HAWAII INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT
"Sure, as long as you're paying."
Margo leaned her head on Matt's shoulder. "But let's make
it a little more private, next time."
About a week later
The voice on the phone gasped out another
weak "He-help....." before a sharp 'click' abruptly
ended the call.
SILVER STAR BAR
"Any luck yet?" Matt was trying very hard not to hang over Margo's shoulder. He knew better than to crowd her when she was working on the computer.
"I've almost got it. Their firewalls
are good, but not good enough." Margo was
"There it is ..... " On the screen a combination of letters and digits was blinking.
Matt quickly jotted it down on a piece of paper. "Can you find out who it belongs to? I don't want to alert them with a call."
"Already working on it." Margo was attacking the keyboard again. "Damn, it isn't a registered phone number, it's a switchboard."
"Switchboard?" Matt asked incredulously. "In this day and age? I thought they went out of use years ago."
"In the rest of the world, maybe. This here looks like some little god-forsaken place in the middle of nowhere. They probably still send their letters by pony express." Despite her attempt at humor, Margo's voice sounded grim, betraying how worried she was about Benny Ray.
"What the heck is Benny Ray doing out there?" Matt frowned at the screen, where Margo was now uploading a map of Southern California.
"Hola! Anybody home?" Rico's cheerful voice broke into their concentration. Smiling, the medic lightly stepped down the stairs and joined Matt and Margo at the desk.
When he noticed their tense postures the smile left his face. "What's up, amigos? Trouble?"
"Benny Ray has disappeared!" Margo was ferociously punching keys again. "He phoned Matt, but the call was cut off."
"Margo could trace it back to a small place in Southern California. She's trying to find some info on it." Matt was watching the screen, waiting for Margo's efforts to show any results.
"There isn't anything on this lousy
place." She frowned at the unaccommodating
She looked up at Matt. "We've got to go there right away."
Matt shook his head. "First we'll call Benny Ray's ex. I know he wanted to go on a fishing trip with Billy. Maybe she knows something. And then we'll go."
"Whatever you're gonna do, count me in. I've got a couple of days to spare before I'll have to be back at the old tread mill." Rico put a reassuring hand on Margo's shoulder. "Don't worry, we'll find him." He grinned at her. "Hey, who knows, he probably took up with some pretty, local girl down there and is facing an angry daddy with a shotgun now."
Margo's attempt at a smile failed miserably. "It sounded serious." She said softly, remembering the breathless urgency in the rough voice on the phone with an almost imperceptible shudder.
"Carina mia, a shotgun wedding
IS serious." Rico winked at her, still trying to
Three hours later
"How come we always end up playing a married couple on these assignments?" Margo smiled to herself. She didn't really sound as if she minded.
"Can you think of a better cover?" Matt spared his passenger a short glance. He was driving the Suburban. Next to him Margo was working on the laptop she had connected to her cell phone. She was still trying to get them more information about the area they were going to. Calling LuAnne had proved to be a waste of time. 'No, she didn't know anything about Benny Ray's whereabouts and what was more, she didn't give a damn'. She was hopping mad that Benny Ray had cancelled his trip with Billy two days ago, and all just 'because something urgent had come up'. 'He could burn in hell for all she cared'.
"We're a nice, married couple on a vacation tour through Southern California." Matt continued, interrupting Margo's angry thoughts about what she would like to do to Benny Ray's uncaring ex-wife. "This way we won't attract any unwelcome attention. Everything looks completely natural." For a moment Matt thought about the last statement.
"Hmm, yes, it does, doesn't it?" Margo was concentrating on her work. She didn't seem to have noticed anything unusual in Matt's words.
They drove on in companionable silence for a while.
"Do you think they'll buy Rico's cover?" With a sigh Margo finally closed the laptop and turned to Matt, leaning back into the seat, stretching the muscles in her back and shoulders.
He answered with a shrug. "Why not? He's got his imitation of a poor Mexican farm boy looking for work in the Land of Hope and Glory down perfect. That way he'll be able to look into places a couple of city types on vacation like us can't go without raising suspicion. Between us we should be able to find out what's goin' on down there."
