The recruiter’s warning from thirteen years ago roared through Eva Montanna’s mind like a flash flood: “Few jobs have mundane moments punctuated by times of terror.” This was one of those jobs. This one of those times. Alert to every sound, Eva did not move and barely breathed. In the decrepit hallway, she turned her thin body to diminish her silhouette, and pressed the white “POLICE” letters on her jacket’s back against the wall.
A faint sound creaked in the distance. She strained to hear. Not footsteps. More like a loose board flopping in the wind. Outside, a storm gathered strength. Eva breathed, but not too deeply. Criminals were hiding in the building. Somewhere. Not knowing where was maddening.
“Come out!” she yelled. The words ravaged her throat already sore from yelling. Sore from swallowing fear that frayed every nerve, especially after what happened to Jillie. Jillie! Sudden thoughts of her sister’s death rained down on her. Eva gripped her 9-millimeter Glock, feeling something stronger than fear. Bile rose past the curve in her long throat, a mixture of a bad lunch and raw anger. Hers was not a vicious anger. It continued to hurt, like a soft bone that would not heal.
No answer to her call. Experience told her no one would. Eva’s search of the storeroom had turned up only piles of empty crates. She was about to enter another room when the whistling wind blew her blond hair into her eyes, distracting her. Eva could not see! She swiped the hair from her eyes, shoved it behind her ears and into the top of her jacket.
A week ago, Eva chafed under her boss’s lecture—telling her that she and the rest of the Financial Investigations Group, or FIG, must bring to justice the terrorists who acted as if the whole world was their private Wild West. It was their job, Lou Phillips said. Fresh from a cushy job as liaison to Congress, what did Lou know about what drove her? Or about terrorists? Wasn’t FIG her idea in the first place after she stumbled on the financial records of the Grilled Onion restaurants?
Steady as a stalking cat, her weight shifting from one foot to the other, Eva moved toward the door. Large ammo clips drove down black jeans that hung on her hips. With each step, she closed in on her sworn enemy, the ones who cheered the plane that crashed into the Pentagon, killing Jillie. Al Qaeda, the mastermind behind September 11, had metastasized into other terrorist organizations. The Armed Revolutionary Cause was now the primary cancer, sprouting its dangerous cells around the world.
Jillie’s intense blue eyes danced before her. Eva shut her own for an instant. She still struggled with the pain of knowing that terrorists had murdered her identical twin. They might as well have chopped off Eva’s legs or cut out her heart. Inseparable since children, the two sisters shared more than the same features. What one did, the other
tried to do. A part of Eva was empty now. There was no solace, no forgiveness. She rarely prayed. Only when Scott got restless over her apathy did she go to church with him and the kids.
Eva paused at the door. If she practiced shooting more, she’d be better prepared today. Instead, the Glock felt foreign, like when she shoved her feet into Scott’s slippers. Until her transfer to FIG nine months ago, Eva lived behind a desk combing through financial records.
Trying to catch white collar criminals, she shot her gun at practice four times a year. Now, she and nine agents and police officers were hot on the money trail of terrorists operating in the United States and around the globe.
In the dark hallway, shards of light fought with cobwebs to pierce through the window. It was a strange place to recall what Grandpa Marty had said when she was little and afraid. He held up her pinkie and told her of the Dutch boy who saved the Netherlands from ruin with no more than that. If a small child plugged a leak in the dike, she could bring ARC to justice. It was more than a duty. It was her destiny.
Eva vowed to avenge Jillie’s death.
Eva gripped the gun so tightly it felt like part of her right hand and, taking a deep breath, stepped inside. She was ready to shoot, and would shoot, to save a life. Still, a powerful vise squeezed her chest.
A scruffy guy with a sawed-off shotgun whirled to face her!
Eva fired two quick blasts. He fell backward. There was no time to think about what she had done. Others might be skulking in the shadows. She spun left. Blood pounded in her ears. Her eyes swept the room. There was no threat.
Her Glock pointed in front of her, three rounds left, Eva crouched on legs strong from running with Scott and crept to one of two rooms she still had to check. Eva burst through the doorway. Her eyes checked the room. It was empty. She sucked in a short breath, then pounced to the other side of the hallway. The door to the final room was closed. She kicked the wood, near the handle. It flew open. Eva stood face to face with an armed man.
