THE WARDEN calls you a monster.”
Tara Sheridan stared over the edge of a manila file folder at the man in an orange jumpsuit, wrists fettered to his waist with a belly chain. He looked back at her with contempt over a battered stainless steel table. As she paged through the psych reports conducted by other profilers, she was inclined to agree with the warden’s assessment. Zahar Mouda was an accused terrorist. He’d been caught by campus police at a large Midwestern university attempting to drag a drum of solvents out of the chemistry lab. He’d been unsuccessful in convincing the campus cops that he was dragging a keg to a frat house. Subsequent investigation had discovered other missing material that could be used to make bombs. Lots of them.
Zahar shrugged, the movement restricted by the rattle of the chain. For all the dire warnings in the reports before Tara, he looked very young to Tara: thin, gangly build, large brown eyes framed by square-rimmed glasses. His file said he was twenty-two. She watched his fingers fidget with his restraints, watched him chew his lip.
“Do you think I’m a monster?” he challenged.
“I don’t know. But the Bureau of Prisons would like me to find out.”
“What do you know about monsters?” Zahar snorted.
“Plenty,” Tara told him.
He stared at her, but his gaze faltered as it snagged on a white scar that crept up from the collar of Tara’s suit jacket, curling up around her neck to her jaw. Tara didn’t flinch, didn’t bother to hide it. Perhaps it wouldn’t hurt Zahar to know that Tara had faced much greater monsters than him. Monsters that had nearly killed her.
Tara leaned forward, pressing her elbows to the battered table, resting her chin in her hand. A wisp of chestnut hair from the chignon at the base of her neck pulled free, tickling the raised skin of the scar. She ignored it. “What were you doing with those chemicals?”
Zahar rolled his eyes. “Look, I was just trying to make some money. It was just little stuff, at first. First the guy asked for a departmental phone book, then a few sample slides, then …” He shook his head. “It was a few bucks, here and there. For dumb shit.”
Tara’s mouth thinned. This was how traitors were groomed. Small, inconsequential requests snowballed into larger favors. Before long, the victim had given up too much and was too indebted to his handler to climb out of the trap.
“You took the money. Why?”
“I’m trying to save up to bring my sister over here. She wants to study pharmacy.”
“Who offered you the money?”
“Some guy at the student union.”
“You got a name?” She regarded him with ink-blue eyes, measuring to see if he told the truth.
“Masozi. I already told the cops.”
Tara tapped her pen on her notepad, keeping her face carefully neutral. The Federal Bureau of Prisons had asked her to develop a profile on Zahar, to determine how dangerous he truly was. “How much?”
“Ten thousand per shipment.”
“That’s more than enough money to get your sister over here.”
Zahar leaned back in his chair, and Tara could sense he was shutting down. She tried a different tactic: “Tell me about your sister.”
Zahar licked his lips, and his eyes darted away. Not a good sign … His body language indicated he was buying time, fabricating. Or else weighing what to tell Tara. When he spoke, though, his voice was soft. Almost vulnerable. “You don’t understand. I had to buy my sister back.”
Tara’s pen stilled. “Buy her back?” she echoed.
“She’s married. Third wife of one of my father’s colleagues. He’s not really fond of her. Slaps her around.” Zahar looked away, and Tara watched his Adam’s apple bob as he swallowed. “He agreed to allow her to apply for a visa, but wanted money. Fifty thousand in U.S. dollars.”
“What about student loans?”
Zahar shook his head. “I’m on fellowship. My tuition’s waived, and I get a monthly stipend. Seven hundred fifty dollars, after taxes.” His mouth turned down, and he pushed his glasses up his nose with his shoulder. “And let’s face it, nobody wants to see a male chemistry nerd do fifty thousand dollars’ worth of exotic dancing down at the strip club.”
Tara cracked a smile. “Tell me about when you were children.”
Zahar didn’t miss a beat. “Asha’s three years younger than me. Takes after our mother. She did great in school. She got through her first year of college before she met my father’s business associate when she was home on break. The guy took an immediate shine to her.” His fists balled at his waist. “I wanted to kick his ass.”
“What was her favorite toy?”
“A doll my grandmother made for her. She named it Rahma.”
“Tell me about when you fought.” This was a trick question. All siblings fought. She wanted to gauge how honest Zahar was with her.
“Our worst fight was when we were little … She was probably seven. I found a bird egg in a tree and broke it over her head. She ran crying to our mother, and we both got punished.”
“Did you feel bad about that?”
“About getting my sister in trouble? Not really.”
“No.” She paused. “About breaking the egg.”
He blinked quizzically at Tara. “I don’t know what you mean.”
A knock rang against the metal door behind Tara, and a guard’s voice filtered through: “Five minutes, Dr. Sheridan.”
“Thank you,” Tara called. She scribbled some notes on her notepad. The Bureau of Prisons had guaranteed her a secure room without observation cameras for her interview with Zahar. She was heartened to see that someone had eventually bothered to check in on them.
