"Why couldn't this just be easy?" Hildebrandt asked dejectedly as they left the Administration building.
"Nothing's ever easy in this line of work, Doctor," Winterhawk told him. "One gets used to it eventually. It could be worse, though. We'll just go out there, find your friend, and ask him to show us what he's done with the trophy. You are sure he's still got it, right? I'd hate to go through all this only to find out that he's given it to one of the neighborhood children or pitched it in a fit of spring cleaning."
The ork shook his head. "No, I'm sure he's still got it. Like I said before, it was a silly contest, but it meant a lot to us at the time." He looked sideways at 'Hawk. "Did you go to college?"
The mage nodded with a wry smile. "I spent a bit of time there, yes."
"Then you know what I mean, right--all the stuff that seemed so important when you were there hangin' out with your buddies? The same kind of stuff that if it happened any other time you'd probably get hauled away for."
Again, Winterhawk nodded. "Yes, I suppose I see your point. I do remember a few such things from my college days at that."
"Uh, guys--?" Ocelot's voice came through both their wristphones. "Can you reminisce later? I'll feel a lot better if you get your butts back to the truck so we can get the hell outta here."
"Coming," Winterhawk said contritely, stepping up his pace and motioning for Hildebrandt to do the same.
Back inside the Land Rover, the runners waited until they had successfully exited the UCLA campus before stopping at a nearby parking lot to examine the map the secretary had given them. "Looks like it's gonna take us at least two or three hours to get to this spot," Ocelot said dubiously. "Do we want to go out there tonight? I heard her say the roads weren't good."
"Can't wait," 'Wraith said. "People know."
"Yeah," Hildebrandt agreed, although he sounded reluctant. "Since I had to use my real name, somebody might catch on to what we're doing. I'd feel better getting out there as quick as we can."
Nobody was thrilled with the idea of driving around in the desert in the middle of the night, but they all agreed that they didn't have a choice. Decision made, they got back on the road and headed toward the freeway.
They drove for a bit more than two hours before coming upon the turnoff they were supposed to take. Once outside LA the roads got a lot less well-maintained, but they also got a lot less crowded. The runners relaxed a bit, confident that they could spot anyone sneaking up on them well in advance of any potential trouble. They almost missed the turnoff, as it was not well marked. 'Wraith wrenched the wheel around at the last minute as Winterhawk, in the passenger seat, pointed out the tiny sign.
Compared to the road they were on now, the one they had been on had been a superhighway. Rutted, full of potholes, and not paved in stretches, it snaked out into the desert toward the far-off mountains. 'Wraith had to slow the truck considerably to avoid hitting rocks and other hazards in the road. "This thing was not built for off-roading," Ocelot commented, clutching the armrest of his seat to keep from being pitched around in the back of the truck.
"I just hope it survives long enough for us to find Dr. Foley and return to Los Angeles," Winterhawk said. He didn't look like he was enjoying this any more than Ocelot was.
"How much farther is it?" Ocelot asked Hildebrandt, who had taken custody of the map.
The ork consulted it in the Land Rover's dim interior light. "Looks like about another five kilometers or so. We should be able to see them before that, though--they'll have lights. Even if they've gone to bed already there should be a campfire or something."
As they continued to drive, however, it soon became clear that they were not seeing any lights up ahead. "This is weird..." Hildebrandt mused. He glanced down at the map again, then passed it across to Ocelot. "I didn't screw up reading the map, did I? We should be getting close to the right place."
"P'raps their campfire is hidden behind one of their vehicles," Winterhawk said. "I don't even see anything on thermographic vision, though--do any of you?"
'Wraith shook his head. "Nothing." He slowed the Land Rover a bit more.
"I'm getting a bad feeling about this," Ocelot said, looking at the map. "They should be here."
"Wait." 'Wraith spoke as they came over a small rise. "Something is there."
The others looked at where he was pointing. Sure enough, there was a small cluster of vehicles and tents about half a kilometer ahead. "Probably all asleep inside the vehicles," Winterhawk said, sounding somewhat relieved.
