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Part One

California 0900 hours

Benny Ray parked outside Mary Ellen's house, and switched off the engine. Looking up at the house, he felt a moment's disquiet about this meeting. His ex-wife had called him early this morning, requesting to see him to talk about Billy.

He climbed out of the truck and walked up the sidewalk to the front door. A brisk wind blew leaves across the path in front of him. He wondered idly which of the kids was neglecting his chores by not raking the yard.

His knock on the door seemed to echo loudly in the house, and he frowned. The echo had almost sounded as though the house was empty. But that couldn't be right. She'd called just this morning, just a few short hours ago, and told him to meet her here.

Receiving no answer to his repeated summons, Benny Ray called out, "Mary Ellen? Billy!" He pounded louder on the door, and pulled his ever-present Glock from the holster under his light jacket. He stepped down off the front porch, and moved to the window. Looking in, all he saw was an empty room.

This was supposed to the the living room. Where was the couch, the coffee table, the TV? Even the rug was gone from the floor.

With a definite feeling that something was terribly wrong, Benny Ray continued around the house, looking carefully into each window. It was the same story, empty rooms to greet his worried eyes.

Finally, he went to the back door, and tried the doorknob. It was locked, but that didn't stop him. Glancing around to make sure he wasn't under the gaze of some casual observer, he used his elbow to smash the window of the door. Then he reached in and unlocked the door, letting himself in.

A quick search of the house brought him no nearer to finding out what had happened. Mary Ellen and the children were gone. There was no trace of them anywhere. The house was as empty as if no one had ever lived in it. For a moment, Benny Ray wondered if maybe he'd gotten the wrong house. But then his eyes fell on something on the floor of Billy's room.

He picked it up numbly. It took a moment to sink it what it was. A child's toy badge. It had come from a cracker jacks box. Billy had worn it proudly, to signify his daddy teaching the police officer's sharpshooting squad. That had been close enough to being a policeman for his son. It had Billy's name scratched into the fake metal surface, where Benny Ray had used an ice pick, for lack of a better tool at the time.

Clenching his fist around the badge, Benny Ray's thoughts were dark, and angry. He vowed to find out what had happened, whether it was a cruel trick by Mary Ellen, or if something terrible had happened to his family.

Hermosa Beach 1000 hours

Matt Shepherd threw his pen on his desk with a sigh of frustration. Noticing Debbie standing near the door of his office, he forced a smile. "How's business?" he asked.

"Doing great, Matt." She smiled back. "I'm keeping busy."

If that was true, then what was she doing hanging around his office? Matt dismissed the thought even before it had a chance to fully form in his mind. "Where's the gang?" He asked, standing up and stretching tired muscles. "Anyone here?"

"Nick is out there." She shrugged. "I don't know where the others are."

Matt grimaced to himself. Although he was bored with his own company, he didn't quite feel bored enough to handle Nick yet. "Benny Ray hasn't come in yet?" He asked instead. "I thought he was going to help me move around some equipment downstairs."

"I haven't seen him." Debbie said, a strange smile on her face.

Matt didn't notice, he wasn't looking at her. The phone had started to ring, and he answered it. "Silver Star, Matt here."

"Boss, I ain't coming in today."

"Benny Ray?" Matt frowned as he heard the agitation in the other man's voice. "What's going on?"

There was a slight pause, then "I'm not sure, but I plan on finding out." His voice had gone hard. "I've gotta go, Major."

"Wait, talk to me, Benny Ray. Tell me what's happening." Matt said sternly, realizing something was bad wrong. He was vaguely aware of Debbie still standing in the office door, and he walked toward her, gently but firmly closing the door in her face.

Debbie made a face at the door and the man behind it, before returning to the bar. It wouldn't do to make him suspicious of her now. She had too much to lose.

Benny Ray was trying to decide how much to tell the Major, not wanting to get him or the team involved in his private life. "Mary Ellen and the kids are gone." He said finally. "I don't know where they are."

