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A high level US official is kidnapped. Trout plans to enlist the aid of Matt and his team. But a slight misunderstanding caused by garbled communications could end Trout’s relationship with the team.

Rated R, for violence and mild sexual content

Into the Fire

Lady D

Federal Building
Los Angeles, CA 0430 hrs

“Say again Sir,” the radio operator pushed the earphone snugly to his ear and leaned into it holding it tight. Desperately he tried to understand the garbled words coming across the receiver. The communication was abruptly cut off and he grumbled in frustration, doing his best to piece together the meaning of the words he’d managed to hear. He scribbled the meaningless words on a scrap of paper before he handed it to the dark haired man hovering over his shoulder.

“This is it?” the second man asked in confusion as he read the note.

“I’m sorry sir; I could barely hear the words before the line went dead.”

He stood staring at the paper in his hand, making his way slowly back to his office. “Critical you bring him, … Dangerous. What the hell is this supposed to mean,” he fumed. Punching away at the keyboard he waited as the file he had requested became available. His finger traced a line across the monitor. The few cryptic bits of information were almost as bad as the message handed to him in the communications center. The face on the screen was emotionless and unreadable, the eyes as cold as ice as they stared into the camera. It was a mug shot nothing more, but at least he would be able to identify the individual. He sighed in resentment at the magnitude of the task laid out before him. A plan was forming in his mind. He stopped short wondering if he and his crew were up to the challenge. He wasn’t as thrilled with the plan as he should have been, but he couldn’t seem to find a better approach. It was going to be a long couple of days. Calling his team together he set his makeshift plan in motion.

Silver Star Hotel
Hermosa Beach, CA 0945 hrs

The morning had started out peacefully. He’d even managed to sleep in a little, but restlessness had pulled him from his bed at 7 am. In the corner booth he sat quietly sipping his coffee. Above the rim of his cup he watched Candy the new bartender. At the moment she was cleaning and scrubbing the counter top and putting away the squeaky-clean glasses and mugs.

The knock on the door made him grunt it was too early for customers, but it wasn’t unusual, the bar took deliveries at all hours of the day.

The brown suited man walked in carrying a small package and a clipboard. Benny Ray frowned at the clipboard; he didn’t think they used those things anymore. It was usually some hand held computer snapped to their belt. Candy listened intently, nodding across the room toward Benny Ray. Holding up the clipboard for Candy the gray-eyed deliveryman caught Benny Ray’s eyes on him. His expression was unreadable and Benny Ray tensed something in the man’s stance made him uneasy. As the clipboard tilted Benny Ray caught the black bulk held beneath it. He flew to his feet and pulled the Glock from the back waist of his pants as the man grabbed Candy. Dropping the clipboard a 9mm came up and buried itself into the side of the surprised woman’s head. Using her as a shield he faced the deadly sniper standing in front of him.

He had a shot; he could have - no should have taken it as six men came rushing into the bar. Benny Ray growled deep in his throat. The odds were definitely against him now. He might have stood a chance of taking one man down and saving Candy, but with six men to contend with… He left the though unfinished as he focused on the deliveryman.

The bar grew deathly quiet; only Candy’s tiny whimpers could be heard echoing through the room.

“What the hell do you want,” Benny Ray asked quietly. His face unreadable, he watched the man carefully, but was fully aware of the others as they moved to surround him.

“You Mr. Riddle,” he snapped, “Now put the weapon down on the table and no one will get hurt.”

Benny Ray could see the determination on the man’s face, but his finger was hovering over the trigger and not wrapped around it, and that confused the hell out of him. What the hell was going on? He could feel the frustration and see the flickering of indecision in the eyes of the men surrounding him. Confused by their actions he knew something wasn’t right, four of the six men again had their fingers hovering over the trigger the fifth had his finger on the trigger but the weapon was actually pointing left and not centered on Benny Ray. The sixth was the only one who looked like he wouldn’t hesitate to pull the trigger.

Benny Ray’s weapon never wavered. Rock solid in his hand it was aimed at the ringleader’s head as his eyes wandered over the rest of the men. Turning back he caught a flicker of apprehension and pleading in the depth of the man’s gray eyes. Torn between anger and curiosity at this poor excuse for a kidnapping, Benny Ray quickly came to a decision he knew he’d probably regret.