"When was he supposed to reach the place?"
"About an hour ago, I think, ... if all went according to the plan and his friend with the chopper could put him down in the general area without raising any attention. The rest of the way he wanted to hike. Should make him look even more genuine." Matt couldn't help grinning at the idea of impeccable Rico looking like a scruffy, dust-covered peasant.
"What about us? How long till we
arrive at this mecca of the woods?" Margo
"About another hour and a half should see us there." Matt yawned. It had been a boring, uneventful drive so far.
"Want me to relieve you for the rest of the way?" Margo offered.
"Nope, thanks. No problem yet, maybe we can switch later! ... Did you find out anything interesting?"
"Nothing really! Tax records, population numbers, all the usual boring stuff, but nothing extraordinary. They grow avocados in the area, that's all I could find. A nice, boring, little backwater town with nice, boring people living there."
Margo retorted with force, angry at her failure to unearth anything useful. Angry and very worried. Benny Ray needed their help and so far they didn't have much to go on. Hell, they didn't have ANYTHING.
About an hour later
Margo was driving the Suburban along the small, empty, tree-lined road. Out of the corner of her eye she fondly looked at the man curled up in the passenger seat, napping. A slight smile was playing around her mouth. He looked so young and innocent, completely defenseless, so absolutely unlike his usual controlled self. A pity she would have to wake him up soon.
Suddenly a gunshot-like sound rang out
and all at once the steering wheel was
"Wow, you two really had your guardian angels watching over you today. If I hadn't been right behind you and seen the whole thing I wouldn't have believed it." A wiry, old man in farming clothes was walking around the wreck of the Suburban, shaking his head in wonderment. "I thought you were goners for sure."
A muted groan from the passenger side of an old truck, which was parked at the road bank, brought him to the open door, a worried frown on his tanned, well-lined face.
"You're sure, you're alright, ma'am?" He asked Margo, who was sitting in the truck, with Matt leaning wearily against its side.
"I'm fine, thanks. Just pretty well shook up." Margo answered with a weak smile. Her face was already showing the beginnings of some first class bruises, together with a couple of light abrasions. "Airbags are a wonderful invention, I only wish they would line them with something soft." Gingerly she touched a big swelling under her right eye.
"If you're really sure." The old man sounded doubtful. He turned to Matt. "You look a lot better than the lady, sir, if you don't mind my saying so."
"I'm Matt Shepherd. This is my wife Margo. We wanted to get to know Southern California, but not quite so intimately." Matt was slowly turning his head from one side to the other, rubbing his aching neck. Still half asleep and fairly relaxed, he had been thrown forward in the crash to be caught by the expanding airbag without much damage to himself. "I guess, I was a bit luckier than my wife. ... Most of the damage is to the car, it seems."
They all looked at the Suburban, whose front now sprouted a large tree. The tree looked to have survived the crash much better than the car.
"Yah, that needs a lot of work
before you'll be going any further." The old man
"That's very generous of you, Mr ....?" Matt let his voice trail of.
"Oh, I'm Linus Vandergelt. I've
got a small farm a couple of miles back." He
Margo exchanged a glance with Matt. He slightly shook his head and followed the old farmer. Together they transferred several bags from the Suburban to the hold of the truck. Matt locked the doors of the Suburban, got into the truck next to Margo and they drove off.
"'Nice' place, huh?" Margo mumbled through the wet towel she was using to cool some of the bruises on her face.
Matt turned away from the window of their guest room and looked at her. "You don't like it, do you?"
"No, it doesn't feel right." Margo answered with a frown and a wince. "Everybody is ... hmmm ...... I don't know, ... too 'nice'?"
Noticing her grimace of pain Matt went up to her. "Want me to rub some of that stuff Mrs Wagner gave you on those bruises?" He took a cream pot from the dresser, opening it and smelling the contents. He wrinkled his nose. "Smells healthy."
