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 THE SILVER STAR
HERMOSA BEACH, CALIFORNIA

Matt Shepherd fought not to laugh out loud. It was a losing battle when his team was cracking up all around him. "Let me get this straight, Trout. You want to fly us all out to D.C. to attend a costume party on Halloween because the Brazilian Ambassador is afraid of the bogeyman?"

Margo lost it then, leaning on Benny Ray's shoulder as she laughed until the tears streamed from her eyes. The others weren't too far behind.

Trout gave them all a sour look before continuing. "Matt, in his part of the world, voodoo is a very real part of life."

"But what are we supposed to do about it?" Matt asked in frustration. "I mean, if you think someone's using black magic or whatever, wouldn't you want…I dunno…a priest?"

"The man is a visiting foreign dignitary and he believes his life to be in danger. I don't have to tell you what the consequences will be if we ignore this and something does happen to him."

"All right, all right – you've made your point." Matt chuckled to himself as Trout attempted to make a dignified exit. "Voodoo. What next?"

THE WATERGATE HOTEL
WASHINGTON, D.C.

Matt checked his watch irritably. "Margo!" he yelled at the closed bedroom door, "We're gonna be late."

"Just fashionably late," Margo replied.

"How about fashionably on time?"

"Now where's the fun in that?" Margo teased.

"We're on security detail. It's not supposed to be fun."

"Spoilsport."

"Hey, Boss," Benny Ray Riddle's voice sounded in Matt's ear.

"Talk to me," Matt replied.

"Where you at? The guests are starting to arrive."

"Margo is still making herself beautiful," Matt replied acidly.

"OK, den we'll look for you in a few awas," Nick said amiably. "Ow!"
he yelped a minute later.

"Margo is already beautiful, amigo, and don't you forget it," Benny Ray whispered in a menacing undertone.

"All right, you two…we'll be there as soon a I can get Margo pried away from the mirror."

"Roger that, sir," Benny Ray replied.

"Talking to yourself again?" Margo teased.

Her voice was much closer this time and Matt turned to face her. A smart-alec comment died on his lips and his jaw dropped as he took in the sight before him. Margo's Empire styled gown was clinging scarlet silk, providing a vivid contrast to her décolletage. Her hair was swept up into a pile of curls on top of her head and crowned with a band of bright red roses.

"Matt?"

Her tone made him realize that it wasn't the first time she'd called his name. "Wow!" he finally managed, "You look incredible."

"Why, thank you, kind sir," she replied with a demure bob of the head that was completely at odds with her mischievous tone.

Matt cleared his throat nervously. "Are we ready to go?"

"As soon as you help me with this," Margo replied, holding out an elaborate ruby necklace.

"You look perfect just the way you are," Matt murmured, not taking the proffered bauble.

Margo smiled brilliantly. "That's very sweet, but my comm is in the necklace."

"Oh…right…" Matt took the necklace and moved behind her to fasten it. As he breathed in the exotic scent of her perfume, he prayed for the willpower to survive the evening.

* * * *

"Glad to see you finally made it," Benny Ray muttered under his breath as Matt and Margo appeared in the doorway of the hotel's grand ballroom.

"It was worth the wait," Nick added.

Matt carefully smothered a grin at the commentary and took a quick look around the room. As he'd thought, Delvecchio was on the opposite side of the room from Benny Ray. The former DEA agent would think twice before making another comment about Margo while Benny Ray was close enough to catch him.

Matt turned to Margo and bent down slightly to whisper in her ear, "What's the sitrep?"

Margo laughed softly as if he'd just whispered something wonderfully amusing.

Benny Ray's hiss of frustration sounded clearly over their comms. "Well, Boss I don't really know what we're lookin' for. Near as I can tell, this is just a buncha folks out for a party."

"What's a voodoo guy supposed ta look like, anyway?" Nick wanted to know.

"I don't know," Matt replied with forced patience, "Bones, feathers... voodoo stuff."

"Boss, I think it's gonna be awful hard to pick someone out in this crowd," Benny Ray warned.

"I know. Just keep frosty and sound off if you see anything suspicious."

Margo let out a startled gasp and her hand convulsed on Matt's arm.

He looked quickly and saw where her attention was focused. A man done up as an incredibly realistic zombie had just walked past... rotting flesh, oozing sores... the whole nine yards. Only the fact that there was no odor convinced Matt that it was indeed, just a costume.

"Sorry," Margo laughed nervously.

"Hey, he had me going for a minute there too," Matt responded, covering her hand with his own.