This is it! Her brain told her to squeeze the trigger. But, before she fired the fatal blast, she saw it, on his belt. A gold badge! Eva’s heart thudded. She had nearly shot a federal agent!
A sharp whistle pierced the air. The range master’s voice crackled over a loudspeaker, “Cease firing. Secure your weapon.”
Eva complied with his order, and answered the range master’s question, “Is the line safe?” by yelling loudly, “My weapon is safe.”
He must have heard because he announced to the other agents over a speaker, “You may move about.”
Alone in the practice room, Eva stared at the cardboard federal agent she nearly shot. Its unchanged expression mocked her, and a chill flooded her body. Her specialty was not marksmanship it was nabbing criminals who hid money. Her shooting was improved, but she had never shot a live criminal. Could she? Was her courage a few minutes ago simply a bravado on the shooting range that would freeze under live fire?
The painted face seemed to grow grim. Like an outtake from a movie, a horrible picture blinked through Eva’s mind. The sea pounded next to a beach house and a man lay crushed against weathered wood. His face looked up at her. He screamed for help. Before she could reach out her hand, he passed out. Eva squeezed shut her eyes to obliterate the image that had startled her awake that morning. Sweat once again dotted her hairline. The only difference was that this morning the man in the dream was faceless. Now, she saw he was her boss, Lou. Several premonitions had visited her in the past, but she refused to acknowledge them now. Just because they had been real then didn’t mean this was real now, that her boss was in danger.
Eva assured herself that Lou was hard at work in the office and retraced her steps to inspect the other bad guy. The cardboard terrorist, knocked from the mechanical frame, boasted holes in its forehead and neck, right at the carotid artery. Her trim fingers touched the leather holster cradling her Glock. The last to shoot, Eva had grown nervous, though you wouldn’t know it by her precise shooting. Eva managed a tight smile. She passed qualification.
More than that, if the target had been real, she’d be alive for Scott and their two kids, and that terrorist would no longer be a threat, which meant her aim was good enough to save another agent’s life. A lilt in her step, Eva left “Scruffy” behind and threw open the door. The wind banged it behind her.
Eva went to find out if she had scored higher than her partner and could rib him about it over coffee. That was doubtful. A seasoned FBI agent, Griffin Topping was an expert shot and better at everything, an irritation that Eva mentioned to no one. Though satisfied with her first performance at the famous Hogan’s Alley, she needed to get more comfortable with this range and her Glock.
A few steps inside the gun cleaning room, she learned how mundane were her concerns.
Griff grabbed her elbow. “Wanda called on my cell. Why is yours always turned off?”
Eva reached for her phone, but it was not in her pocket. Had she put it in the locker?
She asked, “How high was your score?”
He shook his head. “It’s bad news.”
A smile erupted on her face. She had beaten him after all.
“What, not perfect as usual?”
“Forget my score. I’m talking about Wanda’s call.”
“Has something happened to Andy? Kaley?”
Griff handed her his cell phone. “Your kids are fine.” He wiped his thick brown moustache with the palm of his left hand, and added, “As far as I know.”
Their FIG mate, Jefferson County Deputy Sheriff Trenton Nash, stood next to Griff, who was five inches taller and, at thirty-seven, ten years older than Nash. Trenton said, “It’s Lou.”
A shudder coursed through Eva. Minutes before, she had envisioned Lou lying on his back, screaming. Had something really happened to him?
With fear in her eyes, she searched Griff ’s face. “Did he—is he all right?” she managed to stammer.
Griff touched her arm. “Lou fell from a ladder, cleaning windows at the beach cottage. He’s about to have back surgery.”
No! Eva leaned against the table. She couldn’t admit what she had seen, not yet. After Jillie died, in a moment of vulnerability Eva had hinted of her last vision to Scott. He reacted so negatively, she never told him the rest. To have it happen again! Why did she see things before they happened? She pressed the sides of her head. It was crazy, and she had no one to talk to about it.
She strode to the door calling back to her partner, “We should be there. He has no family.”
Griff stopped her. “He’s at Johns Hopkins. We’ve got another problem. When Judge Pendergast’s clerk did not reach you, Wanda gave her my number.”
Eva rolled her eyes. “The one day I’m out of the office, the Judge’s clerk calls.”
