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It had been a long day and I was exhausted. Sometimes I wondered what it would be like to have a 9 to 5 job like normal people. Twenty hours ago I had been soaking in the Jacuzzi when the call came. Now here I was five thousand miles from home in the middle of nowhere looking for a madman. It was my job... I was an Outrider. First on the scene, assess the situation and if the circumstances warranted it, I placed a call and an infiltration team was called. It was up to the team leader how the event was handled. Some situations warranted termination. Some were to rescue the damsel in distress others were to save the world. Just the usual good guy, bad guy stuff!

So far this had been a wasted trip. Either the Intel Landry had given me was bogus or the tango's had picked up and moved the whole operation to another location. I also knew that Landry had three other Outriders on this particular mission so it had to be important.

I still had one more lead to check before I could head for home. I sincerely hoped this last location would be the same - empty. What I found usually wasn't pretty. Not all my missions were life and death but my last mission had been gruesome, women and children slaughtered, towns wiped off the face of the earth just because some warlord had craved land and power. The man had been insane, the lives he ruined the devastation he caused in my mind could never be measured. Maybe I was as sick as he was but my heart sang with joy when he died.

Shuddering from the memory I continued up the nearly nonexistent path, grumbling.

Most of the time Landry's Intel was right on the money. But even the big boss sometimes gets some bad information. Ten minutes more of skulking around in the steamy jungle and I would know for sure.

Ok maybe I was a bit frustrated about this, but I had had a date for tonight with the nicest guy I had met in forever. Those blue eyes had captured my heart from the second I had fatefully gazed into them. He was unlike anyone I had ever met. His laughter, his quick wit and that sick sense of humor made my heart soar with delight. Sometimes I got the feeling we were soul mates.

Grimacing I thought about the last man in my life. Oh he had been sweet and kind but he was soooo boring he didn't go anywhere or do anything. You'd think that a person like me whose job kept them on the edge all the time would like going home to someone who knew how to relax. Not me, work or play it had to be interesting and exciting. And so far my blind date had been anything but boring. I could feel the energy vibrating through the man and being near him excited me like no other ever had. Which of course scared the hell out of me. I didn't need a man in my life especially one as mysterious as this one. He had never asked me what I did for a living I'm not sure what I would have told him maybe the truth. I had never asked him either. I really didn't want to know. He seemed so very complex, and the man had more attitude than I did. I'm not sure I needed someone like that in my life it was complicated enough!

Kicking myself I turned my thoughts back to the job.

"Damn," I mumbled to my self - "Landry you are one lucky dog." Below me a thin wire was stretched across a small opening in the trail. Dropping to the ground I followed it, finding the small explosive device it was attached to. It took me almost a minute to disarm. I left it in place but at least now it was harmless.

Another fifty feet down the trail and I found a second trap, this one a little bit nastier. The bad guys had dug a small pit. The bottom was crisscrossed with thin wooden spikes. I shuddered to think what would happen if anyone fell into it. Crossing the trail I marked the spot - I couldn't uncover it. It might give my presence away if someone was walking the perimeter checking the traps.

A few minutes later I lay at the edge of the woods watching the compound. It was bustling with activity, Trucks and soldiers - they looked like mercenaries and were unloading weapons and ammo into a small building.

That's when I spotted the target - Mikhail Veranov - Ex-KGB, turned mercenary and terrorist, whose services were open to the highest bidder. He walked across the compound toward a lone truck parked a few hundred yards below my position. Several men heavily armed stood guard around the truck. When Veranov reached it I saw a smirk of satisfaction cross his ugly mug as he threw back the tarp. Stolen chemical agent! Landry had said the truck had been on its way to a destruction facility when it had been hijacked. Now 5 canisters of the deadliest chemical agent know to man were in the hands of a lunatic.

So Landry's Intel had been correct after all and from the looks of it they were preparing for a major campaign. Wriggling back into the underbrush, I pulled the small pocket computer out of my pack. Punching in my access code, the little screen came to life. It only took a minute to compose the message. Hooking up the phone I made sure the signal was strong before I hit the little send key. The encrypted message would take just a little over two minutes to reach the satellite and find its way into Landry's terminal. Five minutes later a team would be mobilized and soon Veranov would be out of business.