"Baaah!" Margo turned her head away in disgust. "Keep it away from me. Smells like horse salve. If I put any of that on my face, not only would anybody be able to smell me from miles away, I'd probably faint dead away, too. I wouldn't be much help to Benny Ray like that. I'll stick to the pain-killers." She looked at Matt thoughtfully. "Have YOU noticed anything strange about these people?"
"Apart from that they are too 'nice'?" Matt inquired, his face turning dead serious at the mention of Benny Ray's name. "I'm not sure, but maybe you can tell me." He turned back to the window, gesturing for her to join him. "What do you see out there?"
Margo stepped up to him and looked out
onto the street below them. "Linus is
Surprised, she looked up at Matt. "There is no one around. Apart from Linus and Pete the whole street is absolutely deserted. It's like one of those ghost towns."
"Yeah, too quiet." Matt observed. "It's late afternoon. This may be a small place, but there should be kids running around, people finishing their shopping, chatting to the neighbors, things like that." He left the window and pulled his jacket on. "I think it's time I had a look at our car. ... Why don't you go talk to our hostess and find out about the best place to eat or something?" He threw her a significant glance.
"Hi Matt." Linus was greeting him with a serious expression. "Pete here says it'll take more than just a while for your car to get goin' again, if ever. He thinks you should write it off and continue your trip in another one. He would let you borrow one of his. What do you say?"
"Yah, no problem, Mr Shepherd." Pete fell in hastily. "You can take your pick. I've got some really good cars here. Won't charge you much either. You can leave the Suburban here with me as security and we can settle everything later, ... when you've talked to your insurance company .... after your vacation, of course. ... Why don't you have a look at my cars right away, ... pick one now? You wouldn't want to break off your vacation, seeing as nothing serious has happened to you and the wife." He fired the words off without giving Matt any chance to respond, finally looking at him hopefully.
"Uhm, I don't know." Matt
tried to stall. "Are you sure the Suburban is beyond
Matt sent the wreck of the Suburban
a final, regretful glance, heaved a sigh and
"Yah, where is everybody?" Linus asked, still frowning.
"Ahem, working, I suppose." Pete sounded harassed. "I had better be goin' back to work, too. See ya around Linus, Mr Shepherd. Let me know what the little wife decides." He disappeared into the back of his garage, leaving Linus Vandergelt staring after him open-mouthed.
"Now what is the matter with the fella?" Bewildered, he turned to face Matt, who simply shrugged.
"There is definitely something strange goin' on here." Matt informed Margo after carefully closing the door to their room. "Even Linus has noticed it." He threw his jacket on a chair. "Did you find out anything from Mrs Wagner?"
"Hm?... No, just that the restaurant
is closed. She'll send up something to eat, but she strongly
suggested we move on to a better place. Fallbrook is supposed
to be very 'nice' this time of the year. Just about an hour's
drive away. Nothing to it for a young couple like us. Tomorrow
is the first day of the annual Avocado Festival,
"Yep, they want us gone as soon as possible. Pete even offered me the use of one of his cars for free."
Margo raised her eyebrows in surprise. "They DO want us gone! ... Hmmmm. Might fit in with something I have found."
"What is it?" Matt moved to her side.
"Come and check it out. I don't
know how I could have missed it earlier, but I
Matt sat down on the sofa next to her and examined the text on the screen, whistling softly.
A knock on the door stopped the comment he was about to make.
"Our meal. I'll get it." Margo got up, stretched, went to the door and opened it. Her gasp of horror made Matt jump up and rush to her side.
"Rico! .... God, what happened to you?"
Matt stepped forward to help the medic into the room, but Rico stopped him with a shake of his head.
"Looks a lot worse than it is." He tried to grin through the dried blood covering most of his face and slowly hobbled into the room. "Though I wish I could say, 'you should see the other guy'. Or rather guys."
"Guys?" Margo was drawing out a chair for Rico. "As in more than one?"
"As in four." Rico gingerly lowered himself into the chair, holding his left side. "I think they got one of my ribs, though."
