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The scene on the road was wall-to-wall carnage. The RV was parked sideways across the road's two lanes, its tires smoking, the smell of charred rubber and burning gasoline filling the night air. The car had been ripped in half by the force of the gas tank's explosion; the body of the headless assailant burned merrily, adding its noisome aroma to the mix. The other two occupants of the car were slumped, unconscious or dead. A bit further back up the road was the motorcycle on its side, and further back still was the struggling figure of the passenger, his assault rifle nowhere to be seen. The broken form of the bike's pilot, its neck bent nearly backward, lay near the car.

Winterhawk and Ocelot took quick stock of the situation, scanning the horizon for any other potential hazards. No lights could be seen in the distance. "We'd better get out of here," Ocelot said, looking back toward the RV. "That thing still drivable?"

`Hawk shrugged. "As far as I know it is. We'll find out shortly. But I'm frankly more interested in finding out who these chaps are and why they've such difficulty with our being here."

"You you want to take one of `em with us?" Ocelot demanded, incredulous.

"Either that or question him here, and I don't think we've time for that." He pointed at the struggling motorcycle passenger. "Let's take him. Seems he's the only one alive `round here."

Ocelot eyed the motorcycle and its former driver. "How did you do that?"

"Mana barrier." Winterhawk looked insufferably pleased with himself. "Wonderful anti-motorcycle weapon, wouldn't you say?"

"Nice if you could have done it sooner," Ocelot muttered, heading over toward the biker.

"Yes, well, nice if you could drive the bloody behemoth there, too, but we can't always have what we want, can we?"

The RV's door opened, revealing Dr. Hildebrandt framed in it. "Uh--can you guys hurry it up?" he asked, his gaze roving nervously around the battlezone. "I'd hate to be here when the local law shows up."

"Wouldn't worry about that," Winterhawk said, watching Ocelot drag the biker over. "I don't think they've got much in the way of law `round here. Isn't that right?" He directed the query at Ocelot.

"Yeah," Ocelot grunted. He heaved the biker into the back of the RV. "I think this whole area's run by pirates or something like that. I don't think they give a damn what you do as long as you don't cut into their business."

"Still, though," Winterhawk said, "I'd like to put some distance between this area and us. Ocelot, would you please make sure our friend here doesn't wake up or cause any trouble before we're ready to talk to him?"

"With pleasure." Ocelot pulled out some plastic restraints from his coat pocket and securely did up their prisoner's hands and feet, then dispassionately smacked him on the point of the chin with his hard plastic forearm guard. The prisoner slumped.

Hildebrandt winced. "Did you have to do that?" One look at Ocelot's expression convinced him to back off and settle back down on the bench. Wordlessly, Ocelot came forward and dropped into the passenger seat.

Winterhawk had already resumed his place behind the wheel and started up the engine. "Well, it appears that they didn't hit anything vital," he remarked to nobody in particular. "But we're going to have to procure alternative transportation, and soon, I think."

"Why?" Hildebrandt asked.

"You want to drive around in something with almost all its windows broken, bullet holes up and down the sides, and sideswipe marks all along the driver's side?" Ocelot asked. "That's a little conspicuous, don't you think?"

"Er...yes. And there's also the matter of--" Wordlessly, Winterhawk gestured toward the gore-covered mirror stalk.

Hildebrandt took a deep breath. "Yeah. I--uh--see what you mean. So what do we do?" He was looking quite pale in the dim interior lights, his face glistening with sweat.

Winterhawk turned the wheel, guiding the RV back into its lane, and began accelerating. "First, we get out of here. It's a wonder they didn't hit the gas tank, but apparently we were lucky there. We'll find a place to pull off and have a chat with our friend in the back. Then we'll see about getting some other transportation."

Ocelot nodded. "Yeah. And we'd better see about trying to find some armor for the Doctor here. We got lucky once, but we'd better not count on it happening again." He looked back around at the unconscious prisoner. "I hope that was nothing but a go-gang that picked the wrong tourists to ambush."

Winterhawk shrugged. "They certainly don't look anything like the team that attacked us at the complex. No magical support, and no female members. Unless one or both were on that first bike that you took out." Behind them, in the distance, the mini-inferno of the burning car could still be seen lighting up the night sky.

