New York, New York
One week Before New Year's Eve
The solitary man shivered, drawing his ragged coat tighter
around himself. He could hear people close by. Laughing. Happy.
Warm. His normally alert eyes, now dull from exhaustion, drifted
closed. He wanted to sleep, wanted to just let go. He could remember
a time, not so long ago, when he had been warm. When he had been
with the people he cared most about in the world. When he had
But that was what seemed like a long time ago. Now there was
only the gray, snow-covered landscape before him. A crowd of
school children ran by, mere feet from his hiding place. They
did not see him. It was what he wanted. He adjusted the homemade
sling that held his left arm secure, a dull pain throbbing through
the injured limb at the movement. Not for the first time, the
thought of getting help crossed his mind. But the two people
who were depending on him mattered more than a small discomfort.
They were two of the most important people in his life. They
deserved better than what had happened to them.
Darkness fell and the man called Benny Ray Riddle emerged
from the snow-covered bushes that had been his hiding place.
It would end tonight, he knew, one way or the other.
Hermosa Beach, California
Two Months Earlier
"No, Trout. I can't do this, not now," Matt Shepherd
spoke harshly into the receiver. "Not so soon after the
Margo Vincent looked up from the computer she was working
on. She shook her head. Truth be told, the thought of a new mission
was not exactly welcome. A glance at the room's third occupant
confirmed that she was not the only one who felt this way.
Benny Ray met Margo's gaze. He sighed and turned his attention
back to his rifle. The arguments between Matt and Trout had become
commonplace. He didn't pay attention to them anymore. Something
was happening between the Boss and Trout. Margo had noticed as
well and had brought it up during one of their runs, when Matt
had stayed behind. Benny Ray remembered her saying that it was
tearing the friendship between Matt and Trout apart.
It had started with their last mission. They had gone to Columbia
on a simple recovery mission. A son of a prominent politician
had been kidnapped. Trout had sent Nick Delveccio to infiltrate
the kidnapping gang's organization. The ex-DEA agent had never
returned. The rescue mission had been a success, except for the
fact that Nick was still missing.
Matt moved back into his office for some privacy. He had caught
the looks exchanged between his two people. Finding Nick was
now his only priority, not going on another mission. He sat down,
frustrated, unable to listen to Trout anymore.
A loud bang and crash from Matt's office caused everyone to
jump. Margo was half out of her seat before she caught Benny
Ray's signal to stay put. "It's best we not bother the Boss
right now," the sniper said quietly.
"Yeah," Margo agreed.
"You found anything yet?"
"No. I've checked all my contacts, here and in Europe,
just in case. Nobody's heard anything." Margo ran a hand
through her hair. "It's like he's disappeared off the face
of the Earth."
Benny Ray stood, unable to tolerate being in the basement
any longer. "I'm going out to the jetty. Might do us all
some good to get some time right now."
"I know. I think I'll go for a drive." Margo fished
her keys out of her purse. "You have my cell number if you
need me. I'll leave a note for Matt."
Benny Ray watched the green Jag tear out of the parking lot.
Shoving his hands in his pockets, he headed down the beach and
climbed out to the end of the jetty. There was a storm coming
in which had almost cleared the beach of people. A few dark clouds
sped across the lighter gray of the sky, matching the color of
the ocean. It seemed to match everyone's mood as well.
Margo watched the same storm move in from the overlook. She
sat on the hood of her Jag, her feet propped on the railing.
The ocean's roar was audible from shore down below. She took
out her pager, waiting for it to go off. She knew what Matt would
say eventually. 'I just hope that he turns it down. Just this
US Airways Flight 395
The Next Day
"Would you care for some coffee?"
"What?" Margo asked, distracted.
"Coffee." Benny Ray's eyes crinkled slightly.
"Yes, please." Margo took the steaming cup. Benny
Ray had refused and was drinking water instead. "Do you
think we have any chance?" she asked.
Benny Ray shrugged. "From what Trout said, I hope so."
"I don't like not having any type of brief." Margo
glanced out of the window. "All we were told was just to
report to the safe house."
"Yeah, I remember. Y'know, there ain't much point in
questioning it now."
"We did accept, I know." Margo looked up the aisle
at where Matt was asleep in his seat. "I only hope that
he knows what he's getting into."
