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xx

Rated PG 17 for violence

Still at odds with Trout, Matt heads off to a reunion of army buddies and goes missing. The team must track down a killer, hopefully in time to save Matt’s life.

(This is a continuation of Into the Fire – though each is a separate story in and of itself)


Twisted Love
By
Lady D

Silver Star Hotel
Hermosa Beach, CA

He sat on the couch his leg propped up just as the doctor had ordered. Today was the last day of inactivity. Eighteen hours and he’d be free. Before leaving Afghanistan he had promised to rest and let his leg heal for two weeks, 14 days, no more, no less. Diana had threatened dire retribution if he didn’t. So for the past two weeks he’d rested, and stayed off the leg. The crutches she’d forced on him stood leaning against the column beside the couch. He’d used them religiously; he’d promised her he would. A promise he’d had a hard time keeping these last few days.

On the table beside him the phone rang. Benny Ray sighed, knowing immediately who was on the other end. He debated with himself on whether to answer it, deciding in the end he would.

“Riddle,” he answered warily.

“Mr. Riddle how’s the leg?

“Doing fine sir, is there something I can do for you?

“Is Matt available,” Trout’s voice held a world of frustration.

“No Sir, he left about an hour ago, didn’t say when he’d be back.”

“Thanks,” Trout paused wondering if maybe he should give up, two weeks and still no word from Matt. “Please tell him I called.”

“Yes Sir!” He waited to hear the click on the other end as Trout hung up before dropping the receiver back into place.

He’d come to grips with the kidnapping, but Matt and the rest of the team hadn’t, at least not yet. In the two weeks since leaving Afghanistan they had talked about everything but his kidnapping. The twenty-four hours leading up to finding him in Afghanistan had been a nightmare of uncertainties for them. The look Matt had thrown him in the cave had been filled with fear and concern. Finding out that Trout had been behind it had set the furies of hell loose amongst his teammates.

During the few days after the op Benny Ray had seen the loathing in the Major’s eyes every time he looked in Trout’s direction. Lately he’d begun to wonder if the rife between them would ever be healed. This was the fifth day in a row Trout had called. Matt had refused to talk to him.

They needed to talk about it, Benny Ray could see that it was eating away at the Major and that, in his estimation was a bad thing. The whole team was on for dinner tonight. His clever mind was already working on devising a way to broach the subject.

Dinner that evening was a riotous affair. CJ was in top form, entertaining them with jokes and stories. Even Rico and Chance played off the little Brits stories. Margo’s eyes were bright with laughter, but underneath the gaiety was the pent up energy that had been growing in all of them. Suppressed and concealed beneath the facade they showed to the world.

As the night wound down, CJ gave him the opening he’d been looking for. The demolitions expert stretched, following it up with a mighty yawn.”

“What’s the problem CJ,” Benny Ray grinned, “Are we boring you?”

Without thought CJ answered, “I’m so bored I can’t see straight, haven’t blown anything up in weeks.”

Around the table he heard their laughter, and he innocently asked, “So what do you plan to do about it Major?”

“Do,” Matt asked quietly narrowing his eyes as he turned to his second.

“Yeah, do! Its about time we got back to work don’t you think?

“I think that’s my business, Benny Ray,” he snapped.

“No Sir, I think it’s all of our business. You said we’d talk about it, but so far you’ve done nothing but avoid the issue?

Around the table everyone grew quiet, watching Matt and Benny Ray lock horns.

“So talk,” Matt ground out.

Benny Ray formed his words carefully before speaking, “Mistakes happen Major, its part of life, we can plan and arrange things to suit our needs. Does that mean something won’t get in the way, that the plan will not go awry - No. How many times have we had to resort to Plan X. – more than a few! Yeah Trout made a decision, through no fault of his own communications were interrupted; he did what he had to, with almost disastrous results.

Matt snorted in disgust. Though his temper had cooled his heart was not yet ready to forgive Trout for something he thought the man should have been able to prevent. He was tired; tired of watching his people walk into danger when it could have been prevented, tired of sitting by their bedside as they recovered from some wound or gunshot. Trout’s sources and provided Intel were not always reliable and he and his people usually paid the price. It had to stop. “I’m not sure I can do this anymore Benny Ray. How many times have we gone in with bad Intel, how many times has it nearly cost one of us our lives?”

Benny Ray started to answer as Chance spoke up softly, “It’s the nature of the beast Major. What we do is dangerous and unforgiving. How we deal with it is what makes us what we are.”

Around him Matt saw their nodding heads.

Margo entered the fray her voice soft but insistent as she spoke, “We don’t have to work for Trout anymore. I know you feel like he’s betrayed us, that maybe he’s using us without remorse. If you don’t feel that you can trust him, then walk away. We’ll do what ever you want, but this living without knowing is killing us.”

Matt sighed and looked around the table. His team, his friends waited expectantly, but he wasn’t ready to give them an answer. He needed time. Shaking his head he looked at the faces around him. “I need time, I’ll think about it. Next weekend is the reunion; I’ll give you an answer when I get back.”

