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Ken Goddard Chimera

    “Whoever battles with monsters had better see that it does not turn him into a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.”
— Friedrich Nietzsche
    Chimera: In Greek mythology, a fire-breathing animal with a lion's head and foreparts, a goat's middle, a dragon's rear, and a tail in the form of a snake; hence any apparent hybrid of two or more creatures.
— Tiscali, 2005

Part I: The Russian Connection


    A Cheap Hotel on the Outskirts of Bangkok, Thailand
    An insistent ringing began to invade Dr. Sergei Arturovich Draganov subconscious, demanding his attention and dragging him out of a deep but restless sleep.
    Confused and disoriented by his sudden awareness of the unfamiliar mattress and strange pungent smells of his equally-unfamiliar surroundings, and the fact that his head was throbbing painfully, he reached out for the bedside table alarm clock with eyes tightly shut, fumbling desperately to shut off the insistent noise… and then, when he failed to do so, opened his eyes and stared in confusion at the small blank clock face, barely visible in the almost completely dark room.
    The suddenly familiar rang out again and he reached across the table top for his red-flashing cell phone — the only source of light in the room.
    Where am I? he asked himself as he reflexively activated the phone and brought it to his ear, the effort magnifying the pain radiating across his forehead,
    “Hello?” he rasped sleepily.
    “You’d better get up, Dr. Draganov,” a deep unfamiliar voice spoke, “you’re going to be late.”
    Late? Late for — ? Oh my God, the Symposium! What time is it?
    A quick glance at digital clock on the glowing face of his cell phone caused him to snap upright on the hard mattress, tearing off the thin blankets as he lunged out of bed and stumbled into the tiny bathroom.

    Barely twenty minutes after receiving the warning phone call, Dr. Sergei Draganov burst out of the narrow stairwell into the hotel’s small, dark and seemingly empty lobby, clutching a worn briefcase in one shaky hand as he struggled to pull on a ragged raincoat over his badly wrinkled suit and poorly knotted necktie.
    He spent a futile three seconds scanning the lobby for the on-duty clerk, then — sensing the hopelessness of his situation, but desperate to try anyway because he had so much to lose — he ran for the main door leading out into the hotel’s shabby entryway, shoved the creaky door open… and stumbled out into a torrential rain and darkness lit only by the headlights of distant structures and vehicles. All of the immediate building, street and traffic lights were as dark as the surrounding sky.
    Watching his steps as best he could to avoid tripping on the broken concrete sidewalk, he lurched across the hotel’s small, half-circle driveway — that, like the connecting front street, was mostly a ragged mixture of broken asphalt and mud — to a small leaky hut where the hotel’s single on-duty clerk and doorman sat crouched, looking cold and miserable.
    “I asked for a wake-up call,” Draganov screamed. “Why didn’t you — ?”
    “All power out,” the clerk interrupted, gesturing with his hands at the surrounding darkness, clearly in no mood to repeat the explanation he’d already given many times this morning. “Wake-up call list in computer. Computer down. Everything down. Nothing I can do until power back on. More important I watch for delivery truck. Then we all have hot breakfast.”
    “But I don’t care about — ” Draganov started to argue, but then remembered that he had a much more important concern. “The early bus to the airport — where is it?!” he demanded.
    “You too late for early bus. Already gone.”
    Draganov sagged, his eyes bulging in dismay.
    “Gone? But — when will it be back?”
    “Two hours, maybe three. Traffic very bad now.”
    “Two — ? No, I can’t wait that long. Call me a cab immediately!”
    The clerk shook his head.
    “No cab come here until street fixed. Get stuck. Only bus… and delivery truck,” he added, looking around hopefully.
    “But, but — ”
    “No cab come here. You want cab, must walk to St. James Hotel.”
    The clerk pointed indifferently off into the darkness.
    “How far away is that?”
    “Not far.” The clerk shrugged. “Half hour maybe.”
    Draganov glanced down at his wrist watch, sighed heavily, and then began picking his way along the broken sidewalk, cursing in Russian. In doing so, he failed to notice a man in an expensive-looking trench coat slip out of the hotel lobby’s side door and begin to follow his labored path.

    A half hour later, a thoroughly wet, miserable and despondent Sergei Draganov was still cautiously picking his way through poorly illuminated mud and street debris, head down against the rain and cursing half-heartedly, when a loud clanking sound caught his attention. He stopped, looked up, and saw a Thai male thirty feet away holding a metal pipe.
    “Who are you? What do you want?” Draganov demanded, trying to keep his rising fear out of his voice.
    “Your money.”
    Draganov laughed bitterly. “Can’t you see I have no money? Why else would I be walking in a morning like this?”
    The thug shrugged, and then gestured with his head toward a nearby second thug and a third who had stepped out of the dark shadows behind Draganov. All three men were armed with pipes, and appeared poorly dressed for the bad weather.
    “You will give us money — all you have — and briefcase too,” the first thug said confidently.
    Draganov’s eyes widen in horror as he looks back and forth at the three men, and then shakes his head firmly.
    “No, you can’t have my briefcase. My money, yes, but I must have — ”
    “You took a wrong turn, Doctor.”
    Draganov spun around and stared at a tall Caucasian man — wearing an expensive-looking trench coat — who was now standing calmly between him and the third thug.
    Before Draganov could respond, the third thug lunged at the newcomer, who moved with deceptive casualness. As Draganov watched in disbelief, the thug crumbled to the ground with a gasp of pain as the pipe clattered away into the darkness.
    “You wanted to take a left at that last stop sign,” the newcomer continued on as if his interaction with the thug hadn’t really happened. “Walk ten blocks and you’ll see the St. James off to the right. Can’t miss it.”
    Draganov stared blankly at the newcomer, and then switched his attention to the other two thugs who were approaching warily.
    “But they — ”
    “- won’t be bothering you.”
    “But — ”
    “Hurry along now, doctor. You’re going to be late for your lecture. The lads and I will sort things out here just fine without your help.”
    Finally understanding that he’d been rescued from a certain beating and the loss of his briefcase, Draganov hurried down the debris-strewn street. Behind him, in the darkness, he heard another agonized gasp and then the clattering sound of a metal pipe.