"Broken?" Matt was handing Rico a wet towel to wipe the blood off his face with.
"Don't think so." Rico tried to stretch. "Probably only badly bruised. Hurts like hell, though."
"What happened?" Matt demanded.
"They obviously don't like strangers
in this area. I had a welcoming committee
"What kind of guys?" Margo was spreading out their first aid stuff on the table. She started dabbing some iodine on the worst cuts on Rico's face.
" Ouch! ..... Three young ones and an older guy, giving the orders. Looked like local people, farmers. All with shotguns, but they didn't use 'em. Just their fists. ... The older guy said they didn't want to hurt me."
Rico was getting his first good look at Margo.
"Heyla! What happened to you? Did they get you, too?"
"A tree got me!"
After Matt had explained about the accident and how Linus Vandergelt had taken them to town, Rico looked at him thoughtfully.
"You're sure it was an accident?"
"I have been wondering." Matt admitted. "But so far I haven't been able to get a good look at the Suburban, so I can't really say." He shrugged. "Doesn't matter, though. We're here and here we'll stay."
Rico was pointing to the laptop when another knock on the door interrupted them.
"Just a minute!" Margo was
quickly shoving the first aid box under the table,
At a nod from Margo, he opened it to admit a middle-aged woman carrying in a big tray laden with covered dishes.
"This isn't the kind of fare you must be used to, but I hope it'll do." She said with a nervous glance and put the tray down on the table next to the laptop.
"Oh, I'm sure it will be just perfect, Mrs Wagner." Matt told her, flashing her a wide smile. It went unanswered.
"Yes, thank you very much, Mrs Wagner. I'm sorry we are such a bother to you." Margo tried to sound apologetic. The woman just kept looking from one of them to the other, nervously wringing her hands. "I'll bring the tray down to you when we're finished." Margo offered, glancing at Matt with a question in her eyes. He shrugged imperceptibly.
"Mrs Wagner?" Matt went to her side and touched her arm. "Is anything wrong? Can we help you?"
She shrank away from his touch and stepped
back, looking at him out of wide,
"You won't be staying overnight, will you?" She blurted out, blushing furiously when they both looked at her, surprised. "I mean...." She tried to amend. "Pete has offered you the use of one of his cars, hasn't he? ... And there sure isn't anything to keep you here. City folks like you ...." Uncertainly, she let the sentence trail off unfinished, stepping further back. She was almost at the door now.
"I ..., uhm ..., enjoy your meal." With a helpless, vague gesture she hastily fled the room.
Matt closed the door behind her. "Now what was that?"
"A very frightened woman, that's for sure." Rico had been following the exchange through the half-open bathroom door. He resumed his seat at the table, examining the contents of the dishes on the tray. "What's goin' on here?"
"Margo may have found something."
Matt went to perch on the arm rest of the sofa next to where
Margo was sitting.
Margo's statement jerked Rico upright in his chair. He quickly swallowed the pastry he'd been sampling.
"The Fallbrook Naval Weapons Station is currently trying to get rid of some 34,000 old Napalm bombs. They have contracted a private company in Louisiana to dispose of the stuff. This company simply burns it off as a fuel for their furnaces." Margo explained to the two attentively listening men.
"Apparently the Navy are operating a plant to drain about a hundred bombs a day and then they send the diluted stuff off to Louisiana. One shipment of bombs never reached the plant."
Rico whistled softly through his teeth. "Napalm bombs."
"It's not as bad as it sounds." Margo was checking her information on the screen. "The bombs aren't equipped with triggers or fuses. So it should be pretty next to impossible to make them go off just like that."
She called up another page. "It
seems like the Navy has been trying to retrieve
"And you think they are here, in this little backwater?" Rico asked incredulously. "And Benny Ray has stumbled upon them just like that?"
"I don't know." Margo retorted sharply. Matt put a hand on her shoulder, telling her to calm down. She took a deep breath and went on in a quieter voice. "But it's the only unusual thing that has happened in the area. It is something to go on." She looked at Matt for confirmation.
