Enemy Among Us: Chapter 49

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

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

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

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

“It’s plausible.”

“Now what?”

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

* * *

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

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

“To see a friend.”

“Kriegel’s expecting us—”

“Fuck Kriegel. This case is personal now.”

“For whom?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who’s asking?”

“A friend.”

“You got a name?”

“McLeary. He knows who I am.”

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

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

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

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

“I need a favor.”

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

“Just hear me out.”

“Forget it.”

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

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

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

“And why should I trust you?”

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

“My father has many friends.”

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

“You sent my father to prison.”

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

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

“Your father betrayed himself.”

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

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

“By helping you?”

“By helping him.”

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

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

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

“He tried to kill us,” said Burns.

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

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

“Let me be the judge of that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enemy Among Us: Chapter 46

Doctor Beckman entered the FBI Director’s suite along Mahogany Row in a high-security floor of the headquarters building. She rolled her carry-on luggage behind her and had a laptop computer case slung over her shoulder. An array of security badges dangled around her neck. “I caught the red-eye,” she told the FBI Director, Dean Hoffnagle III, a short man of slight build and Italian descent with black hair and brown eyes a few shades darker than his cordovan shoes. “Candice Beckman from the CDC. It’s good to meet you.” She shook hands with the man dwarfed by his executive desk and glanced at the office decorated with diplomas and award plaques highlighting Dean Hoffnagle’s illustrious twenty-eight year career with the FBI.

“Thank you for greasing the skids to get here,” said Director Hoffnagle, with a stern expression and riveting eyes. “You know my Section Chief, Agent Kriegel, I presume.”

Before Doctor Beckman could reply, Kriegel entered the room as if on cue and closed the door. She noted he kept his distance from his superior. “I’m ready.”

Doctor Beckman unzipped her laptop case. She wore a muted smile to mask any hint of impropriety between herself and Kriegel. “Give me two minutes to set up—”

“That won’t be necessary,” said Director Hoffnagle. He closed the vertical blinds behind his desk.

Kriegel shut the door. “Doctor Beckman is a Chief Scientist with the CDC’s department of Emergency Preparedness and Response.”

“I’ve seen her resume, Agent Kriegel. That’s why she’s here.” Director Hoffnagle turned his attention to Doctor Beckman. “This meeting is classified at the SCI level. Anything we discuss in here, stays in here. Are we clear?”

“Yes Sir.”

“Now what can you tell me about this anthrax scare?”

“I can tell you it’s for real.” Doctor Beckman opened the front compartment of her carry-on luggage and withdrew a notepad with a CDC logo imprinted on the front. “Twenty-seven. That’s the number of hospitals I’ve contacted in the last forty-eight hours. Two hundred and twelve—the number of individuals now dead or dying from acute inhalation exposure to a weaponized anthrax strain of unknown origin.”

“Not exactly unknown,” Kriegel added. He pointed to the file on the Director’s desk. “My report cites—”

“I’ve read the report, Agent Kriegel. I’ve also been briefed by Homeland Security. There’s no correlation between your bank robberies and these anthrax incidents.”

“With all due respect…” Doctor Beckman cleared her throat. She looked to Kriegel for support. “I—we—believe there is a strong correlation between these robbery events and the recent anthrax outbreaks. Toxicology reports on our robbery victims show unusually high concentrations of anthrax spores, meaning that these people were in close proximity to an anthrax agent. The entire receptor population, those who could have come in contact with the anthrax before or after these robbery events, is unknown. Early symptoms are non-specific. There could be dozens or hundreds of more victims yet to be discovered. Depending on the level of exposure, the onset of symptoms can take days or weeks to present. Our area of infection could be greater due to migration of infected individuals.”

Director Hoffnagle leaned forward in his chair. He arched his eyebrows and stared at Kriegel from across the desk. “There’s no logic to your theory. People rob banks for money, not to launch poison gas attacks.”

“Canaries in a coal mine,” Doctor Beckman retorted. “These robberies were staged, not for the benefit of financial gain, but to test a new strain of anthrax, one we’ve never dealt with before. One that’s highly resistant to our antibiotic treatments. These are bioterrorists we’re talking about, not some street punks trying to score.”

“And what if you’re wrong?”

“In my professional opinion, these victims were guinea pigs. Rats in a twisted experiment designed to test the virulence of a new anthrax strain.”

Hoffnagle pondered Doctor Beckman’s assertion. “If that’s true, why aren’t our investigators sick or dying? There’s no mention in Kriegel’s report of any FBI or state law enforcement officials suffering from anthrax exposure.”

“Which doesn’t mean they aren’t. The incubation period varies from person to person. The amount of exposure, the rate of exposure, the health of the individual… These are just a few of the variables we’re dealing with. We’ve also administered anthrax vaccine to every field agent and support staff working this case—as a precautionary measure to safeguard our own people.”

“I still don’t buy your theory about using bank robberies to test an anthrax strain.”

Doctor Beckman recalled her slide presentation from memory. “In 1984 the Rajneeshee cult contaminated salad bars in Oregon as part of their scheme to prevent members of their own town from voting in a county election.”

“That was salmonella poisoning, doctor, not anthrax. The motive was election tampering, not murder.”

“Yes, but the cult still infected more than seven hundred people. Who’s to say Ahmed Abdullah’s not applying this concept on a larger scale?”

Kriegel took a memo from his classified folder. “The terrorist integration threat center faxed this yesterday. They’re correlating data between two terrorist cells, one operating in or around D.C. and the other out of Miami. The DEA is involved now as well as the Coast Guard and Homeland Security. We think these robberies were designed to disrupt our security strategy by planting specious leads on known terrorists and leaking faulty intelligence information to other agencies. We suspect Abdullah is behind this.”

“Abdullah’s been off our radar for months.”