    The Miracle Grand Convention Hotel Lounge, Bangkok, Thailand
    His lecture completed, a less-despondent Dr. Sergei Draganov was sitting alone at a table in the far corner of the lounge, staring gloomily at an expensively-printed menu, when the sound of approaching footsteps and a familiar voice caused his head to snap up sharply.
    “May I join you, doctor?”
    “You — ?”
    The tall newcomer pulled out a chair on the opposite side of the table from Draganov, sat down, and then motioned for a waiter.
    Draganov started to say something, but then sat in silence as an attentive waiter quickly appeared.
    “Would you like some coffee, doctor? And perhaps a sweet roll?”
    Draganov glanced down at the menu in his hand and then tossed it aside with a grimace. “No, it’s much too expensive here — ”
    “Nonsense. I’m sure you haven’t eaten anything all morning. It will be my treat.” The newcomer looked up at the waiter. “We’ll have coffee, fruit, and breakfast pastries, please.”
    Draganov waited until the waiter disappeared and then leaned across the table toward the newcomer, looking scared.
    “That was you who woke me up this morning… the voice on my cell phone?”
    The newcomer nodded with a slight smile.
    “Then I must know… who are you… why are you here… and why were you following me this morning?” Draganov demanded in a nervous whisper, looking around to see anyone at the surrounding tables was paying any attention to their conversation. No-one seemed to be.
    “My name is Emerson. Marcus Emerson,” the newcomer — whose last name was actually Wallis — lied. “And I was at your hotel this morning to make sure you made it to your lecture. I didn’t want to miss it.”
    Draganov blinked. “You were there, in the audience?”
    “Yes, I was. Why, do you find that surprising?”
    “No, not at all,” Draganov stammered quickly, “I mean, you just don’t… seem like a man who… uh… who would be interested in my work.”
    “On the contrary, doctor, I find your work to be most fascinating.”
    Draganov gulped nervously. “May I ask why?”
    Wallis paused while the waiter set the coffee and food on the table, and then smiled as he observed Draganov staring hungrily at the platters filled with fruit and sweet rolls.
    “Help yourself, doctor. You’ve had a busy morning. Time for you to relax, enjoy your breakfast, and allow me to do the talking.”
    Wallis then sipped casually at his coffee as he watched Draganov fill a plate with fruit and rolls, and begin to eat hungrily. Then, a few moments later, he set his cup down and stared quietly at the Russian scientist until Draganov finally sensed the scrutiny and looked up.
    “So tell me, doctor, given the huge potential of your research, and the amount of money your anonymous benefactor initially invested in your facilities, why are you having trouble getting funding?”
    Draganov blinked.
    “What do you know about my bro — my, uh, b-benefactor?” he stammered.
    “Not a great deal.” Wallis shrugged. “Our paths happened to cross on a remote Southeast Asian island several months ago. At some point, you and your research became a topic of conversation.”
    “My brother… talked to you — a complete stranger — about my research?” Draganov looked stunned.
    Wallis smiled. “Glasses of expensive vodka and remote locations have a way of rapidly creating close friendships.”
    “But — do you know where he is now? I haven’t heard from him in… many months.”
    “Which is presumably why you’re making a desperate pitch to the investment crowd? Your brother’s money is about to run out?”
    Draganov stared at Wallis, seemingly unable to speak.
    “I must say I’m not surprised,” Wallis said calmly. “Your brother was clearly a man who took substantial risks in his ‘business endeavors’; risks not necessarily appreciated by the local law enforcement agencies, much less his competitors. I have every reason to think that he was in the process of quickly relocating his operation to a more friendly work environment when we happened to meet.”
    Wallis stared directly into Draganov’s horrified eyes for a long moment. “For your sake, and his, I sincerely hope he made it, Dr. Draganov. But I would assume from your lack of communication with him over these past months that he probably… didn’t.”
    An ashen-faced Draganov seemed to sink deeper into his chair.
    “So is that the problem you’re having with the money crowd? They think you’re too much like your brother? Too willing to gamble against the odds?”
    Draganov finally seemed to find his voice.
    “The investors do think my approach involves too much risk,” he acknowledged in a raspy soft voice. “They want me to make progress in smaller steps… use a more defined and less variable virus as a transport vehicle… things like that.”
    I understand they’re also concerned about your use of something you call ‘transition’ genetics?”
    “Yes, that too,” Draganov conceded uneasily.
    “Please explain.”
    Draganov hesitated, and then began to speak, staring out at the far wall. “Genetic manipulation is traditionally done by altering genetic coding — genes, if you will — in a fertilized or unfertilized egg using precisely constructed segments of DNA. This is relatively easy to do, because you are only working with a single nucleus… the drawback being the length of time it takes for the altered egg to reach adulthood.”
    “Yes, I understood that from your lecture.” Wallis nodded. “Go on.”
    “Transitional genetics — the protocol I’m using — involves manipulation of that same genetic coding, but in a very young animal that is still in its primary growth stage. The advantage is the relatively short time it takes for the animal to reach adulthood whereupon it can be utilized.
    “And the drawback?”
    “The huge number of nuclei that must be altered — essentially the entire animal, which means billions of cells at the very least. The transition must be accomplished in a rapid, thorough and precise manner, which is why I use the cold virus and nano-tube technology to replicate and insert the altered DNA segments. That particular virus type is quite effective in its infection process.”
    “So are your critics right? Is the procedure too risky?”
    Draganov shook his head firmly, finally meeting Wallis’ cold gaze. “No, not at all. There’s been no evidence at all in any of the literature that nano-tube technology is dangerous. They are correct in saying the cold virus can evolve — which is to say, mutate — quite quickly under certain circumstances; but virus mechanisms are well understood. It’s simply a matter of taking all of the proper precautions. There are risks of uncontrolled growth, of course; but the relevant question should be: are the risk acceptable? I — ”
    “I understand the concept of risk versus reward, doctor,” Wallis said calmly. “I want to know if the projects you described in your talk are doable.”
    “In what respect?”
    Wallis took a small notebook out of his coat pocket, wrote down a few words, and then showed the page to Draganov.
    “A feline?”
    “Actually, relatively rare feline.”
    “Rarity doesn’t matter if I can get access to the young animals.”
    “How difficult would that be?”
    “More expensive than difficult — ”
    Wallis wrote down a figure and silently showed it to Draganov. “Would an investment of this nature cover all of the necessary expenses?”
    Draganov’s eyes widened. “Oh my god, yes, but — ”
    “The funding would be in cash. Is that a problem?”
    “You mean cash deposited into our bank account?”
    “No, handed to you — packets of US hundred dollar bills. No banks. No government involvement whatsoever; a concept that your brother and I happen to agree on.”
    “I suppose that would be okay.” Draganov nodded hesitantly.
    “Understand, doctor, I view the feline project as a test of your work. What if I also wanted this?” Wallis wrote down one more word and showed it to Draganov.
    “Are you serious?”
    “Yes, I am. Is it doable?”
    “Yes, of course it is… but it would be much more difficult. My god, the magnitude alone — ”
    “Would require a much larger investment, of course. I was thinking of adding another zero to the proposed funding.”
    Draganov stared at Wallis in open-mouthed disbelief.
    “But before I put that much money at risk,” Wallis went on, “I’d have to see your lab and your products, first hand.”
    Draganov quickly shook his head. “No, I’m sorry, I–I really can’t allow anyone to visit my laboratory.”
    “Like your brother, I’m sure a visit by governmental authorities is something you’re trying very hard to avoid… which presumably explains why your facilities are, shall we say, very remotely located
    … and also why you don’t seem to be listed in any scientific research directory.”
    “I, uh — ”
    “This would not be an inspection, Dr. Draganov. I haven’t the slightest interest in how many scientific corners you chose to cut in your work. I’m only interested in the results; which is why I would only be visiting your facilities as an investor bearing cash.”
    As Draganov sat in agonized silence, Wallis sat back into his chair and sipped at his coffee with his characteristic slight smile.