The jovial atmosphere had dissipated. Benny Ray had hated to do it, but knew it had to be done. They had all needed a wake up call.

Matt stood up throwing a wad of money on the table he said, “I need some time alone, see you back at the bar in a couple of hours.”

“Well that went relatively well, don’t ya think,” CJ quipped. “At least he didn’t totally blow a gasket.”

Chance smacked him lightly upside his head. Around the table, a myriad of voice rang out in unison, “Shut Up!”

Rio Club one week later
New Orleans, LA
2230 hrs

The large slate covered patio was filled with men reminiscing with old friends and reliving old times. They were Military men; several were wearing their uniforms, though most were dressed casually. These were special men, elite soldier who had seen the horrors of war, its destruction, its devastation and yet lived to tell the tale. They were some of the best the military had to offer, hard living men drawn together by common ties. At one time or another all of these men had been in the same unit or assigned to the same operation. Each had received a personal invitation to the reunion. All who had been invited, twenty-two of them had accepted but one had yet to arrive.

Across the lush emerald green lawn a small group of men stood talking. A tall dark haired man sat on the wall surrounding the garden, a bottle of beer in his hands he listened to his friends and cohorts reminisce. He smiled at the man beside him, watching him dance a little jig before he downed the last of his drink. If memory served him right, Jack would be drinking heavily tonight and Crown Royal was the favored poison. Taking a few minutes to look around, his smile widened. He’d worked with these men, and respected them for their courage, intelligence and integrity. It had been easy to slip back into the friendships and bonds that had been created during the time they worked together. He needed this.

Sipping his beer he started in surprise when the man beside him gasped and flew backwards a red trickle of blood flowed across the bridge of his nose. All around him men began to fall. The silence of the night was broken only by their dying gasps. Throwing himself to the side he gasped as a fiery flash of pain ripped through his skull. The bullet seared a path above his left brow, the impact sending him backwards over the wall. Barely holding to consciousness he tumbled down the steep slope. Scrambling to right himself he reached out grabbing for trees and bushes as he slid. Rolling on to his back he managed to get his feet under him and slow his wild descent. As he reached the bottom of the slope his foot tangled with an exposed tree root, flying forward he slammed into the base of a large tree. Stunned he lay in the darkness beneath the heavy brush. His head throbbed mercilessly as the blood flowed freely down the side of his face. From far away he could hear the sound of screams when the clubs waiters and waitresses discovered the carnage.

Swiping at the blood flowing into his eyes he pushed himself to his feet. Behind him he could hear the sounds of scrambling feet. Fear coursed through him and he instinctively reached beneath his jacket. Where was it, why wasn’t it there, he couldn’t remember. As the sounds grew closer he ducked beneath the low hanging limbs and stumbled into the darkness. Fear for his life dogged his footsteps his one though was self-preservation so he ran.

On the plateau above, the scene erupted into pandemonium. Bodies lay scattered across the lawn. Tables and chairs were overturned men quietly laughing only moments before; their voices now silenced forever. Near the wall one man groaned in pain gasping for air. Seconds later police and emergency service personnel streamed into the club.

Ten men and a woman stopped, gaping in horror at the sight spread out before them. “Jesus!” one man mumbled in horror. His head snapped to the side as he heard the groan. Rushing forward he knelt beside the one man who still lived, the gaping hole in his chest mute evidence that he too had been a target. Paramedics’ gear in hand went quickly to work, doing their utmost to staunch the flow of blood. The bullet had missed the man’s heart by a scant inch, slicing through the outer wall of his lung. The men and women around him worked furiously to save his life.

On the hilltop above the club six pair of eyes watched. Incensed glittering eyes glared as the paramedics worked. The plan had worked perfectly but still one had survived. Counting the dead, fury grew. Two of the hated enemies were missing, how was that possible?

A quiet controlled voice spoke into the darkness, “One target went over the wall.”

Furiously whispered words were uttered between clenched teeth, “Find him Tanner and bring his head to me!”

“As you wish!” the man whispered before he slithered into the darkness. Following the ridgeline he made his way to the far side of the club. Signs of his target were easy to follow. His fall had gouged chunks of grass from the slope his tumbling body mowed down grass and bushes alike as he fell the hundred or so feet to the valley floor below. Moving quickly the mercenary followed the signs finding a trail of blood as he slid down the hillside. Bringing his weapon up he followed, a sense of satisfaction coursed through him. With each second he gained ground on his target. He could feel his quarry up ahead, from all the signs the man was hurt and not thinking clearly. The kill would be easy, complacent now, he moved faster.

Half a mile ahead the runner slowed. Cocking his head he listened, the sounds of thrashing and breaking brush sent a trill of fear through him. Gritting his teeth he fought the fear and anger rising within him. Sinking to his knees he gasped for air, his head pounding. Dizziness and nausea washed over him. Struggling to clear his mind and ignore his failing body he quickly formed a plan. He knew whatever he did it had to be quick. Surprise would give him the advantage. His waning strength wouldn’t last long, it had to be now. Climbing to his feet he continued for a short distance down the path, making sure the enemy behind would be able to follow his trail. Silent and unseen he slipped off the path, his passage unmarked as he moved through the underbrush and backtracked to wait beneath a large bush just a few feet off the trail.