The light of battle was in his eyes; the set to his jaw spelled disaster for him and his men, yet suddenly it all changed. Hargrove saw it then, the confusion in those steely eyes as he looked at his attackers. It was something Hargrove hadn’t expected to see from such a dangerous man. Their quarry capitulated. As suddenly as death had stared him in the face it was swept away. Hargrove was grateful but he had to wonder why!

His body relaxed as his finger came off the trigger of the Glock. Benny Ray slowly straightened up and laid his weapon on the table beside him. He could see the relief in the man’s eyes. Benny Ray quickly regretted his decision as the others moved in. Pinning his arms behind his back they roughly pushed him to the floor. “Hey take it easy on him,” the leader growled. “The man wants him in one piece. Just tie him up and knock him out.”

“Who wants me?” Benny Ray yelled as he fought the men holding him down. But an answer failed to materialize.

With five men on top of him Benny Ray could barely breath, groaning he watched a white cloth descend. With a quick lunge he sank his teeth into the man’s hand. He could taste the coppery tang of blood and heard the man’s yelp of pain. Quickly from above him a knee clamped down on his neck and shoulders pinning his head to the floor. He could smell the ether that permeated the white cloth but pinned as he was he was unable to avoid it as it was pressed over his nose and mouth. He growled angrily and held his breath but knew in the long run it was inevitable. The drug soon took effect and he slipped into the darkness, unsure what his future would hold.

“Damn Jason that hurt,” the man with the torn hand growled as he looked at the leader.

“Sorry Mike,” Jason replied sincerely glancing at the injured man. “Get that taken care of and meet us at the airport.”

“Yes Sir,” the man cried. Pulling a few napkins off a table he pressed them to the gash in his hand. It bled freely soaking the white cloth as he headed out the door.

“Denny, Carl you guys tie him up,” Jason ordered pointing to Benny Ray, “And get him out to the van. Pete you and Paul take little Miss Muffet here and tie her up. Put her in that room over there. When you’re done lock the place up and haul ass out to the airport.”

Though Candy was terrified, her mind had been working furiously trying to figure out what was happening. That they wanted Benny Ray was obvious, why they wanted him was not. At least she had some names and knew they were headed for the airport. She prayed Matt would come back soon. Struggling she kicked and squirmed as the two men took her in hand and hauled her into Matt’s office. She wanted desperately to slow them down in the hope that someone would find them. Her hopes died as the men quickly tied her hands and feet before covering her mouth with a piece of gray duct tape. Locking her in the closet they secured the front door behind them as they made their way to a waiting car.

Inside the closet tears roll down Candy’s cheeks as her feet pounded against the locked door of the closet. “Matt, where are you,” she cried silently?

LAX – Executive terminal
1130 hrs

The dark blue van rolled into place beside a large jet. The side door stood open and two men wearing dark suits and sunglasses waited at the bottom of the steps. They rushed forward as the back door to the van flew open. Benny Ray’s unconscious body had been placed in a trunk, secure against prying eyes. The two men carried the trunk from the van up the steps into the plane.

Jason stepped out of the van heaving a sigh of relief. The task was done the package on its way. He just hoped it arrived in time to do whatever needed to be done.

Waving his men on board the plane, he yelled to the pilot. “Let’s get this thing off the ground Harry we have a deadline to meet.”

“Well, get your ass in here Jason and I will,” Harry shouted back.

Silver Star Bar
Hermosa Beach, Ca

Walking up to the front entrance of the bar Matt leaned his shoulder into the door. When it failed to give beneath the pressure he swore softly and tried banging it with his knee, his arms were filled with packages and supplies for the bar. His frustration grew when Candy failed to come running and open the door. Huffing in annoyance he laid the packages down and fished in his pocket for the key. Grumbling he fitted the key into the lock and opened the door. “Candy,” he yelled into the silence.

Swearing volumes he pulled the packages inside and plopped them on a table. That’s when his eyes caught the overturned chair in the corner of the bar. Rushing across the room he spotted Benny Ray’s Glock sitting on the table where he had left it. A shiver of apprehension coursed through him as he saw the tiny pool of blood on the floor near the table. “Benny Ray,” he yelled. “Dammit,” Matt grumbled, “Can’t leave him alone for five minutes.” Heading for the stairs he heard the distant sounds of thumping. Poised above the stairs he listened intently. As the thump sounded again Matt ran for his office. Throwing the door open he heard the thumping, but this time from the closet behind the desk.

