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Matt's predicament was serious. More so than ever before. He was pressed against the wall next to the door with nowhere to go but forward. Forward into danger. Forward, straight to where the enemy was. His thoughts were racing.

Had he ever been in so deep? He couldn't recall ever having been in a worse situation. All his extensive training, all his finely honed instincts, they wouldn't be enough to help him get out of this unscathed. Deep in his guts he just knew it. This time there was no escaping. He might get the job done, but nothing and nobody would be able to save him.

"There's nothing to it. An easy assignment, really!" These words alone should have warned him. In the past two years they had had more than their share of so-called "easy assignments" and they all had gone wrong almost right from the beginning, just as this one had.

He should have known better. He should have listened to his inner voice, to the strange feeling which had been with him right from the moment when he had first heard the plan.

A noise from the room on the other side of the door woke him from his musings. He tensed again. Were they on to him already? If they found him here and now, it would be over.

Matt was breathing harder. He could feel the sweat breaking out all over his body, running into his eyes, soaking into his clothes, moistening his already clammy palms still more. The door was open a crack. He could hear voices on the other side, two people, maybe even more. And it would take just one of them to raise the alarm, to give away his position. Once the hounds had been called down on him, there would be nothing he could do, but face whatever they had in store for him.

Why had he let himself be talked into it? "Everybody has the right to decline an assignment!" That was what he always told his people. Couldn't he have heeded his own words? He hadn't been drunk or been coerced, he couldn't even use that as an excuse for being where he was. What had made him do it? The challenge? The excitement? Or just that somebody had to do it and he was the best man for the job? Matt sighed silently. Folly, stupid pride,... whatever it had been, he was here and he owed it to himself and to his friends to give it his best shot, to try and get the job done. Whatever it would take!

God, what was the matter with him? There would be a time for this soul-searching later, if there was a later! He listened carefully. Were the voices moving away from the door or was it only wishful thinking on his part?

What were they doing up here, anyway? Another thing that hadn't been in the plan! Getting inside the building hadn't been easy, not with the heavy clothing and all the gear he was burdened with. But he was in! And so far, nobody was aware of his presence.

For a moment he thought of Margo, Benny Ray and the others. What would they be doing at this time? Would any of them be thinking of him? Probably not. They had no idea. He hadn't been able to tell anybody.

The slamming of a door downstairs broke him out of his reverie. Instinctively, Matt went into a crouch, listening to the noises from below. They were coming closer. He was aware of the cold of the stone floor creeping up even through his thick, padded clothing. Maybe he could .....The voices were stopping, moving away again, laughing - they were turning back!

Matt let out a breath he hadn't known he was holding. He was even allowing himself to relax a little when footsteps suddenly approached his position. The door next to him opened wider. He shrank back, fervently wishing he could become one with the shadows. Two people left the room, their backs to him. He didn't move, didn't even breathe. Laughing they went to the staircase at the other end of the corridor and down the stairs.

They hadn't noticed him! After a close encounter with a party of tangos outside on the street, no one had seen him so far. He had been able to deal with them. None of THEM would sound the alarm, he had seen to it, though barely.

Slowly, carefully, he squeezed past the door, the now silent room, dragging the heavy bag with him, confirming almost automatically that the corridor in front of him was empty and devoid of any observance or listening devices. Why should they have them up here anyway, he thought. This was their home ground, the one place where they would feel completely safe. He straightened up, moving a little faster. His breathing slowed again. He was at the top of the staircase now.

Another sound reached his ears, not from the room on his left, but from downstairs. Glasses clinking, laughter, voices raised in friendly argument,... it sounded as if the party was in full swing. According to his intel there shouldn't have been anybody up here. Wrong intel, yeah, that had been a problem more than once in the past years as well. Maybe he should have checked things out beforehand himself , but there hadn't been time, not after he had decided to do the job. Things had moved so fast. He had been geared up and given the ungainly bag in next to no time. Probably to keep him from dwelling on it too long, maybe changing his mind.