"Yeah," Hildebrandt agreed. "There are some dangerous critters out here. It's probably safer to sleep in there than in tents--and that's why we wouldn't have noticed them."
'Wraith increased the truck's speed just a bit. "Careful," he said. "Might scare them."
Cautiously the truck approached the small encampment. "Let's go up and knock on one of those campers," Hildebrandt said as it stopped about twenty meters away. "I'm not sure how we're gonna do this without scaring somebody."
All four runners got out, moving quietly but not too quietly so anyone who was awake wouldn't think they were being sneaked up upon. "Odd that no one has noticed us yet," Winterhawk said a bit nervously. "It's not that late--surely someone must be awake."
They had approached a bit more closely--about ten meters away and around the corner of one of the campers--when Ocelot stopped. "Uh--guys--"
"Look. Is that what I think it is?"
'Wraith, Winterhawk, and Hildebrandt all directed their gazes toward the place where Ocelot was pointing. "Oh, bugger--" Winterhawk said under his breath.
"Bodies," said 'Wraith.
Hildebrandt gasped. "Bodies? No--" Before the runners could stop him, he broke free and started running forward, toward the encampment.
"Wait, Doc!" Ocelot yelled, his hand already going for his shotgun inside his coat as he started to take off after the ork.
Hildebrandt didn't go very far, though. He stopped right next to the first of what looked like five bodies laid out haphazardly on the sand. "No!" he yelled. "Oh, Hank, no!" Dropping down on his knees, he began to sob.
Ocelot and 'Wraith immediately began to circle the area looking for threats as Winterhawk came up next to the ork. "Doctor--"
Hildebrandt ignored him, continuing to sob. On the ground in front of him was the body of a middle-aged human male, dressed in khakis and a white shirt. The man's body was just barely warmer than the surrounding earth, and cooling rapidly.
"Doctor--" Winterhawk said again.
"They killed him, the bastards!" Hildebrandt yelled. "They killed all of 'em! And it's all my fault. Oh, Hank..." he began sobbing again.
"We don't know that, Doctor," Winterhawk said gently. He looked down at the body of Hank Foley. There was no obvious sign of trauma--gunshot wounds, severe blunt-instrument wounds, broken limbs--on it.
At that moment, Ocelot and 'Wraith came back into the center of the camp. 'Wraith was dragging something gingerly behind him. "I think we found the culprits," Ocelot said. He pointed at the thing that 'Wraith was dragging.
"What the hell is that?" Winterhawk demanded. "It looks like a big snake."
"Death rattle," 'Wraith said dispassionately. "Killed by a bullet. Found the gun near one of the others."
Hildebrandt looked up, his face tear-streaked. "You mean--" he started. "You mean these people were killed by snakes?"
"Possible," 'Wraith said. "Very aggressive when disturbed. Highly poisonous."
Nobody bothered to ask the elf how he knew this. "But would they attack five people like this?" Ocelot asked.
"Near their nest?"
Everyone glanced around nervously. "So what do we do now?" Ocelot asked dejectedly, looking around at the bodies. Like Foley's, the others were all cool as well. There was nothing that could have been done for them.
"What do you mean, what do we do?" Hildebrandt demanded indignantly, fighting sobs as 'Wraith wandered back off to do more investigating. "We call the authorities. We get somebody out here to take these people home."
"We can't stay, Dr. Hildebrandt," Winterhawk said as gently as he could. "If we call, we'll have to do it anonymously."
Hildebrandt slammed a fist into the ground. "I hate this whole thing!" he yelled. "If it wasn't so important, I'd say let's just chuck it all! I can't just leave my friend laying here in the middle of the desert! What about all these other people? They have families and loved ones who are gonna be devastated by this! And all for a bunch of damn snakes?" He was beginning to get almost hysterical in his grief.
Everyone looked up quickly at 'Wraith's soft voice. He was standing across the small camping area, looking down at one of the bodies.
"What?" Ocelot demanded.
"It wasn't snakes that killed them," the elf said again.