Wrenching the door open he flipped on the light, “Candy,” he mumbled in horror as he saw his pretty bartender lying in the bottom of the closet trussed up like a turkey. Quickly he pulled the tape from her mouth. But the words were incomprehensible as she hiccupped and tried to talk at the same time.

“Whoa, whoa,” he whispered, “Take a deep breath and start again.”

Her eyes were wide with fear and confusion but Candy did as he requested, taking a deep breath to calm herself she started again. “Men, Matt, lots of them came in with guns and took Benny Ray away.”

Untying her hands and ankles Matt lifted Candy to her feet settling her into a comfortable chair beside his desk. Sitting on the corner of his desk his hand rested comfortingly on her shoulder as he spoke softly, “Start at the beginning and tell me what happened.”

“A delivery guy knocked on the door, he had a package and clipboard and everything. When he came in he asked for Benny Ray. He was sitting in his usual place drinking coffee. When I pointed him out the guy pulled a gun and grabbed me. That’s when the rest of the men came rushing in. Benny Ray was pissed and even he had a gun. I thought he was going to shoot the guy Matt. I’d never seen him look like that before.”

Matt could hear the fear in the quavering voice as she described the scene. Benny Ray in full battle mode was a sight to behold and Candy had witnessed it first hand. The expressive eyes must have sparked fire during the ensuing confrontation. “Go on Candy, what happened after that?”

“I don’t really know, all of a sudden he just gave up, put down his weapon and let them take him. The men rushed him and tied him up. They used some kind of drug on a white cloth. When they took him away he was wasn’t moving Matt.”

“Did they say anything else, maybe where they were taking him or who they were taking him to?

Something in Candy’s brain clicked and she answered quickly. “The leader, I think Jason was his name said they were to take him to the airport. Benny Ray bit one of them. His name was Mack or Mike.” Frantically Candy twisted her hands wracking her brain trying to remember the names of the kidnappers. She’d been trapped in the closet for two hours wondering if they would come back and finish her off. She was safe now, she knew it but still she couldn’t seem to calm down.

“Take your time Candy I’m going to make a few calls.” Stepping away from the desk Matt pulled his cell phone out and dialed the numbers that would send out a message to the rest of his team. The fourth number he dialed connected him to an unfamiliar voice. “Mr. Trout’s office,” was the reply.

“Where’s Trout?” Matt asked cautiously.

“I’m sorry but Mr. Trout is out of the office and can’t be reached at this time.”

“Dammit,” he swore softly. “I need to talk to him now!”

“I’m sorry Sir; I can take a message and give it to him next time he checks in.”

Fuming Matt snapped his jaw in frustration, “Fine,” he ground out, “Tell him to call Matt Shepherd.” Without waiting for a reply Matt hung up and turned back to Candy, but a knock on the door interrupted. Without waiting the person on the other side entered.

“All right Matt,” a feminine voice asks, “What is it this time?

“Let’s wait for the others Margo and I’ll explain what I know and right now it isn’t much.”

Margo could see the apprehension in his eyes and that set her own nerves jangling. The tear-streaked face of Candy made her pause. What ever it was had Matt on edge and that was bad. Usually pretty cool under pressure Matt was rattled and it took a lot to rattle the ex-Special Forces Major.

It was another ten minutes before Chance and CJ rolled through the door. Their expressions were serious as they walked into the office having seen the overturned chair and blood in the bar.

“All right people,” Matt said. “I’ll meet you downstairs in a few minutes.”

“Are we going to start without Benny Ray?” CJ questioned.

Matt grimaced and Candy gave a little cry as her eyes flew to Matt’s.

“We’ll take about it in a few minutes; I’ll meet you downstairs in five.”

“Roger Sir!” Chance answered as he steered CJ out the door.

“Candy, I need you to keep this to yourself, can you do that?” Matt asked softly as he looked into her eyes.

“Shouldn’t we call the police?” she asked quickly. “Maybe they know something or can help find him?”

“I don’t think so Candy, it’s been hours and you said yourself they were taking him to the airport. Calling the police now would only cause more problems. Please Candy will you do this for me?” Matt pleaded.

Taking a deep breath Candy rolled the whole situation around in her head before answering. Her eyes searched the man’s standing in front of her. She saw pain and determination written there. “Sure Matt, I promise, cross my heart,” she whispered with a tight grim little smile.

Leaning down he brushed a kiss across her tear streaked cheek whispering. “Thanks Candy.”