The bag....! That was what this was all about, getting the bag to where it was needed! And that was where he was going now! Matt took a deep breath. He would see it through! The only way to go was forward, to get it over with somehow. He straightened up again, shouldered the bag and cautiously stepped out onto the stairs and went down, making his way to the door from which the party noises were emerging.

He stopped in front of the door. There was still time to call it off, he thought. But could he really do that, knowing the consequences? "No!", he decided, nothing would ever be the same again, once he had stepped through that door, but it didn't really matter. If only he could somehow make it through the next half hour,...

If he had been given to praying he would have started now. So he just squared his shoulders, took another deep breath, pushed the door open and stepped through it.

Party noise assaulted him. There were even more people in there than he had expected! Now the first ones had spotted him, quickly pointing him out to their neighbors. Faces turned to look at him, curiously, expectantly.

"Look, Daddy, Santa's here! He has really come! Just like Miss Trout said!"

Matt winced. That was Benny Ray's little daughter. Now everybody's face was turned towards him, surprise warring with delighted grins on most of them once they recognized him. "Go on, you can do this!" he told himself silently, stepping forward into the middle of the room, smiling at the group of awed, wide-eyed kids, who stood together with Benny Ray's three.

"Ho, ho, ho! Santa's here! And I've got lots of nice presents in here for everybody who's been good. Have you all been good, huh?"

A chorus of "Yes!", "Sure!", "Oh, please...!", "Is there one for me in there as well?" met him. That last, plaintive one, of course, had to come from Nick.

Half an hour later, when all the gaily wrapped parcels had found their new owners, the adults had expressed their delight in their gifts, the children were playing with their new toys and Santa had gone on to visit other houses, Margo went in search for Matt.

She found him upstairs with CJ and Alison Trout who were helping him out of the Santa costume. For a moment she just stood in the door, looking at the laughing trio. Then she went up to Matt, hugged him tightly and planted a kiss on his surprised face.

"That was the sweetest thing I've ever seen you doing, Matt Shepherd!"

"And the bravest," CJ had to add it with a grin. "And he almost didn't make it." At the questioning glances from the two women he explained: "When Chance and I arrived for the party and came upon this strangely attired individual slinking into the dark back alley and up to the fire-ladder, we almost took him out. Only some fast talking on the part of the Major made us realize who he was and what he was doing there."

"Yeah, they only let me go when I promised there would be presents for them, too." Matt took a swing at CJ who sidestepped it neatly, grinning at his friend.

"What were you doing out there?" Margo inquired with a confused look at Alison Trout, who was doing her best to keep from giggling.

"Alison had hired a student to play Santa,..."

"....but he decided to go skiing with his girlfriend at the last minute. So I borrowed Matt's Suburban, brought everything along, and convinced him to do it."

"Yeah, can that woman talk", he shot her a dark look, at once
softening it with a wink and a smile. "But with the party guests coming and all the children running in and out of the Silver Star, we had no way to smuggle things into the house."

"So, Matt changed in the car and had to make his way back into the house over the fire-ladder. I was afraid he would make a run for it once he realized what he had let himself in for, but he was great," Alison told the growing audience. Benny Ray, Rico and Drummer had come up as well to look for their missing host.

"Nice touch, to invite some of the kids from Father John's foster children program for a Christmas party", Drummer said approvingly. "They won't forget this evening for a long time."

"And neither will anybody else", Rico told a groaning Matt with a broad grin.

"Now that's a fact, sir." Benny Ray was trying very hard to keep a straight face. Unfortunately, he wasn't succeeding.

He had known it all along! There was no way they would ever let him live this down! But,.......... was it really such a bad thing?

Matt looked at Margo, remembering how her eyes had lit up when she had recognized him downstairs. Smiling, he took her arm and together they led the way back down to the party.

THE END

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