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Silver Star
Early December

Cindy walked into the basement as Matt was hanging up his office phone. Taking in the look on his face, she changed direction and headed in. Sitting on the leather chair in front of his desk, she asked, “What’s wrong?” “Trout just called. He has volunteered us for a fund raiser the night before Christmas.” Suspicion illuminated her eyes. “Doing what?”

“We get to choose what we do in the program,” Matt replied, shaking his head. “I don’t know where he got this bright idea from. It’s a security detail but he wants four of us to perform.”

“Oh, damn, Matt. I don’t have any talents.”

Matt scrutinized her. “Yes you do, darlin’.”

Blushing, Cindy stammered, “Uhm, well, none I can perform in public.” Regaining control of herself, she smiled brightly. “Those are reserved for you.”

Laughing, Matt turned his attention back to his paperwork. “We’ve got almost a month to figure out something. It’ll be fine.”

“Can’t I work the detail then?” Cindy asked hopefully.

“Nope. We have two couples on this team, and the two couples are going to perform together.”

“Damn,” Cindy grumbled as she stalked to the corner of the basement, closing the office door behind her. When she was out of earshot, Matt chuckled. This was the perfect opportunity to start working on getting Cindy out of her shyness. When in trouble she could be a tigress, but when it came to anything public...she preferred to hide. The plan had just come to him when he had told her...now he had to tell Benny Ray and Margo they had to come up with an act. Picking up the phone, he called everyone in. For once, time was on their side, giving everyone ample time to work on their part of the plan.

Silver Star two hours later

The team sat around the table waiting for Matt to emerge from his office.

“Something wrong?” Benny Ray asked of Cindy, noting the nervous look in her eyes.

“Huh? Oh, no, not really, no,” she responded absently, doodling on her notepad.

“Uh huh,” Benny Ray drawled, shooting a look at Margo, who just shrugged.

“All right people,” Matt called out, emerging from his office and approaching the table. “We’ve got until the evening of December 24 to work this one out. Trout needs security at a fund raiser being held in Los Angeles. Four behind the scenes performing, and two helping out on security detail. So, Cindy and I will be performing as will Benny Ray and Margo.”

Benny Ray made a choking sound and sputtered, “Excuse me boss? It’s not like I can go on stage at a fund raiser and demonstrate firing weapons.”

“You’re a smart guy, you’ll figure out something,” Matt said with amusement. “Nick and Deke, you’ll be working with the security detail.”

“Got it,” Nick affirmed, Deke nodding silently.

As the team split off to decide how they were going to proceed, Matt steered Cindy into his office. “You okay?”

“Depends,” she replied honestly. “On what you decide we’re going to do at this thing.”

“I was thinking about a song and dance.”

“Uhm, have you ever really heard me sing?” Cindy choked out.

“I’m sure you have a lovely voice. And yes, I’ve heard you in the shower.”

“Why singing and dancing?”

“It’ll give us an excuse to wear the com links.”

“All right. Nothing fancy though and I hope I don’t embarrass us.”

“You’ll be fine,” he assured her with a kiss on the cheek.

“Hmm,” Cindy responded absently, heading for the stairs. Reaching the apartment, she slipped inside and started looking through exercise video tapes, selecting one to limber up before getting into dancing. “Damn it,” she repeated to herself.

Upstairs at the Silver Star next morning

Matt returned from his morning jog, finding Cindy at the table playing with a bowl of cold cereal. “Hey darlin’,” he greeted her, leaning down to kiss the back of her neck.

“Hey yourself.”

Sitting next to her and taking her hand, Matt looked into her eyes. “You’re not going to be up there alone, you know. And you don’t give yourself enough credit. You never do.”

Looking away from him, Cindy said, “I know I don’t. Have you picked a song yet?” she asked, smiling at him brightly.

“Not yet. Would you like to pick the song?” Matt offered.

“Can I?”

“Sure. We want it to have a holiday theme, just keep that in mind.”

“You got it. Oh. Costumes!” Cindy exclaimed, getting caught up in her thoughts.

Laughing, Matt glanced at her. “What kind?”

“Don’t know yet,” she admitted with a chuckle. “I’ll take care of that too.”

“Right. I’m going down to the bar to do some paperwork. I’ll be in the office if you need me.”

The Whole Bean same time

Cradling her coffee cup with both hands, Margo joined Benny Ray at the table. “Any thoughts?”

“Dancing,” he replied cryptically, smiling.

“Dancing. Okay. What kind of dancing?”

“The jitterbug, I think.”

“Hmm. Sounds interesting. And what music are we going to dance to?”

“Haven’t decided yet. Something bouncy I’m thinking”

“It should be something to do with the holidays.”