Matt whistled silently at the news. "I take it this isn't something expected." He said.

"I should say not." Benny Ray said forcefully. "She called me just this morning to come meet her. She wanted to discuss something about Billy."

"Why don't you come on over here, Benny Ray. We'll get to work on figuring this out."

"This is my problem, Major." He said quietly. "I can handle it."

"Don't keep us out of this, Benny Ray. You know what happened when Billy was kidnapped." Matt reminded softly.

Benny Ray drew a deep breath, and blew it out harshly. "This is different, I'm not going rogue." He added as reassurance to his friend.

"It's not about going rogue." Matt shook his head. "It's about accepting help from your friends, instead of trying to do something by yourself. You know, and I know, that doing things alone can only lead to trouble. Let us help you."

Benny Ray was silent, considering it. He desperately wanted to fix this by himself, but he didn't know where to start. He knew that accepting the team's help would more than double his chancing of finding his family quicker. And quicker was better. "Thanks, amigo. I appreciate it." He said finally.

Hermosa Beach 1100 hours

Benny Ray paced the room impatiently. "What's taking Nick so long?" He demanded.

Matt merely shrugged, leaning back in his chair and watching Benny Ray silently.

Margo looked at her watch. "We only got in contact with him ten minutes ago." She reminded the restless sniper. "He's probably primping in the mirror before heading over here."

Benny Ray smiled a little at that.

"I heard that." Came the nasal tone of the small New Yorker. He tried to look offended. "I don't primp." He denied.

"All right people, let's get down to business." Matt forestalled any brewing arguments by speaking up. "Benny Ray, why don't you brief us on what you know."

Benny Ray sighed, running a hand through his short hair agitatedly. "Mary Ellen called me up this morning at about 8 o'clock. She said Billy's been having some problems and she wanted to talk to me about it. I think she mentioned something about family counseling." He grimaced, his opinion on that pretty clear to the people gathered around him.

"Sheesh." Nick complained. "Women and their shrinks."

"If it would help Billy, I'd gladly do it." Benny Ray put in, quelling the smaller man with a glare.

Nick raised his hands in mock surrender. "Just makin' an observation." He pulled a face, trying to look innocent.

"I got to the house at 0900." Benny Ray said. "That's when she told me to be there." He added quickly, explaining why it took an hour to reach the house after the phone call. "But no one was the there. The house was empty." He looked dejected.

"Did she call you from there, or somewhere else?" Margo asked.

"I don't know." Benny Ray shook his head. "I didn't expect something like this, so I just assumed she was calling from home. By the time I got back home, I'd had a couple salesmen call the house, so star-69 wouldn't have worked."

"I'll check on it." Margo said. "I don't know if I'll be able to get anything or not, but it's worth a try. Does she have a cell phone?"

"No. Maybe. I don't know." Benny Ray shrugged. "It's not like she okays those things with me anymore." He put in.

Margo nodded. "I'll see what I can do." she promised.

"Do you know of any reason she'd want to leave?" Matt asked. "Any new boyfriend that might want her to move in with him?" He ignored the other man's tense, angry glare. "New job offer?"

"I told you. I don't know what's going on in her private life. I just stop by to pick up the kids when I can." He said. "She didn't say anything to me about being somewhere different, though. Wouldn't she let me know if she'd moved?"

"Maybe she just forgot." Nick put in.

Benny Ray glared at him. "People don't forget things like that." He said. "Maybe you do, but Mary Ellen wouldn't." He added.

Nick took the insult with a glib smile. "Whatever." He didn't let the sniper's taunts bother him. Even he could see that Benny Ray was hurting, and so he didn't hold him responsible for anything said in the heat of the moment.

"Should we put in a call to Deke?" Matt asked. "He has a way of finding the impossible."

Benny Ray shrugged, going over to stand by the window and stare unseeingly out at the beach.

