Unseen: Evil Lurks Among Us
Evil was everywhere. It arrived with a smile, an extended hand, a sultry look. It came masked in beauty, cloaked in temptation. The more seductive the package, the more dangerous what lay hidden within. Evil was everywhere—deadly, unseen.
Austin had seen much violence and death during two decades spent hunting the devil, and he recognized darkness when he saw it. He understood the zealotry, the predation. An image of Vanessa flashed in his mind and a lump formed in his throat.
He raised an Amstel Light to his lips as the murmur of patrons filled the dusky Ritz Carlton bar in Georgetown, a wealthy neighborhood in Northwest Washington, DC. He took a long swig and used his peripheral vision to observe Sam Baker at the next table, careful not to look directly at him. At six-three and two hundred pounds, Austin had difficulty remaining inconspicuous—even more so after losing all his hair to alopecia—but appearing to belong was as important as his surveillance technique. Attitude meant everything.
I’ll do it soon.
Austin had been watching Baker for weeks, and he knew the man’s every gesture, until he could almost read his thoughts. Baker smiled, with eyes soft and welcoming, putting on the charismatic mask he wore when speaking with narcissists, parasites, and manipulators. Baker nodded and leaned forward in his red-leather chair, maintaining eye contact with the man opposite him.
Across the dark mahogany table from Baker, Senator Dale Hansen blathered about a bill he had pushed through Congress—just another one of his stories floating on a sea of pontification and self-aggrandizement. He probably intended to bedazzle Baker with his effectiveness, but he spoke a little too fast, and hunger showed behind his eyes, like a lion salivating after wounded prey.
Austin wished he had come to kill the senator.
Senator Hansen stopped to sip a 2005 Chateau Margaux, and Baker glanced at his Rolex Submariner, one of the many possessions he used to advertise his membership in the gentility of the West. Baker, born Samir Muhammad al-Bakri, was a Qatari financier who had millions in personal assets and enjoyed unlimited access to the world’s financial centers. Austin could tell he loved to own things, things other people did not have, things they would never have.
“I will reshape this country, given enough time and support,” Senator Hansen said. Beneath his sliver mane of hair, he grinned with perfect teeth, an expression he used to make his constituents feel like they were the most important people on earth. The look said, “I’m listening.” It was pure bullshit.
“Very impressive,” Baker said, dipping his head in exaggerated acknowledgment of the senator’s accomplishments. It was obviously a gesture designed to feed the senator’s ego and soothe his inherent insecurity, flaws the politician had overcome with ruthlessness and ambition.
Senator Hansen leaned forward and nodded, mirroring Baker’s movements. “This is only the beginning. Together, we can achieve anything.”
Baker smiled, and Austin realized Baker had the senator psychologically under his control. Baker may have been unknown to the public, but he held the actual power—money and influence—things Senator Hansen coveted.
Austin’s eyes drifted over the bar’s redbrick walls, exposed metal, and floor-to-ceiling windows—industrial and elegant. The room smelled of wood polish, alcohol, and power. Beyond glittering bottles of small-batch bourbons and through thick glass windows, a seventy-foot smokestack towered over the hotel. The relic from the building’s origin as an incinerator plant had become a landmark on Georgetown’s waterfront. From garbage to elegance, from waste to wealth. Austin smirked at the irony.
“We haven’t discussed the reason I requested this meeting,” Senator Hansen said.
“I’m well aware of your plans,” Baker said. “You’ll have my full support.”
Senator Hansen expelled a long breath and his body relaxed, as if his tension had melted away. “Thank you, Sam. Thank you very much.”
“That’s what friends do. Now, I need something from you.” Baker slid a manila folder across the table.
The muscles in Senator Hansen’s jaw twitched as he took it. “Of course. I’ll review this tonight.”
Baker bowed his head in acknowledgment.
Austin did not know the contents of the folder, but he knew Senator Hansen wanted Baker’s money, and he knew what Baker needed in return. The al-Azhar Islamic Cultural Center development project meant everything to Baker. Once completed, it would become a bridgehead against the United States—Baker’s key to victory.
Austin could not let him succeed.
Austin had heard enough, and he wanted to make his move before Baker ended the meeting. He stood, dropped a twenty-dollar bill on the table, and walked toward the exit, forcing himself to look away from their table as he passed.
He stopped at the far side of the room, away from the sounds of the bar, and slipped an earbud into place. He stuck his hand into his trouser pocket, wrapped his fingers around his cell phone and pressed send.
Baker’s phone rang, and he looked at it. He would not recognize the incoming number, but a late-night call could be important. Baker excused himself from the table and adjusted his belt over his growing paunch as he walked to the far end of the bar. He raised the phone to his ear.
Can I go through with this?
“Hello,” Baker’s voice came over the line.
“Hello?” Baker said again.
“This is Officer Philip Augustus with the DC Metro Police,” Austin said. “Is this Mr. Baker?”
Across the room, Baker’s body stiffened. “Speaking. What’s this about, officer?”
“Sorry to bother you, sir,” Austin said. “We caught a man breaking into your car and he claims you gave him permission to use it. We assume he’s lying, but we need you to confirm you don’t know him and inspect the car.”
Austin could have just followed Baker out of the bar, but he wanted to make sure the man left alone. He also wanted to speak with Baker—needed this to be personal.
