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By Thomas Lakeman
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2009 Thomas Lakeman
All rights reserved.
There was dirt on the FBI director's hands: the dark soil of Arlington National Cemetery, worked deep into the pores and creases of the old man's skin. He got a little of it on me when we shook hands, and as he turned away I had to fight the urge to wipe my palm. The director kept a stoic face, but I could tell he was hurting. It wasn't just the traces of grave dirt that gave him away, or even the black band on his right sleeve. It was the way he avoided sitting in the mahogany armchair behind him, even though that chair was now — pending Senate confirmation — his. Instead, the acting director took his place beside me, in front of his predecessor's massive desk, as if both of us were awaiting orders from the Great Beyond.
"Less than an hour ago," the old man said, "I buried our late director. More than that ..." He paused, steadying his voice. "I buried my friend."
The new director was lean and cautious, a lost greyhound in a city of junkyard dogs. Five foot four, shoe lifts included. If he did sit in the chair, his feet would dangle. His predecessor had been a very large man. I remembered how painfully that chair had creaked when he rose to say good-bye at our final meeting: a powerful grip, club-fingered with peripheral edema. A big-hearted, weak-hearted man.
"A great man," the acting director said, as if correcting me, "for whom justice was not merely a principle but a passion. And yet death was no respecter of his wisdom. The disease did not know the man it killed. Nature, my young friend, has no morality."
Silence. A rapid glance at the empty chair. Behind me, the door opened.
"While you were eating breakfast this morning —" He waited until the door had closed again. "I made a promise over his open grave. That his passion for justice will endure. That our fallen leader's unfinished work shall not be abandoned."
The new arrivals took their seats behind me. Two of them from the sound, men about my age. I knew who they were. One of them wasn't worth a backward glance. The other one I was simply afraid to look at.
"I'm told you are someone who can help me." The director folded his arms. "I wonder, Agent Yeager. I wonder if you can possibly know what it means to carry the burden of a dead man's dreams."
It took me a few seconds to realize that it was my turn to say something.
"He was a great man." I cleared my throat. "They were great dreams."
The director raised his eyebrows — as unimpressed as I was by my lame reply — then nodded to one of the men behind me.
"Special Agent Michael Francis Yeager." The voice was clean, correct: Uri Vitale, from the Office of Professional Responsibility. Among street agents, he was known simply as the Bastard. "Currently assigned to the Philadelphia Field Office, Crimes Against Children Unit. Twenty-year veteran. Thirty-six successful recoveries of abused and endangered children, ninety-two percent of arrests resulting in conviction ... various awards and commendations ..."
There was a silence as he turned the page.
"Current status — probationary." I could hear him smiling. "Did I leave anything out?"
"I made Eagle Scout when I was sixteen."
The director frowned and looked away.
"Last year," Vitale said, "you were placed on administrative leave after my office discovered that you had willfully mishandled subject interrogation in the matter of an abducted boy named Tonio Madrigal."
The director weighed my discomfort. "Do you deny this, Agent Yeager?"
"Yes," I said. "Vitale's office didn't 'discover' a damn thing. I came forward on my own. I'm not proud of myself, but those are the facts."
"The facts are that you pegged the boy's father without sufficient proof," Vitale answered. "When he wouldn't confess, you cooked evidence to frame him. After nearly a week of your infamous badgering, your suspect hanged himself in his cell."
"The father was an admitted child abuser," I said.
"He wasn't guilty of the crime you charged him with. And because you put the hat on the wrong man, the real kidnapper had sufficient time to torture little Tonio Madrigal to death." Vitale paused to let the venom settle in. "How you managed to avoid misprision of a felony is beyond me. You ought to be behind bars."
I looked back at him: a round-faced squealer in shit-brown Armani, sneering like Torquemada's file clerk.
"No argument," I said. "That would have been the right thing to do."
Vitale shrank a little into the leather sofa.
"All right." The director raised his hand. "Uri, in all fairness, I didn't bring you here to resurrect the past. I'm mainly interested in the workup you did last April. Now what do you have for us?"
Vitale recovered himself. "Yeager's been clean since his reinstatement in January — six months of good behavior, for what it's worth. However, one or two interesting facts did come to light during our investigations."
Interesting facts scraped the back of my neck like razor burn. I braced myself for what was coming.
"Yeager's mother committed suicide when he was nine years old," Vitale said. "Bipolar disorder. Yeager apparently blamed himself. A fact he was reluctant to disclose during his recruitment interviews. Possibly because he feared that he'd inherited the condition from her. And, if so, that it might disqualify him." He drew himself in for the kill. "That was the reason, wasn't it?"
"Yes," I said.