Pursuit moved quickly up the trail unaware that his quarry lay in wait. Supremely confident of his abilities Tanner relaxed his guard.

Beneath the tree, his hand closed tightly on the broken tree limb in his hand. As pursuit grew level he jumped to his feet. Swinging the wood in his hand he caught his unsuspecting quarry in the throat. The man staggered back his hands clutching reflexively at his throat. His eyes went wide as his attacker moved in again. The Beretta in his hand flew outward, his finger squeezing the trigger. Ducking wildly the runner staggered to the side, the bullet whistling through the darkness only inches from his head. The mercenary took a deep breath and charged, the weapon in his hand coming around for the second time. Off balance the runner swung the log in his hand catching his attackers arm just above the wrist. Screaming in agony the weapon flew from numb fingers. The runner moved in for the kill. The log in his hand descended, the mercenary’s eyes were wide with fear as he tried desperately to avoid the blow.

Fury coursed through the runner as he swung the club. It connected solidly with the side of his attacker head sending him spinning sideways. He landed hard, his neck at an odd angle his eyes wide and staring the light within extinguished forever.

The runner lay sprawled in the damp leaves beneath the trees. The earthy smell a balm to his frenzied nerves. His ragged breathing the only sound in the silent forest as he marshaled what little strength remained to him. But instinct and self-preservation lingered, one thought ran through his fevered brain – RUN! Climbing to his feet he moved, slowly at first, picking up speed he ran through the underbrush. His vision grew cloudy, but he continued on. Breaking through the trees a few minutes later he slammed into a fence. Convulsively he reached out, holding tight to the railing he managed to stay on his feet. Blinking rapidly he tried to clear his blurry vision as he looked across the meadow. His right foot found purchase on the bottom rail as he heaved himself up and over the fence. Landing in a heap on the far side he laid spread eagle in the cool grass for nearly a minute before the urge to flee took over. Awkwardly he stumbled through the grass; the wiry tendrils dragging at his ankles tripped him up.

Overhead the stars were masked, as the dark clouds of an oncoming storm moved in. Lightening crackled across the sky, as the thunder exploded. Clapping hand to his ears the runner crumbled. His strength was gone, his mind closed down as the maelstrom whirled around him.

A few hundred feet away from where he laid a huge warehouse stood dark and ominous. Tall and lithe, her hair and eyes as dark as midnight in the eerie half-light before dawn, she prowled the vast interior cautiously. The weapon in her hand was only an extension of her gaze. The tip she’d been given, so far, had been a false one. Neither man nor beast prowled the night, debating with herself on whether any sane human would confront the storm that raged outside. “Except for dim-wits like you,” she grumbled to herself. “Get a life DeVaux,” she continued to mumble as she searched the nooks and crannies of the warehouse

Two hours she’d waited and watched, maybe the storm had driven them to ground. Maybe she had somehow given herself away. Either way they weren’t here and probably weren’t coming. It was a damn good place to hide though. The building was old, its interior piled high with boxes and crates. It was a maze, easy to get lost in, easy to get killed in.

Cautiously she stood up making her way though the endless rows of stacked boxes heading for the back of the building. Grumbling silently at the lost time and opportunity she tucked the weapon back into the holster beneath her left arm. Opening the door she scrambled to hold it as the wild frenzied wind nearly pulled it from her grasp. Lashing rain driven sideways by the wind made her pause. She pondered her next move, waiting, hoping the downpour would end. She’d already wasted enough time puttering around the big building and decided wet was better than waiting. Pulling the door shut behind her she ducked her head and ran into the wind. Racing across the gravel lot she leaped a hedge before settling into a run heading for her truck. Lightening lit up the sky, casting a ghostly aura across the grass. She tried to slam on the brakes but couldn’t. Jumping she managed to avoid the dark object in her path. Recognizing the body of a man the Sigsauer materialized in her hand, on guard she warily dropped to her knees. Checking for a pulse she found it pounding unsteadily beneath her touch. She searched him for a weapon but found nothing. “What the hell are you doing out here,” she mumbled into the wind.

Gently she turned him on to his back. She swore as she saw the blood covering the side of his face. Tenderly she touched his cheek her thumb wiping the blood and rain from his brow. Beneath her touch she heard him moan and saw his eyes flutter open.

Lightening flashed across the sky reflecting in the golden eyes that were now fever bright as he looked up at her. Pain and pleading called out to her. With a gentle touch she cradled him in her arms. The agony and fear she saw reflected in his eyes made her heart ache. Leaning over she protected his face from the falling rain as she whispered. “Can you get up we need to get you out of the rain.”

His lips moved but she heard his garbled words “Must run.”

“No, your safe now,” she whispered back. “You’re safe.”