Resting her hand on his arm before he could move away she spoke softly, “Will you let me know if you hear anything, Matt, please? I don’t know if that man would have shot me or not, but I think Benny Ray gave himself up because of me!”

Winking, Matt smiled saying, “I’ll let you know the minute we find out anything.” Now why don’t you lock up, put the closed sign on the door and head for home?”

“Are you sure Matt? I’m ok really!”

“I’m sure,” he answered, “Now scoot, I have a friend to find.”

Matt waited in his office until he heard the front door close. Checking to make sure it was locked Matt hurried down the stairs.

Three pairs of worried eyes turn to his as he stepped into the room.

“So what in bloody hell has Benny Ray done now Major?” CJ quipped.

Matt’s eyes were hard as he looked at his demolitions expert. “Benny Ray was kidnapped over two hours ago. He was drugged and from what Candy said, put on an airplane bound for who know where.”

Three voices ring out in alarm, bombarding Matt with questions. Holding his hands up for silence he nodded his head as CJ apologized, “Sorry about the comment Major, I was only trying to lighten the mood.”

“Forget it CJ!” Pacing in front of the table Matt spoke quietly, “I’ve called Trout but he’s not in DC and his secretary wouldn’t tell me where he’s gone. All I get is his voice mail when I call his cell.”

Matt told them everything he knew but somehow it didn’t seem to be enough. Running his hands through his hair he pounded the top of the table with his fist, his frustration easy to see. “Margo I want you to go through every mission file and see what you can dig up. CJ you’re with Margo. Chance, you head for Benny Ray’s place. Maybe there’s something there that will give us a clue as to who took him.”

“Roger Sir,” Chance echoed as he headed for the stairs.

“What about you Matt?” Margo asked quietly her eyes mirroring the concern in his as she watched him clench and unclench his fists. It took him a moment to answer as he contemplated his next move. “I’m going to call in a few favors Margo and hope it turns up some information.”

“We’ll find him Major,” CJ murmured.

“I know CJ, but there’s something going on here that scares the hell out of me.”

His expression was bleak as Matt headed up the stairs toward his office.

Lear Jet
Somewhere over the Atlantic

The plane was well on its way to its destination when Benny Ray slowly regained consciousness. His head throbbed, and his stomach roiled, silently he groaned into the pillow beneath his head. Slitting one eye open he could see a contingent of men seated around the plane, most of the faces were familiar, but a little bit more muscle had been added to the company. Closing his eyes he worked the ropes binding his wrists. He could feel the coarse material biting deep into his skin, but he continued to work. Ignoring the discomfort he soon felt the trickle of warm blood slide down his arm. It was nearly thirty minutes before he felt the ropes begin to stretch and loosen.

From a few feet away he could hear the voice of his jailers. Pretending sleep he waited.

Jason stood barely three feet away looking down into the face of his hostage. His clever mind was working overtime as he asked, “Mike, how longs’ he supposed to be out?”

Getting out of his seat Mike took a few steps to stand beside Jason before looking at his watch. “To tell you the truth he should have come to an hour ago.” Leaning down Mike checked for a pulse and shrugged, “I don’t know Jase, he could be faking it for all I know.”

“Dammit,” Jason swore softly, “We’ve got another ten hours to go and I don’t want him coming to and causing trouble. See if you can wake him up, if not, keep a close eye on him. If he shows even the slightest sign of waking up, dose him again.”

“Yes boss,” the man said wearily.

Benny Ray lay still and silent, but he knew sooner or later they were going to figure out he was awake. Even as Mike shook his shoulder he remained limp and silent. He could hear the man mumbling beneath his breath, but was unable to make out the words. Mike shook him again only harder this time, which only set Benny Ray’s head to pounding.

Mike growled a few more times before turning away. “Hey Carl, keep an eye on him will ya, if he wakes up let me know.”

“Sure Mike,” another voice rang out close by. Looking up Carl saw Mike’s wan pale face. His eyebrows rose in concern as he asked, “Hey man you ok?”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” Mike, mumbled settling his aching hand in his lap.

“How’s the hand?” Carl asked quietly.

“Took three stitches, and it hurts like hell, besides that the dam doc gave me a tetanus shot and I can’t hardly lift my arm. What the hell are we doing this for Carl?” Mike mumbled. “Do you know what’s going on? Something sure has Jason on edge.”

“Not a clue Mike. Jase is keeping this op close. I sure would like to know though. I’ve never kidnapped anyone before. It wasn’t in my job description,” he joked, “How bout you?”