“You have a point, sweet pea,” Benny Ray commented absently, thoughts swirling through his mind.

Silver Star a few hours later

Cindy sat on the floor, piles of Christmas cd’s piled around her, trying to pick a song. She jumped up when there was a knock on the door and opened it, finding Nick and Deke standing there.

Looking around her at the pile on the floor, Nick commented, “Looks like we got the easy work, Deke.”

“Looks like. Matt around?”

Swatting playfully at Deke, Cindy informed them Matt was in the office in the bar and returned to her task. Nick and Deke chuckled as they left, hearing her grumbling no and throwing a disc off to the side.

Cindy squealed with delight about half an hour later. “It’s perfect!” she exclaimed. Grabbing the phone, she called a local costume shop and set up an appointment to select the costumes she and Matt would need. Then she started thinking about the set they would need and excitement began to build within, causing her to forget her nervousness. One more call, this time to the local record store, netted her and instrumental copy of the song she had chosen. Smiling, she grabbed her purse and headed out to pick up the cd they were holding for her.

Passing the office, Cindy flashed Matt a bright smile Wondering what she was up to, Matt jumped to his feet and followed her outside. At her car, he grabbed her arm. “Hey slow down there. What are you up to?”

“Have to go to the record store and pick up our music. And the costume shop to pick out the costumes. Start thinking about building sets, sweetie,” Cindy informed him, blinking innocently.

Startled, he relinquished his hold and she slid behind the wheel. “What kind of set?”

“Something wintery, like a wintery park,” Cindy answered, turning on the ignition. “See you in a little while,” she shouted, waving at him as she left him in the dust.

Matt stared after her, smiling. She was in organization mode. Satisfied, he returned to his office. He was still sitting there, staring unseeing at invoices when his cell phone rang. “Shepherd,” he barked into the device.

“Matt, it’s Trout. I’m just checking in to see how your plans are coming.”

“Fine. Cindy’s organizing our bit, and Benny Ray and Margo are coming up with something.”

“Good. Any idea so I can let the organizers know what to put on the program?”

“Cindy and I are going to sing and dance. I think Benny Ray and Margo are going to dance, but don’t quote me on that.”

“Sounds good. Oh...the heads of security at the coliseum will be down to meet with Nick and Deke the week prior.”

“It would help them work out details if we knew what the threat was,” Matt stated.

“Over the past few months, fund raisers all over L.A. have been robbed. This is a very high profile event and we don’t want to take any chances.”

“Money?”

“Whatever they can grab. The last one, they shot and killed several civilians. This event is being attended by the California Governor as well as some members of Congress and the House. We don’t want to take any chances at all.”

“No problem.”

“Glad to hear it, Matt. Not that there was any doubt in my mind.” “What’s their M.O.?”

“Always different Matt. Pickpocket, cat burglars, last time well armed and meaning business. And there’s also the silent auction at this one.”

“Let me guess...some things that are worth millions or even priceless,” Matt commented with a growl.

“You got it. Works of art, silent movie memorabilia, classic movie memorabilia, and...the world’s largest, perfect, uncut diamond.”

“Oh, hell, Trout. This is gonna get everybody in a ten mile radius killed.”

“It’s up to you and your people to make sure it doesn’t.”

“Yeah, and four of us are going to be real effective backstage and on stage.”

“The police suspect an inside job. The week prior all of the performers will be there day and night, as well as the backstage crew. Eavesdrop, find the inside man or woman.”

“And if they’re in the wait staff or the caterer? Or security even for heaven’s sake?”

“Chance and C.J. are coming over to work in the wait staff and help the caterer. And we’ve got Nick and Deke working in security. You’ve got all the angles covered. Just relax, have fun and keep your eyes and ears open.”

“Right. Nothing is ever simple and straightforward with you,” Matt fussed as he hung up the phone. He started to pick it up again then decided to wait until Cindy was back and he’d call the team in for a meeting. Briefly, he wondered when Trout had intended to tell him all of this information.

The Mall

Cindy wandered into the record store and stopped at the counter. The teenager with the pierced nose, eyebrow and lip looked at her. “Can I help you ma’am?”

Hating to be called ma’am, Cindy cringed then softly spoke. “I’m the one that called about half an hour ago for the instrumental holiday music.”

“Oh yeah. You were looking for that old standard, Winter Wonderland. Sure you don’t want something more today?”

“I’m sure, thank you.”

“Figures,” he mumbled as he went to the back to pick up the cd. He was a few feet further when she heard him mumble, “Old folks. Can’t turn ‘em on to anything new.”