Part II: The Thai Disconnect


    One year later… on board the Muluku, off Westport, New Zealand
    It was a moonless night, the seas were calm, and the nearby fog bank seemed to go on for miles. All in all, perfect conditions for the sixty-two foot Muluku — a poorly-maintained charter yacht turned sports fisher running at quarter-speed thirty nautical miles off the northwest coast of Westport — to perform the simple tasks for which she had been modified. But even so, the ship and her crew approached the fog bank with understandable caution.
    The bridge radar screen was showing a big-target blip that should have been the rusting structure of a two-hundred-foot commercial fishing trawler — five hundred yards out and twenty degrees off the Muluku’s port beam; but there was no visible sign of anything on that heading except swirling fog.
    Huang Kat-so, the captain of the converted smuggler, cursed as he brought the portable radio up to his mouth.
    “Ged, do you see anything?” he demanded, speaking softly into the radio.
    “Negative, Captain, no contact,” Gedimin Bulatt — a lanky muscular man in his late thirties, dressed in rubber-soled boots, faded levis, a worn flannel shirt and stained windbreaker — replied into his radio as he stared out across the water from his position on the bow into the wispy darkness.
    Bulatt had a Vietnam War vintage M16 rifle slung over his shoulder; and four 30-round rifle magazines, two 15-round pistol magazines, and a loaded 40-caliber Sig-Sauer semi-auto pistol in the ammo pouches and holster of his assault vest. With his scraggly white beard and short white ponytail just barely visible from the bridge in the wispy fog now surrounding the boat, Bulatt provided a very appealing and soothing image to Huang: that of a tough and able seaman on bow watch, keeping an eye out trouble or treachery as well as imminent collisions.
    “This damnable radar is useless! We must be getting close. Keep your eyes opened,” Huang Kat-so ordered as he dropped the speed of the Muluku down another notch.
    “Aye, sir.”
    Under anything resembling normal operating conditions, the linking-up of two ocean-going vessels in the middle of the night, thirty miles off shore in deep water, and under reasonably calm weather conditions, would have been an easy thing to accomplish, fog or no. But both ships were purposefully operating ‘black’ — without any bridge, navigation or running lights — and Muluku’s long-outdated radar system was intermittently reliable at best; which meant the trawler might well be five hundred yards off the Muluku’s port beam… or fifty… or perhaps not even there at all.
    Must be out of my mind, trusting these idiots to know what they’re doing at night out on the open water, Bulatt thought as he strained to listen for some distant creak or clank of rusted steel that might reveal the trawler’s presence.
    He’d already stored an inflated life vest near his bow station; and he was ready to strip off his armament, dive overboard with the inflated vest, and swim for his life the moment he spotted the bow of the big trawler coming out of the fog on a collision course.
    It was a perfectly reasonable precaution on Bulatt’s part. Huang Kat-so had a well-earned reputation among the Maui fishing boat community for his indifferent seamanship, casual maintenance schedules, and reluctance to spend much — if any — of his profits on his boat and bare-minimum crew; the outward impression being that the south-east Asian immigrant was just barely eking out a living off his occasional deep sea fishing clients.
    Which probably isn’t far from the actual truth, Bulatt reminded himself, wondering — with some vague degree of curiosity — how many clients in their right minds had ever chartered a second trip on the Muluku after spending an uneasy night on the leaky sports fisher; putting up with the erratically functioning galley, heads and bilge pumps, while the Captain and his two deck hands took turns steering their more-or-less seaworthy craft not too far offshore in a mostly fruitless effort to find a place where fish might actually be biting.
    But Bulatt was also well aware that the disgruntled clients were only a cover for the high-six-figure incomes that Huang Kat-so was making off his illicit business ventures; the latest of which had caused him to go looking for a reasonably trustworthy bodyguard who could also function as a number two deck hand when the previous holder of that job suddenly found himself in serious trouble with the law.
    A sudden screech of heavy rusted objects rubbing against each other out in the foggy darkness snapped Bulatt’s head around to the right.
    “Audio contact, off the starboard bow!” Bulatt hissed into his radio, and then braced himself as Huang Kat-so quickly reversed both engines; bringing the Muluku around in a sweeping arc to starboard while the first deckhand — a small, wiry and darkly tanned man of indeterminate age and ethnic origin — ran forward to the bow with a grappling-iron gun.
    Slowing, the hulking structure of the big fishing trawler — resting at anchor, Bulatt quickly noted with a sigh of relief — became visible in the surrounding fog.
    Demonstrating an unexpected degree of professional seamanship, Huang Kat-so brought the Muluku alongside the larger ship, and then held her steady against the current while Bulatt and the first deckhand quickly rigged protective booms on the port side of the yacht. Then the first deckhand brought the brass butt stock of the grappling-iron gun up against his shoulder, aimed it over the bow of the trawler, pulled the trigger, watched the metal hook arc up into the darkness — dragging a thin nylon line in its wake — and then heard the heavy hook clang against the trawler’s steel deck.
    Three minutes later, after the first deckhand and Bulatt managed to get a drooping nylon-rope pulley system hauled back from the trawler connected to the yacht’s bridge, the first man-sized, weighted and net-wrapped burlap bag slid down the pulley-rope and then — aided by some extra pulling by Bulatt — landed on the deck of the Muluku with a loud thump.
    As Bulatt worked quickly in the darkness to unsnap the hundred-and-twenty-pound bag from the pulley line and drag it over to the opened top of the bait tank that was actually a hidden storage hold, a second net-wrapped bag swooped down onto the deck; followed by a third, fourth and fifth. The acrid smell of ammonia and decomposed fish tissue filled the air.
    As soon as Bulatt had the fifth bag unsnapped, he reached into his pocket, pulled out a small flashlight, twisted the head ninety degrees until it clicked, and then pressed what normally would have been the ON button.
    Moments later, the roar of diesel engines echoed across the water; and the darkness suddenly exploded into blinding daylight as the searchlights from three ocean-going speedboats centered on the trawler and the Muluku, immediately followed by the booming sound of a ship’s loudspeaker:
    Off in the distance, the running lights of two helicopters were suddenly visible, both aircraft clearly vectoring in on the two ships.
    “Quick, the bags! Throw them overboard, now!” Captain Huang Kay-so yelled from the bridge.
    The first deckhand ran toward the bait tank; and then yelped in surprise when he felt his wrist being grabbed and then suddenly found himself tumbling head-over-heels to the wet deck.
    “Leave the evidence alone, mate. You’re about to be arrested — ” Bulatt advised.
    “By who… you?!” the first deckhand exclaimed, looking confused.
    “No, the cavalry.”
    The first deckhand leaped up with a knife in his hand, lunged at Bulatt, then gasped in pain — the knife clattering to the deck — as he felt his wrist snap. The impact of a flashlight butt behind his ear dropped him to the deck unconscious.
    Up on the bridge of the Muluku, Captain Huang Kat-so watched his first deckhand go down, blinked in shock, and then lunged for a wall-mounted shark rifle… just as a SEAL-suited figure leaped over the bow of the Muluku next to Bulatt and fired a stream of assault rifle rounds several inches above the Captain’s head. Chunks of shredded fiberglass flew in all directions.
    The Captain dropped the rifle, yelling frantically, “No, don’t shoot! I surrender!”
    “About time you got here,” Bulatt commented to the SEAL-suited figure.
    Interpol Agent Pete Younger winked at Bulatt, and then glared up at the Muluku’s bridge. “Captain Huang Kat-so, be advised you are under arrest for violation of the New Zealand Endangered Species Act. United States Special Agent Gedimin Bulatt is my witness.”
    The Muluku Captain stared down at Bulatt in disbelief as the U.S. Fish amp; Wildlife Special Agent glanced down at his watch.
    “Don’t ham it up too much, bud,” he whispered to Younger. “You’ve still got paperwork to do and we’ve got a plane to catch.