“Sir, Doctor Beckman and I have reason to suspect something bigger is in the works. More wide-scale, possibly airborne. Up until now, Abdullah’s organization has been toying with us. Our monitoring and tracking systems have turned up nothing. Whatever poison they’re cooking up, they’re doing it quietly in-house. The latest incident report from the NIPC highlights a lot of chatter from radical jihad Muslims eager to promote their agenda.”

“Nothing new there, Agent Kriegel.”

“Maybe not,” Doctor Beckman interrupted. “Our data analysis from recent terrorist events in Pakistan, Indonesia, Kenya, Amsterdam, Kuwait, and Iran revealed a small-scale use of weapons-grade anthrax similar to the strain we’re dealing with locally—but not as potent.”

“You’re saying someone cooked up a batch of this shit overseas and had it imported?”

“Possibly. Or maybe someone developed the gene sequencing and sold the data to an unscrupulous buyer in our own back yard.”

“I hear a lot of ifs and maybes, Doctor Beckman. What’s your real take on this? Would an airborne anthrax attack—”

“With the right delivery mechanism, a few kilograms of dried powder could decimate a small population without warning.”

Hoffnagle stared at the blinds on his corner office window. “And you’re confident Ahmed Abdullah is our man, Agent Kriegel?”

“Yes.”

“Are you willing to bet your career on that?”

“Yes,” Kriegel answered resolutely. He tried to gauge the Director’s response. “The intel supports our conclusions.”

“And what about our little snafu with the DEA? This Ali Muheen you’ve been chasing is a ghost. How does he factor into your conclusions?”

“It’s not a perfect system.”

“Tell that to Agent Bryant’s parents and brother. I can’t have another joint task force operation literally blow up in our face again.”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Given everything you’ve uncovered so far, what do you really know about Abdullah’s plans? I thought we wiped his organization off the map.”

Doctor Beckman parted a strand of hair from her face. “You only cut off one head. Abdullah’s organization is wounded but not dead. If they’re planning to launch a massive bioweapon attack, the sooner we act the better. They’re perfecting weaponized pathogenic bacterium. Once airborne, the anthrax spores cross the epithelial lining of the lungs and travel to the lymph nodes. The spores germinate, multiply, and spread to other tissues, releasing toxins along the way. If you don’t succumb to massive hemorrhage or respiratory failure, the toxic shock will kill you. If these bioterrorists develop a viable delivery mechanism, there’s no telling how many people will die.”

“I appreciate your candor, Doctor Beckman, but you’re out of your league. This issue is a political powder keg. If the media gets a whiff of this, every Muslim in America will have a bullseye on his back. I don’t have to remind you it’s an election year.”

“With all due respect, you might not have an election year if these attacks progress. Four years ago ten grams of powdered anthrax sent in postage envelopes temporarily disrupted all three branches of the federal government and closed down congressional offices. The Sverdlovsk outbreak in ’79 had an eighty-six percent fatality rate from exposure to inhalation anthrax—with an average incubation period of five days. This more sophisticated version we’re dealing with now is defeating our antibiotics. Most of our victims are not responding to our present course of treatment. Our basic bioterror detection, diagnoses, and response capabilities are woefully unprepared to address this issue from a large scale perspective. We need help to develop a viable vaccine quickly and produce it in mass quantities. I have a research colleague at the Canadian Science Center who specializes in genomics. I’ve asked him to assist with developing a stronger course of antibiotic treatment to help us—”

“You’re telling me you’ve disclosed classified information?”

“I haven’t shared any specifics about this case. I’m simply operating on a research level as one scientist to another, trying to quickly solve a complicated problem with lethal consequences. If we don’t take measures to circumvent—”

“I share your sentiments, Doctor Beckman, but your arguments are tenuous at best. These worst-case bioterrorism scenarios are unlikely to happen. Not with unpredictable weather patterns, temperature controls, dispersion rates, spore concentration levels, and so on and so forth. We’ve been down this road before. Bioterrorism has always been a psychological weapon intended for political effect, not a springboard to Armageddon.”

Doctor Beckman pressed her hands on Hoffnagle’s desk, undaunted by his formidable bureau rank. “Well it’s a new dawn, Director! And we have a responsibility to do all we can to prevent, protect against, and respond to this threat. We need to act on our assumptions and the facts underpinning them. We’re dealing with a new generation of bioterrorist, one who doesn’t operate from autonomous cells. One who’s spent thirty years successfully practicing clandestine operations to perfect his craft. One who fancies himself a master of disguise. One who will continue killing innocent civilians to advance his personal agenda.”

“I appreciate your candor, Doctor Beckman, as well as your keen insight into this investigation.”

“Do you? Because these men won’t stop. You might extinguish their operations in Afghanistan or Yemen or Chechnya or Tajikistan. But when you pull back the rug you’ll find sleeper cells in London, New York, D.C., Miami… You’re not dealing with a rogue terrorist, you’re dealing with a highly disciplined international group with educated leaders who promote self-sacrifice and reverence for their cause. These men hold ideological, political, and financial controls over other terrorist organizations. Until 9/11, only fourteen terrorist attacks killed more than a hundred people in the entire twentieth century. These men believe everything happens according to God’s will. If they believe the defeat of America is God’s will, they will engage in mass casualty terrorism to achieve their desired result. Your anti-terrorism task force won’t defeat them by traditional means.”

She reached for her rollaway luggage and thought about the issue some more. “Have you even read my report?”

Hoffnagle stood up with his chest out and his shoulders back. He’d gone toe-to-toe with civilians before, but never with one as irritating and persistent as Doctor Beckman. “I didn’t rise to this position on my good looks and charm. I can tell you that religious fanaticism is not necessarily the driving force among all terrorists. And I know a thing or two about bioweapon manufacturing. There are more than seventy different strains of Bacillus anthracis, Doctor Beckman. Abdullah would have to isolate a specific strain and develop a workable plan for mass production. This can’t happen in the back of a van or the roof over Joe Blow’s garage. It takes sophisticated equipment and highly specialized knowledge.”

