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The Silver Star
Hermosa Beach, CA
0600 hours

Matt Shepherd was almost glad to see the bar as he ran down the boardwalk. It was already in the low 90’s with humidity to match, and running was the last thing he felt like doing today. He saw the familiar conversion van parked next to the old hotel. Changing course, Matt slowed to a walk, approaching the van with a resigned sigh.

"Good morning, Matt."

"Well, Trout, you must really want something if you’re bothering to say good morning." Matt took a long drink from the water bottle he carried.

Xavier Trout fell into step beside Matt. "Yes, this is very important. I know you wanted some time off for your team, but this has the highest priority."

"Okay, what is it?"

Margo’s apartment

The loud beeping woke Margo Vincent out of a sound sleep. Muttering something decidedly unpleasant, she looked at the clock and then picked up the pager. "This had better be real important," she said to herself.

Heading downstairs, she waved hello to the security guard. Her Jaguar convertible was still in it's usual parking spot. She drove out of the garage, heading in the direction of the team’s headquarters. A few blocks away, she spotted a familiar figure jogging along the road.

"Benny Ray, want a lift?"

"Sure." He jumped over the door and sat down.

"That does open, you know."

He looked at her and grinned.

The Silver Star

"Do you have any idea what you pulled me away from?" Nick was complaining loudly to anyone who would listen.

Matt sighed, then glanced over as Margo came down the stairs, followed by Benny Ray.

"She was the most beautiful-"

"Nick, we’ve all heard this one before," Margo said.

"Okay people, listen up. I know we were due for some time off, but Trout really needs this taken care of." He put up a slide of British Columbia. "This area near the Skeena River headwaters has been under surveillance for some time. Just recently it was confirmed that a Russian intelligence debriefing center is located in these mountains."

"Wait a sec. We’re talking Canada here, right?" Nick said, barely suppressing a laugh.

"Yes, Canada. Our objective is to get as much intel out of the place as we can. Then we're going to level it." Matt indicated several blocks of Semtex sitting on the table.

"So we go to Canada, get the intel, and then come home and go on vacation. I can live with that," Margo said.

"Me, too." Nick gave an exaggerated sigh. "I got her phone number."

"Delveccio, you’re hopeless." Benny Ray got up to get his gear together.

"Matt, isn’t that where Debbie went hiking with some friends?" Margo asked.

"She’s in British Columbia, I don’t know where. It’s a big area."

"Right, I just wasn’t sure where she was. The area sounded familiar."

Matt shrugged. "Well, this isn’t in any state park. Deke’s going to meet us up there in two days. We leave tomorrow." He was about to say something else, but the shrill sound of the building’s fire alarm cut him off.

Benny Ray came running down the hall with Nick right behind him. "Major?"

"Outside now! Grab the extinguisher."

Matt looked up. Smoke was pouring from the roof, but it didn’t look like the building was on fire. He headed up the fire escape after telling the others to wait. The ladder creaked behind him and he turned around. Benny Ray was pulling himself up, still holding the extinguisher. When they reached the roof, the only sign of fire was smoke and a few flames coming
from a 55-gallon drum sitting near the edge of the roof. The smoke had drifted in through a broken window, setting off the alarm.

Benny Ray headed over and sprayed the drum and the area around it, putting out the fire. "All clear. Looks like a prank."

"Yeah, but that window wasn’t busted before."

Two firefighters walked out onto the roof. "We’ll have to ask that you go back down until we check this out."

"No problem."

After another fifteen minutes, they climbed back down. "We’ll file a report, but I don’t have high hopes of finding whoever set it. Some kids have been doing this around town, just never on a roof. Mr. Shepherd, if we could just get some information…"

Benny Ray watched the truck drive away. "That’s a lot of trouble to go to just to set a prank fire, y’know?"

"Yeah. I want to take a quick look around up there." Exchanging glances, the rest of the team followed Matt up to the roof.

"Nothing over here. You’re right, Matt, it’s almost as if whoever did this wanted us to look up here," Margo said.

"But there’s nothing up here." Matt turned the drum over, peering underneath it.

"Hey, Boss, what’s this?" Benny Ray squirmed back out from underneath the air conditioning unit. "Part of the phone system?"

"No." Margo took the squarish black panel from the sniper. "It’s a transmitter for secure commo using a satellite."

"Someone wanted us to find this," Nick said, breaking the silence.

"And I don’t want to stand up here waiting for them to come back." Benny Ray headed for the ladder.

"We need to get this to Trout. I want a full sweep of the building. If someone’s keeping tabs on us, I want to know about it," Matt said.

In their hurry to get back inside, the team did not notice a van pulling out of the alley. "They found it," the driver reported.

"Good. We’re done here, for now."

Silver Star
Hermosa Beach, California
1900 hours

Benny Ray pulled his overnight bag out of the pickup. Matt had asked them all to stay over- night, hoping that whoever set the fire would show up. The sniper wasn’t real hopeful that anything would happen, but they were leaving tomorrow afternoon anyway. He entered the bar, waving hello to the temporary bartender, Autumn. She was working part time while studying criminal justice at college.