“Nope, and I hope I never have to do it again,” Mike grumbled.

The voices faded into silence, with only the thrumming of the engines to remind Benny Ray of where he was. He waited several more minutes before again working the ropes binding his wrists. He silently crowed in triumph ten minutes later. The rope circling his right wrist slipped loose, but he wasn’t prepared for what followed.

Several seats up Mike looked at his watch mumbling a few choice words into the darkness of the planes interior. Pulling a little black case from beneath his seat he flipped open an outside pouch fishing inside he took a small white capsule from the little pocket. Standing up he took silent steps toward the bed. Breaking open the capsule he waved it beneath Benny Ray’s nose.

The ammonia capsule jolted Benny Ray into action. Taking in a deep whiff of the noxious fumes he jerked away from Mike’s hand. His movements were instinctive as he kicked out catching Mike in the stomach. A whoosh of air was released from the hapless man’s chest as he fell to his knees. Bolting to his feet Benny Ray heard Mike’s cry of pain as he slammed his injured hand against the floor. In front of him the plane broke into chaos as five men rushed toward him. Groaning he knew it was hopeless, but wanted desperately to punish someone. Diving forward he caught Carl in the stomach with his shoulder driving him and the others backwards down the aisle. His momentum knocked three of his captors off their feet. He heard the yelps of pain and grinned in satisfaction. One man went down cracking his head on an armrest; he went limp falling unconscious to the carpeted floor. A second cry would later prove to be a broken wrist, crushed beneath five falling bodies.

Standing up straight proved to be impossible for Benny Ray. The ropes binding his ankles were tied to his wrists preventing him from gaining his balance. Behind him, Mike had taken all the punishment he could stand and brought his uninjured fist down on the back of Benny Ray’s skull. Benny Ray hissed in pain and fell forward. It gave the others a chance to tackle him. Mike ruthlessly grabbed Benny Ray around the neck and pressed the syringe into his neck. With one last show of defiance, Benny Ray punched out catching Mike in the groin. The empty syringe fell from limp hands. Lying flat on his back, with five men piled on top of him Benny Ray could only watch as the drug worked its insidious magic through his body. It wasn’t long before the darkness rose up to meet him.

American Embassy

The voices echoing through his skull brought Benny Ray back to consciousness. His head throbbed painfully as he came back to full awareness. His mouth was dry his tongue thick and cottony as he tried to swallow. Stiff, sore muscles protested even the slightest movement as he tested his limbs, only to find his hands still bound. The dried cracked wounds at his wrists opened and he winced with the pain. His previous efforts had rewarded him with a loosened loop around his right wrist. A few more minutes and his hands would be free. Ignoring the pain and the warmth of his blood as it soaked the ropes he brought himself up short. Raised voices in the room beside his intruded

Pressing his ear against the wall, the voices were no longer muffled he could hear them clearly. He ground his teeth in anger and frustration; listening intently he recognized both voices.

“I’m sorry Sir the communication was garbled and cryptic. All they gave me was a name an address and a word printed at the bottom of the page. All it said was dangerous. My orders were to get him here any way I could, I did what I had to! What else was I suppose to do?”

“Ask him,” the second voice yelled. “You were suppose to ask him not kidnap him! Dangerous meant I needed him for a dangerous mission. Hell Hargrove, what am I supposed to do now? He’ll never agree to help us, not now, not like this.” Angrily pacing the room the second man turned back saying, “You have no clue how dangerous this man really is Hargrove. My suggestion is you get back in there right now and release him. Then get as far away from here as you can before he wakes up.”

“I’m not afraid Sir!”

“Well you should be you idiot, now go before I kill you myself.”

“Yes Sir!”

Benny Ray had managed to slip his hand through the loop around his right wrist. His next move was to untie the ropes binding his ankles. His movements were sluggish his body lethargic and slow to react all he really wanted to do was sleep. He heard the words being shouted in the next room and his anger grew. Trembling fingers worked the rope loose around his ankles and soon he was free.

Hearing the slam of a door he fell back to the bed and closed his eyes pretending sleep. Lying still and silent he waited. Gathering his strength he tuned his senses to the sounds and movements around him. The wait was soon rewarded by the sound of the opening door.

Heavy footsteps crossed to the bed as he heard the man whisper. “I’m not afraid of you?”