"At least he's honest about it." Vitale rolled his eyes. "Personnel advises that Yeager's long overdue for rotation out of Crimes Against Children. Probably balancing right on the edge of total burnout."
"Possibly." The director narrowed his eyes. "What else?"
"He's not much of a family man," Vitale said. "Father died in eighty-five. One brother, three sisters. Hasn't seen any of them in the past two years."
"Four," I said.
"Four sisters," I said. "My mother was pregnant at the time of her death."
Vitale made a note in his file.
The director regarded me thoughtfully. "No family of your own, then?"
"Unmarried," Vitale said. "However, according to —"
"I can speak for myself," I said. "The answer's no. No wife, no family. I had a dog once, but it ran away."
"Well, it seems you've had your fair share of sorrow," the director said. "And yet, despite it all ... here you are today. Can you explain why?"
"I promised a friend," I said. "She's getting an apartment in Georgetown. I said I'd help her move."
The ghost of a smile crossed the old man's lips. "Never mind the rest of the report, Uri. What's the final judgment on Yeager?"
"He's a true believer ... a loner ... and just dirty enough. We've got other names for you — but in my opinion, you won't find a better washout this side of Butte, Montana. He's perfect."
"As it happens, I agree." The director nodded to him. "Well done, Uri. Please leave the file with me when you go."
Vitale hesitated a moment before putting it on the desk.
"Yeager." Uri forced a smile down at me.
"Bastard." I didn't smile back.
The director waited until the door closed again before standing up to pour a glass of water.
"Not that I don't appreciate the free proctology exam," I said. "But when I heard I'd be meeting the director, I kind of expected something more like a commemorative photo."
"You have every right to be upset." He handed me the glass, not letting it touch the desk. "However, your anger at Agent Vitale is misplaced. I already had your file before you arrived. I could have spared you the ordeal."
"But you didn't."
"I wanted to see if you could face up to yourself," he said. "For the record, I believe that your handling of the Madrigal case was beneath contempt. Even if you did implicate yourself — even if you have reformed as well as you seem to have — I still consider your reinstatement to have been a gross error."
"So now I get to ask," I said. "Why am I still here?"
"Same old story." He nodded to the empty chair. "My boss overruled me."
I smiled in spite of myself. "The old man just won't let me go, will he?"
"Apparently not." He placed my file in his desk drawer, then locked it. "And Agent Vitale is right about something else. For what I need, you are the best I'm likely to find."
"Of course," I said. "The best for what?"
He looked down on me — a moment of decision.
"A walk in darkness." He sat down. "When a man enters pure darkness, either he lights his way through ... or he falls. Agent Vitale believes you will fall."
"What do you believe?"
"I have my doubts." He gestured over my shoulder. "For what it's worth, the other man in this room thinks you'll do just fine."
"All respect, sir. He's been wrong before." I straightened my shoulders. "I wasn't lying about helping my friend move. If all this is just a test of my honesty —"
"It's not a question of how honest you can be." The voice behind me was familiar, easy, only slightly slurred. "What we're questioning, Mike, is how much you can take."
I turned in my chair to face him.
Art Kiplinger and I graduated Academy together and were both first office agents in New Orleans. Everybody thought we made quite a team: tall, steady Art, the born politico; and hard-charging Mike, a blue-eyed martyr on the cross of justice. For a while, it worked. The bad guys were scared of us.
Too scared. On the night before we were due to testify in a major organized crime trial, Art Kiplinger opened a box of Chinese takeout. The resulting explosion left me with ringing ears and singed eyebrows. What it did to Art required six units of blood and twelve hours in surgery. That was just to keep him alive.
"Good to see you, Mike." The left sleeve of Art's black suit was pinned to his shoulder. The eye above it was glass, a decent match for the right one looking at me. Plastic surgeons had almost completely restored the shape of his jaw: almost. The imperturbable smile was still entirely his own.
"You, too, Art." I was surprised by the catch in my voice. It had been years since I'd seen him last. "How's New Orleans?"
"Same as ever, only worse." He shrugged. "You've seen the news."
"Not so much since the storm." I gave an apologetic smile. "I keep worrying I'll see something familiar."
"It's all too damn familiar." Art took a sip of coffee. "A whole year since Katrina, and we're still fighting over who broke the damn levees. Someone needs to tell our elected officials that mea culpas don't turn the lights back on."
"Anything I can do to help?" The words were past my lips before I could stop them. The director seemed to take that as his cue.
"As a matter of fact ..." He reached for a sealed file on his desk. "You could take a look at this for me, if you like."
I started to demur. Then I saw the names on the cover. "It's those two tourists, isn't it? The Brits?"
"Yes and no," the director replied. "Simon Burke and Amrita Narayan had tourist visas, but they weren't in New Orleans on vacation. Officially, they were volunteers for a nonprofit agency called Reconstruction International — home rebuilders, relief for displaced families. From all reports, they made friends very quickly."
