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Part 1

Disclaimer: they aren't mine, I just like to toy with them and torture them occasionally. . . especially Benny Ray. . . oh yeah, btw, the town of Ballyhurst, Ireland is totally fictional.

Silver Star Bar,
Hermosa Beach Sunday,
10:25 hrs

Matthew Shepherd was behind the bar studiously wiping down glasses fresh out of the dishwasher, while Margo sat at the front bar giving a second look over some tax paperwork before it was to be sent off.

"I would really love it if you filed online," she quipped, her hand flying over the keypad of a calculator.

Matt swished a towel around down inside a freshly cleaned and still-warm glass as he smirked at his team language expert momentarily reassigned to accountant. The rest of the gang had beaten a retreat out to the beach this morning the moment he mentioned taxes. Margo, incidentally, just hadn't moved quickly enough. "Nah, computers crash, I like it in longhand."

Margo made a correction to one line and ran her hands through her dark auburn hair in a manner to indicate she was tired-or bored more like-already as her cheek came to rest on her hand.

And then, as if to rescue her from her current assignment, who should waltz in but Xavier Trout. He paused in the doorway as he scoped the room, spotted the only two inhabitants in the place at the moment, and then made a beeline for the bar. He gave a fragment of a smirk in greeting and a wave as he headed their way, his blue eyes beaming with purpose, and his crisp suit rustling with his stride.

"Well, hi, Trout, long time no see," Matt said with a false jovialness.

"Try one week," Margo reminded him. Then she looked up and smiled sweetly and blinked. "How are you, Xavier?" Her almond-shaped green eyes drifted toward the manila envelope in his hand.

Trout gave her a bemused look and a fatherly pat on the shoulder before tossing the packet of information on the counter. Matt wiped his damp hands off on the rear pockets of his jeans and leaned forward, spinning the packet around to open it.

"Basic escort mission," Trout announced as the major glanced through the intel and withdrew a black and white photo of a young man with unruly long hair surrounding a round face tipped off by a very delicate pointed chin. "Kieran McManus," Trout said with a nod toward the individual. "He's wanted for several bombings in Belfast and London. His group was believed responsible for the more recent explosion in the court house square in Omagh violating the ceasefire in Northern Ireland." He paused to let that tidbit of info sink in then preceded. "SAS ops tailed then lost him in Gibraltar two weeks ago where it's suspected he was making an arms purchase that failed. A week later he was recognized in LAX airport, tailed and arrested. It's believed he was entering the states with plans to attempt another purchase."

"Big surprise," Matt muttered and read on. The capture of the young terrorist had only made it to television this morning; so he could guess Trout and his people had already worked up a plan, and Trout had no doubt his first choice of black ops team would be part of it.

Trout cut to the chase as he always did. "I want you and your team to escort him back home. There's no doubt that members of his group will attempt to free him once he lands, so arrangements have been made for covert transport to Dublin where you'll have to drive him to Maze Prison in Antrim to be held for trial in Belfast."

"All we have to do is take him to the prison?" Matt asked with a look of surprise that it sounded simple enough.

"That's right," Trout went on. "In two days a publicized transport will be made using a look-a-like and another team."

"After the real transport has already taken place," Margo finished, looking at the picture.

"Right," Trout added, "and you don't have to worry about anything else. The decoy transport will be prepared to potentially flush out others in McManus' ring should they make a move. We don't want to risk him having a chance to escape. There will be some paperwork, and checkpoints to clear, but the primary arrangements are in place.

"So pack up," he gleamed, "you're going to the Emerald Isle."

"Great," Margo said and again put on her sweetest grin. "I've always wanted to see Newgrange."

"Yeah, you can take a couple days to site see after the package is delivered."

"Now wait a minute," Matt interrupted their exchange with one hand slicing the air. "We go plain clothes, no gear for this?"

"Standard covert communication equipment and anything that passes airport security. . . cell phones, whatever. Margo can arrange for all the extra gear and weapons you want to be picked up when you land."