Cindy forced a smile when he returned to the counter. Clenching her fists, she resisted the urge to hit the young man when he sneered “Anything else, ma’am?”

“No, thank you,” she replied with a false sweetness.

“That’ll be $5.35, please. Ma’am,” he added snidely.

Finally losing her patience, Cindy put her money back in her purse. “No. You know what, is your manager in?”

Laughing, the young man leaned forward over the counter. “I’m the manager in charge today, ma’am. Gotta problem?”

“Nope, none at all. I’ll just take my business to one of the record stores in town. See ya.” With a flourish, Cindy spun on her heel and stalked from the record store.

Once in her car, Cindy let out a primal scream and then shook her head. Good, now I feel better, she thought. Calmer, she started the car and drove downtown, knowing there was a record store near the costume shop. Downtown Shopping Area

Parking in the street in front of the shops, Cindy slipped into the record store first. Quickly locating what she needed, she headed to the counter and paid the man at the register. When she emerged from the shop, she found clerk from the mall record store leaning against her car.

“Find what you need, ma’am?”

Silently, Cindy went to the trunk of her car and stowed the bag, keeping her keys in her left hand. Slamming down the trunk lid, she began to pass him to go to the costume shop. Cindy jolted to a stop when he grabbed her right wrist, twisting her arm behind her. “Suddenly have nothing to say ma’am? I have to say I didn’t like your attitude in my store.”

When she found herself pulled face to face with him, Cindy snapped. “I didn’t like your attitude either, so why don’t we call it a draw?”

“I don’t think so,” he growled roughly, slamming her back against the car. When his hand went to the top of her jeans, Cindy lifted her knee, slamming into his groin. When he fell to the ground, she bent over him. “Now, I’m going to finish my business. I advise you to be gone when I come back. Because I assure you, you will not like what comes next,” she hissed menacingly before turning and walking into the costume shop. His upper lip curled into a sneer as he got to his knees. “I’ll be waiting for you. Some time, some place,” he shouted through the blur of pain.

“Anytime, sonny boy,” she shouted back before the door closed behind her. Peering into the semi-darkness of the crowded costume shop, Cindy groaned when she saw another pierced teenage boy working there.

“Something wrong?” he inquired, walking over to her

“Just had a run in with someone I had trouble with at the mall. Everything’s under control, thanks,” Cindy explained, grateful that he at least seemed polite.

“Was he from the record store?” the boy asked.

Blinking at his royal blue hair, Cindy nodded mutely. Even Deke never had this color of hair.

“That was Jed. He hates the whole world. One of these days, he’s gonna be in jail.”

“Or dead,” Cindy mumbled.

“Yeah, that too. What can I help you with?”

“I’m looking for two costumes–one male, one female. Something in velvet, maybe Victorian.”

“Ah, follow me.”

Cindy trailed behind him to a rack of romantic looking costumes. “Feel free to look through these. If you can’t find what you need here, let me know. I’ve got more in the back.”

Smiling at the young man, Cindy thanked him and turned her attention to the task at hand.

An hour had passed before she found what she wanted, both outfits in bright red velvet trimmed with white fur. Rummaging in the accessory box, she found a white fur muff that matched, perfect for hiding her weapon in. Smiling to herself, she found a hat for Matt. Her arms full, she headed to the counter and waited while the young man tallied up her order. From the corner of her eye, Cindy could see out of the shop window and saw the surly young man from the mall lurking around.

“Drat. He’s still out there,” she mumbled, pocketing her change. “Is there a back exit I can use?”

“Certainly. I don’t blame you for wanting to avoid old Jed,” the young man agreed. “In fact...” stepping from behind the counter, he ran through the shop, returning with a pin striped suit and a blonde wig, along with a purse and shoes. “Why don’t you put this on, and do some shopping until he’s gone. Then you can come back here to pick up your costumes”

Blinking, Cindy replied, “Thank you.” Taking the clothes, she headed for the dressing room. “But what’s going to make him leave?”

“Leave that up to me,” he smiled, watching Cindy disappear into the small area. When she emerged five minutes later, Cindy stopped to look in the full length mirror. She blinked with disbelief finding herself unrecognizable. “Wow,” she whispered. Thanking the young man for his help, she went out the back door and down the alley to the end of the street. Adjusting the wig, Cindy rounded the corner and came up in front of the clothing store and went in to shop. After a few minutes, she glanced out the window, seeing a wild looking gang come up toward Jed. Cindy stifled a smile when she saw the panicked expression cross his face before he turned tail and ran. Turning her attention back to the store, Cindy decided she might as well shop as long as she was in the store.

Silver Star evening

Cindy parked behind the bar and went through the back doorway with her packages. Matt came through the kitchen and rushed over toward her to take some packages.

