“Damn straight trying to kill us—and make it look like an accident,” Ocelot agreed. He was still holding onto the young intruder’s arms and seemed to have discouraged him, at least for the moment, from further escape attempts.

“Not just that,” Gabriel said, his gaze on the boy, “but risk killing countless others in the process. I doubt this building is terribly fire-safe.”

Kestrel pointed at the sheaf of soles lying on the bed next to the other three items. “Lot of money for a kid his age, especially around here, wouldn’t you say?”

“Ask him what the hell he’s doing here, will you?” Ocelot growled.

She moved in front of the captive and asked a question in Spanish. The boy muttered something sullenly and looked away.

“What’d he say?”

“He says he doesn’t have to tell us anything.”

Ocelot yanked the captive’s arm up harder, causing him to squawk in pain. “Tell him he’d better tell us something or he’s gonna be carryin’ this arm home with him. That’s if we let him go at all.”

Gabriel gave Ocelot a disapproving look, but didn’t say anything.

Kestrel’s expression hardened as she said something else to the boy. Ocelot, even with his limited knowledge of Spanish, could tell that she wasn’t translating his threats verbatim.

The boy’s eyes darted between his three captors. Suddenly, all the fight went out of him. He slumped in Ocelot’s grasp, his head bowing, and mumbled something.

Kestrel didn’t wait to be asked this time. “He said he’s sorry. That he saw the rich tourists come into town and thought he’d break into our room and see if he could steal anything. He asks our forgiveness.”

“Bullshit,” Ocelot said. He could tell from Kestrel’s eyes that she didn’t believe the kid’s story any more than he did. A glance at Gabriel confirmed it. “Tell him that’s not good enough. Tell him to give us the real story if he wants to keep breathing.”

Again Kestrel said something in Spanish. This time, the boy stiffened a bit and genuine fear showed in his eyes. Kestrel glared at him, popped her hand razors, and held them in front of his face, then said something in a harsh tone.

The boy’s eyes got huge and he immedately let loose with a stream of Spanish, wriggling desperately in Ocelot’s grip. He looked imploringly at Kestrel as he spoke.

“Okay,” she said, “this is getting weirder. He says we’re right—he was lying. He says a guy hired him tonight to break into our room, and that the guy who hired him gave him these things, along with the money.”

“He speaks the truth,” Gabriel murmured.

“Does he know what this guy looks like?” Ocelot demanded. “Was it—” he started to say the name, then quickly amended “—our guide?”

Kestrel asked him this, and the boy shook his head. He looked a little more calm now, but not much.

“He says he didn’t see the guy closely,” Kestrel said after more conversation. “But it wasn’t Ruiz—he says he knows Ruiz and this wasn’t him. It was someone dressed in dark clothes and hiding deep in the shadows. He doesn’t think it’s anyone from around here.”

“This doesn’t make any sense,” Ocelot said. “Why would somebody be after us? It’s not like we’re doing anything illegal—”

“—for a change,” Kestrel added wryly.

Ocelot ignored her and continued: “And besides that, hardly anybody knows we’re even here. If somebody’s hirin’ people to kill us, and to burn down a whole building full of people to do it, they’ve got to have a better reason than we look like rich gringos and they want our cred.”

Kestrel asked something else, then shook her head at the boy’s reply. “He says he has no idea why this person wanted us dead. He took the job for the money.”

Gabriel nodded. “I sense that he knows no more than he is telling.”

“You sure you couldn’t—” Ocelot raised his free hand and wiggled his fingers behind the boy’s head where the captive couldn’t see.

“No.” Gabriel didn’t elaborate; he didn’t have to. Ocelot knew his policy on intruding into the minds of the unwilling—he just had to take the shot anyway because he was Ocelot.

“So what are we going to do with him?” Kestrel asked. She looked contemptuously toward the items on the bed and back at the boy.

“What happens to murderers?” Ocelot asked. He made a slashing motion across his own throat. “Hey—maybe it’ll convince whoever’s after us to stay out of our business.”

Gabriel shook his head. “No,” he said in their minds. “There will be no killing tonight.