The linguist gave an appreciative nod.

The major reconsidered. As far as most of their missions went, this one looked the easiest by far. Basic escort, with the cover of a faked transport scheduled two days later. Site seeing in beautiful green country side and a pint of Guinness on the side afterward, 'most' expenses paid by Trout. Margo certainly wasn't objecting, CJ definitely wouldn't, and after that it was likely majority rule over Benny Ray and Chance. Okay, that worked for him.

"When do we leave?"

Commercial Flight over the Atlantic
Monday
03:45

Majority rule had nothing to do with Benny Ray Riddle's decision to go to Ireland with his team. He had read the file on Kieran McManus, or more importantly read the list of casualties from the bombing in Omagh. Ten adults and three children, among them a father, Malachy Flynn, and his five-year-old daughter who had just been out for a casual walk through the town square together.

The team had managed to acquire and secure much of the plane's rear seating for their purposes, and while Margo and Matt slumbered in seats across the aisle from each other, CJ and Chance sat a few rows up playing penny poker on the seat between them. Occasionally one of them would voice an objection and there would be the clank of copper coins sliding from one side of the seat to the other to be bet again.

Benny Ray was on guard duty.

McManus had kept his eyes straight ahead for most of the transport. He was cuffed with specialized plastic strips that ran under his clothes and kept his hands at his sides at all times. They had to be uncomfortable as hell, especially when he sat down and could only hold his arms in one position, with his wrists partially tucked against his hips, which, in the small area of a plane seat did not allow for much elbow adjustment. He was only to be allowed two bathroom visits at most for the flight so that his hands would be freed as little as possible.

While the prisoner stared straight ahead, Benny Ray stared at the prisoner. Intense blue eyes bore laser trails into the younger face, until finally a bead of sweat broke from McManus' hairline and streamed down. Benny Ray made sure the air vent over the seat had been sealed off and the reading light stayed on. The rest of this section of cabin was dark, putting McManus under a veritable spotlight. The plane's drowsy drone failed to desensitize the watching sniper.

Chance quieted down, his attention suddenly pinned on the two figures in the rear of the cabin.

"So, uh. . ." Benny Ray began with his voice dimmed to a growl. "You get'cher jollies killin' kids?"

"Come on, anti up, Chance," CJ was insisting.

The young black man gave him a hush sign with a finger pressed to pursed lips and gave a gesture toward the potential situation.

McManus rolled a steady glare upward at Benny Ray. His face, at just a mere glance, appeared too freckled and heart-shaped to be taken seriously, but his burning-green eyes revealed the deadly conviction which festered inside him. His answer confirmed it in the expected thick brogue. "They were unfortunate casualties of war."

Standing, Chance gave a gesture to CJ and they began to ease toward the rear cabin. Both had actually figured putting the sniper on watch was not such a good idea considering that Benny Ray was the only one of them who had children. Children whom he loved very dearly even if he had a hard time breaking from his job to be with them. He would unquestionably give his life for them were it called for.

"I'll show you casualties. . ." Benny Ray hissed, his face closer to McManus' now and his teeth gritting. His hand was in the process of rising toward McManus' throat.

"Benny Ray, don't," Chance said, laying a hand on his teammate's shoulder.

Benny Ray half ignored him and spoke over his shoulder to CJ instead. "What are we takin' him back for, CJ?"

The other Irishman looked perplexed and gave a nervous chuckle. "For trial. . . Benny Ray. . . what're you. . ."

"As I recall, they DON'T have the death sentence in Ireland."

CJ's mouth bobbed open and then he gave a sigh. "Benny Ray, whatever he gets will be worse than death," he assured. "In those prisons. . ." He shook his head.

McManus didn't take his eyes off the real threat, but he was no dummy as to what was best for him. He kept his mouth shut thereafter.

Or was it, Benny Ray wondered, that the bastard was trying to form a plan in that head of his?