“Who says Abdullah doesn’t have the tools and the know-how to use them? Who says terrorists don’t kidnap consultants and extort their knowledge?” She reached in her briefcase and slapped a report on Hoffnagle’s desk. “Read the top of page two.”

Hoffnagle flashed a searing glance at Kriegel and snatched the four-page memo. He flipped the cover sheet and skimmed the first paragraph. “How did you get this?”

Doctor Beckman sighed impatiently. “We’ve already traced one infection to an anthrax strain developed under Project Coast, one of forty-six anthrax strains South African scientists genetically engineered to kill opponents of the apartheid regime. The strain’s designed to mimic the flu and evade detection. It’s also highly contagious and environmentally persistent.”

“I’m well aware of Project Coast, Doctor Beckman. The program was dismantled in ’93. The pathogens you speak of were destroyed.”

“Are you willing to bet your career on that?”

The Director shoved the memo back. “Was there anything else, Doctor?”

Kriegel cleared his throat and stepped forward. “Our missing mole, Fayez Sayeed, is still at large. He has family in the United States and ties to other terrorist organizations overseas. He also holds a private pilot’s license.”

Enemy Among Us: Chapter 43

Kriegel scribbled on a whiteboard in the federal joint task force office, his back turned toward a dozen agents dressed in black camouflage with bullet proof vests, light body armor, and carrying gas masks. He wrote the name Ali Muheen in red letters beneath an eight-by-ten photo and underlined it twice. Then he put the cap on the whiteboard marker and slammed it on the table for attention. “Listen up folks,” he told the team as Agent Burns entered the room. “We want this man alive. He may hold the key to something bigger and more sinister than a dope dealer selling drugs. Keep your masks on and your eyes open.” He drew a short breath through pursed lips. “Our wiretap confirms our target is still inside, probably armed and will not hesitate to end your life by any and all means at his disposal. Blue Team, you’ll take the front entrance and hit the door. Green Team, you’ll cover the stairs and the elevator exits. The chopper will cover the roof. Miami PD will have a SWAT team in place to support our ground forces. Any questions?”

“Has the presence of anthrax in the apartment been confirmed?”

“No. We have no way to know for certain without compromising our element of surprise. You’ll wear the masks for precautionary measures.”

Another agent in the back raised his hand. “What about collateral damage?”

“We’ve made contact with as many residents as we can. There will no doubt be civilians in other parts of the building. Do not fire at Muheen’s men unless fired upon. This is a paint by numbers operation. Stick to the plan we rehearsed.”

“Have we confirmed how many men are inside?” asked another agent.

“We believe there are at least three men inside, possibly more.” Kriegel scanned the room for hands. “Anyone else? All right then. Let’s hit this hard and fast.” He pointed to Agent Bryant who stood by Burns, loading 9mm rounds in his clip. “Agent Bryant will take point, but I will be in constant radio contact with each team. Unless you hear myself or Agent Bryant call no joy, this thing rolls on. Are we clear?”

A dozen men nodded in unison and exited the room single file. When the room emptied, Kriegel approached Bryant and Burns. “Where the hell is McLeary?”

“We don’t need him,” said Bryant.

Burns checked her watch. “For our sake, I hope you’re right.”

* * *

McLeary sipped his coffee behind a booth at an empty Waffle House off Interstate 95. Alone in his thoughts, he rebuffed a waitress’s undivided attention. Without glancing in her direction, he could sense her making eyes at him as she pranced behind the counter and pretended to keep busy while the cook scrubbed the grill with a black griddle sponge.

McLeary set his coffee down and wiped his mouth with a napkin. He’d inhaled a golden brown waffle with butter and extra syrup, along with a plate of scrambled eggs and bacon to curb an appetite that had gnawed at him like a tape worm. Against his better judgment, he’d left his boys on the trawler alone. He’d called in a favor from a friend at the Sheriff’s Office and asked for extra patrols outside the marina entrance—an act to appease his own conscience as much as protect Seth and Brian. With Kriegel in charge of the investigation, he had other things to worry about—like whether or not Ali Muheen was actually dead. And if so, who was impersonating him and why? He kept the pieces of the puzzle sorted in his mind, unable to assemble the framework let alone start to fill in the gaps. The anthrax motive seemed obvious, along with the desire to kill innocent civilians. But the botched bank robberies didn’t fit. A terrorist faction wouldn’t go to such lengths to make a statement without a hidden agenda. There was something bigger in the hopper, waiting like a monster in the closet for a chance to show its ugly face.

He paid his tab with a fat tip and left. Aside from his contempt for Kriegel, Burns posed another issue. A G-man in a woman’s body, she fit the profile of a textbook agent trying to climb the bureau ladder by engaging in increasingly perilous assignments with the hope that her superiors would take notice and commend her with a nice promotion. She had heart, and she had guts. But she lacked perspective. The kind of vision she’d never find working under Kriegel’s thumb. Not unlike those who’d come before her, throwing themselves in harm’s way to earn points with bureau management, she would soon confront a stark reality: the bad guys shoot back.

* * *

Agent Bryant admired Burns from across the room. He could summon the nerve to kick a door down. He could spar with guys twice his size and twice as strong. He could hold his own in the line of fire. But he couldn’t find the nerve to ask her out a second time without feeling like he was setting himself up for another rejection. He had confidence in himself and his abilities, yet at times he faltered when it came to women, especially beautiful women who carried a gun and a badge.

Burns approached him, holding her gas mask by the straps. “Do you think we’ll really need these?”