Coiled muscles sprang to life, a rush of adrenalin pumped through his body. In the blink of an eye Benny Ray was on his feet, his left hand lashed out to catch the man around the throat. His fingers dug deep into the soft tissue around Hargrove’s windpipe, cutting off his air supply. At the same time Benny Ray’s right hand reached beneath Hargrove’s coat, his thumb releasing the leather strap that held the weapon in place. Pulling the weapon from its resting place Benny Ray raised it high pressing it to his captive’s temple. Fury drove him. The tightly coiled muscles in his legs pumped relentlessly, pushing his captive backward. Driving hard he forced the man across the room slamming him against the wall. The sniper’s eyes glittered dangerously, his fingers tightening around the man’s throat, his voice deep and angry he whispered. “You should be afraid Mr. Hargrove, because right now it would give me great pleasure to do you bodily harm.”

Hargrove’s air was cut off, his head spun dizzily from the impact with the wall. But his hands remained at his side glaring at the man in front of him. Trout had shown him the sniper’s real file and he had gained a healthy respect for the man. If he hoped to survive the encounter he couldn’t show his opponent fear or remorse. He regretted the incident, but under the same circumstances with the information he’d had, he would do it again if he had to.

Opening the door Trout came to an abrupt halt. Sighing deeply he waited wondering how this confrontation would play itself out. He knew Riddle wasn’t a cold-blooded killer, but he was unpredictable. Given the events of the last twenty-four hours… and the drugs coursing through his system, Trout had to wonder if the line would be crossed and Hargrove pay the ultimate price for his actions. He had to do something, anything to stop the sniper from destroying himself and Hargrove.

The tired face of the sniper had reflected molten rage as he drove his captive across the room. His anger needed release and Hargrove was to be the instrument. Trout could see the sniper’s fingers tightening around the man’s throat. His finger caressed the trigger of the 9mm.

Benny Ray gnashed his teeth a feral grin slowly curling his lips upwards.

Trout’s voice cut through the thick tension in the room. Clearing his voice to break the tension, he whispered, “It wasn’t his fault Mr. Riddle, it was a slight misunderstanding.”

Seconds ticked by as the standoff continued. With a harsh throaty growl, Benny Ray pushed Hargrove away, releasing the death grip he had on the man’s throat. The 9mm moved a fraction, just enough to let the man pass. “Get out,” Benny Ray whispered harshly.

Hargrove coughed and gasped for air, rubbing his throat he took a cautious step away from the sniper.

And for the first time Benny Ray saw regret, and sorrow reflected in the man’s gray eyes. Wordlessly Jason shook his head only seconds before he rushed from the room. But Benny Ray wasn’t done yet. Spinning right he took the agents place against the wall and raised the weapon to shoulder height, Trout’s heart centered in its sight.

Furious words broke the utter stillness of the room. “A slight misunderstanding Trout, I was kidnapped damn you, an innocent woman terrorized. I should shoot you where you stand.”

The adrenalin that had carried him across the room was fading fast and Benny Ray sagged against the wall. The 9mm in his hand wavered upward as he squeezed the trigger. Trout flinched but held his ground as the bullet buried itself into the wall a scant inch from his left ear.

“Why, Trout? Your men kidnapped and drugged me, scared a woman half out of her mind in the process and you call it a slight misunderstanding.”

“I’m truly sorry Benny Ray,” Trout whispered his eyes mirroring the words. “The message was garbled and Hargrove misinterpreted its meaning. It wasn’t meant to happen this way.”

“That doesn’t answer the question Trout. I’ll ask one you more time, and I’d better get a straight answer, why?

But before Trout could answer a woman rushed into the room coming to an abrupt halt beside him saying, “Xavier someone said you needed me, and I heard a shot, what’s going on?”

Leaning against the wall Benny Ray groaned again as the familiar voice filled the room. Lowering the 9mm he closed his eyes, letting the little scene play itself out.

Diana Amberleigh stood looking at the older man as he nodded toward the figure across the room. Diana’s eyes followed the gesture, hissing in anger as she saw the sagging figure of the sniper against the far wall.

Looking from one man to the other Diana balled her fist and swung hard saying, “What the hell have you done now Xavier Trout?” Her fist impacted with the older man’s shoulder sending him staggering several steps to the right. Without waiting for a reply Diana hurried across the room. Her fingers sought the pulse at Benny Ray’s neck, hissing as it pounded erratically beneath her touch. She could feel his whole body trembling as her eyes took in the rest of his appearance. A dark bruise marred his left cheek; his face was pale but the rope dangling from bloody wrists made her furious.