Zahar stared at Tara. “Well, what did you decide?”
“What do you mean?”
“Did you decide whether or not I’m a monster?” His mouth twitched around the word.
“I haven’t made any decisions, yet.”
“But your opinion is one that matters.”
Tara’s mouth thinned. “Your psychological profile will make a great deal of difference in this investigation. But mine isn’t the only opinion you need to fear.”
“Will it make any difference in how I’m treated?” Zahar’s fingers knotted in the chain. “Am I going to get deported?”
“That’s not up to me.”
The door behind Tara swung open, and two federal prison guards crowded into the tiny room. They unlocked the belly chain from the metal chair, and marched the prisoner back through the door. Zahar’s plastic inmate flip-flops slapped on the concrete floor.
One of the guards held the door open. “You coming, ma’am?”
“Can you give me fifteen more minutes?” Tara said. “I’d like to jot down my notes while they’re fresh.”
“See you in fifteen.” The door clanged shut, and Tara was left in the tiny room with the fluorescent light buzzing overhead.
She stacked the contents of her file up neatly and placed it in the file folder. She shoved the folder aside, placed her purse on the table. She rooted around in the bottom of her purse for a pack of cigarettes. Tara didn’t smoke, but the cigarette pack attracted little notice on the metal detectors at the prison or in the quick manual search of her bags. Tara flipped off the lid of the pack and pulled out a deck of cards.
The backs of the cards were decorated in an Art Nouveau pattern of stars on a background of midnight blue, edged in silver. These Tarot cards had been a gift to replace the deck her mother had given her, long ago. They’d been a peace offering, of sorts—Tara’s lover had given them to her, though he was uneasy with what they represented. Tara’s original deck had been destroyed. These still felt too crisp to her, the cardstock stiff and shiny-new. She hadn’t quite yet bonded with this deck. Each deck had its own quirks, even a limited personality, and this one seemed determined to surprise Tara at each turn.
She moved to Zahar’s still-warm seat, wanting to occupy his physical space. She blew out her breath and shuffled the cards. The sharp cardstock cut her thumb as she shuffled, and she popped her thumb in her mouth as she wiped a droplet of blood from the edge of the deck.
“Tell me about Zahar,” she breathed at the cards, ignoring the paper cut. “Tell me about his heart, mind, and spirit.”
She pulled three cards and placed them, facedown, on the table. Tara’s fingers fogged the scratched stainless steel, and she turned the first one over.
The Fool, the first card in the deck, confronted her in a riot of clear watercolors. The ancestor of the joker in the modern playing card deck, the Fool depicted a young man skipping through a green field, toward the edge of a cliff. The Fool held a bundle over his shoulder, and gazed up at birds in a blue sky. The Fool, one of the Major Arcana cards, represented archetypes at play, suggested the broad strokes of destiny.
Tara steepled her fingers before her, brushing her lower lip. The Fool was a card of innocence and recklessness. It spoke of youth. Where Zahar was concerned, it might reflect the idea that Zahar had been carelessly going down the path of the traitor without watching where he was going. At heart, he might be more innocent than she’d thought.
She turned over the second card, the Seven of Cups. Cups were one of the four Minor Arcana suits, and represented choices and reactions to destiny. As a suit, cups represented emotions. In her three-card spread, this signified what had gone on in Zahar’s mind. The card depicted a man gazing at a pyramid of seven cups, from which fantastical creatures and images crawled: dragons, golden fish, a jewel-encrusted sword, a snake, a castle, a griffin, and a veiled woman. This was a card of illusions. Zahar’s head was filled with lies, perhaps from his handler, perhaps from his sister’s husband. Zahar may have started out innocent, as the Fool, but he’d made a choice to be deceived.
The last card in the spread represented spirit. Tara was most eager to see what Zahar really was, deep down. She flipped over the Three of Wands, which depicted a man staring out over the sea at a ship, surrounded by three staves. The Minor Arcana suit of wands represented fire, movement, and creation. But the Three of Wands was reversed, suggesting treachery and ulterior motives. Tara’s brow wrinkled. Zahar’s handler may have been lying to him, and Zahar might have even been deceiving himself. But, with this card, she was also certain that Zahar was lying to her.
She blew out her breath. She cleared the three cards from the table, shuffled them back into the deck. She felt the whir of the rigid cards in her hands as she whispered to them: “What else do I need to know?”
Tara cut the deck three times and drew the first card from the top of the reshuffled deck. Her brow creased as she turned it over.
The Lovers. The Major Arcana card depicted a man and a woman tangled in an embrace. It was difficult for her to tell where one ended and the other began. A voyeuristic angel watched over them from a cloud.
Stymied, Tara rested her head in her hand. She didn’t yet fully trust this new deck, and it seemed that this card had nothing whatsoever to do with Zahar’s situation. She tapped the picture with her fingers, let her mind rove around the image. She didn’t like where free-associating led her: to her own personal life. To Harry Li. Harry had given her this deck, and it seemed to be intent upon reminding her of him.
