Doctor Beckman rode in back of the HAZMAT van, clenching the grab rail above her head as the four-ton vehicle negotiated the slower-moving traffic. Dressed in a hooded suit with a positive pressure face mask and integrated rubber boots, she accompanied the FBI’s Hazardous Materials Response Unit and a team of Homeland Security Agents eager to earn their stripes. Out of her element, she felt more like a trainee in a SWAT team exercise than a chief scientist from the CDC.
Four banks and three local hospitals in Northern Virginia had tested positive for anthrax, implying hundreds, or possibly thousands, of patients could be infected with a weaponized anthrax strain. She’d been unable to persuade Director Hoffnagle to launch a wide-scale alert, and her options narrowed. And now, with Kriegel and his team eager to attack on all fronts, she had no one to help convince them of the silent danger they faced against an anthrax enemy impervious to bullets and brawn. Without Washington to back her play or the necessary vaccine resources to combat a wide-scale bioterrorism event, she could do little more than observe from the sidelines and watch the death toll climb.
She leaned to the left as the van made a hard right, sweating inside the protective suit as she peered through the face mask at the driver and cleared her mind from the mental spam pinging her like an Internet pop-up ad, pointless thoughts about the dry cleaning she forgot to pick up or the bills she never mailed. It’s the little things that’ll kill ya, a colleague once told her in a seminar on saran gas. A trite statement at face value but one she remembered as she held her own in the testosterone-laden environment replete with loaded guns and nervous trigger fingers eager to drop the hammer on anyone who moved.
Then there was Kriegel. Not the hard-driving, stubborn egotistical man behind an FBI badge, but the man she found herself falling in love with. Never one to mix her personal life with her work, she’d known Kriegel longer than anyone she’d ever dated before. He was an impediment to her agenda as much as a friend to confide in, and she straddled a fine wire above a canyon deep and wide with no safety net to catch her fall. She’d put her career at risk by engaging in off-the-record conversations, but Kriegel had a way with words—and his hands and mouth. The incredible sex alone would have sold her on him twenty years ago, but now, her desire for Agent Kriegel went deeper than carnal lust. She loved the man behind the badge; the man who listened when she called him at all hours for advice or just to vent; the man who opened doors for her; the man who could see inside her and make her feel safe; the man her ex-husband could never live up to.
She wanted Kriegel in her life. She needed him in her life in a way she’d sworn she would never need a man again. Despite his arrogance and eccentricities, he had a smile seldom seen by anyone in his command. A smile that made her melt like a school girl with a crush.
Keep it together, Candice… This isn’t the time to daydream. Too many people need you front and center without distraction. Real people are dead. More will die if you don’t get your shit together and do something about it.
She stared at the young men across from her, clad in gas masks and combat fatigues with fingerless gloves and Kevlar vests. You can’t shoot what you can’t see. You won’t find anthrax on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list. But it might find you.
The van slowed along the curb less than a block from the abandoned airplane hangar. Hand signals prompted the choreographed exit from the back of the van.
Doctor Beckman followed the men outside. Two teams aligned themselves at the rear entrance while the others prepared to breach the facility at the front.
The men advanced in a two-by-two formation with one man aiming at the blind spots while his counterpart trained his weapon straight ahead.
Candice lingered with the HAZMAT team near the back, pawing at an itch she couldn’t scratch until a single shot rang out followed by bursts of fully automatic machine gun fire.
* * *
With the scene secured through liberal use of lethal force, Doctor Beckman read the analog indicator on her portable pathogen detector inside the vacant hangar large enough to park a jumbo jet. She signaled her team to remove their masks, and said, “We’re clear.”
“How clear?” asked a team member, his voice quivering and hesitant.
Doctor Beckman removed her hood with confidence. “Relax. I wouldn’t ask you to do something I wasn’t prepared to do myself.” She stepped around the smoldering remnants of a charred human body. “Bio agents didn’t do this,” she told her team. She breathed through her mouth to temper the smell as she led them through the building littered with dead bodies from the firefight with Kriegel’s men. “Bag em and tag em,” she heard Kriegel tell his men. “The rest of you tear this place apart. We’re not leaving until we know more than we did when we got here.”
Doctor Beckman watched Kriegel kneel down to inspect an oily residue on the floor. “Looks like oil.”
“Aviation fuel,” an agent called out across the room. “We found fuel drums in the back.”