“What’d you do, buy out the stores? I thought you were never coming back.”

“Ran into a little trouble, had to spend just a little more time shopping than I planned.” Matt looked her over. “You okay? What happened?”

“Fine. It’s handled. I accidentally aggravated a whippersnapper at the record store. He tried to cause a problem downtown, but the boy at the costume shop helped out.”

Assured she was fine, Matt laughed. “You’ll use any excuse to shop, won’t you?”

Cindy smiled and batted her eyes innocently as she started up the stairs.

Los Angeles Convention Center week before Christmas Eve

Cindy paced nervously backstage, watching Matt watch her. “What?” she asked, stopping in front of him.

“You’re cute when you’re nervous,” he observed with a smile.

“I’ve never sang in public before,” she admitted with a blush. “There’s too many people here, Matt.”

“You’ll be fine. Just imagine the audience in their underwear.”

Bursting out laughing, Cindy coughed out, “What?” “It reminds you they’re only human just like you. Now take a deep breath and calm yourself.”

“Yes sir,” Cindy replied, trying to inhale a deep breath only to start choking.

Matt moved in front of her and rubbed his hand over her back. “Calm down, darlin’.”

“I-I’m trying. I think I’m hyperventilating.”

“I’ll be right up there with you, darlin’.”

Cindy nodded, still trying to catch her breath. Matt guided her to a chair to sit down on and lean forward.

Finally calm, she smiled at Matt. “Thanks, sweetie.”

“Any time,” Matt whispered, his face leaning in toward hers.

The moment was broken by the stage manager calling for them for their first run through.

Matt stood, holding his hand out for Cindy. “Ready darlin’?” he asked with a grin.

“Ready as I’ll ever be I suppose,” she answered, holding her hand on her stomach, hoping to keep the butterflies in.

The first rehearsal went off without a hitch and the pair returned backstage, finding Benny Ray and Margo awaiting their stage call. Watching their team mates go on stage, Matt and Cindy mingled around the other people backstage, keeping their ears open.

Needing a break half an hour later, Cindy wandered past the conference room doorway, which was open. Acknowledging Nick and Deke with a nod, she walked back down the hall, not wanting to chance blowing their cover

After the rehearsals were over, Matt and Cindy adjourned to their hotel room and waited for Benny Ray and Margo.

Sitting at the table, Cindy stated, “I didn’t hear or see anything suspicious. How about you?”

“Not a thing, darlin’. Maybe Benny Ray and Margo did.”

“Was there anyone not here that will be there that night?”

“Caterer, wait staff, and some of the propmasters and backstage people that weren’t necessary for rehearsals.” “Damn. That’s a lot of people, Matt.”

“I know it is.” Matt looked up at the knock on the door. “Yeah?”

“It’s us, Major,” Benny Ray drawled through the door.

“Be right back,” Matt said to Cindy, getting up from his chair and going to open the door.

The foursome gathered at the table. Matt looked at the two newcomers hopefully. “Anything?”

Margo spoke first. “I heard a few little tidbits about back stagers they hoped wouldn’t be at this event. Apparently there’s a few that have been unnerving the performers. They’re also worried about the burglaries and the possibility of performers getting hurt.”

“I heard two performers asking if one certain person was going to be there next week, that they had something important to talk to him about.”

“Name of the performers?”

“Only caught the two first names, boss. John and Jessica. Sounds like an inside job on many sides here.”

“Everybody continue keeping your eyes and ears open people.”

Los Angeles Convention Center Christmas Eve Cindy wandered down the hall to the snack machine. She and Matt weren’t due on stage until midway through the show and she needed something to calm the butterflies before she got in her costume.

Before reaching the snack machine, and hand came from a doorway and clamped over her mouth, another hand holding a gun wrapped around her midsection.

“Don’t struggle or I’ll kill you where you stand,” the voice hissed in her ear.

Cindy tensed, the voice familiar to her but unable to place it. She felt the hardness of the gun barrel pressed against her stomach as she was guided to a room at the far end of the hall.

She was shoved unceremoniously into the room where she was tied to a chair and gagged. Looking up, she saw Jed, the clerk from the record store, come in.

Smirking, he shoved the gun barrel under her chin forcing her to look up at him. “So we meet again. And I’m in charge this time.” Cindy struggled against the tight ropes, unable to even reach the knife under her sleeve. These people were smart, too smart, tying each hand to a chair arm and each leg to a chair leg, and a rope around her waist. She glared at him, giving him a look to indicate he wasn’t going to get away with this.