Bryant stood tall with his shoulders back and his chest puffed out, striking the pose of a rooster about to forge his way inside a hen house. “You up for this?” he asked. Nice, Dean. Great line. What a way to win her over.

“I’m ready,” said Burns, blushing at the way Agent Bryant looked at her. She knew deep down she felt more terrified than she ever had in her career. Working under cover in vice busting perps on the street proved dangerous at times, but nothing more hazardous than she could handle. She’d learned from the best at the FBI academy. More discipline; sharper self-defense techniques; firearms training for close-quarters combat; evasive driving maneuvers. Her training also taught her to handle irate suspects and to use her speed and agility to overcome larger, more heavily-armed adversaries in the field. Moreover, she’d learned mental sharpness, honing the skills she’d practiced in high-pressure situations, where split-second decisions meant the difference between going home in one piece or riding to the morgue in a body bag.

Bryant fiddled with his gas mask. “Listen, I know what you said before about having a job to do, but I was hoping―”

“Where the hell have you been?” Burns shouted at a disheveled McLeary who strolled through the double doors beyond the guard station at the building entrance. “Kriegel’s pissed.”

“Where is he?”

“The war room. We go live in three minutes.”

Bryant put his hands on his hips. An H&K MP5 submachine gun was suspended from a strap around his armored shoulder pad. “You missed the ops briefing,” he told McLeary.

“I’ve heard it before.”

“I thought guys like you were extinct?”

“I thought the DEA had a minimum age requirement.”

“Save it!” said Burns, physically inserting herself between the two men. “We’ve got a job to do.”

McLeary brandished his .45 and pulled the slide back to chamber the first round. He’d seen too many cases unravel and too many men injured or killed in the line of duty because someone in the chain of command ignored him. “We should stand down. Reevaluate the situation.” He slid his gun inside his holster and buckled the handle strap. “This thing is bigger than any of us want to admit.”

“Good thing you’re not in charge,” said Kriegel, approaching from the war room with two agents at his side.

“You need to call this off,” said McLeary.

“You need to get out of my way.”

“You’re putting men at risk without assessing all the facts.”

“Don’t undermine my authority, McLeary. This operation has been weeks in the making. The fact that you’re late to the party is your problem, not ours.”

“You won’t find Ali Muheen in there.”

“Then we’ll take down the men who work for him. One way or another, I’m going to pull the plug on these anthrax attacks.” He checked his watch. “Are you in or out?”

McLeary grabbed a gas mask from an equipment stash on a table and followed the team to the unmarked van outside.

* * *

McLeary rode with highly-trained operators carrying night vision goggles, flash-bang grenades, and enough firepower to bring down Godzilla. The decision to move ahead despite his objections exemplified the Kriegel he knew and loathed. He would keep his eyes in the back of his head and stay within arm’s reach of Agent Burns, who despite her corrosive attitude, had begun to appear more prominently in his thoughts. “I’m sorry,” he said to her, seated across the aisle in the van. “About the other night…”

“Forget it,” Burns replied. She pulled her gas mask over her head as the red cabin light signaled the van’s arrival at the scene.

McLeary jumped out and followed the Blue Team members inside Ali Muheen’s apartment building. He moved stealthily up the staircase with his gas mask on and his weapon locked and loaded. Flanked by other agents with the letters DEA displayed on the back of their yellow jackets, he followed Kriegel’s team leader. He kept the muzzle pointed at the ground with the safety off and his finger on the trigger guard, climbing two steps at a time to the ninth floor entrance. He followed Agent Bryant single file down the hall and waited for him to give the signal as the team gathered outside Muheen’s apartment door.

“We’re in position,” Bryant whispered, his voice crystal clear over the radio channel in Kriegel’s van.

“Copy that,” Kriegel answered. “Blue Team in position,” he informed the other units monitoring the covert frequency.

“Red Team in position.”

“Skybird good to go,” the chopper pilot acknowledged.

Agent Bryant used hand signals to communicate with the men behind him.

Another agent carried the heavy metal battering ram and swung it hard in a pendulum motion to break through the deadbolt mechanism and bust the door open.

Agent Bryant lobbed a stun grenade inside the apartment.

A loud boom sent a shock wave through the small foyer quickly filling with smoke.

“Go go go!” Bryant ordered.

A throng of federal agents charged inside and scanned the room for hostile targets.

McLeary kept Burns in sight, panning his gun to clear the room of any threats.

“Clear!” a team member shouted from the kitchen entrance while another inspected the empty bathroom hallway.

“Over here,” Burns ordered, standing outside a locked bedroom door.

“DEA!” Bryant shouted through his gas mask filter. Without hesitation, he reared his leg back and kicked the door open with his size twelve boot.

“Hands where I can see them!” he ordered the Middle Eastern man praying on a carpet runner with a copy of the Koran on the floor beside him. Shrouded in a wool blanket, the bearded man remained steadfast in his commitment to finish what he’d started in spite of the loaded guns pointed at him.

Burns filed in behind another colleague.

“Ali Muheen?” said Bryant, comparing the man’s face to the photo in his PDA. “Are you Ali Muheen?”

The bearded man lowered his face to the ground with his palms flat against the carpet. He mumbled to himself, acknowledging no one but the God he prayed to.

Bryant opened the Velcro pouch on his chest and withdrew a syringe and a portable DNA analyzer. He pushed his knee in the suspect’s back and plunged the needle in his arm. He inserted the bloody tip in the device and activated the unit.

Kriegel’s voice came over the radio channel. “Blue Team what’s your status?”

Bryant stared at the analyzer, waiting for the readout to display a comparison. “We have one subject in custody. Unarmed. All clear. Waiting for positive ID.” Two minutes later, he shook the analyzer when he read the negative result. “Negative,” he told Kriegel. “No match. He’s not our guy.”

“Copy that, Blue Team Leader.”

