"What do you mean, it wasn't snakes?" Hildebrandt demanded. "Here's the snake right here!"
"Look," 'Wraith said, pointing down.
Quickly, Winterhawk and Ocelot came over to where he stood. Hildebrandt stayed where he was, staring down at the body of his friend. "What did you find?" Winterhawk asked.
Ocelot spotted it first. "Narcoject round," he said. Squatting down, next to the body, he reached out to pick the tiny thing up.
"No," 'Wraith said sharply. "Don't touch." When Ocelot looked up at him quizzically, he added, "Probably not Narcoject."
Winterhawk caught on immediately. "Death rattle poison?"
"Don't know. Possible."
Slowly Ocelot rose back to a standing position, a contemplative look on his face. "So you're sayin' that somebody killed these people and tried to make it look like snakes did it?"
"Don't know," 'Wraith said again. "Can't analyze here."
"Let's see if we can find any more," Winterhawk said. "If we can prove that the others were hit with these as well, then it looks like we've got five murders on our hands."
"Did you say murder?"
The three runners looked up to see Hildebrandt coming toward them. He moved like a man in a daze. "You guys were talking about something over there," the ork said. "Out with it. What's going on? What did you find?"
Reluctantly Winterhawk pointed out 'Wraith's discovery.
Hildebrandt's expression darkened, warring between anger and despair. "Then--this was my fault."
"We don't know that--" Winterhawk began.
"Come on!" the ork cried, his voice shaking. "Why else would somebody want to kill five people, one of whom just happens to be the guy I'm looking for? My damn research got my friend and four other people killed! This whole thing is my fault!" Before the runners could speak, he turned and stomped off into the desert.
The others started to follow, but stopped when Hildebrant halted only a few meters out. "Let's let him be for a few moments while we sort this out," Winterhawk said softly.
'Wraith nodded. "I'll search." He headed off to investigate the other bodies.
"So what do we do now?" Ocelot asked with a sigh. "This whole thing's sure gone to hell fast."
"We need to get out of here," Winterhawk said. "As much as I hate leaving these people here, we can't be here when they're found."
"But what about Dr. Hildebrandt? You guys told the secretary at UCLA that you were headin' out here. If we just take off and they find these guys dead, he's gonna be the prime suspect. And you're gonna be second, because you were with him."
Winterhawk thought about that a moment. "If the murderers have hidden their handiwork sufficiently, we might be able to pass this off as having been done by the snakes, at least until we get out of here. We call the authorities, Dr. Hildebrandt talks to them, and we just keep the Narcoject round."
"What if they find more, though? Or more evidence that we haven't found? Then the Doc's in trouble."
"Or, more likely, what if Dr. Hildebrandt caves in and tells them the truth out of a guilty conscience?" Winterhawk added, kicking the ground with the toe of his shoe. "Yes, there are those considerations as well." He looked up as 'Wraith came back over. "Find anything?"
"No more rounds. Bites on all bodies."
"So it could look like snakes?" Ocelot asked.
"Well," Winterhawk said, "I just realized something else. We've just lost our lead to this trophy the Doctor was trying to retrieve."
"You're right," Ocelot said, disgusted. "So what the hell do we do now?"
Winterhawk started to answer, then stopped, turning to look. Hildebrandt was approaching. "Are you all right, Doctor?" the mage asked quietly.
"No," Hildebrandt said, shaking his head. "I'm not. But I know I have to see this through. If I don't, it means a lot more people will die than just Hank and these other folks. I said I'd go along with you guys, and I will. Just let me have a bit to get settled, okay?"
Winterhawk looked rueful. "We don't have long, I'm afraid. We need to figure out what Dr. Foley might have done with the statue."
"And we need to get to it fast," Ocelot added. "I know it's rough, Doc, but we need to do it before they discover that Dr. Foley is dead. Otherwise they'll be all over his house and his office."
Hildebrandt stared at his feet, pointedly avoiding looking at the bodies. "He's probably got it in his house," he mumbled. "I'd look there before his office."
"Where?" 'Wraith asked.
"We'll need to go back to LA," the ork said. "He lives in Westwood. But we can't just leave..."
"We're not just leaving," Winterhawk said. "We'll report it after we've found the item. I don't like it any more than you do, but I don't see another way to do it if you want to get that research back."
Hildebrandt looked from Winterhawk to Ocelot to 'Wraith, searching their faces for answers but finding none. "Yeah..." he said, despondent. "You're right. We'd better go. Can we at least--you know--put them in the trailers so the animals don't get to them?"
There was a long pause, then Ocelot said gently, "Doc, we can't move 'em. Right now we might get out of this if we handle it right. But if we mess with the bodies--"
"He's right," 'Wraith said in a similar tone. "Must go."
The ork sighed. "Yeah. Okay." For a moment he was silent, then: "You guys go back to the truck, okay? I just want a minute to say goodbye to Hank."
The three runners looked at each other, silent communication passing between them. "All right, Doctor," Winterhawk said. "Please, though--be quick. We have a long way ahead of us."
When they reached the Land Rover, the three runners climbed in, all three of them keeping an eye on their charge.
Hildebrandt slowly went over to Foley's body and knelt down next to it. He remained there for a short while, then reached down and gripped his friend's shoulder. After a moment longer, he rose and returned to the van, still moving like he was in a dream. "Okay," he mumbled. "I'm ready. Let's go."
It took them somewhat longer to get back to the L.A. sprawl, mainly because 'Wraith was being very careful not to attract attention. Hildebrandt had said nothing the entire trip except to give directions to Foley's place; he had merely sat in the back seat and stared out the window, and expression of utter despair on his face. No one attempted to engage him in conversation, a fact for which he seemed grateful.
By the time they reached Foley's home, a small single-family dwelling on a quiet street, it was well into the wee hours of the morning. "That's it," Hildebrandt said dully, pointing."
"Park down the street a bit," Ocelot said, but 'Wraith was already doing exactly that.
Hildebrandt reached out to open the door, but Winterhawk held up a hand. "Wait," he said. "Let me see if anyone's in there already." Leaning back in his seat, he slumped as he went astral.
Ocelot and 'Wraith spent the intervening time preparing their weapons as Hildebrandt continued to sit. After several moments, Winterhawk returned. He looked grim.
"They're in there, all right," he said. "Five of them. They're taking the place apart."