"Hi, Benny Ray."

"How’s it going?"

"Good. I got into the ride along program with the Hermosa Beach PD. I’ll have to talk to Matt about the schedule."

"I don’t think he’ll have a problem with it. Good job," Benny Ray said, smiling.

"Thanks. Hey, what time are you leaving tomorrow?"

"In the afternoon. You have the keys, right?"

"Yup. Don’t worry, I have everything under control."

"I know. The major’s been a little out of it. Just double-checking." Benny Ray liked Autumn, she was about as different from Debbie as a person could be. "How’s Richard, or whatever his name is."

She laughed. "Yes, Ricky. He’s fine. Maybe it’s a trend, he forgot my birthday last week. And he forgot that his car registration expired last month. I’m going to buy him a planner."

The bar was filling up, so Benny Ray said goodbye and headed downstairs. He had his own theory on why Matt was being so absent-minded, but wouldn’t discuss it with anyone. Autumn had filed the reports for the health inspection, since Matt had forgotten, and she had also reordered most of the supplies for the bar. Benny Ray grinned to himself.

"What’s so funny?" Nick asked.

"Nothing."

"Uh-huh. So really, what’s going on?"

"Really, nothing." Benny Ray headed into the kitchen.

"Is there a new love interest?"

"Delvecchio, I’m gonna…"

Margo looked up from the computer. She was trying to get a line on where the satcom device had come from. "You guys, I am trying to work here."

"Sorry, ma’am."

"Yeah, sorry Margo. You want some pizza?" Nick asked.

"No, thanks."

"I appreciate you all crashing here tonight." Matt came in, trying not to look tired.

"Hey, I don’t mind. They’re fumigating my apartment."

"Rat population get too big?" Margo couldn’t resist.

"Ha ha, very funny," Nick replied sarcastically.

The next morning

Margo woke up early. She hadn’t had any luck last night. Maybe something would shake loose this morning. She threw on a sweatshirt and went downstairs, walking quietly to avoid waking Nick or Benny Ray. Both of them had slept in the basement, while she had taken over a room upstairs.

"Mornin’. The major still sleeping?" Benny Ray asked.

"Hey. I didn’t wake you, did I?"

"Nope."

"Matt’s still asleep, I think." Margo yawned.

"Okay. Just needed to go over what we’re taking. I’ll be back, going for a run."

"Yup. Have fun."

A few hours later, the team was on a plane, heading north. Matt had fallen asleep a few minutes after takeoff. Margo found herself watching him. She smiled to herself when she realized what she was doing. Turning to check on the others, she saw Nick watching some movie on the screen in front of him. Benny Ray was sleeping also. ‘I never had much luck sleeping on a plane,’ she thought. The computer beeped, signaling new information. The email had come from one of her contacts.

Margo, I regret that it has been so long since we talked. I have found some information that I think you will find very interesting. Based on the serial numbers, I have tracked where the piece came from. It was purchased on the black market by a Russian intelligence case officer, I think you call them. His name is Vladmir Romanov. I do not know for what purpose, but I
hope the name will help. Yours, always.

When everyone was awake for lunch, she filled them in on the message. "I have some people working on finding out who this Romanov is. I’ll check with Deke when we land and see if his people find anything."

"Good work. We have another two hours, try to get some rest," Matt said.

Vancouver International Airport
British Columbia, Canada
1600 hours

"Hi peeps! Glad you could make it!" Deke’s loud voice, and even louder hair, were easily seen and heard over the crowd of other passengers.

"Deke, long time no see." Nick pushed his way over and collapsed on a chair.

"Don’t get too comfortable. I couldn’t get us a flight up to the Skeena until tomorrow. The bush pilot’s making another run today. So we’re booked into a hotel for tonight."

"Okay, let’s go. You have a car?" Matt wanted to know.

"Yup, this a way."

Once they were on the highway, Margo told Deke about what she had found out. "I’ll check with my people. Someone must’ve heard of this guy," he said.

"Hey, I don’t want to bother you guys, but that green car has been following us." Nick was looking out the rear window.

"Let’s find out." Deke sped up, switching lanes, then got off on the next exit. They found themselves on a practically deserted road, with only a few houses. The green car, no longer attempting to avoid notice, followed them.

Deke went even faster, speeding around the corner. Two miles farther down, with the other car still in pursuit, he saw the last thing they needed to see. Two men, with rifles, stood in front of a roadblock. Deke searched around for a way out. Nothing.

One of the gunmen stepped forward, his rifle in the ready position. He gestured for them to halt. Deke looked at Matt.

"Run it."

Deke brought the car to a screeching halt, ignoring the look from Matt. One of the men approached, his rifle still leveled. The other car was going too fast. It ran off the road, over- turning in a ditch. The other man raced over to it.

"Please keep your hands where I can see them." The man was dressed in the uniform of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Matt understood now why Deke had stopped.

