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FALLING

The airport was busy and hot. Marlena had to walk fast to keep up.

"The transmitter is very small, less than half the size of a pencil eraser," Special Agent Owen Lee said. He had the slender build of a swimmer and talked with a slight lisp. "Your job is to plant the transmitter and walk away, and then you can enjoy a few days of R & R here in the Caymans, courtesy of the federal government."

"I still don't understand why you specifically requested me," Marlena said. It was a valid question. She was a lab rat. Her expertise was in forensics not surveillance.

"I asked for a confident young woman, someone who could think on her feet," Lee said. "She also needed to be exceptionally good-looking and Cuban, because this guy has a thing for Cuban women. That's when your name came up."

"Who's the subject?"

"Malcolm Fletcher."

Marlena felt her legs wobble.

Malcolm Fletcher, one of the brightest minds the FBI had ever produced, was now one of the FBI's Most Wanted. Currently he had a two-million-dollar price tag on his head for the deaths of at least three federal agents.

And that was just what the federal government was offering. For years, Marlena had heard rumors of a reward somewhere in the neighborhood of five million dollars being offered by Jean Paul Rousseau. His son, Special Agent Stephen Rousseau, had been part of a failed attempt to apprehend Fletcher. Now Stephen Rousseau was brain dead and still on a feeding tube.

"Judging by your expression, I take it you know who he is."

Marlena nodded, swallowed. "Is it true about his eyes?"

"No pigment at all, totally black," Lee said. "I hear you've applied for the open position in Investigative Support."

"Yes." Marlena was hoping her lab experience would give her an edge over the other applicants competing for the coveted spot inside the Investigative Support Unit, the section of the FBI that deals exclusively with serial murder.

"Capturing Fletcher and bringing him home to justice-this is the kind of case that makes careers. I hope you take directions well."

"You can count on me, sir."

"Good. Now let's go buy you a dress. You're going to a cocktail party."


Marlena dropped her suitcase into the back of a battered Jeep. Sitting behind the wheel was a man who could have easily passed as a body double for the Incredible Hulk. He wore a Yankees baseball hat and a T-shirt stretched so tight it looked moments away from splitting. His name was Barry Jacobs, one of the members of Lee's surveillance team.

Malcolm Fletcher, Lee explained, was a man with very particular tastes. Everything had to be just right. Lee insisted she model each dress for him.

Each time, Marlena stood in front of him while Lee sat in a leather chair, telling her to turn around or to the side. Lee didn't smile or say much, but she felt his gaze lingering too long over the exposed parts of her body. To get past her discomfort, Mar-lena focused on the store-the rows of expensive shoes and the glass jewelry cases, the bright smile of the helpful Frenchwoman who kept bringing her different cocktail dresses. Here she came again, holding up a tasteful yet revealing black Gucci.

When Marlena stepped out wearing the Gucci, Lee's expression brought to mind a recent rape case she had worked on-a handsome, Ivy-educated young man who drugged women with Rohypnol and videotaped what he did with them. The way the young man smiled as he unbuckled his belt was a lot like the way Lee was smiling right now.

While Lee paid for the dress and shoes, Marlena excused herself and went outside. Jacobs was leaning against the store wall, smoking a cigarette.

"Can I bum one of those?"

Jacobs handed her a cigarette, then lit it for her. "You nervous about tonight?" he asked.

"Should I be?"

"No. I'll be at the yacht club, but you won't see me. Lee and the other two agents on our team, they'll be monitoring everything from the operations house about five or so miles down the road. That's where we've been staying. Lee's got you booked in a nice hotel."

Having male and female agents sharing the same quarters was now against regulations; too many female agents had complained about lewd behavior and sexual harassment. And after the creepy way Lee had looked her over, Marlena felt relieved to be staying someplace else.

"Fletcher has never attacked anyone in public before. As long as you don't go anywhere alone with him, you'll be fine." Jacobs stubbed out his cigarette. "I'll go get the Jeep. Tell Lee it's going to be a few minutes. I had to park in a garage."

