"I win!" Margo shouted
triumphantly as she touched the railing scant
"You cheated!" Matt accused.
"Excuse me?" Margo returned, with a dangerous spark in he eye.
"You - that - that outfit!" Matt spluttered, gesturing to the form-fitting red jogging ensemble Margo was sporting that morning. The color was very flattering, and the shorts were well, short.
"I can't help it if you can't keep your eyes where they belong and trip over your own feet," Margo told him sweetly.
"She's got ya there, Boss," Benny Ray said tiredly.
"And," Margo continued,
"since I won, I get first dibs on the master
"Leave some hot water for the rest of us!" Matt yelled at her departing back. A silvery peal of laughter floated out the screen door.
"Women!" Benny Ray chuckled.
Matt didn't quite trust himself to answer that, so he changed the subject. "Where's Nick?"
"Back there a ways," Benny Ray informed him smugly, pointing a considerable distance back down the beach.
"How're you settling in?" Matt asked.
"Fine, sir. I ain't never spent much time in this parta the country before. It kinda grows on ya."
"It does, doesn't it?" Matt agreed. "Well, well - look who finally made it!" he exclaimed as Nick staggered up to collapse on the porch beside them.
"Whatsa matter, Delvecchio - too much fresh air?" Benny Ray asked.
"Give me a lung fulla good old New Yawk smog any day," the former DEA agent groaned.
"Well, then, you won't mind cleaning up the kitchen from breakfast, now will you? Should make you feel right at home," Matt said good- naturedly.
"Clean da kitchen?" Nick groaned. "I'm dyin' here!"
"Guess you're just outta shape, amigo," Benny Ray told him with a friendly clap on the shoulder.
"Hey, Matt - can I use dat fancy shower a yaws?"
"Nope. You know the drill - winner gets to use the master bath, loser gets to use the shower in the basement," Matt informed him cheerfully.
Nick just groaned and collapsed onto his back.
Matt walked into the spacious parlor
and found Margo curled
"Hey yourself," Margo replied, smiling up at him. "Remind me to thank Trout for installing that fancy shower. It's really quite nice."
"You oughtta know - you've used it more than anyone else."
Margo smiled sweetly. "I can't help it if the rest of you can't keep up with me."
Matt shifted uncomfortably; there
was something he'd come in here to
"From the volume of noise, I'd say no."
Matt laughed nervously and Margo
looked up from her book once more.
Matt scrubbed a hand through his
freshly washed hair. "Well, actually, yes. Do you remember,
back in Copenhagen
before things got
"You mean, do I remember you
asking me for a date?" Margo asked
Matt laughed more easily this time.
"Yeah, that. Anyway, I was
Benny Ray poked his head into the
room. "'Scuse me, folks, sorry to
"Thanks, Benny Ray," Matt
replied, already moving for the door. He
Ten days later
"Trout an' his wild goose chases,"
Nick griped as he dropped his gear
"Pick that up, Delvecchio,"
Benny Ray instructed, coming through with
"Aw, come on. We spent a whole week watchin' da place - no weapons, no bio toxic whatevas, and no bad guys," Nick whined.
"Look," Matt said firmly, "better we waste a little time then risk this kind of thing being deployed against innocent civilians."
"I am going to take the longest,
hottest shower in the history of the
"Hey, we could share,"
Nick began enthusiastically, "that way, we
Nick's voice climbed to the upper
registers as Benny Ray employed a
"Major, Margo," Benny Ray
said politely, "Delvecchio and me'll be
As they disappeared from sight, Margo finally gave in to her merriment, leaning against Matt's arm and giggling so hard that tears ran from her eyes.
Matt smiled fondly as he watched
her, amazed at how she still managed
Feeling rather frustrated herself, Margo went to answer it. Her face lit with joy as she recognized her brother's voice. "John! It's so good to hear your voice! Where are you?"