"Sure thing."

"I don’t suppose that you want to tell me just what happened here."

"We’re on our way to Clearwater. Those guys were following us, and tried to ram our car when we got off at the exit." Matt explained, trying to sound as much like a tourist as he could.

"Right." The officer looked skeptical. His partner came back around the other side of the team’s car. Backup units were covering the other vehicle.

"One at a time, exit the vehicle. Keep your hands in view at all times."

Matt followed the directions, turning only to get a look at their pursuers. They were already in the back of another unit. The officers were not happy to discover the weapons they were carrying. Two of the mounties were in the process of handcuffing a very reluctant Benny Ray when a third walked over.

"Okay, let them go. I got word from headquarters, they’re free to go."

"I hope there’s a good explanation for this one," the other officer replied.

Nick started talking as soon as they were on the road. "Hey, who were those guys? I hope they don’t have any friends. I got pulled over once and I…"

"Okay, Nick, we’ve all been pulled over at least once." Margo was going through files, trying to find out more about Romanov.

"Remind me to thank Trout when we get back," Matt said. "That was the last thing we needed."

A few hours later they pulled into the hotel lot in Clearwater. From there, it was a short flight with the bush plane to their starting point. After making sure that everyone else had gotten settled in, Matt headed back to the room that he was sharing with Benny Ray. He had put Nick and Deke in the third room. Matt grinned, thinking about what those two would be like
in the morning. If Deke didn’t throw Nick into the river first.

Benny Ray lowered his Glock as soon as he saw who it was at the door. Yawning, the sniper flopped down on the bed, pulling the pillow over his head.

"Tired?" Matt grinned.

"Yeah. Can you turn off the light, Boss, or can I shoot it out?"

"Don’t do that. I have a headache." As Matt turned to shut off the lamp, something hit him in the back. He looked down and chuckled when he saw the bottle of Advil lying on the floor. "Thanks."

A loud pounding on the door woke both of them up. "Matt, it’s Deke."

Benny Ray groaned and rolled over, yanking the blankets over his head. Matt shook him awake again on his way to the door.

"Deke, what’s going on?"

"The pilot just called. He has a little problem, we go tonight, now, or we don’t go at all."

"Okay, go shake the others loose. Benny Ray, get the stuff and the truck, meet me outside in fifteen."

Summit Airport
0323 hours

Deke pulled the truck up beside one of the hangars. The door was already open, with a small plane visible inside. The pilot walked out to meet them.

Benny Ray sat up and stared intently at him. Then he was out of the truck, walking rapidly over to the pilot.

"No way, not you again!" The pilot was laughing.

"Don’t tell me, they’re gonna take back your piece of junk airplane. So you drag us out of bed at 0300. We need to talk." Benny Ray did his best to sound threatening, but it didn’t work.

"Somebody wanna clue me in?" Nick looked confused.

"Yeah, this is that pilot who flew me, Rico, and the kid around in Florida."

"Name’s Havana Jack. Sorry for the early call, but they’re after my plane again."

"Well, amigo, if you’d pay the guys you wouldn’t have that little problem."

"Very funny. I don’t owe them any money! They just can’t seem to get that. Get in, we need to leave."

Nick was jolted awake when the plane landed. He looked outside. They were in the middle of a small field, surrounded by pine trees. Mountains surrounded them and the Skeena River was visible downhill.

Matt got everyone together just inside the treeline. They watched the plane take off, then bank away over the trees. "This is it, people. Our objective is 30 klicks that way," he said, indicating the position on the map. "Benny Ray, take point. Eyes and ears open, people."

They had been walking for a little over an hour, when Benny Ray signaled to take cover. He looked back at Matt and waved for him to come over. Matt was headed over to the sniper’s position when something grabbed his leg. The pain was immediate. The major fell, wondering why everything was going black.

Los Angeles Freeway
0400 hours

Rico shifted around on the stretcher, trying to get comfortable. They had another ten minutes until the ambulance got back to the station and he was determined to get as much sleep as he could. A loud buzzing sounded. The driver reached for the radio, ready to take another call.

"That’s me." Rico pulled his personal pager out of its holder.

"What? Not funny Rico."

"No, seriously, I’m not playing a joke." Rico looked at the number on the screen. As soon as the ambulance was parked in the garage, he grabbed the phone.

"Rico, thanks for calling. Sorry to make it so early." Trout squinted at his watch, reminding himself that it was three hours earlier in California.

"No problemo. I was already up. What’s going on?"

"I need to give you something."

Rico understood. The last time he had talked to Benny Ray, the sniper had mentioned that they were going out of town. "When and where?"

Riverview Park
Los Angeles, California
1200 hours

"There, that’s him."

"Okay. Be right back."

Rico looked over at the man standing next to him. "Trout sends his regards. New information has come up that Mr. Shepherd needs to know."

"What about using the radio?"