Reading her correctly, Jed knelt in front of her and snarled, “But I will. Every fund raiser, we replace a performer with a lookalike. But this...this might be the first time we kill the performer. Are you comfortable ma’am?” he asked. With a yank on the end of the rope, the bounds holding her to the chair tightened immensely. “I’m your guard you know. You and I are going to have great fun. Let’s see...what else can I do?” he asked absently, looking around the room.

An hour later

Matt knocked on Benny Ray and Margo’s door. “Yeah boss?” Benny Ray asked opening the door.

“You guys seen Cindy? I haven’t seen her since she went for a snack. She needs to get in her costume.”

“Sorry boss, we haven’t.”

“Damn. Where the hell is she?” Matt grumbled, leaving the sniper and Margo.

He heard the stage manager yell “Shepherd and Varanti!”. Ignoring the stage manager, he kept walking through the hall until the woman grabbed his arm.

“Come on Matt. We have to do our number.”

He looked at the woman. She was wearing Cindy’s costume and looked similar to her, but he knew it wasn’t her. “Where’s Cindy?”

“Just cooperate and she won’t be hurt,” the woman prodded, pointing her gun at him.

“Just tell me...” Matt started again, walking toward the stage.

“No time for that. She’s just, well, she’s tied up right now.”

Jed finished wrapping the rope around Cindy’s neck, not tight enough to cause permanent damage unless needed, but enough to make her breathing difficult, keeping the end in his hand. “More comfortable now, ma’am?”

Cindy ignored him, trying to remain calm. She wondered where Matt was and why he wasn’t looking for her She watched as the door opened and one of the other thieves entered with an identical chair, placing it behind hers.

When he left, Jed said, “You’ll be getting company soon. When the number’s over.” Leaning toward her, Jed whispered, “I just know the two of you are trouble.”

Cindy tried to shake head to say no, but the rope tightened around her neck, making it impossible. Matt and the imposter performed the number, but he missed a couple of steps keeping a close eye on her. When they were backstage, he stopped and turned. “Now where is she?”

“Not yet. Not until our work here is done.” She stopped to speak into her radio unit, her other hand training the gun on Matt. “Plans have changed. Walk to the opposite end of the hall.”

“What? No.” Matt argued.

Moving behind him, she pressed the barrel of the gun against the back of his neck. “Move. You’ll get to be with your girlfriend anyway.”

Benny Ray slipped on his com link just in time to hear the end of the conversation. “Major? What’s going on?”

“So let me get this straight,” Matt began saying to the woman, “You kidnapped her for what reason? And forced me to perform but yet your people didn’t make a move to rob anyone.”

“Just getting the troublemakers out of the way right now. Now move! And stop talking,” the woman ordered him, cocking the gun.

She knocked on the door at the end of the hall and Matt swallowed nervously when he saw Cindy tied to the chair. Now he knew why she didn’t get away from them.

Jed pushed Matt on the other chair and quickly tied him in the same way. Looking at Liz, he asked, “Did you check him for communication equipment?”

“Uh, no. He has the mike on, but they’re turned off now.”

“Rule number one, Liz, take no chances.” Searching Matt, Jed found the com link and turned it off. “All right, now that we don’t have to worry about anyone looking for you, I’ll ungag her and you two can talk while we work,” Jed explained, tying the other end of the rope around Matt’s neck. “If we don’t get caught or killed out there, once we’re away we’ll call someone to let you two loose.”

“You won’t get away with this,” Matt stated, curling his hands into fists.

“I think we should take them somewhere else, Jed,” Liz stated. “I didn’t know he was wired and he was doing a lot of talking on the way here.”

“Damn Liz.” He untied Cindy and Matt and ordered them to the boiler room downstairs.

Cindy broke free of him and ran out the door. She had made it only a few feet before Jed aimed his gun. Matt dove at him, knocking him to the ground but not before Jed fired and hit Cindy in the back. Liz fired her gun simultaneously, hitting Matt in the side.

Getting to his feet, Jed said, “Glad we had silencers.” On his radio he called for Steve to come to their location. Jed and Steve picked them up and carried them to the boiler room, Liz following them, making sure know one came after them.

Propping Cindy and Matt against the wall, their wrists were tied to the pipe running along the back wall of the boiler room closet. They closed and locked the door and Steve stopped to look at the huge boiler.

“Jed?”

“Yeah Steve?”

“I can rig this boiler to explode. That’ll get rid of them.”

“Do it.”

Nick and Deke were patrolling the halls upstairs when they saw a door open that wasn’t supposed to be. Gingerly pushing it open, they found the two chairs with the ropes hanging from them.

“What the hell?” Nick asked. Deke shrugged, moving from the room and going down the next hall.

“Blood. Lots of it, Nick.”