"We need a lot more info, that
much is certain." Matt hated to see his words
"Well, then let's go get our information, it won't be coming to us on its own." Matt looked at his two friends, clapping his hands. "Any suggestions where we should start?"
Margo and Rico looked at each other and started grinning. "Both?"
"Linus first, I'd say." Matt made for the door. "He seems to be a decent guy. Maybe he can help us find someone who'll talk to us, tell us what's goin' on. I'll ask him up to join us."
He opened the door only to be stopped short by the barrel of a shotgun pointing straight at his midriff.
At the other end of the gun there was a grim-faced, middle-aged man, who looked like he would feel much more comfortable plowing a field than pointing a gun at someone. Flanking him were two equally uncomfortable-looking, but determined and similarly armed, younger versions of him.
Slowly Matt raised his arms. The open door was still blocking the view into the room. He could only hope that Margo and Rico would react the right way.
"Hey, guys, if you're hoping for any riches from my wife and me, you couldn't be more wrong. Our car was the most valuable thing we had and that has wrapped itself around a tree. It's not worth much anymore. You can ask Pete."
"Shut up and get inside, city-slicker!" One of the younger men snapped, prodding Matt with his gun.
"Michael! You leave the talking to me!" The older man was quite annoyed at the younger one's rash action. "You are wrong mister, we don't want your money or your car. Please, step back inside." His words might sound polite, but his gun never wavered from its target.
Matt slowly stepped back into the room. There had been no sound from inside. The three men followed him, spreading out to cover both Margo and Matt, and behind them came a very distraught, still very frightened Mrs Wagner.
Margo was still sitting on the sofa, a half-eaten pastry in her hand, looking at the armed strangers with wide, fearful eyes. The laptop was closed again. There was no sign of Rico.
"Matt, oh God, what's happening?" If she ever got tired of chasing danger in this crazy job of theirs, she wouldn't have any trouble finding a new one in the acting community of Hollywood, Matt thought admiringly. Her stiff pose and the trembling in her voice would have convinced any talent seeker that he had a new movie star on his hands.
"Easy, ma'am." The older man was looking at her uneasily. He obviously wasn't used to pointing a gun at a defenseless, young woman. "We don't mean you any harm. .... Liddy, what was it you saw?" He half turned to Mrs Wagner.
With a trembling hand Mrs Wagner pointed at the laptop. "She was doing something with this thing. It is one of those computer thingies you always see on TV. You can send messages with them. Who knows what she has already sent."
That seemed to be the problem, Matt
realized. The laptop was a way of
"My laptop?" Margo sort of
squeaked. She turned slightly and looked at it,
"Sorry, ma'am, but we can't let you use that." The gun was still pointing at Matt, but most of the older man's attention was on Margo, as were the eyes of the two younger guys.
"Now what the hell is goin' on
here? Are you ALL gone crazy?" Linus' loud,
Matt grabbed for the older man's gun, yanking it up and out of his hands without any problems, while Margo went for the man nearest to her, felling him with a kick to his knees and a chop at his neck, and relieved him of his gun. At the same time Rico had left his hiding place and was taking care of the third would-be attacker, the one closest to the bathroom door. Before anybody had the time to say anything, the tables were turned and the three men were looking into the barrels of their own weapons.
"Come on in, Linus, and join the party." Matt told the bewildered farmer. "I was about to call you anyway, when we got so rudely interrupted by your friends here." He indicated the disarmed trio who were now covered by Margo and Rico.
"Mrs Wagner, please, take a seat. You look like you need one."
Their hostess was standing backed against the wall next to the door, both hands at her mouth, only a step away from screaming. Matt smiled at her reassuringly, but she didn't move.
Linus Vandergelt was recovering very
fast. He led her over to a chair and gently pushed her down.
"Now what's the meaning of all this? Frank? Matt?"
"Maybe your friend Frank here can enlighten us." Matt replied. "He and his fellow ruffians came storming in, threatening us with their guns. Seems they don't want our money, but I'm not quite sure what they do want."