He nodded wanting desperately to believe her. His breathing ragged he struggled upward. With her help he managed to gain his feet. Stumbling forward, his weight brought them both to their knees. She was strong, but without his help she knew she would never get him into the building. “Ups a daisy bright eyes,” she whispered. “We can do this.” Slowly a deep shuddering breath wracked his body as he climbed to his feet. The drenching rain swirled around them as they fought their way back to the warehouse. The wind whipped around them making it all but impossible to gain ground. He sagged in her arms. Beneath his weight she groaned, whispering, “Just a little bit more, don’t give up on me now.” He turned his head; through the haze a twinkle lit his tired eyes as he looked at her. Seconds later two bedraggled figures made their way back to the warehouse and through the gray metal door.

The door flew open, ripped from her grasp as the wind pushed against it. The sound was muffled as it slammed against the cardboard boxes stacked against the wall behind it. Struggling with the man in her arms and the wind pushing against the door she finally managed to close it. Together they stumbled down the center aisle of the warehouse when she heard the sound of voices coming from the other end. “Oh perfect,” she muttered grumpily. Sliding into the maze of boxes she took the injured man with her. She had to wonder if they had done this to him.

A few minutes later she found what she was looking for. A gap between the boxes opened up into a small cubbyhole in the center of the row. Hidden from view it was snug enough to hide two people comfortably.

In her arms the man began to tremble. He shivered convulsively his teeth chattering. Laying him down she began to strip the wet clothes from his body. Shedding her coat she wrapped it around him.

Staring at the boxes around her she crowed in triumph when she spotted one with the word “Textiles” printed on the side. Pulling the knife from her belt she slashed through the cardboard and reached in. Soft cotton met her touch and she pulled. Colorfully woven Mexican blankets came tumbling out. Watching them fall to the floor she heard a soft thud. Small, gray-green shaped bricks fell from the blankets and tumbled to the ground.

“God could this day get any worse!” C4, she knew what it was, had been searching for it for three days. And suddenly without thought she stumbled on it by accident. A low moan from the man at her feet brought her up short. He needed attention and he needed it now. Laying several of the blankets on the cold concrete floor she stripped the rest of his clothes and wrapped him in several more of the blankets. Knowing she needed to get him warm she knelt beside him rubbing his arms and legs to get the circulation moving. With his wet T-shirt she wiped the blood and grime from his face. It was a handsome face all-dark and mysterious, his body hard and muscular like that of a star athlete.

It took nearly an hour before his trembling lessened. The cut on his forehead had ceased to bleed but his face was still pale, his brow furrowed with pain.

The sound of chatter inside the warehouse remained a constant buzz. She counted at least five possibly six distinct voices. She remained on guard but the men never came close. Reaching for the phone on her belt she swore beneath her breath when her hand came up empty. Searching the small cubbyhole she mumbled, “When you don’t think things can get any worse – poof they do!”

A whispered voice beside her was hoarse, yet filled with amusement. “I’ll trade you my last twenty-four hours for yours?”

“Ummm, NO!” she smiled down at him. ‘How’s the head?”

“Someone needs to turn off the jack hammer,” he groaned.

“I’m Kelly, Kelly DeVaux; do you remember what happened to you?”

He sat up leaning heavily on one elbow his left hand going to his head. “I’m…” his eyes found hers; confusion uppermost in their depth.

His face was pale, his breathing now coming in ragged gasps, “I can’t seem to remember my name,” he whispered almost frantically.

Sitting on the blanket beside him she brushed his cheek with her hand, the concern in her eyes mirroring his own. “You took a pretty good knock, probably that and the shock. It will come back in time. I wouldn’t worry about it too much.”

Scowling at her, he took her words to heart, hoping his memory would return, and soon.

Chagrin was written on her face, the questions she had wanted to ask useless now. Rolling this new development around in her head she probed, hoping to jar his memory, even if only a little.

“Do you remember anything?”

His jaw tightened, his hands clamped around the blanket. Closing his eyes he gasped, drawing a deep breath as he tried to remember. Only the fear and the darkness penetrated, someone was pursuing him, he’d run, run for his life.”

His words were harsh his voice clipped as he answered. “Running, all I can remember is the darkness and running, someone hunting me.” He stopped short his eyes flying open, “We fought, I think… I killed him,” he murmured his eyes taking on a hard smoky light as he relived the memory.

She’d known he was dangerous the minute she’d looked into his eyes as he lay in the rain. “Do you think they are still looking for you,” she asked cautiously?

Looking up he met her eyes, “Yes,” he stated vehemently, and whoever they are they won’t stop until they find me.

Her mind worked furiously. “This is getting worse by the minute,” she grumbled talking to herself. “Terrorists to the right of me, possible murderers to the left and here we are stuck in the middle, with two pea shooters and a slightly beat up hunk.”

Clapping her hand to her mouth she grinned sheepishly a rosy blush swept up her neck. “God I can’t believe I said that.”

Beside her his face lightened. “Hunk huh, thanks, I think.”

Smiling she ducked her head. Kelly was more than she seemed. Yes she was a detective with the New Orleans police department; at least that’s what everyone thought. In reality she was an operative for a highly classified division of the U.S. Government. Today it was called Home Land defense, over a year ago it had gone by another name. Highly trained highly motivated, Kelly took on assignments, most men shied away from. She worked long and hard to uncover plots against a nation and its people and she was good at it. A few years ago the major threat was the growing number of militia groups cropping up around the country. These days the focus was on terrorist infiltration.

