeary holstered his gun and released the clamp on the morphine drop. He held up pictures of Gordon Gentry and Ali Muheen. “Have you seen either of these men before?”

“No.”

“Look closer.”

“I said I ain’t ever seen them before.”

Burns took McLeary aside. “This is a waste of time.”

“Hold up,” Rodney pleaded. “What about my deal?”

“So far you’ve told us nothing we don’t already know,” said Burns.

Rodney looked up at the ceiling. “One dude had a funky eye. Fake, like it was made of glass or something. He would take it out sometimes. Made me sick to watch him do it.”

“I thought you never saw his face?”

Rodney stared at the red dot in the hospital window and pointed.

McLeary glanced at the red laser beam reflected off the glass beside the bed and tackled Burns to the ground. “GET DOWN!”

Pulverized glass erupted in a fine mist when a supersonic bullet pierced the window and impacted Rodney’s head, exploding his skull on the hospital wall.

McLeary rolled away from Burns and drew his weapon in vain, unable to prevent what had happened or fire back at the sniper who’d pulled the trigger.

Enemy Among Us: Chapter 25

Kriegel rode the escalator from the Red Line Metro to the food court on the second floor of Union Station in Washington D.C. Dressed in a dark suit with a charcoal topcoat and black, calf-skin gloves, he greeted Agent Burns at a vendor’s pastry stand with a folded copy of the Washington Post in his hand. “Right on time.”

Burns handed him a manila envelope.

“This better be good news, Agent Burns.”

“It is what it is.”

Kriegel opened the package and skimmed the unclassified report. “I’ll take a large coffee, black,” he told the Korean proprietor behind the register. He pointed at the breakfast muffins on display inside the glass cabinet. “And one of those.”

He paid with a fifty dollar bill and folded the change in his pocket. “What else have you got?” he asked Burns.

“We’re working every angle. Right now I’m waiting on ballistics and latent prints for the crime scene evidence we lifted from the credit union.”

“What else?”

“We got a hit off a latent print McLeary found at the Chase Bank scene.”

Kriegel sipped his coffee, piping hot, leaving a velvet burn on the tip of his tongue. He led Burns away from the vendor station, out of earshot from other customers. “And Ali Muheen?”

“We’re looking into him.”

“Look harder. He’s on our watchlist, which means every jackass within a mile of our investigation will be clamoring to help and more than happy to steal the credit for taking him down.”

Burns followed Kriegel to an empty table. “We found a broken Blackberry at the China Town restaurant Gordon Gentry worked at. Turns out it was registered to Gentry himself.”

“You get anything?”

“It’s at the lab for analysis. McLeary’s trying to dump the call data.”

“Keep me posted.”

“What else do you know about Muheen?” Burns asked her boss.

Kriegel looked away. “Not here. Keep working the Gordon Gentry angle.”

“Muheen doesn’t fit a robbery profile.”

“I’ll help with Muheen. You keep a leash on McLeary. I don’t trust him, and until this investigation pans out, I want eyes on him at all times, understood.” He scanned the patrons inside the food court seating area. “I’m under pressure from the deputy director and every city official with a beef against the FBI. I need results, not excuses.”

* * *

Burns watched Kriegel take a bite from his blueberry muffin. He seemed subdued; a sort of kinder, gentler asshole than the one she’d seen the day before. Despite his methods, his motives aligned with her own quest to stop the robberies and stamp a name for herself in the process.

Kriegel wiped his mouth with a napkin. He dug an American flag stick pin from his inside jacket pocket. “Give this back to McLeary when you see him. He must have lost it in my office the last time you two were there.”

Burns took the pin and examined it. “Anything else?”

“I’m giving you a second chance on this assignment. Don’t fuck it up.”

* * *

McLeary splashed his face with cold water from the sink in the men’s restroom at the FBI headquarters building. The water jarred his senses like an ice bath. With or without him, the case would resolve itself. His confrontation with Seth had ended poorly, and now he found himself wondering what he could have said differently or what he shouldn’t have said at all. He wanted to reach Brian, the less sensitive of his twin sons, and the one more prone to reason without letting his emotions get in the way.

He dried his hands and touched the door handle with a paper towel. Outside the restroom, he found the last person he wanted to see.

“Where the hell have you been?” Burns announced.

“I took a shit. If you’re looking for proof, I already flushed the evidence.”

“Kriegel’s looking for you.”

“So are half the women in Miami. Which is where I should have been two days ago.”

Burns steered him into an empty conference room with a table covered in photographs and various case files. “You have issues. I get that. But like it or not, we’re in this thing together. No one has a gun to your head. If this case is more than you can handle, just say so and I’ll dismiss you.”

“Kriegel’s using you. You’re just too green to see it.”

Burns pointed to the table and ran her hand through her long, auburn hair. “I signed up to do this job. With or without you, I’ll get it done. Whatever philosophical pissing match you and Kriegel are engaged in will only hurt this investigation.”

McLeary snatched a folder and opened it to parse through several black and white photos. He showed a photo to Burns, a picture of a retinal scanner mounted outside the credit union’s vault. “Ever seen one of these before?”

“What is it?”

“High tech security. Our perps tried to force the bank manager to activate the system and open the vault.”

“But they failed.”

“Retinal scanners are sensitive to eye movement or incorrect head placement. Trying to read the blood vessels on the optic nerve works better when the subject’s not under duress.”

“How do you know this stuff?”

McLeary held the photo in front of his face to facilitate a mock demonstration. “The scanner illuminates the eye with low-intensity infrared light to capture images of patterns formed by blood vessels in the back of the eye. Without user cooperation, the process will fail almost every time.”

“Like trying to hit a moving target.”

“Sort of.”

Burns shook her head. “Why would they take the time to plan a heist with an armored truck, use gas to knock out the customers, then try to spoof a retinal scanner through a gas mask? It’s like they planned for the big event, executed their plan, then let it fall apart at the end. They’re too smart for amateurs. Why would they make such a dumb mistake?”

McLeary replaced the photo in the folder. “You’re right. It doesn’t add up. Ali Muheen’s organization is well funded. Why risk a bank heist and unwanted heat on his terrorist organization for a few thousand dollars?”

“What do you know about Ali Muheen?”

“I know his money has to come from somewhere,” said McLeary.

“Maybe he’s desperate for cash?”

“So he comes to America to rob banks?”

“You have a better theory?” Burns walked the length of the table, pausing to read the case file notes on Gordon Gentry, Ali Muheen, and the victims from the credit union robbery. “Did the lab turn up anything on the chemical grenade?”

“You tell me. I’m only here as a consultant.”

Burns rolled her eyes. “Did you get anything more from Gordon Gentry’s Blackberry?”

