Ocelot checked through his pack again, rearranging the items inside for the fifth time since the small plane had taken off from a private airfield outside Miami. He’d checked them a few more times before that, on the little jet that had brought them to Miami from Seattle. He didn’t say “Can’t this thing go any faster?” but he was certainly thinking it.

Behind him, Gabriel sat silently against one of the windows, looking out over the verdant jungle below. His face was unreadable; he hadn’t spoken for over an hour. Next to him Kestrel was catching a catnap, leaned against his shoulder. She held a small pack in her lap; another lay between her feet. The engines droned an incessant background to Ocelot’s growing impatience.

They had been in the air for a couple of hours so far, and counting. This didn’t include the hour they’d had to wait in Miami while Gabriel wrestled with the local Carib League authorities who were unwilling to let the plane take off without what they called ‘proper authorization.’ Working his way up the chain until he was finally introduced to the tiny airfield’s commander, the young man had produced ‘proper authorization’ in the form of a rather hefty credstick, and they had been on their way.

The pilot, who had conversed with Kestrel because she was the only one of the three of them who spoke any Spanish (Gabriel could understand any language using his telepathic abilities but had not yet learned to speak this one), was a rather burnt-out-looking ork rigger named Javier Lopez. They had told both Lopez and the airfield authorities about the plane crash, but both had seemed disinterested. The commander promised to radio ahead to Iquitos and let them know, but both he and Lopez told them that if a plane had indeed crashed into the Amazonian jungle, a rescue expedition would probably be unsuccessful due to the shifting topography of the magic-rich Amazonian lands. Still, though, enough nuyen could go a long way in convincing anyone to do just about anything, and Javier Lopez was no exception. Especially when all he had to do was deliver them to Iquitos.

Ocelot finished rearranging his gear and shoved his bag disgustedly back under the seat. All he wanted to do was move, to get out there and find ‘Hawk, and here he was forced to sit in this tiny craft for several hours, cooling his heels and allowing his mind to conjure up all sorts of terrible fates that could be befalling his friend while he, Ocelot, did nothing. He sighed loudly and stretched out, putting one foot up on the empty seat next to him.

Behind him, Kestrel had awakened and sat back up, also stretching. She glanced out the window, noted that the scenery hadn’t changed since she’d gone to sleep, and settled back. “Have you ever been to Amazonia, Ocelot?” she asked suddenly.

He twisted back around to look at her, glad to see that she no longer had her head on Gabriel’s shoulder. “Yeah.”

She looked surprised. “Really? You never told me about it.”

“It was awhile ago. The whole team went. We got hired to babysit a group of scientists looking for some weird fruit.”

Gabriel glanced up. “This wouldn’t have anything to do with Dunkelzahn’s will, would it? I recall that it contained a mention of a fruit in Amazonia—a kiwi, if I remember correctly.”

“You got a good memory. Yeah, that was the one. It was a nasty situation. That’s why I’m worried about ‘Hawk. He knows what to expect down there, but magic can get tricky and sometimes it’s good to have some muscle on your side, you know?”

Kestrel nodded soberly. “And if he’s with a bunch of magical grad students, odds are good that muscle is one thing they haven’t got.” She paused a moment, then regarded Ocelot again. “So what’s it like? What should we expect? I’ve been in the jungle before, but Amazonia—well, I’ve heard it isn’t like anything else around.”

Ocelot noticed that Gabriel seemed interested in his words as well. He shrugged. “It’s hot, it’s muggy as hell, and there are plants everywhere. It’s like you can almost see ‘em growing if you look hard enough. Not to mention some of the nastiest awakened creatures around, awakened vines, bugs—” he shuddered. “Wouldn’t be my choice of a place to go back to, if it wasn’t for something like this.” He glanced at Gabriel. “I’m surprised you haven’t been there. Seems right up your alley, seeing as how you wouldn’t have to worry about much of the local wildlife.”