Two doors down, Marlena spotted a revolving display holding rows of bright, colorful postcards of the Caymans. The postcards immediately brought to mind her mother. Ruthie Sanchez took the postcards family and friends had sent her over the years and taped them up on the wall inside her janitor's closet. She'd loved her postcards with their scenic views.

Marlena picked out two postcards she thought her mother would have enjoyed. As she paid for them, along with a pack of cigarettes, she tried hard to push away the memory of her mother trapped on the fifty-sixth floor of the World Trade Center's north tower, the fire and horrifying screams growing louder and closer as her mother stared at the shattered window leading out to a blue sky thick with smoke, her only way out.


Owen Lee insisted on conducting the briefing inside her hotel room. He handed her a folder and excused himself to talk with Jacobs in the hallway. Marlena read the file on the balcony overlooking a crowded beach.

The report was mostly about Fletcher's movements on the island over the past week. Twice he had been spotted talking to Jonathan Prince, a lawyer who owned a private bank on the island. According to an unnamed informant, Fletcher was supposed to meet Prince at tonight's cocktail party to pick up his new identity, complete with passport and credit cards.

Here were four surveillance photos. The first was of Jonathan Prince standing outside a pair of glass doors. He was an older man, with a shaved head and a nose shaped like a beak. The last three photographs were of Fletcher. In each, the former FBI profiler wore stylish clothing and different types of sunglasses. Mar-lena was wondering about the strange, black eyes hidden behind the dark lenses when Lee stepped onto the balcony and handed her a Prada handbag.

"A Rolex watch and a pair of diamond stud earrings are in there to help you look the part," Lee said. "The transmitters are inside the small, zipped pouch."

Mounted on a rectangular piece of plastic were six transmitters, each one a different color to match whatever fabric color the target might be wearing.

Lee pulled up a chair and sat down. "The top part is made with this Velcro-like substance that attaches itself to any fabric. You barely have to apply any pressure. Go ahead and try it."

Marlena peeled off the white disk, reached around Lee's back and brushed her finger against the collar of his shirt, marveling at the way it so easily stuck to the fabric. The transmitter was so small you could barely see it.

"Good technique," Lee said, and smiled.

Marlena smelled the mint-scented mouthwash on his breath. His red hair was damp and neatly combed. She hoped to God he hadn't spruced himself up for her.

"You mind if I smoke?" Marlena asked.

"Not as long as you share," Lee said.

Marlena went into the bedroom and came back with her cigarettes. She lit one, then handed the pack and matches to Lee. "I read over the report." She casually moved her chair to give her some distance. "There was no mention as to where Fletcher is staying on the island."

"That's because we don't know. Fletcher's highly educated with surveillance techniques, so we can't use our normal methods. Plus, he tends to move around only at night, which presents its own set of problems. Now, tell me what you've heard about him."

"Mainly that he's brilliant."

"Without a doubt. When he worked for Investigative Support, he had the highest clearance rate on serial murder. Unfortunately, Fletcher crossed a line. Instead of bringing these monsters in, he acted as their judge, jury and executioner. When the bureau found out what he was doing, they sent three agents to Fletcher's home to handle the matter discreetly. One agent is brain dead and hooked up to a feeding tube. The other two agentswe still don't have any idea what happened to them. Fletcher's been on the run ever since."

"How did you find him?"

"The informant mentioned in the report is a secretary at Prince's firm. For years, we've believed Fletcher used the Caymans to shift around his money and change identities. Now we know it's true. She supplied us with the aliases Fletcher's been using, his bank accounts, you name it."

Lee lit his cigarette, tossed the match off the balcony. "Fletcher's scheduled to meet Prince at ten. The cocktail party will be crowded, everyone holding drinks, trying not to bump into one another. You're going to walk behind Fletcher, touch the back of his arm and say, 'Excuse me'-you know, pretend to bump into him. Go for a casual approach, it always works best."

"And if Fletcher approaches me?"

"Then you talk to him. Be yourself, flirt with him, touch his arm or shoulder like you're interested, and then find a way to put the transmitter on him-and once you do, don't disengage right away. That will look suspicious. Talk to him for a few minutes, and then find a way to excuse yourself. We'll take it from there."

"Why did the secretary give up Fletcher?"