“A latent print. No match yet.”

“What about the perp who got away? The one you chased across the bridge and shot?”

“Nothing so far.”

Burns glanced at her watch. “Maybe he crawled in a hole and died.” She put her hands on her hips and stretched side to side, watching other agents walk through the hall behind the glass. She hated the sit and wait routine. Kriegel wanted results, and if she wanted her career to move anywhere but backwards, she had to deliver. “Ballistics pulled a slug from the federal credit union scene and ran it through the database. The bullet markings matched the rifling from a gun used to kill two teenagers in a Baltimore drive-by shooting last year.”

“What about the credit union manager? Maybe he can tell us something.”

“He died this morning at Ft. Belvoir Hospital.”

McLeary shook his head. “Which leads us nowhere…”

Burns reached in her pocket to retrieve the stick pin Kriegel gave her. “Kriegel found this in his office. Said you dropped it.”

McLeary took the pin and fastened it to his jacket lapel. “My boys gave it to me for Christmas years back.”

Burns forced a smile. When she peeled away McLeary’s caveman attitude and rugged demeanor, she found a man she could share the room with and not feel like sex was the only item on the menu. “I know about the girl you saved.”

“That’s old news.”

“I also know what sparked your tiff with Kriegel. Of all the people to pick a fight with, you had to hit Kriegel, didn’t you? He’s had you on his shit list since long before you joined the bureau.”

“He killed a woman.”

“In self-defense.”

“That’s one opinion. The evidence speaks for itself.”

“Kriegel single-handedly dissolved your Army career. I imagine there’s no honor in dishonorable discharge.”

“There’s no honor in murder, either.”

Burns turned her head away from the glass partition separating the conference room from the agents outside. “It eats at you, doesn’t it? The way Kriegel destroyed your career. Twice. You’d do anything to see him go down. Maybe compromise this investigation.”

McLeary turned as an attractive female video technician entered the room.

The technician blushed when McLeary made eye contact. “I’ve got something you should see.”

McLeary followed her to the lab with Burns.

The technician adjusted the controls on a video display. “I tried an image enhancement program on the disk you gave me. The software ran a Fourier Transform on the pixel presentation from the original surveillance footage and erased the background noise.”

“In English,” said Burns.

The technician grinned at McLeary. “Watch this.” She pressed a button and played the security video from the Navy Credit Union robbery.

“It’s hard to make out their faces behind the gas masks,” said Burns.

“Hold on,” the technician said. She pointed to the screen. “Check this out.”

McLeary watched two men force the credit union manager in front of the retinal scanner. One held a gun to the manager’s head while the other tried to hold the manager’s head straight and line the mask’s eye hole with the scanner. Several seconds passed. Then the robbers gave up and disbanded. “Back it up.”

The technician rewound the video and pressed “Pause.”

“What are we supposed to see?” asked Burns, staring at the freeze-frame image.

“Look closer,” said McLeary.

Burns squinted at the video monitor, focusing on the masks. “Can you zoom in tighter?”

The technician adjusted the screen to zoom in on the faces behind the masks.

“Hold it,” said Burns, pointing to the man with the gun. “What’s wrong with his eye?”

McLeary tapped the monitor with his fingernail. “It’s missing.”

Enemy Among Us: Chapter 19

The coroner grabbed his coat from the back of the office door inside the lower level of the Amsterdam police headquarters. “I’ll be back in a minute,” he told Rosie, a female custodian with gray hair and glasses who lumbered about the basement facility with a bad head cold. “How much longer?”

Rosie touched her hearing aid and gave the coroner a bewildered look as she dunked a mop in a rolling bucket and started swabbing the floor.

“I SAID,” the coroner continued, raising his voice to shout at the near-deaf worker who’d replaced his regular custodian a week ago, “HOW MUCH LONGER???” He shook his head at the untenable situation and disappeared from the morgue through the labyrinth of hallways in the basement of the secure facility.

* * *

Rosie parked the mop beside her cleaning cart and took a pen from her shirt pocket—a favorite toy from The Company’s special operations group. She was more agile and cunning then she’d led her foreign employer to believe, and her padded clothing, sculpted facial appliance, and improvised dental work added years to her appearance. She skirted around the autopsy table and opened the drawer with the body of airline captain Michael Rainey.

She squeezed the pen between her fingers and twisted the unit in half, exposing a tiny camera lens. Holding the pen sideways, she snapped several photos of the body and slid the drawer closed.

Seated at the coroner’s computer workstation, she typed the login password and accessed the electronic files on the patient. She disassembled the pen and inserted the USB connector in the PC’s front panel to download the hard drive information without leaving a trace of the covert program’s activity. “I’m in the system,” she whispered, adjusting the earpiece volume from the short-range communications channel linked to the mobile listening post outside.

“Copy that, Black Sheep,” a voice acknowledged in Rosie’s earpiece. “Files received.”

* * *

Rosie lit a cigarette inside a Mercedes E300 parked outside of Ahmed Abdullah’s apartment building. With a view of the stairwell leading up to the second story unit, she waited for her contact to arrive.

She took a drag from the filtered menthol and blew smoke. “Big Brother, this is Black Sheep. Do you copy?”

The radio signal bounced off a geosynchronous satellite in orbit twenty-two thousand miles above the earth and relayed the transmission through a military ground station in Belgium.

“Copy that.”

“No sign of life, over.”

“Package has been compromised. Abort.”

Rosie cracked her window and flicked her cigarette on the ground. She needed intel, not bullshit from a junior agent out of Langley with a college degree in European history and a twelve-week crash course at the farm. She’d worked covert ops longer than most of her peers had been alive, and she’d survived the rigors of field work because she knew how to play the game.

She checked her watch. The sun would rise in two hours and her second janitorial shift would start, a lousy cover but an effective one for infiltrating a hard target area with the miniature radio transceiver concealed inside her hearing aid designed to also function as a miniature microphone for recording eavesdropped conversations.

“Black Sheep, do you copy?”

“Affirmative,” Rosie answered.

“The package has been compromised. Abort.”

Rosie watched a figure in a leather jacket exit from a parked car. “Green light,” she whispered, leaving the warm confines of her vehicle without drawing attention to herself.

“Negative, Black Sheep, stand down!”

Rosie squinted at the figure disappearing in the shadows. She climbed the stairs to the second floor apartment and found the door to Ahmed Abdullah’s unit.

She knocked twice.

When no one answered, she used lock picks to gain entrance. Once inside the apartment, she removed the 9mm Glock from her uniform pocket and proceeded toward the hallway.

She touched a drop of dry blood on the beige pile carpet and rubbed the stain with her finger. A neighbor’s footsteps shuffled in the apartment above her. From somewhere outside, a car door closed, followed by the sound of laughter from a woman’s voice.