    The Khlong Saeng Wildlife Preserve, Thailand
    The rain in Khlong Saeng Wildlife Preserve of southern Thailand was starting to fall heavier now, muting the night sounds of the uneasy Hornbills, Bamboo Rats, tree frogs and insects. All of these creatures were aware, in their own ways, of the single human figure stretched out on a thick pad laid across the top of a crude bamboo hunting platform standing six feet above the lush undergrowth.
    He hadn’t done anything to scare them off, yet; but the subliminal threat that he might, at any moment, radiated from the platform like a radio distress signal.
    Conversely, the man — almost invisible in the hooded and darkly-camouflaged rain poncho that covered everything except his boots and gloves — wasn’t the least bit concerned about their presence.
    Michael Hateley had no interest in honking birds, croaking frogs, chirping insects, the rain or any other aspect of his surroundings. Just as long as the cobras — the Asians and Kings — that also inhabited this lush mountain rainforest stayed far away.
    That was the primary responsibility of Marcus Emerson and his team: to keep the truly dangerous predators at bay — or, at the very least, away from the platform — until Hateley could take his shot.
    This was Hateley’s fifth hunt in the southern peninsula of Thailand, and it promised to be the best one yet; assuming the creature Emerson had described in such incredible detail was still alive and actively roaming his territory.
    At least a hundred and twenty kilos, Emerson had claimed. Maybe more if he’s been feeding well. World record class, in any case. And very possibly the last of the big ones, Hateley knew, because the species as a whole was disappearing fast, and there wouldn’t be many left of any size in another year or so.
    A worthy centerpiece for your next club dinner, the international safari guide had reminded Hateley on the plane ride in, and Hateley knew Emerson was right. No one else in his exclusive club of extremely wealthy and dedicated hunters — four in total, to be precise, all in their mid-to-late fifties — would ever have anything like it in the carefully concealed chambers that housed their endangered species collections, no matter how much they were willing to pay.
    Hateley kept his attention focused on the distant fluorescent green images of trees, ferns, bamboo, and massive limestone formations that came into view as he slowly shifted the aim-point of his night-vision-scoped. 243 Remington Magnum rifle. As he did so, he imagined the covetous expressions on the faces of his peers when they saw his latest — and perhaps most magnificent — kill, and smiled.
    There was no doubt in his mind that when the accounting took place at the club’s annual dinner, he would maintain possession of the coveted trophy that symbolized dominance in their highly competitive game: the fearsomely-tusked boar’s head mounted above a glistening brass plate inscribed with three chilling words.
    It’s mine, again, gentlemen, Hateley thought with a sense of anticipation that was almost orgasmic, irrefutably and unconditionally mine.
    Something splashed nearby in the darkness, causing the murmuring fauna to go silent for a few seconds. But the sound was familiar — probably a tree frog making a sudden lunge at a momentarily careless insect — and Hateley paid it no attention at all. He was waiting for the appearance of something smaller, but far more significant.
    A fire-fly.
    Five minutes passed, and nothing of interest appeared in the viewer of his night-scope. Then, finally, a deep voice rumbled in Hateley’s electronic ear-protectors.
    “He’s coming.”
    Hateley scanned the distant trees with a fast sweep of his scoped rifle, using the stacked pair of lead-shot-filled bags as a swivel, but saw nothing.
    “Where — ?” he started to whisper into the small microphone attached to his left ear-protector. But at the moment he saw it too: a tiny flashpoint of bright light that suddenly appeared — far away, deep in the trees, high off the ground — and then vanished.
    As he watched, barely breathing now, the pinpoint of infra-red light — intermittently visible now at four-second intervals — grew bigger as it approached the clearing, and the platform. The stealthy movements portrayed an attitude of aggression as well as innate caution.
    The inference was clear. High up in the trees, in his element, this on-coming creature feared no other species. Not even man.
    Big Bastard. Fearless. Probably come right at you, Emerson had said, and Hateley knew that this would be his moment, his trophy: the biggest Clouded Leopard that had ever lived, and almost certainly the last of a kind.
    Feeling his heart starting to pound deep in his chest, Hateley shifted the aim-point of his rifle until the intermittent flashings were centered in the cross-hairs of his transmitter-equipped night-scope. Then he gently slid his gloved forefinger across the smooth, cross-hatched surface of the Remington Mag’s trigger.
    As the flashing light grew closer, still high up in the trees, the night sounds in the clearing grew quiet, as if all of the birds, frogs and insects were collectively holding their breath.
    Unlike Hateley, they had never seen an apparition like this before, and they didn’t like it at all.
    About a hundred yards from the platform, the pinpoint light-source flashed behind the central trunk of a widely-branching tree — its presence signaled by a brief glow of dimly-reflected light off the surrounding vegetation.
    Hateley began to count silently.
    At that instant, the fire-fly flashed again.
    Expecting to see the reflected glow again, Hateley was caught off guard when the Clouded Leopard’s face — with its incredibly blank wide-open eyes — suddenly filled a considerable portion of the night-scope viewer, and then immediately disappeared when the infra-red Fire-fly™ tracking device secured to the cat’s neck flashed off.
    Hateley cursed silently, but a subconscious portion of his brain had already begun the metronomic flasher count.
    Hateley’s gloved forefinger tightened against the trigger.
    One thousand-and The cat’s highlighted rosette spots and the distinctive black line running from eyes to ears — characteristics that had long made it one of the most coveted and endangered of the thirty-seven cat species — reappeared in the reflected glow of the Fire-fly™; and then vanished in an explosion of bright green light as a billowing streak of fire erupted from Hateley’s rifle.
    In something less than a tenth of a second, a spinning 85-grain, full-jacketed bullet arced across the clearing, tore through the furry chest of the famously agile cat, and embedded itself deep into the wood trunk of an adjacent tree.
    Heart shattered and torn from its chest, the grey-spotted creature was dead before its limp body finished crashing through tree limbs, branches and brush to the ground. But Hateley instinctively worked the bolt of his rifle anyway, ejecting the still-smoking brass cartridge and smoothly feeding another live round into the polished chamber of the lethal weapon; just in case.
    Then the voice in his ear-protectors confirmed what he already knew to be true.
    “Excellent shot, sir, but it’s time we departed. We may have some unwelcome visitors in the area.”
    In a series of movements made routine by many replications in many foreign lands, Hateley thumbed the safety of his rifle to the ON position; sat up on the platform; turned; handed the expensive rifle down to the dark, barely-visible figure of a man now standing beside a crude bamboo ladder braced against the platform; and then quickly climbed down the ladder.
    As soon as Hateley’s boots were on the ground, Marcus Wallis shifted the rifle to his left hand, stepped forward, shook Hateley’s gloved hand, and slapped the wealthy chief executive on the shoulder.
    “About time you got that fellow in your sights,” Wallis said cheerfully.
    “You and your team provided the perfect opportunity, as usual; I couldn’t possibly miss,” Hateley replied.
    Then, after a pause: “what kind of visitors were you talking about?”
    “Jack spotted a Thai Forestry Ranger jeep on patrol about an hour ago. They should be about five clicks north of us by now, but they could be heading back this way if someone heard and reported the shot.”
    “Is that going to be a problem?”
    “Not likely, but why take the chance? Be a lot less complicated if I take you directly back to the airport while Quince and the lads sort things out around here,” Wallis said.
    “Then let’s get going,” Hateley agreed. “Is the helicopter ready?
    “Yes, but as a precaution, I had them relocate to a nearby clearing — a bit more of a drive for us, but worth the effort. You never know where these damned Rangers are going to pop up next.”
    Wallis paused for a second, turned away from Hateley, pressed a forefinger against a switch on his throat mike, and then whispered softly: “Gecko-One to Gecko-Two.”
    “Gecko-Two, go.” The deep calm voice of Quince Lanyard rumbled in Wallis’ earphones.
    “Gecko-Two, be advised we’re moving out now. Collect the target, secure the scene, relocate your team to rendezvous point Checkers, and then stand-by for link-up with Gecko-Three. Repeat, rendezvous point Checkers. I’m taking the Fireman to Alpha-Tango now.”
    “Gecko-Two, copy.”
    Wallis turned back to Hateley and motioned with his gloved hand. The two men began walking quickly in the darkness toward a pair of Land Rovers parked on a dirt road about fifty feet away.
    Behind them, two small darkened figures moved in and quickly began to disassemble the shooting platform, cutting the lashing ropes with sharp knives and tossing the freed lengths of bamboo into the brush, while a third much larger figure ran toward the distant tree where the cat lay motionless. Wallis, Lanyard, and their two Thai helpers were all outfitted with night-vision goggles and infra-red filtered flashlights, the beams of which were invisible to anyone not equipped with night-vision gear.
    As the two men reached the Land Rovers, Wallis turned back to Hateley. “What’s the status of your plane?”
    “Sitting on the tarmac at Phuket International, fully fueled and re-stocked, flight plan filed,” Hateley replied. “I told the pilots we might be leaving tonight. They’re ready to taxi out as soon as we’re on board.”
    As Hateley quickly levered himself into the front passenger seat of the first Land Rover, and reached for the safety belt, Wallis unloaded and then carefully slid the expensive scoped rifle into its soft leather case, laid the weapon across the back seat, hopped in the driver’s seat, secured his own safety belt, and then reached for the ignition key.
    The Land Rover’s powerful engine started up immediately.
    As Hateley stared out into the almost complete darkness with a calm and satisfied expression on his unshaven face, Wallis accelerated the vehicle down the pitch-black dirt road — an easy accomplishment in spite of the numerous potholes, because the jeep’s headlights were infra-red filtered as well. From Wallis’s narrowed view through his night vision goggles, the narrow winding road was as clearly visible as if it had been noon in one of Thailand’s most spectacular wildlife preserves instead of midnight.
    As Wallis continued to accelerate along the rough dirt road, he pulled an encrypted satellite cell phone out of his jacket pocket and activated a quick-dial number.
    “Alpha-Tango, this is Gecko-One. Do you copy?”
    “Go ahead, Gecko-One.”
    “Alpha-Tango, be advised our ETA is approximately forty minutes. Be prepared to… oh bloody hell!”
    A pair of bright headlights suddenly appeared in the road, nearly blinding Hateley and forcing Wallis to rip the now-useless night-vision goggles off his face.
    “Who are they?” Hateley demanded, but he already knew the answer.
    “Thai Rangers,” Wallis said calmly. “You stay in the vehicle, sir. Keep your goggles on and your head down. I’ll handle them.”
    Wallis undid his safety belt, opened the door of the Land Rover, and calmly stepped out into the road, using one hand to shield his eyes from the glaring headlights.
    “Stay where you are, and keep your hands up!” one of the Rangers — the driver — yelled as he stepped out of an old, mud-encrusted Jeep Cherokee and aimed a short-barreled submachine gun directly at Wallis, who quickly noted the sergeant stripes on the man’s uniform sleeves.
    Two more uniformed Rangers — one with a pair of corporal stripes on his upper sleeve, and the other bearing a constable’s insignia — jumped out of the jeep’s rear doors with longer-barreled assault rifles up and ready. The fourth Ranger — younger than the sergeant, but clearly the leader of the four-man team, probably a lieutenant, Wallis guessed — stepped out of the front passenger seat with his right hand around the grip of his holstered pistol and a pack-set radio in his left hand.
    “What’s the meaning of this?” Wallis demanded, keeping his hands open and high in the air as he continued to approach the vehicle. “We’re biologists on official assignment. We have a permit from your government that specifically allows us to work at night in this sector of the Preserve.”
    “Why were you driving in the refuge without lights?” the team leader demanded.
    “We use infrared-filtered lights and night-vision gear out here so the animals can’t track our movements,” Wallis said patiently as he came to a stop a few feet away from the senior Ranger, and just past the cone of the jeep’s glaring headlights.
    Now he could see all four Rangers clearly, Wallis focused his attention on the shoulder patch on the team leader’s uniform, the sewn insignia clearly indicating a lieutenant in the Thai Forestry Police Division. The young commander had a suspicious expression on his face; the older sergeant looked tough and competent; and the corporal appeared ready to shoot the first thing that moved. Only the young constable looked uneasy. An unfortunate combination as far as Wallis was concerned.
    “It’s a necessary collection technique when you’re using short-range dart guns to tranquilize these creatures,” Wallis went on calmly. “Your superiors are very much aware of our protocols, and we have already paid a great deal of money for the privilege of collecting the genetic samples in your Preserves.”
    The mention of genetic samples — or it might have been the great deal of money, Wallis wasn’t sure — seemed to make the Ranger lieutenant hesitate.
    “We heard a gunshot a few minutes ago.”
    “That was probably us; sometimes we have to use a high-velocity dart to get at some of the more skittish animals,” Wallis explained. “The propane charges are extremely loud when they go off, and the sounds do echo considerably in these mountains, but — ”
    “You’re not out here hunting?”
    Wallis managed to look offended. “You mean actually killing things? No, absolutely not; we’re simply capturing animals and collecting small bits of tissue — ideally from every mammalian species in the Preserve — to work out the DNA sequences. Catch and release. All we need is a tiny clip of skin from one ear, which we immediately swab with iodine to counteract any infection. Once the drugs wear off, the animals are no worse for the wear. Have to do it at night because — ”
    “What is your name?” the lieutenant interrupted.
    “Emerson. Marcus Emerson,” Wallis replied.
    “I am not familiar with that name.”
    “We’re based out of Khao Sok. I’m surprised you don’t know about our project. We’ve been working here, on and off, for several months now. Are you new to the district?”
    “We’re on a temporary detail to this area,” the lieutenant acknowledged and he brought the radio up to the side of his face. “I’ll contact my supervisor in Bangkok. They can confirm your collection permit. How do you spell your name?”
    Bangkok? Bloody hell, Wallis thought, staring thoughtfully at the assault rifle aimed at his chest. “E-M-E-R-S-O-N.”
    As the lieutenant brought the pack-set radio up to the side of his mouth, a voice out of the darkness said “Excuse me.”
    The sergeant, corporal and constable all started to whirl around in the direction of the new voice, and then crumpled to the ground as a flurry of 9mm bullets from a silenced pistol ripped into their heads.
    The lieutenant had dropped the pack-set radio and was starting to draw his pistol when Wallis swiftly drew a silenced pistol from his shoulder holster and shot the young team leader twice in the side of the head. As he crumbled to the ground, Jack Gavin stepped forward out of the darkness.
    “Check the jeep. See if they’ve got anything in there that identifies us,” Wallis ordered as he knelt down and quickly began searching the jacket pockets of the four Rangers.
    “Nothing here, just a map of Southern Thailand with the entire Reservoir area circled in red,” Gavin said as he came back from the jeep. “Nothing to indicate that they were focused on the Khlong Preserve, or on us.”
    “Nothing on the bodies, either,” Wallis said as he stood up. The two men looked at each other.
    “Sorry, but from where I was standing, and what I heard, I couldn’t see any other option,” Gavin said, shrugging his lean, muscular shoulders as he returned the silenced pistol to his shoulder holster.
    “No, there wasn’t,” Wallis agreed. “Thai Forestry Lieutenants and Sergeants don’t go out on routine patrol in the middle of the night; and when was the last time you saw a Thai Ranger patrol wearing ceramic chest plates in their vests? They were definitely on the hunt for something, or someone.”
    “What happened to Choon? Why didn’t he warn us?”
    “I don’t know, but I’m going to find out.” Wallis shook his head in frustration, and then sighed. “It had to be done, no question; but these Rangers are going to cost us dear.” He stared grimly down at the four bodies for a moment, and then back up at Gavin. “How did you get here?”
    “The motor-bike,” Gavin replied.
    “Give me your pistol and holster.”
    Gavin blinked in momentary confusion, as if he hadn’t heard Wallis correctly. But then he quickly obeyed, taking off his jacket, slipping out of the shoulder holster and handing the holstered weapon to Wallis.
    “If you need a weapon, use one of theirs,” Wallis said, “but try to avoid any additional shooting if at all possible. We’re going to need a plausible diversion if we’re to get out of this with our arses intact.”
    “Understood,” Gavin acknowledged.
    “Take the jeep and the bodies back to where you left the bike, pick it up, slip into the best-looking uniform of the four — ideally the sergeant’s — and then head north. Try to get as close to Khuraburi as you can without being spotted, run the jeep off the road — into the brush or over a cliff, whatever you can do fast without being seen — and then motor-bike back down to Tauka Pa, dump the bike, and then wait for Quince. While you’re doing that, I’m going to take Hateley back to the helicopter and get him on his plane as quickly as I can. Shit is going to hit the bloody fan when these four fail to check in. If Hateley gets scooped up at a road-block, we’re bloody-well screwed. He wouldn’t last five minutes under Thai interrogation.”
    “Are you going to fly out with him?”
    “No, I need to shut down the office and sort things out around here first.” Wallis fingered his throat mike again. “Gecko-One to Gecko-Two.”
    “Gecko-Two, go.”
    “Change of plans. Bright Light. Repeat, Bright Light. Scrub the scene completely, and then relocate your team to rendezvous point Papa-John, double-time. Repeat, rendezvous point Papa-John. I’ll meet you there in about two hours with the office kit.”
    “Gecko-Two, copy Bright Light, copy Papa-John,” Quince Lanyard replied with no trace of emotion in his voice.
    Wallis nodded approvingly and fingered his throat-mike again; only this time activating a different frequency.
    “Gecko-One to Alpha-Tango.”
    “Alpha-Tango, go.”
    “Be advised we have a change of plans. Relocate to pick-up point Echo-Five, full caution. We’re heading your way now.”
    “Alpha-Tango, copy Echo-Five. ETA fifteen.”
    Wallis turned back to Gavin. “As soon as Hateley takes off, Quince and I will scrub our trail. Then Quince will link up with you at Tauka Pa while I have a heart-to-heart with our Surat Thani friend.”
    “You mean Yak?”
    “Exactly,” Wallis muttered as he bent down and grabbed the legs of the dead lieutenant.
    “What about the cat? Are we still going to try to get it out?” Gavin asked as he and Wallis quickly heaved the bodies of the four Rangers into the back of the jeep and covered them with a tarp.
    “Bloody damn right we are; we’ve got too much invested in this project to miss out on Hateley’s final payment,” Wallis said emphatically. “And besides, he’s too good of a customer. We don’t want to lose him now, just when things are starting to get interesting.”