No fool, Kelly was wary of him and his situation, had recognized the cut on his forehead for what it was, a bullet wound. She shouldn’t trust him but for some reason she did. She would do what it took to get the both of them out of the situation - alive. Her blood surged in her veins as she looked at him. Quickly she turned away, her wayward thought bringing a blush to her cheeks. Once they were on safer ground she might think about getting to know him on a more personal level. She’d undressed him and was pretty impressed with the package. She lived dangerously, and if she read him right so did he.

Looking at the man beside her she saw he had fallen back against the blankets. His eyes were closed. Checking his pulse she sighed in relief when she found it beating strongly, he had fallen asleep.

Silver Star Hotel
Hermosa Beach, CA.

Margo and Chance were sitting in the ops room when the call came in. The display glared a familiar number and Margo grumbled as she picked up the phone. “Xavier, it’s late!”

“Ms. Vincent, I’m sorry but I have some bad news.”

“What is it this time, a Walk in the Park or a Stroll through the jungle?”

“It’s worse than that Margo. Matt or Benny Ray might have told you of their reunion this weekend. The club where they met was attacked. Nineteen of the men were killed, one is in intensive care and two are missing.”

“Margo, Matt and Benny Ray are missing.”

Her knees gave way as Margo collapsed onto the sofa. “What happened Xavier?”

“The reunion was a set up, Margo. From what we can tell the shooters were on the hillside above the club. A little after eleven, they open fired. It was quick and deadly, those men never knew what hit them. A waiter found them a few minutes later.”

She heard the catch in his voice, “Will you come to New Orleans Margo?’

Silence greeted his question, “Margo!”

Holding back the tears Margo cleared her throat, her voice husky with emotion as she asked. “What did you mean when you said they were missing?”

“Their bodies weren’t among those at the club Margo. Either they were taken hostage or they are on the run.”

“We’ll be there as soon as we can Xavier.”

“Thanks Margo, I’ll meet you at the airport.”

Stunned Margo sat on the couch unmoving; the phone in her hand bleeped once and subsided into silence.

Chance had only heard half of the conversation, but it sounded like trouble. Sitting on the arm of the couch he pulled the phone from numb fingers and put it back where it belonged. “Margo,” he asked quietly.

Tears coursed down her cheeks; angrily she swiped them away and looked up. “That was Trout; he said the reunion Matt and Benny Ray attended was a setup. All those men were killed.”

“The Major and Benny Ray,” he asked quietly

“Missing!”

Only silence greeted her word, but she saw the big man’s hands clench.

A sultry southern drawl broke the silence, “Whose missing Margo, anyone I know?

Jumping to their feet they stared at the man standing on the bottom step. He walked across the room his limp barely visible. “Oh my God Benny Ray,” escaped Margo’s throat as she launched herself at him. His eyes grew wide as he caught her handily. He choked and spluttered as she wrapped her arms tightly around his neck and hugged him tight. Gently he untangled himself and drew a deep breath. “Easy Sweet Pea!” Looking at Chance he shrugged asking, “What the heck is this all about.”

“Thought you were with Matt in New Orleans,” Chance asked cautiously?

Mary Ellen called said she needed me to watch the kids. I hadn’t seen them in a while, it sounded like a good chance to spend some time with them. I’m headed for the reunion in the morning. So what the heck is this about and who’s missing?”

Unwilling to let go just yet, Margo wrapped her arm through Benny Ray’s as he walked across the room.

“Supposedly you and Matt,” Margo intoned.

“Well darlin, I’m standing here in the flesh, and Matt is probably drunk as a skunk somewhere in New Orleans.”

“That’s the problem Benny Ray, Matt is missing. Trout called a few minutes ago. The reunion was a setup up. They’re all dead except for one, currently he’s in intensive care and Matt is missing. Trout thinks he’s either on the run or taken hostage. He asked if we would come to New Orleans in the morning.”

All business now, Benny Ray’s mind whirled with the possibilities. But speculating wouldn’t do any good. “Chance, get CJ and Rico here ASAP, Margo…”

“Already on it Benny Ray,” as she quickly released his arm and crossed to her computer., minutes later their reservations were made. Her fingers continued to fly as she dug for information about the shooting. In less than an hour she had the names of every man that had been invited. Trout had emailed the layout of the club along with pictures and the police report.

Two hours later the team was assembled, bags were packed and loaded in the trucks.

“Pack it in Margo you can continue the search from the plane. Let’s go ya’ll!” Benny Ray yelled over his shoulder.

A few hours later Margo’s search had come up empty. No matter how hard she tried or how deeply she probed she could find only a two-month overlap where all the men had been in the unit at the same time. But the mission files for those two months were locked or missing. A voice mail to Trout had so far gone unanswered.

It was nearing seven am when the plane touched down outside New Orleans. Trout’s limo waited on the runway. With a sober unsmiling faced Trout stood beside it.