Benny Ray nodded. He got the feeling that Matt saw this as
one last chance to find Nick. And to save his friendship with
Trout. He didn't know why, but Matt seemed to blame Trout for
Nick's going missing. It was a testament to the team's faith
in each other that they were here at all, considering they knew
nothing about this mission. All they did know was that Nick might
be involved and that was enough.
One Week Before New Year's Eve
Of course, Benny Ray reflected as he moved silently through
the deserted park, if we had known we might have said no. Trout
had lied, Benny Ray knew. Nick was nowhere in this city. They
had found that out for certain. Hell, he probably ain't even
in the country. Benny Ray shivered slightly, his breath forming
clouds in the air.
It was a mistake coming to this city. It was definitely a
mistake agreeing to Trout's plan. Now half the city was looking
for him, including Trout's people. He sent them in, without backup,
and look what happens, Benny Ray thought bitterly. Six people
are dead, including- he did not want to think about that right
A horse and carriage clattered by on their way back to the
stables. Benny Ray waited until it had passed before risking
going onto the sidewalk. This late at night, the streets held
fewer people, none of whom gave him a second glance. His fingers
closed around the slip of paper in his pocket. He had the address
memorized. It was where he would find what he was looking for,
he hoped. And then he could settle the debt he owed.
A Safe House
"It's a bad idea."
"I know it doesn't sound good-"
"And I know it won't work!" Benny Ray slammed a fist
down on the table in an uncharacteristic display of frustration.
"You're gonna get them both killed!"
"Benny Ray," Matt said, his tone a warning.
"Major, you can't be serious about going through with
"He is." Deacon Reynolds stepped through the doorway.
"Why send you and Margo in undercover in the first place?"
Benny Ray's voice was quieter now. "If you want what he
knows, we can grab him. But why send them in? This group's bad
Margo cleared her throat softly. "Look, I'm not crazy
about this either. But we have to know who he works for and what
they're planning next. I think we can do it. At least I'm willing
to try. Mark here is an experienced case officer. He knows what
"Thank you, Ms. Vincent." Trout's liaison, Mark
Evans, pointed to the briefing folders that sat in front of each
person. "Our latest intel says they will try for a very
prominent figure next time. Kidnapping is big bucks and this
target will allow them to retire and finance their other objectives
for a very long time."
"We have to stop them now before any more people get
killed." Matt locked eyes with the sniper. He could understand
why his second in command was concerned about this plan. "Maybe
it's not the best we've ever done, but if it will save lives
"Which it will. And you can add the prevention of a dangerous
international incident if they succeed in getting their target,"
Benny Ray shook his head. Mark was someone they could trust;
he plainly knew what he was talking about. And the Major seemed
dead set on doing this
"All right. I'm in. But I want
you to have backup on this."
"We will have a team set up to provide backup. An apartment
has been arranged. We will also have one person on the ground,
close to Matt and Margo," Mark explained.
"That's where I come in." Deke grinned. "I
fit in good in this town."
New York, New York
6 Days Before New Year's Eve
And he had. Until Rubin had found the apartment. With it had
gone the plan, the mission, and Benny Ray's only chance of being
able to understand what had happened to Matt and Margo. He paused
next to a small shrine for New York City police and firefighters.
The flickering candles reminded him of the apartment, flames
shooting out of the windows and thick smoke rolling into the
sky. He had stayed in an alley across the street as the bodies
were brought out. He shook his head.
Another flashback. Evans guiding him into a car, trying to
explain that it wasn't anyone's fault. They had only stepped
out for a minute to get everyone some dinner. If they hadn't
done so, they would have been in the apartment with the rest
of the team.
Trout had not had any explanation, except to apologize for
his loss. Benny Ray shook his head, remembering Trout's words.
"I am truly sorry, Mr. Riddle. One of the bodies has been
identified as Deacon Reynolds. The other two we are still waiting
He hadn't waited to hear the rest of the words. Picking up
his gear bag, he had walked out of the room, ignoring Trout's
call to wait. He would handle this on his own now. It was the
only way. If only he hadn't allowed Evans to come
Five Weeks Earlier
Benny Ray waited patiently for Evans to get back with the
intel. Mark had a contact in the area and had looked the person
up. They were not getting any help from Trout on this one. As
far as Trout was concerned, he wanted to wait and bring them
in for debriefing.