Probably the insurance case she was working on with Dan Simmons, Assistant U.S. Attorney. Because the insurance agent continued to defraud the elderly, Dan filed a motion with Eva’s affidavit to revoke his bond. Did the judge want to grill her personally? Unlikely.
But Pendergast was an unusual U.S. District Court Judge. He did everything by the book. Nothing got past him. Ever. Or so it seemed to Eva.
Griff and Trenton stared at her. Her eyes met Griff ’s. “What?”
“The shooting must have fried your brain.” Griff thumped his temple with his finger. “I said, it’s Operation Money Changer, our big raid, you know, the day after tomorrow? Judge Pendergast won’t sign the warrants because Earl’s affidavit fails to provide probable cause. His clerk hinted the judge might sign if you or I were the affiant. Since he’s known our work for more than ten years.”
Eva sighed. Right problem, wrong case. She checked her watch. Wednesday, 3:30 p.m. The judge would leave soon. They must have the warrants. The task force worked for a month to get the leads to the ARC terror cell operating in northern Virginia. She was not about to let Pendergast interfere with the operation because Earl was new to him. If Eva drove to the Court in Alexandria, she would never make dinner at church, and she had promised Scott she’d go. She made an instant decision.
Before she could reveal it, Trenton thrust forward his strong chin.
“I’ll prepare a new affidavit. Earl let me read the old one.”
Griff snickered. “Why would Pendergast sign a search warrant based on your affidavit? He’s never met you. You’ve been with FIG for, what, three weeks?”
Eva held up her hand. “Thanks for the offer, Trenton, but Griff ’s right. Griff, can you call Wanda and dictate a new paragraph with more probable cause?”
Eva’s partner raised a bushy eyebrow. “There’s that info the CIA gave Earl from the detainee at Guantanamo.”
Eva shook her head. “Not over the cell.”
“Okay. I’ll be creative.” Griff took back his phone, called their secretary and gave Wanda precise instructions. He nodded his head twice, then said, “I’ll tell Eva.”
He punched the key to end the call. “If that doesn’t convince the judge to sign, I’ll pen in the CIA stuff.”
“Tell me what?”
“Scott wants you to get his suit at the dry cleaners. He needs it for Friday. Find your cell phone. I’m not your answering service.” Griff reached the door, turned and shot back, “Lou’s boss named you acting supervisor of FIG until Lou returns. Which means, Friday is your baby.”
With his usual engaging smile, Trenton said, “Lou told me to cover the back entrance. But, you’re the boss. Whatever I can do. I’ve been on raids before.”
Eva flinched at the title. She hadn’t wanted a promotion this way.
Still, she liked the sound of being an ICE Supervisory Special Agent.
It had a cold, hard ring to it. Since September 11, Immigration Customs Enforcement, or ICE, was no longer United States Customs, but an integral component of the Department of Homeland Security. The Financial Investigations Group (FIG) was a special task force created within ICE after Eva discovered links to Middle Eastern terrorists in the Grilled Onion Restaurant chain’s financial records. Her mission: to find and arrest two kinds of Americans, those who gave money to terrorists and those who used legitimate businesses to aid them.
Because of Eva’s sterling record of catching financial criminals, her mentor, Alexia Kyros, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, had lobbied for Eva to lead FIG. Alexia had told Eva that, soon after being sworn in as the U.S. Attorney, she realized many federal law enforcement agencies were reluctant to cooperate with one another or the local police. For national security reasons and to prevent leaks, the feds were against permitting others to work within their offices. Eva marveled at how Alexia had convinced the FBI, DEA, and ICE, Eva’s own agency, to donate experienced investigators to the task force concept, where each agency supervised its own task force, under the oversight of Alexia. While located away from their authorizing agencies, the task forces operated under the same regulations and security as the agency. Each was assigned officers from state and local police agencies and paid supplemental overtime with funds Alexia obtained from the Department of Justice. FIG was the ICE task force, and Eva was now in charge.
Unfortunately, even though Alexia conceived the idea of a stand alone task force to better marshal resources, her pull wasn’t as strong as that of U.S. Senator Russell H. Bell, the powerful Chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. And Lou’s uncle.