Margo was the first to reach him, her eyes seeking answers, but he had none to give. Leaning down he kissed her cheek, before moving to greet Rico, Chance, CJ and Benny Ray. The past forgotten for the moment they greeted Trout expectantly.

Seated in the limo Trout waited until they were on the road before speaking. “I got your voice mail Margo. I have people working on it now. So far we seem to be beating our heads against a brick wall. The files for those two months have gone missing. No one I’ve talked to has been able to shed any light on what mission if any went down during that time frame.”

“What about you Benny Ray,” Margo asked. “Can you tell us what the mission was?

Benny Ray stilled, his eyes taking on a far away look as his mind traveled back. “The mission was classified at the time Margo, but nothing to write home about. Two teams saddled up for that op. My team was working in the area and we were called in to assist. Matt was the Operations Officer he ran the show and coordinated support from the carrier. A group of missionaries had turned up missing. We went in, took us a couple of days to find their trail. A group of dissidents had taken ‘em hostage, they wanted the church to pay the big bucks for their release. The dissidents were pretty heavily armed, looked more like militia than dissidents. The mission quickly degenerated into a firefight, the camp was destroyed, the missionaries recovered, but we were pretty badly outnumbered. Casualties were heavy and we lost three good men. Two of the bodies were never recovered.”

“Can you remember their names,” Margo asked quietly.

“Damn,” he whispered wracking his brain for the names, “Neither man was on my team. One of them was Cutter or Carson, the other… I don’t know, give me a few, I’ll remember it.”

“Bloody Missionaries,” CJ snorted. “You can always count on them to cause a heap of trouble. Did I ever tell you about the time…”

“Yes,” four voices chimed in simultaneously.

Beside Margo, Trout choked back a laugh.

Rio Club
New Orleans
1030 hrs

Five solemn faces strode into the club. First to go through the door, Benny Ray reached for the tape. A tall brown suited man moved up blocking his way. Face to face Benny Ray grinned as he clicked his teeth, daring the man to stand in his way. A nod from Trout and the man backed down none too happy. Lifting the yellow tape Benny Ray gallantly waved the rest of the team through before following.

Switching gears Benny Ray’s eagle eyes swept the room. The police report had been pretty tight with few details. “Spread out people, Chance, CJ take the north side, Rico head toward the west. Margo and I will take the south side.”

“My people have been all through this place Mr. Riddle, what do you hope to find.” Trout asked cautiously?

“I don’t know Trout, when I find it I’ll let ya know!”

“I have people stationed around the patio area. If you have any questions don’t hesitate to ask.”

Settling their comms gear in place they spread out. Hands and eyes searched every inch of the patio and the huge lawn area. Blood stains and tape marked the tables and flagstone flooring. Across the lawn paint and more blood marked the spots where men had died.

None of the five wanted to contemplate the thought, but it had occurred to all of them that Matt Shepherd might not have survived the assault. But he was missing, which could mean that the police and even Trout’s men had missed something.

Determined to find out what that something was, Margo and the team scoured the area looking for clues.

Nearing the wall Benny Ray stopped. The hairs on the back of his neck rose. A trill of uneasiness coursed through him. Feeling malevolent eyes boring into his back he turned slowly reaching beneath his jacket his eyes surveying the men arrayed around him. Several stood leaning against the side of the building; another was bent over tying his shoe. Others strolled casually across the lawn.

Beside him Margo stopped, watching. Touching his arm she felt him shiver as she whispered, “You Ok!”

At her touch his head snapped around to look at her, his eyes cold and hard, they suddenly softened as he caught her gaze on him. The feeling of being watched disappeared as suddenly as it had come.

A tiny smile that didn’t reach his eyes crossed his lips. “Just a cold north wind,” he whispered noncommittally.

She watched him stroll away, confusion written on her face. Mumbling to herself she followed, “It’s a ninety plus out here and he’s talking about cold north winds.”

Reaching the wall he stood beside it looking up and down the length of it. The wall was a little over three feet tall made of stone and mortar. His hand trailed across the top of the wall as he slowly walked along. A dark pool of blood at its base stopped him. His voice was urgent as he asked, “Let me see the pictures Margo.”

Pulling a folder from her pack she handed it to him. “Did you find something,” she asked curiously.

“Maybe,” he answered cryptically. Flipping through the pictures he found what he was looking for. One man lay on his back a puddle of blood beneath his head. Staring at the picture he ran his hand across the top of the wall. Dark spots marred the top outside edge of the wall but if Benny Ray figured right they didn’t match the angle or the spray of the man lying on the ground.

“Here Margo,” Benny Ray indicated. “Do the math, the spray on the top of the wall doesn’t’ match the dead man. Two men, not one stood here.”

“So where did the other one go,” Margo asked breathlessly?

Leaving the photo on the top of the wall he threw his left leg over and strattled it. Searching for other clues, his hand brushed across a scrape. “Over! He went over the wall!”

Quickly he lowered himself down the far side of the wall dropping another four feet to the ground below. Margo slipped over the wall dropping beside him.