My job now was to lay low and keep an eye on the situation. If Veranov mobilized or changed locations I could report it within seconds to Landry. If the OP Team sent in failed its mission. I could report it and a second team would be dispatched.

Silver Star Hotel
Hermosa Beach, CA

It was nearing midnight when Matt got the call. Rolling over he switched on the light as he grabbed for the phone. "Shepherd" he grumbled. Listening intently for several minutes he replies. "We're on our way Trout, meet you there in twenty minutes."

Dialing Margo, Benny Ray and Nick, Matt gives the orders. Two more calls and he too gathers his gear.

Twenty minutes later Matt and his team are standing at a small airfield as a black limousine pulls up. Sliding in Matt spent several minutes listening as Trout briefs him on the situation.

Several minutes later a chopper could be heard overhead coming in fast. As the chopper lands the side door is flung open. A smiling familiar face stands silhouetted in the doorway. "Hey Compadre's anyone need a lift," Rico shouts.

Less than five minutes later their gear is stored, and the chopper lifts off once more.

"Heads up people" Matt begins. "We are headed to Vietnam our mission is to destroy 5 canisters of a very toxic chemical agent." Passing out folders Matt waits as they read the information.

"Jeez," Nick yelps, "this stuff could kill ya!"

"No shit, Sherlock," Benny Ray says, slapping the little man in the chest. "If it was bubble bath they wouldn't need us."

"Chance and CJ are meeting us in Hawaii. I suggest you get some rest if you can; we're on the fast track flights are waiting at Oakland and Hickam. We should reach our destination in less than eighteen hours."

Touching down at Hickam they immediately boarded a second plane fueled and ready to go. On board Chance and CJ sat waiting to greet the rest of the team. Twenty minutes later the plane is airborne and cruising at 25,000 ft.

"Gather round people," Matt yells, waiting as everyone settles in. "5 Canisters of a lethal chemical were stolen five days ago. They were on their way to a destruction facility. Our mission is to destroy the chemicals. CJ you will be glad to note that Trout had provided us with a specialized explosive. When detonated the intense heat generated by the explosion will cause the chemical to vaporize."

Our secondary target is this man," Matt says indicating the picture. "Mikhail Veranov - Benny Ray your mission is to terminate."

Bringing out the map, Matt indicates the target area and the trail they will use to reach the site.

1930 hrs

Eighteen hours and forty-five minutes after Trout's call the team was on the ground heading northeast toward Veranov's compound. Matt knew if they could keep up the pace, they would reach their target a little after midnight. Trout had also relayed the fact that an Outrider was on site and would keep them apprised of the situation.

Veranov's Compound
0018 hrs

I lay dozing beneath the branches of a huge tree as the receiver in my ear crackled, an unfamiliar voice breaking in.

"Artemis, this is Eagle1, over."

"Eagle1 this is Artemis, I read you five by. Welcome to my nightmare!"

On the other end Matt's jaw dropped in surprise at hearing a female voice on the other end.

I expected some kind of questions but when the line remained silent I had to ask. "You still there Eagle1?"

"Affirmative Artemis," the voice replied, "what's the situation."

I just had to grin. It was always the same with these guys. They weren't prepared for a woman to be out here doing something this dangerous. Sometimes I wondered if it dented their manly egos. Out here they had no choice, work with me or go home empty handed. None of them ever had.

"Eagle1," I began, "compound consists of three buildings going north to south. Building 1 is ammunition and supplies, building two is barracks, and building three is Veranov's headquarters. Four guards moving counter clockwise around the perimeter, approx fifty yard away from the buildings. Barracks contain approximately forty soldiers. Target is 25 yards west of the ammunitions building. One guard posted to the rear. The perimeter is riddled with traps so keep your eyes open."

"Roger Artemis, appreciate the Intel, moving into position now."

"Affirmative Eagle1, Artemis out."

"Benny Ray, CJ you are on the truck, Nick, Rico, south, Chance, Margo go north."

My mind went numb, Margo, Nick, and Benny Ray here? They were the infiltration team? "Why him," I muttered, as a few choice words crossed my mind. The man on the other end of my conversation had probably been Matt. Truthfully I wanted to scream.