* * * *

Benny Ray scanned the crowd warily. Although he'd never admit it, this assignment was starting to give him a serious case of the heebie- jeebies. The folks attending this bash were rich enough to afford the finest costumes and make-up and damned if it wasn't all just a touch too realistic for the sniper's taste. With the multitude of witches, warlocks and vampires that filled the ballroom, he could be standing right next to the voodoo priest or whatever the heck they called them and never even know. Benny Ray's solution to finding the magical persona would be to simply shoot everyone in the room and see who bled red, but somehow, he didn't think the Major would approve of that.

* * * *

Margo returned from powdering her nose and looked around for Matt. She spied a tall, dark-haired man dressed in a black velvet suit of a style from the early nineteenth century, the same period as her gown.Gathering up her train, Margo hurried over and laid a hand familiarly on the gentleman's arm.

"Matt? Oh, excuse me!" she exclaimed as the man, who was definitely
not Matt turned and smiled at her.

"Good evening, dear lady," the gentleman greeted her as he captured her hand and bowed low over it.

"I'm so sorry," Margo gushed, trying vainly to free her hand. The stranger's hand was cold and his grip was like steel. His voice echoed of the mountains of Moldavia and surely she hadn't seen a flash of fangs when he smiled? "I thought you were-"

"Someone else? A most...fortunate man."

Margo nearly jumped out of her skin as a warm hand descended on her arm.

"There you are," Matt said, wrapping a possessive arm around her waist.

"Matt, I was looking for you," Margo answered, trying to keep the relief from her face as she leaned into his side.

"If you'll excuse us?" Matt said pointedly.

"But of course," the stranger replied urbanely. "We will meet again, dear lady," he told Margo as he reluctantly released her hand.

"What took you so long?" Margo whispered as they moved away.

Matt started to answer when Nick's slightly panicked voice sounded clearly through their comms. "Matt, a werewolf just walked past me!"

"Relax, amigo," Benny Ray replied, "it's just a costume." But the sniper's voice didn't have its accustomed ring of confidence.

"It ain't no costume – it's a freakin' werewolf!"

"Nick, calm down," Margo soothed.

"I wanna go home!" Nick whined.

"Me too...this place gives me the creeps!" Benny Ray added.

"Matt?" Margo pleaded.

"Actually, that was Trout on the phone," Matt told them sheepishly. "It, ah, seems the Brazilian Ambassador got called home on a family emergency. He and his voodoo problems are now someone else's concern."

"That means we can leave?" Margo asked hopefully.

"Yeah, that means we can leave," Matt confirmed.

"Glad ta hear it," Nick responded. "Where's da door?"

"You know, I don't believe you guys," Matt scolded. "We are a group of trained professionals... there is absolutely no reason why we shouldn't just stay and enjoy the party."

"How about because there's a raven perched on the chandelier?" Margo asked.

"It's a decoration, for crying out loud!" Matt replied in irritation.

The 'decoration' cawed loudly.

"I'm outta here," Nick announced.

"Right behind you compadre," Benny Ray confirmed.

"Matt?" Margo asked again.

He looked as though another cutting remark was forthcoming, but a mummy shuffled by, raising a cloud of rather authentic looking sand. "On second thought..."

That was all Margo needed to hear. Her fingers tightened in a death grip on Matt' arm and she dragged him across the floor as fast as her trailing skirts permitted. A cultured voice interrupted their
flight.

"Ah, there you are, dear lady. Perhaps you might join me in a toast before you depart for the evening?" the stranger in the dark suit offered.

"Ah...some other time, perhaps," Margo answered shakily, not liking the look of the very red and viscous fluid in the stranger's cut-crystal punch glass.

"As you wish. As I said, we will meet again."

Margo felt the weight of his gaze on her back as they left the building.

They rendezvoused with the others on the sidewalk in front of the hotel. There was a full moon, which cast enough light for the others to notice her pallor.

"Margo, you look like you seen a ghost," Nick observed.

"Not exactly," she hedged.

"Margo, you can't tell me that you really think that guy was a..." Matt's voice trailed off and his sentence remained uncompleted as a large bat flew overhead and settled in the branches of a nearby tree.

"Matt, can we go to a different hotel for the night?" Margo asked in a small voice.

"Yeah," Matt replied in a hollow tone. "Let's do that."

"Right now!" Benny Ray added emphatically as a long shuddering howl echoed through the city.

Fin.


* * * *

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Miss Kathleen A. Klatte
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