She pointed the Glock at the floor and ceiling, cognizant of concealed surveillance devices or motion sensors disguised in ordinary objects. Well versed in counterintelligence, she knew where to look and how to minimize the probability of detection.

Inside the bathroom, she aimed a penlight at a pedestal sink beside a bathtub with a skeletal corpse submerged in a crimson bath of acid. Dissolved fatty tissues floated on the surface like a ghastly bubble bath.

A noise from the hallway prompted her to aim the gun at the door.

She waited…

When no one appeared, she took a small plastic box from her jacket pocket and opened the DNA analyzer to remove a tiny probe the size of a small syringe. She dipped the probe in the bathtub solution and injected the sample in the miniature polymerase chain reaction processor. A marvel of nanoelectronics and bio-mechanical engineering, the device extracted the necessary information and compared the DNA markers to the database on the flash memory chip, a process spanning seconds instead of days.

Her knees popped when she stood up, a subtle reminder of her fading youth, despite her training regiment and her twenty-eight years of clandestine operations experience.

Outside the apartment, she proceeded down the flight of stairs and hustled across the parking lot to her car. She pressed the electronic keyfob to unlock the door and slid onto the driver’s seat. “Big Brother, this is Black Sheep.”

“Copy that. What’s your status?”

She opened the analyzer and read the numeric message on the small text screen. “The wolf is dead.”

“Can you confirm?”

“Positive.” She put the key in the ignition and hesitated for a moment, pondering whether she should get out and inspect the undercarriage. She’d searched the apartment in under five minutes. No one knew her destination. No one knew her operation. The car was registered to a foreign diplomat. The doors were locked when she entered. The ignition wiring ran through a hidden circuit.

She turned the key, hoping she hadn’t made a life-altering decision.

The starter motor engaged the flywheel and turned the engine, igniting all six cylinders without incident. Her paranoia subsided.

She reached for a cigarette at the same time her eyes caught the almost imperceptible movement in her rearview mirror and the sudden realization that the next breath she took would be her last.

Gagging on a length of piano wire, she watched herself suffocate in the mirror, clawing desperately at her neck to stop the crushing force on her windpipe.

“Black Sheep do you copy?”

Rosie stared through lifeless eyes, her head tilted at an awkward angle above the seat.

“Black Sheep?”

“Your sheep is dead,” a figure whispered from the back seat with gloved hands firmly grasping the taught monofilament wire.

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 needthis 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 9

Barry Smith rumbled through the visitor’s parking lot at the Ft. Belvoir Hospital on a Harley-Davidson Electra Glide with a bug-stained windshield and leather saddle bags still damp from the morning drizzle. He squeezed the front brake as he eased into an empty parking space and let the V-twin engine idle with its patato-patato-patato exhaust note. A sleepless night with a stuffy head and an aching throat left him with a raging migraine and doubts about entering a place where people died from lesser symptoms at the hands of incompetent physicians. An Army medic in a former life, he’d asked his colleagues to put their trust in him, and now he found the tables turned.

He killed the engine and dropped the kickstand, dismounting in his favorite boot-cut jeans and black leather jacket with a POW/MIA logo stitched on the sleeve. He pulled his helmet off and hung it on the handlebar. Slightly dizzy and disoriented, he clutched his stomach and hustled across the parking lot to the emergency room entrance.

“Can I help you?” the nurse greeted him beyond the automatic doors.

“I need to see a doctor,” Barry told her, his normal tone of voice obscured by his congested sinus tract.

The nurse gave him a cursory exam, noting the puffy face and swollen glands. “Your name?”

“Barry. Barry Smith.”

“Have you been treated here before?”

“Yes.”

The nurse passed him a clipboard with several pages of health insurance paperwork attached. “Have a seat and fill these out front and back. Someone will be with you shortly.”

“But I’ve been here before.”

“You still need to fill out the forms.”

Barry took the clipboard and found a spot in the crowded waiting room beside a grandmother with a hacking cough. Sounds like emphysema, he thought, cringing at the germ pit he found himself submerged in. All around him, patients wiped their hands across their noses, sneezing and coughing three feet away from him. Beside him, an old man with pale skin and droopy eyes gazed at a magazine cover while his wife sneezed continuously in a wad of tissues.

His migraine pounded his skull like a hammer on a steel kettle drum. Raccoon-eyed from consecutive sleepless nights, he felt exhausted, dehydrated, nauseous, and indignant from the burning hemorrhoids inflamed by prolonged diarrhea.

He dug his hand in his front pocket and withdrew a handful of nasal decongestants and acetametaphen pills he’d taken from his girlfriend’s medicine cabinet. Having already swallowed four pills in four hours, he found himself chewing hungrily on another dose of meds to detract from the pressure in his head. So much for the flu shot, he told himself, slouching in the chair by the coffee table with germ-infested magazines. His boss would kill him if he called in sick again. A few times a year was excusable, but four days in one week made a bad impression on a job he couldn’t afford to lose.

* * *

Fayez Sayeed stared out of his office window in the IRS building overlooking Connecticut Avenue in Washington, D.C. The reflection of a bearded face with dark hair and dark eyes stared back at him.

He followed the same routine every week day morning: ride the subway from his home in Maryland, pass through security in the lobby at 0800, boot up his PC, make a cup of tea, and start the morning at his desk piled high with pending tax return audits. A ten-year employee with the IRS, he’d spent the bulk of his time in the same department, riding the same desk with the same family photo of his American wife and three children—two boys age four and six and a nine-year-old daughter.

From his workstation, he could access anyone’s life history through their social security number. Where they lived, where they worked, how much debt they carried, and how long they were married and to whom could all be checked with a few key-strokes.

On busy days, he combed through tax returns and analyzed discrepancies flagged by computer subroutines programmed to alert the main system when certain numbers fell outside the normal bounds. But for Fayez Sayeed, today was anything but normal. His green tea had a better flavor. His morning commute went smoothly. And for the first time in months, his boss called in sick.

On the slow days, he did what everyone else enjoyed: surfing the Internet. With minimal effort, he hacked the intranet firewall and allowed himself free rein beyond the IRS-monitored portal, researching anything and everything of personal interest. He typed e-mails to his wife to remind her he still loved her and sent instant messages to his friends.

He typed the URL for the Washington Redskins homepage to check the off-season scoop. More than once, he’d immersed himself in a crowded stadium packed with fifty thousand screaming fans under cloudy skies and falling temperatures—an experience promoted by his American wife, who unlike himself, enjoyed every facet of American culture. Nonetheless, he’d embraced the American pastime, watching, listening, and submerging himself in every facet of his double life.

