Sarasota, Florida – July 2002

To Some the Dead of Night is the End of the Day,

To Others it Represents just the Beginning.

Dominic Merino parked his 1995 Ford Mustang in the hourly parking lot at the Sarasaota-Bradenton International Airport. Approaching midnight, he took a peek at his phone to check the time and watched as Saturday evening turned into Sunday morning. He looked at the instrument panel and smiled when he realized the old Mustang crossed an important milestone. The odometer had reached the point where it flipped forward to all zeros. Dominic ran his hands gently over the steering wheel and patted the dashboard like a proud parent.

“You’ve been good Mustang. Goin’ on nine years and you’ve never given me any problems,” Dominic said aloud as if the car had ears. “But age is catching up to you. I’m not sure how many more miles are left in your tank, but I’ll promise to keep you running for as long as I can.”

Beads of sweat trickled down Dominic’s forehead. After working straight through the day, he got a call at 5:00 PM to head to Longboat Key. But first he had to stop at the airport to pick up his partner. As Dominic waited without air conditioning, he turned off the engine and cracked the windows. To be safe, he unholstered his Glock 19 mm pistol and hid it in the center console. Dominic reclined his seat all the way back and closed his eyes. A half an hour later, a tap on the passenger door window woke him up. It was his brother Drake.

“Pop the trunk,” Drake said, as he threw in a duffle bag and climbed into the car. 

“Sorry, but they delayed the flight. Been waiting long?”

“About an hour which is like a day in this car,” Dominic said as he straightened his seat and rubbed his eyes. “The air conditioning is on the fritz again.”

“Isn’t it about time to put her out to pasture?” Drake asked. “You’ve had this car for a decade. You need to move on.”

“It’s been eight years, seven months, and ten days. But who’s counting?” Dominic responded. “You may be right, it might be time to trade her in, but it’s hard to let go. There are great memories in the old Mustang.”

“I get it,” Drake said. “But the memories remain, with or without the car. You want to remember her in happier times, not when she’s at the end of her useful life.” Dominic nodded in agreement.

Drake was in Jacksonville with his fiancé, Taylor Brooks, when he got the call to return home. After high school, the two planned to marry but put everything on hold to concentrate on graduating college and getting their careers started. There was only one problem. Work assignments took them to opposite sides of the state. They had no choice but to make the best of the situation, at least until they could figure out a permanent solution. It was a small test of their commitment to each other, one which they passed with flying colors.

“The office called four hours ago and told me to get here as soon as possible. There was no reason or explanation,” Drake said. “I gave up my Saturday night with Taylor. So, it looks like you’re my date this evening. What are the plans? Dinner and a movie?”

“You probably think you missed your calling and that you should have been a comedian instead of a special agent. I got news for you. Just stick to your day job,” Dominic said. “We have a serious issue on our hands. There was a murder in Longboat Key at Alden Moore’s estate. From what I’ve heard the details are disturbing.”

“Wow, that’s gonna be big news. Got any more information?” Drake asked.

“Someone called it in from Alden’s home,” Dominic said. “Everyone is on edge, so I suspect it’s him.”

“You can’t get more high profile than Alden Moore in this area,” Drake said. 

“Who would want to kill him?”

“Not sure, but we’ll find out,” Dominic responded.

“Man, it’s hot in here. How do you travel around in this thing without air conditioning?” Drake asked.

“Don’t worry, I have a back-up system,” Dominic responded as he floored the Mustang, going from 0 to 60 mph in a mere five seconds. He then rolled down the passenger seat window. “There’s your air conditioning.”

* * *

The Merino brothers were part of a proud family, many with long distinguished careers in law enforcement. Their father was Sonny Merino, a well-known and respected Director in the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division. Sonny was on the verge of retirement and his two sons were the only ones left to carry on the Merino tradition. 

As Drake and Dominic grew up, they never showed much interest in the FBI. Instead, their focus was on high school sports and girls. As they finished their freshman year, Sonny realized there was a good chance his boys would never line up and serve right behind him. But being the stubborn man, he is, he wasn’t about to give up. Sonny forced fed them information to see if it would change their minds. Afterwards, if they still went in another direction, then so be it. At least Sonny could look in the mirror and say he tried.

Sonny began the dissemination process with Drake and Dominic at the beginning of their sophomore year in high school. He started with FBI academics but mixed in operational skills as they got older. By the time the brothers were seniors they understood the basics of conducting criminal investigations, how to disarm and apprehend subjects, and how to defend themselves against different threats. But it didn’t end there. He also shared with them teachable moments he experienced during his career. Whether it was an accomplishment or a mistake, there was always a lesson learned. He called these lessons “Sonny’s Maxims.” The wisdom applied to everyday life, but for an FBI agent the maxims had a special meaning. Out of everything the Merino brothers learned, there were four maxims which stood out amongst the others:

1. The obvious question sometimes can be the key to the ambiguous answer. 

2. For decisions, the head is adept, the heart is ardent, but the gut is absolute. 

3. The weak always have a chance to win the battle, but the strong always win the war. 

4. Always be there for your brother because your brother will always be there for you.

It took a while, but Drake and Dominic came to appreciate what an honor it was to serve in law enforcement and how important it was to their extended family. If you talked to Sonny over a few beers, he would tell you those years instructing his sons wasn’t so much a master class, but a slow-paced indoctrination. It looked like Sonny put his thumb on the scale and steered the outcome in one direction, but it was up to Drake and Dominic to decide if they wanted to pursue careers in the FBI. They chose wisely and the Merino family tradition continued for another generation.

* * *

The Merino brothers made it to Longboat Key within half an hour. Representatives from the Sarasota and Bradenton Police Departments greeted them with both an update and a warning.

“Sorry to pull you boys away from family, but it’s for a good reason. This is no ordinary crime scene,” Officer Phillips said. “We need to get as much information as fast as possible, because once the media gets a hold of this story the public will ask questions.”

“What makes this murder so unique? Is it because of the victim’s public profile?” Drake asked.

“Yes,” Officer Phillips responded, ‘’but prepare yourself for what you’re about to see. Whoever did this wanted to send a message. I haven’t seen anything like this in my lifetime.”

“We see crime scenes like these all the time,” Dominic said. “But to be honest, it never gets any easier. Everyone has their own their breaking point. They just don’t know when they reach it. Then when they get there, it’s too late to do anything because the damage has been done.”

Drake and Dominic left the officers and walked towards the front of Alden’s home. From a distance, they looked at the entrance and noticed a gleam of light emanating from a pair of oversized mahogany doors. Light usually represents a sign of hope, but this time it meant something more ominous. With every step the radiance became brighter as if the light was daring both brothers to enter. When they reached the door, a bloody message greeted them.

You may Arrive a Visitor,

But you may Leave a Victim.

“Phillips was right,” Dominic said, “this is no ordinary crime scene.” Dominic walked through the doorway, but Drake remained on the other side as if his shoes were stuck in cement. “Are you coming in?” Dominic asked. He could tell his brother was contemplating something.

“Yeah,” Drake responded. He glanced at the bloody message a second time as he walked in. He locked onto Dominic’s eyes and said, “But something tells me this won’t be an ordinary investigation either.”