"She's planning on leaving her husband, and two million buys her a new life and a whole lot of distance. Now, to answer your next question-why aren't we using her to plant the transmitter? First off, she doesn't have direct access to Fletcher. He never meets Prince at the office, only in public places where he has multiple escape routes. Second reason is, even if I could arrange some scenario to get the secretary next to Fletcher tonight, the woman is not what I'd call grace under pressure. If I send her in with an agenda, Fletcher will pick up on it right away."

"Why not just approach Fletcher directly? You certainly have the manpower."

"True, but then we'd have to bring in the locals. Prince has many friends on the inside, people who can be easily bought. There are extradition issues and some others that don't concern you.

"Look, Marlena, I can understand why you're nervous," Lee said. "But you've got to trust me when I say I have all the bases covered. The watch in your purse is equipped with a listening device, so we'll all be listening in. If there's a problem or a change in plans, Jacobs will get word to you. And if I think you're in danger, I'll pull you out. We've got a boat standing by, just in case. You'll be fine as long as you remember this rule-under no circumstances are you to go anywhere alone with Fletcher." "Jacobs mentioned that."

"Head over to the party around eight and get a feel for the place. Your name is already on the guest list. The set of keys on your bed belong to a black Mercedes parked out in the back lot. The directions to the club are under the seat."

Marlena stared out at the water.

"Wipe that look off your face," Lee said. "Everything's going to be fine."

You keep saying that, Marlena thought, wondering who Lee was really trying to convince.


The yacht club was located at the opposite end of the island, a remote and stunningly beautiful spot overlooking a sprawling dock packed with sailboats and yachts. Apparently, this was the place to be if you were in the market for a trophy wife or a sugar daddy. There wasn't a woman here over the age of thirty-five, each stunningly beautiful and wearing a dress worthy of a red-carpet show. Now Marlena understood Lee's obsession about picking out the perfect dress.

It was coming up on ten. For the past half hour, Marlena had been forced to listen to a fossil named William Bingham, aka Billy Bing, the Mercedes King of Fresno, California, talk about sailing the way you'd talk about great sex. As she pretended to listen, scanning the well-dressed crowd for Malcolm Fletcher and Jonathan Prince, her thoughts kept drifting back to the postcards.

This wasn't the first time she had purchased something for her mother after she died-this past Christmas she had dropped two hundred dollars on a cashmere sweater at Talbots. It wasn't like she could take the sweater or the postcards to her mother's grave. Ruthie Sanchez didn't have a grave. Like so many 9/11 victims, her remains were never found-and they would never be found because Marlena had signed away all rights to her mother's remains in exchange for a lucrative settlement that had allowed her to put her severely autistic brother in a special home.

Anyone with a rudimentary understanding of psychology would say her need to purchase gifts for her dead mother was about not wanting to let go. Fine. But there was another reason, something Marlena had told no one, not even her therapist. Every time she held the postcards, the Christmas sweater, the crystal vase she had bought on the first anniversary of her mother's death, the feeling that kept boiling to the surface was outrage. The hijackers and planners, the CIA and FBI bureaucrats and politicians who had ignored the warning signs-Marlena wanted to take these people and, just like in the Bible, stone them to death over a period of weeks. Thinking about the different ways she could punish the people responsible-that was the feeling that kept coming to her over and over again.

Marlena snapped her mind back to the present. Billy Bing was still talking; something to do with golf. Thank God, here came the waiter with her glass of wine.

"A gentleman at the bar wanted me to give this to you," the waiter said, and handed her a folded napkin.

Written in black ink was a message: Use phone on top of cooler inside boat Falling Star, near end of dock. Untie boat, then call and follow instructions. Jacobs. A phone number was written under his name.

Marlena politely excused herself from the conversation and headed for the docks, remembering Lee's words from this afternoon: If I think you're in danger, I'll pull you out of there. We've got a boat standing by.

So something had gone wrong, and now she was in danger.

Heart pounding, she stood on the dock in front of the Falling Star, an oversized Boston whaler, the kind of charter boat most likely used for deep-sea fishing. The boat was dark and empty, but the one moored next to it, a Sea Ray motor yacht, was lit up and packed with well-dressed people drinking highballs and smoking cigarettes and cigars.

