At 0430 hours, Special Agent Carl Rollins used one arm to climb a steel rung ladder beneath a manhole opening. In his other arm, he carried a cardboard drink holder with two cups of hot coffee procured from a Starbuck’s around the corner and covertly transported from an underground utility service conduit.
He moved with grace and uncanny balance for a man his size, careful not to spill on his shirt as he climbed the vertical shaft from the underground tunnel to the road above. He emerged through an opening in the floor of a windowless work van with ladder racks and an orange safety cone mounted on the front bumper post. Positioned a conspicuous distance from the home of Martha Anne Sayeed, the van sat near an old diesel Mercedes sedan and a Toyota Tundra with a black camper top, the latter owned by the Department of Homeland Security—and loaded with a cache of weapons and HAZMAT gear should the need arise to use them. The work van had been parked for days in the same spot with a sliding panel between the passenger cabin and the cargo space in back. A pair of bogus parking tickets protruded from the windshield wiper to create the illusion of an abandoned vehicle.
Rollins balanced the coffee cups in the cardboard holder. Dirt from the ladder rungs speckled his buzz-cut hair and wire-rimmed glasses as he squeezed himself beside his lanky partner, Special Agent Wesley Parks, who manned the electronic surveillance station.
Parks removed his headphones and stood up to stretch. At six-foot-three, he had to stoop to keep his head from hitting the van’s headliner. He thought about a hot shower and a plate of his wife’s home cooking. After twelve hours crammed inside a cold van with his partner and an array of surveillance equipment fed from a bank of twelve volt batteries, he was ready for the next shift to relieve him. So far, the operation had proved a colossal waste of time. He had no doubt Fayez Sayeed was well trained in evasive tactics, and that he would execute his orders without question—severing all ties with his former life so as not to jeopardize his mission. “Thanks,” he told his partner, Agent Rollins. He sipped from his steaming cup. “I wanted a grandee mocha latte with extra syrup and light foam. This cup is buried in foam and doesn’t taste sweet at all.”
“I ordered what you asked for. You’re lucky I didn’t piss in it.”
Parks choked down the hot beverage. “You might as well have.”
“Next time it’s your turn,” said Rollins. “I saw a rat the size of my dog down there.”
“You have a Chiwawa.”
“What’s your point?”
“I’m saying it would be different if you compared your rat to a German Shepherd or a Great Dane. That would be something to run from.”
“I didn’t run from anything. I’m just telling you what I saw.”
“You’re still breathing hard.”
“I had to climb the fucking ladder one-handed. Not to mention I jogged most of the way to keep the coffee warm. It’s freezing down there.”
“Make sure you note that in your performance evaluation,” Parks taunted his partner.
Rollins peeled the tab back on his coffee lid and enjoyed the warmth from his beverage. “We get anything while I was gone?”
“You were gone ten minutes.”
“Twenty degrees made it feel a lot longer. Any news from Kriegel?”
“Nope.” Parks adjusted his shoulder harness to scratch an itch beneath the leather strap over his heavy wool sweater. “I guess no news is bad news. I can’t believe this Fayez Sayeed would be dumb enough to call home. Let alone show up in person. Aren’t these guys trained to inject themselves into our culture and then disappear at a moment’s notice?”
Rollins watched the flashing indicator light on the digital recording device. “All men are created equal, but no two are the same.” A monitor showed a wave pattern scrolling left to right as the wireless interrogation equipment tracked an incoming call from a cell phone in the Sayeed residence. Below the pattern on the monitor, a sound spectrograph mapped a database image of Sayeed’s voice pattern against the caller’s.
Parks adjusted his headset volume for his partner to hear. “The in-laws called five times since yesterday.”
Rollins checked the incoming number against known numbers in the terrorist database. “The voice sounds different. The number’s clean.” He sat on the floor with his knees apart and his jacket sleeves bunched up at his elbows. He wore his tie loose around his unbuttoned collar. A former FBI Agent, he’d transferred assignments to Homeland Security six months ago. With his divorce on the books and a twelve-year-old son who wouldn’t speak to him, he needed a change in his life—a new direction to distract him from his alimony payments and a bitchy ex-wife who’d rather sit at home and spend his money than get off her ass and find a job. He banged his secretary on occasion to relieve the tension—something his ex, and the judge, had failed to understand.
Parks listened to the phone conversation while he sipped his coffee. “I think I need to piss.”
“I put the bottle in the supply locker.”
“I can hold it,” Parks said on second thought. “Our shift is over in half an hour.”