Not one to get wrapped up in the politics of career climbing, Eva had no problem working under Lou. Besides, when FIG was born she became Griff ’s partner, which was what she had wanted for years. Not only did Griff have a hard-nosed work ethic that matched hers, he was smart. No, more than smart. He was clever, and he had a knack for telling a funny story when they needed it most.
As acting supervisor of FIG, Eva steeled herself for the barrage of decisions she’d need to make. Besides Griff, who was on assignment from the FBI, and Trenton, who was on loan from the Jefferson County Sherriff, she was now in charge of four other federal agents, one ICE, two IRS, and one Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, plus a Fairfax County Sheriff Deputy and a Virginia State Trooper. A blend of personalities, each was fiercely independent. She was the only woman. Lou kept things close, sticking to the motto, “Need to know.” He never fully briefed her on Operation Money Changer.
Lou chose Earl as lead investigator, and now the judge had tossed him aside, so to speak.
Beyond knowing the target was Farouk Hamdi, whom Earl believed ran ARC’s cell from his Columbia City townhouse, plus being aware of the CIA’s take on him, Eva was on the outer circle of the raid plan. But two things were firm in her mind. By Friday morning, she had to learn everything there was to know, and dinner at church was out. While missionaries droned on about their work in the jungles, harping that they needed money, she’d be frantic to work on Money Changer. It all came down to the green stuff, which she tracked fifty, sometimes sixty, hours a week.
Griff and Trenton were arguing over the affidavit. Eva glanced at Griff. Beneath his moustache, his lips were pressed together, as if ready to demolish Trenton with a word as soon as he took a breath.
Trenton’s deep-set hazel eyes warned that he would not be ignored, and mischief played at the corners of his mouth. Eva suspected he was adept at getting what he wanted. With Lou in critical condition, it was up to her to make the transition. Right here, right now.
She interrupted their dispute. “First thing tomorrow, I’ll see Lou. He may not say much, but it’s worth a try. I’ll tell him not to worry. He assembled the best team. Together, we’ll bring down this Virginia cell. Griff, be in the office early to discuss raid plans. Now, get going.”
Griff protested, “Lou gave me tomorrow off. I reserved a Cessna Skyhawk.”
Eva shot him a look that said, “Don’t you dare leave me hanging.”
His hand on the doorknob, Griff surrendered. “I’ll cancel it.”
Trenton edged closer to Eva. “There is nothing more important to me than getting these guys. I can be in by seven.”
Eva smothered a laugh. Cool and experienced, Griff could execute the raid on the fly. Trenton wanted to make his mark. She needed her team to think like one. A sudden thought came to her, and she made the second decision since her promotion minutes ago.
“Griff, you’re right. Trenton is new to us. As a deputy sheriff, he’s more familiar with things local. You have thirteen years experience as an FBI agent and can teach him a lot. Shake the hand of your new partner.”
Eva was surprised when Griff shoved both hands in his pockets and asked Trenton, “This your first time qualifying at Quantico?”
Trenton took the dig in stride. He pushed open the door for Griff.
“Am I that obvious? My dad loves this range.”
Before Eva could ask Trenton about his dad, the rangemaster stepped into the room, removed a navy blue cap with “FBI”emblazoned in gold letters, and announced, “Marine One has landed. The President will address the agents and police officers training here today. Everyone is requested to join us in the auditorium. Immediately.” Eva froze next to the gun cleaning table. Her Glock was still in its leather holster, and she had not cleaned it.
As if reading her mind, Griff pointed to a row of metal lockers.
“Store it until after his speech. Sounds like an order to me.”
At the locker, she exchanged her gun for her cell phone, then pushed Griff out the door. “Not for you. Call me when those warrants are signed. Trenton, you and I have to stay.”
Trenton laughed. “A few minutes anyway. We can sit in back, then sneak out.”
Eva frowned. Such a move would be not only rude, it could be career ending. “Don’t even think about it. Start for the auditorium. I’ve got a phone call to make.”
She called Scott, left him a message that her promise to go to church was being thwarted by the President of the United States, and hung up, feeling no regret.
Eva sprinted across campus, her phone clipped to her waist band. The storm predicted by the local meteorologist was about to let loose. A streak of lightening split the sky. She counted, one thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand—thunder crashed against swelling dark clouds. That was close. The air was thick, but no rain fell. If she was lucky, she’d get inside before the heavens opened up.