Benny Ray would have laughed if he hadn’t been so tired.

“What happened Xavier?” Diana ground out. Reaching down her hand trailed across the back of Benny Ray’s hand. Gently she took the 9mm from numb fingers.

But Benny Ray was the one to answer, his voice cracking with exhaustion he mumbled, “A slight misunderstanding!” He opened his eyes trying to focus on the face in front of him. “Diana, fancy meeting you here?” he whispered sarcastically.

Diana cocked her head to the side trying to understand the sniper’s cryptic “slight misunderstanding” comment. What she heard was the pain and sarcasm in his voice and saw the glazed, cloudy look in his eyes as he shot an angry glance at Trout saying, “I want answers Trout!”

Breaking in Diana grabbed the sniper around the waist as he slipped farther down the wall. “But what ever it is, can wait.” Her voice a harsh whisper she turned back to Benny Ray, “For now I need to get you cleaned up, those cuts taken care of and you into bed.”

Reluctant to let Trout off that easy the sniper threw Diana an angry look.

“You can get your pound of flesh later.” Standing beside him she tugged him forward off the wall.

Resigned to the inevitable he took a deep breath. “Whew,” he whispers wrinkling up his nose, “I need a shower.” Beside him Diana chuckled while Trout threw the duo a wry look.

“Yes, you do,” she stated looking up at him. Pulling his left arm around her shoulders Diana grabbed a belt loop on the snipers pants taking most of his weight on her sturdy frame. Struggling upright he managed a small smile. Together they staggered toward a door to his right. Reaching out Diana grabbed the handle. Twisting the knob she pushed the door open before stepping inside. The bathroom was fairly large having only recently been refurbished. Muted earth tones trimmed with gold made the room warm and welcoming, though Benny Ray failed to see it.

Untangling himself from her arms Benny Ray shook his head.

Shaking her head in disgust Diana declared, “I’ll give you five minutes. After that, I’m coming in.”

“Yes, mother,” he mumbled. Walking on unsteady legs he moved slowly into the bathroom. Turning on the water, Benny Ray’s trembling fingers managed somehow to undo the buttons and zippers and shed his clothes.

The water was warm and soothing, managing to wash away the grime and a little bit of his anger. The caked dirt and dried blood on his wrists eventually washed away. Tugging at the tight dangling rope he soon gave up and left it. He continued to stare at it for a long moment before the fog clouding his mind washed away the rest of his anger leaving only the hurt and exhaustion behind. Standing beneath the warm water he stilled, listening to the voices in the other room, but their words were muffled and unintelligible.

In the bedroom, Diana had turned back to Trout folding her arms across her chest she waited.

She didn’t wait long, as Trout sheepishly began his tale. “I sent a message yesterday to Hargrove asking him to find and recruit Mr. Riddle.”

“How did he end up like this Xavier, did something happen, were they attacked?”

Shaking his head Trout glanced away not wanting to see the look of loathing in her eyes when he told her what had been done to the sniper. Stuttering slightly, Trout continued, “The message to Hargrove was garbled and in implementing it he misinterpreted the instructions.”

“Misinterpreted how?” Diana asked harshly.

Trout looked up them and heaved a sigh before whispering; “Hargrove kidnapped and drugged him to get him here.”

“I know I didn’t hear you right Xavier,” Diana stood glaring at the older man her hands on her hips waiting.

“Yes Diana, Hargrove kidnapped him.”

“And from the looks of him, Benny Ray didn’t come easily.”

“That’s putting it mildly; he put two men in the hospital and made a few dents in several others.”

“What did they use to keep him sedated, Xavier. He’s fighting it but is still under the influence if I’m not mistaken.”

Trout swallowed convulsively before saying, “It’s something new the company cooked up, it’s a cross between a sedative and a powerful nerve depressant, it slows muscle reactions and electrical impulses. He’s had two doses, enough to knock out an elephant from what I’ve been told”

“Crickets,” Diana swore softly. “Even if he was willing to go in Xavier, he’s in no shape to take on an operation like this. Hargrove took care of that.”

“I know Diana, but what can I do? With him we had a good chance of pulling it off, without him the operation has little chance of success. I have no one else capable of handling this assignment.”

“Find someone,” she growled hopelessly. “What choice did you give him - none! Right now he’s incapable of going anywhere. He can barely stand up. If you send him on this mission Xavier you’ll be sending him to his death. Murder, Xavier, can you live with that?” But she knew reason and logic were hopeless.