“I’m in an important meeting,” Baker said. “Do you require my presence?”
“Yes, sir, it should only take a minute to confirm the damage is new. Can you meet us in the garage?”
“I’ll be there soon.” Baker hung up.
Baker would be distraught at the thought of damage to his brand new Mercedes Benz, which had cost him over two hundred thousand dollars and served as his inner sanctum amid Washington’s gridlock. Austin turned away to conceal his smile.
Baker returned to the table, and Austin could not hear what he was saying, but the senator looked down and his bottom lip hung low—a petulant child deprived of dessert. Senators loathed adapting to other people’s schedules.
Austin smiled again.
The Canal Square Parking garage was only two blocks away, a five-minute walk if he hurried. Austin dashed through the Ritz Carlton’s lobby and out into the oppressive humidity. The air clawed at his clothing and warmed his skin. Was Baker immune to Washington’s damp heat after living most of his life in the Middle East? Austin glistened with sweat, and it was still only the middle of May.
He turned right and walked past nineteenth-century Federalist row houses, their uneven bricks covered with thick layers of paint—almond, apricot, robin’s egg. He turned left on Thirty-First Street NW and followed an old stone wall through the historic neighborhood. Weekend revelers hung close to the taverns on M Street NW, one block beyond the garage, and also behind him in restaurants along the Potomac River waterfront. He hustled up the deserted street as the witching hour approached.
Austin walked onto a flat bridge over the C&O Canal, a waterway that bisected Georgetown from east to west. Through the darkness, the remains of antique levies and locks jutted out of the mud. The preserved canal looked much had as it had when early inhabitants of Georgetown used barges to transport freight along the river. He glanced over the railing into the shallow, muddy waters below, and his nostrils tingled with the earthy odor of decay.
He crossed the bridge into the shadow of the Canal Square Parking garage, and the clip-clopping of his shoes echoed into the night. On the far side, he stepped off the sidewalk onto a dark path paralleling the canal. He scanned the area, then slipped into the umbra of a soaring hickory tree.
With a single fluid and practiced motion, he brushed back the flap of his jacket and drew his Beretta. He held the handgun against his leg and waited. His mind wandered to Vanessa’s red, full lips, her silky, black hair cascading over her shoulders. Her kindness, her innocence. Her death. His chest ached.
This is for you, Vanessa.
A minute later, Baker’s heavy footfalls broke the silence and the doughy man waddled across the bridge.
Austin’s hands shook, and his heart tried to beat out of his chest. He steeled himself.
“And they cried with a loud voice,” Austin recited under his breath, “saying, how long, oh Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?”
Baker walked off the bridge beneath the warm glow of a streetlamp and headed to the parking garage.
I can do this. Be strong.
Austin glanced up and down the street a final time, then stepped out of the shadows. He towered over Baker.
“Good evening, Mr. al-Bakri,” Austin said, his voice deep and feral.
Baker recoiled, mid-stride, and swiveled to look at him. “Pardon me?”
Austin lifted the Beretta and centered the front sight on Baker’s nose. Baker raised his hands, like a basketball player trying to block a shot.
Austin pulled the trigger, slow and steady, careful not to jerk the weapon. Flame exploded out of the muzzle, and the gun kicked in his hand. A .22LR bullet exited the gun at 1,280 feet per second and slammed into Baker’s forehead, snapping his head back like a punch. A plume of blood and brain matter clouded the air behind him as the bullet passed through his skull.
The gunshot reverberated off the brick walls and faded as it moved down the street. Behind an ephemeral puff of smoke, Baker’s mouth fell open, and his eyes became unfocused, like a computer screen shutting down. He wobbled for a moment, as if unsure what to do, then his knees buckled and he pitched forward, his body collapsing upon itself.
Austin reached out and pushed Baker, aiming him toward the embankment, but the man was too heavy—a dying farm animal—and his body fell hard on the path. It made no matter. Austin would stick to his plan.
Baker lay facedown with his upper body on the path and his legs stretched out on the sidewalk. The back of his head appeared wet and uneven, where the bullet had removed a large piece of skull. Blood flowed out of him as if poured from a carafe. His legs twitched.
Austin stepped back to avoid the pooling liquid and watched the life leave Baker’s body. Blood snaked toward the canal’s edge, rolling over the dirt like lava. Austin lowered his gun to his side.
What have I done?
His pulse raced, and a chill tingled his spine. He was a murderer now—one of them—a criminal who violated the most sacrosanct law of God and man. Thou shall not kill. He flashed back to his father, who had beaten him with a belt and screamed, “God punishes all sinners.”
The earth seemed to spin, and Austin put his hand on the streetlamp to steady himself. He had crossed a threshold, and he could never return. He shivered, despite the humid night. Austin scanned the street, then used his sleeve to rub his fingerprints off the metal pole.
Nearby, the voices of a man and woman broke the silence, getting louder, closer. People coming to witness his sin.
Austin turned to flee but tripped on a root and fell. Pain shot from his ankle to his knee, like an electric shock, and he grimaced. He staggered to his feet and tried to put weight on his foot. The pain came in intense, pulsing waves—an angry sea. His ankle warmed, already swelling.
Excited voices drew near, and panic seized him. He needed to escape. The stakes were his freedom, his mission, his life. He ground his teeth and limped along the northern bank of the canal.
He disappeared into the darkness.