    Wallis got back in the jeep, shielding his eyes from the headlight glare until Gavin had the Ranger’s jeep turned around and heading north.
    “What was that all about, Marcus?” Hateley demanded. “You were out there a hell of a long time. I was starting to get worried.”
    “Some unexpected complications,” Wallis said. “Nothing we can’t handle, but we need to get you on that plane to Singapore and then heading back home as quickly as possible. The fewer people who see you in the area of the Khlong Preserve right about now, the easier it will be for all of us.”
    “You’re not going with me?
    “No, I need to finish sorting things out around here first.”
    “Sorting things out?”
    Wallis shrugged. “Close up shop; set accounts in order; pay our respects; put out a false trail of bread crumbs, that sort of thing.”
    Hateley was silent for a few moments.
    “Is the situation really that precarious?”
    Wallis hesitated before he spoke. “Straight up: it’s a bit dicey at the moment, Mr. Hateley; but nothing that you need to be concerned about. You pay us handsomely to deal with any complications, and that’s what we’re going to do. But you should be aware that we may not be able to hunt in this area again for a while.”
    “By ’this area’ you mean — ?”
    “Ah, I see.”
    Hateley started out the jeep’s side window for a couple of seconds, then turned back to Wallis.
    “What about my trophy?”
    “The cat’s on his way to a first-class taxidermist as we speak. I’ll deliver him to you, personally, in about ten days, two weeks at the outside; tree-mounted, as we agreed.”
    “And the money I’ve already invested in my next Thai hunt?”
    “Your hundred and fifty thousand dollar down-payment, minus our expenses to date, will either be refunded to you when I deliver your mount, or invested in some equally profitable ventures, your choice.”
    Hateley remained silent as Wallis re-secured the night-vision goggles over his eyes, started up the jeep, and continued driving toward the main road.
    When they reached the paved roadway, Wallis pulled off to the side of the dirt road, got out, quickly removed the infrared filters from the Land Rover’s headlights, got back into the vehicle, turned on the headlights, pulled into the flow of traffic, and headed east.

    Fifteen minutes later, at a remote clearing far from the originally planned pick-up site, Wallis secured Hateley and his rifle case in the back seats of a helicopter with the words ‘Pauley Air Transport’ painted on the side in bold letters, and then quickly scrambled into the front co-pilot seat.
    Wallis and Hateley had both donned microphone-mounted head-sets that enabled them to communicate with the pilot and each other; but neither spoke as the helicopter road up in to the sky and then began to follow a pre-planned route to the Phuket International Airport.
    Both men started out at the distant, brightly-lit coastline of Thailand; each aware, in their own way, that they might never see this sight again.
    At the helipad near the tarmac area reserved for private charter planes, Wallis helped Hateley out of the helicopter, handed him the rifle case and then walked with him over to the gleaming forty-million-dollar Gulfstream-Four that stood waiting like an about-to-be released falcon. At the base of the stairs, Hateley turned and extended his hand.
    “This turned out to be quite an exhilarating day, Marcus,” he said with a smile. “I’d hate to think my hunting days in Thailand are over because of an unfortunate incident.”
    “We’ll do everything we can to make sure that is not the case,” Wallis promised.
    “Good, I was hoping you’d say that; but, in any case, I’m a patient man. So what do you have in mind for my next hunt?”
    “Something interesting, Mr. Hateley,” Wallis answered as he shook his client’s hand. “You can be sure of that.”
    “Fair enough. I’ll see you in a couple of weeks,” Hateley said, and then climbed up into the cabin of the chartered plane.
    The wealthy businessman settled himself into one of the four luxurious seats and motioned for the uniformed steward to fix him a drink. Then, as the sleek Gulfstream jet began to taxi out to the runway, Hateley looked out the window at the nearby helipad; but the helicopter and Wallis were already gone.