“It was on my list,” the young man said mildly. “But the fact is, you’re not quite correct about my having to worry about the—as you call it—’local wildlife.’ The lands of Amazonia are home to at least seven dracoforms that I am aware of. There are probably more who are a bit more secretive.”

“Dracoforms?” Ocelot’s eyes widened. “You mean dragons?”

“Feathered serpents, in most cases,” Gabriel told him. “They are known for being rather territorial about the lands they claim as their own, especially in regard to the trespassing of other dracoforms.”

Ocelot took a deep breath. “Tell me there aren’t any in the area where you think the plane went down.”

Gabriel shook his head. “No, the nearest one I am aware of lairs about a hundred kilometers to the north of the likely crash site. And at any rate, they don’t tend to pay attention to the activities of humans and metahumans, as long as they’re left alone.”

“But if you show up—”

“I said dracoforms, not Great Dracoforms,” Gabriel said, “None of the Greats lair near where we’re going. Except for Hualpa, who has far more important things on his mind than to be concerned with us, the others should not be an issue. My masking should be more than sufficient to conceal my true nature from the adults. ”

“Ah, the little guys,” Ocelot said with only a bit of sarcasm. “Nothing to worry about, then.”

Gabriel started to answer, caught Ocelot’s tone, and chose not to.

“So,” Kestrel broke in before things could go any further, “standard jungle-type provisions should apply? I know how to outfit an expedition for a normal jungle run, but—”

“Yeah.” Ocelot seemed grateful to have something to do other than watch the unending greenness below and listen to the rumble of the plane’s twin prop engines. “We can pick up most of it in Iquitos, most likely. Didn’t get time to do any research, but it looks big enough that we should be able to find most of what we’re looking for.”

“We’ll probably want to hire a local guide,” Kestrel said. “From the sound of it, it’s pretty easy to get lost in there.”

Ocelot nodded reluctantly. “Yeah...you got a point.” He didn’t like trusting someone they’d never met, but he had to remind himself that they had Gabriel along, and the dragon should be able to deal with just about any eventuality. He also remembered how on the team’s last trip down here their GPS systems were only intermittently useful, often scrambled by the strange forces that had taken hold of the jungle. “Yeah, that should probably be our first priority when we land. Once we’ve got a guide he can help us find the right gear. But we have to hurry.”

Kestrel reached up and put a hand on his arm. “We’re hurrying as fast as we can, Ocelot,” she said gently. “We’ll find him.”

The plane landed at an even smaller airfield than the one they’d left a few hours previously. It was barely more than a strip of cleared land with a couple of small dusty buildings nearby that served as terminal and office. A motley-looking collection of locals lounged outside the buildings, drinking beer and watching the action. As the three companions exited their little craft, they could feel the eyes of the locals scrutinizing them from head to toe. “Great,” Kestrel muttered under her breath. “Doesn’t look like they get too many gringos around here.”

“Not exactly a tourist spot,” Ocelot agreed. Although the lounging men didn’t make any move in their direction, the silent examination was making him nervous. He tightened his grip around his two duffel bags, drawing the one containing his weapons in closer to his body.

As they approached the terminal building, the locals’ expressions changed from bored interest to closer scrutiny. They stopped their conversations and watched as the newcomers drew closer.

Kestrel stepped boldly up to them. “Hola,” she said, switching easily to Spanish. “We are seeking a guide to take us into Amazonia. Our friend’s plane has gone down and we must search for him.

One of the men spoke, and for a few moments he and Kestrel exchanged words in rapid-fire Spanish. Kestrel reached into her pocket and pulled out a small sheaf of low-denomination bills, which she handed to the man. He counted them, stuck them in his pocket, and said something else. “Gracias,” Kestrel told him. Nodding farewell, she turned back to her companions.

“What’d he say?” Ocelot asked, still eyeing the man a bit dubiously.

“He said we’d probably not have much luck hiring a guide, but the best place to look is a place called Aquino’s, downtown. He said there’s a guy who hangs out there named Reynaldo Ruiz, and if we can convince him to take us out, he’s the best guide in town.”