“Chance, you read me?”

“Roger Benny Ray, Go!”

“Margo and I are headed down the side of the hill, found what could be a trail. We’ll shout if we find something.”

“Keep us posted,” Chance stated.

“Roger that Amigo, out here.”

Sure footed as a mountain goat, Benny Ray followed the trail down the steep slope. His senses were on full alert as his eyes searched the ground and brush around him. The first trail he found was obvious. Someone had tumbled head over heels down the hillside. The second was subtler. Deep-ridged boot soles left telltale signs of pursuit.

Sliding the last few feet down the hill Margo stood beside Benny Ray watching him. His movements were slow and controlled as he searched the ground and surrounding area. Kneeling down his fingers skimmed the brush his eyes following the dusty trail settling on a dark shadow beneath a bush a few feet away.

Standing he caught a whispering breeze. It spoke of death and danger. His heightened sense caught the sound of a round as it slid into the chamber the bolt sliding into place. His movements were instinctive as he pushed Margo away. The Glock tucked beneath his left arm materialized in his right hand as he yelled, “Shooter - 11 O’clock.”

The breeze stilled, his eyes locked on a waving branch. The Glock came up as he twisted sideway-firing two shots in rapid succession. They seared a path into the underbrush one finding its target.

The bullet meant for Benny Ray’s heart slammed into his left shoulder just above the collarbone. The impact lifted him off his feet throwing him backward. Fire burned through his shoulder, but he couldn’t afford to rest. Hugging his left arm to his side he rolled away finding cover beneath some brush.

The breeze again whispered to him, carrying the sounds of shuffling footsteps as they carried the shooter away. Getting to his feet, Benny Ray carried himself carefully trying not to jar his injured shoulder.

From up the hill, Margo heard the sounds of shouts before saying. “I didn’t hear anything, are you sure there was someone out there?”

Turning to face her he mumbled between clenched teeth, “Yeah Margo, I’m sure.”

She whispered, “Crickets,” seeing the spreading blossom of red on his shoulder. Benny Ray spun away as she reached for him, his mind set on returning to the dark shadow he’d seen beneath the brush. Awkwardly he took a few steps that put him back into his original starting point.

“Rico, grab your bag, I need you down here now,” Margo whispered though her radio.

“What’s going on Margo,” Rico’s voice asked urgently.

“Just hurry Rico.”

“Benny Ray,” Margo whispered.

He didn’t answer. Focused now, he blocked out everything except finding the shadow.

Reaching beneath the tree his fingers searched the underbrush before finally locking on the target and pulling it out of the shadows. He recognized it immediately, “Dammit Major,” he murmured beneath his breath. His thumb caressed the eagle stamped into the worn leather. Pushing himself to his feet he slowly turned, holding the wallet out, not surprised when Margo hesitated to take it.

“Take it Margo,” he urged suddenly. Closing his eyes he swayed sideways.

Sprinting the last couple of feet Rico managed to grab the front of Benny Ray shirt before he could fall.

Squeaking in dismay, Margo grabbed him from behind as his knees buckled. Between them Rico and Margo managed to lower the injured sniper to the ground. Leaning against a tree Margo held him tight his head resting against her shoulder while Rico went to work. Cutting away his shirt Rico probed the wound. Benny Ray hissed at the touch. The bullet had exited cleanly but the gaping holes front and back continued to bleed.

A few minutes later, the bleeding was under control. With Chance and CJ looking over his shoulder Rico gave the order. “Let’s get him up the hill. We need to get him to a hospital?”

“No hospital,” Benny Ray whispered hoarsely.

Rico swore as he stared at the sniper, “Dammit you stubborn jarhead, that shoulder needs attention and you’ve lost a lot of blood. You need to be in a hospital.”

“No hospital,” Benny Ray snapped vehemently, as he pulled himself up into a sitting position. “Listen to me,” he whispered urgently, “The Major’s alive, and hurt, but someone’s on his tail. The trail is ten hours old, if we don’t get to him soon, it could be too late, it may already be too late.”

“Benny Ray,” Chance broke in. “You’re in no shape to go chasing anyone, you get that shoulder taken care of and CJ and I will go after Matt. The minute we find something we’ll call. You hear me Compadre,” Chance murmured

Grumbling Benny Ray nodded, gritting his teeth as the pain in his shoulder erupted. “Go,” he mumbled.

“Let’s get you up the hill, then…”

“No, Chance, you need to go after the Major, the only thing that matters now is Matt.”

“Alright Benny Ray, we’re going. You just let Rico take care of that shoulder. We’ll check in every couple of hours.”

“Good Luck Amigo,” Benny Ray whispered.

With CJ close on his heels, Chance took off following Matt’s trail. Three pairs of eyes followed the duo until they were lost from the sight.

“The shooter,” Margo asked?

“Long gone,” Benny Ray answered breathlessly.

Trout had sent several men down the slope; even now they combed the forest floor hunting for signs of the shooter. A voice rang out triumphantly, “Blood Sir.” In the distance they heard the rumblings as men moved quickly through the brush following the trail. But Benny Ray was right, the shooter, though slightly injured when one of Benny Ray’s shots had nicked his shoulder, was gone. After the first few stumbling steps the shooter had melted into the bush leaving no trace, no trail for anyone to follow.