Matt watched in concern as the eager light faded from Margo's eyes.
"My God," she gasped, "Are you all right? Is there anything of course. I'll see what I can do. Promise me you'll be careful," she pleaded tearfully. "I love you," she whispered.
Matt stepped to her side as she hung up the phone. "Hey, what is it?" he asked, wrapping a supportive arm around her shoulders. "What's wrong?"
Margo sniffled slightly, wiping furtively at her eyes and trying to pull herself together. "That was my brother, John."
"Is he OK?" Matt asked quickly.
Margo nodded. "For the moment.
He's in New Delhi, as part of the
"I'm sure he'll be fine," Matt assured her, " relief workers always receive inoculations before entering a quarantine zone. Cholera is pretty common over there - I'm sure everything is under control."
"That's the problem - it isn't under control. He says the doctors are frantic - the standard treatments and medications don't seem to be effective. It's almost like it's some kind of mutant strain."
"Or maybe a synthetic one?" Matt guessed.
"John doesn't know what to think.
The Indian government is trying to
"We'll call Trout, too. We'll get to the bottom of this," Matt promised, pressing a gentle kiss to her temple. "You go on and get some sleep," he suggested, steering her towards the staircase.
"What about you?" Margo asked, hesitating on the bottom step.
"I think I'll get that call in to Trout see how fast he can get us some intel."
"At this hour? That's not going to make you very popular, you realize."
Matt shrugged casually. "It's not as if he hasn't done it to us often enough besides, it's all in a good cause. Go on, now," he concluded.
The sun was well up when Margo awoke
the next morning. The house was silent
not a sound from
the third floor, where Nick and Benny Ray
It was quiet downstairs, too. The doors were locked and the lights were off. Matt wouldn't leave the house without leaving a note, or telling someone, so that left only one possibility. Descending the steps down to the pantry, Margo went to the thermostat unit mounted on the wall and flipped up the cover, revealing a keypad. She quickly typed in a code and a green telltale lit up. She closed the unit and walked over to a full-length wooden cupboard. When she opened the door, the back wall of the cupboard, which contained shelves of canned goods, rotated ninety degrees backwards, allowing passage into the team's new operation's center.
Once inside, Margo hit a red button
on another keypad and the door
They both relaxed simultaneously.
"Sorry," Matt said contritely, "old habits "
"Have you been down here all
night?" Margo asked, waving off his
"Hmm?" Matt mumbled, as
he rolled his shoulders and rubbed his aching
Margo guided him back to his chair
and began rubbing his shoulders.
"I know, but I wanted to see if I could get a jump on the situation. I've met your brother, and he's a very levelheaded person. If he says there's something strange going on, then I believe him, and I want to do whatever I can to help."
"Thank you," Margo said,
bending to place a soft kiss on his cheek.
"Not much," he admitted. "The government is really trying to keep a lid on this to avoid undue panic I'm afraid we're not going to get any useable intel through official channels."
"So we do it the other way?"
"That's right," Matt told her, flashing a warm grin.
"Why don't we grab some breakfast,
then we can both get a fresh start
"Sounds like a plan," Matt agreed.
Matt chuckled as he headed for the
master bath, wondering what Trout
As the warm spray hit his back, Matt began to relax, and as he did so, he found his thoughts turning to Margo. That was becoming more and more common, he found. Matt wondered, not for the first time, if pursuing a relationship with her was really the right thing for them for the team. Their work was so dangerous - in every op there was the very real possibility that one of them wouldn't make it home. Then he thought about what Chance told him - that sooner or later, one of them wouldn't come home. He thought about the times before when he thought he might lose Margo the North Korean prison the plane crash and he realized that it wasn't just the fear of losing her that made those situations so painful, but the regrets, just as Chance said.
Right then and there, Matt decided
that there would be no more wasted
Matt found Margo out on the beach.
She was meandering along the edge of the surf, lost in her own
thoughts. Smiling, he headed out after
"Any word?" Margo asked as they walked.