“Are you sure this guy’s on the level?” Ocelot’s suspicion (added to by the fact that he hadn’t understood a word of the conversation beyond Hola), was warring with his impatience to get to Amazonia and start looking for ‘Hawk and the downed plane.

“He was telling the truth,” Gabriel said. “Particularly after Kestrel gave him the money.”

Kestrel nodded. “It’s a good thing we took the time to get some local currency—I don’t think that guy would have been as happy to get a handful of nuyen.” She looked around. “We’d better get going. It’s not far to Aquino’s, but it’ll be dark soon.”

The three of them gathered their gear and headed out after instructing Javier Lopez to remain in town and be available when they needed to return to Miami. The pilot didn’t have a problem with that—he’d already befriended one of the other pilots and they were bound for another of the local cantinas for some R&R.

Aquino’s proved to be a rather busy place, given the size of the town. They heard it before they found it, as the raucous strains of what sounded like synth-pop music with a Latin flair dominated the area around it. It was a two-story adobe building with a bar/cantina/restaurant on the bottom floor and rooms for rent on the second. Once again Kestrel, Ocelot, and Gabriel felt all eyes on them as they entered through the place’s swinging, old-West-style half-doors. It wasn’t long before people returned to their own pursuits again, but the three companions could still sense the low murmurs of conversation that persisted even after the scrutiny was toned down to an occasional glance their way. The place smelled good—a combination of spicy food and various kinds of liquor, with just the faintest tang of sweat underneath.

“Okay, well this is easy,” Ocelot said. “You’re looking for something, you ask at the bar, right?”

“Why not?” Kestrel headed through the crowd, heedless of the looks she was getting from the largely-male population of the cantina. Gabriel and Ocelot followed behind her, with Ocelot wishing he’d taken the time to learn some Spanish.

Before they could make it all the way to the bar, the crowd in front of them parted to let through two men: one dressed in loose pants and a voluminous patterned shirt, the other wearing more standard jeans and white T-shirt with a tan vest over it as an attempt at propriety. The first man, large and effusively grinning, strode up to them and offered his hand. “Ah, señors and señorita,” he cried in English, “welcome to Iquitos!” His small dark eyes darted over the threesome and, apparently deciding that Ocelot was their leader, grabbed his hand and began pumping it with enthusiasm.

Were we expected?” Gabriel’s mental voice gently touched Kestrel’s and Ocelot’s minds.

“Not that I know of,” Kestrel whispered. “Maybe there isn’t much to do around here. Or else somebody at the airport called ahead.”

Gabriel nodded and stepped forward. “I’m afraid you have us at a loss, Señor—”

The man’s gaze shifted to Gabriel for a moment, his mind obviously processing the incongruity of this man, obviously by far the youngest of the group, speaking for it. To compensate, he turned back to Ocelot and grinned again. “Señor Gonzalo Marquez-Camarillo,” he announced proudly. “We don’t get many visitors to our little town, but we like to make those who do visit us feel welcome.”

Look at the rich gringos,” Kestrel thought with sour amusement at Gabriel. He merely smiled and nodded once to indicate he’d heard.

“Listen,” Ocelot said, taking that moment to reclaim his hand from the man’s sweaty and overzealous grip, “We’d love to chat, but we need to find a guide and get going. We’ve got a plane down out there.”

Gonzalo Marquez-Camarillo’s broad face furrowed in concern. “A—plane, señor?”

“Our friend’s plane has crashed out there,” Kestrel added. “In Amazonia. That’s why we’re here. We need to get to him as fast as possible.” She cocked her head at him. “We’ll need to hire a guide, and we need gear and provisions for several days at least. And a Jeep if we can get one. The gentlemen at the airport said we should talk to Reynaldo Ruiz. Do you know where we can find him?”

The man appeared taken aback by Kestrel’s abruptness. “A plane, Señorita? But—there must be some mistake. There has been no report of a plane crash anywhere near this area.”