"We can’t reach them. All the attempts have failed. There’s a massive storm system moving over that area that has disrupted all communications. It will be there for the next couple of days. This information is time critical."

"Okay, when do I leave?"

Skeena River
British Columbia, Canada
0815 hours

Benny Ray looked carefully around him one more time. He heard movement behind him and remained perfectly still.

"Yo, Benny Ray, you still here?" Nick whispered.

The sniper got up, shaking the water from his ghillie suit. It had been raining hard for the past hour. "Over here."

"Okay. You wanna go back, get something to eat?"

"Yeah. Be back in a little bit."

Nick nodded, lying down in Benny Ray’s spot as soon as he moved. It, at least, was dry. A loud crash of thunder made him jump. More rain followed, combined with a cold wind that made Nick shiver. ‘I swear, when I get home, I’m never leaving again.’

A spray of cold rain woke Matt up. His right leg hurt with a dull throbbing. Groaning, he tried to sit up. Someone was holding him gently, keeping him from moving too fast.

"Sorry. The poncho idea isn’t working too well."

He looked up towards the voice. "Margo?"

"It’s me. How’re you feeling?"

"I just woke up in the arms of a beautiful woman. I feel just fine." He grinned up at her.

"I bet you say that to all the girls."

"Nah. Only the ones who get up in the middle of the night to fly in a plane with me, for a nice long walk in the woods, just to blow something up."

"And get soaked."

"That too."

Margo looked up, the smile disappearing from her face. She helped Matt to sit up, then trained her weapon on the movement she had seen.

"It’s me." Benny Ray came down the slope, barely visible in the suit. "Major, if you can travel, I found us some better shelter."

"I think so. Try the radio again." Matt inspected the bandage covering the wound. The steel trap that a hunter had left behind had closed on his leg, right above the boot. Designed for trapping raccoons and similar game, it had been too small to break anything. However, it still had done it's damage.

"Okay, will do sir, but don’t count on it. Are we still a go?"

Matt nodded. He stood up, balancing most of his weight on his good leg. Benny Ray crouched on the ground, playing with the radio. He looked up. "Nothing doing Boss."

"Okay then. Get Nick, we need to find a place out of this rain."

Benny Ray led them up the hill, going slowly in consideration of Matt’s injury. Margo stayed close, ready to help if Matt needed it. She smiled, remembering again what he had said earlier.

"Aw, I hope it’s dry in there," Nick said.

"It’s got to be better in there than out here, Nick." Margo walked into the cave. It was dry, if not a little musty. Better yet, it was screened by several bushes. There was a clearing in the trees not far away.

"Okay people. This is going to set us back a little bit, but the good news is that if we can’t move, then they won’t be going anywhere either. I still want radio checks every two hours. We’ll pull security in shifts."

"I got the first one." Deke volunteered.

"Good. Thanks. Everyone else, try to rest up."

"You included." Benny Ray looked hard at Matt.

"Yes, me included. No arguments here."

Benny Ray nodded, satisfied. After Matt had fallen asleep, he went over to where Margo and Nick were eating. "I say we let him sleep."

"Yup," Nick said. "We can handle it."

"All right. I’m gonna do a radio check. Be back in five." Benny Ray headed back outside, squinting to see through the rain.

C130
1900 hours

"We’ll fly over one more time, but if there’s no answer we’re going with the original drop coordinates."

"Roger that," Rico replied.

"Bravo Zulu, Bravo Zulu, this is Night Runner, come back."

Benny Ray looked at Deke. "Who’s Night Runner?"

"Trout’s C-130."

"Copy you, Night Runner."

The pilot gave Rico a thumbs up. "We have a visitor for you, Zulu. Need drop coordinates, over."

"Roger." Benny Ray took the GPS from Deke. He could see the Hercules now, skimming along below the clouds. "Here goes." The sniper read off the list.

"Okay, thank you Zulu. Stand by for package." The pilot took the big plane up to a safe distance for the jump.

Benny Ray waited outside the clearing. He saw the chute and watched as the jumper made a perfect landing, running backwards to collapse the chute. Benny Ray flashed his light three times. After collecting his parachute, the other man ran toward the treeline.

"Rico? What the hell are you doing here?"

"Long story. C’mon, I’m assuming you have somewhere dry."

"Yeah. And you can take a look at the Major while you’re here."

Margo started awake when she heard them come in. "Rico? What are you doing here?"

"That’s the question of the day. Where’s the Major?"

"Right here. Rico? What-"

Rico interrupted before Matt could finish asking the question. "I brought some new intel that Trout got. It’s real important, I guess."

Matt took the sealed envelope. Opening it, he pulled out several pictures. "Oh, isn’t this wonderful."

"What?" Margo asked.

Silently, Matt handed over the pictures. They showed Romanov standing on a street corner. With Debbie.

There was complete silence. Nobody on the team spoke, only looked at each other as they realized the implications from the picture. Finally, Matt broke the silence.

"Debbie? But she…"

"Matt, if she really is an experienced undercover operator, she could easily pull off that innocent valley girl act." Margo took the picture from Rico and looked at it. "The date is on the back here. Three months ago."