“Shall we follow it and see where it leads?”

“Might as well.” Deke quickly radioed Benny Ray who had just gotten on stage.

They had gotten halfway down the hall when the lights went out.

“Man, serious dark,” Nick commented.

“Totally,” Deke agreed.

Upstairs, armed men rushed into the audience in the darkness.

“I can’t see a thing, Margo,” Benny Ray complained up on the stage, the lights having just gone out when he was to have done a difficult step with Margo on his back. He found himself glad the lights had gone out before that point.

“Here,” she stated, handing him a pair of night vision goggles.

“Good girl.”

Chance and C.J. abandoned their posts at the buffet table, pulling their weapons.

“Go to the auction room,” Benny Ray ordered them, not knowing where Matt was.

“Got it,” Chance agreed as he and the Brit headed to the next room. Spotting someone with a flashlight trying to break the glass in the cases, Chance yelled “Freeze!”

Startled, the figure dropped the flashlight before regaining their composure. Suddenly they pulled a gun from their waist and aimed it. Chance kicked out, making contact with their wrist, the gun flying through the air, landing a few feet from C.J., who swiftly picked it up.

The figure and Chance went down in a tangle of arms and legs each one trying to take the other down. In the process of taking the figure down, Chance was startled when he realized it was a female.

Taking advantage of his hesitation, the woman shoved him away from her and ran out the door, C.J. in hot pursuit. Nick rounded the corner heading their way just as the woman plowed into him.

“Hold her Delvechio!” C.J. shouted, closing the distance.

“Got it!”

Boiler Room

Matt came around first, not knowing where he was. He felt the burning in his side and he looked down, seeing the blood. “Damn.” Looking to his right, he saw Cindy was still unconscious. “Darlin’?” Jerking on his wrists, he couldn’t get either one free to check her pulse. “Darlin’?”

Cindy softly mumbled but didn’t wake up. “Don’t wanna get up.”

Grinning at her usual morning comment, Matt continued. “Come on...it’s not morning. You’re hurt, darlin’. And we’ve got to find a way out of here.”

“Back hurts Matt,” she complained, opening her eyes

“Can you tell where they hit you?”

“Mmm. Pain is worse in right shoulder. What’d they hit me with?”

“A bullet. Any ideas on how we can get free?”

Cindy shook her head, the pain clouding her thoughts. “You sound a little pained yourself, sweetie. You okay?”

“Shot in the side, but I can handle it. Just gotta figure out how to get free of these ropes.”

C.J. took the woman from Nick and secured her wrists. “Thanks Delvechio.”

“No problem. Everything under control up here? Deke and I found some blood we were going to follow.”

On the com link, C.J. called Benny Ray. “Everything under control up there?”

“Yeah, security’s got most of the tangos.”

“Nick and Deke found some blood in the hall, we’re gonna see where it goes and who’s hurt.”

“Got it. Margo and I will help security. Anyone seen the Major and Cindy?” Chance spoke softly, “No, but I imagine they’re on the trail of something.”

“While you’re searching, see if you all can find them,” Benny Ray drawled, concerned.

Boiler Room

Matt yanked his wrist, trying to break the ropes, but he was growing weaker. “Damn.”

“Stop Matt, you’re gonna hurt yourself worse,” Cindy whispered.

Looking at her with concern, he said “We’ve got to get out of here. And no one knows we’re down here, it’s up to us.”

Realizing he was right, Cindy began tugging on her ropes too, but was to weak to have any effect. The slightest movement sent shooting pains through her.

“Stop, darlin’. We’re gonna have to hope someone comes down here in time. Neither one of us are in any condition to break this pole off. We’re well and stuck.”

“What a way to spend our first Christmas Eve together,” Cindy mumbled weakly, trying to stay conscious. “We’re together, anyway,” Matt commented, trying to look for the silver lining.

“Yeah.”

Upstairs

Chance, C.J., Nick and Deke walked to the end of the hall where the blood started.

“Blimey. That’s a lot of blood,” C.J. exclaimed.

“Sure is,” Deke agreed.

The foursome followed the trail until they arrived at a service elevator with bloody hand prints on the doors.

“The blood ends here,” Nick said. “So which way..up or down?”

“Good question,” Chance answered, noting their trail ended at the elevator. “I guess two of us go up, two of us go down.”

C.J. offered “We’ll go up, you guys go downstairs”

“Right,” Nick answered. He watched C.J. and Chance head for the stairs, then pushed the basement button on the elevator. When the elevator didn’t respond, he growled, “Damn it.”

Deke went to the staircase and came back. “Stairs don’t go down, only up.”

“Great. So how do we get down there?”