    Wearing the night-vision goggles again to cope with the almost total darkness, Wallis worked the four-wheel-drive Land Rover through the deep muddy ruts of a tree-lined dirt road leading into the western section of the Khlong Saeng Wildlife Preserve.
    As he did so, he periodically checked his odometer.
    At the 5.8 kilometer mark, Wallis slowed down, turned left onto a very narrow mud trail just barely wide enough for the Land Rover, and followed a set of recently-made tire tracks for another thirty seconds until he came to small, chain-sawed clearing where the park maintenance staff had built a storage shed for an old back-hoe and even older tractor.
    There was another Land Rover parked next to the shed, illuminated — at least for night-vision goggles — by an exterior shed light that had been temporarily covered with an infra-red filter gel, and then turned on.
    Wallis parked next to the Land Rover, flashed his infra-red-filtered headlights twice, shut off the engine, then stepped out of the vehicle and walked around to the rear.
    As he did so, Quince Lanyard stepped out of the surrounding forest and opened the rear door of Wallis’ Land Rover. Working quickly, the two men unloaded three back-packs, three scoped hunting rifles in waterproof cases, two tied plastic bags filled with shredded paper and a pair of walking sticks. Lanyard started to remove a five-foot-long black plastic Pelican™ case and a blue-striped military ammo can from the back of the Land Rover, but Wallis shook his head.
    “Leave it there for now,” he said.
    “Are we still in the clear?” Lanyard asked.
    “So far, but the shit will definitely hit the bloody fan when those Rangers are found. We need to be gone before then.”
    “With our assets secured and all loose ends tied, I assume?”
    Wallis nodded. “Exactly.”
    “What about Pauley?”
    “He won’t walk away from his business, and I can’t see him lasting long under Thai interrogation.”
    “Same with our client, I’d wager.” Lanyard nodded his head knowingly. “He’d give us up in a heartbeat.”
    “We’ll have to see to it that he never steps foot in Thailand again,” Wallis acknowledged.
    “Must have been tempting to just give Jack one more body to stash.”
    “If there was time for a proper disposal, yes. But we’d be pissing away a chance to retire in style.”
    “You really think he’ll go for it?”
    “A man of his wealth, power and ego?” Wallis shrugged. “I don’t think he’s capable of saying no to what we’re going to propose.”
    “But aren’t we rushing things a bit?”
    “The timing’s bad. Another big cat hunt first would have been better. I’m going to see if Draganov can push things along a bit.”
    “What about Hateley’s Cloud?”
    “We still need to get it out to keep him focused on the big prize.”
    “But not through Yak, I take it?”
    Wallis shook his head firmly. “No, it wouldn’t take him long to put two and two together and rat us out. We’re better off going south.”
    “You mean cross down into Malaysia?”
    “It shouldn’t be a problem. Our visas are still good, and we've got Kai to grease the proper palms.”
    “Fucking Kai.”
    “He’ll help. He has no choice.”
    “Still, it’s a long way to drive with contraband in the boot and Kai being Kai. What about the boat?”
    “The Avatar? In the open seas? This time of the year?” Wallis cocked his head, a slight smile forming in his grizzled face.
    “Not our favorite way to travel,” Lanyard acknowledged with a grimace, “but there’s a nice dive spot at Ko Tanga where we can sort things out with Kai.”
    “Fine by me.” Wallis shrugged. “I’ll set up the meet. Let’s get this done.”

    After locking up the Land Rover, the two men shouldered the loads, and headed into the trees behind the shed.
    Twenty yards into the dense forest, Quince pulled a remote device out of his jacket pocket and pressed a button. Instantly, deep in the trees, a periodically-flashing firefly became faintly visible.
    Using the flickering light as a guide, the two men slowly and methodically worked their way through the trees and brush, using the walking sticks to push tangled vines and large leaf fronds aside, and to warn any lurking creatures of their direction of travel.
    The occasional whisper of a long snake tail disappearing into the thick underbrush spoke to the value of their precautions.
    Finally, the two men stepped into a small, machete-cut, ten-foot-square clearing, two-thirds of which was taken up with a deep hole surrounded by piles of recently cut brush and vines, a stack of six-foot boards, a folded black plastic tarp, chunks of sod, a pair of shovels, and a much larger pile of rope-entangled and machete-chopped lengths of bamboo that — earlier in the evening — had formed a secure shooting platform for Michael Hateley.
    Wallis stepped up to the edge of the six-by-six-by-eight-foot-deep hole that he and Lanyard and Gavin had dug several months earlier for just such a contingency, glanced down at the pair of machetes lying across the two twisted bodies at the bottom, and turned to Lanyard.
    “Any problems I should know about?”
    “Not really. They were busy cutting the bamboo up into smaller pieces when the older one started getting pushy about being paid extra for difficult work. I terminated their contracts early and finished cutting the bamboo myself.”
    “Good,” Wallis grunted.
    Working quickly now, using the intermittent flashes of the Fire-Fly™ for illumination, the two men tore open the two plastic bags, dumped the shredded remains of their office correspondence into the hole, and then tossed in the splintered lengths of bamboo, burying the bodies under a cross-laced fibrous mat almost a foot thick.
    Then they opened up the tarp, spread it out as a much-too-big liner for the remaining portion of the hole, and worked as a team — Lanyard handing the rifles and back-packs down to Wallis who carefully arranged them in the hole, covered them with the tarp flaps, and then used a roll of duct tape to seal the bundle from the corrosive Thai soil.
    A few minutes later, the two men finished arranging the sod squares over the crossed support boards covering the duct-taped cache, tossed an assortment of shredded brush and leaves over the sod, and stood up.
    “I don’t think we have to worry about anyone finding this lot,” Wallis said, nodding in satisfaction as he looked around at the clearing that he knew, from experience, would be overgrown again with a few days.
    “Not bloody likely,” Quince Lanyard chuckled as he looked up at the still-pulsing Fire-Fly™ hanging from an overhead tree limb, used the remote device to shut it off, and then dropped the remote back into his pocket. “If it wasn’t for GPS, and that little flasher, I wouldn’t have found it either.”

    Fifteen minutes later, using the IR-glow of the shed light as a guide, the two men were back at their Land Rovers.
    Reaching into the back of his vehicle, Wallis pulled out a pair of armored vests with filled magazine pouches, two assault rifles, a pair of military ammo boxes, and a case labeled ‘electronics.’ As Lanyard transferred the armaments to Lanyard’s Land Rover, Wallis pulled out the five-foot-long Pelican™ case and the blue-striped military ammo can.
    “Take this along too,” Wallis said.
    Lanyard took the fifty-pound case and equally heavy blue-striped ammo box, and juggled both in his muscular hands. “You really think Jack and I’ll need something like this to deal with Kai and his boys?”
    “If Yak’s the one who informed on us, no, you shouldn’t,” Wallis said. “If not — ” He shrugged. “Do what you have to do, and then dump it with the rest of the gear.”
    “Bloody expensive toy to be tossing out with the trash after one use, don’t you think?” Lanyard suggested in a voice that was fully respectful. Wallis had always encouraged Lanyard and Gavin to offer their opinions; but there was no question as to who was the leader of their illicit team.
    “It’s just a tool that’s easily replaced. Don’t hesitate to use it if you have to,” Wallis replied firmly.
    Lanyard acknowledged the order with a quick nod of his head. “Any word on Choon’s whereabouts?”
    “He was at a brokers meeting in Surat yesterday. Explains why we weren‘t told about the new patrol.”
    “Is that a normal assignment for a police captain?”
    Wallis shook his head. “I doubt it. Probably got sent there by Bangkok HQ.”
    “Bloody hell.”
    “Doesn’t mean they’re on to us. Could have been a routine check, and they moved him out of the way because they don’t trust him.”
    “But if they think he’s helping hunters, we’ll have that damned Colonel Kulawnit on our ass.”
    “Kulawnit’s scheduled to be at the Wildlife Interpol meeting in Tokyo all week,” Wallis replied evenly. “By the time he returns, we should be out of Thailand.”
    “Damned good thing. What about Yak?”
    “We’re having an early breakfast at his house tomorrow morning.”
    “How did he sound?”
    “Sleepy, confused, and upset that I know where his mistress lives. Not like a man waiting nervously to hear if we were dead or in custody.”
    “So where does that put Kai?”
    “In a bloody bad light.”