Settling the night vision goggles in place I watched as the team moved into position. I heard them all report in when they reached their positions. In my ear I heard Matt utter "Now!"

I watched as four guards dropped silently to the ground, seconds later the guard on the truck also dropped. A hundred feet below me I saw two figures advancing on the truck.

I heard a hissing sound and the night sky burst into bloom as a flare lit the compound. Seconds later I could hear the sounds of gunfire and mortars as they exploded.

Looking south I could barely make out the bodies as rebel troops came into the compound. Veranov's men had roused at the first explosion and were soon scrambling out of the barracks looking for the enemy.

"Insurgents," I yelled into the mike, "Matt get your team the hell out of there?"

Below me I saw the bright flare of an explosion as a mortar struck the ground. I watched in horror as Benny Ray and his partner were thrown to the ground.

Breaking cover I started across the clearing as one of them climbed slowly to his knees. I saw two men come around the side of the truck and quickly raised my rifle. On the run I knew I would be lucky to hit one, much less two, but lady luck was riding my shoulder tonight and both men fell.

As I slid to the ground beside Benny Ray, I asked, "is he alive?"

I saw the affirmative shake of his head, but he didn't answer. "We need to get that truck out of here, we can't let it fall into rebel hands."

"Roger," I heard him whisper, "Cover us." He picked up the limp body of his partner throwing him over his shoulder. I heard him groan as he gained his feet limping toward the truck.

Moving toward the rear of the truck I searched the guards pockets, finding the keys.

Standing up I heard running feet from behind me as two of Veranov's soldiers closed on the truck. Turning I fired hitting one, but the second had already raised his weapon and I was the target. I heard a shot and expected the burning pain but the soldier in front of me crumpled to the ground.

"Can you drive this thing," I heard a familiar voice whisper in my ear.

"You bet your ass I can," I said as I helped him back to the truck. Jumping in I started the engine. Slamming it into gear I set the truck north toward an old trail I had marked earlier.

Beside me I heard Benny Ray call his voice cracking. "Matt you read me?

"Roger Benny Ray, what's your status?"

"We have the truck and are heading north, CJ is unconscious and our contact is driving?"

"Roger," Matt says, "Do you still have the explosives?"

"Affirmative Major."

"You know what to do, rendezvous at the following coordinates."

"Roger that Sir," I heard him mumble. Resting his head back against the seat I saw him wipe the side of his face his fingers coming away wet and slick with blood. But until we were far enough away from the compound I couldn't do anything to help.

Varanov's Compound
0045 hrs

The whole situation had gone to hell. Vietnamese insurgents were even now overrunning the camp. Snapping out orders Matt directed his team toward the rendezvous point. His heart had thumped in his chest when a mortar had caught CJ and Benny Ray. He hadn't seen them get up. Relief had swept over him when he'd heard Benny Ray's voice. So far the rest of the team was intact. They had the truck. Benny Ray, CJ and the Outrider were on their way to safety. The canisters would soon be history.

Trout had said they'd be working for the company on this one. He hadn't liked it but Trout had asked them to do it as a special favor. But Matt had to wonder about the Outrider. She'd called him by name warning him of the new danger. How the hell had she known who he was?

Keeping low Matt moved away from the compound heading toward Chance and Margo's position. It would take close to two hours for them to reach the rendezvous point.

Across the comlink he hears Chance's voice, "What's your position Major."

"Moving on your location now Chance, I'm coming in."

"Roger that Sir!'

Stepping behind a small bush, a tall figure stands up, "Here Sir," Chance whispers. "Present and accounted for."

Beside Chance several more figures step out staying low, as Matt looks at the rest of his team.

"All right people, we stay low and move fast. Chance take Point, Nick your in the rear. Now let's move it!"

Vietnamese Jungle
0137 hrs

The going had been slow, the trail overrun with brush and stumps. We had probably only traveled 10 miles when I pulled the truck to the side of the trail. I was glad to see that Benny Ray's partner had finally regained consciousness. Neither one of them looked too good but at least they were alive.

I climbed out first taking the pack from Benny Ray as I steadied him. His partner came next, I could hear him mumbling beneath his breath and I had to smile. British, by the sound of his voice and he was ranting and raving about something.

"Enough CJ," I heard Benny Ray mutter, "we need to set the charges and get the hell out of here."