Ocelot sighed. “I was afraid you’d feel that way.” He glared at Gabriel. “So what the hell are we supposed to do with him—let him go? I’m not nuts about letting murderers go on their merry way.”

The boy’s eyes shifted back and forth between the three, but he said nothing.

“Wait,” Kestrel said. “I have an idea.” She motioned toward the items on the bed. “Get those out of sight, okay?”

As Ocelot was occupied, Gabriel did as she requested, moving the Squirt, money, flask, and lighter into one of the nightstand drawers.

When that was done, Kestrel said something to the boy. For a long time he didn’t answer, then he nodded resignedly.

“What’d you tell him?” Ocelot asked.

“I told him we’re going to call the police and tell them he tried to break in to rob us. They’ll throw him in jail for awhile but he’ll probably be out in a day or two—especially after we’re gone.”

“So we’re not going to say anything about the attempted murder?” Ocelot sounded indignant.

“It is easier this way, Ocelot,” Gabriel said softly. “Perhaps if those who hired him think we detained him for mere theft, it will give us a bit of a head start.”

“You think they’ll be that dumb?”

“No.” Gabriel shook his head. “I don’t. But there is not much else we can do.”

The police, in the form of Francisco and a disheveled-looking compatriot who looked like he had been roused from his bed, arrived fairly quickly given the time of night. They hustled the boy away and apologized profusely for any inconvenience the visitors had experienced. Shortly after they left, the owner of Aquino’s came up to apologize personally, his expression suggesting that he feared the guests would (completely justifiably, in his mind) beat him mercilessly for the breach of protocol. They sent him away with assurances that everything was fine and accepted his offer of paying for their room and providing free breakfast the next morning.

When everyone had left, the three occupants of the room breathed sighs of relief and finally allowed themselves to sit down. “Well, that’s it,” Ocelot said, running his hand back through his hair. “I don’t think I’m sleeping any more tonight. How ‘bout you guys?”

Kestrel shook her head. “Nope. We’ve only got a couple of hours before we’re supposed to meet Ruiz anyway. It’s hardly worth it.” She opened the drawer and drew out the items. “I’d give quite a bit to find out what’s in the Squirt, but I’m not ready to test it myself.”

Ocelot looked at Gabriel. “Any way you can tell?”

The young man shook his head with a small amused smile. “I’m sorry, Ocelot. I do have many abilities, but discerning the chemical compositions of liquids by assensing them is not among them.”

“I just want to know if it’s deadly poison or just something to knock us out,” Kestrel said, eyeing the little gun dubiously. “I don’t think I want to carry it around if it’s packing something deadly.”

“We could mail it to Harry and have him analyze it,” Ocelot said, “but chances are we wouldn’t get back the results in time. Besides,” he added, “what difference does it make, really? Whether we got killed by whatever’s in that gun or by the fire the kid was gonna set afterward, we’d still be just as dead.”

“The question is, why?” Gabriel said. “Clearly someone wants us dead, but there is no explanation.” He turned to Ocelot. “Is there any reason why Winterhawk’s expedition might be the target of anything? Could the crash be more than an accident?”

Ocelot’s eyes narrowed. “I hadn’t even thought of that. I don’t know. I mean, from the sound of things it’s a planeload of grad students, a couple of professors, and not much else. I could call Aubrey back and ask if they had anything weird on board—I mean weirder than a planeload of mages—but somehow I get the feeling he’s either not gonna know or else the answer’s gonna be no.”

“So this just gets stranger,” Kestrel said grimly. “We’ll talk to Ruiz when we see him, and see if he’s got any idea what’s up. Other than that, I guess the only reasonable thing to do is keep our eyes open and be paranoid all the time.”

“So what else is new?” Ocelot asked sourly.

The sun began its day with a spectacular sunrise that tinged the sky over the Peruvian jungle with dramatic pinks and oranges. Kestrel, Gabriel, and Ocelot arrived early downstairs at Aquino’s, but Ruiz was already there waiting for them, his hands wrapped around a large cup of steaming kaf. He sat at one of the tables in the back corner of the nearly empty cantina; four large packs were piled on the floor next to him, three of which looked considerably newer than the fourth. “Hola,” he greeted them with a nod. “I hear you had some excitement here last night.”