    The Draganov Research Center, Cascade Mountains, Washington
    The Cascade Mountain Range is a magnificent swath of hills, valleys and snow-capped mountains running north to south through the center of the state of Washington. Making up almost a third of the state, the Range has been formed and reformed over the ages by tectonic collisions and volcanic spewing; the violence of which invariably destroys all signs of life in the immediate vicinity.
    The plates and volcanoes are mostly quiet now. But even so, great stretches of the Cascade Range remain thinly populated; or, in the case of the twenty-five National Forests, Parks and Wilderness areas located within the central Washington Range — which specifically includes the Wenatchee National Forest — hardly populated at all.
    It is as if the residents of the surrounding communities possess a subliminal sense of yet another cycle of violence and upheaval to come.
    Accordingly, the Cascade Mountain Range was a perfect location for a dangerously innovative research center whose director — a loner by nature — was intent on cutting every legal and scientific corner possible to insure that he was the first to accomplish his world-altering goal.
    But now, deep into the Cascades, completely isolated, with a winter snowstorm raging outside, the power and phone lines down, the access road closed, and the wind-chill factor rising, Dr. Sergei Arturovich Draganov wished that he had chosen to locate the clinic a little closer to an airport, or at least a main road. The thankfully infrequent trips by Sno-Cat to pick up special FedEx and UPS packages and other supplies were grueling at best, and with the visibility now only a few feet beyond the front edge of the utility vehicle’s tracks, increasingly dangerous. With luck, he wouldn’t have to make another run until the Spring thaw.
    Still covered with snow, and looking as haggard and exhausted as he felt, Draganov stopped in the enclosed entryway to stomp the icy slush off his boots and hang up his heavy coat. As he entered his clinic’s genetics lab, he looked around and — to his dismay — saw only the old Russian woman who functioned as the laboratory’s sole administrative aide, secretary and receptionist sitting at a cheap computer desk in the adjoining room.
    “Where is Aleksei?”
    “Asleep, I think.”
    “In the middle of his work shift?”
    The old woman shrugged indifferently.
    “What has he been doing, drinking with Borya again?”
    The old woman glared at Draganov defiantly. “He is unhappy and you push him too hard. What do you expect?”
    “We have much to do, and so little time. Why is he unhappy now?”
    The old woman made an exasperated gesture with her hand. “He is worried about Sasha. He says she gets worse every day.”
    “Sasha is lonely and misses her siblings. That was expected.”
    “She wouldn’t be lonely if you hadn’t sold all of her playmates to that — that evil man!” the old woman said accusingly.
    “You manage our accounts. You know there was no other way. We would have lost everything if I hadn’t — ”
    “Hadn’t what? Made a pact with the devil?”
    “Marcus is not the devil! He is our new benefactor! We need him!”
    “He is a dangerous man, Sergei Arturovich. Mark my words. He is just like your brother, god rest his soul.” The old woman crossed herself quickly. “A very dangerous man!”
    “We don’t know for sure that Gregor is — ” Draganov started to argue, then shook his head as he turned and walked through the door of a small containment vestibule labeled ACCESS TO CAGE ROOM. After waiting for the door behind him to shut and the air pressure in the vestibule to build up — one of the mechanisms he used to keep tiny airborne fragments of DNA from contaminating his experiments — he entered the darkened room, turned on a low light, and then knelt down in from of a large deep cage.
    A threatening came from the far back of the cage that would remain in almost complete darkness until Draganov’s eyes adjusted to the dim light.
    “It’s okay, little one. No need to be upset. I am here with you now.”
    Another growl, but this time less threatening.
    “There, that’s better. Don’t be angry with me, Sasha. You don’t think I made the devil’s pact, do you?”
    A third growl, this one sounding plaintive.
    “I know you are lonely, but soon you will have new brothers and sisters and everything will be fine again.”
    No response this time.
    Using the cage as a brace, Draganov pushed himself to a standing position with a tired grunt, walked over to the door, turned off the low light, and then stepped back into the isolating vestibule.
    As he did so, the cat’s eyes snapped open in the blackness of the cage, the pupils of her two narrowed eyes glowing a bright emerald green.


    Surat Thani, Thailand
    Yaktian-po Sanganaman — better known to his few friends and many enemies as Yak — entered his expensive Surat Thani home through the garage entrance, paused at the doorway of his kitchen to yell at his complaining chef, and then hurried down the central hall toward his lavishly furnished den, absorbed in the question as to why Marcus Emerson had insisted on this early-morning meeting.
    And worse, why he had sounded angry.
    Halfway there, he stopped, pulled the cell phone out of his jacket, tried once again to contact Captain Choonhavan, and cursed when he got the same ‘I am not available’ message.
    “How dare you not be available, you corrupt fool?” Yak snarled, feeling his stomach starting to churn as he hurried again toward his den.
    First things first.
    It occurred to Yak to hope that Boon-Nam had been true to his word, and would now, at this very moment, be patrolling the grounds of Yak’s walled and fenced-off estate, instead of walking away with his up-front fee. Boon-Nam was a highly-regarded assassin, and an expensive one at that. It had cost Yak a furiously-negotiated two million Bhat — ten of the near-flawless 1-carat diamonds from the leather pouch in his pocket that he was now in a hurry to return to his den safe — to engage his services.
    But the cost really wasn’t a serious issue to Yak; he hadn’t hesitated for a moment to contact Boon-Nam’s go-between after receiving Wallis’ unsettling call. Such was the nature of Marcus Emerson’s reputation among the Thai underworld.
    Yak knew there were several reasons why Emerson might be upset; not the least of which was his and Kai’s long-term plans to take over the Australian’s incredibly lucrative Thai safari business. But that couldn’t happen until he knew a great deal more about Emerson’s related operations in the United States, and worked out an appropriate — albeit temporary — distribution agreement with Kai and his Malaysian pirates.
    And that couldn’t happen until Yak gained the confidence of at least one of Emerson’s wealthy and free-spending clients; a project which he’d only just begun to work on with Choonhavan’s less-than-competent help. So unless the bastard Kai had -
    Yak gasped in surprise, coming to a sudden halt when he saw the frightening figure of Marcus Emerson sitting at his ornately carved desk; and behind him, in a second chair, the wide-eyed and purple-faced figure of Police Captain Choonhavan, securely bound to the chair and tightly gagged.
    “Khun Marcus,” Yak said, recovering quickly, “what are you doing here so early?” He glanced down at his wristwatch. “I thought you said — ?”
    “I said I wanted to meet with you, alone, to discuss our future business arrangements,” Wallis said. “’Alone’ meant you, your chef, and your normal retinue of body-guards. ‘Alone’ did not mean Boon-Nam lurking around in your garden with a silenced pistol in his hand.”
    Yak felt the air being sucked out of his lungs, making it almost impossible to speak.
    “Khun Marcus,” he rasped, forcing the words out. “I did not mean — ”
    “A Thai Ranger raid team showed up at the Khlong Saeng Preserve this evening. They seemed to know where we would be working. Did you inform on us?”
    The question struck Yak’s brain like a lightning bolt. His eyes flickered briefly to Choonhavan, and then back to Wallis.
    “Khun Marcus, you cannot possibly believe I would ever do such a thing,” Yak sputtered. “I would compete with you — if it was possible to do so — of course, as you would expect me to do; we are both businessmen, after all. But inform on you to the Thai Rangers? No, never! Even if I was so insane, you know they would never trust me. Not even Choonhavan, and you know he — ”
    The words were rushing from Yak’s brain to his tongue almost completely uncensored; a poor idea in the best of circumstances. But some deeper-seated survival instinct — not to mention the terrified and futilely struggling presence of Choonhavan, and the fact that neither of his full-time bodyguards had yet appeared — told Yak that his only chance to live through the next few minutes might lay in the complete truth. It was a new and unsettling concept to the irrevocably corrupt Thai.
    “What is Kai to you?”
    Yak had to force himself to stay on his feet, only vaguely aware that he had voided his bladder.
    “He’s nothing, just a — a potential partner… someday… not now… much later. After you have — ”
    “Yes, that is it, exactly — departed. Only then, when you are gone, no longer in the business, would Choonhavan and I ever even think to — ”
    The bound and purple-faced Forestry captain began struggling even more frantically now.
    “Don’t you think two-million Bhat is a bit steep for second-rate help?” Wallis asked as he allowed ten 1-carat diamonds to drop from his hand onto the polished desktop.
    Yak was still staring wide-eyed at the diamonds when the first bullet struck him in the solar plexus, the impact sending him staggering backwards. A tiny whimper escaped his lips as he stared, wide-eyed, down at the hole in his pajamas. He was still staring when the second bullet ripped through his forehead, flinging him backwards to the floor.
    Wallis remained where he was for a few seconds, listening to the distant and muted sounds of the still-complaining chef rattling pans in the kitchen.
    Then, satisfied, he scooping up the loose diamonds, dropped them into his jacket pocket, and then reached down by his chair, picked up the shoulder-holstered and silenced pistol that had once belonged to Jack Gavin.
    Humming to himself, Wallis stood up, glanced briefly at the now-frozen-in-horror Choonhavan, walked over to Yak’s sprawled body, knelt down, placed the silenced pistol in his right hand, used Yak’s limp index finger to fire a bullet through the screen door leading out into the garden, allowed the pistol and Yak’s limp hand to drop to the thick rug, and tossed the empty shoulder holster aside.
    Then he stood up and walked back over to the chair where Captain Choonhavan was staring at him with a hopeless expression in his still-widened eyes.
    “Alright, lad, it’s time you and I had a serious discussion about your future.”