Evans had openly disagreed with his boss. He hadn't wanted
to wait. Every hour that passed lessened the chance of finding
their lost teammates. Evans had made some suggestions on how
they should proceed. Benny Ray went along with the plan. He trusted
Mark, who was putting his career on the line to help them.
Mark wanted to find out what had happened as much as Benny
Ray. An experienced case officer, it went against everything
he believed in to leave people hanging. It had taken Matt and
Margo a couple of weeks to successfully infiltrate the organization.
The surveillance team had heard nothing from them since before
the fire. Benny Ray did not have to ask why or how Rubin had
found the apartment. Both he and Evans knew there was only one
way for that to happen.
"Here it is." Evans passed over a picture as he
climbed into the van. "This is the man in charge of the
group. His name's Rubin."
"He got a last name?"
"Nope, that's it. It's just Rubin. And our mutual friend
got a line on his target too."
Benny Ray let out a low whistle as he looked at the name.
"She's the daughter of the Japanese ambassador."
"Which is why we have to stop them now. It'll be a huge
mess if they get to her."
"And everything Matt and Margo did would be for nothing."
Benny Ray's voice cracked slightly and he turned away from Evans.
Evans did not reply, giving the sniper time to compose himself.
He had seen firsthand how close the team was and how much they
depended on each other. When Benny Ray started the engine, he
opened the map, ready to give directions.
Mark's source had given them directions to area bordering
the Hudson River. A long, twisting road lead past a deserted
factory. Just beyond that, a lone house sat on the shore. It
might have been some type of caretaker's house at some point.
Now it was a dilapidated wreck. The front porch sagged and a
rusting car sat in the carport.
"According to what I was told, a couple of Rubin's enforcers
live here. They know Rubin's location. I don't think they will
be expecting anyone. But, just in case, my contact gave us these."
Mark passed an assault rifle over to Benny Ray.
Benny Ray nodded in appreciation. They left the van parked
next to a storage shed. Fog was drifting across the river, masking
their approach. Benny Ray went slowly, cautiously, his instincts
warning him that something was not right. Mark picked up on it
too. He signaled that he would continue around towards the back
of the house. Benny Ray broke into a jog, heading towards the
front. A sharp, hard crack sounded from the roof and the ground
erupted in front of him. Benny Ray fired a shot in return, sprinting
for the front porch. Gunfire erupted all around him. He heard
a scream from the rear.
Somehow he made the front door. He threw all of his weight
behind the blow, sending the door shattering inward. Two shots
took out one of the two men in the room. The second was knocked
unconscious by a quick blow from Mark.
"You okay?" Benny Ray snapped. Mark nodded and moved
off to sweep the house, leaving Benny Ray to guard the prisoner.
"We're clean," he reported, walking back into the
living room. "Why don't you watch outside. I'll see if I
can get some answers." The case officer broke open a small
stick of ammonia.
Benny Ray went onto the porch, feeling it sag even more with
his weight. A soft rumbling noise got his attention. He keyed
his comlink. "We're about to have company."
"Right. I got an address." A pause, while Mark had
their prisoner repeat it. He then recited it to Benny Ray. "Let's
"Hurry up!" Benny Ray saw a brief flash. "Must
be headlights," he muttered
. right before the explosion
threw him violently forward.
6 Days Before New Year's Eve
A cold wind drove through the jacket. Benny Ray shivered,
narrowly missing being hit by a taxi as he darted across the
street. A row of townhouses became visible at the far end of
the street. He checked the address with the slip of paper in
his pocket. It was the right street at least.
They had known that the two of them were coming. It was the
only explanation as to how backup had gotten there so quickly.
And they were willing to kill their own men to keep us from learning
that address. Benny Ray walked slowly down the street, thinking.
Five Weeks Earlier
Benny Ray did not remember much, just the icy waters of the
Hudson closing over his head as he dove into the river. Swimming
wasn't necessary. The currents picked him up and swept him out
of range from the poorly aimed shots. Benny Ray waited until
he was a safe distance away and then paddled for shore. He dragged
himself out of the water, finding himself still in the warehouse
A shout got his attention and he spun around, seeing several
people running in his direction. He didn't wait to see who they
were. Besides, this was New York, Benny Ray told himself as he
ran. Nobody wants to help another person here.