"Yeah. And there’s more." Rico pulled another handful of pictures out of the pouch along with a computer printout.

The pictures showed Debbie in two other meets with Romanov. More were obviously taken from satellite cameras. Debbie on the roof, installing the satcom two weeks ago.

"I can’t believe this." Nick looked devastated.

"Think about it. Debbie did ask an awful lot of questions." Benny Ray observed. "Especially after that issue with Trout."

"You have a point. The transcripts are a printout of a meet that was taped. She and Romanov have been watching us since day one," Margo said. "And that commo device you found on the roof, Benny Ray, was probably what she was using to send intel reports. Cellular calls are too risky."

"Well, we’ll have to deal with it when we get back. I’m thinking Trout will put her under surveillance."

"Nothin’ to watch, Boss." Benny Ray tapped the map with his finger. "I’m betting that Miss Debbie is right here. Hiking is the last thing she’d be doin’ right now."

Matt nodded, remembering that she had said she was going hiking. "I’m sure we’ll get some answers when we get to the facility."

"Yep. I’m goin’ to relieve Deke." Benny Ray picked up his gear and stepped outside.

"Hey, Major, what was Benny Ray talking about earlier? He asked me to take a look at something," Rico said.

"Yeah. It’s a long story…"

Trout’s Office
The Pentagon
0800 hours

Trout looked up as he heard the knock on his door. "Come in."

"Mr. Trout, there’s someone outside who needs to talk to you."

"Really. Who is it?"

"They said to say ‘I hear the weather’s nice in California this time of year." The guard looked a little confused.

"Okay. Cancel my morning appointments, please."

A plain black sedan was waiting for him outside in the fire lane. Trout walked up to it, under the watchful gaze of the Marine guards. The passenger side window unrolled. "Ah, thank you for agreeing to see me."

"What is this all-" Trout was cut off midsentence when the back door flew open and the person inside yanked him into the car. The guards ran after as the car squealed out of the parking lot. There was nothing they could do.

"Now, now, Mr. Trout, you’ve been a little too interested in certain affairs that do not concern you." The speaker pulled out a syringe. "Have a nice nap."

The Skeena River
0400 hours

The long slope fell away below the team, ending at the swollen river barely visible through the trees.

"Wait, nobody ever told me about crossing that." Nick looked at the river. It was flooded from all the rain.

"We are." Matt looked over Benny Ray’s shoulder at the map.

They found cover by the bank, in some thick brush. The far side of the river was at least 150 yards away. Benny Ray examined the other shore, using the scope on his Remington. "It’s clear, Boss."

"I can’t swim." Nick said.

"You’re kidding, right?" Rico asked.

"Well, I can a little. I was the best doggy paddler in my class."

"Great." Matt sighed, looking for a way out of that one.

Benny Ray didn’t say anything, instead, he took the rope from his pack and held it up.

"Good idea. We can pull Nick across." Margo smiled.

"And you too, Boss. Don’t think swimming with that leg is gonna work too well."

Matt had to admit that Benny Ray had a point. "Okay, do it."

"Who’s doing the swimming?" Deke looked warily at the river.

"Got it covered." Benny Ray tied one end of the rope securely around the tree. The other end he tied around himself. "Get ready to pull me in if the current’s too bad."

"If it is we’ll just have to go upstream and hope it gets better," Matt said, thinking that might be a better plan.

"We don’t have the time." Deke looked at his watch, checking the date. "They could be packing up the whole op as we speak."

Rico and Deke took the coil of rope from the sniper. Benny Ray waded out into the river and then started swimming. The swift current quickly carried him downstream. He felt the rope tighten around him as the others pulled him back.

"Maybe if you go upstream a little." Margo was looking at the river.
"Then the current will just carry you down here."

Rico fed out rope as Benny Ray walked up to a rock outcropping. "Okay, that’s all I got!" the medic yelled over the river noise.

Benny Ray jumped off the rocks, landing in the water. Rico and Deke watched carefully from the shore. Using the current, Benny Ray made it across this time, tying the rope off onto another tree. He took the Remington out of it's waterproof case, securing the bank while the others crossed.

Matt stayed close behind Nick as he pulled himself across the river. "You going to make it?"

"Yeah." Nick didn’t take his eyes off the river bank.

After checking to make sure everyone was there and in one piece, Matt took out his knife to cut the rope.

"Major, we can’t leave that here, someone’ll see it. I’ll go get it."

"Benny Ray, that’s out of the question. I’m not going to have you swim back across that just to get the rope." Matt could see how exhausted the sniper was.

"I’d look for something like that." Benny Ray wasn’t taking no for an answer.

Matt looked hard at the sniper. "Rico, you feel up to swimming the damn river again?"

"Sure thing." Rico grinned. Without question the best swimmer in the group, he was looking forward to taking on the river again.

Benny Ray grinned at Matt. "Thanks, Boss."