"No not yet," Matt replied absently.
"Something on your mind?" Margo asked.
actually, there is,"
Matt began. "You remember when we went
"Of course you were shot that's not the type of thing I forget easily." Margo clutched his hand convulsively, remembering how relieved she'd been when he stumbled out into the clearing and how fast that relief had given way to fear when she'd seen the extent of his injuries. She remembered the interminable chopper ride to the hospital, and how she'd prayed harder than ever before in her life that he might live, so she could tell him so many things that she still hadn't managed to say yet. She remembered.
"When I was out of it, after I was shot, I had a dream nightmare, really. My worst nightmare. God, it was so vivid! I kept reliving everything that happened, except I didn't get shot. You did. Chance did. C.J. and Benny Ray got hurt bad, too. I you died. You died in my arms." He stopped walking, closing his eyes against the flood of images. Two soft arms slipped around his waist, hugging him tightly and anchoring him to the present. Matt rested his cheek atop her head for a long moment, then gently pushed her back, so he could see her face.
"Margo, I accepted a long time ago that someday, I'll go out on an op, and I won't make it back. I've made my peace with that. But what I can't accept is dying before I've really lived. I love you, Margo Vincent, and I want to see what life has in store for us." Without realizing it, Matt held his breath, wondering what her response would be.
There was a soft light in Margo's eyes that was totally at odds with the mischievous smile that played across her lips. "Took you long enough," she breathed, twining her arms around his neck.
"Oh yeah why's that?" Matt asked, his lips mere inches from hers.
"Because I love you, too."
And now there was nothing to separate
Benny Ray stepped out on the back
porch and scanned the beach for
Waving an acknowledgement, the two hurried back to the house.
"Sorry, sir, but Trout's on the phone for you," the sniper apologized.
"It's OK," Matt assured
him, "we've been waiting for this one." He
"What have you got for us?" Matt asked.
Trout's voice issued from the speaker phone, "Well, it's more of a hunch than anything else. I mean, ordinarily, I'd say a cholera epidemic in India is about as suspicious as a cheese factory in Wisconsin, but there's something going on. I can't quite put my finger on it, but I just feel as though someone is setting off fire alarms to keep us running." Trout's frustrated sigh was clearly audible through the speaker. "At any rate, I'm going to slip the four of you into a U.N. relief mission that's leaving tomorrow afternoon. Once you're on site, I want you to start turning over rocks and see what crawls out."
"You know," Matt mused,
"not too long ago, we bollixed an attempt to
"Matt, right now I don't know what to think; that's why I need you to get in-country and get me something to work with."
"We're on it," Matt told him.
"Trout?" Margo said suddenly, "Thank you."
"I owe you this one, Miss Vincent," Trout replied gruffly.
"When do we go, sir?" Benny Ray asked.
"I've arranged transportation for you from Groton Naval Base.They'll get you to Fort Wadsworth, on Staten Island, to rendezvous with the rest of the team," Trout told him. "If I come up with anything else, I'll call. Good hunting."
"Groton?" Benny Ray laughed
as Matt broke the connection. "We goin'
"Hate to disappoint you, Benny Ray, but it's probably gonna be a chopper," Matt replied.
"Dat suits me just fine," Nick piped up.
"Wassa matter, Delvecchio, don'tcha like the idea of goin' for a ride under the water in a little bitty metal tube?" Benny Ray asked with an evil glimmer in his eye.
"'Bout as much as I like de
idea of jumpin' out of a perfectly good
Matt looked from one to the other
in amusement. "Since you two seem
"We just got it all unpacked!" Nick groaned.
"Well then, it shouldn't take you too long to find everything, now should it?" Matt replied.
"Please tell me dey got bunks
in dere," Nick prayed fervently as they
"Not the kind you're thinking of, pal," a familiar voice replied.