Marlena took in her surroundings. A lot of people were milling around on the docks but nobody was heading this way. Okay, get moving. She stepped on board the Falling Star, feeling it rock beneath her heels, and set her wineglass and purse on the table inside the cabin. Under the table were two matching extra-large Coleman coolers wrapped in chains and secured by padlocks. A third Coleman sat against the wall behind her, near the cabin door. This cooler wasn't locked; the chains had been removed and lay in a ball on the floor. Sitting on the cooler's top were two items: a cell phone and a set of keys. The top, she noticed, wasn't fully shut.

As instructed, Marlena went to work untying the boat from the dock, glancing up every few seconds to survey the area. People were minding their own business, their laughter and voices mixing with the old-time jazz music coming from the Sea Ray. After she hoisted the last rubber fender onto the stern, she moved back inside the cabin, grabbed the cell and dialed the number written on the napkin.

"Don't talk, just listen," said the man on the other end of the line. His voice was deep and surprisingly calm. Must be one of the two agents she hadn't met-the ones monitoring from the house, she thought. "The keys on top of the cooler are for the boat. Drive out of the harbor. Get moving. We don't have much time."

The man on the phone told her where to find the switch for the lights. Marlena started the boat. The twin engines turned over, the floor vibrating beneath her as she increased the throttle and slowly eased the boat away from the dock with one hand on the wheel, the other pressing the phone tightly against her ear.

Something heavy landed on the stern. Marlena whipped her head around, her panic vanishing when she saw Barry Jacobs, dressed in the same dark suit as the waitstaff, step inside the cabin.

Thank God, Marlena thought. Jacobs, red-faced and sweating, yanked the phone away from her and tossed it against the floor.

Marlena stared at him, dumbfounded. She opened her mouth to speak, the words evaporating off her tongue as Jacobs shoved her up against the wall.

"What the fuck do you think you're doing?" he demanded.

"You told me to take the boat out."

Jacobs dug his fingers deep into her arms. "Don't lie to me, or I swear to Christ-"

"I'm telling you the truth," Marlena said. "A waiter gave me a note written on a napkin. Your name was signed on the bottom. It said to-"

"And you just came down here?"

"Lee said if there was a problem, you'd get word to me-" "Where's this note?" "In my purse."

"Get it." Jacobs released her and took control of the wheel. He increased the throttle, and the boat lurched forward.

Glass shattered inside the cabin. When Marlena stepped inside, she saw that her wineglass had fallen to the floor. The cooler near the cabin door had moved. Drops of blood were leaking around the seams of the cooler's half-opened top. Mar-lena reached down and opened the cooler.

As a forensics specialist, she had seen her share of dead bodies, the dozens of different ways human beings could be cut, broken and bruised. But seeing the way Owen Lee had been dismembered sent a nauseous scream rising up her throat.

"Barry."

Then Jacobs was standing next to her. He slammed the cooler shut.

"Relax, take deep breaths," Jacobs said as he escorted her to the seat. "I'm going to call the command post."

Jacobs held out his cell phone. Marlena stared at him, confused.

Something hot and sharp pierced her skin. Marlena looked down at her chest and saw twin metal prongs attached to wires; Jacobs was holding a Taser. The charge swept through her body, and the next thing Marlena saw was her mother clutching her hand as they fell together through an electric-blue sky.


Marlena heard splashing. Her eyes fluttered open to moonlight.

She was still on the boat, lying across one of the padded seats set up along the stern. All the deck and interior lights had been turned off, as had the engine. A cooler lay on its side, opened. It was empty.

Something heavy bumped against the boat. Marlena had an idea what was going on and went to push herself up but couldn't move. Her hands were tied behind her back, her ankles bound together with the same coarse rope. She swung her feet off the seat and managed to sit.

She was out in open water, far away from the harbor. Zigzagging along the sides and back of the boat were several distinctively shaped dorsal fins. And those were just the sharks she could see.

"There's no need to panic, Marlena. I'm not going to feed you to the sharks."

She turned away from the water and looked up into Malcolm Fletcher's strange, black eyes.