The medic made it halfway across before a log carried by the river caught on the rope, pulling it, and Rico, underwater.

"Pull, Deke!" Benny Ray shouted, throwing his full weight backwards.

"I’m trying!"

The end of the rope came out of the water fast, sending the two men flying backwards. It had been neatly severed. There was no sign of Rico.

After a few seconds, the team saw Rico shoot up to the surface. Using his knife, the spotter had cut himself free of the rope. Without hesitation, Benny Ray leapt into the water after his friend.

"Benny Ray, no!" Matt yelled, but the sniper either didn’t hear, or simply ignored the order.

Benny Ray swept his gaze over the water, at the same time as he tried to keep his head above the surface. He lost sight of Rico briefly, then spotted him again. The medic saw Benny Ray and started swimming toward him.

Benny Ray, using the current to move faster, made it to Rico swiftly. He grabbed Rico’s web gear, using it to begin towing him to shore. Matt and the others were out of sight, a curve in the river blocking their view.

"Come on, Rico! Help me out here!" Benny Ray was shouting to be heard over the river.

"I am, amigo!" Rico shook the water out of his eyes and began swimming again.

The sniper saw a clump of branches and dead brush coming at them around another turn in the river. He reached out a hand, barely managing to grab it. Rico was still being swept along by the current. The force snapped Benny Ray around, but the sniper kept his grip. Rico used Benny Ray to pull himself over to the branch. Both of them could do little more than hold on, there was no way to get to shore.

Abandoned Farm
Outside of Reston, Virginia
1200 hours

Trout woke up, his head pounding. "Where am I?"

"Now that’s not a very intelligent question, is it, Mr. Trout."

"Why am I being held here?"

"Well, as I explained to you before, you have been too interested in affairs that really are none of your business."

Finally getting a good look at his captor, Trout recognized him instantly. "Romanov."

"Very good, Xavier. Now, we are going to take a little trip. Andrei?"

Trout felt another needle prick and once again everything went black.

"Prepare the airplane. We will be leaving within the hour."

Skeena River
0512 hours

Matt ran along the bank, jumping fallen trees and rocks in his path. The others followed right behind him, Margo still carrying the rope.

"Look!" Nick pointed.

"Okay, get that rope out there. Rico, Benny Ray, hold on!"

Rico looked up when he heard Matt’s voice. "Hurry up, Major!"

Matt threw the rope out towards the stranded sniper team. Rico grabbed it. "You go, Benny Ray."

"No way. You’re closer."

Knowing there was no time to argue with the stubborn Benny Ray, Rico tied the rope around himself, then let go. Matt and Deke started pulling while Margo and Nick anchored the rope. After the spotter was safely ashore, the brought Benny Ray in. Both men were shivering from being in the water so long.

"Is it safe to build a fire?" Margo asked.

"I don’t know." Matt took the map out of Benny Ray’s pack. "We’re way off course and real close to the state park. We should be safe."

"This whole thing was screwed up from the beginning," Nick groused as he began collecting wood for a fire.

"Look at the bright side, at least it stopped raining." Margo replied.

"That’s a lot better, thanks, Margo," Nick sighed.

After drying themselves out, the team started off again. Matt was worried, they had a lot more ground to cover and not a lot of time to do it in. He set a fast pace, stopping often to make sure everyone was keeping up. Deke was last, his hair now covered by a new bandanna, after Nick cracked a joke about not having to worry about a signal mirror to call in air support.
Matt smiled to himself, at least if Delvecchio was still making jokes, then they couldn’t be in too bad a shape.

Romanov’s Compound
The Next Day

Debbie walked down the corridor. People automatically gave her right of way, out of respect. Her abilities were highly valued. Over the years she had turned up a lot of valuable intel. Romanov had called, saying they had a new subject for interrogation. Since she wasn’t due back at the Silver Star for another ten days, she decided to handle this one herself. Enteringthe cafeteria, she saw Romanov holding a table for them.

"It has been too long." He smiled as he pulled her chair out for her.

"Yes it has. How was your trip?"

"Most interesting. I have read your report. Impressive work."

"As always. Who is it that you have for me?"

"Ah, I knew you would be interested in talking to him. With regrets, I cannot allow it. It would destroy your cover."

"Really. I am assuming it is Xavier Trout."

"You would be correct. I will have him debriefed, then he will be disposed of. He knows too much to be left alive, or taken back to Russia."

Skeena River
1550 hours

Matt waved the team to a halt. "Okay, people, here’s the story. We have
about a half day’s travel left. We’ll rest up here until tonight-" At that
statement, he received grateful looks from the team. "And make the rest of
the trip at night."

Benny Ray helped Margo assemble the satcom device the team was using. Hopefully they would be able to get through this time.

"Major, they want to talk to you."

"This is Bravo Alpha. Go."

"Alpha, this is base. I have some bad news. We have a missing person, do you copy?"

"Trout," Matt whispered in response to the confused faces around him. "Copy that. New orders?"