"Sit both of you," I said, "I want to take a look at your injuries. Before they could protest I continued. "It's not going to do anyone any good if you both bleed to death. A couple minutes aren't going to make that much difference."

I could feel Benny Ray's eyes boring into my back as I worked on CJ. Had he recognized me? I certainly wasn't the same creature he'd taken sailing or riding on his bike. My face was covered in black, brown and green paint and my long hair was stuffed beneath my jungle hat. It took me about five minutes to bandage the gashes on CJ right arm and side. From what I could tell he probably had a couple of cracked ribs and a concussion.

Benny Ray wasn't much better. I found a golf ball size knot and gash above his left eyebrow and a matching gash on his left calf. The mortar had done it's job, neither one of them was in good shape and we still had a ways to go before we would reach the rendezvous point.

Grabbing the pack, I said tell me what to do and I'll take care of it.

Looking up CJ had this strange look on his face, like I'd just stolen his favorite toy.

I watched as he pulled out one of the charges and gave me directions. A few minutes later after setting the charges we were nearly a quarter of a mile away safely hidden behind a rocky outcropping as the devices exploded. We could feel the rush of heat as the truck and canisters were engulfed in flames.

If any of Varanov's troops or insurgents were still alive the explosion would act as a beacon drawing them in our direction. We had to move and we had to move now.

From a pocket on my pack I pulled out my little computer. Flipping it over I activated the GPS. We company types had some of the neatest toys to play with and this little palm computer was pretty slick, transmitter, receiver and locater all in one neat little package. Reading the coordinates I plotted our position. We were only about 5 miles from the rendezvous point. I lead the way as Benny Ray and CJ gamely followed moving as quickly as their poor abused bodies would allow. Neither one of them complained, I would have been surprised if they had.

Vietnamese Jungle

Veranov was furious, his plans in ruins most of his men dead, he'd barely escaped the compound alive. Six of his men were squeezed into the small jeep as they followed the trucks trail. They were gaining. It would only be a matter of minutes.

But they were closer than it seemed as the sky in front of them was ripped apart the concussion of the blast throwing the little jeep to the side of the road and over a large stump. Veranov and five of his men were thrown clear. The driver wasn't so lucky. The jeep careened out of control and flipped over crushing him beneath it.

Rendezvous Point
0227 hrs

Several times during the trek I had seen Benny Ray stop, it was as if he was sniffing the air, but seconds later he continued on. When I asked him about it he had said something didn't feel right. I was careful after that, I could feel the hair on the back of my neck stand on end, but nothing ever materialized.

We were nearing the two-hour mark as we reached the rendezvous point. My companions were exhausted. The area was clear as we sat hidden beneath a large tree the first to arrive. Passing around the canteen I checked their bandages once more.

"Stay put," I whispered, "I'm going to check the perimeter." I thought Benny Ray was going to protest but I saw him settle back and nod.

Taking off I moved silently around the area. I heard the rustle of brush as Matt and his team arrived at the rendezvous point.

That's when I felt it, the shiver ran up my back as I turned to face the enemy, bringing my weapon around I saw Veranov standing silhouetted again the sky his weapon pointed at Margo's back.

"Down," I yelled as I launched myself toward Margo taking her to the ground.

Veranov was startled as my cry broke the stillness, but it didn't stop him from getting off a shot. Around me all hell broke loose, but all I could feel was the searing pain as the bullet sliced into my left shoulder.

The team dove for cover as Veranov and his men open fired. But they hadn't counted on CJ and Benny Ray hidden beneath the tree. Veranov slid to the ground as Benny Ray's bullet ripped through his throat. CJ took out one man while Chance rolled to the right taking out another as Benny Ray fired again taking out one more. The lone man fled.

Beside me Margo had regained her feet as Matt and his team scoured the area.

But I was slow. The burning pain in my shoulder told me I was still alive, and it was too high up to be life threatening but it sure hurt like hell. Using my good hand I peeled away the blood soaked shirt.

In the dim light Margo must have seen me still sitting on the ground. Turning she kneels beside saying "Your hurt?"

"Just a little, " I replied between gritted teeth.

"God, I'm sorry," she mumbles, "that bullet was meant for me wasn't it."