“Only one way I see,” Deke answered, forcing the elevator doors open.

“Oh, no. You’re kidding me, man. I ain’t climbing down there.”

“It’s the only way down, Nick,” Deke stated, grabbing Nick’s arm and pulling him to the elevator shaft.

“It’s a long way down there, you mean,” Nick complained.

“No way, bud. It’s a piece of cake.”

Nick looked at him with disbelief. “It’s alright for you, being seven foot tall.”

“Nick, start climbing down or I’ll just toss you down, let you take the express route.” “Thanks a lot buddy,” Nick retorted. Easing himself through the door, he made the mistake of looking down. “Nope. Forget it.”

Deke moved close to Nick. “The offer of the express route stands,” Deke said menacingly.

“All right, all right, I’m going.” Nick jumped from the ledge, screaming as he grabbed for the cables.

“That’s right Delvechio, announce to the world that we’re coming.”

“Shut up Deke,” Nick responded, clinging to the cable, his eyes closed.

Deke shook his head then started his descent down the cable.

At the Fund Raiser

Benny Ray and Margo stood with the security team, interrogating the would-be thieves.

Leaning down, Benny Ray asked the one closest to him, “Who is the ring leader?”

The young man remained silent and sullen.

“We can do this the easy way or the hard way,” Benny Ray drawled, slamming his hand on the table.

Margo stood back, noting that no one in the gang was over the age of twenty one. Grabbing some of the id’s from the security team, she went to the computer to run background checks on them.

Jed and Liz wandered through the convention center, mapping out a new escape route. The way the two downstairs had fought, Jed was sure they were on to them and there were probably more up at the fund raiser.

Through her silent tears, Liz looked at Jed. “I told you. I told you it was too greedy and we should have stopped while we were ahead!”

“Shut up Liz. We didn’t have enough yet, so just shut up,” he shouted at her.

Still crying, she continued her tirade. “And now we’re hurting people. It’s not worth it, Jed. It’s not.”

“Fine. You want to quit?” Jed snarled. When Liz nodded, he pulled out his gun and shot her in the chest. “You’re out of it now.”

Walking away without a backward glance, Jed headed toward the basement.

Finally, one of the thieves decided to talk. “Jed’s not up here. He and Liz never take part of the heist. Tonight she took the place of one of the performers while he kidnapped the performer. They switch back and forth each job.” Looking up into Benny Ray’s ice blue eyes, he added, “Everyone else is here except Wanda, Thor, Steven, James and Kent. She was to grab the auction pieces.”

“What performer did Liz replace?”

The thief shrugged. “Dunno, can’t tell you.”

Downstairs

Deke forced the elevator doors open and he and Nick jumped down and into the hallway.

“That was an experience I’d prefer not to repeat, thank you very much.”

“No other way, Delvechio. What’s that racket?”

Nick cocked his head to listen. “Sounds like...sounds like the boiler is overworking.” “And that means?”

“That means unless we fix the thing, it’s gonna explode.”

“I know nothing about boilers.”

“I do...I worked with a plumber when I was in high school.”

“Good. It’s in your hands then,” Deke stated as they searched for the boiler room, weapons at the ready.

Locating the boiler room, Nick went in while Deke covered the door.

“Damn Deke. This thing’s been rigged.”

“Can you fix it or do we just tell Benny Ray to evacuate and run like hell?”

“I think I can fix it. You just watch the door for awhile. I need quiet to think.”

Deke smirked before turning his attention the hallway. Delvechio telling him he needed quiet. He never thought he’d hear that.

Nick started banging and cursing alternately, Deke putting his hands over his ears. He was going to tell Matt that next mission, he could pair Nick with Benny Ray. No wonder the southerner was always after Nick.

Margo pulled Benny Ray to the side. “These kids are all runaways or former runaways. They’ve got records longer than some General’s service records.”

Returning to the thieves, Benny Ray stood, his arms folded across his chest. “One more time. Who’s behind this? You kids aren’t smart enough to plan all of this, and I doubt if that Jed is either.”

The thieves looked from one to another, the largest one shrugging. “Jonas Jones. He took each of us in, gave us roofs over our heads and food. All we had to do in exchange was let him train us. We did well too...until you all interfered.”

“You didn’t seriously think you’d get away with it forever, did you?” Margo asked, incredulous.

“This was our last job,” one of the others commented. “Mr. Jones said so.”

Margo headed back to the computer to run a check on Jonas Jones.

Cindy cast an anxious glance at Matt, who was growing paler by the minute. “Matt?” she whispered weakly. “Hmmm?”

“Don’t you leave me.”

“Not goin’ nowhere,” he responded, forcing his eyes open.