"Look," Chance said, his hand still on Benny Ray's shoulder, "we've only got three more hours in. I'll sit watch."

Though Benny Ray's shoulders remained tensed, the muscles recoiled as if ready to lash out in an attack, he backed down. Remembering that he was on an airplane full of civilian passengers in the front, he gave a nod. After giving Kieran McManus one final fragment of a snarl, he moved a few seats up and sank down as deeply as possible, massaging the bridge of his nose as he tried to calm down. Part of him kept thinking about the carbonated plastic Special Forces tanto hidden against his calf under his pant leg.

CJ didn't dare ask him if he wanted to take Chance's place playing penny poker.

Dublin
08:35

Everything had been secured from departing the plane to the rental van, to the route north. An official of the British government greeted them and saw to clearing the paperwork, then he quickly got out of their way and in no time CJ had driven them to a rendezvous point, designated by Margo, to pick up weapons. They loaded up primarily on handguns, though Matt carried a briefcase hiding a neatly tucked MP5K.

Soon they were on the M1 headed out of Dublin and out onto the N1 past green fields quartered off by rock walls and a smattering of houses both modern and old whitewashed stone. The occasional thatched roof came into view, showing that many traditions were still upheld. A blotchy gray sky dominated the horizon with the threat of rain and occasionally a patch of mist swept over the peal of a rolling hill. Little conversation livened the group cramped in the flat-nosed van--a white Volkswagen, the most nondescript choice of vehicle. McManas was squeezed in between Chance and Matt, while Benny Ray sat in the very rear seat, his eyes boring into the back of the terrorist's head.

For a brief period coastline came into view past the town of Castlebellingham, and then CJ began to take more than a few second glances at the car in the rearview. He wasn't sure when exactly it had pulled onto the road behind them but it had been there for at least the last hour and now suddenly began to hurry forward, closing on the van's bumper.

"Head's up, guys, I think we have a tail."

Margo leaned to the side and looked out the rearview on her door, while Matt and Chance turned in unison to look out the rear window. Not wanting to be obvious since he was in the back seat, Benny Ray didn't look.

"What'd we got?" the southerner asked toward the front of the compartment.

"Black Ford Escort," CJ replied, his eyes wide and darting from the view of the road to the rearview. He steered the van to the left and into the narrow side lane to allow room for the follow to move around. The car lingered in the blind side of the van's right rear bumper and then sped up only to come up alongside the van and match its speed. The faces of an older man and a young woman appeared in the passenger side windows, looking up at CJ and Matt, their mouths set in determination. The gleam of blue steel came into view in the girl's lap.

Matt looked casually back toward the front. "Loose'em."

"Aye-aye, Major," CJ said with an edge of glee and floored the accelerator. The van's engine gave a groan before the vehicle really began to move, followed by the Ford.

On second glance back, CJ saw another car, an off-white plain sedan come over the diminishing rise and speed toward them. CJ gritted his teeth and steered just sideways enough to tap the corner bumper of the Ford. Both van and car wove about from the contact then the third vehicle caught up. A black-clad figure pulled himself out of the passenger side on the left and sat on the windowsill while aiming an M16.

"Get down!!!" CJ shouted and everyone obeyed except for McManus. Matt grabbed the back of the prisoner's neck and shoved his face down between his knees then reached under the seat for the briefcase. Behind the van, the assailant fired three short bursts, presumably aiming for the wheels. Benny Ray drew his Glock and waited crouched down between the seats. Matt rolled down the side window, presenting all of their pursuers with a good look at the MP5 then smugly aimed it at the Escort. The driver of the Ford instantly braked, almost colliding with the oncoming sedan. A civilian car traveling south in the other lane veered to avoid the other two vehicles, and then hurried on its current route. With the surrounding landscape little more than sloping grassy hills and rocky crags, CJ just took the best option to keep going until the van cleared the rise ahead.

