Greeted by the blinding sun outside the passenger transportation area at Miami International Airport, Agent Burns squinted through her Costa lenses at the heat waves shimmering off the sticky pavement and inhaled a lung-full of humid air. Whatever McLeary was up to, she prayed he wouldn’t drag her career down with him. He had his sights on something else and his thoughts in a hundred places at once, apathetic and unfocused about himself and the investigation.
She signaled for a taxi and noticed a tall man with broad shoulders and a form-fitting shirt approach from a black sedan with dark windows and government plates. She could tell by his swagger he was either a criminal or a cop; two sides of the same coin she’d come to know as Jim McLeary.
“Agent Burns?” the man introduced himself. “I’m Special Agent Bryant, with the DEA’s joint task force.” He flashed his badge and shook hands with Burns. “Where’s your partner?”
Burns felt the strength in Agent Bryant’s powerful handshake and noted the sinewy muscles in his arms. Another adrenaline junky with a gun and a badge.
She’d worked with plenty of men like him before, men with egos wider than the Grand Canyon and an eye-for-an-eye attitude toward every thug who crossed their path. “He’ll be here,” she said, flattered by the penetrating stare from the man almost ten years her junior.
“I can take you to meet the team. Your partner can meet up later.”
“You’re efficient, Agent Bryant.”
“Call me Dean.”
“I wasn’t expecting this kind of inter-agency cooperation.”
Dean smiled broadly. “I wasn’t expecting to meet someone like you.”
* * *
With his boys in the car, McLeary followed the snow-covered walkway lined with manicured bushes toward the FBI’s Engineering Research Facility in Quantico, Virginia. He entered the two story reception area and flashed his badge. Then he strolled through the familiar beige corridors and took a back stairwell to the Tactical Operations unit on the second floor. Moving from one surveillance camera zone to the next, he kept his eyes and ears peeled for Kriegel, knowing there’d be hell to pay if the arrogant bastard found him AWOL while Burns danced the salsa in Miami with the DEA.
When he spotted his former colleague, he pointed toward the crypto analysis lab and they met in private behind closed doors. “I was afraid you’d be retired by now,” he said to Doctor Xiu, a short, wiry Chinese American.
Doctor Xiu took the helm at a Sun workstation. “This place is my retirement,” he said jokingly. He typed his password at the prompt and clicked on the file he’d created in a hidden subdirectory. “It’s been a long time, Mac.”
“I keep tabs.”
“I heard you were living in Miami on a boat. You catch any fish down there?”
McLeary smiled. “Nothing nice enough to keep.”
“You still under Kriegel’s thumb?”
“Only in his fantasy.”
“You know if he gets wind of this…”
“You still owe me, Mac. Two Redskins’ tickets. Center field.”
“I’m good for them.”
Doctor Xiu pulled up the screen with the Happy Holidays message displayed beside a table of constantly changing numbers generated near the top of the monitor. “Okay, I tell you what I told you before. This Blackberry you gave me is a real humdinger. I’ve looked at numerous permutations from the English, Arabic, and Farsi alphabets. Nothing intelligible comes back. This is the heart of good cryptography. But in this case, I suspect the image on the display might be hiding something.”
McLeary looked over his colleague’s shoulder, peering at the display. “Hiding what?”
Doctor Xiu typed a flurry of commands and smacked the return key with his index finger. “I’m still working on it, unofficially.”
McLeary rubbed an itchy eye. Whoever gave Gordon Gentry the Blackberry message went to a lot of trouble to cover their tracks. “What if we’re looking at this the wrong way? What if Happy Holidays is part of a public key coded with a digital signature? If you could crack the digital signature instead of the encryption algorithm, you’d have the public key. With the public key, you could reverse engineer the digital signature it was sent in and derive the private key to crack the code.”
Doctor Xiu pondered McLeary’s proposition. “Sure. In theory. But you’re assuming I can decipher the digital signature.”
“You’re the smartest man I know.”
“Then you need to get out more.”