“If I have to,” he murmured quietly.

“How much time do I have?” she asked quietly

“Less than sixteen hours,” Trout replied. “If at that time you say he’s not ready to go, Diana, I’ll be the first to pull him.

Diana groaned her shoulders sagging and she plopped down on the side of the bed. “Sixteen hours Xavier. I’m a doctor not a miracle worker.”

She sat staring off into space before she hissed and turned back to Trout, “What about Matt,” Diana asked cautiously, “Have you told him what happened?” Seeing the evasiveness written on his face, Diana’s eyes grew round as she realized he hadn’t and was planning on asking her to make the call.

“Oh no, Xavier Trout, this is one mess you will have to clean up on your own. I don’t want to be anywhere around when Matt gets a hold of you.

Just then the door to the bathroom opened and Diana met Benny Ray as he stepped out a large chocolate brown towel wrapped around his waist. A second dark purple bruise marked his ribcage, where a stray boot had caught him during the struggle.

An angry flush rose to his cheeks as he glanced at Trout. Seeing the look Diana spun to face Trout her fingers swiftly signing for him to leave before the situation got out of control. Trout nodded waiting only until her fingers quieted before leaving.

Closing the door he snapped orders to one of the Marines standing outside the door before striding down the hall back to his office. Coming to attention the Marine snapped his heels together grinning as the older man walked away.

Helping the sniper across the room Diana could feel the minute shivers coursing through him. Crossing to the bed the towel slipped from his slim hips as he slid between the clean soft sheets. He sighed deeply and closed his eyes as he lay back against the pillows. He’d never admit it but he hurt. He felt bruised and battered from head to toe and it hurt to even breathe. Hargrove’s men had not been gentle.

Diana went quickly to work digging in her bag for a pair of scissors. Gently cutting away the rope she peeled it away from his wrist growling as the blood again began to seep from the torn flesh.

Benny Ray’s eyes flickered open his unfocused gaze lighting on Diana’s face. “Why Diana?”

Sighing, Diana didn’t stop cleaning and bandaging his wrists, speaking softly she tried to explain. “A little over twenty-four hours ago the Vice President and his entourage met with several warlords here in Afghanistan. They were trying to iron out some of their differences and restore peace to the northern region. They were attacked. One of the Warlords was badly wounded another killed. The Vice-President survived, but has been taken hostage his security team was decimated. The kidnappers are demanding that American soldiers pull out of Afghanistan in the next forty-eight hours or he will be killed. The message the President received was pretty graphic. The terrorists described how they would kill him before sending the video to the press. They didn’t just describe it Benny Ray - one of the Vice Presidents Secret Service men was mutilated the whole thing graphically displayed on that tape.

She paused watching his face and saw the quick flash of anger at her description. “Trout and the military commander in country have put together a rescue op. You were to be their last line of defense.

“Defense against what?” he asked quietly.

“The desecration of a man,” she whispered. Watching him she saw the knowledge of what he was being asked to do dawn on him.

Quickly she continued, “As a precaution before coming here the Vice President was implanted with a tracking device. He activated it eighteen hours ago.”

“The President will not give in to the terrorists’ demands Benny Ray, no matter whose life depends on it. Unless a rescue mission is put in place and soon, the Vice President will die in less than 48 hours. The kind of death no living creature should have to suffer”

Swearing softly Benny Ray’s eyes told her he was calculating the odds.

Sighing she mumbled, “I know your going after him Benny Ray, that’s a given. But you have sixteen hours to rest and let the drugs work through your system. Right now you need food and to rehydrate your body. Do you understand me?”

Chuckling at the fierce look on her face he winced as the bruise on his ribs painfully reminded him of the past 24 hours. “Yes Ma’am,” he answered quietly, “I’m all yours for the next few hours.”

Diana snorted in disbelief. Either the drug was working overtime or Benny Ray had been knocked in the head once too often. Or a thought she really didn’t want to contemplate, the last possibility - he knew his only chance of coming though this was working with her and not against her, for him to willingly submit to medical attention surprised her.

Grumbling as she worked she spoke more harshly than she intended, “What I’d really like to do, is tie your sorry ass up and ship you back to LA. Since that doesn’t seem to be an option I guess I’d better do something constructive.”

He chuckled but didn’t say a word, for the moment too exhausted to respond.

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