Southern California

Just after midnight

The car fishtailed as it bounced from the plowed field onto the old winding road somewhere in Southern California. Morris Lawrence watched the driver spin the steering wheel back and forth. Suddenly he realized the fishtailing was artificial. More power remained in the engine. Better their pursuers think the vehicle maxed out.

They gained speed as the car straightened its path. Behind them a dark SUV threatened to tip over as it followed their path out of the cabbage field. Then it too roared ahead seeking to close the distance to the sedan. Muzzle flashes came from the passenger side. The poorly aimed pistol rounds missed Lawrence's car.

"They're getting desperate," Lawrence heard the driver say. "Good for us."

"'Bout time something was good for us," replied Lawrence. "How far to the place?"

"Half a mile, give or take. I'll keep clear of car behind us, but I wish I knew... Oh DAMN! Look across the fields. That's got to be another crew wagon headed to cut us off."

"Can you beat them to the sanctuary?"

"Pretty easily," the driver replied through clenched teeth as he turned all the car's lights off. "But I want 'em arriving right behind us. Ideally both crews should rush in bumper to bumper. Everybody hang on, the ride's going to get wilder."

If that's possible, thought Lawrence. The sedan surged ahead, then yawed from side to side of the road as if dodging fire. Then Lawrence saw a wall begin on the left side of the road. Ahead a slight blue glow outlined a driveway through the nine foot adobe structure. Further ahead he could barely see the other crew wagon, now blacked out. The enemy vehicle slowed as if to swing into a roadblock. The sedan hugged the road's right shoulder. Suddenly the driver hit the brake as he spun the wheel left.

The tires screamed as the car slid into a ninety degree turn. Clouds of choking dust rolled both ways along the road in the calm midnight air. Lawrence realized that without that brief blue glow he would be sure of the car slamming into the thick wall. Instead he felt more than saw his vehicle squirt through the opening and its barely open heavy metal gates. Even before the car completely cleared the gates the driver again turned hard left.

Lawrence heard the howl of both SUV's tires as they rushed to follow. Something flashed blue over his right shoulder. He managed to look around. To his astonishment a figure bathed in blue light stood in the center of the drive, directly in the SUV's path. Bounding over a low curb snapped his head back around. As the car slithered to a halt Lawrence prepared to help his companions. A hologram, he thought, that's got to be a hologram.

Lawrence pulled a rapid fire "room broom" out of the glove box. Ready to protect his injured companions, he realized how much the three DEA Agents in the battered car owed to the soft spoken George Vega.

An hour earlier

The dark SUV smashed through the metal guardrail. A split second later it began to careen down the very steep hillside. Just before George Vega lost sight of the vehicle it flipped end for end with the bottom of the near precipice still several hundred feet below.

George felt little regret for the six or eight men in the Suburban. A few seconds earlier they had tried their best to kill him. He eased back down the emergency truck pull out. One headlight still worked. The other shattered on the wooden "Keep Out" signs that informed all, and sundry, that the graveled strip of upgrade happened to be reserved for trucks with no brakes. Expecting to slam into George's car, the other driver over corrected when his target disappeared. He caught edge of the pullout under one tire. He spun the wheel to avoid tipping over. By the time all four tires hit the ground again his bumper impacted the guard rail.

"How's Heister?" asked George as he headed the battered sedan back down the southern California State Road.

"No sign of him coming around. But the bleeding's stopped," replied O'Brien from the back seat.

"Suggestions?" George continued. He tested the car's handling before putting on more speed.

In the shotgun seat Agent Lawrence said, "We know there're two or three more cars after us. We're two hours away from anything bigger than a rural county sheriff's office. No real help there. These perps'd go through one of those like Arnold in the first Terminator movie to get at us. Our S.W.A.T. unit got diverted. They're at least two hours out, also. Vega, are there any military bases shown on the GPS?"

L.A.P.D. Detective Sergeant George Vega depressed the zoom-out button on the steering wheel twice. The GPS in the dashboard expanded its display. He recognized the names of several small towns and their connecting roads. He ran through the display options as Lawrence watched the screen. Shortly Lawrence sighed, "No go."

Glancing at the GPS while on the turn filled downgrade, George thought he saw something familiar at the far corner of the display. He moved the view in that direction. An unmarked winding line appeared cut twice by a large state highway. I'd recognize that in my sleep George told himself.

"Lawrence, you're Heister's backup," he began. "Do you have any plans or ideas beyond 'drive and pray'?"

"No, sorry to say," sighed Lawrence. "Heister called every backup number I know before he caught that ricochet. If you've got a plan, I'll be glad to listen."