“Oh?” Kestrel asked, a little suspiciously. “How did you hear that?”

Ruiz didn’t seem offended by her suspicion. “Everybody hears everything in this town. It’s just the way it goes. So you caught little Pablo Escuela trying to break into your room. Did he get anything?”

“Pablo Escuela?” Ocelot leaned forward, frowning. “You know this kid?”

Ruiz nodded. “Yeah. One of the local good-for-nothings. Usually they hang around the cantinas trying to get people to buy them drinks, and commit petty crimes when they can get away with it. He probably saw you flashing all the dinero around and saw an easy chance.” He smiled lazily. “Not so easy, though, from what I hear.”

“We don’t like thieves,” Ocelot growled. “If it’d been up to me, he’d have gotten worse than a trip to the lockup.” He was watching Ruiz carefully for any sign that their would-be guide knew anything about the other aspects of the incident; he noticed that Gabriel was doing the same thing.

Ruiz shrugged. “Boys will be boys. He tried, he failed. I wouldn’t worry about it. We’ll be out of here in less than an hour anyway. It would have been sooner, but I was not able to locate the man who was going to crew for me. That’s all right, though—I’ve handled things on my own many times.”

Kestrel nodded, reverting to business immediately. “So you got all the supplies?” She looked at the packs. “That doesn’t look like two days’ worth to me.”

“The rest of it’s in the boat,” the guide told her. “Down at the river. I’ve got a couple of amigos looking after it for me, but we’d better get going. You got time to have a cup of kaf, but I wouldn’t take much more than that.”

“I’m with you there,” Ocelot said. “The sooner we get on the road, the better I’ll like it. I’m sure ‘Hawk ain’t havin’ any fun out there waitin’ for us.”

The three did take Ruiz up on his suggestion for a quick breakfast, as they didn’t know when they’d be eating again. As they drank their hot kaf, the guide handed out the packs. “This is just the basic stuff,” he told them as all three immediately opened them up and began looking through them. “Concentrated food bars, canteens, insect repellent, snakebite kits, thermal blankets, mess kit, survival knife, rope, water purification tablets, fire starters, those kinds of things.” He ticked them off on his fingers as he enumerated each one. “The rest of the stuff’s on the boat, but these packs you keep with you at all times. You’ve each got a radio in there, all keyed to the same frequency. They don’t have much range on ‘em, but we’ll be able to communicate if we get separated. You’ve also each got a portable GPS—those will be your best friends out there, even if everything else is lost. They don't always work, but if you're patient you can usually get a signal. Oh, and you owe me another five hundred soles for permits.” His smile was a little unsavory. “It seems that Señor Marquez-Camarillo became a bit more interested in our trip when he saw the supplies I was purchasing. It does not surprise me. It is possible we will need more when we reach the border.”

“We’ll worry about that when we get there,” Gabriel said. He started to reach for another credstick, but Kestrel beat him to it. With a grin, she withdrew five hundred soles from the money they’d taken from Pablo Escuela last night and passed it across the table.

“Let’s not make a habit of this, okay?” she said with a sweet but predatory smile. “We’re taking a short trip to Amazonia, not buying off the whole country.”

“Of course, Señorita,” Ruiz replied, unruffled, as he tucked the bills away in one of the many pockets of his vest. “I will do my best to keep expenses to a reasonable level.” He looked at them, taking in their lightweight but well-covering clothes and sturdy boots. “I see you are all dressed properly,” he with approval. “You would be surprised at how many gri—at how many people from your part of the world expect to traverse the jungle in shorts, Hawai’ian shirts, and floppy sandals.”

Kestrel shrugged, smiled, and shouldered her pack. “We read the guidebook,” she said. “What say we get going?”

They arrived at Ruiz’ boat ten minutes later, following a ride through town in a rickety-looking Jeep that didn’t look like it would have held together for much longer than that.

Fortunately, the boat looked more seaworthy, if almost as unattractive: a low-slung, battered-looking craft with peeling paint and sagging timbers, the Esperanza nonetheless looked otherwise well cared for—the low, smooth rumble of the unseen engines below attested to that. It floated serenely in the greenish, murky water, tethered to a wooden dock by a heavy length of rope. Two men dressed in jeans and T-shirts hailed Ruiz as the four of them approached, then went about their business.