"What?!" Linus looked at Frank, waiting for an explanation. "Frank? What is wrong with you people? First Pete behaves like a brainless lout and now you go waving your guns around harmless travelers."
"Hmph! Harmless travelers!"
Frank snorted mulishly. "They don't look so harmless
"Hey, Dad! That's the guy we asked
to go back, down on the Old Mills Road." One
"Asked, huh?" Margo retorted sarcastically. "Do you always 'ask' people with your fists?"
"HEY!" Matt stopped the argument
before it had a chance to develop. "I want some
"Yeah, me, too" Linus added.
"They, .... they are going to kill
them. Please, let us go. Please." Mrs Wagner
Startled Matt and Linus glanced at the
upset woman. Linus bent down to her and
"Not them, the others." Her tears were flowing openly now. "They'll kill the children."
"Liddy! Shut up!" Frank roared,
suddenly looking almost as frightened as the
"No, Frank, now you shut up."
Matt said quietly. He went to the door and closed
"I think it's high time somebody started explaining things. And since you won't start I'll begin." He looked at Linus.
"You're right, Linus. We won't harm anyone who doesn't want to harm us. But Frank is right, too. We're a bit more than just a couple of simple travelers. We're here because we are looking for a friend of ours."
That got him everybody's attention.
"His name is Benny Ray Riddle.
He called me this morning, around eleven, and
When he saw Linus' uncomprehending glance,
Matt went on. "We could trace the
He looked around him for reactions.
When none were forthcoming he added. "We
At the repeated mention of Benny Ray's
name Mrs. Wagner flinched. She started to
Matt gave the stubbornly scowling farmer
his best you-had-better-trust-me-cause
"Mrs. Wagner." Margo put the
gun on the sofa and bent down to the sitting woman.
"But what can you do?" She
looked at Margo helplessly. "They have the children
"Who, Liddy? For God's sake what
are you talking about? What bombs? Frank?"
"Frank?" Matt gently, but insistently prompted the older man. "Why don't you tell us the whole story?"
Frank looked at him for a long moment,
trying to decide whether he should trust
At Linus nod he went on. "Well, about three weeks ago he suddenly showed up again on Jack's doorstep. Said he'd got homesick and wanted to visit with them for a while. He brought two friends with him. Jack wasn't happy, but he let them stay. Then one day another guy showed up. They all disappeared for a couple of days and then Danny came back telling Jack he'd stored some things of his buddies' in Jack's old barn and the guys were staying with them to keep an eye on 'em. Jack was busy and he didn't use the old barn anyhow, so he didn't object." Frank paused, licking his lips, coughing softly to clear his throat. He slumped down on a chair.
Matt was still leaning against the wall next to the door, Linus sat on the edge of the sofa and Rico stood with his shoulder against the bathroom door, the shotgun still in his arms. Margo sat on the low table next to Mrs. Wagner, holding her hand reassuringly.
"I'll go on, Dad." Michael,
who was still sitting on the floor where Margo's kick had thrown
him, offered. "Nothing much happened until Dave King wanted
to get some gear he was keeping in Jack's barn. Those thugs didn't
let him in. Hell, they chased him off the grounds, threatening
to break his neck if he ever showed his face again. Dave went
to Jack and Jack confronted Danny. Danny gave him some sing-song
about the valuable stuff they were keeping there and that they'd
only need the barn for another two days at the most."
The third member of the trio, who hadn't said anything so far, nodded and continued. "You're right. Seems Jack didn't want to involve anyone of us, maybe cause he didn't want to get his brother into even more trouble, not when he wasn't really sure what was wrong. So he called an old friend of his, this Benny Ray, and together they broke into the barn. Danny and his friends caught them at it and shot Jack. Your friend made it back into town and tried to call you. We stopped him."
"Where is he?" Rico, Matt and Margo all came out with their questions simultaneously.
Before they could get an answer the door suddenly burst open.
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