Bryant stood up and nudged the suspect with his boot. “Who are you?” He glanced at Burns before he took a plastic handcuff strap and secured the man’s wrists behind his back. “Get up!” he ordered, lifting the suspect by one arm as a second agent pulled the blanket away and revealed the suicide vest secured around his chest.

The man spit on Bryant’s mask and bit down on the wireless transmitter in his mouth.

“GET DOWN!” McLeary shouted, shoving Burns outside the room before a deafening blast rocked the floor with enough explosive force to blow a crater-size hole in the outside wall and splash the apartment with severed limbs and bloody chunks of human flesh.

Enemy Among Us: Chapter 40

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

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

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

McLeary shook her hand. “Doctor.”

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

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

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

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

“Who is he?” asked McLeary.

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

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

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

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

“Smuggle what?” asked Agent Bryant.

“I’ll get there in a moment.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kriegel nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What message?”

“Something about a magical kingdom.”

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

“I just did.”

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

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

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

“My gut,” said McLeary.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You mean our investigation,” said Burns.

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

McLeary read the charts on screen. “Translation?”

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

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

“Are we at risk?” asked McLeary.

“The probability is low.”

“How low?” asked Burns.

“I can’t give an exact figure.”

“What does that mean?”

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

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

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

“But it’s possible…”

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

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

“It’s one scenario.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Like the Ames and Vollum strains?”

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

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

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

“What about unknown anthrax strains?”

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

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

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

Enemy Among Us: Chapter 37

An hour before sunrise, forty-nine year old Candice Beckman jogged south along the bike path between George Washington Parkway and the Potomac River in Alexandria, Virginia. Through the rising fog above the water, she could barely see the traffic bottled up on the Woodrow Wilson bridge spanning the Maryland and Virginia borders. Her run was her confidant. The morning, her sanctuary from the craziness she endured in an average work day.

In an effort to combat high cholesterol and keep the weight of her six-foot frame at one hundred and thirty pounds, she followed the same exercise regiment every morning. Rising at zero-five-hundred to yawn and stretch, then out by zero-five-thirty for a five-mile run, followed by a bowl of bran cereal and a sliced banana with orange juice.

Divorced at age forty from a husband who’d left her to spend his life with another man, she’d adapted well to the single lifestyle, swapping years of bad marriage for a newfound sense of self. Her work at the Centers for Disease Control had become her companion; one who didn’t care if she slept in on Sundays or never set foot in the kitchen.

A Ph.D. student by the age of twenty-one, she’d completed her doctoral dissertation on viral nerve agents by age twenty-six and spent the next several years floundering from one research project to the next until she landed a job as a senior pathologist with the CDC. Now a GS-15 with a healthy salary and a pension to fall back on, she had money to spare and no husband to support. Life was good but lonely. Her days of bar-hopping and speed dating long gone, she’d resigned herself to occasional flirtations with an on-line date, pretending the hunk she imagined on the other end was a lonely gentleman with honest intentions and not a horny pervert too cheap to buy her dinner.

At the end of her second mile, she checked her pulse on the wrist-mounted monitor and started back toward home along a different path to add some distance to her run. Jogging north, she kept her arms at her sides with occasion to glance at the river to the east, where a harbor patrol boat accelerated from a distance and followed her along the shallow banks. Then as if the voice of God bellowed from the sky above, she heard her name called out, followed by a flash of blue light as the Coast Guard signaled her from the water’s edge.

“Doctor Beckman,” the Coast Guard officer blared through a megaphone.

Doctor Beckman ran in place, cupping her hand above her forehead to shield her eyes from the blinding spotlight turned upon her.

“Sorry to disturb you, Ma’am, but headquarters asked us to bring you in.”

“At this hour?”

“Yes Ma’am. There’s been an incident. Code yellow.”

Doctor Beckman reached for her beeper and realized she’d left it on the table at home.

* * *

Inside the quiet office space at Ft. Belvoir Hospital, Doctor Beckman stared through a transparent, plastic hood, leading a four-person HAZMAT team dressed in positive pressure suits with self-contained air supplies and chemical-resistant gloves and boots. She moved with slow, deliberate motions inside the protective covering she jokingly referred to as her martian suit.

She’d responded to dozens of similar events in her career, but something about this one seemed different, more ominous than the others. Despite the talent on her team, poor timing and bad judgment by a physician she’d never met left her in charge of a biohazard containment operation beyond the scope of any domestic outbreak herself or her team had seen before.

She entered the office of Doctor Lewis and held a portable air analyzer in front of her. “So far so good,” she spoke into her headset microphone.

“Not for this poor bastard,” a colleague, confidant, and senior scientist said, touching his gloved hand to the back of the deceased doctor’s neck. Flies buzzed above the corpse, where a puddle of body fluid accumulated beneath the chair. “State of decomp suggests he’s been dead for at least a couple days.”

Doctor Beckman eased the doctor’s head off the keyboard and moved the mouse to deactivate the screen saver. She scrolled up the screen and read the e-mail message he’d prepared but never sent. “Who found the body?”

“Custodial worker. We’ve got him quarantined with the others.”

“How many all together?”

“Thirty-five so far.”

Doctor Beckman moved a pile of folders on the desk, pushing pages of a medical journal with her finger. “I want a list of every person who’s been in contact with this doctor over the last four weeks. Every patient, every nurse, every doctor he’d consulted.”

The senior scientist read the e-mail display. “Do you think this is accurate?”

Doctor Beckman recalled the previous victims she’d found and the bodies she’d examined in the morgue. “I think it’s plausible. Either way, I’m not taking any chances.”

* * *

Kriegel paced outside the ambulatory entrance, where Doctor Beckam and her team had entered the building. Beyond him, a road block sealed off the major side streets clogged with reporters who lingered outside their news vans. From his vantage point, he could see Doctor Beckman remove her chemical protection suit before she passed through an airlock channel to reenter the decontaminated atmosphere. “Candice,” he called out.