Once at the peak of the hill, the team looked down into a valley where a small village lay nestled near the shore. The hills sloped fairly steeply and, like those fields they had seen before, were mostly broken up by rows of uneven stone walls. The little village represented an image of innocence versus the conflict going on in the middle of the highway overlooking it.

"No civilian involvement!" Matt shouted over the rush of wind through the window.

"Then lets keep this showdown on the high plains," CJ replied and turned the van blocking most of the road, and therefore also keeping anyone southbound from getting caught in the crossfire. In moments the other two vehicles cleared the rise only to come to an abrupt stop as they found one Major Matt Shepherd, Chance Walker, and one very irate Benny Ray Riddle lined up before the open side door and poised ready to open fire. Margo had climbed into the second row back and had a gun to McManus' head, while CJ left the engine running and remained at the wheel.

The driver of the sedan remained behind the wheel, while the assailant with the M16 got out, using the door as a shield, and aimed at Matt. There was a long pause to allow the team in the van to digest their situation, and then the man spoke loudly and precisely, his brogue thinned out intentionally.

"Ye've got something we both want," he called. "Let McManus go, and we let YOU go."

Matt's mind briefly turned over the fact that somehow their cover had been blown, but he didn't have time to wonder how. "Don't say anything, people," he whispered huskily to his group, keeping lip movement at a minimum. Only the cool hush of wind bearing the tangy sent of approaching rain sounded between the two facing groups. Matt simply scanned over the number of silhouettes he saw in the cars. The Ford had three heads visible, the sedan two.

"You cover the one with the rifle, Benny Ray," he whispered to his right. "Chance, eye on the other car. I caught sight of two hand guns when we were moving, but I don't know what the driver or the other guy has."

"Yes, Sir," both answered.

Margo had McManus by the back of the collar, the rectangular barrel of her gun turned sideways against the back of his head where she could easily pivot it in for threat or just cold cock him if necessary. His hands were still strapped at his sides, so he had a snowball's chance in hell of getting out of the van unscathed.

"Seems we've got the advantage," Matt called back.

"Not a'tall," the other man replied. "There's a bomb set to go off near here, maybe just in a church, maybe just in somebody's kitchen. I dinna think ye want that to happen. Let McManus go!"

"I'd do wha' he says," McManus chimed up. "If the bomb detonates, 'twill be the first in the south in years, ye dinna want that kind of incident on your hands."

"Quiet!" Margo hissed and gave the back of his head a solid tap with the gun.

Matt gritted his jaw and gave a mental curse. They hadn't even made it across the border for chrissakes! And how the hell HAD McManus' group found out about the real transfer? Had someone on the inside told them? That was the only explanation he could think of though it didn't really seem plausible. Then he stopped and considered anyone they had come into contact with before and during the trip over. Could someone have been tailing McManus all along, say from the moment of his arrest in LAX? The IRA was thorough that way, he remembered CJ telling him this once. If McManus had a partner with him, someone who made it through customs, then it sufficed to say the second party had been doing as much infiltrating as possible to get information back to their movement in the homeland. And if there was indeed a bomb hidden somewhere. . .

"CJ, you think they're bluffing?"

"I can't tell, Major," the former SAS operator replied from the driver's seat. "Doesn't seem so likely they'd jeopardize all they've fought for that way." He sounded more than a little facetious.

Who twitched first, Matt wasn't sure. The shots that went off came from both the rifleman and Benny Ray, who dove sideways, shoving the major and Chance back toward the open compartment of the van. For Benny Ray it had simply been a case of his sniper senses going off at the slightest movement from the terrorist bearing the M16. The second the opponent squeezed the trigger, so did Benny Ray. The bullet from the Glock grazed the other's arm and caused him to stiffen up, briefly losing his firm hold on the automatic.

Benny Ray shot out the front two tires as he collided with Matt, his instincts being to protect. Chance skirted the collision and took out the other tires, while Matt recovered and opened fire on the second car with the MP5. The other terrorists got out, also using their doors as shields, and began to fire over the windows with their handguns.