“No report?” Gabriel looked surprised. “But you are the closest town to their last reported position. Wouldn’t you pick up a radio distress signal?”

“Yes, señor, if there was one,” Marquez-Camarillo said patiently, almost as if speaking to a small child. “But I can assure you that there has been no such signal. Isn’t that right, Francisco?”

The man in the jeans and T-shirt nodded and came forward. He was a tall, lean, weather-worn man in his early forties. “I fear so, señor. My brother Ernesto is the controller here—he monitors the radios. There has been no distress signal.”

The three companions exchanged glances. “Maybe their radio was malfunctioning,” Ocelot suggested. “Maybe that’s why ‘Hawk sent the watcher.” Turning back to the two men, he shrugged. “I don’t know why they didn’t signal, or why the guy in Miami didn’t call here like he said he would, but they’re out there and we’re going after them. And while we’re at it, we’d better report the crash to the local authorities so they can get somebody out there to help look.”

Marquez-Camarillo looked as if he couldn’t decide whether to be miffed or apologetic. “Señor, I’m sorry, but I am the local authority. I am the chief of police here in Iquitos. I fear that as much as I would like to send searchers out to look for your lost plane, I hope you will understand that without any sort of distress signal, I cannot simply—”

“—you can’t just take our word for it,” Kestrel finished, a little bitterly.

The man spread his arms in a gesture of futility. “I am sorry, señorita. The jungle—it is a dangerous place, and without proper authorization, the Amazonian authorities—”

“Okay,” Ocelot interrupted. “You can’t go, but we’re going. Now. As soon as we can get our hands on what we need. Can you help us with that at least?”

Marquez-Camarillo looked at them and then at Francisco.

Francisco shrugged and turned back to the three. “You and your friends plan to set out there—” He swept his arm out toward the jungle— “alone? With only a single guide? Reynaldo Ruiz is good, of course, but I doubt that he—” Clearly he didn’t think these three rather pale and obviously wealthy city-dwellers had a chance of succeeding in such folly.

“Hey, we’ll take all the guides we can get,” Kestrel said. “But we need to get going. The plane’s already been down for several hours.”

“And you plan to leave as soon as possible?” Francisco looked out one of the windows, which showed a sky just beginning to take on the dim edges of twilight. “Señorita, the jungle—it is even more dangerous at night.”

Ocelot blew air through his teeth impatiently. “Look—our friend is out there now. It’s gonna be dark soon and he’s gonna be out there in the dark. We’ll have to camp in the dark. So what’s the big deal?”

“Can you help us?” Gabriel fixed his calm gaze on the two men. “Or if you cannot, can you show us someone who can?”

Francisco sighed. For a long moment, he didn’t say anything. Then he nodded toward the end of the bar, where a hard-looking man in his mid-thirties sat drinking a beer. “That is Reynaldo Ruiz. He is indeed your best chance to find someone in the Amazonian jungle, if he will take the job. He does not work cheaply, though, and I do not believe that he will leave tonight. There are authorizations to be secured, papers to be obtained...and unless you have brought supplies, provisions, and—”

“We’ll worry about all that after we talk to Señor Ruiz,” Kestrel said. She flashed a smile at Marquez-Camarillo and Francisco. “Thank you, señors. You have been most helpful. We won’t bother you any more.” Turning to Ocelot and Gabriel, she nodded toward the town. “Looks like we’ve got ourselves a destination, guys.”

The two officials looked as if they were preparing to say something else, but changed their minds. They nodded to the newcomers and moved off into the crowd, keeping an eye on them from a distance. Their conversation, whatever it was, was lost in the hubbub of the cantina’s activity.

Reynaldo Ruiz had apparently been tipped to the fact that three gringos would be looking for him soon, because he was already watching them as they jostled their way up to the bar. His lean, weather-beaten face wore a slight smile, his hand resting easily next to a large half-full glass of beer. He took particular interest in the tall, athletic-looking blonde woman who was currently leading the push.