Doctor Beckman greeted Kriegel with a smile. “What brings you here, Agent Kriegel?”

“I heard you shut down the hospital. This place is crawling with press. Rumors are flying about a weaponized Ebola scare. The FBI Director wants answers.”

Doctor Beckman opened a bottle of hand sanitizer and rubbed a dollop through her hands. “That’s why I’m here.” She strolled with Agent Kriegel to the portable FBI command center inside a converted RV and helped herself to a cup of black coffee. “I’ve got good news and not so good news.”

Kriegel frowned. “Just give it to me straight.”

“The good news is we’re not dealing with Ebola virus.”

“And the not so good part?”

“We could be dealing with a form of weaponized anthrax.”

“Anthrax?”

“It gets worse. Based on what we found in there, we’re not facing a garden-variety strain. It appears the anthrax spores have been refined, and their particle size reduced as a fine powder for more effective dispersion. I’ll know more once we run our test samples through the lab.”

Kriegel gnashed his teeth, fighting a migraine in a holding pattern with an ulcer requesting permission to land. “Contact Fort Detrick. I want the Army Medical Research Institute involved.”

“What has any of this got to do with your robbery investigation?”

“Maybe nothing. Maybe everything. I need all the information you can give me on everything you find in there. No detail is insignificant. I need your first string players on this one.”

“You have them.”

“What else can you tell me?”

“We’ve found thirty-five dead so far. There might be more. I have another team searching the hospital.”

“Is this contained?”

“To some extent. Right now we still don’t know the magnitude of what we’re dealing with.”

“What about treatment protocols?”

“We’re working on it. There’s a triage unit in place. We’ll do more as we know more.”

“How soon until the lab results come in?”

“Soon.”

“I’ll need a copy of your incident report as soon as you can get it to me.”

“You’ll have it,” Doctor Beckman reassured him. “But do me a favor, first….”

“What?”

“Smile for me.”

Kriegel touched her hand, his face a stony image of concentration. “I never see you downtown anymore.”

“I’m around. You just have to know where to look.”

Enemy Among Us: Chapter 32

Kriegel stared out the hospital’s ninth floor window overlooking the ground below. In the darkness, a dizzying array of blue strobe lights reflected off a dozen police and emergency response vehicles. “What the hell happened here?”

“We’re on it,” Burns replied, standing beside McLeary. She had blood spatter on her face. “Local PD’s got a man on every rooftop with a clear line of sight.”

Kriegel stepped away from the window and examined the victim’s pillow, speckled with skull fragments, pulpy tissue, and streaks of brain matter. An open handcuff dangled from the hospital bed handrail. “Did they find the shooter’s nest?”

“Not yet. It happened fast. I was going to bring you up to speed as soon as we—”

“Save it, Burns. I’m here now.” Kriegel focused a penlight on the floor and walls. “Did this corpse have a name?”

“Rodney Nito,” said McLeary. “We pulled his rap sheet. He was a two-time loser with a hobby of jacking cars. He did a three-year stint in Attica. No ties to any members on our watchlist or anyone associated with the Aryan Brotherhood.”

“Attica? That’s Gordon Gentry’s alma matter. Any other connection between this guy and the Chase Bank robbery?”

“We’re still exploring,” said Burns. “Someone wanted Nito dead. Someone with a sniper rifle and the skills to use it.”

“Any nut-job with a hunting rifle and a scope could have made the shot,” Kriegel argued. “I want to know who killed him and why.”

McLeary watched Burns wipe her face with a tissue while Kriegel gnawed the end of an unlit cigar. He thought about Kriegel’s arrogance and how he carried himself. The man was poison in an open flask, waiting to contaminate an unsuspecting person like Agent Burns who blindly followed him.

“You still with us?” Kriegel barked, aiming the penlight at McLeary’s face.

“Nito’s crew wasn’t after the money,” said McLeary, turning his head away.

“Have you been drinking on the job?”

“They never intended to steal the credit union cash. They wanted to test the vault’s biometric scanner.”

“Bullshit McLeary. I’ve seen the surveillance tape. They went for the teller stations just like the first four jobs. This time they got greedy and tried to tap the safe.”

“There’s more to it.”

Kriegel clipped his penlight in his shirt pocket. “And you know this how?”

“A hunch.”

Burns looked out the splintered window. A police helicopter circled with its spotlight pointed at the building across the street. “Who else knew Rodney Nito was here?”

“That’s the first intelligent question I’ve heard all night, Agent Burns. I suggest you find out. Interview every doctor, nurse, admin assistant, and janitor who knew about the patient in this room. I want to know why Rodney Nito was targeted—and I want the shooter in custody.”

McLeary rummaged his mental Rolodex. “What more do we know about Ali Muheen and his involvement in these robberies?”

“That’s what you’re going to find out. I want you and Burns in Miami for a meeting with our friends at the drug enjoyment agency. They’ve had Ali Muheen under surveillance for a month.”

“A month?” said McLeary. “And you’re just telling us now?”

“I was apprised of their operation a few hours ago.”

Burns turned away from the window and looked at Kriegel. “So what’s our next move?”

“Find out what the DEA has uncovered on Muheen and any connection between himself, Gordon Gentry, and this Rodney Nito.”

* * *

McLeary followed Kriegel and Burns through the swarm of reporters gathered outside the hospital. Greeted by cameras and microphones, the three marched beyond the media circus with a terse “no comment” from Kriegel.

“Who’s our point of contact when we land?” Burns asked Kriegel.

“He’ll find you.” Kriegel pointed to his cheek then back at Burns. High velocity blood spatter dotted the side of her neck. “Get yourself cleaned up first.”

