Confined to the FBI hotel room, Seth pondered the screen prompt on his laptop computer. In less than ten minutes, he’d hacked through the hotel’s express room checkout and online gaming to find a system with more holes than an aerated lawn. He’d gained access to the firewall and an open port on the PBX router. From there, he rode a T1 trunk to another firewall protecting an FBI server.
“You get anything?” Brian asked, finishing his second set of knuckle push-ups in front of the television.
“So am I.”
Brian stood up and stretched his arms behind his back. “We could get in a shitload of trouble for this.”
“Only if we get caught. Which we won’t.”
Brian grabbed the TV remote from the sofa arm and surfed the channels, pausing on CNN to hear a news story about several deaths linked to anthrax exposure. He clicked the volume button and watched the female reporter standing outside a hospital in Washington, D.C.
“…I’m reporting live outside Ft. Belvoir Hospital where sources speculate more than fifty patients are dead or dying from exposure to inhalation anthrax. At least a dozen patients have been quarantined inside the building where HAZMAT teams have cordoned off a portion of the hospital’s west wing. So far no names have been released, but sources tell us at least two of the recent victims were children. Similar incidents of anthrax exposure have occurred at INOVA Fairfax Hospital outside the District. So far, investigators are not saying whether the two incidents are related or not. For now, I’m Sonya Collins reporting live from News Channel 8…”
“Do you think this has anything to do with the case Dad’s working on?” Brian asked.
Seth hacked the second firewall and scrolled through an FBI server with read-only access to files in the personnel directory. “That’s what I’m trying to find out.”
“Someone tried to kill us.”
“They tried to kill Dad. We were collateral damage.”
“Maybe Dimetrie and Roland were behind it. They know our faces.” Brian turned the volume down. “Maybe Dad pissed off the wrong person?”
“Wouldn’t be the first time.”
The brothers shared a laugh, neither wanting to press the other too hard about their father’s involvement in something bad—for fear the truth might raise unsettling questions better left unanswered.
Brian watched his brother type. “Have you talked to Marcy yet?”
“I left a message on her phone. She’s probably home with her parents by now.”
“You sure you know what you’re doing?”
Seth turned the laptop screen toward Brian. “See for yourself.”
Brian read the FBI warning. “Maybe this isn’t such a good idea.”
“Neither was someone trying to kill us. We have a right to know what’s going on. If Dad won’t talk about it with us, we’ll find out the truth for ourselves.”
December 16 through December 20
McLeary entered the FBI’s task force building and folded his sunglasses in his front shirt pocket. He waited for Burns to flash her badge at the guard station, then he followed her to the war room, glancing up to see the clock on the wall above the coffee station. “The second hand stopped,” he told Burns. He pointed to the clock, where the second hand remained stationary in the five o’clock position.
“Maybe the battery’s dead.”
“Maybe…” McLeary watched a pair of Homeland Security Agents enter the war room with Kriegel—junior agents with their thick hair neatly combed to one side and a robotic motion in their gait; agents who subscribed to the letter of the bureau handbook and followed orders without question.
“Get in here,” Kriegel barked. “Both of you.”
Burns took a seat and drummed her nails on the conference table. She noted the folders on Kriegel’s desk.
“I’ve got what’s left of Agent Bryant in the morgue and a gut feeling you and Mac have no fucking clue about where this investigation is headed. Now tell me I’m wrong. Please. Tell me I’m only imagining your level of incompetence.”
McLeary focused his attention on Kriegel. “We’re all playing for the same team.”
“Are we?” Kriegel opened the folder on his desk to reveal several photos of McLeary and Agent Burns talking with Hilario Gonsalez. “You wanna tell me what you see here?”
McLeary glanced at the photos. “I’m out of focus.”
“You had us followed?” asked Burns.
“Do yourself a favor Agent Burns and keep your trap shut before you sink any deeper in this shit pile.”
“Your beef’s with me, not her,” said McLeary.
Kriegel cracked his knuckles. “You were right,” he started, pacing beside McLeary as he gestured with his hands, his stiff leather shoes crunching on the floor with every step. “Homeland Security found the body of Ali Muheen, or what’s left of him, in Amsterdam. He’s been dead all along. But you already knew this. The question is how?”
“An anonymous tip.”
“I don’t know.”
Kriegel’s expression hardened as he stood toe to toe with McLeary. “Don’t fuck with me,” he said through tight lips. “Tell me what you know.”
“I had the lab put a trace on my phone. If he calls again, I’ll track him.” McLeary locked eyes with the agents in the corner who stood motionless like mannequins in a store-front window.