As Margo and CJ started to join the rest of their team in the firefight, Matt waved his free hand wildly at them. "Go!" the major shouted as he pulled the side door closed. "Go on!" He repeated along with an extended stream of commands. "CJ get out of here and keep the package secure, we'll contact you and catch up!" The door slammed and he gave the panel two good knocks to signal CJ on.

The motor revved and the van jerked forward, then CJ got it turned about and aimed north again before he took off. Margo remained in place keeping McManus secure, while looking back at her comrades engaged in battle on the open highway.

Chance, Matt, and Benny Ray all scattered, firing and shattering the cars' front windshields while their human targets continued to duck and cover inside. Benny Ray dove over the side of the road into a ditch opposite Matt and Chance, both of whom found cover behind a boulder on the upper slope and firing down. As if to make matters worse, the rain began to fall in a noisy gush. Matt gritted his teeth as water pounded his head and rinsed into his eyes. He wiped it away and at least considered that he and Chance had taken the advantage of an elevated position. Benny Ray, on the other hand, was more exposed. Chance reloaded, and took out a side window. Blood from an unseen hit in the Ford dripped out into the road and washed away on the rain. As the major and Chance closed in from the side, they didn't see that Benny Ray had crawled along the bottom of the ditch to completely reach the side of the sedan.

As the major and Chance opened fire from the side, the MP5 riveting the side of the Ford with holes, two figures hustled around to the rear of the vehicle and took cover behind the bumper. The third figure had slipped off somewhere else. Despite a wounded shoulder, the rifleman still fired the M16. Matt and Chance ducked down as bullets streaked the air overhead. Then suddenly a single shot rang out and the machinegun fire stopped.

Benny Ray had leaned up out of the graveled ditch, now with a clear shot at both individuals behind the Ford. He took out the heavy arms fire first before spotting the young woman slipping around the side of the sedan. At that he discovered that he had reached his limit. He dropped the clip and ducked just as she fired back at him from the front right bumper of the car. Reloading from the extra clip on his belt he raised up to fire again only to find one of the other attackers from the sedan literally hovering over him with a Beretta 92. Three rounds squeezed off but blessedly only one made a hit.

Pain ripped through Benny Ray's left side and sent him spinning on his knees and over the back of the ditch. He heard a hiss of a curse as the other man ran out of rounds and just dove toward him, attempting to take advantage of his wounded condition and wrestle him down. He caught the force of the other body and rolled backward and to the side, throwing the other off with a grunt as the pain in his side spiraled all through him, dizzying him and making his breathing hard for a moment. It was just enough time for the assailant to reach for him again and try to take the gun from him. Benny Ray brought up his knee-which consequently didn't help stop the gush of blood from the wound-and slammed the other in the chest, winding him. His gun hand still flailed out, unable to pull in for a shot in such closed quarters. Gasping, the sniper reached for the sheath hidden up his pant leg and drew out the black carbonated plastic tanto. Benny Ray didn't think about how he held it, only that it slipped effortlessly into the terrorist's belly and up beneath his rib cage. The rain pouring between them appeared to drain away the other man's life as it dashed upon his face and ran down from the wide hollows of his eyes.

Benny Ray collapsed backward, releasing his hold on the body as it rolled away, the muscles in the torso hugging the knife and taking it along. The slippery thick grass beneath caught and carried him down the hill a ways as he fought for breath and blinked against the sting of rain smacking directly into his eyes. One hand weakly reached up to try and stop his descent, but he only came up with a fistful of grass and dirt and gravity won out on such tricky terrain. His radio went flying out to be lost in the grass, but he managed to hold onto his gun. Bruising rocks chafed his already raw side and he thought he smelled his own blood as he came to a stop against a rock wall. More gunfire directed at him from the top of the slope forced him to crawl over the wall and drop down on the other side for cover. The rain pounded harder, and now brought in more haze until the surrounding air became nothing but a void of white wetness.