Burns touched her face. “Looks like we’re headed south,” she told McLeary.

McLeary dug his vibrating phone from his pocket. “So is this investigation…” He flipped it open and pressed it to his ear. “McLeary.”

“Don’t talk, just listen,” said a sullen voice altered through a vocal distorter. “Nod if you can hear me.”

McLeary turned away from Burns nonchalantly and scanned the tops of several surrounding buildings. He nodded slowly.

“Muheen is dead. Decrypt the Blackberry.”

“Who are you?” McLeary whispered as the call abruptly ended.

“Who was that?” asked Burns.

McLeary followed the crowd of reporters with his eyes. “Wrong number.”

* * *

Standing inside the Dulles International Airport, McLeary gazed at the 757 parked at the terminal, with the jet’s ducted fan blades spinning slowly inside the engine cowling mounted beneath the starboard wing. As the plane was pushed back, he focused on the cone at the center of the spinning blades, producing an almost hypnotic circular motion as the blades spun to draw air into the gas compression stage, where intense pressure and heat would produce the requisite thrust at takeoff to launch the massive plane into the air.

He estimated the number of blades spinning around the impeller’s shaft, multiplying their estimated surface area by the number of revolutions per minute to calculate potential air flow between idle and full-throttle settings.

He watched the plane push back from the gate as Burns approached him from the snack bar with a magazine and a fresh pack of gum.

“You look tired,” said Burns, handing McLeary the sugarless gum he’d requested.

“I’m good.”

“What’s your take on the DEA? Do you think they’ll let us play in their sandbox?”

“I wouldn’t bet on it.”

Burns watched the 757 roll away from the terminal and rubbed the bruise on her elbow. She stuck her hand in her jacket pocket and withdrew an envelope with the initials JM on the flap. She nudged McLeary in the arm with the paper. “This is yours.”

“What?”

“Your paycheck. Don’t lose it. The first two are live until direct deposit kicks in, assuming you’re around long enough to collect it.”

McLeary took the envelope and examined the check. Living frugal for so long, the concept of money seemed almost useless to him. He folded the check and scribbled H a p p y H o l i d a y s. He studied the simple words, recalling a mathematical encryption algorithm he’d learned in a graduate mathematics course taught by a five-foot tall Chinese professor with bad teeth and a propensity to smear chalk dust on the back of his pants. “Happy Holidays.”

“What are you talking about?”

“A message I found on Gordon Gentry’s Blackberry. Happy Holidays. It means something… It’s encrypted. Substitution, transposition. Caesar cipher. Monoalphabetic ciphers. Limited permutation of alphabetic characters.”

“Are you high?”

“We need a way to decrypt it.”

“Gordon Gentry is dead. I doubt the message is of any significance to us now.”

“We don’t know that,” said McLeary.

“The bureau needs you to stop bank robbers. Not dive into every rabbit hole you come across.”

“I’m going to Quantico. Alone.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Tonight.”

“Kriegel wants us in Miami.”

“Kriegel’s a fool.”

“Maybe, but he’s still the boss in charge.”

McLeary walked away. “Thanks for the gum.”

Burns started to follow him, then reconsidered in mid-stride. She had McLeary pegged from the start: a loaner with a shady past and an uncertain future; a man with no one to go home to and nothing to live for but the job; a man who would say or do anything to further his personal agenda, no matter how much it jeopardized his career. “What am I supposed to tell Kriegel?”

“Tell him to go pound sand.”

“He’ll be all over your ass for this.”

McLeary kept walking. “Good. Then I’ll know where to find him.”

Enemy Among Us: Chapter 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 22

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

“Are you waiting for a table?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not anymore.”

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

“I’ll pass.”

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

“You’re a fast learner.”

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

McLeary finished his beer. “Are we done?”

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

“Good night, Agent Burns.”

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

“Sorry Sweat Pea. That ship has sailed.”

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

“Kriegel’s an idiot.”

* * *

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

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

“That’s it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He knew enough to end up dead.”

“You’re assuming his death was intentional.”

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

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

“Are you really that shallow, McLeary?”

“Do Boy Scouts shit in the woods?”

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

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

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

“Not a chance, Sweet Pea.”

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

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

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

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

“No thanks.”

“You think you can handle it?”

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

* * *

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

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

“How did you get in here?”

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

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

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

“Perhaps this is not the time or place?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He spoke to no one.”

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

“Six months ago.”

“You let Caucasians work here?”

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

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

“Quickly, please.”

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

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

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

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

The dish washer shrugged and kept working.

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

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

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

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

“No INS?”

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

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

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

The dish washer nodded. “Yes.”

“When?”

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

“What about?”

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

“Did you see the license plate?”

“No.”

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

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

“Muheen was here.”

“When?”

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

McLeary examined a broken Blackberry phone with a busted screen.

“Where’d you find that?”

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

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

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

Enemy Among Us: Chapter 13

Dressed in a double-breasted suit with polished Johnston & Murphy wingtips and a gold tie tack to match his cuff links, Arthur Stevens III waited inside the lobby of the lending institution. A fifty-eight-year-old branch manager of the Navy Federal Credit Union and retired intelligence officer, Arthur managed his armored car deliveries the way he managed his morning staff meetings: on time and to the point. Get in. Get out. Get on with the day.

Frustrated at the thought of wasting time and money, he found himself short on both accounts, checking his watch to note the armored transport lagged ten minutes behind schedule. Someone’s head will roll, he told himself as the carefully choreographed schedule slipped away on account of unreliable employees who’d slept in late, rescheduled routes without advance notice, found themselves lost in traffic, or all of the above. The incompetence grated on his nerves with every passing second he stood at the credit union entrance, debating the ripple effect their tardiness would have on the rest of his day.

If his schedule fell behind at work, his life fell behind at home. Everything on his calendar had a time and place assigned accordingly. One disruption and everything would come unraveled.