The boat had a small cabin in the middle; Ruiz directed his passengers downstairs where they stowed their packs next to the pile of other gear the guide had purchased. Kestrel, with practiced eye, did a quick inventory of the supplies and nodded approvingly.

Ruiz took them on a quick tour of the boat as his two friends completed the last of the pre-voyage checks. Belowdecks, in addition to the supplies, were six narrow and uncomfortable-looking bunks, a tiny galley, an even tinier head (Ocelot was glad when he saw it that they hadn’t brought Joe along—he doubted the troll would have been able to fit through the door, let alone manage the facilities), and the engines. Abovedecks the boat was set up as a pleasure craft, with a few folding chairs, clamps for fishing poles, and an observation deck up on top of the cabin. Ruiz, aware of his passengers’ urgency, made the tour short and then excused himself to see about the last-minute details before they could be off.

Ocelot, Kestrel, and Gabriel remained up at the front of the boat looking out over the river, although their gazes roved over the shoreline as if checking to see if anyone was paying too much attention to them. Ocelot turned to Gabriel. “You’d know if someone is trying to sneak up on us, right?”

Gabriel nodded. “Yes, although it is wise to be vigilant. While close range threats will not be an issue, those at longer range might. I cannot look everywhere at once.”

“Like snipers,” Kestrel said grimly.


“Don’t you worry,” Ocelot assured him. “Sixth sense or no sixth sense, I’m not dropping my paranoia for anything. Not till we’re back home with ‘Hawk.” He looked around. “I sure hope we’ll have an easier time getting into Amazonia than we did last time.”

“Oh?” Kestrel turned from where she was watching some fishermen on the opposite bank. “How did you do it last time?”

“In the dark. Dodging machine gun fire.”

“Oh. Well...yeah. I hope so too,” she said wryly.

Ocelot shrugged. “The way Gabriel’s throwing money around, I think it’ll work out okay this time. The Amazonian border guards are nothing if not greedy as hell.”

“Let’s hope so.” She leaned out over the railing and watched the swirling water below. The air was full of the smells of water and vegetation and gasoline. Around the boat, the area around the river was beginning to come to life as more fishing boats moved past them and out to their daily catches. Overhead, a flock of large birds flew by, calling raucously to each other.

Footsteps behind them announced Ruiz’ return. “Are you ready to set off?” he asked. “The preparations have been completed.”

“Let’s get going, then,” Ocelot said. He was not enjoying the scenery, the local wildlife, or the pastoral scene of the Peruvian fishing village at sunrise. The only thing on his mind was getting to the crash site and finding Winterhawk.

Ruiz nodded and pulled a map from one of his pockets. “Assuming we have no problems before that, we will cross into Amazonia at mid-day. As it seems you know, the crossing will not be easy. I have obtained the proper papers, but I have represented you as tourists only. We are taking a river voyage and will only be leaving the boat to camp near the water. Please do not say anything about searching for planes. The authorities are not well disposed toward anyone entering their jungles.”

Kestrel nodded. “We’ll play good little tourists until we’re in, but once we’re there—”

“Of course,” Ruiz said. “If you will excuse me, then, we will set off.” He headed back toward the Esperanza’s tiny bridge. A few moments later the engines began rumbling more loudly, churning up the water behind the boat into a greenish froth. Ruiz’s friend on shore slipped free the rope holding the boat to the dock, and the big craft moved ponderously out onto the river.

The next few hours passed pleasantly enough, with the three passengers remaining up near the front of the Esperanza, enjoying the gentle rocking of the boat on the water, scanning the shores on both sides of the river for any sign of trouble and finding none. All they passed were several more fishing and tourist boats, thick vegetation that hid almost everything set back from the shore more than ten meters or so, and a couple of tiny villages. Children on piers waved at them as they went by, and they waved back. Except for their grim mission, which was always foremost in their minds, this could have been an enjoyable pleasure cruise.