“You’re a hired gun, McLeary, not an agent of this bureau. You’re here to perform a basic function in a consultant capacity, nothing more.”
“I’m here to do my job.”
“You’re here to follow orders and obey the law.”
“Are we done?”
Kriegel stepped away. “You’re a real home run hitter, McLeary, a one-man-band. The trouble is, I don’t hear you humming “The Star Spangled Banner.” You’re a traitor. To me. To this bureau. And to this country.”
McLeary folded his arms at his chest. The thought of punching Kriegel in the face coursed through his veins like a power surge. “Don’t pin Bryant’s death on me. He knew the risks when he signed up for this gig. Don’t disrespect his memory. You reached out to me. You hired me to do a job—my way—because that’s what I’m good at.”
“I hired you to help me crack this investigation, not to disobey direct orders, trespass on government property, or exchange information with the son of a convicted drug trafficker.”
McLeary stared at Kriegel. “Like him or not, Hilario Gonsalez has access to people and places we don’t. He has connections in Miami. People who might help us get a handle on Abdullah and his men. People who won’t talk to cops, especially Feds.”
“But Gonsalez will convince them to talk to you, is that it? Maybe cut you in on a piece of his action?”
McLeary tossed his pocket change on Kriegel’s desk. “Here’s a quarter. Buy a clue.”
Kriegel glared at his subordinate until the intercom light flashed on his desk phone. “The trouble with you, McLeary, is garbage in, garbage out. You’re erratic and contentious. You’re a man without a conscience. A tumor in denial.” He nodded at the agents in the back of the room. “You’re off this investigation, McLeary. Effective immediately.”
“You’re as crooked as a hind dog’s leg. I want your weapon. NOW!”
The agents approached McLeary who unfastened his holster strap and slammed the gun on Kriegel’s desk.
Burns stepped toward Kriegel. “Sir—”
“Save it, Burns. Your partner’s about to take a leave of absence. Permanently.”
“On whose authority?”
“On what grounds?”
“Try assault with a deadly weapon for starters.”
Burns turned to McLeary, puzzled.
“Roland Chenkoff and Dimetrie Salazar. Your partner threatened them with deadly force under the cover of authority.”
“They attacked my boys with a baseball bat,” McLeary defended himself. “I did what was necessary to diffuse the situation.”
“You threatened to kill them.”
“I enlightened them. Roland Chenkoff and Dimetrie Salazar should be in prison.”
“Not likely,” Kriegel continued. “Dimetrie is an undercover agent with the DEA.”
“And I’m the tooth fairy.”
“McLeary, you’ve lied to me so many times you wouldn’t know the truth if it snuck up and bit you on the ass.”
“I saw what I saw. I did what I did. And I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”
“Not under my command.” Kriegel reached inside his jacket pocket and produced a miniature digital recorder. He held it up and pressed “Play,” reproducing a portion of the conversation between Burns and McLeary on his boat the night before.
“Yes, I stole the money…”
Kriegel waved the audio recorder like a trophy. Warmth spread over him like a heroin high. He’d dreamed about the day he’d place McLeary in custody and have him forcefully removed from the premises. “I’ve waited a long time for this. And I have to tell you, it feels pretty damn good.”
McLeary turned to Burns. “I hope it was worth it.”
* * *
Burns stared at Kriegel in disbelief. “You son-of-a-bitch…” She’d been played and it stung. The man she’d trusted and looked up to had manipulated her actions at will to further his own agenda. She could handle Kriegel’s mouth and his chauvinistic tendencies. She could handle his super ego and his conviction for seeking justice at any cost. But the thought that Kriegel used her from the start, tweaked her even more.
Kriegel put his hands on his hips. “Get him out of here.”
Burns stepped in front of Kriegel.
“Step aside, Agent Burns.”
“This goes beyond the purview of your authority.”
Kriegel gathered the folder off his desk. “We’re in the business to fight crime, Agent Burns. Arresting criminals is what we do.”
“I’ll go to the director.”
“You’re dancing in a minefield, Agent Burns. I’d watch where you step.”
“Is that a threat?”
“Take it how you want it. Just remember where you came from and how fast I can send you back.”
“Spare me your acrimonious babble. You’re despicable.”
Kriegel checked his watch. “Don’t be naïve Agent Burns. You’re here because I wanted you here. Because I needed the right person for the job. You want a shoulder to cry on, call your mother. You’re in the big leagues now. Time to step up or step out.”
Burns felt the words ping off her body like chunks of ice in a hail storm, cold and hard without emotion. Even after years of undercover work with some of the sleaziest criminals she’d ever known, she’d never felt so dirty or ashamed.