Eva caught up with Trenton and Robbie, the Virginia State Trooper.
Tall and beanpole thin, Robbie looked even younger than Trenton, but he was closer in age to Eva, who was thirty-eight. A thought mocked her: Even with Griff ’s additions, what if the Judge refused to give them the warrants? She should have gone to see Pendergast. The race was on. Eva had to stop the money before it financed more terror.
An answer came as fast as the question. Why hadn’t she thought of it before?
Eva pulled the phone from her waistband and punched in the office number. Wanda answered after five rings. “Get me Earl.”
“He went home. Sulking you might say,” Wanda said, then laughed.
Eva checked her watch, which read 3:45 p.m. With mandatory overtime, they were all supposed to work until 6:00 p.m. There was nothing funny about Earl’s cutting out early. So the judge questioned his affidavit. He should not take it personally.
“I’ll call his cell.”
Wanda laughed again, a gushing chuckle Eva found exasperating.
“Won’t do any good. He left it sitting on his desk.”
Eva rolled her eyes. A large drop of rain fell on the edge of her upturned nose. Robbie must have gone on ahead. Trenton stood listening to her conversation.
“Wanda,” Eva said, hoping the secretary that Lou had brought with him from the Hill would do what she asked for a change. “Call his home and leave a message for him to call me. I’ll be with the President in a few minutes, or I’d call.”
Eva started walking and nodded at Trenton to come along. Wanda’s ugly chuckle again. “Yeah, and the First Lady is holding dinner for me. I’ve got to run and get my hair done.”
Keeping her frustration in check, Eva replied, “The President is about to speak here at Quantico.”
“How can Earl call you then?”
“My cell will vibrate.”
Eva ended the call, then rubbed her face with her free hand.
Trenton said, “My dad knows the President.”
A picture formed in Eva’s mind of Mr. Nash, standing in a greeting line at some political event he paid a thousand dollars to attend, shaking the President’s hand. She nearly dismissed the idea but recalled Trenton’s earlier remark about his dad being familiar with the Quantico range. Mr. Nash probably guarded the President at the White House.
Eva asked, “Your dad’s a Marine?”
Trenton lifted his chin. “He was an FBI firearms instructor here.”
That did not explain how he knew the President. She was about to ask him to elaborate, when her cell phone whirled against her waist.
Eva grabbed it and without looking at the screen, laid into Earl. “You shouldn’t have left. I don’t care what the judge said! We need to talk. About Friday.”
“It’s me. You said you’d come home early this afternoon. Does this mean you can’t?”
It was Scott. So much for ragging on Earl.
Eva got to the point. “Did you get my message?”
“No. I just left a meeting with the SecDef about Friday’s Congressional hearing. I’m getting the kids. Will you pick up my suit?”
The dry cleaners. She had forgotten Scott’s earlier message.
Eva whispered to Trenton, “Go on ahead.” She returned to Scott and said, “No. The President’s making a surprise speech. I have to be there. I may miss the dinner.”
“It’s supposed to be family time.”
Scott’s heavy sigh made her feel guilty. She said, “The sooner I get in there, the sooner I leave.”
Eva hung up. Trenton waited for her on the auditorium steps. She fastened her blowing hair, the color of dried wheat, into a trim ponytail behind her head and caught Trenton’s eye. “The rangemaster said to hurry.”
Trenton removed the phone from his belt. “My grandfather was an FBI agent, too. Worked for the big man himself, J. Edgar Hoover. Mrs. Montanna, can I make a quick call?”
“Call me Eva. Not now, Trenton. We’d better get a seat.”
Unfazed, Trenton punched in a number and said, “Dad! I qualified at Hogan’s Alley. The President’s speaking in a few minutes.”
Not wanting to insult the President by being late, Eva twirled a finger for him to hang up.
Trenton continued, “You should have seen me shoot, Dad. It was awesome.”
Eva held open the door and snapped, “Now, Trenton.”
He shot her a sheepish grin, then ended the call and muted his phone. Eva walked into the dimly lit auditorium, her newest team member so close behind she felt his breath on her neck. She spotted empty seats down front, in the middle, which forced them to step over several pairs of feet. Trenton eased in beside her.