Margo came up to stand beside him. "Hey." She said softly, drawing his attention. "We'll find them, I promise." She told him.

He didn't say anything, but put his arm around her and held her close for a moment. It was his way of saying thanks, while his throat was unreliable for speaking right now.

Margo understood, and just stood silently in his embrace.

Matt looked at the pair, and bit back the sharp knife of jealousy. "Don't read anything into it." He told himself. "It's just friends, giving and getting comfort." He picked up the phone and dialed a long-distance number by memory.

Central Illinois 1800 hours (central time)

Mary Ellen looked up quickly as the door to the room opened. She drooped a little when she saw the blonde-haired man enter.

"Not happy to see me?" He asked, smiling at her discomfort.

"Where are my children?" She demanded angrily.

"They're safe. Don't worry about them."

"I want to see them." She said.

"No, you can't see them." He told her.

"Where are they?" She looked a little frightened, and none the better for wear. "Where am I?"

"It doesn't matter where you are." He told her. "All that matters is that no one else knows where you are, either." He added, smiling. "You'd better hope that your friends do what we want, or you'll never see them, or your kids, again." He threatened.

Mary Ellen sank back from him, tears rolling down her cheeks. Of course, this had to be Benny Ray's fault. Ever since he'd met up with that ex-Army Major, Matt Shepherd. He hadn't been the same to her. Sure, he still came to visit the kids. But not as often. Most of the time, when it was his weekend to take the kids, he would call and say he couldn't do it. He never explained why. He was the source of all her troubles.

Billy had been acting up in school recently. The guidance counselor suggested that it was trauma from the kidnapping a couple years ago. There had been a big news frenzy over another kidnapping, which had triggered it. Mary Ellen knew the kidnapping was because of Benny Ray. Someone he'd made mad, and they'd kidnapped her son to get even.

With someone else to blame, Mary Ellen quietly accepted her situation. Even though she was mad as hell at Benny Ray, she also knew that he wouldn't stop until she and the kids were home safe again.

Hermosa Beach 2200 hours

Debbie walked over to where Benny Ray sat brooding at the bar. "Is something wrong?" She asked, cheery while also conveying sympathy.

Benny Ray shook his head. "Nothing for you to worry your pretty little head about." He said, standing up. "If Matt comes in, tell him I've gone out."

"Where are you going?" Debbie asked.

"Just out." Benny Ray said.

"Okay, sure." She said. Debbie watched him leave the bar, a small smile playing around her lips at his obvious pain. "You'll be out of action first. With you gone, the rest will soon follow." She narrowed her eyes, thinking about the inevitable outcome of her plan.

Central Illinois 2000 hours (central time)

Billy flexed his wrists against the bonds that threatened to cut off the circulation to his hands. He looked over at his younger brother and sister. Bobby was only 8, and Susan was 7. They were both crying, their tears tracing paths through the dirt on their cheeks.

"You two be quiet. Crying ain't gonna help us." He told them harshly, trying to cover up the fact that he was scared, too. He'd been kidnapped before, by a woman who was mad at his dad. But he didn't know who was behind the kidnapping this time. He hadn't been given a chance to see any of his captors. All he knew was that one minute, he'd been in his room playing a video game, and the next, he'd woken up here.

The way his head hurt, he wondered if maybe they had drugged him, put him to sleep somehow. He was rather proud of the fact that he'd thought about that. He was growing up. His dad would be proud of him. Of course, his dad would be coming after him again.

"Don't worry." He told his younger siblings. "Dad will come get us. He'll kick everyone's butt for taking us away from home." He assured them.

"That's a bad word." Susan said, sticking out her tongue.

"No, it's not." Billy said angrily. "Besides, I'm old enough to say it without getting in trouble." He added.

Susan shook her head. "You're not that old. Only twelve."

"Shut up." He griped, wishing she had been left behind. It wasn't fun waiting to be rescued when your little sister picked on you.