Years ago, he could care less about American football or Monday night games, but time had subjected him to a lifestyle much different from his own; a society with riches and prosperity he’d never imagined as a child growing up in a small Afghan village. Through no fault of his own, America poisoned his beliefs and challenged his notion of right and wrong.

The product of a loving mother and a strict disciplinarian father, he grew up with four siblings, all girls and all dead from Russian land mines buried in the desert sand. In America, he’d graduated with honors from George Mason, earning his master’s degree in computer science at the same time he’d learned English as a second language. He could think in binary, speak in Arabic, and compose his thoughts in French. What his peers found difficult to master after years of studying, he’d learned in months or weeks. And while he enjoyed his American wife and his time in Washington, he missed his parents and extended family.

When his e-mail chimed, he checked his inbox to find a new message with the subject heading: Lose Ten Pounds in Ten Days Guaranteed. Under normal circumstances, he would have dismissed a similar message as worthless spam and deleted it immediately. But this time was different.

He sat back and sipped his tea, inspecting the hallway from his desk before he got up and casually shut his office door. He double-clicked the e-mail header and opened the message, an ordinary paragraph describing the miraculous benefits of a new weight loss supplement geared toward people with no time to exercise or to maintain a balanced diet.

He took a pen from his shirt pocket and wrote a series of letters as he skimmed the article. Using a combination of transposition substitution ciphers and a one-time pad encrypted on his Blackberry, he rearranged a portion of the message text until the letters formed a URL address, which he promptly entered in his Web browser.

At first, a blank screen appeared with a blue background and an error code, followed by the message: your time is now.

A knock at his office door compelled him to minimize the screen and shuffle papers on his desk. “Yes?”

“We’re going downstairs for lunch,” a colleague of seven years announced as he opened the door. “You wanna join us?”

“Not this time. I brought my lunch today.”

“Come on Fayez, you say that every time. You gotta live a little.”

“No thank you.” Fayez kept his hands on the keyboard. “Perhaps tomorrow.” He waited for his door to close before he maximized the browser window on his screen. He clicked on the hyperlinked word, time, and routed himself to another server interlaced in the Internet cloud where hidden messages remained innocuous and undetectable.

A plaintext note appeared in Farsi.

He pushed his chair back and stood up. Ten years had passed quickly, and now the day he’d dreamt about had finally arrived.

* * *

“Barry Smith?”

Barry lolled his head against the back of his chair in the hospital waiting room. He heard a woman’s voice calling to him in a dream, but he didn’t recognize it. Sweating profusely from his upper body, he opened his eyes to see the clock on the wall. Three hours had elapsed since he’d entered the emergency room at Ft. Belvoir Hospital. Now the pressure in his head pushed outward on his eyes from the back of their sockets. His pulse raced. The ringing in his ears persisted. He felt hot all over and nauseous to the point of vomiting. Too weak to stand, he fought the vertigo effect and ignored the spinning room fading in and out of focus.

“Barry Smith?” the nurse asked again, acknowledging the man who approached her with a clipboard.

“I forgot to fill this…” Barry started, before collapsing on the floor.

The nurse knelt down and took his wrist to check his pulse. “Barry… Barry get up!” She motioned for the nurse behind the duty station to assist. “This patient’s unresponsive. Page Doctor Lewis STAT!”

* * *

Barry drifted in and out of consciousness, aware of bright lights in his face and the sound of squeaky wheels from a gurney or a crash cart maneuvered in haste.

“Can you hear me?” Doctor Lewis asked, closing the privacy curtain around his patient. He shone a penlight in Barry’s eyes while the nurse wrapped a blood pressure cuff around Barry’s arm.

“Barry, are you on any medication?”

“Cold medicine.”

“Do you know where you are?”

“Hospital.”

“His pulse is weak,” said the ER nurse. “BP ninety over seventy. His pressure’s dropping.”

Doctor Lewis probed the glands under Barry’s chin. “Does it hurt when I do this?”

“A little.”

The doctor placed his stethoscope against Barry’s chest. “Deep breaths.”

Barry coughed, expelling blood between his lips. “Something’s wrong…”

“Hang in there, Barry.” Doctor Lewis escorted the nurse out of earshot from his patient. “When did he arrive?”

“A few hours ago. He presented with flu symptoms. I gave him the insurance paperwork and told him to have a seat in the waiting area.”

“Did he say anything specific to you about his symptoms?”

The nurse shrugged. “He said he felt like he was coming down with something. The flu’s been bad this year.”

“He’s febrile, hypotensive.”

“Meningitis?”

“We can’t rule it out. Start a saline drip and do a full blood panel. Page me as soon as the lab results come back.”

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 Maschinengewehrat 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.”

Music City Madness: Chapters 81-82

Melissa wiped her face with a towel backstage and guzzled a cold Evian. Great show, she heard someone call out as she advanced to her changing room and locked the door behind her. Her lower back throbbed more than it had the night before. Despite the prescription pills at her disposal, she refused to take them, opting for plain Ibuprofen instead. The pain was only temporary, she surmised. A result of her new routine, riding hours on end between outdoor shows along the East Coast festival tour.

She changed into a pair of loose-fitting jeans and an oversized shirt made from soft cotton weave. She let her hair down and approached a bouquet of pink roses inside an ornamental vase effervescing with the fragrance of fresh flowers. A white card poked out from the top with her name on it. “Who is it?” she asked when a loud knock startled her.

Sorry to bother you,” she heard her stage manager reply through the door. “There’s a guy out here who wants to talk with you. He says he knows you. He says it’s important.

“What does he look like?”

He’s clean. Should I tell him to beat it?

“Just a second.”

Melissa composed herself before she opened her room to find Martin holding a bottle of champagne. “What are you doing here?” she sighed incredulously. She stepped outside the room to see her manager flirting with a backup singer.

Martin raised the bottle of Cristal. “I thought you could use some company.”

Melissa retreated inside. “You thought wrong.”

Martin propped the door with his foot before Melissa could shut it all the way. “I didn’t come here to argue.”

“You’re a lawyer. Isn’t that what you do best?”

“I was in town. I miss the boys. I miss you.”

“How’d you find me?”

“Brad Siegel said your crew would be in Raleigh for two nights.”

Melissa grabbed the flower vase. “This was you?”

“I know pink are your favorite.”

Melissa dropped the vase in the wastebasket. “Anything else?”

“I drove five hundred miles to see you. That should tell you something.”

“It tells me you’ve got a long ride home.”

“Where are the boys?”

“On my bus.”

“By themselves?”

“No. I left them with Freddy Krueger.”

Martin set the flat-bottom bottle of Cristal on the makeup counter and peeled the gold foil wrapping. “You look nice.”