McLeary pointed to the screen. “If anyone can crack this code, it’s you.”
“It might take some time.”
“Do the best you can.”
Doctor Xiu looked away from the monitor. “I hear you’re working with a new partner now. A real hottie.”
“Don’t believe everything you hear.”
Agent Burns peered through the telescope aimed through the window at the apartment across the street. “I don’t see anything.”
“Half the time, neither do we,” said Agent Bryant.
“Except when someone enters the balcony for a smoke,” another agent responded from the bathroom. He flushed without wiping his hands and emerged to meet Agent Burns. “I’m Fred.” He extended a handshake.
Burns kept her hands to herself. “Good to meet you.”
Fred pointed to his Middle Eastern colleague with headphones on hunched over a digital recorder. “That’s Jimmy, our interpreter.”
“Special Agent Jahaheoumen Aileeli. Speaks four languages. Goes by Jimmy.” He pointed to the headphones. “He can’t hear you with those on.”
Burns checked the blinds covering the balcony window. “I understand you’ve had Muheen under surveillance for a month.”
“Give or take,” said Agent Bryant.
Burns scanned the room equipped with racks of electronic gear. “Muheen has terrorist ties. Why not pop him now and find out what he knows?”
“Because we don’t operate that way.” Agent Bryant retreated to the small kitchen area and grabbed a bottled water. “You want something?”
Agent Bryant unscrewed the cap and gulped the cold water. “I’m a North Dakota boy. The humidity down here is wicked.”
“And how does a North Dakota boy operate in this circumstance?”
“I work for the DEA, but our unit takes direction from Homeland Security. We’re understaffed and under-funded. Our orders are to observe Muheen and solicit intel from his conversations. We spend half the time with our dick in our hands.”
Burns smirked. “I worked vice for five years in a previous life. I’ve seen my share of dicks in hand.”
Agent Bryant coughed water through his nose and wiped his face with his arm. “You’re the real deal.”
“I call it like I see it.”
“The NSA’s involved, along with some spooks from Langley.”
“That’s a lot of eyes on one man.”
“It’s not the man, it’s who he knows.”
“And what have you gathered from him so far?”
“I can’t disclose those details.”
“Can’t or won’t?”
“I serve many masters. Sometimes knowledge is bliss, but ignorance reigns.”
“And I’m not here to step on toes,” said Burns. “But you still haven’t told me why the DEA’s sitting on Muheen. I need more information about him and his involvement in a series of bank robberies we’re investigating. Who he’s tied to. How he communicates. Anything to help the bureau close this case before more people get hurt.”
* * *
Agent Bryant wrestled with his decision to share information, a decision swayed by Burns’ good looks as much as his desire to see justice served. “Muheen’s been operating within a terrorist sleeper cell for the last six months. He made the Most Wanted list two years ago for his involvement in a mail bombing plot and his ties to the Islamic Resistance Movement.” He read her expression, sensing he’d revealed nothing Agent Burns didn’t already know.
“I can’t discuss it any further. I have orders to follow, just like you.”
“So that’s the extent of our interagency cooperation?”
Agent Bryant stared at the ceiling. “I can tell you Ali Muheen is well connected. Aside from that, nothing about this guy makes sense.”
“Maybe not, but he’s a person of interest in our investigation.”
“And how does your partner fit into all this?”
“Any way I tell him to.”
Agent Bryant smiled broadly. “So it’s like that?”
“I’m the lead investigator. He’s more of a technical consultant with a badge.”
“You’ll have to fill me in. My shift ends in a couple hours… if you’d like to get a drink?”
“I never mix business with pleasure.”
“Who said anything about business?”
Burns rolled her eyes. “Is that the best line you can manage, Agent Bryant?”
Agent Bryant leaned over and whispered in Burns’ ear.
Burns turned away, somewhat flabbergasted but not completely surprised by the offer. “I appreciate the compliment, but I’m here to do a job.”
“I respect your decision. You never know… You might change your mind.”
“And Miami might see snow tonight.”