Marlena backed away and fell, hitting her head against the side of the boat before toppling onto the floor. She lay on her stomach, about to roll onto her back-she could use her feet to kick- when Fletcher's powerful hands slid underneath her arms and lifted her into the air, toward the water. She tried to fight.

"Despite what the federal government has led you to believe, I have no intention of harming you," Fletcher said, dropping her back on the seat. "Now, I can't say the same is true about Special Agent Jacobs. Lucky for you I was on board to put a stop to it."

Fletcher's face seemed darker than in the surveillance pictures, more gaunt. He was impeccably dressed in a dark suit without a tie.

"Before I cut you free, I'd like a piece of information-and I'd appreciate some honesty," Fletcher said. "Will you promise to be honest with me? This is important."

Marlena nodded. She took in several deep breaths, trying to slow the rapid beating of her heart.

"Those postcards you purchased earlier, who were they for?"

The question took her by surprise.

"I bought them for my mother," Marlena said after a moment. "She's dead, isn't she?"

"How did-? Yes. She's dead. Why?"

"Tell me what happened."

"She died on 9/11. She was inside one of the buildings-the north tower."

"Did you have a chance to speak with her?" "Not directly. She left a message on my machine." "What did she say?"

"She said, 'I love you, and remember to take care of your brother.' There was some background noise, and then the cellphone signal cut off."

Marlena thought about the other voice on the tape, a man whispering to her mother. A friend at the FBI lab had enhanced it: "Hold my hand, Ruthie. We'll jump together." The crazy thing was how much the man sounded like her father, who died when she was twenty. Or maybe she just wanted to believe her mother hadn't been alone during her final moment.

"I'm sorry for your loss," Fletcher said, and meant it. "Excuse me for a moment."

Fletcher ducked inside the cabin. Water splashed along the back and sides of the boat. A moment later, he came back, dragging a hog-tied Jacobs across the floor. Fletcher propped Jacobs up into a kneeling position directly in front of her. A piece of duct tape was fastened across Jacobs's mouth.

"Remember what I said earlier about confession being good for the soul," Fletcher said to Jacobs, and then tore off the strip of tape.

Jacobs stared at the sharks circling the boat. He swallowed several times before speaking. "I sold you out to bounty hunters working for Jean Paul Rousseau. Stephen, his son, was a federal agent, part of a team sent to apprehend Fletcher."

"Those agents were sent to kill me," Fletcher said. "I acted purely out of self-defense, but that's a story for another time. Keep going, Special Agent Jacobs."

"Rousseau wanted Fletcher captured alive and brought back to Louisiana. That was the condition of the reward. The bounty hunters and people working for Rousseau, they wanted us to disappear. Everyone would assume you were responsible because you have a track record of making federal agents disappear. That way, it would keep the heat off Rousseau."

"I'm afraid Jacobs is telling the truth about the bounty hunters," Fletcher said. "I've been following Lee for the past week. Naturally, I wanted to see what he was up to, so I took the liberty of tapping into his phone conversations-the FBI's encryption technology is woefully out of date. After Lee and Jacobs left your hotel, I followed them back to the house they've been using as a base of operations. You can imagine my surprise when, two hours later, five rather disturbing-looking men emerged from the back doors and carried three oversize coolers to the fishing boat Lee used to transport all his surveillance equipment. I recognized one of these gentlemen from a previous entangle-ment-a professional tracker, or bounty hunter, who works for Daddy Rousseau. Now tell Marlena about what you had planned for her."

Jacobs didn't answer.

Fletcher whispered something in Jacobs's ear. He looked terrified.

"After you planted the transmitter, the bounty hunters were to move in and take care of Fletcher," Jacobs said, his voice quivering. "They wanted me to take you out on the boat under the guise of meeting up with Lee at the operations house. You were supposed to disappear, out here in the water. The sharks were going to take care of you. No bodies, no evidence, no case."

"And where were you going?" Fletcher said. "Costa Rica."

"With how much money?"

A pause, then Jacobs said, "Seven million."

"It seems the price on my head has gone up," Fletcher said, grinning. "Jacobs neglected to mention the part where I slipped out of the utility closet and caught him in the act of feeling you up. I think he was preparing to share a special moment with you before dumping you overboard. It's not every day he has an opportunity to be intimate with such a beautiful woman. Did you tell Marlena about your colorful tenure in Boston?"