“Reynaldo Ruiz?” the woman asked as the three of them finally reached the bar.

Ruiz nodded slowly. His expression was calm, unperturbed. “I understand you seek a guide,” he said in accented English.

“Yeah,” Ocelot said. “We need to get into Amazonia. And we need to do it soon.”

“Indeed,” Ruiz said, nodding. His eyes were still and impossible to read. “And why is it that you seek to enter Amazonia so quickly? It is a difficult thing—perhaps you are aware of this.”

Ocelot drew breath to say something else, but before he could, Gabriel stepped forward. “Señor Ruiz,” he said softly, “A very good friend of ours and several others were on a plane that has crashed somewhere in the Amazonian jungle. I am sure you can understand our haste. Every hour we wait lessens the chance that we will find our friends in time.”

Ruiz looked into the young man’s clear violet eyes and for the first time there was a slight break in his smooth expression. “Señor,” he said, “I understand. If there are lives at stake, then of course you must act as quickly as possible. But I do not know if you are familiar with the Amazonian jungle. It is not a place that one enters in haste, and putting aside the physical dangers, there is the matter of the Amazonian authorities. In order to enter you must have the proper papers, authorizations, itinerary on file—”

“We’ll give you 20,000 soles,” Kestrel broke in. “Half as soon as we leave, and the other half when we come back. Plus a bonus if we find our friends and get them back here safely. But you have to take care of the—authorizations, and you have to do it now. We want to leave tonight.”

Ruiz’ eyes, which had widened involuntarily at the mention of the proposed payment, showed disappointment at Kestrel’s final words. “I am sorry, señorita,” he said, and he truly sounded like he was sorry. “There is no way that we can leave tonight. Tomorrow morning at dawn would be the soonest. It will take that long for me to get my boat ready, gather supplies—”

He is telling the truth,” Gabriel’s voice spoke in Ocelot’s and Kestrel’s minds.

Kestrel sighed. “Tomorrow morning, first thing? But you can take care of everything and get us in then.”

“For what you offer, señorita, I think it can be arranged,” Ruiz said with a tight little smile. “Where do you seek to go?”

“Then you’ll take the job?” Ocelot asked.

Ruiz nodded. “Yes, señor. I cannot turn down such a payment as you offer.” There was a slight edge of something in his voice, but Ocelot couldn’t make it out.

Gabriel pulled out the printout he had made at Ocelot’s place and spread it across the table. “This is the plane’s approximate location,” he said, pointing to the marked X on the map.

Ruiz studied the map and nodded. “You realize, do you not, that it will take us at least two days to reach this position, and that is if we do not run into any trouble. By that time, the jungle vegetation will have grown over most of the wreckage.”

“We’ll worry about that when the time comes,” Kestrel said. “And as for trouble—we can handle ourselves better than you might think. We should be able to deal with most of what might come up.”

Ruiz didn’t look like he believed her, but he wasn’t going to argue with someone who was offering that much money. He pointed at a river that flowed near the crash site, only a couple of kilometers away. “We will begin here, using my boat. I will drop anchor here—after that we will have to strike out overland. That will be the most dangerous part. As I said, two days is if we do not encounter any trouble.”

Ocelot nodded. “Do we need to outfit ourselves, or will you take care of that?” It certainly didn’t appear that there would be anywhere to buy supplies in town this late at night.

“I will handle the provisions and gear,” Ruiz said. “I have friends who will open their stores for me with the proper...inducement. Meet me here at Aquino’s at dawn.” He looked at Kestrel. “I will need funds to procure the proper provisions and authorizations we will need.”

Ocelot started to say something, but Gabriel cut him off. “How much?”

Ruiz thought about it for a moment, mentally ticking off the charges in his head. “Five thousand soles should cover it.”

Again Ocelot started to say something, and again Gabriel smoothly interrupted him. “That will be fine. Please see to it that you get everything we might need.” He pulled out a credstick, fiddled with the numbers, and handed it to Ruiz. He looked the man in the eyes. “It is very important to us that we find our friends, Señor Ruiz. Anything you can do to help us in this endeavor will be well appreciated—and well compensated.”