"Maybe," I answered.

I could hear the sincerity in her voice as she whispered, "Thanks."

"No problem," I muttered, "that's what friends are for don't ya know."

"Oh my god," I heard her say in surprise.

"Shhhh," I muttered, "I don't want anyone else to know Ok."

"But," she started as I cut her off.

"Please," I coaxed.

"Alright, she muttered, but someday you and I are going to talk, do you hear me."

Grinning at her, I yelped as she pulled the bandage tight. I could see the mischief in her eyes as she carelessly murmured an apology.

Our little tête-à-tête was broken as Matt and the rest of the team returned. I listened as Margo explained that I had taken a bullet meant for her. "It wasn't like that at all" I mumbled, "I tripped."

Beside me I could feel Benny Ray's laughter.

Matt immediately took charge as he assessed the condition of his team. Rico had taken a few minutes to look at everyone's injuries and pronounced us ready to move.

This time it was Nick's turn to lead, with Benny Ray leaning heavily on Chance and CJ being propped up by Rico. Margo had taken up a position behind me as we headed for our transportation. Matt covered the rear.

We were a sorry bunch of travelers, but a collective sigh of relief was heard as we spotted the chopper several hours later. It was with great pleasure that I settled myself into the chopper. Matt had said the chopper would take us across the border into Thailand and there transportation home had been arranged.

It was nearing 6am as the chopper landed. In all the hubbub I slipped away.

Los Angeles CA
2 days later

I was sitting on the porch my left leg thrown over the arm of my wicker rocker my left arm was resting in a sling. That's when I heard the roar of the Big Dog as he pulled up in front of the house.

My heart thumped in my chest as he took off his helmet and slowly turned toward me pulling his sunglasses off. I watched him slowly fold them and put them in his pocket. I could see the bandage on his brow and the anger in his eyes, as he looked my way.

I knew he was angry because I had nearly gotten him and his team killed. It was my fault and I knew it!

I stood up as he slowly limped up to the porch, his eyes burned into mine and I looked away. He stood in front of me waiting!

Looking up our eyes locked once more. Taking a deep breath I whispered, "I'm sorry."

"Yes, Ma'am" he whispered through clenched teeth.

Before he could say anymore, I rushed on. "I know it was my fault, I should have know they were there, I almost got you all killed!" I could feel the tears threatening. Stiffening my resolve I stood straighter waiting for his anger and hatred to wash over me.

I saw the look in his eyes change from anger to puzzlement. "What," he asked in confusion?

"The Vietnamese," I said, "if I had done my job I would have know they were there and no one would have gotten hurt," I shouted, "especially you I mumbled." "Isn't that why you're angry" I asked?

That's when he chuckled. Now it was my turn to be angry, he was laughing at me and I didn't like it.

"What are you laughing at," I stormed clenching my fist.

Turning serious he explained. "Those mortars have close to a 3 mile range. There is no way you could have known they were there. It wasn't your fault. "In that situation you did more than anyone could have asked. You saved mine and CJ's lives and completed the mission."

Looking off into the trees I finally knew he was right. I hadn't thought it through clearly.

He spun me back to face him as he snapped, "No Ma'am, I'm angry because you didn't trust me enough to tell me who you were after saving my life."

I stared up into his eyes seeing the anger had returned. How could I explain?

Gently I reached up touching the bandage on his forehead. "I wanted to," I whispered leaning into him. "But I didn't know how? I can count on one hand how many people know what I do. Not even Margo knew and she is my best friend."

He stepped away and I felt bereft, shivering I wrapped my arms around me waiting.

The world stood still as we looked at one another. His eyes were cold and assessing as he stared down at me. I was vulnerable and he knew it. I wanted to plead with him to forgive me but that wasn't in my nature. This is who I am and I wasn't going to change even for him.

Stepping forward his arm snakes around my waist dragging me forward. His voice low and deadly he whispers, "I do understand Diane, we all have secrets, but you could have trusted me."

With my good arm I reach up wrapping it around his neck dragging him closer "I'm sorry," I whispered. With an inviting smile and a sideway glance, my voice husky I asked, "will you let me make it up to you?"

Rumbling laughter erupts as he says, "Yes Ma'am I think I will!"


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