As the sun came up, so did the heat. It was an incessant, sticky, humid sort of heat, the kind that settles down over the body like a damp blanket and refuses to go away no matter what you do to remove yourself from it. Before they’d been on the river for two hours, the three travelers’ clothes were sticking to them, their hair hanging damply over their foreheads. “Well,” Kestrel said, “it’s not a dry heat, is it?”

Ocelot, who had almost forgotten how insistent the jungle humidity could be, took off his sunglasses, dried the mist off them, and put them back on. “Hell no.” He looked at Gabriel. “You can’t do anything about this, can you?”

“Such as?” He seemed amused by the question.

“I dunno—magic us up an anti-humidity field or something?”

“Probably—but it would be a bit conspicuous, wouldn’t it?”

Ocelot let out a loud sigh and shoved his hair back again. “Yeah, I guess it was. It was a thought, though.” He slapped at a buzzing insect, examined his hand, wiped it on his pants, and then slathered on another coat of insect repellent from his vest pocket.

As they got closer to where Ruiz said they would be crossing the border, Kestrel took a small pair of binoculars from one of her pockets and began scanning the area up ahead. For awhile she just leaned her elbows on the railing and moved the binocs back and forth, but then she tensed. “Guys—”

Ocelot was instantly tense too. “What?”

“I don’t like the look of this.” She handed the binocs over to him. “Take a look and see what you think. Two o’clock especially.”

Ocelot did as she requested, scanning the indicated area. “Shit,” he muttered. “Looks like an awful lot of guys to be guarding one river border.”

“I wonder if they’re expecting something,” she said.

“You mean like us?”

“Or something else. Smuggling, maybe. Though smuggling into Amazonia seems a little weird. Don’t most people try to smuggle things out?

Gabriel had been silent during this exchange, but now he spoke. “Anticipation. They’re definitely waiting for something. Difficult to tell if it’s us or something else, but they have nothing good in mind for whatever it is.”

Kestrel looked first at Gabriel, then at Ocelot. “You think this has anything to do with—last night?”

Ocelot shrugged. “No way to know, but I for one am gonna be careful. I wish I’d brought more weapons with me.” He reached into another of his pockets, his hand closing around the monowhip he was never without.

Ruiz came out from the craft’s tiny bridge. His brow was furrowed with concern. “I do not like this,” he said.

“You mean the reception committee waiting for us at the border?” Kestrel asked.

The guide looked surprised that she’d noticed, but he nodded. “Yes. It is unusual for so many men to be waiting.” His eyes narrowed. “You are not attempting to smuggle anything illegal into Amazonia, are you? If they search my boat and find such things, we could all be in very deep trouble.”

Kestrel shook her head. “Aside from a few personal weapons—and if they want to get us for those, they’re fools but we can deal with it—nothing else. We’re here just for what we told you: to find our friends and get out safely.”

Ruiz’ eyes bored into hers for a moment, then moved to the others. Then he sighed. “This is going to be difficult. Usually it is a matter of having the proper papers and providing a few—financial inducements in the right places. But these men are waiting for something. I have done this crossing enough to know that there will be trouble.”

“Don’t worry, Señor Ruiz,” Gabriel said softly. “We will handle it. You do what you normally do, and we will take care of the rest. You must trust us.”

Ruiz looked at him oddly. “I do not know what you mean, señor. You cannot take on this many—”

“It will not be necessary to take them on,” Gabriel assured him in the same soft, unruffled tone. “Please. If there is no other choice, just do as you had intended, and do not be surprised by anything you see. Remember—we are tourists.”

Ruiz appeared dubious and more than a little frightened, but he nodded. “I hope you know what you’re doing, señor, and that you understand the danger we are facing.” He headed back to the bridge shaking his head.

As the boat moved forward, it became clear that the group of men at the border did not intend to allow them to simply float past. Kestrel and Ocelot tensed further as the unmistakable sound of guns being readied carried over the gentle lap of the water at the boat’s sides. “Stay calm,” Gabriel murmured. “They cannot see us as we are.”

Ocelot looked down at himself—he didn’t look invisible—and wondered what Gabriel meant by that. Still, one thing he didn’t argue with the dragon about was magic. He stood next to Kestrel, hand still on his monowhip, and waited while Ruiz brought the boat to a smooth stop.