“You find a plane to go with them?” asked Kriegel.
The agent handed Kriegel a CD. “No, but we found this, along with several aerial maps of Florida in an office upstairs.”
Kriegel held the CD in his gloved hand and read, FBI, scrawled with a red marker. “Get it to the lab. Have it dusted for prints and processed for anything they can find.”
Doctor Beckman touched his arm. “What do you make of all this?”
“This fight was staged. They knew we were coming. I’ll alert the FAA. If a plane flew out of here, I want to know where it went.”
“You think Abdullah’s planning an aerial attack?”
“It’s starting to look that way.”
“What if this is just another misdirection?”
“It’s possible. But it’s not a chance I’m willing to take.”
McLeary stood near the window inside the Four Seasons penthouse suite overlooking the iridescent lights sprinkled throughout downtown Miami and Biscayne Bay. Dressed in khakis and barefoot loafers with a floral print shirt and a beige sport coat to conceal his weapon, he viewed his options for climbing out of the hole he’d fallen into, a deep chasm black as anthracite with slippery walls and nothing to grab onto. In a contest where second chances came seldom and second thoughts meant the difference between life or death, he’d played his cards at his chest without regard for the consequences of his actions. Alone in his own world, he’d learned a harsh lesson at the expense of another man’s life. Despite Agent Bryant’s propensity for getting under his skin, the man had displayed honor and integrity on a mission demanding the ultimate sacrifice.
He abandoned the window view and retreated inside the spacious suite carved from rich woods and Italian leather, marveling at how the lavish appearance and attention to detail blended seamlessly to mask the room’s arsenal of audio equipment, signal-masking tools for defeating counterintelligence measures, and a cache of specialized weapons. Courtesy of Uncle Sam and the masked man who set him free, he had everything from thermal imaging cameras and facial recognition software to an assortment of cleverly concealed short and long-range communication devices.
* * *
Burns arrived at the penthouse suite with Seth. “I got your message. How did you—”
“Shhh…” McLeary stepped away from the window and passed an RF bug sweeper over Burns and Seth. “You’re late,” he told Burns while he confirmed the absence of any RF emissions. He hugged Seth who leaned in and brought his arm over his dad’s shoulder.
“They got Brian.”
“We’ll get him back.”
Burns stepped closer to McLeary, resisting the urge to hug him. “How are you holding up?”
“Did you find my laptop?”
Burns produced the damaged unit with bullet holes through the shattered screen. “What’s left of it.”
“Can I see it?” asked Seth.
McLeary pointed to the adjoining suite. “There’s rations in the other room. You should eat something.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“I’m not asking. This is an FBI investigation. It doesn’t concern you.”
“It does when my brother is involved.”
McLeary ran his hand through his hair. “You had to bring him here?” he told Burns.
“He’s your son,” she whispered. “You can’t keep him in the dark forever.”
“Twenty-two,” Seth corrected.
“You put your brother’s life in danger.”
“Don’t hang this on me. I never asked to be involved. If you hadn’t brought us to Miami in the first place, we’d still be—”
“What? Playing the Maryland lottery? Defrauding the university? I taught you better.”
“When? You were never around.”
McLeary looked away. “Sometimes you have to play the hand you’re dealt.”
“Like you did with Mom?”
“That’s not fair.”
Seth glared at his father. “You wanna talk about fair? Let’s talk about my dead girlfriend and whether Brian’s still alive.”
Burns touched Seth’s shoulder reassuringly and looked at McLeary with raised eyebrows.
McLeary read her mind like the morning paper. “It’s too dangerous. I’ve already lost one son. I won’t lose another.”
“You won’t,” Seth spoke up. “I can help with this investigation.”
“What could you possibly know about this investigation?”
“I know enough.”
“This is way bigger than you can imagine, Seth.”
“All the more reason for my help.”
McLeary stepped out on the balcony. He saw himself in Seth’s eyes. The good and the bad. To involve Seth any further would only put his son’s life in jeopardy. But to deny Seth the chance to help his brother seemed a greater injustice. “No heroics. You stay behind the scenes and do exactly what I tell you. Understand?”
“Do you think Brian’s still alive?”
“If they wanted him dead, they would have killed him on the spot and left him there. They took him for a reason.”
Seth pointed to the damaged laptop in Burns’ hand. “What’s on there?”