“I’ve been on stage for two hours with the heat and bugs. I smell like a sweat shop.”

Martin opened the bottle. “How ’bout a toast?”

“Let’s not.”

“Come home with me, Mel. We both know you’re not cut out for this life anymore. And our boys need a father.”

“The boys had a father. He died in the flood.”

“Your chauffeur?”

“Tomás was family, and he loved our boys like they were his own.”

“Well they weren’t. He was cheap labor from a third world country.”

Melissa crossed her arms in disgust. “I think I’m going to throw up in my mouth. Get out!”

Martin raised his hand. “I didn’t mean it that way. I liked Tomás. He was a good man, but I’m miserable without you.”

“And I’m miserable with you. There’s no place in my life for us anymore. Why can’t you see that?”

“This is no life for you and the boys, playing hillbilly concerts with a bunch of B-list minstrels. If it weren’t for me you’d be tied up in court with your record label or in jail on tax evasion. If I hadn’t bought your house—”

“Save it, Martin. You’re only digging the hole deeper.”

“How do you think you got this gig?”

Melissa threw her hands in the air. “This was you? I should have known.”

“Sid got his ten percent.”

“If you didn’t want us on the road, why did you set it up in the first place?”

“I wanted to make you happy. I didn’t think you’d take the boys with you.”

“And you thought what? I would just leave them in your custody to play house while I’m on tour? You couldn’t even be a father for the one night I let you have them.”

“I messed up. I own that. But I’m confident we can make this work. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t care about you and our family. Like it or not, our sons need me in their lives. Not some honky-tonk cowboy living a lie.”

“You’re one to talk.”

“I’ve made mistakes. And I know I’ve hurt our family, but I never lied to you about who I am or where I stand. When your career took off, I felt like I got left behind. I ran to California with another woman because I thought I needed her. I was wrong. She meant nothing to me. You’re the only woman I ever really loved. I’m asking for a second chance here. A chance to do this over again. To do it right this time. Our boys deserve a normal life with a mother and a full time father.”

Melissa rubbed her arms while the canned apology gnawed at her like a cancer in her bones. “Get out.”

Martin held the champagne bottle in one hand. “Are you serious?”

“I don’t trust you.”

“Don’t trust me? What about—”

“Please leave!”

Martin pondered Melissa’s reaction. “Don’t throw your life away with him.”

“There is no more him, or you. There’s only the boys and I.”

Martin poured the champagne on the floor. “In case you get thirsty,” he grunted bitterly. He emptied the bottle and dropped it on the makeup counter. Then he left abruptly and slammed the door behind him.

Melissa fumed inside her dressing room, recounting all the missteps she’d made in her life. More upset with herself than she was with Martin, she dismissed his comments as the words of a lying fool who occasionally spoke the truth when it served him. Her new recording contract had come too easy; a token gesture facilitated by her bitter ex and a power house label with no intention of supporting her career.

She gathered her things and walked to her bus to find her boys out cold in their bunks. She wanted them back in their own beds; in a house without wheels and land to roam. She had everything she wanted and only herself to blame. Her life had reached a paradox of epic proportion, where no amount of fame or fortune could restore her faith in the world as she knew it. She didn’t need a man in her life, but she wanted one. If only the one she longed for had been honest with her to begin with.

Chapter 82

Leland woke up in bed alone and smacked the alarm clock to cancel the annoying beep. He pushed the covers aside and stepped carefully over Abby’s cat flopped lengthwise on the floor with his tail thumping the carpet. Leland knew he’d come so close to having everything he ever wanted. Now the further he descended, the further the bottom fell away.

He checked his phone for messages and called Sid to leave a voice mail. A quick shower and shave preceded his efforts to feed the cat and brew a pot of coffee to fill his thermos for work. He drove the long commute to the new construction site near Franklin and met up with the surly foreman, a high-strung weather-beaten chief from Boston, who possessed all the warmth and charisma of a shovel.

“I hate to ask you this out of the chute,” Leland started, “but is there any way you could float me an advance on my first paycheck?”

“I cut paychecks on Friday. You do your job. You get your check.”

“What about a loan?”

“You got your own tools?”

“In the truck,” Leland answered. He gestured toward his old Dodge Ram in the parking lot. “I take it that’s a no?”

“Take it any way you want it. You need a loan, see a bank. There’s a shitload of work to do, and you’re thirty minutes late.”

“I had a personal issue.”

“Not my problem. You show up late again, and you can find another job.”

Leland gathered his tools from the truck. He needed the work as much as he needed the distraction from his pending court date. The more he dwelled on the paternity results, the more he questioned his own existence. If he hadn’t fathered Abby, why was she so prominent in his life? What did Paula have to gain by tearing his life apart? How much did Abby know? Would she see him in the same light if she knew the truth—or reject him the way Melissa had? Abby was a constant in his life, along with his love for music. Together, they’d kept him anchored through the tough times and brought him more comfort than one man deserved. Without Abby he had nothing. Without music, he was lost.

He made his way toward the construction zone managed by the same company he’d worked for previously and approached a cache of hollow metal framing posts. He acknowledged a coworker in a pair of Dickies and a short sleeve shirt. “I’m Leland.”

“Miles,” the man replied. He gave Leland a quick fist bump through his leather work glove. “You don’t look thrilled to be here.”

“Got a lot on my mind.”

“Amen, brother. I’ve been working this site since they cleared the land. Not sure another mall makes sense in this part of town, but they don’t pay me to think.”

“You from Nashville?”

“Atlanta,” said Miles.

“Were you here for the storm?” Leland asked.

“Every drop. Cost me five days pay when they shut us down. Lucky we didn’t get hit as hard as some parts, or we’d be running pumps and hoses all day.”

Leland rested his hand on his tool belt. “You have kids?”

“Two girls. Ten and twelve. I got an older boy from a baby momma, but I never see him much. His mom’s got a new man. Doesn’t like it when I come around. You?”

“A daughter.”

“How old?”

“Thirteen going on thirty.”

“I hear you. My oldest is the same. Too young to know better. Too old to take direction without giving lip to her mom or me.” Miles lifted a section of hollow steel frame from the pile and propped it vertically in the track bolted to the concrete floor. “You been downtown since the flood?”

“Not much.” Leland held the frame while Miles secured it to the track in the floor with a hammer drill. “How long have you worked for this builder?”

Miles stood up with the drill at his side. “Too long. But their checks always clear.” He pointed at Leland with the drill. “You look familiar to me.”

Leland repositioned his hold on the beam. “I did some work up in Nashville.”

“I never seen you on site before.”

“I must have one of those faces.”

“Or you white guys all look the same,” Miles jabbed with a big grin on his face.

Leland allowed himself to laugh. “You stole my line.”