Her fingertips crawled up her collar to the scars lacing her throat, remembering Harry’s kisses upon them. She hadn’t seen Harry for months. As an agent for the Special Projects Division of the Department of Justice, he’d been sent out several times—destinations classified—on various assignments, making a relationship difficult. Tara understood; years ago, she’d been an agent for Special Projects. Special Projects took, but rarely gave anything back.
Her fingers hesitated on her scars. Special Projects had taken a great deal from her. Working for them, she’d fallen under the tender mercies of the Gardener, a serial killer who buried women in his greenhouses. She’d survived, barely, and called it quits. She only hoped that Harry wouldn’t be subjected to similar dangers.
The latch on the consultation room door ratcheted back, and the door opened. Tara scrambled to shovel her cards into her purse. Looking up with a scowl, she expected to see one of the guards.
“You’re back early—” she snapped, but her breath snagged in her throat.
Harry Li stood in the doorway, his hand on the knob. He was almost exactly as she’d remembered him from months ago: sharply creased charcoal suit, polished shoes, black hair precisely parted. But there were circles beneath his almond-shaped eyes.
“Hi, Tara.” He let the door clang shut behind him.
“I … oh. I thought you were the guard.” She finished scooping the cards into her purse, but her heart hammered.
Harry inclined his chin at the disappearing cards. “Still reading?”
“Yeah.” She zipped her purse shut and folded her hands over it. “How did you find me?” she asked, but what she really wanted to ask was: Why here, and why now?
“When you said you were getting back to work, I figured that you wouldn’t stray too far from your forensic psychology roots.”
Tara’s mouth turned down. “Just contract work. Some pro bono stuff for psychiatric hospitals. That kind of thing.” She’d dipped her toe back into work, gingerly. So far, it seemed to be going well, in those measured small doses. Her work with Zahar was filling in for a government psychologist away on maternity leave.
An awkward silence stretched.
Harry stuffed his hands in his pockets, jingled loose change. He did that when he was nervous. “I missed you.”
Tara glanced up at him. His face was open, tired, and she felt a jab of sympathy for him. Her fingers knotted in her purse strap. She was fighting the urge to stand up and kiss him. “I missed you, too.”
His eyes crinkled when he smiled, and he dropped into the other chair on the opposite side of the table. Exhaustion was palpable in the broken line of his shoulders. “Special Projects is killing me.”
Tara reached across the table for his hand. His fingers folded around hers so tightly that she couldn’t tell where hers ended and his began. .
“I’ve been there,” she said, without irony.
“I know.” His mouth flattened. “That’s why I came to ask for your help.”
Tara’s hand froze. She had hoped that he’d come to see her. Not for work. “Oh.” She looked down at her fuzzy reflection in the table.
Harry reached across the table and crooked a finger under her chin. “Hey. That’s not what I mean. I wanted to see you, and—”
Tara withdrew her hand and pulled her chair back, drawing her professional mantle tightly about her. “Tell me about your case, Harry.”
Harry stared down at his empty hand, closed it. “A half dozen Cold War-era intelligence operatives have disappeared. We’ve got evidence that specialized intel connected to them is being sold internationally, to the highest bidder. Most of it has to do with uranium stockpiles, leftover pieces of weapons from Soviet Russia. Tehran has been all over it.”
“That sounds like a military issue. Or an NSA problem.” Tara crossed her arms over her chest.
“You would think. But the disappearances are … unusual. These men and women have been vanishing without a trace. No bodies, no evidence of struggles.”
Tara shrugged. “Maybe they defected. Maybe they’re having a beach party in Tehran.”
“Homeland Security hasn’t caught any of them trying to move outside the country. Some of them have literally walked off surveillance footage and were never seen again. It’s like the fucking Rapture—they leave their clothes, jewelry, even cell phones behind, and vanish.” He smirked, mouth turning up flirtatiously. “Of course, there’s also the fact that there are no beaches in Tehran.”
Tara lifted an eyebrow, intrigued at both the case and the flirtation. “What’s their connection to each other?”
“All of them were associated with something called Project Rogue Angel in the 1990s. It involved cataloguing and tracking the disposal of nukes in the former USSR.”
“That sounds like a thankless job.”
“Wasn’t as successful as one might hope.” Harry rubbed the bridge of his nose. “I think somebody got to these people. I can’t prove it. But I need help in figuring out who’s behind the disappearances. You’re the best damn profiler Special Projects has ever seen, and we need you.”
Tara considered him. Harry wasn’t the type of man who would readily ask for help, and he’d done so in a clumsy way. She was reluctant to become involved with Special Projects again, to be their tool. But she owed him.
He looked at her, eyes red with too little sleep. “I need you.”
She reached forward and took his hand. She couldn’t say no to him.
© 2011 Laura Mailloux