"As well as a few enemies, I'm guessing."
My chest tightened as I took the folder from him.
"You're aware that our late director grew up in New Orleans," the director said. "And Hurricane Katrina ... well, there's no doubt in my mind. The storm broke his heart." He refilled my glass. "As I said, nature has no morality. You can't arrest wind and water for killing people. But the things that men do ..."
"Sweet Jesus." I stared at the first page.
Simon and Amrita had been missing for nearly three days before the NOPD finally got around to acting on a missing persons report. Then, on the morning of June twenty-third, a group of Katrina tourists pointed their video cameras into an abandoned home in the Lower Ninth Ward. And found Simon Burke.
He was nude, slumped against a brick fireplace, as if waiting for Santa. His abductors had shot him once in the head, but that was probably a mercy. There were traces of battery acid in his open cuts, and swelling in the groin from electrical burns. Also water in the lungs, probably inhaled after a few dunkings in the large plastic trough beside him. His face was a mass of bruises. A rubber ball gag had been stuffed into Burke's mouth. Not that he would have made much sense if he'd felt like talking: The killers had pulled out most of his teeth.
"They kept the teeth?" I asked through clenched jaws.
"That's only one of a hundred minor mysteries," Art said. "As you know, killers sometimes yank teeth to prevent dental identification. But then you have to wonder why they also left his wallet behind."
I examined a photo of the wallet. The cash and credit cards were still there, ditto the obligatory picture of his wife. There was, however, a wafer-thin indentation in one of the hidden compartments, roughly the size of a Scrabble tile.
From the pictures, Simon and Amrita looked like nice young people. Burke was a cheerful badass, a former Royal Marine who'd served in Kosovo and Iraq. Between tours of duty, his volunteer work had taken him to Malaysia, Rwanda, Afghanistan, and the Sudan. His wife, Dr. Amrita Narayan, was a refined beauty. Chestnut skin, rich dark hair, a licensed psychotherapist. Most passport photos have a way of making their subjects look punchy and exhausted. Burke and Narayan practically radiated optimism and adventure.
"Even before this happened," Art was saying, "the foreign press were already calling New Orleans a third world country — and a war zone to boot. Couldn't have happened at a worse time for the reconstruction effort."
"Can't imagine Simon and Amrita's families are too happy about it, either."
"Most definitely not," the director said. "Very few people know what I'm about to tell you, Mike. This man, Simon Burke —"
"He's a spook." I looked up. "Secret Intelligence Service, right? MI6?"
That got the director looking at me a little more closely. Art just smiled.
The director nodded. "How did you work that out?"
"The ball gag was removable, in case Simon wanted to talk. From the looks of things, it seems he managed to hold out longer than most people could tolerate. So I guess they weren't asking him about England's chances at the World Cup. Also, don't you think it's a little strange that his NGO kept sending him to build affordable housing in terrorist strongholds?"
"And the molars?" Art added.
"There's only one reason why anyone would want to hang on to an Englishman's teeth," I said, "and that's in case one of them happened to contain some kind of device — for instance, a GPS tracker. Since the bad guys didn't pull them all out, I'm guessing they stopped after they found one."
"You got this from looking at the crime scene photos," the director said with a measured look.
"Actually, sir, I got it from looking at you." I handed the file back. "No disrespect, but FBI directors don't often concern themselves much over the fate of charity volunteers."
"Possibly not," he said. "What concerns you, Mike?"
I took a careful breath before answering him. "What happened to Amrita?"
The director touched a button and the lights dimmed. A moment later, Dr. Narayan's face appeared on the video monitor. Her hair was pulled back, her hands pressed to her neck. She looked tired but otherwise betrayed little emotion. Razor lines of light fell on her between the boards of an old wooden shack.
"This will be the only communication." Amrita's accent was unpretentious middle-class London. "I am alive and unharmed. As you can see, I am not drugged or otherwise impaired ..."
She's reading off a cue card, I noted. They took her contact lenses away. Her eyes look a little swollen.
Then there was a sudden jump cut: a two-hour shift in the direction of the sunlight. Now Amrita was crying hysterically.
"Why are you doing this?" Her breath raced, voice shaking. "Please, I can't — I don't know what it is you want. I don't know anything ..." She gasped. "When I met you before, you seemed so ... so ... and now poor Sammy, I begged you to leave him alone ... why did you ..."
She shut her eyes tightly.
"We were trying to have a baby —"
The screen abruptly went dark. Both men were studying me as the lights came back on.
"Could I have some more water, please?" (Continues...)
Excerpted from Broken Wing by Thomas Lakeman. Copyright © 2009 Thomas Lakeman. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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