"You shut up. I'm going to tell mommy." She said.

"Yeah, you go tell mom." Billy said. "You don't even know where she is." He taunted.

"I want mommy." Susan started crying even harder.

Her tears wrenched at Billy's heart. Even though the kid was annoying, it bothered him to see her cry like this. "Come on, Susie. It's not all that bad. Dad will come get us any time now." He told her, moving closer to her and awkwardly hugging her.

Susan snuggled against his chest, her sobs quieting down. "Will he find mommy, too?" She sniffed.

"Yeah, mom, too." He agreed. He knew his parents fought a lot, and hardly ever agreed on anything anymore, but Billy knew that his dad wouldn't leave their mother behind.

Hermosa Beach 2330 hours

Deke strolled into the bar and found Matt in his office, sitting at his desk. He dropped into a chair across from him.

Matt raised an eyebrow at the skin-tight leapord-print body suit and green hair, but didn't say anything. He was too used to Deke wearing such outfits. "What have you got?" He asked.

"A location." Deke said.

"Really?" Matt was surprised.

"Made a few calls. In that quiet of a neighborhood, people notice moving trucks."

"Moving trucks?" Matt asked.

"They had to empty the house, right?" Deke pointed out. "A woman across the street says a big moving van pulled up shortly after 8 this morning. They were gone in less than an hour."

"They must've had a lot of help." Matt commented. "The house was stripped bare."

"She counted ten men." Deke said. "Checked out the company of the moving van from the description of it she gave. It's a dummy corporation. Owned by Wade Harrison."

Deke paused to let Matt try to place the name. "I don't remember any Wade Harrison." Matt told him.

"Neither did I." Deke nodded. "So I checked into him, to see if he has any dealings.

"And?" Matt prompted.

Deke just smiled, content to take his time. "We've never met up with him, or any of his known associates. So I'm thinking he must've been hired to do this job." He said. "I figure, depending on how much he's paid, his loyalty is probably bought."

"So you paid him off to get information?" Matt guessed.

"Naw, baby. I don't waste my money that way. I figured he was just a stooge, so a good questioning would get the information out of him."

Matt didn't ask about the 'good questioning' or who had done the asking. Instead, "So what did you get?" he asked, sitting forward.

"Patience, Matt." Deke grinned. "Good news is best when it can be savoured."

"To hell with the savouring." Matt snapped. "Just tell me what you found out."

"After the furniture was loaded, he followed the men with the woman and three kids. He drove all the way out to Illinois."

"Illinois?" Matt asked. "What's out there?"

"Nothing." Deke shrugged. "I guess that's the point. No one to see them unloading all that furniture, and the woman, or the kids."

"Do you have an exact location?" He asked.

Deke nodded. "He gave us the place where he unloaded the truck. Then he left and had nothing more to do with it after getting paid." He said.

Matt went out into the bar, and saw Debbie still hanging around. "Hey, what are you doing here so late?" He asked.

She smiled brightly. "Just making sure everything is cleaned up before I leave." She said.

"The bar closed an hour ago." Matt pointed out. "Does it take that long to clean up?" He asked.

She nodded earnestly. "Oh yeah, it does." she told him. "You'd be surprised at how much drink is spilled on the floor." She added.

"I guess so." He agreed. "Well, you go on home. I'll finish up here."

"All right." She smiled even wider, and gathered up her stuff to leave. When she exited the bar, and shut the door behind her, she pulled out her cell phone, and puched some numbers.

"Yeah?" A voice answered sharply.

"Are we ready for visitors at the drop off in Illinois?" She asked.

"Yeah, just moved the kids." He told her. "When are they coming?" He asked.

"I don't know. But probably soon." She told him. She punched the red end button, and tucked the phone back into her bag. Soon, Benny Ray would be out of the picture. After the planned tragic accident, he wouldn't be able to work anymore. Then she would begin picking the rest of the team off, one by one. She wondered who would be her next victim. Maybe Nick. His annoying New York accent was driving her crazy. She'd be willing the bet the rest of the team wouldn't even miss him that much. Then again, Margo was a pretty dangerous character. Maybe if the right people were told about her hacking abilities, something could be done.