Up bank, Matt and Chance continued to close on the Ford, Chance taking a clip to the ear. With both vehicles in their line of sight, they hadn't seen what had happened to their teammate. The two cars, with their front wheels and windshields blown out, and bullet holes in their sides, resembled half squashed bugs. Matt found the gunman with the M16 laying face down with a head wound, another figure beside him with the side of his neck opened up. As they eased around the Ford, a third figure came into view, a man in jeans and a dull green weather coat leaning against the sedan, his legs sprawled. Presumably the second terrorist in the sedan. He had a hip wound that had to be extremely painful, and when he looked up through a tangle of black bangs, his blood-shot eyes became wild. He raised his weak hand, bearing a pistol, and started to fire. The round sparked the wet pavement at Matt's feet before the major took him out with the MP5.

"Christ," Chance muttered, "they're practically just kids."

Hearing this and looking down at the young man whom it almost seemed had been out to martyr himself, Matt felt a nasty churning in his chest. Then both surviving men began to scout the road now silent except for the hush of rain.

There had been three in the Ford, one a woman, but she wasn't in sight anywhere that Matt could see, and the other figure seen in the sedan was unaccounted for. He looked around, trying to listen past the pour of the rain, but there was nothing more.

"Benny Ray!" the major called out.

No answer. Gun still ready and Chance watching his back, Matt eased to the other side of the road and looked down through a thick cloud of mist that was sweeping into the valley.

"Benny Ray!" Chance called too. He scanned the slope to the west and looked back up the north road. At least no other cars had come along.

"Call the others back," Matt said, still looking down into the pool of white below. He KNEW his sniper was down there somewhere, and quite possibly so were the other two terrorists. Not to mention, he hoped they could still find one of them alive so that they could verify if there really was a bomb planted not far away. While Chance was speaking to CJ on his radio, Matt made a call to Benny Ray over his.

There was no reply. The major tried to listen but with the thick mist now insulating all sound except for the relentless beat of the rain, he heard nothing to indicate what was going on at the bottom of the steep embankment. Moments later the van came buzzing back around the side of the slope and out of the mist to come to a screeching halt. Matt rushed to the driver side window as CJ rolled it down and gave the full report on the situation.

Margo, her gun still on McManus, leaned forward into the front cab and looked at Matt. "We need to make a report to Trout," she said. "I can make a secure satellite uplink, but we need to get indoors."

"I'm sure there's a nice little B and B in the valley," CJ said. "Close enough to hole up and monitor search reports and make the uplink." Without further word he handed ammunition supplies out the window.

"All right," Matt said, automatically locking a full cartridge into his side arm and handing the spent MP5 back through the opening. "CJ, Margo, get the package indoors and out of site, Chance and I will look for Benny Ray and the two tangos."

"Yes, Sir," CJ replied. He turned the van about and continued up the road to turn down onto the first road with a sign indicating it was a public highway.

Still out in the rain, Matt and Chance searched for the fastest way down the slope without taking the water slide route.

"Over here, Major," Chance said, his figure merely a shadow in the pocket of mist around him.

Matt hurried over and looked down the potential route, finding it to be a sheep path of natural steps riddled with droppings, not so steep that two armed men would end up sliding on their asses all the way down. Matt nodded and started down, Chance watching carefully behind. Slowly they made their way into the white void, listening and hoping for some sign.

* * *

Cold, wet, and bleeding, Benny Ray slumped against the rock wall, barely aware that the shooting above had stopped. The rain had made a mass of dark spikes out of his hair and matted his eyelashes together. Every little twitch in his body sent a spasm of pain up his side, and he cupped one hand over the wound. A free flow of blood and rain washed over his hand. There was no exit wound, so he would have to put up with the slug in his side for a while and hope like hell he could give it real attention before infection developed. He lifted the front of his sweater, exposing his soggy tee shirt, and ripped off two long strips. The first he wrung out as much as possible given that the rain poured so heavily as to instantly saturate it again. Gritting his teeth, and preparing himself, he wadded the middle of the strip and twisted it up tight, literally making a plug out of it.