Miles grabbed another length of framing steel and held it upright. “Where’re you from?”

“All over. I moved to Nashville a few months back.”

“What happened? They run out of work in all over?”

“Something like that. I came here to sing.”

“Then what are you doing here?”

Leland shrugged. “I got bills to pay like everyone else.”

“We are what we believe. We all have a purpose in life. Some meaning. Some reason to get up in the morning and make it through another day. Do you believe in yourself?”

“I do,” Leland replied. He held the metal stud for Miles to fasten at the track along the floor.

“Then what’s keeping you here? And don’t tell me about bills. We all gotta pay the man. For me, I got nothing but labor on my resume. This kind of work is in my blood. If you got the pipes to sing, use them. This work won’t take you anywhere.”

“You trying to talk me out of a job?”

“I’m trying to educate your mind. If you have a God-given talent, you should use it.”

“Not that simple.”

“It’s only as hard as you make it,” Miles countered. He helped Leland position the frame in place. “I believe in an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work. I believe in God. I believe in family. I believe in myself to provide for them no matter how hard I struggle at times.” Miles reached inside his tool pouch for another screw. “What do you believe in?”

Leland looked up at the concrete ceiling.

Miles tapped him on the side of the shoulder. “It ain’t a trick question. If you got to think about it, you need to get right with your god. You follow me?”

“I follow you. But something you said got me thinking…”

Music City Madness: Chapters 79-80

Leland drove to Belle Meade to confront the only woman he’d ever truly loved—convinced that if she loved him back, she would give him another chance to explain. He owed her more than a heartfelt apology. He owed her a glimpse into his past, a snapshot of his life before he’d met her. He’d kept from her what he’d withheld from so many friends along his journey as a single father and a struggling artist trying to balance his obligations with his music dream. He wrote songs to touch lives and bring people closer together. Not tear them apart.

He rolled his window down when he found himself at the gate to Melissa’s property and reached his arm out to press the keypad on the access control system. He hesitated with his finger an inch away from the box. Was he chasing something better left alone? Should he turn around and leave his past behind or confront his fear head on?

He punched the code Sid gave him and waited for the iron gate to open inward and grant him access to the long, swooping driveway with a “SOLD” sign prominently displayed in the lawn.

When he reached the house, he parked beside a black BMW and got out to see Martin advancing toward him, his aggressive posture loaded for bear. “I need to speak with Melissa.”

“You’re trespassing on private property,” Martin asserted himself before Leland could take another step.

“Then who opened the gate?”

“Mel’s not here.”

“When will she be back?”

“This property belongs to me now.”

Leland scanned the windows on the front of the house. “Where is she? I’ve been trying to call her—”

“You should leave now,” Martin dictated as Paula emerged from the house barefoot in a T-shirt and shorts.

“What are you doing here?” Leland directed his angst at Paula.

Paula shuffled toward him. “The second flood is coming. Only I can save our daughter.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Abby needs her mother. You can’t be with her anymore.”

“Her mother needs to take her medication.”

Paula avoided eye contact with one arm bent behind her back. “You can’t be seen with her,” she said in a monotone voice. “You think you have all the answers, prancing around like some kind of God, Mr. big shot rock star. They canceled you like a bad check. You aren’t fit to be her father.”

“You need help, Paula. Taking Abby away from me won’t solve your problems.”

Paula remained expressionless; her face an empty page. “I’m not the problem, and you’re not the father.”

Leland followed Martin toward the house. “What did you do to her?”

“I’m her attorney. Anything you need from Paula, you go through me first.”

“She’s not right in the head.”

“Get off my property.”

“Where’s Melissa?”

Martin pointed toward the driveway. “You’ve got one minute before I have you arrested for trespassing.”

Leland climbed in his truck and dialed Sid’s number. “We need to talk,” he started when Sid answered.

Where are you?

“Belle Meade.”

You need to pick up Abby.

“Is she all right?”

Paula’s attorney filed a motion for an emergency custody order.

“He can’t do that!”

The judge granted the order to have Abby removed from your care. Children’s services sent an officer to your house. The state is planning to take temporary custody of Abby, today.

Chapter 80

Melissa locked herself in her tour bus, physically depleted from the rigors of endless preparations and daily rehearsal schedules at the start of her East Coast festival tour. After struggling to reclaim her career, she finally found her stride, regardless of her looming regrets about selling the house to Martin and uprooting her boys from the only home they’d ever known. In her haste to end her relationship with Leland, she had candidly dismissed her own addiction issues and her self-centered views. Now she found herself alone on a custom coach with more accouterments than a five star hotel. She knew the demands of life on the road; how the lure of fame and fortune overshadowed any notion of an honest conversation about the unsettling monotony of the music business mired in poor judgment, bad taste, and chronic indulgence in illegal drugs. She had everything she wanted and more, with no one to blame but herself for feeling rejected at a time when she needed Leland the most.

* * *

Leland charged inside the Nashville recreation center to find Principal Hendrix engaged in conversation with a Davidson County Deputy. “Where’s my daughter?” he vented loud enough to draw the principal’s attention. “Abby’s supposed to be here.”

“Mr. Presley—”

“I want to see Abby now!”

Principal Hendrix maintained an aggressive stance with her large frame physically obstructing Leland’s path. “Mr. Presley—”

“Where is she?”

“Abby’s safe. Let’s go somewhere private and talk.”

A vein in Leland’s temple throbbed. “I’m not going anywhere without my daughter. Bring her out here now, or this is going to get ugly.”

Principal Hendrix waved off the deputy sheriff who took offense at Leland’s fighting words. “Mr. Presley, I’m on your side. I realize you’re frustrated. I promise you, Abby is safe.”

Leland followed Principal Hendrix inside a small equipment room. “Whatever it is you think you’re doing to protect my daughter, it’s not helping.”

“Mr. Presley, I’ve worked in education for more than thirty-five years, including most of my summers spent with youth programs like these. I’ve seen a lot in my tenure, and there are two things I know as certain truth: first, I don’t believe you pose any threat to Abby; and second, I wouldn’t be here if I thought otherwise.”

“I’m taking Abby home with me.”

“Right now that would do more harm than good.”

“I disagree!”

“You’re not hearing me, Mr. Presley. I’m on Abby’s side. She has issues, of which I am well aware, but abuse at home is not one of them.”

Leland drew a deep breath. “I’m not leaving here without her.”

“Child services has a court order granting the state temporary custody until a hearing can be held to determine—”

“This is wrong! They have no right.”

“They have the law.”

“No law gives them permission to come in here and threaten to take my daughter!”

“It’s not a perfect system.”

Leland lunged for the door when he saw Abby emerge with a sheriff’s deputy and a man in a tie with a government ID around his neck. “Abby!”