What about Matt? Debbie thought about the tall Major. He had his own demons, and she knew most of them. It wouldn't be hard to drive him to leave the team. She smiled. Now, the tall freak, and the gray-haird Trout. They would be harder to get rid of. But she was being paid to do a job, and she'd do the job right. And that meant getting rid of the whole SOF team. Every last one of them.

Somewhere outside Olney, Illinois 0500 hours

The team converged around the old farm-house. Margo was using satelitte imagery to read thermal images inside the house. "There's definitely three smaller children in there." She told them. "And it looks like four adults. One of them is on the floor, laying down." She added.

"We need some personal intel." Matt said. "Nick, go up there and see who's in there."

"Aw, geez, Major. Why do I always hafta do the dangerous stuff?" Nick complained.

Benny Ray stopped Nick, and looked at Matt. "I want to go up there, Boss." He said.

"I know you do, Benny Ray. But you don't need to be the one up there by yourself." Matt said. "If you lose your cool and go rushing in there, we'll be too far back to help you. We all know that Nick wouldn't do anything like that." He added with a teasing smile at Nick. "You get up in the loft of that barn, and give us some cover." Matt said.

"Yes, sir." Benny Ray and Nick moved off to their assigned positions.

Benny Ray climbed up the ladder to the loft, and settled down in the hay near the big doors where he could see his teammates and the farmhouse. He looked through the scope at the house, but couldn't see anyone inside from his position.

Nick stepped up on the porch, being careful to test each board before putting his weight on it. A squeaky board could be disastrous. He maneuvered close to a window, and lookd in. "Okay, looks like there's four hostages inside." Nick said into his comm link. "The woman has dark hair, looks scared, but still doing fine." He added for Benny Ray's benefit. "I see a foot, might be one of the kids, let me get around here.."

"Be careful." Matt warned as Nick moved around the window to get a different view inside.

"All right, I see two kids. They look pretty young, about 7 years old. A boy and a girl. The boy has brown hair, the girl has darker hair and glasses. Looks like they've been crying, but otherwise, they're good. I don't seen any marks on them." He said.

"Sounds like Susie and Bobby." Benny Ray said. "Do you see Billy?"

"There's a third kid in there." Nick said. "He's laying down on the floor, I can't see his face. But he's got light brown hair. Looks like him as much as I can remember." Nick said.

"Watch out, Nick." Margo warned. "Looks like one of the guards is coming toward you."

Nick grunted and stepped away from the window. Just as he was about to step off the porch, he was startled by a large black and tan dog that leapt at him, barking.

Nick let out a yell, and fell backwards, just as the door opened and the guard came out.

"What the--" The guard raised his gun as he saw Nick.

Nick reached for his gun, having noticed thankfully that the large Rottweiler was on a chain, and couldn't reach him.

Benny Ray took out the guard before he could raise the gun to get proper aim on Nick. Nick looked at the guard, lying just inches away from him. "Thanks, Benny Ray." He muttered, jumping to his feet.

From inside, there were yells, and the sound of running feet. "Get out of there, Nick." Matt commanded.

"You don't have to tell me twice." Nick said, already running for cover.

Benny Ray took out the next guard that came through the door, then ducked as a shot richoted off the wood near his face. The last guard ran out of the back of the house, away from the source of the gunfire. Benny Ray took careful aim and dropped him.

"Good job. Now let's get in there and get Mary Ellen and the kids." Matt said.

Before Benny Ray could even raise up off his elbows, the farmhouse erupted in an explosion that shook the ground. The team all hit the ground, covering their heads as debris rained down on the them. Benny Ray stared at the house in shock. His family was gone.

Part Two

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