"Ah, hell," he muttered to himself, then with shaking hands began to cram the cloth into the hole. This was the only possibility he could come up with to apply pressure. His body naturally bowed out and he clenched his jaw until his teeth could have cracked together. The wad didn't go far in, but at least it was a tight squeeze and slowed the bleeding. The pain was another story completely. He cut off the scream before it could echo out of him, which in turn made the pain seem worse with no outlet for it. He grunted as he slouched back against the wall and drifted dangerously close to unconsciousness. The gritty, damp stone ground against the back of his head, the discomfort keeping him awake. Weakening further by the second, he managed to pull the other strip of cloth around his waist and tied it tightly over the first patch to hold it in place. He wiped his slick red hand on the side of his jeans and clutched up his gun in the other.

Okay, time to get back topside and into the action.

Then just as he started to force himself up onto his haunches, he heard the familiar click of a Berretta as it was cocked right next to his ear.

"Dinna move, asshole," a woman's voice hissed in a thick accent. She reached around him and took his gun. The wet rustle of wool and cloth gave that she was hiding it on her person.

Benny Ray looked straight ahead, setting his jaw again as he cursed himself for not being more alert. Knowing he wasn't in the best position to gain the upper hand, Benny Ray feigned defeat. He could wait-for now.

"Now get up," she snapped, giving his shoulder a nudge with the barrel.

One elbow pinned to his side to make sure his bandage work stayed securely in place, he rocked a little first, until he gained the momentum to propel himself up onto his knees. No grace left to him, he managed to get on his feet and swayed, only to have one elbow grabbed tightly by his captor as she kept him at just a safe enough distance that he still dared not try anything. His head was swimming from the blood loss and the stabbing soreness in his body. Couple that with the rain freezing up his joints and he wasn't in shape to step on a bug, let alone to disarm a pissed off terrorist.

The woman cinched in her thumb and dug into a nerve on his inner arm. "Walk." She began to guide him forward through the mist and down slope.

"Exactly where're we goin'?" he asked thickly.

"Shut it!" The barrel of the gun gave him a light smack on the side of the head.

He spun half way to the side and dropped to one knee. When she stepped back, he staggered up again and obeyed as she began to march him through the boggy grass, carefully navigating around rocky juts. Occasionally the bleating of disturbed sheep sounded out of the mist. Footfalls, one set strong, the other weak and uneven in its pace, squished loudly, even against the roar of rain, then suddenly the noise dropped off and Benny Ray could have sworn they were in a cavern. Out of the void ahead, he made out the shadow of a farm house hunched on the edge of the field. If his captor thought she was going to lead him where she could take more hostages, she had another thing coming.

He didn't have to feign being weak. Stumbling and falling was easy, especially when his foot landed in a deeper pool of water hidden under the blanket of grass and he all but twisted his ankle. He hit one knee and hunched up, clutching his side as the pain slammed into him anew.

"Move!"

"Look lady," he growled. "Ye'd best just kill me and get it over with 'cause I'll be damned before I let you use me." Slowly he turned and looked up over his shoulder, getting a good look at her for the first time.

A pale and freckled heart-shaped face stared down at him, framed in by long curling locks of disheveled and drenched black hair. She might be twenty at most, but he couldn't really tell. "GET," she said with precision, "UP."

Even in his condition he could smell her nervousness. It was obvious in the shaking tip of the gun, the way she kept her arms thrust out too stiffly to aim at his head. He decided to take a gamble. "Looks like yer little rescue op failed, honey," he drawled calmly. "That mess about a bomb in the local town, it's bull, ain't it? Otherwise ye'd have shot me already, but ye need me for insurance. The major, he won't tolerate it. Ye might as well get it over with."