"No way," Ocelot said, certainty in his tone. "These guys were all wrong for a runner team. For one thing, they were all too slow."

"That's what saved our lives," Winterhawk pointed out. "If they'd had your speed, or even mine, I don't think we'd have survived that attack."

"I agree," Ocelot said. "Looks like the MO of a go-gang. This is pretty remote territory out here. They might just look for anybody in this kind of rig after dark and ambush them."

"What for?" Hildebrandt asked. "What would they get out of it? People who drive things like this don't have a lot of money on `em, do they? Mostly old folks."

Ocelot shook his head. "You don't get it. The money's just a sideline. If they can get any, great. But sometimes they just like to do it for fun. Because they can."

Winterhawk smiled his nasty smile. "He who lives by the sword..."

"Damned straight," Ocelot agreed.

Hildebrandt looked back and forth between the two of them. Winterhawk's bright blue eyes gave him a slightly insane look, his dark hair disheveled and stuck to his forehead, his sharp features well in keeping with his namesake. Ocelot leaned back in his seat, looking wolfish and predatory. Large sections of his long, dusty-blond ponytail had come loose and now hung down in all directions over his leather longcoat. He held his shotgun in his lap and showed no signs of stowing it back in its cabinet. The ork took a deep breath, settling back in his seat and wondering what the hell he'd gotten himself into. He was beginning to wish he'd just stayed back at Hermes, working on his research and having his nightly dinner with Charlie. The late Charlie, now, he corrected himself. He sighed.

They drove without further conversation for almost half an hour, during which time each the three occupants of the RV cast several glances back toward the unconscious prisoner. So far, he was cooperating by remaining unconscious, but that didn't stop everyone from checking.

Supporting Ocelot's theory that no one cared what happened in this part of CalFree as long as it didn't disrupt business, no one seemed particularly interested in following or otherwise causing trouble to the RV. They got through Santa Maria, a mid-sized farm town, aided by Winterhawk's Vehicle Mask spell, which he used to make the RV look like its former non-bullet- ridden-and-gore-strewn self.

"Can't you just keep that spell up the whole way back?" Hildebrandt had asked.

"Probably," Winterhawk had said, "But I'd rather not. Takes a lot out of me to sustain a spell that long. Besides, if anyone is looking for suspicious characters on the astral plane, the spell would stand out like a beacon." What he didn't say was that, along with all those eminently logical arguments in favor of ditching the RV in favor of other transportation, there was the fact that he simply could not stand the thing. He was looking forward to procuring something smaller, more maneuverable, and easier to drive, and the sooner that occurred, the better.

About ten minutes out of Santa Maria, Winterhawk took a rural-looking exit and pulled the RV off the road, switching off the headlights. "This looks like a good place for an interrogation," he announced, getting up.

Ocelot had already made his way rearward by the time Winterhawk arrived, and was examining the prisoner. "Uh...'Hawk?"


"I don't think you're gonna get your interrogation."

"Why not?" Winterhawk asked impatiently, hunkering down next to the two of them.

"This guy's dead."

"What do you mean he's dead?" the mage demanded. He leaned forward. "How hard did you hit him?"

"Not hard enough to kill him. I'm sure of it."

"Well, then, how did he--wait a minute..." Winterhawk stopped, reaching out to grab a handful of the dead man's hair, pulling his face up out of shadow. "Bugger."

Ocelot sighed through clenched teeth as he saw what had disturbed the mage. A thin stream of something foamy trickled down from the corner of the dead man's mouth. He reached out toward the chin, intending to pull the man's mouth open. Winterhawk knocked his hand away.

"Don't touch that," he snapped. "We don't know what it is."

"Let me have a look at that," came a voice from behind them. Dr. Hildebrandt stood towering over them; they had been so absorbed with examining their former prisoner that they hadn't heard him approach.

Ocelot got up and let the ork take his spot, while Winterhawk scooted back to accommodate Hildebrandt's bulk. He kept hold of the prisoner's hair. "What do you make of it, Doctor?"

Hildebrandt leaned down close to the man's face, careful not to touch the foamy substance. With one hand, he waved some air toward him, sniffing carefully. "Can you get me something to open his mouth with?" he asked without looking up.