"Rico!" Matt exclaimed. "What're you doing here?"
The medic grinned, "Same as
you. Now, if you folks could roll up
"Dat's not a needle, dat's a railroad spike!" Nick groaned in horror.
Benny Ray slapped a hand on the smaller man's shoulder, "It only hurts goin' in," he said cheerfully.
"Trout sent me," Rico murmured
as he swabbed Matt's arm and gave him
"I figured it was too much of
a coincidence," Matt agreed, wincing as
"He thought I might recognize
something that you guys'd miss. OK,
"Do you know where the contingent from the Catholic Church is?" Margo asked worriedly.
"On the other side of the compound," Rico told her, "there's a Papal flag outside the main tent. And before you ask, your brother's fine."
"Thank you," Margo said, smiling with relief.
"How bad is it?" Benny Ray asked holding out his arm.
"Real bad," Rico said gravely. "I never seen anything like this. It was too fast too widespread and too virulent."
"Too unnatural, you mean," Matt added, his face grim.
that's exactly what
I mean. This is
" Rico told them,
"I didn't t'ink people got cholera anymore," Nick remarked.
"Not in our part of the world,"
Rico explained, "and if someone does
"We're going to find out what's going on here," Matt promised.
"Damn straight," Benny Ray assured his friend.
"If you don't mind, I want to go find my brother," Margo said.
"Go on," Matt told her, indicating with a look that Benny Ray should go with her. His eyes followed them until they disappeared from sight, then he turned back to Rico. "How safe are we?" he asked.
"I just don't know," Rico admitted.
John looked up from the desk where
he was working as Father Noel
"Margie!" John exclaimed, coming to his feet. He hugged his sister close, then held her away from him at arms length. "I am glad to see you, but it is too dangerous here," he admonished.
"I'll be fine, John," Margo assured him.
"I won't let nothin' happen to her, sir," Benny Ray promised.
"Thank you, Mister Riddle," John replied gratefully.
"John, you said on the phone
that there was something strange about
Her brother sighed heavily, suddenly
looking very much older. "It was too sudden
too fast. The doctors
"Sudden, widespread, and fast
sounds like the bacteria mighta been
"Contaminated food or water,"
John supplied. "You learn quickly in a
"No single food source would
take down this many people this fast,"
"But contaminated water would," Margo completed the thought.
"But why would someone do such a thing?" John asked, horrified.
"I don't know, big brother, but I intend to find out," Margo assured him, squeezing his hand.
"Promise me that you will be careful," John pleaded.
"I promise," she whispered,
wrapping her arms around her brother and
"What have we got, people?"
Matt asked as the team gathered in the
"A lot of sick people," Nick said with none of his usual commentary.
"And a lot of dead bodies," Benny Ray added grimly.
"Acknowledged. Now, I know this
is scary stuff, but what we need to
"Cholera is spread mainly by
contact with contaminated biological
"What about airborne delivery?"
Margo asked without looking up from
Rico shook his head. "Wrong kind of organism."
"Margo, how's that coming?" Matt inquired.
"Almost there it's connecting now OK, got it."
Trout's face materialized on the screen, the image wavering slightly as it came through the satellite connection. "Matt," he said by way of greeting, "what's the sitrep?"
"We're on site at a field hospital outside the city. It's bad, Trout, very bad."
"Understood," Trout replied. "What can I do to help from this end?"
"You can get anyone who'll listen
to put pressure on the Indian
"Researchers you've already
got - you're not the only ones I've been
"Thanks, Trout," Rico said gratefully.
"We've got a pretty good idea
of how this happened," Matt said,
"So that leaves who and why," Trout concluded.
"I'd say we've got our work cut out for us," Matt agreed.
Matt opened his eyes in the darkness,
wondering what had woken him.
"Wassat?" Benny Ray mumbled.
go back to sleep,"
Matt whispered. He stood up, quietly
Margo was working on her laptop.