"I worked as a handler for informants."

"He's being modest," Fletcher said. "Special Agent Jacobs was the handler for two very powerful figureheads inside the Irish mafia. In exchange for lucrative payoffs, Jacobs ran interference so these two men could continue committing extortion, money laundering and murder. When his superiors got wind of what was going on, these two men suddenly disappeared. Any idea what happened to them?"

"I was cleared on those charges," Jacobs said.

"You were never indicted because the president stepped in and invoked executive privilege in order to protect a member of his high-ranking staff-a member who once worked as your boss in Boston. The corruption went well beyond Jacobs, and the president wanted it kept quiet. How many people died to protect your secrets, Special Agent Jacobs? How many people did you kill?"

Jacobs didn't answer.

"It doesn't matter. I think we've heard enough." Fletcher taped Jacobs's mouth shut.

Then Marlena watched as Fletcher dragged Jacobs, kicking and screaming, to the back part of the boat. The idea flashed through her mind: Jacobs alone in the water, screaming out in pain and horror as the sharks ripped him apart. No part of her rose up in protest or tried to push the thought away.

Jacobs was pinned against the stern, screaming behind the duct tape as he stared, wide-eyed and terrified, at the water.

"Do you want me to cut him loose before I toss him overboard?" Fletcher asked her.

Marlena didn't answer, aware of the intense feeling building inside her, the one she had when holding things like the postcards and the sweater.

"What would your mother want you to do?" Fletcher asked.

Marlena thought of her mother alone in that terrible moment, a woman who worked as a janitor and wanted nothing more out of life than to be a good mother to her two children, now forced to make a decision between jumping to her death and being burned alive.

She spotted a bright light on the horizon. The light belonged to a boat.

"That would be my ride," Fletcher said. "What's your answer?" She wanted Jacobs to suffer. But giving the order to do it was something else entirely.

"I want to bring him in," Marlena said.

"At the moment, you have no direct proof of his involvement with the bounty hunters. Jean Paul Rousseau is not a stupid man. And despite his rather apish appearance, I'm willing to bet Jacobs covered his tracks just as well. It will be your word against his. I don't have to remind you how those cases turn out, especially since Jacobs has connections in very high places."

"I'll work the evidence."

"I doubt you'll find any."

"I'll take my chances."

"Your choice." Fletcher released Jacobs. "Turn around, Mar-lena, and I'll untie your hands."

The boat that pulled alongside them was a cigarette boat, a bullet-shaped race boat designed for incredible speed. Standing behind the wheel was a pale man with a shaved head and an odd-looking nose-Jonathan Prince.

"Malcolm," Prince said. "We need to get moving."

She recognized the voice as the one she had spoken to earlier on the cell phone.

"You had this whole thing planned out," Marlena said, more to herself.

"I needed to move you to safety, and the only way to do it was to get you on the boat, away from the club." Marlena felt Fletcher's breath against her ear. "Those postcards and whatever other items you've bought since your mother's death? I suggest you bury them."

Her hands were cut free.

"I'll leave Jacobs tied up, in case you change your mind. Good luck, Marlena."

The cigarette boat roared away. She got to work untying the rope around her ankles. She didn't rush. She knew there was no way she could catch up to Fletcher.

During the commotion, Jacobs had managed to rub off part of the duct tape from the corner of his mouth. "I have an account set up here on the island," he mumbled. "I'll transfer the money to you. All I need is a laptop. You let me go, and I'll disappear. You'll never see me again."

Marlena didn't answer.

"Seven million," Jacobs said. "That kind of money can buy you a lot of things."

But it can't buy me what I need, Marlena thought, and went to start the boat.

"Wait, let's talk about this," Jacobs said. "We can come to some sort of agreement."

Marlena drove toward the bright lights of the island. She heard Jacobs screaming over the roar of the engines and wind, pleading with her to make a deal. Marlena drove faster and thought of her mother falling through the sky and tried hard not to dwell on the limitations of justice.


Chris Mooney | Thriller: Stories to Keep You Up All Night | Dennis Lynds