"It has been confirmed that he is in your area. Recovery has been judged impossible. Terminate, repeat, terminate."

"Acknowledged. Bravo Zulu, out."

"Wait, did they just order us to take out Trout?" Deke asked.

"That’s exactly what they just said." Matt looked grim.

"Matt, we can’t do that!" Margo said, wanting to have a little talk with the person on the other end of the radio.

"I know. We’ll get Trout out of there. No matter what it takes."

"Okay, so we rescue Trout. Good idea. But how?" Nick asked.

"You see that building over there?" Benny Ray pointed.

"No, there’s a hill in the way."

The sniper grumbled something under his breath.

"I know, I know. It’s there." Nick grinned, not wanting to miss a chance to get on Benny Ray’s nerves.

"Well, we are going to walk in, get Trout, and blow it up. Not that hard, if you think about it."
"Yeah, but ain’t there going to be a bunch of people in there not wanting us to walk in? What about them?"

Benny Ray chambered a round in his rifle. "I think we could reach an agreement."

Matt chuckled. "We are going to walk in there, but it’s a little more complicated. We don’t know where they’re holding Trout. Add Debbie to that and we have a little situation here. I’m hoping she’s not there, but we don’t get what we want in life all the time."

"Hey, Matt, if she’s really doing what the pictures show her doing, then she knows the risks. Just like we do." Margo said calmly.

"The lady’s right. If she’s in there, I’m considering her a target." Benny Ray looked deadly serious. "She ain’t gonna be real happy when she finds out we know."

Matt looked at his team sharply. "Look people, she’s a target if and only if she poses a threat to yourself or anyone else on this team. Is that understood?" He waited until he received acknowledgments from everyone before continuing. "We don’t know why she spied on us. I want answers before we do anything with her. And that does not include shooting her on
sight, Benny Ray, we just don’t work like that."

The sniper accepted the rebuke calmly. He knew Matt had a good point. It was true that they didn’t know why Debbie had turned. But he would keep a close eye on Debbie, should they find her. Benny Ray also knew that he wouldn’t hesitate if Debbie tried anything.

"Good. Okay, Rico, let’s take a look at those building plans again. I want to find out the most likely places where they’d hold a prisoner. After that, get some sleep. I think we’ll need it."

Romanov’s Compound
2010 hours

Trout paced the small cell for the hundredth time. He had no chance to escape. There was a guard posted around the clock, as well as video surveillance. They really weren’t taking any chances. Being realistic as usual, Trout knew that unless Matt Shepherd got word that he was being held here, he had little chance of coming out of this alive.

The door opening at the end of the corridor distracted him from his thoughts. He heard footsteps approach the cell door, then it opened.

"Mr. Trout, I have someone here who would really like to talk to you."

Outside the compound, Rico and Benny Ray moved into a position in order to observe the guard patterns. After going over the building layout again, Matt had decided to move in tonight. If any information was obtained from Trout, people could die. And Matt knew that there were ways of making anyone talk.

"We count twelve guards, in pairs of two. Also three dog handlers. Unable to determine security in the woods," Rico said over the radio.

"Copy that. Come back to rally point. We go as planned."

Trout yelped as he was pushed hard into a chair. Using handcuffs, the guard secured his prisoner. Then he removed Trout’s blindfold. Blinking in the sudden light, Trout easily recognized Romanov.

"Well, well, so good to see you again. We do have a lot to talk about, Mr. Trout."

"I’m not going to tell you anything. You might as well kill me now and get it over with."

"Who said anything about killing you?" Romanov put a concerned look on his face.

"I’m not stupid. You can’t let me go."

"I can. But only if you cooperate. If you decide not to, well, let us just say that everyone will talk."

"You all know the plan. Our objective is getting Trout out alive and then destroying the building. That’s it. Understand?" Matt made eye contact with each of his people. He didn’t want anyone going off to look for Debbie. "Good. Move out."

Deke carefully set the charges to blow the front door. The perimeter guards had been no problem at all. "Okay peeps. Here goes."

After the door was blown, Matt and Margo went in first, clearing the first room. The team moved in pairs down the hallway, securing the rooms as they went. They came to a stairway leading to a basement. Deke led the way down it, moving carefully. It was dark in the hall below. Matt, following behind Deke, bumped into him as the other man stopped suddenly. The reason for that became clear.

"Hello, Matt." The all too familiar voice was as cheerful as always. "Funny meeting you here. Now drop your weapons."

Matt, Deke, and Margo traded looks and slowly lowered their weapons to the floor.

"There, are you happy? I did it." Debbie snarled at the men behind her, tears standing in her eyes.

Matt looked uncertainly at her, not sure what she was doing. "Debbie, what are you-"

"Matt, I’m sorry! They made me come here to get you. I’m so sorry." With that, she let a few tears trickle down her cheeks. If Shepherd bought her story, that she was taken hostage and made to turn against him, then she had a chance of keeping her cover intact.