“Dad!” Abby screamed.

Leland approached the officer. “My daughter’s coming home with me.”

The officer reached for his taser gun. “Sir, I need you to step back.”

“You said no one would take me away!” Abby cried.

“I’m sorry,” Leland pleaded. “I’ll figure this out. I promise!” He followed Abby and the officer until Principal Hendrix intervened.

“Mr. Presley! You’re no good to your daughter in jail.”

“This isn’t right.”

“You’ll have your day in court.”

Leland stood helplessly as the men ushered Abby from the building to a government sedan outside. He wanted Paula in a straight jacket, and the judge who sided with her case, in jail.

“Go home, Mr. Presley. Meet with your lawyer. If there’s anything I can do to help, I will.”

* * *

Sid entered Leland’s house and followed the sound of acoustic guitar played at a heated tempo. “Leland?”

In here,” he heard Leland call out.

Sid stepped around unpacked boxes and a curious orange tabby who jumped on a window sill for a glimpse at the squirrel festivities outside. “I’m sorry about what happened. I tried to get there before child services arrived.”

Leland stopped playing when Sid entered the room. “They took her away from me.”

“They had a court order.”

“How soon will I get her back?”

“I’m working on it.”

Leland picked at the guitar strings indifferently. “I feel empty inside.”

“You can’t blame yourself.”

“I blame my wife!”

“The burden of proof falls on her attorney. Their case is flimsy. I’ve already filed a motion to dismiss.”

“How long will that take?”

“Depends on the court’s schedule. Maybe ten, twelve weeks at most. But there’s no guarantee they’ll grant it.”

“I’m not waiting three months!” Leland set his guitar in the case. “There has to be something more you can do. This is my word against hers. There’s no way the courts would side with Paula. You know she’s lying.”

“Only if we can prove it.”

“You said the burden of proof was on her attorney.”

“And her attorney will make a strong argument that you’re not fit to be Abby’s father.”

“But I am her father.”

“Not biologically, which makes the situation more complicated.”

“Abby needs me.”

“She’ll be safe in the state’s care.”

“Bullshit! I’ve been in the state’s care.”

“We’ll get her back,” Sid assured him.

“How?”

“I’ll worry about that. You stay close to your phone.”

* * *

Leland reached for the bottle of bourbon stashed in the cabinet above the refrigerator. Behind him, the orange tabby sauntered from the hallway to Abby’s room and howled. “She’s not here,” he told the cat and unscrewed the cap. He took a swig and left the open bottle on the counter. He retrieved his guitar and played through a new chord sequence, hoping to find the words to match the music. But every string played sharp or flat, out of tune and out of touch with every melody he composed in his head. Instead of solace in his music, he found emptiness, an emotional void where fear transformed into sadness, sadness devolved into anger, and anger appealed to apathy.

He clenched the guitar neck in both hands and raised the prized possession above his head. Rage swelled within him until he slammed the vintage instrument to the floor, again and again, pounding the handmade Gibson into a pile of splintered wood and broken strings.

Music City Madness: Chapters 77-78

Leland pushed his way through a downtown bistro’s lively dinner crowd to find Sid by himself at a table against the wall with a half eaten cobb salad and a double bourbon. “I got your message.”

“I recommend the shrimp scampi.”

“I’ve eaten.”

Sid poked his fork at the chopped greens and pierced a tomato wedge. “Where’s your sidekick?”

“At home with Nicole.”

Sid chewed the tomato doused in salad dressing. “I can’t figure out what makes their red wine vinaigrette so tangy. They must age their dressing in oak barrels.”

Leland moved a chair and parked himself across from his agent and long-time friend. “Did you look at the papers I sent you?”

“Let’s kick the can on that one for a second. Brad Siegel’s decided to postpone the band’s debut album until Jimmie Lockhorn recovers.”

“I’m not surprised.”

“You grabbed the tiger by the tale. I had to peel Brad off the ceiling. At one point, I thought he was going to spontaneously combust. He’s threatening to sue you for damages.”

“What damages?”

“Relax… I told him you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube. I convinced him to terminate your contract instead.”

“You told him to fire me?”

Sid skewered a piece of roasted chicken and hard-boiled egg, maintaining his stony expression with Leland. “I saved your ass.”

“What about my next gig?”

“There is no next gig. Reputation is everything in this town. You can’t fart in the shower without someone hearing about it. And you went rogue on live television in front of ten million people. You might as well have dropped your pants and mooned Brad Siegel on stage. You’re a honky-tonk bull in a China shop. No one in this city’s going to touch you.”

“Have you seen Melissa? Have you talked to her?”

“Melissa has her own problems.”

“She won’t return my calls.”

“I can’t help you there.” Sid poked his fingernail at a piece of bacon wedged between his teeth. “I’m dropping you from my agency.”

“Why?”

“This is a business decision. You made yours on stage in front of a televised audience. I like you, Leland. I always have. But I need to cut my losses and move on.”

“I’m sorry about the concert.”

“Son, you pissed off all the wrong people when you went off script. You should have kept me in the loop.”

“You would have tried to talk me out of it.”

“I would have saved your career. Now you’ll be lucky to land a gig in some backwoods pub in Arkansas.”

Leland waited for Sid to chew his food. “What about my custody case?”

Sid pushed his plate aside and reached for a folder on the chair beside him. He shared the contents with Leland and waved off the waitress who buzzed the table with a water refill. “I’ll represent you. You’re a tough act to manage, but you’re a good father. You deserve good representation.”

“I appreciate your help.”

“Don’t thank me yet. I reviewed the motions. Your wife is making child abuse allegations.”

“That’s bullshit! I would never hurt Abby.”

“I know. That’s why I’m taking your case pro bono.”

“There is no case. Paula tried to drown her! She’s been institutionalized for over a decade, and now she’s out here throwing lies around.”

“In custody cases, the truth is often irrelevant. What matters is what her attorney can convince the court to believe.”

“But she’s deranged.”

“Not anymore. At least according to her psychiatric profile. She’s claiming you left Abby home alone, unsupervised, which placed her in grave danger during the flood. Her lawyer’s subpoenaed the hospital for Abby’s medical records as evidence.”

“She was hypothermic.”

“She was unconscious for two days.”

Leland fiddled with the turquoise spinner ring on his right index finger. “Abby wouldn’t be here at all if I hadn’t found her.”

“And Paula wouldn’t have as much leverage if you’d stayed home with Abby in the first place.”

“Can’t you make this go away?”

“I’m your attorney, Leland, not your fairy godmother. You have to face the facts. Your wife’s lawyer will do everything he can to discredit you and cast doubt on your ability to maintain a stable home and provide for Abby’s well being.”

