it, far back as I can remember.' The deeply tanned marsh foreman flashed Smallsreed a thumbs-up sign of approval before accepting the two Canvasback carcasses from his employer's prize retrievers.

The genuine praise from a respected waterfowl expert like Eliot placated the testy legislator.

'God as my judge, it felt right all the way.' Smallsreed squinted up at the empty sky smugly. 'Been lucky that way all my life. Blessed with good genetic stock. Steady hands, sharp eyes, clear lungs. And a nose for the kill,' he added, tapping his prominently veined and pockmarked beak with a mischievous wink.

'Looks like the dogs approve, too.' Simon Whatley chuckled as the two exuberant chocolate Labs shook and sprayed the blind's occupants after enthusiastically retrieving another pair of the dead Canvasbacks.

'If the rest of my constituents were that cheerful, loyal, and obedient, I'd never need to attend another fund- raiser for the rest of my career,' the congressman cracked to his solicitous audience as he wiped the water from his face.

'Uh-oh, looks like another flight coming in from the north.' His host nodded toward some distant flecks of black in the sky as he expertly reloaded the first shotgun and handed it to Smallsreed. 'Better hold the dogs, Lou,' he added, pointing at the grinning Labs eager to retrieve the floating remains of the last duck.

Eliot quickly wiped his bloody hands on his jeans and grabbed the dogs' collars.

'Another batch of cans?' The gleam of unsatiated greed made Smallsreed's deep-set eyes appear much larger than they actually were.

Rustman nodded his head thoughtfully. 'Wouldn't surprise me one bit. Maybe even a redhead or two, if our luck holds. Been having some real nice shooting out here the past couple days.'

The military officer didn't bother to mention that the congressman owed most of his luck to Lou Eliot's considerable skill in capturing young wild Canvasbacks from Canadian nesting sites, smuggling them across the border, and concealing them in pens in a remote area of the Rustman family preserve. There, fed sparingly and protected from natural and human predators, the ducks awaited the opportune moment — such as a visit from a dependably generous and influential congressman — when another well-trained employee released them, a few at a time. Like plump golden magnets, they flew right back into the migratory flyway, and directly over the Rustman Preserve's VIP blinds.

Not exactly like shooting ducks in a barrel, the lieutenant colonel thought. But close. Damned close.

He smiled, pleased by the idea that even an experienced waterfowler like Smallsreed could be fooled if enough money were put into the effort.

'Redheads?' The politician's porcine eyes blinked greedily. Redheads were even rarer than Canvasbacks.

Rustman nodded. 'Keep your eyes peeled. We…'

But before the wealthy landowner could expand on his meticulously orchestrated optimistic prediction, a pair of barely audible beeps caused him to reach for the small transmitter/receiver on his belt again.

'Rustman,' he acknowledged the summons softly into the collar mike, his wary eyes systematically sweeping the surrounding weeds, waterways, and sky while everyone else in the blind fell silent. Other than a single small plane flying high above the distant clouds to the west and the approaching flight of birds, he saw no other signs of life in the area.

'Looks like we got ourselves a bogey on your four o'clock position, Colonel.'

The voice Rustman heard through the small receiver in his right ear sounded flat and monotone, a result of the encryption software hard-programmed into the radios.

'How far out?'

The voice designated a vector point in a roughly southeasterly direction, but the military officer kept his eyes fixed on Loggerhead Lake's northern shore.

'Two — maybe three klicks,' the voice added.

'Any ID?' Rustman knew the others all watched him, and undoubtedly listened carefully to his softly spoken words.

'Don't recognize the boat, but it sure looks like that damned duck cop to me.'

Rustman nodded to himself. 'Damned duck cop' was the unofficial designation for Special Agent Wilbur Boggs — the sole law enforcement investigator of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service assigned to this beautiful part of southern Oregon. And from Rustman's entirely prejudiced point of view, the sole impediment to unrestricted waterfowl hunting on the Rustman family preserve.

'Is he coming our way?' The question sounded foolish to Rustman even as he asked it. Boggs was a persistent and bullheaded investigator, and he knew the precise locations of Rustman's two VIP blinds. Of course he'd be coming this way. Why else would a federal wildlife agent work on a weekend, and trespass on private property, except to harass Rustman and his very important clients?

You goddamned officious asshole, the lieutenant colonel swore silently. Why can't you have a price like everybody else?

'He's been hanging out near the shore with a line out since early this morning. He could've just been fishing, but he acted like he was waiting for something, or somebody. Kept looking around with his binoculars, and I never did see him bait a hook,' the voice in Rustman's earpiece reported. 'Then he took off all of a sudden, like he intended to loop around and come into the blind area from the south, but I think it's going to be a while before he gets there. Looks like he got his prop caught up in a net real bad, and probably smacked his head pretty hard, too. Want us to make sure he stays put for a while?'

Lt. Colonel John Rustman's lips curled in a taut, thin-lipped smile, pleased at the success of the precautionary additions to his security system. Two days previously, he'd hired a couple of locals to come out at night and string a thousand yards of sun-rotted polyester netting a few inches beneath the water in specific patterns along the outer, lakeside perimeter of the blind area.

Rustman designed the system so that at least ten feet of netting would wrap tightly around an outboard propeller before one or more of the thick hemp ropes holding the net pulled tight and brought everything — prop, motor, boat, and occupants — to a dead stop. And from the sound of things, it had worked perfectly. If all went as planned, it would take Special Agent Wilbur Boggs at least an hour to cut away the netting and rope tightly wound around his prop.

Plenty of time to get Congressman Regis J. Smallsreed out of the area and settled in for a little R amp;R. No need to make things more difficult now. No need at all.

'Who is it?' His foreman's voice disrupted Rustman's train of thought.

'That damned duck cop again.' Rustman made no effort to hide the disgust in his voice.

'Shit!' Eliot swore as he quickly brought a small pair of binoculars up to his eyes to scan the distant shoreline at the four o'clock position. 'Are we ever going to get rid of that guy?'

Rustman's smile remained fixed, but the expression in his eyes changed to something far more chilling than amused.

'Colonel, you want us to make sure he stays put?' the voice in his ear repeated insistently.

Rustman continued to stare at his foreman for a long moment with cold, empty eyes before finally answering:

'No, leave him be. Just keep an eye on him and let me know when he cuts himself loose. But send the boats in for a pickup, right now,' Rustman ordered in that same subdued voice. Then he turned to his foreman.

'Lou, let's get things cleaned up.'

'Yes sir,' Eliot acknowledged, tensing in response to the edge in Rustman's voice as the military officer moved toward the other occupants of the blind.

'Hate to be the bearer of bad news, folks,' Rustman apologized as he removed the loaded shotgun from Smallsreed's hands, 'but it looks like we've got to cut things short this morning.'

'Is there a problem?'

Rustman shrugged at his famous guest. 'Not really a problem, Congressman. Just a federal wildlife agent poking his nose around private property where he's got no damned business.'

Smallsreed stared wistfully at the newly arriving formation swooping low over a distant patch of reeds and cattails, but a trio of small jet boats immediately distracted him.

'I thought you said you had this sort of thing under control, Simon?' he accused his district office manager angrily.

'I thought I did, sir,' Simon Whatley admitted. 'I'll look into it immediately, as soon as we get back to the office.'

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