“Statistical analysis of crime patterns,” said McLeary. “People, places, events, and times I correlated using two-dimensional spectral analysis and spatial regression with advanced interpolation techniques. I’ve been analyzing known events to try and correlate them with data from various agencies. If we can establish the links between these past events and model their behavior, we might find a way to predict Abdullah’s next move.”
“Like connect the dots?” asked Burns.
“Sort of. Ali Muheen’s fabricated fingerprint from our first crime scene at Chase Bank took us in a wrong direction. Then more faulty intel skewed our investigation.”
“Abdullah had us pinned all along.”
“We zigged. He zagged, perfecting his weaponized anthrax along the way.”
“Who’s Ali Muheen?” asked Seth.
“Go eat. I’ll get you when I need you.”
McLeary could almost hear the wheels turning in Burns’ head.
She asked, “How could Abdullah’s organization have our best people chasing their own shadows?”
McLeary waited for Seth to disappear in the other room. “Because there’s an enemy among us. A double agent, as you’ve aptly pointed out.”
“Someone in the FBI?”
“Possibly. But my money’s on someone closer. Someone within the intelligence community. A person with access to information from Langley.”
“What more do we know about Fayez Sayeed?”
“Enough to know he’s just a pawn in the larger game. A better question would be why would Ahmed Abdullah kill a ground crew member at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam and circumvent an iris scanning system to gain unauthorized access to a loading bay? He could have bypassed security and smuggled his package into the United States any number of ways, from any number of other countries.”
“Kriegel briefed us already,” said Burns.
“Kriegel knows more than he’s sharing. I took a crack at Gordon Gentry’s Blackberry. A friend at Quantico decoded a steganographic image on the screen to find a series of numbers, maybe part of a hidden code Gordon Gentry was never meant to see.” McLeary grabbed a notepad from the desk and scribbled 315507803140.
Burns studied the numbers. “Looks like a PIN code. Too long to be a social. Maybe a phone number?”
McLeary shrugged his shoulders. “315 is a New York area code. Probably pure coincidence. The first ten digits represent a valid phone number, but the line was disconnected two years ago.”
“What more do we know about Rodney Nito?”
“Another pawn, like Gentry. Hired by someone within Abdullah’s organization.”
“Terrorists don’t hire Americans to do their dirty work.”
“That’s an assumption. Prove it hasn’t happened before.”
“But why would a punk like Nito help a terrorist organization?”
“The oldest reason of all. As long as there’s easy money to be had, there will always be people like Nito and Gentry who’ll follow the devil himself to get it.” McLeary peered into the other room to check on Seth. “While Agent Bryant and the DEA pursued Muheen, or who they thought was Muheen, Abdullah set a parallel plan in motion.”
Burns handed McLeary the damaged laptop. “We could send this to Quantico for analysis. Fresh eyes couldn’t hurt.”
McLeary examined the computer. “We’re long on theory and short on proof. And I can’t trust anyone outside this room.”
“I appreciate the vote of confidence, but the proof is what we make of it. We’re not after Abdullah’s organization to prosecute them.”
“What are you saying?” McLeary asked, blindsided by his partner’s abrupt departure from her coveted code of ethics.
“I’m saying too many American lives are in jeopardy. FBI, CIA, DEA, Homeland Security… We’ve all lost someone close. This fight wasn’t personal when it started for me. It is now. I want Abdullah found, and I want him dead.”
“Those are big words.”
“I’m a big girl.”
McLeary opened the bullet-ridden laptop and tried to power it on. “It’s shot, literally.”
“Maybe we can still recover the disk.”
“I could do it if I had the right diagnostic tools,” Seth offered, returning to the room with a bottle of cold water and a bag of peanuts. He took the damaged laptop from his dad. “I could take a crack at your PIN code too.”
“How long have you been listening?”
“I was in the other room, not across state lines.”
“This isn’t a game, son. I don’t want you more involved than you already are.”
Seth gulped the rest of his water. “I’ve been shot at—twice. My pregnant girlfriend was murdered. My brother is missing. The die is cast for me. I’m up to my eyeballs in this shit whether you like it or not. You can choose to accept it or ignore it. Either way, I want in.”
McLeary shook his head, staring at his son. His face is pale—yet he looks hot. And it obviously hurts when he swallows. Despite his own misgivings about involving his son any further, Seth’s unyielding determination softened his position like a soaking rain on a drought-ravaged field. “What do you need?”