Ruiz nodded slowly, as if some unspoken communication had just passed from the young man to him. “I understand, señor. I will do everything I can. Meet me here tomorrow at dawn and we will be underway.”

“Gracias,” Gabriel murmured. “Is there somewhere we can stay for the night? We have not made prior arrangements.”

“There should be rooms available here,” Ruiz said. “Ask at the bar.”

Gabriel nodded, collected his two friends with a glance, and bid Ruiz goodnight. When they had moved off, Ocelot glared at him. “Gabriel, you throw money around like that and he’s gonna rook us for every nuyen we’ve got.”

“Do you want to bargain with Winterhawk’s life?” Gabriel asked softly. “I have more money than I could possibly ever use. If it will help us to find him faster, then so be it.”

Ocelot settled down a bit as he realized this was true. “Is he honest, though? Will he take the money and run?”

Gabriel shook his head. “No. He is not entirely honest, but I sense that he does have the abilities he claims. He can guide us, and his desire for more money will bring him back in the morning. He wants very much to earn the remaining money we have offered him—including the bonus.”

“I thought you didn’t read minds,” Ocelot said.

“I do not. That I could read simply from his aura.”

“Oh.” Ocelot sighed. “Okay, well, since we can’t leave tonight, we’d better get some sleep. I want to get out first thing in the morning. And I guess I’d better call Aubrey and let him know what’s up.”

It turned out that there was only one large room available for rent that evening at Aquino’s, so, not having any other choice, they took it. It was about what they had expected of a hotel room in the area—simple, mostly clean, with few amenities. There were two beds and a chair; Gabriel, who didn’t plan to sleep much anyway, volunteered to take the chair. When everyone was settled in, Ocelot went out to the balcony and took out his cell phone. Doing the mental calculation he figured it would be early in the morning in London, but he decided Aubrey probably wouldn’t mind an update.

The phone rang several more times than his last call. When Aubrey picked up, he sounded tired. “Stone Manor.”


Immediately the tiredness dropped away. “Terry? Is that you?”

“Yeah. Just wanted to let you know we’re in Peru. We’ve found a guide and we’ll be heading out first thing in the morning to try to locate the crash site.”

There was a sigh at the other end. “Thank God. Do you know where to look?”

“We’ve got a pretty good idea. What about you? Did you get hold of the authorities?”

There was a louder sigh. “Oh, sir, it’s turning into quite a nightmare. I’ve called all sorts of people, including Dr. Leifeld, the head of Dr. Stone’s department. He’s gotten the British Consulate into it, because the Amazonian authorities are dragging their feet, wanting proof that a plane actually crashed. They claim there was no radio communication. They’re trying to work it out, but Dr. Leifeld told me it will be at least a day, perhaps as long as two, before they send anyone out to search. They’re convinced that if a plane did crash in Amazonia, the occupants are—” His voice hitched as he was unable to finish the thought. “So a day or two more won’t make a difference to them.”

Yeah, that’s about right. Damn bureaucrats argue over crap while people are in trouble. “Don’t worry, Aubrey. You do what you can, rattle as many cages as you can on your end, and we’ll do what we can here. You’d be surprised at what money can buy when you’re waving enough of it under somebody’s nose.”

“Sir, of course I’ll see to it that you’re reimbursed for—”

“Don’t worry about it, Aubrey. It’s taken care of.”

“Yes, sir.” Aubrey sounded exhausted. “Please, sir—be careful. I have heard that it’s very dangerous in Amazonia.”

“I will. And just so you know—I’m not alone. Kestrel’s with me. And Gabriel.”

There was a long pause. “Gabriel, sir? The Gabriel who visited us earlier this year?”

“That’d be the one. So you don’t have much to worry about, security-wise. And if anybody can find ‘Hawk...”