Her mouth opened with a small gasp, indicating she and her comrades had been found out. "Shut up ye feckin' yank."

"There is NO bomb, is there?" he said more fiercely through his teeth. "Come on, tell me!"

"Shut up!" she half screamed. Her finger tensed on the trigger.

Benny Ray waited for her to lose control and just send his brains out into the green nowhere. He was sure at this point that the bomb story had been a bluff. With an inner groan he braced himself, still gripping his side like it mattered.

Instead of pulling the trigger, she shoved him forward, putting him completely on both knees in the puddle. "I dinna 'ave to kill'ye. That wad be too easy for ye," she said close to his ear in a taunting tone. "Yer right, ye did call our bluff. But now is'na any bluff. Let's see how much yer major will tolerate."

Then without another word she fired.

* * *

Up on the hillside, Matt froze as the echo of a single shot pierced the void. His brown eyes widened then narrowed as he tried to peer through the white. Just up the path behind him, Chance looked about too then stepped out a few steps and kicked something fleshy and unmoving.

Looking down, Chance started then gave the major's shoulder a light tap. Both knelt beside the still cold body of the young man laying face up, eyes open and frozen on nothing. The black handle of the Special Forces knife stuck out of his mid belly at an angle indicating the blade was firmly lodged in his heart.

"That's Benny Ray's knife," Matt affirmed then rose, looking about again. "That's one down."

"And another one out there with Benny Ray somewhere," Chance finished for him.

Matt had every faith in his sniper. The dead man on the ground strengthened that faith, but the sound of that one shot out of nowhere gave him a chill beyond that driven into him by the weather. Giving Chance a gesture that they continue, he trudged on until the ground began to level off more, but still sloped. At this rate it was impossible to really determine which direction they were going in. He'd heard about Irish mist. It could get so thick at times a man's best choice was to just sit down and wait it out else he might find himself miles away from home by the time he stopped trying to guess his way through. But right now he had a man out there, and a tango whose status was still unknown. He concentrated, estimating where the sound of the shot would have originated from, and attempted to move in that direction.

Neither he nor Chance dared call out to their missing team member now.

* * *

Benny Ray fell over onto his side, one hand instinctively going up to clamp over the slash the bullet had made in the side of his upper right arm. Once more his fingers slickened with blood and he bared his teeth up at the woman. That did it. He knew now the bomb threat didn't exist, so there was no obstacle to taking her out. His blood was rushing anew, coursing with hot adrenaline that phased out his pain and all clear thinking and let anger take over. The blue appeared to drain from his eyes to be replaced with ice crystals.

The girl had no clue she was stepping too far. "I dinna 'ave to kill ye," she repeated. "But ye'll wish ye WERE dead."

His breathing catching on him Benny Ray, clutched the new wound a little tighter, imagining his hand was actually closing on the woman's throat. "Well," he husked out, "I wish I was in Dixie-" He tensed, preparing himself. "-but she's out of town," he finished.

Taken aback the young woman hesitated, a fatal mistake as the downed man swept out his leg and kicked her feet out from under her. Her arms flew up into the air, pale thin hands still gripping the gun and firing off two random shots. Benny Ray scrambled on top of her as she went over and he grabbed one of her wrists and slammed it down into the nearest rock. At the same time, his right elbow came around and cracked against her jaw line, snapping her neck to the side. Her head dropped back into the puddling water and the tall grass closed partially around her face.

Benny Ray took her gun and also found his own tucked into her jeans below her sopped and dirty Aran sweater. He placed it in his own beltline and sat back from her slack body. Then did he begin to feel his wounds again. He crawled away several paces and forced himself to his feet, watching the world swim away, leaving only delirium to guide him. Time melted away as he staggered directly into another rock wall and toppled over it to land with a sickening THUD on the other side, looking up into the rain which failed to keep him revived any longer.

Everything darkened around him.

Concluded in Part 2 / Return to Author's Page

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