"Your rep says that you're not nearly as obsessively by-the-book as Heister," continued George. "What I have in mind never was, and never will be, in the book. Not by a long shot. There's a real sanctuary on that map, but there's a price. You don't tell anybody, especially not Heister, what you see there. Homeland Security knows the place exists, but they leave it be. Can you two handle that?"

O'Brien grunted an assent. Lawrence hesitated for a second, then asked, "We won't actually witness criminal activity, will we?"

Vega grinned, "Doubt it. Hopefully just some serious ass kicking. Get out the wonder phone. I'll give you the number."

Lawrence extracted the supposedly untraceable satellite phone from his suit pocket. He realized the stickiness on the instrument came from Heister's blood. He pushed the "random call" button. Seconds later he punched George's number into the forwarding equipment at one of several dozen relay offices around the world. "Can I put it on the speaker?" he asked as the number rang.

"Why not," George replied with an evil grin. He'll just get more confused.

"Security, Garcia," answered a voice that sounded a bit old.

"Ramon, its George Vega. Sorry, no time to talk. Is he there?"

"Hola, George. You mean the Super Surfer? Course he's here. Where else would he be but wearing out our mice?"

George Vega smiled at the image. "Put me on the speaker, please... Renaldo, can you hear me?"

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As he listened, Lawrence felt out of his depth, and rightfully so. His field experience seemed nonexistent compared to the others. He served as Heister's backup only because his cyber leg-work caused the team to exist in the first place. His discovery of a covert computer server's location could mean a severe setback for, or even liquidation of, a major South American drug cartel. If they could clone the hard drive secretly. Sgt. Vega got volunteered to the team because of his local undercover connections. He got them in.

Good information. Good plan. Good men, but rotten timing and luck. As they exited with the backup drive in hand, a surprise inspection visit by the cartel's senior enforcer blew everything higher than up. But luck also stood with them, after a fashion.

Vega's blazing Glock opened a path for them when they all should have died in a barrage of lead. Vega got through untouched. I got off with a crease in the thigh that barely bled. O'Brian's triceps had a hole in it, but his vest caught the rest of the burst. Adrenaline got him to the car. Now he had trouble breathing. Broken ribs, probably. Heister fired his piece and punched numbers on the phone as they fought their way out. Then he caught a ricochet in the head as they reached the car.

Vega drove. Vega called the shots in the rolling firefight that ended only moments ago. Lawrence knew one thing. The rest of the cartel's hired guns would not stop. To fail the cartel was to die. End of story. Sgt. Vega's plan, whatever it turned out to be, held more hope than any other. He looked at the GPS again. He saw only unfamiliar roads. Who could this Renaldo be? What could he do?

Then a voice boomed out of the dashboard, "I am here, George."

Lawrence considered himself a good reader of accents and dialects. This Renaldo's voice puzzled him a bit. He spoke excellent English with a slight Hispanic accent, but that accent seemed just a touch different from any other he knew. He listened closely to the conversation's content, hoping to retain vocal clues to think about later. If there was a later.

George Vega began by asking a very curious question, "You can't come to me yet, can you?"

"Not yet, my friend. You know the reason. You need help, I take it?" Lawrence heard excitement building in that robust voice even if he did not understand the discussion.

"Some very nasty ladronies are after me and my companions. They work for one of the opium peddlers past Baja."

Lawrence decided he didn't want the next burst of harsh Spanish and something else translated. The barrage ended in English.

"They shame every child of Espana and Los Indioes, too. You have a plan, if I know you, George."

Vega laughed grimly, "Just a basic one. We head in your direction. Chances are one or more carloads will be on our tail by then. Can you be ready in a little less than an hour?"

"Of course." Grim laughter nearly maxed out the speakers. "Call when you are five minutes away. Now tell me what to expect."

Lawrence listened to Vega give a concise situation report. Renaldo asked a few questions before the connection ended. A couple of those questions seemed very odd.

-------------------------

Ramon Garcia listened to the conversation in the Rancho Braza's small security center. He quickly decided that either Hell-On-Earth, or the next Die Hard movie, would soon roll through the front gates. Things had been extremely quiet of late. Renaldo chafed with a third degree case of cabin fever. Any real action would be welcome. Not to mention that Renaldo hated bullies of any kind. Tension filled the room. Ramon felt the exposed hair on his arms stand up. When the call ended images from the compound's various security cameras flickered across the monitor screens. Then Garcia realized he was alone.