In what seemed like an instant the little craft was full of men with guns. Reynaldo Ruiz came up from the bridge and looked around, taking in the nasty-looking automatic weapons and the hard expressions of their wielders. “What is it, gentlemen?” he asked calmly, though Ocelot could hear the tiniest edge of tension in his voice.

“What are you carrying, Ruiz?” one of the men asked.

The captain glanced toward the bow of the boat. For a fraction of a second surprise showed in his eyes, but he quickly squelched it. “Merely tourists,” he said, nodding toward Ocelot, Kestrel, and Gabriel.

Except for two who remained to hold guns on Ruiz, the others turned their attention to the three passengers. “Tourists,” one said contemptuously in English, his gaze raking over them.

“Señor Ruiz has agreed to give us a day tour of the area,” Gabriel said, his voice much brighter and more cheerful than his usual soft tones. He was giving the gunmen a look like he thought they were all part of the show. “I’m George Stevens, from Nebraska. In the UCAS. This is my wife Katherine and our son Tom.” He indicated Kestrel and Ocelot with a sweep of his hand, then slapped at a mosquito on his neck. “You sure grow ‘em big around here, you know that?”

The official’s look of contempt grew. He looked the three of them over again, then waved his fellows off and turned back to Ruiz. “We are going to search your boat. We are looking for some—fugitives. If we find them hiding here, it will not go well for any of you.”

“Search as you will,” Ruiz said calmly. “You will find no one else. Perhaps if you give us a description of these—fugitives you seek, we can inform you if we see them in the course of our trip.” He lowered his voice, matching the official’s disgust for unprepared tourists. “I do not expect these three to wish to stay out for long.”

The official chuckled a little, then became all business again. “There are three of them as well—two men and a woman. One of the men is much younger than the others. We had heard that you were speaking with them last night about taking them into Amazonia.”

Ruiz nodded. “Yes, I know the ones you mean. There was some—trouble in the village with them last night. I think they have gone back where they came from. I do not know. They didn’t appear in the morning, so I was forced to take these tourists instead.”

The official didn’t look like he entirely believed Ruiz’s story, but said nothing. The others came up from below. “Nothing there but some gear,” one informed him. “We scanned the area.”

“I told you,” Ruiz protested. “Would I try to fool you? This is my livelihood, after all.”

The official gave him a dirty look and sighed. “See to it that you remain on the proper side of the law, Ruiz. I would like nothing better than to catch you at something.” He held out his hands. “That will be one thousand soles, please.”

“For what?” Ruiz’s tone suggested that he knew it was inevitable.

“Search tax.”

Ruiz reluctantly passed over the requested amount and the men slowly backed away and leaped back into their own small boat. After a few moments they were on their way again.

No one spoke until they’d gone around a small bend in the river and out of sight of the border patrol. “What did you do to us?” Ocelot asked Gabriel then.

Ruiz, who had come back on deck, grinned. “It is a fine trick, señor. You did not tell me you had magic. That will make things easier.” At Kestrel’s quizzical look, he continued: “While the guards were on the boat, you three appeared—”

“I was an overweight middle-aged man, Kestrel was my frumpy-looking wife, and Ocelot was our ten-year-old son,” Gabriel said with an impish smile.

“And they bought that?” Ocelot demanded.

Gabriel shrugged, still smiling a bit. “Apparently so.” He didn’t say Hey, I’m a dragon, but it was in the smile.

“But what about before that?” Kestrel asked, a little worry creasing her features. “They must have been observing us before we arrived.”

“I’ve been holding the illusion for awhile now,” Gabriel said. “Ever since I sensed the presence of the guards. I just altered it so Señor Ruiz was affected as well.”

Ruiz was eyeing the group with new respect. “I admit, señor, that I was skeptical at first about this entire trip—but I have changed my mind. I think now that you might be successful.”

“We’d better be,” Ocelot muttered. “I’ll tell you this, though—I’d be a hell of a lot happier if I knew why those guys are after us. I’m finding it hard to believe that they’ve got their shorts in a wad this bad over nothing but us searching for a crashed plane.”

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