Trying to adjust her position, Cindy groaned at the pain. With her left hand, she stretched her hand until her fingers brushed Matt’s. “We’ll get out of here soon,” she tried to assure him, as well as trying to make herself believe it too. With a sigh, she tilted her head back, staring at the ceiling. As she sat there, new sounds started penetrating her mind.

“Matt?”

“Hmm?”

“I think someone’s outside this room. Sounds like they’re working on something.”

Alert, Matt started listening too.

Nick continued to curse the boiler as he worked on the rigging that had been done. When the boiler quieted finally, he released a sigh of relief. “Done, Deke”

“Good. Then we can get out of here.” Nick started for the door when he heard a faint voice saying hello.

“Deke!” Nick whispered loudly, waving his teammate in.

“What?”

“Somebody else is down here.”

“No way,” Deke scoffed.

“Oh yeah?” Nick snarled. “Didn’t see it before, but the blood trail leads to this door.”

“Shit,” Deke mumbled, joining Nick at the door.

Nick tried the knob, only to find the door locked. Pulling his lock picks, Nick picked the lock and gingerly pulled the door open, Deke covering him.

The pair walked around the boxes in the center of the floor, surprised to find Cindy and Matt.

“Boss? What the hell?” Nick asked, pulling out his knife, Deke doing the same and going over to cut the ropes.

“Long story. Everything under control upstairs?”

“Yes, Matt,” Deke assured him, checking Matt’s injury.

“Thanks guys,” Matt said to Nick and Deke.

“Just for the record boss, be glad we got here when we did. The boiler out there was rigged to explode and it was almost ready to blow,” Nick explained as he sliced the ropes holding Cindy.

Cindy fell forward into Nick’s arms and he held her against him as he checked her injury.

Working quickly, Deke and Nick patched the pair up best as they could. “Can you walk?” Deke asked them.

They both nodded, getting to their unsteady feet. Cindy wavered for a moment, Nick rushing to her side to steady her. Finally they both managed to stand on their own.

“How long have you guys been down here?” Nick asked.

Thinking for a moment, Matt answered, “Since the end of our number which ended up being me and an impostor.”

“Sorry about that,” Cindy apologized, giving him a weak smile.

The couple wrapped their arms around each other, trying to support the other while Matt took a gun from Deke. “We’ll just slow you guys down. Cindy and I will take the rear and watch our sixes. You guys take point.”

Nick and Deke started leading the way out of the basement to the exit when four of the thieves appeared in front of them. The four thieves shot panicked looks at Nick and Deke, one of them preparing to fire, the others turning tail to run.

“I got this one Deke, get the others,” Nick yelled, firing at the one aiming at them, striking him in the head. “Gotcha!” he shouted, running after Deke when Matt yelled for him to move.

Slowly Matt and Cindy walked toward the exit, being cut off by Jed.

Jed smirked at the couple. “Going so soon?”

“You son of a...” Matt began.

“Ah..ah...ah,” Jed fussed, aiming his weapon at first Matt then Cindy. “Who to take out first, that is the question, isn’t it?” Settling his aim on Cindy, he sneered “I’ve wanted to do this since I laid eyes on you at the store.” Cindy watched in mute horror as Jed’s finger wrapped around the trigger. Not wanting to jeopardize Matt, she refused to step behind him.

Before Jed could wrap his finger completely around the trigger, Matt had lifted Deke’s spare gun and shot the criminal in the chest, killing him instantly. Quietly, he lowered the gun and pulled Cindy close to him, hearing her softly crying. Knowing she had been through too much tonight, he spoke to her lovingly until she calmed down.

When she was calmer, they walked on, meeting up with Nick and Deke who had the other three thieves secured and handed off to the police Chance and C.J. had sent downstairs.

Hotel Room 0300 hours Benny Ray left Matt and Cindy ensconced in their hotel room. He had just brought them back from the hospital where they had been stitched up and gotten blood Both refused to spend the remainder of Christmas in the hospital. He had waited while they got changed for bed and ordered them to bed rest for at least two days. Getting no argument, he smiled going out the door. Crossing the hall, he joined Margo for their own Christmas celebration. Leaving the hospital, Matt told the team they had off until the day after New Years.

In bed, Cindy rolled over into Matt’s arms, laying on her left side. “You sure you’re okay?” she asked with concern, rubbing her hand on his chest.

“I’m fine. I’m with you,” he assured her, kissing her on the nose. “Merry Christmas, darlin’,” he whispered.

“Merry Christmas to you too,” she replied, laying her head on his shoulder and going to sleep.

Matt stared at the ceiling, smiling. Life was good, he decided before he too drifted off to sleep.

The End

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