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Just after midnight

As Lawrence sprang out of the car time seemed to slow to a crawl for him. His mind registered the images from his eyes at amazing speed. The strange blue glow served to light the area enough to make out shapes. The half circle around the gate was lined with pallets of adobe brick and other building materials. A lowboy trailer and some other construction equipment filled in the gaps. Their battered car plugged the only hole left in the ring.

Not twenty feet beyond the end of the open gates stood an incredible figure. A glowing blue anachronism. A refugee from a Dime Novel. The lead SUV flipped on all its lights. The dark blue fluffy sleeves and gaucho pants seemed to shimmer in a breeze. The even darker blue cape flowed behind him. The riding boots, belt, and full mask seemed black. The flat brimmed hat carried the wings of Mercury on the sides of its crown.

The figure did not flinch as the beams from the light-bar washed over him. Now the SUV became visible through the heavy wrought iron gates as it accelerated to smash anything confronting it.

In the bright light Lawrence realized that some sort of cable trailed to the ground from the man's hand. With a speed near lightning the blue gloved hand arced back behind the winged hat, then flashed forward. The glowing blue whip in that hand struck like a viper at the first SUV's windshield.

And passed right through the glass! Lawrence saw the driver lurch toward the center of the heavy vehicle. The steering wheel spun to the right with no hand touching it. The top heavy SUV almost went up on two wheels from the hard turn. A split second later it smashed into a pallet of adobe bricks.

Now the second SUV bore down on the masked figure who spun the whip around his head. Lawrence's mind screamed for him to move, jump, do anything not to be crushed by the accelerating vehicle.

The gap shrunk, but still the figure did not move. The blue glow simply winked out just before impact. The driver never saw the bundles of reinforcing steel re-bar angled up from the ground like an ancient phalanx of spears.

The SUV impaled itself in four places at thirty miles an hour. Metal screamed. Sparks flew. Men yelled and cursed as the big Suburban smashed to a halt in the space of less than ten feet. Suddenly the area fell quiet.

Now armed men poured from the two SUV's. Some stumbled, but many seemed unhurt. Lawrence inventoried their weapons. Pistols, small fully automatic pieces, semi-automatic shotguns, and one M-16/grenade launcher combo. He checked the status of his Sidewinder street sweeper. As he brought the weapon to bear a hand lightly touched his shoulder.

George Vega whispered into Lawrence's ear, "Fire only to protect us. Leave the ladronies to Argus, The Blue Eagle."

The hit men formed a defensive circle. They began to edge in the direction of the car they sought. Lawrence thumbed off his weapon's safety, but kept his finger out of the trigger guard.

A few night noises returned just before hearty laughter sounded from the center of the circle. That laughter carried a sharp edge. The hit men glanced around.

The blue glow returned. With it Argus appeared in the circle's center. He held the whip in his left hand this time. A glittering blue sword filled his other hand.

The hit men whirled almost as one. A commanding voice rang out from the circle, "Don't hit each other!"

Argus threw back his head and laughed. Lawrence heard both challenge and determination in the robust sound. Then the glow around the masked man brightened sharply. Several of the hit men tried to shade their eyes as Argus began to move among them.

The glow dropped to almost nothing. Lawrence watched with open mouthed fascination as Argus seemed to dance here and there. The glow of the whip brightened as it moved. In the first stroke it flashed against the ankles of a man pivoting to get a clear shot. His legs folded under him. He fell to the ground yelling in pain. Now the whip drove another man back, but untouched. A third thug moved to smash Argus in the head with a shotgun butt. The masked man's other hand flashed around. The blue sword seemed to sweep though the hit man's entire midsection. He stopped moving, then fell hard to the ground. In spite of the heavy blade's slash, Lawrence could make out no blood on the prone figure.

Argus seemed to glide over the ground. The tip of the glowing blue whip danced with a mind of its own. A mind that found target after distant target. The sparkling sword left streaks on Lawrence's retinas as it kept desperate hit men from tackling the caped figure. Thug after thug fell. Those lightly touched by whip or blade writhed in pain on the pavement. Others simply crumpled unmoving to the ground.

Finally one desperate man managed to bring a shotgun to bear on the nimble masked man. Argus smoothly slid to the right. Then the blue glow winked out just before the weapon discharged. The reddish-white muzzle flash lit the scene for a split second, but the masked man had vanished. Down range another hit man yelled as a few pellets tore into his arm.

Open mouthed as the last hit man fell, Lawrence finally stammered, "What. Who is he?"

George Vega chuckled grimly, "One day soon he will be my great-great-great-grandfather-in-law."