He pulled his PDA from his jacket pocket and touched the screen to activate the electronic planner. He nudged his glasses and focused on his calendar, oblivious to the two men in gas masks about to enter the credit union and drive a stake in his already shitty morning.

Before he could even think about pressing the silent alarm, a flash grenade exploded with a deafening BOOM.

Pistol-whipped and dragged backward with a gas mask pressed over his face, Arthur stared in shock through the eyeholes, dazed and confused by the whirlwind attack that hit him like a train coming out of the dark. A second later, he saw bank patrons and employees collapsing on the floor, the space surrounding them filled with greenish smoke.

He stumbled blindly toward the back of the room, escorted with physical force to the closed vault, where a retinal scanner protruded from the wall.

He touched the gas mask on his face, his eyes darting wildly back and forth. “Please don’t kill me!”

“Face the wall!” the first robber shouted at Arthur. He fired a warning shot to make his point.

“Thirty seconds!” an accomplice announced as he pilfered stacks of cash from the teller drawers.

“Type the pass code,” the first robber ordered Arthur. “And do it right the first time. No games.”

Arthur faced the retinal scanner with a gun to the back of his head, his vision obscured by the plastic eye holes in the gas mask. He touched the keypad and entered the six-digit code.

“Hold still…”

Arthur watched the retinal scanner display a red LED on the panel beside the ten-inch-thick vault door. Infrared light beamed his mask’s eye piece, partially penetrating his cornea in an effort to illuminate the pattern of blood vessels at the back of his eye.

“One minute,” the second robber shouted from the last teller drawer.

“It isn’t working,” the first robber replied. He pushed Arthur’s face closer to the scanner. “It won’t read his eye through the mask.”

“Then take it off.”

“He’ll pass out.”

The second robber gathered his satchel with cash. He pulled a commando knife from the sheath on his belt. “Then I’ll cut his eye out and hold it up.”

“It won’t work without proof of life.”

“We’re out of time.”

The first robber tugged at Arthur’s mask. “Hold your breath when I take this off, or your head’s coming with it.”

Arthur closed his mouth before the mask came off his head. Smoke attacked his eyes and nasal cavity. Tearing uncontrollably, he fought the blinking reflex. But the burning sensation intensified, prompting his tear ducts to accelerate their defenses against the foreign airborne substance.

“It isn’t working!”

Police sirens wailed in the distance.

“I… can’t… see,” Arthur stammered, inhaling enough contaminant to render himself unconscious.

“Time’s up!” the second robber insisted, his voice diminished through the tight-fitting mask. “Someone must have tipped the cops before I cut the alarm.”

“I want the vault!”

“Fuck the vault! We can split with what we have or spend the next twenty years in prison fighting over what we don’t.”

* * *

“Watch out!” Burns shouted, bracing herself against the Mustang’s padded door panel as the car raced toward the armored truck heading the wrong direction down a one-way street.

With the weight of a rolling tank, the steel-plated truck bulldozed through a gridlocked intersection, side-swiping a Toyota Camry and a new Mini Cooper before tearing the back bumper from a Cadillac DeVille and spinning it like a Match Box car.

McLeary swerved the supercharged Mustang toward the sidewalk, clipping a parking meter with enough force to launch it through a storefront window.

“Go around him and cut him off!” Burns directed from the passenger seat.

“I’m trying!”

Burns drew her service pistol. “Try harder.” She held her arm out the window, her aim bouncing wildly with the car’s erratic motion.

“I wouldn’t do that,” McLeary warned her, down-shifting to accelerate hard in lower gear.

Burns fired two shots at the truck’s rear tires before a street sign smacked her gun away, nearly taking her arm with it. “Shit!”

“Told you.”

“Get off the sidewalk!”

McLeary squeezed through an opening in traffic to chase the armored truck toward the Key Bridge, spanning the Potomac River between Virginia and D.C. “Hold on!”

“Give me your gun.”

“Stay down!”

Burns grabbed the handle above the window frame. “McLeary!”

McLeary watched the armored truck force a motorcycle off the road, sending the driver over the handlebars like a trapeze performer. He gunned the engine and weaved through traffic until an accident at the bridge blocked his path. With no space to maneuver, he jammed the transmission in park and jumped out. “Stay here!”

Burns followed McLeary on foot to pursue the armored vehicle bulldozing its way through stalled traffic, her track star legs propelling her over the bridge as the driver rammed the guard rail and plunged toward the murky Potomac river, smashing into the freezing water nose-first.

McLeary looked over the bridge to see the back of the truck swing open with an automatic rifle pointed at him. “Get down!”

He tackled Burns to the ground as a flurry of gunfire erupted.

Bullets ricocheted off the iron railing.

Burns pushed McLeary off her. “Move!”

McLeary waited for the shooter to reload. Then he fired a volley of .45 ACP at the target near the water, nailing the robber in the upper torso.

“McLeary!” Burns yelled, as bullets pinged the railing beside her from another shooter running across the bridge with a duffle bag around his shoulder.

McLeary turned sideways and fired his last round at the suspect who toppled forward in the distance, hobbled on one leg, and disappeared in snarled traffic. He ejected the spent clip and swapped it with a fresh one. “Are you hit?” he asked Burns, observing the wild-eyed expression on her face.

Burns shook her head, trembling from the adrenaline rush. “I don’t think so.”

“Then call for backup. This guy’s not getting away from me.” He pressed the slide release to chamber the first round and stared in disbelief at a uniformed officer pointing a gun at him.

“Drop it!” a Virginia State Trooper ordered McLeary and Burns. He held his service revolver in a three-point stance while another officer came around him.

McLeary laid his .45 on the pavement, gently, so as not to scratch the finish. “Don’t shoot, dumbass. We’re the good guys.”