Nick had backed up fast as soon as he saw the welcoming party. He ran silently up the stairs, forcing Benny Ray ahead of him. The anxious sniper tried twice to go back down the stairs, but was pushed on by Nick. Before either of his teammates could open their mouths, Nick filled them in on what was going on.

"Nice catch," Rico whispered. "We can go around the other way. Come on."

Matt looked at Debbie unsure as to whether or not she was telling the truth. Margo, on the other hand, had no trouble figuring out what was going on. "You’re full of it. We know damn well who you’re working for."

"Margo, please..." Debbie put a pleading note into her voice. "They knew about my past. I had to do this, or they would..."

"Your past? You don’t have one." Deke sounded very sure about that.

"What past?" Matt reminded himself that sometimes it seemed as if Deke knew more about each of them then they did about themselves. If there was one thing that Deke did best, finding information about the people he worked with was it. Debbie included.

"I never told you. It was in my juvenile record. That’s sealed."

"Not to me," Deke said.

One of the guards suddenly stepped forward. "That’s enough! We have orders to secure these prisoners. Save the reunions for later, Debbie."

Rico waved Benny Ray forward. At a signal from him, the three operators opened fire, using surprise and their silenced weapons to take out most of the guards. The others broke and ran, unnerved at the quickness of the attack. Debbie ran also, yelling for Matt to save her.

Benny Ray say her coming. He stepped in front of her, reaching out to block her escape.

"Watch out!" Margo yelled, knowing that Deke was right, Debbie was lying about being a hostage.

Debbie heard Margo yell. Being unarmed, she did the only thing she could. When the sniper grabbed her, she expertly flipped him, sending him crashing to the floor. Benny Ray was up in a second, wincing. Only the sniper’s quick reflexes saved him from the almost fatal blow she aimed at his throat.

He stepped inside the attack, taking the hit on his shoulder. Losing her balance, Debbie tripped. Benny Ray took advantage of the mistake and pinned her against the wall. A spray of bullets forced him to abandon his prisoner. Rico provided covering fire as his friend raced back for cover, leaving Debbie out in the open.

Two small objects rolled down the hallway. Matt, looking for the shooter, didn’t see them until it was too late. The flash-bang grenades went off, effectively blinding the major. Benny Ray and Rico had both seen them and managed to avoid being blinded.

Debbie grabbed Matt from behind, quickly pulling a knife and holding it to his throat. Matt went still as soon as he realized what it was.

"Just put the knife down and you’ll walk away from this." Rico tried to keep his voice calm.

"No way. I’m sorry it had to work out this way. Now, let’s try this again. Put down your weapons." All traces of the old Debbie were gone. Her voice and expression were cold.

"I can’t do that. Now either put the knife down or I’ll add another hole to that head of yours." Negotiating was not something Benny Ray was any good at.

"You know better. Move, and he dies."

"Last chance." Benny Ray took it personally when someone threatened one of his teammates.
"No, this is your last chance! Drop it!" Debbie sounded a little nervous. She had seen how Benny Ray reacted when Matt had been shot in the bar. She had also found what had happened to the man responsible.

"Benny Ray..." Deke started.

The sniper didn’t reply, only adjusted his aim. Losing her nerve, Debbie lowered the knife, allowing Margo to take it. Not wanting to take any chances, Margo used a pair of handcuffs to secure their prisoner.

"Nice job. We continue as planned. Let’s do it, we don’t have much time." As he and Margo passed Benny Ray, Matt reached out and gave the sniper a quick slap on his shoulder as thanks.

Benny Ray nodded and led Rico and Deke toward their assigned part of the building. Deke would handle planting the explosives while the others would look for Trout.

Margo pulled the first block of Semtex out of her pack, attaching it to the load bearing wall in front of her.

"Just one block, right?" Matt grinned.

"Very funny," Margo replied sarcastically.

On the other side of the building, Rico, Benny Ray, and Deke finished searching. "Nothing over here." Benny Ray spoke softly into his comlink.

"Copy that. Keep looking." Matt covered Margo as she went around the corner.

She took down the two guards quickly. "I think we found Trout."

Matt opened the sliding panel on the door. Peering inside, he quickly saw Trout lying down on the narrow cot. "Trout! Get under that thing, we’re going to blow it."

Trout grinned in relief and did as he was told. Romanov had taken a quick break so he could eat dinner, ordering the prisoner to be placed back in his cell. Trout was not looking forward to when Romanov got back from eating.

"Ah, Matt?"

"What, Nick?"

"Here. These might be a little easier." He was holding the keys.

"Thanks." Once Trout was with them again, safely between Nick and Margo, Matt tried to raise Benny Ray on the comlink. "We found Trout. Finish setting the charges and meet as planned." Frowning because he got no answer, he tried again. "Benny Ray, Rico, come in!"

"Hang on, Boss, we got a problem!" Rico was breathing hard. Gunfire could be heard in the background.

Matt waited a few moments and tried again. Nobody answer

Part 2 / Return to Author's Page

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