"There he goes!" A gunshot emphasized the yell.
Benny Ray ran down an alleyway. He climbed the six foot fence
and dropped to the other side, gasping for air. He had to find
a place to hide, he would not be able to keep running for long.
"Hey, the cops chasing you?"
The sniper turned towards the voice. He shook his head, not
having enough breath to speak.
"Well, then come on in here."
Benny Ray followed the man into a small shed on the side of
a warehouse. It was warm in there at least. There were several
more people in the small building. They looked at him curiously.
"Guys, this here is-" The man frowned. "I didn't
catch your name."
"Benny Ray. And thanks."
"I'm Leo. We stay here," his rescuer whispered.
"We've shunted heat off of the main line for the warehouse."
Footsteps sounded outside, driving everyone into silence.
A loud pounding came on the door. Someone threw a blanket over
Benny Ray. He heard an angry voice demanding to know if they
had seen anyone running through here. Leo denied it. Benny Ray
stayed perfectly still until he heard the door slam.
"They're gone. I don't know what you did, but they really
don't like ya much." Leo's New York accent reminded Benny
Ray of Nick.
"I noticed." Benny Ray wrapped the blanket around
"It's a bit cold to be swimming this time of year,"
one of Leo's friends observed.
Benny Ray managed a smile. He felt like doing nothing but
sleeping. A hand shook his arm and he yelped, pulling away.
"Sorry bout that." Leo looked concerned. "But
you can't go to sleep yet. Got to warm up first."
He could only nod in return. His arm hurt, probably from when
he had landed on it after the explosion. Of course he realized
now what he hadn't back then. The flash had been a launcher of
some type. Briefly he wished that he wasn't on his own this time,
but that thought was quickly banished.
"There's no blood. You probably broke it," Leo observed
as he checked the arm. "Or maybe just a bruise. You should
get it checked."
"I don't think that's an option right now, amigo."
"We can take you."
"Those people looking for me? They'll check the hospitals,"
Benny Ray replied.
Leo chuckled. "Naw, not where we go. It's a clinic. They
don't ask questions and if they want your name, just give them
a fake one."
"It's clear outside, Bossman," Leo's friend reported
as he came back inside.
"Good. Let's go."
Benny Ray, reminded for a brief moment of Matt, didn't argue.
The clinic was only a few blocks away and he made it only with
"Say it's a hit and run. You don't have a description
of the car." Leo pushed open the door and called to a nurse.
Benny Ray was quickly hustled into an examining room. Leo caught
the nervous look on the sniper's face and grinned reassuringly.
He settled into a chair to wait while his friend stood watch
"Hi, Leo." The clinic's doctor, Anne Lang, sat down
next to him. "Your friend is pretty banged up. His arm's
bruised pretty good and he has a mild concussion. Are you sure
he doesn't know the car?"
"Nah, he said it hit him from behind. You want him to
stay here tonight?"
"It would be a good idea."
"All right. Lemme see if I can talk him into it."
6 Days Before New Year's Eve
That had been the last time he had slept in a bed in the last
five weeks. He probably would have stayed with Leo if Trout had
not tracked him down at the clinic. Of course it makes sense,
he muttered. Trout knew how resourceful the team was, it only
makes sense that he'd look for me in all the medical facilities.
And he knew I wouldn't trust him. Not after Deke.
St. Mary's Clinic
4 Weeks Earlier
Sunlight streaming in through the window woke Benny Ray up.
It was Sunday morning, he knew. He could hear muted voices in
the corridor outside. Frowning, he climbed out of bed and listened.
"-the picture. It's a few years old, but it is him."
"Yes, someone came in last night who looked like him.
Victim of a hit and run."
Benny Ray wasn't going to wait around to hear more. He had
the window pried open and was a block away before the nurse opened
his room to find it empty. He saw Trout run out the door, calling
for him to come back, that he would help. 'Right. You've been
a big help so far,' he thought and turned away. He put his hands
in his pockets to keep them warm and felt a piece of paper. Curious,
he pulled it out and unfolded it.
Hey. Here's the address that you were mumbling about when
we picked you up.
Was thinking you'd need it. Watch your back, okay?
Benny Ray tucked the paper back into his pocket. 'Semper Fi,
amigo,' he whispered.
(cont'd on page 2)