Five Secret Service agents strode to the front of the stage. Security was tighter than usual, even for Quantico. Eva figured it had to be this way, now. Her life, along with the lives of all Americans, had changed since terrorists attacked the land of the free and the brave. Her family would never be the same.
Without the usual color guard or orchestral rendition of “Ruffles and Flourishes” and “Hail to the Chief,” the President strode to the podium. A sea of blue swelled like a giant wave as the audience rose to applaud. He quickly motioned for them to sit.
“You are gracious to stay late. I will get right to why I am here.”
The President said something about not forgetting those who died on September 11. How could she? Her last outing with Jillie had been during the weekend prior to that awful day.
Jillie had turned from driving and smiled, “Scott’s great to watch the kids. You and I need time alone with our folks.”
Eva studied her twin, an Army Judge Advocate lawyer. “Scott’s showing Kaley and Andy his new office, just down from yours. Mom and Dad will be thrilled to see us, even if you did cut your hair. ”
Jillie’s laugh was full-throated. “Wasn’t it brilliant of me to introduce you two?”
“I tried to return the favor. Have you and Griff gone out since I introduced you?”
“Griff offered to take me flying some evening when Brad is out of town next week.”
Eva complained, “Why date Brad, Jillie? He’s no good for you.”
Jillie’s fingers tapped against the steering wheel. “Why don’t you like him?”
Eva’s memory veered to early morning, September 11, 2001, and her awful dream—Jillie was trapped in a building about to collapse. When Eva awoke, she immediately phoned her sister and, on her voice mail, left a message she’d call her at work. Eva never got the chance. The terrorists saw to that. Could she ever forgive herself for not warning Jillie?
Eva blinked back a tear and tried to shut out the “what ifs.” The president strode to the edge of the stage and said, “Americans trust you to protect their freedoms. What you do with that trust matters. Because you uphold our ideals of justice, America is safer.”
Then, the President made a stunning announcement. “The reward for information leading to the capture of El Samoud, leader of the Armed Revolutionary Cause, has been raised from twenty-five million to fifty million dollars.”
Eva nearly shot out of her seat. The room erupted into applause.
A quick smile brightened the worn face of the President. It was a staggering sum. But would any amount of money make a difference to radicals who worshiped death? El Samoud had innocent blood on his hands. Whoever turned him in deserved every penny. Last month, ARC blew up a British plane, killing one hundred high school students flying to a musical competition in Vienna. What the President said next convinced Eva he understood what she was up against.
“El Samoud hides behind a veil of secrecy. So do his operatives. They live in our communities and want their neighbors to believe they are Americans. They celebrate the Fourth of July and eat hot dogs. But, these evil ones do more. They act on their hate for us and our allies, Britain and Israel.”
Eva exhaled. ARC’s sleeper cells were elusive. In the black-and-white photo Eva saw of Farouk Hamdi, franchise director for the Grilled Onion, he was cleanshaven and every bit the successful entrepreneur. A diamond studded his earlobe. If it was hard for federal agents to discern the terrorists, how did the average American know of whom to be wary? In these perilous times, was there such a thing as an average American?
The Commander-in-Chief returned to the podium, his hands gripped the sides. “We must prevent El Samoud and his minions from killing those who do not follow their beliefs. In the hot light of history, they will be revealed as cowards. Cowards who stop at nothing to change the world as we know it to one filled with death and horror.”
Eva felt death and horror at Jillie’s funeral. Fresh grief thundered through her. Years of training suppressed an urge in her to scream, You’ll pay!
The President put on reading glasses. “This week, I received a letter from a 10-year-old boy. His father was killed by the first plane that crashed into the World Trade Center. He writes, ‘My Dad died protecting our country. My brother and I no longer have him with us to play baseball or go camping. Mom bakes bread, and I started a paper route to help. I want to be a policeman, like my Dad.’”
The President’s voice cracked. His hands thumped the podium. “With your help, the terrorists who take the lives of our innocent children will soon be facing justice!” Eva was on her feet with the others. The President should read that boy’s letter on TV. The whole nation needed to hear it and believe in the mission. Some Americans had grown complacent, believing ARC and their ilk were no longer a threat. In her heart, Eva knew the awful truth. They were out there, working, planning, waiting to strike. Again.