The screen illuminated her features
"It's me," Matt announced
quietly. "What are you doing out here?" he
"Couldn't sleep," Margo admitted with a crooked little smile. "I thought I'd try to get some decent intel so we could figure out what's going on here."
"You really should try to rest,"
Matt admonished, rubbing her back
"I know, but it's silly "
"I guess I'm a little scared."
"Hell, Margo - I'm a lot scared."
"We make quite a pair, don't we?" Margo chuckled. "I mean, we're used to being outnumbered and outgunned and facing down the tangos anyway-"
"Yeah," Matt interrupted, "when we can see the tangos and the guns that they're pointing at us. That's what makes this one different - we can't see the gun, and we don't know who's pulling the trigger."
"Matt, if anything happens -"
Matt hushed her by laying his fingers on her lips. "Nothing's going to happen to you." That familiar grin of his lit Matt's features. "You and I have a dinner date, remember?"
"I remember," she replied with a grin of her own.
"Good. You think you can turn that thing off for a while and come back inside? I have a feeling we're gonna need all the rest we can get."
Matt stood and held out a hand, which Margo took, allowing him to pull her to her feet.
Matt leaned on the back of Margo's chair, studying the computer monitor. "Any luck?"
"Not a thing. If this is supposed to be a distraction, I can't figure out from what."
"No conferences...peace talks "
" large international sporting events or church councils," Margo continued. "Nope, nothing that your basic bad guy would be interested in disrupting. Not in this part of the world, anyway."
"What about the rest of the world?" Benny Ray asked.
"Well, I -" Margo began.
"Hey, folks, anyone feel like
a ride out to the airport?" Rico asked,
"What's up?" Matt asked.
Rico smiled tiredly. "Trout works fast. There's a Red Cross supply plane inbound. I could use some help getting that stuff back here. You guys aren't qualified medical personnel, soooo "
"I hear ya, buddy," Matt
chuckled. "Come on, troops, let's go make
"I'm about due for a break," Margo said, stretching as she stood up.
NEW DELHI INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT
"Last stop, people!" Rico called cheerfully as he brought the truck to a shuddering halt.
Benny Ray jumped out of the back and extended his hands to Margo.
"Thanks," she said, smiling.
"You really think yer gonna need that here?" Nick asked, gesturing to the rifle Benny Ray carried.
"This here's my version of American Express - I don't leave home without it."
Matt shook his head in amusement as he headed toward the plane. Margo rolled her eyes and followed after him.
Workers wearing tee shirts emblazoned with the logo of the International Red Cross began offloading supplies as a supervisor called out directions.
Nick and Benny Ray watched as Rico spoke with the supervisor, showing his I.D. and gesturing back towards their truck. Meanwhile, more trucks were assembling on the tarmac - some from the field hospital and others from the overburdened facilities within the city. As they watched, a jeep came speeding down the runway, weaving in and out of the slower moving trucks. The small vehicle carried three men - a driver, one passenger in the front with a machine gun, and one in the back. The one in the back was standing and raising a rifle.
Nick elbowed his teammate as he drew his sidearm. "Benny Ray?"
"I see it," Benny Ray ground
out. "Major! Incoming!" he bellowed,
Matt reacted instantly, shoving the Red Cross representative down behind a crate and drawing his weapon. Shots ricocheted off the plane's fuselage and the workers scattered.
"Get down!" Matt yelled at the frantic relief workers.
Benny Ray picked off the driver and
the jeep careened off the runway
Rico and Margo ran to check on the
shooter who had been thrown from
Benny Ray covered the others as they
checked the crash site. Matt
Nick looked up from checking the
machine gunner who'd been seated in
"Rico! We need a medic over
here!" Matt shouted. "Any idea who
"No," she replied, "I
he wasn't carrying any I.D. Male,
"Same here," Matt sighed
in frustration. "Let's get fingerprints and photos
Trout can tell us something while we're waiting for this
"Why not just take 'im back to the field hospital with us, Boss?" Benny Ray suggested. "I can guard him myself and I'll guarantee you that nothin's gonna get through me."