“You make this sound like I’m the bad guy here.”

Sid followed the waitress with his gaze. “I’ll get you a drink.”

“I’m fine,” Leland lied. “Just tell me what I need to do.”

“I’m afraid it’s not that simple.”

Leland moved his chair closer to the table. “Why not?”

“Abby doesn’t share your DNA.”

Leland propped his arms on the table and leaned toward Sid. “What are you saying?”

“Biologically speaking, she’s not your daughter.”

“Like hell she’s not my daughter! She was born when I was married. I’ve raised her since she was a baby.”

“But you’re not her biological father. I reviewed the DNA results myself. Abuse allegations aside, Paula’s lawyer is going to argue that you have no custody rights. By law, Paula is Abby’s sole guardian.”

Leland slumped back in his chair, deflated. “You can’t be serious. The test results must be wrong. A lab mix up or something.”

“The odds are miniscule.”

Leland put his head in his hands. “This is ludicrous. I’m her father. I’ve always been her father. I can’t believe this is happening.”

“We’ll get through it.”

“How?”

“You do your job. I’ll do mine.”

“Meaning, what, exactly?”

Sid wiped his mouth with a napkin. “I’ll dig into Paula’s case some more. You need to stay gainfully employed. And avoid all contact with Paula or her attorney until I get this mess sorted out.”

Chapter78

Leland started his morning shower with his arms above his head, palms pressed flat against the tile above the faucet handle. Hot water sprayed his head and back, cascading down his lean torso and legs toward the gurgling drain at his feet. He lost track of how long he’d been standing in the steady stream, only knew that the water soothed his body and mind. He felt numb inside, a hollow shell nearly void of emotion, unable to process the truth Sid had conveyed to him. This time, no lyrics came to mind; no melody sad enough to follow him along his uncharted path.

He wanted someone to lean on. A partner who knew him better than he knew himself. Someone who could help him make sense of where his life was headed. “You want some company?” he heard Nicole ask outside the bathroom. Before he could answer, he found her naked in the water beside him with a washcloth in her hand. “It’s tight in here,” he complained, hoping she would dismiss herself and leave him to his solitary burden.

“Tight works for me. I’ll wash your back.”

“I’m good.”

Nicole poured shower gel on the wet washcloth and lathered Leland’s shoulders. “I couldn’t sleep.”

Leland dipped his head in the faucet stream when Nicole’s touch awakened his senses. “Me neither.”

“What did Sid have to say last night?”

“Not much.”

Nicole washed Leland’s lower back at the point right above his firm buttocks. “You’ll feel better if you talk about it.”

“I don’t feel like talking right now.”

“Then turn around so I can wash your front.”

Leland maneuvered to let the shower spray his backside. “I can’t do this,” he said when Nicole touched his penis.

“Not all of you agrees.”

Leland cupped her breast and kissed her, an impulsive reaction to a stimulating moment. But this time, he experienced nothing beyond his involuntary physical response. “I’m sorry.” He parried her hand and opened the sliding stall door to grab a towel from the rack beside the shower. Steam covered the vanity mirror above the sink.

“What’s the problem?”

Leland dried himself with a towel. “I’m not in the mood.”

“I thought you’d be happy to see me.”

“I have a lot on my mind.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means what it means. Paula’s trying to take Abby from me. My record label kicked me to the curb. Sid thinks I’ll never play a gig in Nashville again.” He put his jeans on and slipped a clean shirt over his head.

Nicole stopped the shower and got out to wrap a towel around herself. “What about your record deal?”

“My contract’s been terminated. There is no record deal.”

“They can’t do that.”

“They already have.”

“Then sign with someone else.”

“It’s not that simple.”

“You’ve paid your dues.”

“The record label owns the band. I was only along for the ride.”

“Then talk to Sid.”

“I already have.” Leland opened the bathroom door to let the steam escape. “He’s dropping me too.”

“He can’t do that!” Nicole draped her towel over the rack and slipped her bra and panties on. “What are you going to do?”

“Fight for custody of Abby.”

“What about your record deal?”

“I don’t care.”

“You can’t just throw your life away.”

“I’m not throwing anything away.”

“Then fight for this, Leland. No one’s going to hand you a better deal unless you get out there and press for it. If Sid won’t help you, then find an agent who will.”

“When the time is right.”

Nicole followed him around the bedroom and put her clothes on. “The time is now! You’ll never be happy swinging a hammer for ten bucks an hour.”

“Twelve-fifty. Plus overtime when I can get it.”

“You can barely make rent.”

“I’ll figure it out.”

Nicole snatched her bracelet from the dresser. “So that’s your master plan? Spend the rest of your life playing dirty honky-tonks for free pretzels and beer while some lowlife singer steals your slot with the band.”

“It was never my band to begin with.”

“You’re right,” Nicole said in a sarcastic tone. “I forgot. You gave it away when you blew your shot on a song you weren’t supposed to sing. And don’t tell me you wrote it for me.”

“I never said I did,” Leland replied, immune to Nicole’s mean-spirited response.

“You’re still in love with her.”

“What do you want me to say? Life isn’t some fairytale. You and I live on two different sides of the coin.”

Nicole grabbed her purse. “What happened to the man I used to know?”

“You don’t have to leave.”

“But you don’t want me to stay…”

Leland heard the front door slam. Instead of chasing Nicole, he retreated to his room and picked up his guitar. He played a melody to an instrumental piece he’d written while he ventured through the house to hear the way the notes sounded when they bounced off different walls. Eventually, he stopped outside Abby’s room to listen for signs of movement. “Are you up?” he asked through the door. He tried the knob and felt it turn in his hand. “It’s almost time,” he said before he entered her room and rested the guitar at the foot of her bed.

“I’m not going to camp today,” Abby mumbled with her face in her pillow. Across the room, her orange tabby stretched inside the open dresser drawer.

Leland leaned over the edge of the bed. “I have to be at work in a hour.”

Abby rolled over and brought her covers to her chin. “Why can’t I stay home with Nicole?”

“Nicole had to leave.”

“When is she coming back?”

“I’m not sure.”

“I heard you arguing with her.”

“I thought you were sleeping.”

Abby’s expression went solemn. “Why is Mom trying to take me away from you?”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“Is it true?”

“No one’s going to take you away from me.”

“Promise?”

Leland hesitated for a moment. “Promise.” He left the room and returned with a long cardboard tube. He opened one end and extracted a poster. “Check this out,” he said, unrolling the glossy photo of Taylor Swift on stage in concert. He smiled at Abby’s reaction when she read the autograph in the corner.

Abby hugged her arm around him and squeezed. “I thought you forgot!”

“I wanted to surprise you.”

“Thank you! You’re the best dad in the world!”