On the slope two men dispatched by Trout stepped in to help. With the extra hands the struggle up the hillside took only a few minutes. But the climb left all of them exhausted and Benny Ray dizzy and sweating. The Limo waited, but Benny Ray was adamant about not going to a hospital.

Trout – always prepared said, “I’ve got a little safe house set up a few minutes from here.”

With everyone settled inside the limo, the driver took off. In less than ten minutes the car pulled up in front of a huge two-story house. Rico whistled appreciatively, beside him Margo’s eyes glowed. “Now this is what I call a safe house,” she whispered in awe.

“Only the best for you Ms. Vincent,” Trout chuckled.

The house, nope Margo thought, the mansion was a sprawling elegant estate. She estimated the “little safe house” had at least 20 rooms. Its creamy white Limestone façade reflected the light like diamonds sparkling in the sun. Huge etched glass windows lined the face of the beautiful building. Perfectly manicured lawns and hedges accented with deep red roses lead the eye up to the elegant archway at the front of the house. Heavy cherry wood doors opened as they made their way up the marble steps.

A few minutes later Benny Ray was settled in a large bedroom at the rear of the house. The lines of pain etched in his brow and the dull haze in the snipers eyes gave wings to Rico’s hands.

Cleaning up the shoulder Rico put seven stitches in to close the ragged edged wounds. Taping thick bandages in place he stepped back to observe his handiwork. He cocked an eyebrow as the sniper sat up and slid his legs off the bed. Crossing his arms over his chest Rico stood in front oh him and asked, “Where do you think your going?”

Ignoring the question Benny Ray asked, “Has Chance checked in?”

“No, but since he’s been on the trail less than an hour I didn’t expect a call, but you haven’t answered my question.”

Benny Ray snorted in disgust but didn’t answer.

Rico nearly laughed, but the amusement in his voice was tinged with anger as he asked. “How far do you think you’ll get?”

“As far as I need to,” Benny Ray ground out.

Leaning down Rico went eye to eye with the sniper, his voice low and menacing he whispered. “You take one step and I’ll have Trout’s men hog tie you to that bed. Now we can do this the easy way or if you prefer, we can do it the hard way. Either way the results will be the same, your stubborn ass in that bed.” Rico was ready for a fight, the look in the snipers eyes held an answering light of battle but Rico wasn’t going to back down.

Benny Ray growled deep in his throat. Lifting his head his eyes caught the unwavering look on Rico’s face. Choking back an angry retort that would set the medic off Benny Ray looked on, hiding his surprise. He had somehow managed to find and ignite the medics’ temper, which he knew from past experience was hard to do. He was tempted to see just how far he could push Rico. The normally even-tempered medic was slightly more than pissed. Storing away the knowledge he yawned.

“The head Rico,” Benny Ray purred, watching with satisfaction as Rico’s face took on a confused look. “I’m going to the bathroom, if that’s ok with you, or do you think I need a chaperon for that, wanna hold my hand?”

Rico stumbled backward a few steps as the sniper slowly got to his feet.

Benny Ray’s husky southern drawl filled with amusement as he held out his good hand, “But then again, I’m so weak and helpless, I might need assistance.”

Rico ignored the outstretched hand, his mouth hanging open at the sniper’s sudden capitulation. He had certainly expected something different. It was as if the breath had been knocked out of him when the sniper had uttered those few quiet words. Rico’s eyes narrowed as the sniper made his way to the bathroom. Benny Ray’s stride had been strong and deliberate, but the way he carried himself and the set of his jaw told the medic the sniper was in a great deal of pain. The click of the door gave Rico a chance to think. Benny Ray never gave in that easy. That oh so clever mind was working overtime, but to what end? Vowing to keep an eye on his patient, Rico waited. Rummaging through his little black bag he pulled out a bottle of pills and shook several into his hand - an antibiotic. A second bottle took the same route – something for the pain. Settling himself in a comfortable chair he waited.

A few minutes later the sniper emerged.

“My watchdog,” Benny Ray mumbled when he spotted the medic.

“Well at the moment you need one. The odds are not exactly in your favor my friend. The numbers are growing, nineteen men dead, one in intensive care, another missing, and you. Until we find out who the hell is behind this, you’re stuck with me.”

Holding out the pills and a glass of water Rico pinned the snipers gaze with his own.

No quarter given, none expected, Benny Ray downed the pills. Climbing into bed he cautiously settled in, doing his utmost not to rouse the searing pain in his shoulder.

“I want to know the second you hear something about the Major!”

“Done, now sleep,” Rico growled. Expecting, no hoping that that the little sedative he’d given Benny Ray would knock him out for at least six maybe eight hours.

Benny Ray closed his eyes, his body tense and set against the pain in his shoulder. As the little pills worked their way through his system his muscles began to relax, his heart beat and respiration evened out and he slept. Beside him Rico sighed in relief.

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