“Yes, sir.” The voice on the other end sounded a bit more hopeful. “Thank you for telling me. I will do what I can here. Do you want me to come—”

“No. There’s no need for you to come down. We’ve got it under control. Just do what you do there. I’ll try to call back, but don’t worry if you don’t hear. Phones don’t work too well in Amazonia, so once we leave we’ll probably be out of touch.”

“Yes, sir. Thank you. And good luck. My prayers will be with you all.”

“Thanks.” He didn’t add we’re gonna need ‘em, but he thought Aubrey might have sensed it anyway.

It was very late that night when Ocelot, who hadn’t even thought he was asleep at all, was awakened by the slightest of sounds. His eyes flew open, his muscles tensing, his mind instantly throwing off the fog of sleep. Was someone—

Remain still,” came a gentle voice in his mind. Gabriel’s voice. Ocelot could see from his position that the young man was slumped in his chair, feigning sleep. Across the room, the tiny noise came again: skritch, scrape...

What is it?” he thought back, forcing himself to relax and appear to be still deep in slumber. Whatever was making the noise, it had either already awakened Gabriel or else he had never gone to sleep in the first place.

Someone is attempting to break into the room,” came the calm reply. “I’d like to see who it is and what they want.

The scraping persisted, tentative and very quiet.

Is Kestrel awake?” Without moving his head, Ocelot glanced over toward the other bed where Kestrel appeared to be deeply asleep.

Yes. She awakened about the same time you did. Just a moment,” he added, as the scraping sound once again got a little louder. There was a snik as the cheap lock on the balcony door gave way and then the sound of the door handle being pulled.

In his bed, Ocelot tensed, waiting.

The balcony door was slowly and carefully opening. Behind it, a small, shadowy figure moved into the room on silent feet. Leaving the door open, the figure tiptoed along the wall toward Ocelot’s bed, reaching into one of its pockets as it went. “Now,” Gabriel’s voice spoke in Ocelot’s mind as the open door swung just as silently shut and closed with a click.

Ocelot wasted no time. Leaping out of bed at the full speed of wired reflexes, he had the wiry figure in his strong grip before it even had a chance to move. “Turn the light on,” he growled as Kestrel jumped from her own bed to join him. She switched on the ancient lamp on the nightstand between the two beds.

The figure, now revealed to be a boy in his late teens, was writhing in Ocelot’s grasp, muttering a stream of Aztlaner, English, and Spanish obscenities as he began to realize that he was in serious trouble. He was dressed in loose-fitting pants, T-shirt, shapeless jacket, and socks.

“Looks like we’ve got us a visitor,” Ocelot said through his teeth. He shook the boy by the wrists. “What the hell are you doing here?”

Their captive did not answer, except to glare sullenly at Ocelot and continue in his attempts to break free of the iron grip that held him.

“Maybe we should see what he was trying to get out of his pocket,” Kestrel said. Without asking permission, she began to rummage in the boy’s jacket pockets. Her eyes widened as she pulled out the items and tossed them on the bed. “That was not what I was expecting.”

“Shit,” Ocelot agreed, nodding. “Ares Squirt pistol? Looks brand new, too. I didn’t think anybody down here except politicians and mercs could afford one of those things. Especially a kid.”

“It is new,” Kestrel confirmed, picking it up to inspect it more closely. “Fully loaded, too.” She handed it to Gabriel and picked up the next item, a large metal hip flask full of liquid. Unscrewing the cap, she carefully waved her hand across the open mouth to waft some of the scent to her nostrils. “This is getting worse,” she said grimly, wrinkling her nose and re-capping the flask.



Apparently the boy knew that word, for at that moment he made a lunge toward the window. Ocelot pulled him up short and twisted one of his arms behind his back, yanking it painfully upward. The boy stopped struggling.

Kestrel looked at the flask and at the third item the boy had carried: a cigarette lighter. “Guys—if I didn’t know better—and I don’t—I’d say somebody was trying to kill us. Not just rob the turistas, but really kill us.”

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