Rollins searched the watchlist for known affiliations of Fayez Sayeed. “You don’t suppose he’s passing information through his relatives, using coded messages to relay his plans?”
“It’s possible,” said Parks, “but I doubt it. Sayeed’s probably out of the country by now and on to his next assignment. Whatever role he played with this family ended when he stopped coming home.”
“I’ll send the call data to Fort Meade. Maybe they can come up with something.” Rollins logged into his Homeland Security account and brought up his email.
Parks reached for a chocolate bar he’d squirreled away inside his jacket pocket and peeled the Hershey’s wrapper. He bit off a chunk and chewed.
Rollins salivated over the candy bar, hearing his partner crunch on the milk chocolate with walnuts. “You got any more of those?”
Parks shook his head. “Last one.”
“Liar,” said Rollins.
Parks peeled the wrapper another inch. He sipped his coffee, watching the video monitor through the steam in front of his face. “I say we wrap this up.”
“Wait… We got a bogie on foot.” Rollins used the joystick controller to adjust the pan/tilt/zoom camera disguised behind the van’s front grill. He watched a figure draw closer on the monitor—a woman in jeans and a thick ski jacket with a hood. He captured the woman’s facial image through the telephoto lens, which fed the data to a facial recognition system.
Parks followed the woman on the video monitor and watched her proceed along the driveway of the Sayeed residence. He watched her press the doorbell and wait for Martha Anne to answer. “You’ll never get a hit on her. The background lighting’s off, and her face is too obscured.”
“I’ve got audio,” Rollins whispered as if the woman could hear him two hundred feet away from their sound-dampened van. He activated the beam-forming, multi-directional microphone and unplugged the headset to hear the conversation on the mini speakers.
“I know it’s early,” the woman’s voice mumbled.
“It’s all right,” Martha Anne Sayeed replied.
Rollins typed at the keyboard with his partner looking over his shoulder. “I’ll run the voiceprint through the database. See if I can match it to the facial image.”
“The system’s still extracting facial features, eigenvectors…”
“Do we have a hit or not?”
Rollins moved the wireless mouse and scrolled down. “No match. The data’s inconclusive.” He flipped a rocker switch on the communication panel and pointed at the monitor again. “I’ll check the infrared.”
Rollins grabbed the control stick and panned the infrared camera concealed behind the van’s ladder rack assembly. Color images appeared on the thermal imaging display with red silhouettes imposed on a green backdrop. “Two bodies confirmed.”
“How many were you expecting to find?”
Rollins unclipped his radio from his belt holster. “Something doesn’t feel right.” He keyed the mic. “Remote, this is outpost, do you copy?”
“Affirmative,” replied the voice of an undercover agent on a rooftop with a rifle scope trained at the house.
“Do you still have a visual on the house?”
Rollins looked at his partner then back at the infrared display, which showed both figures moving from one room to another. “I wanna take a closer look.”
“Are you nuts?” said Parks, spilling coffee on his shirt.
Rollins turned the volume up. “Another call’s coming in.” He pointed to the voiceprint on the screen. “Check this out.” He stared at the sine wave mapping across the screen in perfect syncopation with the prerecorded voiceprint from Fayez Sayeed. “It’s him.”
Parks donned the headset and listened to the voice. “Are you sure?”
Rollins double-checked the voice authentication system. “Ninety-two percent probability. I’m tracing the call… It’s coming from a satellite phone.” He waited for the number to appear on the monitor. “The woman must have brought the phone with her. Stupid bitch thought we couldn’t trace it.”
“Can we pinpoint Sayeed’s location?”
Rollins ran his hand through his spiked hair. After hours of agonizing boredom, he finally felt a burst of energy. “Done! Get Washington on the horn. This is huge.” He watched the call translation data scroll across the screen.
Parks stood up. “Nice work.”
Rollins grabbed his cell phone with his back toward his partner. “I’ll wake up Kriegel.”
Parks unplugged the wiring harness from the van’s communications panel and wrapped the ends around his hands. “Not this time.” He dropped the looped cord over Rollins’ head and cinched the wire taught around his neck, depriving further oxygen to the brain.
Rollins clawed desperately at the wire cutting into his throat. His eyes bulged from their sockets as the noose tightened across his esophagus and carotid artery, prompting death by cerebral hypoxia.
Parks deleted the recorded data and swapped the removable hard drive with a blank one. Then he lifted the van’s floor panel and descended through the manhole opening below.