Ocelot handed him a plastic spoon from one of the RV's drawers, and he carefully pried the dead man's mouth open and peered inside. Winterhawk produced a small flashlight from his jacket pocket, holding it up so they could see into the mouth. "Look at that," he murmured.

Ocelot leaned closer, frowning. There was quite a bit more of the foamy substance in the man's mouth, seeming to emanate from the back left side. A whitish object poked up, off-center. "False tooth?"

Hildebrandt nodded. "Yeah, looks like it. He must have had some kind of capsule in there. Whoever he was, he didn't want to get caught." He indicated the substance with the tip of the spoon. "I wouldn't touch this stuff. I can't be sure without a better way to examine this, but I'd say he's got some kind of pretty potent poison combined with DMSO in there. Nasty stuff."

"DMSO?" Winterhawk asked.

"Yeah. Dimethyl sulfoxide. It's a carrier that's used to deliver other chemical and biological agents into the bloodstream. Basically, if it's a liquid, combining it with this stuff will suck it right into your blood. Needless to say, that means that it can make almost any poison--even the kinds that have to normally be injected or ingested--into a contact poison."

Ocelot took another step backward, trying not to think about how close he'd come to touching the stuff.

"So the next question is: why?" Winterhawk said speculatively. He looked up at Ocelot. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but go-gangers generally don't carry suicide capsules in false teeth, yes?"

"Not that I know of. And most of `em wouldn't have the guts to use `em if they did."

The mage nodded. "So, we can reasonably assume that our dead friend here isn't a go-ganger. I'd also wager that he's not another runner hired to kill us."

"Why is that?" Hildebrandt asked.

"Because frankly, most of us aren't that loyal," Winterhawk said. "If I were hired to kill someone and botched the job badly enough to get caught, I certainly wouldn't commit suicide. Odds are much better that I'd try to cut some sort of deal with my captors. Money usually tends to make the world go `round in these sorts of operations. Even most corporations are willing to talk given the right financial incentives."

"He's right," Ocelot said. "Protectin' the Johnson I'm workin' for isn't worth my life. Maybe it'd screw up my street rep for awhile, but at least I'd be alive to put it back together. If they were gonna kill me, they'd do it anyway. Wouldn't do me any good to help `em along."

"So what this suggests to me," Winterhawk said in the same I'm thinking this out as I go along tone, "Is that whoever this gentleman used to be, he was extremely concerned that we didn't find out his purpose for assaulting us."

"Well, we aren't gonna find out anything now," Ocelot said. "Why don't we just search him, dump him, and get the hell outta here. Maybe whoever sent these guys after us will think twice about sendin' any more after what happened to the first bunch."

"Be careful," Hildebrandt said. "I'm not kidding about that stuff--you don't want to get any on you."

"Let's make this quick," Ocelot said, gingerly grabbing the body by the shoulders and propping it a bit more upright. Together, he and Winterhawk did a cursory examination, patting down the body for weapons, credsticks, and other useful items. They found none.

Winterhawk stood. "Open the door," he said. "I'll levitate the body outside and hide it behind those bushes over there. With any luck, it'll be awhile before anyone finds it."

When Ocelot had complied with his request, Winterhawk raised his hand, slowly lifting the body up off the RV's floor. As Hildebrandt looked on with combined interest and revulsion, the mage slowly descended the two steps to the ground, then walked behind the body as it floated over toward a stand of medium-height bushes a few meters away. He reached the back of the bushes, relying only on his low-light cybereyes and the moonlight for visibility, and was preparing to drop the body when he heard a tiny plop sound, as if something had dropped from the body onto the ground. Curious, he pulled out his flashlight and, shielding its beam, shined it on the ground beneath the body. He was almost ready to dismiss the sound as nothing when he saw a glint of gold.

"What's this?" he muttered to himself, flinging the dead man aside with a flick of his mind; the body came to rest, forgotten, in some brush as Winterhawk squatted down to get a closer look at the object.

"`Hawk!" came Ocelot's hushed voice from the doorway. "Come on!"

Winterhawk quickly pulled a handkerchief from his suit pocket, used it to pick up the item, and jammed it into the pocket of his armored duster. He'd look at it later, when he had the chance. Raising back up to a standing position, he hurried back to the RV.

Ocelot was scanning in both directions from the doorway. "Looks clear," he said. "Let's get on the road."

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