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....