Matt looked to Rico, who nodded.
"Sounds like a plan. Let's do it,
"How is he?" Matt asked, eyeing the man that Rico was tending.
"He's gonna sleep for a while," the medic replied, adjusting the I.V. lines.
"Has he said anything at all?"
"Nope - and with the medication
we're pumping into him, he won't be
Matt waved off the apology. "Just
do the best you can. Margo's
Rico looked speculatively at his
friend. "So, when are you gonna pop
Matt choked on a mouthful of coffee. "When am I what?" he spluttered.
"Well, I figured you weren't planning on living in sin, seeing as how Margo's brother works for the Pope and all."
"Rico, this is all kinda new for me hell, I haven't even managed to take her out to dinner yet. And in case you haven't noticed, we've got a bit of a situation here."
"So?" Rico shrugged. "There's
always something going on. But she's
"Well, yeah," Matt said slowly.
"Can you imagine any other woman
standing by you through everything
Matt didn't even have to think about that one. "No."
"Then that means that she's the one, doesn't it?" Rico pressed.
A slow smile lit Matt's tired features. "Oh, yeah she's the one all right."
"So what are you waiting for?" Rico wanted to know.
Matt didn't have a good answer for that.
Some time later, Matt made his way
to the shelter where Margo was
"If you want to call it that," Margo replied, troubled. "Matt, these guys are Americans."
"Damn. Did you get anything else?"
"Not yet Trout's still working on it from his end."
"So we're stuck until our guest
wakes up to get more information," Margo surmised. She checked
her watch and frowned - she'd been
"No, and in fact, I have a much
better idea," Matt told her, grinning
Matt stepped in close and wrapped
his arm around her shoulders.
"I think you've been out in the sun too long," Margo countered.
"Trust me," Matt told her, carefully guiding her around behind their tent.
Margo exclaimed in surprised delight at the sight that met her eyes. A crate had been neatly covered with a clean tarp and lit with two bug candles. The 'table' was set with covered tin messkit plates and two bottles of water.
Margo's hand went to her hair self-consciously. "If I'd known you went to all this trouble, I'd have worn my dress fatigues."
"You look gorgeous," Matt told her sincerely.
She smiled and kissed him in response.
Matt returned the kiss, then
"Ah, I'm afraid the best I could manage was MREs."
Margo wrinkled her nose in distaste, all the while smiling at the sweet gesture. "MREs are fine I remember some of the things C.J. said were local delicacies."
Matt laughed right along with her as he continued, "I did however, manage to snag you the very last pack of M&Ms for dessert."
"Matthew Shepherd, you are a man of impeccable taste," Margo teased.
"Of course - I fell in love with you, didn't I?"
"Delvecchio, secure this, willya?"
Benny Ray asked, passing a box of
"I was wondering if I might speak with my sister?" John asked. "If she is not too busy," he added, noting how the team was occupied with arming a large truck.
"I'm never too busy for you," Margo said, smiling as she reached out to hug her brother. She felt John flinch ever so slightly as he tried to embrace her around the rifle slung over her shoulder.
"And where are you going today?"
he asked, trying to cover his
"We're going out to the airfield
there's another shipment of relief
His eyes were troubled as he replied. "I "
'...am disappointed in you,' Margo
thought, her eyes stinging with
" wish it did not have to be this way," John concluded.
"Folks can't do their jobs if
someone's shootin' at 'em," Benny Ray
"I understand," John replied. "I do not like it but I do understand. You will take very great care, Margie?"
"Of course," she told him, reaching up to kiss his cheek.
"I won't let nothin' happen
to her, Padre. You got my word on that,"
"Thank you," John said simply, reaching out to clasp the sniper's hand.