So that's Wintersole, Lou Eliot, Rustman's foreman, thought. Damn.

For reasons that he didn't care to think about right then, Eliot suddenly felt very grateful that Rustman had unexpectedly taken him off perimeter duty and ordered him to assist in the VIP blind that morning.

'Holy shit!' As Simon Whatley's astonished exclamation rang out across the water, Regis J. Smallsreed wheeled and stared openmouthed at the dark-hooded figure casually replacing the. 223 Ruger Mini-14 semiautomatic rifle in the blind's gun rack.

Before Smallsreed could say anything, however, the hooded figure locked eyes with the stunned congressman for a brief instant, then shrugged with visible indifference before sinking out of view into the blind.

'Who… the hell is that?' Smallsreed gasped, his voice — when he finally found it again — tottering on the brink of uncontrolled rage.

'That's Win — uh, one of John's new employees,' Simon Whatley quickly corrected himself when he noticed the deadly look the military officer shot in his direction.

'I don't give a good goddamn how new the son of a bitch is,' the furious politician spit at his district office manager. 'I want to know who gave him permission to shoot at one of my cans… and with a rifle — a goddamned rifle — to boot. That's… that's outrageous!'

Although Whatley cringed, Smallsreed's anger failed to ruffle the retired military officer long accustomed to the temper tantrums of his superiors.

'Guilty as charged, Congressman,' Rustman admitted calmly. 'My people have standing orders to pick off any cripples that fly out of shotgun range.'

'But…' the congressman started to protest, but Rustman continued.

'Thing is, it's a real pain in the ass trying to find the damned things when they get out too far. And I don't like leaving a bunch of birds lying around where people can find them and maybe get curious, especially when we're running one of our, uh, lead-shot experiments,' he added, a casual but deliberate reference to the fact that the only hunter shooting in this particular instance was already six Canvasbacks over his limit — not counting the one blown apart with a single. 22 rifle round — and had killed them all illegally with unplugged shotguns and lead shot.

'Makes a lot of sense to me,' Simon Whatley automatically pitched

But the sixteen-term congressman was in no mood to be mollified that easily.

'Well, as far as I'm concerned, there aren't going to be any more cripples flying out of shotgun range when I'm the one driving the goddamned lead around here.'

Smallsreed looked at the expensive shotgun in his hand, then at the pretty young intern who stared wide- eyed and openmouthed at the carnage floating around the sunken duck blind.

'Damn it to hell, young lady!' he roared, hurling the shotgun into the corner of the blind with such force, the startled young woman nearly wet her pants. 'When I put that safety in the OFF position, I expected it to stay that way!'

Simon Whatley quickly stepped in to protect the terrified underling.

'That was my fault, Regis. My fault all the way,' he whispered soothingly behind Smallsreed's left ear. 'I should've checked the safety myself. I forgot that this was Maria's first time out duck hunting. You know how easy it is to get caught up in the excitement of seeing that first V coming in low over the water, and taking in that first lungful of burnt powder. Bet you probably remember your first time like it was yesterday.'

'The first time' was one of Congressman Regis J. Smallsreed's most reliable response buttons, and Simon Whatley knew exactly when and how to press it to get the desired effect.

The first time.

Oh yes.

Regis J. Smallsreed nodded his head slowly. 'It's been a whole bunch of yesterdays since my first duck hunt. Hate to think how many. But I certainly do remember every minute of that gloriously beautiful morning.' The congressman's anger visibly subsided as he reminisced, one beefy hand rubbing his chin thoughtfully.

'Glorious as that day was, though, I bet you didn't even come close to the kind of shooting you did today,' Whatley added, automatically massaging the congressman's shoulder while Rustman signaled Lou Eliot to release the two increasingly anxious retrievers. 'That was a damned fine recovery shot. Best I've ever seen.'

'It was a hell of a shot, Congressman.' Rustman smiled agreeably as his two highly trained dogs hit the water and joyfully churned toward the closest of the floating carcasses.

Incapable of letting it rest there, Smallsreed's chief local sycophant and deal-maker turned to the lieutenant colonel's longtime foreman. 'You've seen a few drops in your day, Lou. What do you think? Forget that the man happens to be one of the most powerful congressmen in the entire country — hell, one of the most powerful men in the whole damned world. Tell him what you think.'

Lou Eliot smiled, savoring the underlying ironies for a long moment while he absorbed the breathtaking beauty of the marshland that comprised the huge northern shore of Loggerhead Lake.

His lake.

His marshland.

His preserve.

He never thought of it in any other way.

Lou Eliot had long since lost what little awe or respect he once felt for the select representatives of wealth, power, and influence who frequented the Rustman family preserve to savor the end of a sport doomed to disappear for the simple reason that the flyways were rapidly running out of ducks. Few of those privileged men and women possessed the vigor or hunting skills of a dedicated waterfowler like Regis J. Smallsreed. Fewer still would forsake the comforts of a warm bed — and an even warmer companion — in one of the three VIP cabins to camp out in a cold, damp duck blind on the far northern shore of Loggerhead Lake, awaiting daybreak when the pleasures of waterfowl hunting peaked.

As Eliot learned, a late-morning shoot at a few dozen pen-raised and covertly released mallards easily satisfied the sporting urges of most of his employer's VIP guests. And the avian survivors — the sixty-some percent of the birds which somehow managed to evade a virtual blizzard of shot pellets, often fired at distances of less than twenty-five yards — earned the right to make that same suicidal run over the next visiting 'hunter.'

All of which explained why Simon Whatley's comment so amused Lou Eliot.

Forget that the man happens to be one of the most powerful congressmen in the entire county-hell, one of the most powerful men in the whole damned world. Tell him what you think.

Yeah, right.

Okay, Congressman, I think you're a greedy, self-serving son of a bitch, who'd rather drink smooth whiskey, shoot wild ducks, screw willing and not-so-willing women and backstab people over money than anything else in the world, Eliot thought to himself. Just like me.

Powerful words, those.

Just like me.

For a brief moment, he wondered what it would feel like when he destroyed Smallsreed. Destroyed one of the most powerful men in Congress. Hell, in the whole damned world.

Probably just like wringing the neck of one of them goddamned grain-sucking Canada geese that spent their entire whole lives screwing, honking, and shitting all over the place and driving decent, hardworking people crazy.

The irresistible imagery caused Eliot to smile, and momentarily to forget the chilling presence of the hooded figure in the nearby blind.

But in spite of his treacherous thoughts, and most recent treacherous actions, Lou Eliot never allowed himself to forget the most critical element of his job: the need to be ready and willing — if not necessarily eager — to soothe and stroke and bolster a wide range of terribly fragile egos. Even a skilled waterfowler like Smallsreed, who certainly knew better than to trust the ready status of his weapons to a young and inexperienced aide, required an occasional, albeit exaggerated, reaffirmation of status.

Fortunately for the veteran foreman's self-respect, however, he didn't need to exaggerate his praise this time. Simon Whatley, the shameless ass-kisser, and U.S. Army Ranger Reserve Battalion Commander Lt. Colonel John Rustman — who, as Eliot knew all too well, much preferred to kick ass than kiss it — had called it exactly right.

It was a hell of a shot.

'First-rate shooting, Congressman. Can't think of more than a half dozen times I've ever seen anyone match

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