    The Surat Thani Airport, Thailand
    Later that morning, a shaved, showered and neatly dressed Marcus Wallis walked up to the Thai Air ticket counter at the Surat Thani Airport, set his over-night bag down, reached into his coat pocket and pulled out his passport.
    “I have reservations for the morning flight to Bangkok,” he said as he took out his wallet and handed the clerk a credit card.
    The clerk called up the flight on her computer, glanced down at the open passport and the name on the credit card, and then took at least two seconds to examine Wallis’ facial features before smiling pleasantly.
    “Yes, Mr. Emerson, we have you confirmed in business class for that flight, window seat ten-A, boarding in approximately thirty minutes. Will that be satisfactory?”
    Wallis smiled pleasantly in return.
    “Yes,” he said, “That will do just fine.”


    The Malacca Strait, Thailand
    It was an hour past dawn in the Malacca Strait, three-quarters of the way from Phuket Bay to Langkawi Island, the rain-storm continuing unabated, and the bow of the Avatar shoving the waves aside with bone-jarring impacts, when Quince Lanyard and Jack Gavin decided it was time to rest.
    They’d been searching for a good spot to anchor — ideally a place well out of the shipping lanes that offered some concealment from the ever-present coastal patrol boats — when they spotted the cove on the leeward side of a small island no more than three kilometers off the southern Thailand coastline.
    Ten minutes later, Quince Lanyard set the bow anchor, shut off the engine, took one last look around — noting with some degree of satisfaction that he could barely see the shoreline through the wind-swirled gusts of rain — and followed Gavin down into the main cabin.
    Once inside, the two men secured the doors and windows, poured themselves cups of steaming coffee, and then sat in the cushioned bench seats surrounding a combination cabinet and coffee table where they’d already laid out the assault rifles and cleaning kits.
    “You’re looking better — a lot less green,” Lanyard commented. “Must be getting your sea legs. Want something to eat?”
    “Maybe later, after this bloody storm dies down,” Gavin muttered.
    “It might not get any better than this for a while,” Lanyard pointed out.
    “In that case, I’ll settle for an IV-pack and coffee. You think that bastard Kai’s going to be cooperative?” Gavin asked as the two men began to field-strip the assault rifles with long-practiced motions.
    “No, I think he’s going to try to double-cross us,” Lanyard replied. “Be different if all three of us were going to be there, but we’re not. You and I aren’t going to scare him; not like Marcus does.”
    “Probably a lot of truth to that.” Gavin nodded thoughtfully. He started to say something else when the satellite cell phone secured to Lanyard’s belt began to ring. He pulled the cell phone out of its secure holster, examined the screen, and smiled.
    “Speaking of the boss — ” Lanyard brought the phone up to his ear. “Gecko-Two, go.”
    “This is Gecko-One. I need to talk with both of you.”
    “Hold one.” Lanyard walked over to a wall console, inserted the satellite phone into a slot, and pressed a now-glowing blue button. “Gecko-Two here.”
    “And Gecko-Three, both of us still afloat in the bloody galleon,” Gavin added. “Can you hear us?”
    “You’re coming in fine.” Wallis’ voice echoed in the small cabin. “Confirm encryption circuitry is engaged at your end.”
    Lanyard examined the wall console and verified the second light was glowing — a steady bright green.
    “That’s affirmative. Encryption is engaged at our end,” Lanyard confirmed.
    “Good. There’s been a new development,” Wallis said. “It seems Yak and Kai have been conspiring to take over our operation. That’s probably what caused all the commotion last night.”
    “So Yak was the one who turned us in to the Thai Rangers?” Gavin asked, the skepticism evident in his voice.
    “No, I don’t think so,” Wallis replied. “He seemed surprised to hear about the appearance of the raid team, and Choon knew nothing about it either. All things considered, I’m assuming it was Kai who jumped the gun on his own. That would make more sense because Yak knew we’d worked Hateley in the Khlong Saeng Preserve previously. Kai would only have known our general location; which is basically what the map we found on the dead Rangers — the one with the entire Reservoir area circled in red — indicates.”
    “Do we know who Kai was talking to?”
    “Probably Major Preithat, the local Forestry Division commander for the Phuket region, and Choon’s immediate supervisor.”
    “Ah, the plot thickens,” Lanyard muttered.
    “Yes, it does,” Wallis agreed.
    “So where does that leave us?” Gavin asked.
    “Still in deep shit, but the tactical situation is simplified,” Wallis replied. “Yak’s out of the picture. He and Boon-Nam created a plausible diversion for us by shooting each other with Jack’s and my pistols. Eventually, the Thai crime lab should link those weapons with the four Rangers and a few other recently-departed souls; and, with any luck, the case will be closed.”
    “Good on old Yak.” Gavin chuckled appreciatively.
    “How much time do you think we have before the police trip across Yak’s body?” Lanyard asked.
    “If we’re lucky, they won’t know anything about his situation until early morning tomorrow, when the maintenance crews arrive,” Wallis said, “but don’t count on it.”
    “We’ll finish our business with Kai and be on our way,” Lanyard agreed. “What about our buddy Choon?”
    “He proved to be equally useful.”
    “It’s about time that fancy bugger did something… hey, wait a minute, did you say Boon-Nam? Boon-Nam the bloody assassin?” Lanyard’s eyebrows rose. “How does that bastard fit into all of this?”
    “Apparently a last-minute addition,” Wallis replied. “Yak hired him this morning to keep an eye on me during our breakfast meeting; which pretty much confirms the theory that Yak didn’t know about the Rangers heading our way, or he’d have hired Boon-Nam to be watching out for us days ago.”
    “Which still leaves one bloody bastard in the mix,” Gavin said. “Unfortunately, it’s the one we we’ve been counting on to ship that cat to Seattle.”
    “Change of plans,” Wallis said. “I’ve arranged for a new shipping point. You and Quince are going to be doing a bit of cruising for the next few days.”
    “Where to?” Lanyard asked, thinking he already knew the answer.
    “Oh bloody hell,” Gavin whispered under his breath.
    “What was that?” Wallis asked.
    “Jack was expressing his enthusiasm for the new plan,” Lanyard said, smiling at his dismayed partner. “We haven’t had much time for fishing lately.”
    “I’m figuring about thirty-two hundred miles if you take the Strait down through the Java Sea,” Wallis said. “At twenty-six knots, you should be able to make that in a couple of weeks, if you don’t spend too much time fishing; figure on three if you take the Indian Ocean route. Weather predictions look favorable, and either route’s fine with me. I’ll deal with Hateley and the change in delivery schedule.”
    “So we don’t need Kai and his bloody pirates anymore?” Gavin asked.
    “No, I think it's time our association with these lads came to a proper end,” Wallis said. “The meet’s scheduled for midnight tonight at Ko Tanga. Pass on my best regards, and try not to attract too much attention in the process; that Ranger station on Rawi is only twenty miles away. Gecko-One, out.”
    Lanyard and Gavin looked at each other.
    “Two bloody weeks on this tub, all because that bastard Kai opened his bloody yap,” Gavin muttered. “The bloke is definitely going to pay.”
    “Which is undoubtedly what he has in mind for us,” Lanyard pointed out. “In which case, he’s going to have a surprise waiting for him.”
    Lanyard disappeared into his stateroom, and came back with the five-foot-long waterproof Pelican case.
    Gavin’s eyebrows rose. “You really think we’re going to need that to deal with a handful of bloody third-world pirates?”
    Lanyard shrugged as he knelt down next to the thick plastic case, unsnapped the locks, opened the case, carefully removed a new 25mm M109 semiautomatic payload rifle, and began to examine the glistening weapon — a modern and even more lethal version of the U.S. Military’s. 50-caliber M107sniper rifle.
    After a few moments, he set the stubby weapon aside and picked up one of the low-velocity 1-inch diameter cartridges that had proven in trials to be two-and-a-half times as destructive to armor, vehicles and barricades as a. 50-caliber armor-piercing round.
    “Tell you what, Gavin, me lad, you and I may not scare that crazy bastard Kai, but I’ll wager a pint this little fellow will.”


    International Customs at the Bangkok International Airport, Thailand
    Special Agent Gedimin Bulatt waited patiently for the new customs officer to relieve her counterpart at the booth; and then continued to wait as the new officer took her time adjusting the position of the monitor, keyboard, stamps and ink pads to her liking.
    As he continued to stand behind the bright line in the floor, Bulatt glanced at his watch again and wondered for at least the tenth time that morning why his office had suddenly diverted him from his planned flight back home, and re-booked his ticket to Bangkok. Someone would be meeting him at Bangkok International; that was all he knew.
    Ah well, he thought philosophically, I’ve never been to Thailand; might as well make the best of it.
    Finally, the new customs officer looked up and motioned for Bulatt to step forward. As he did so, placing his official passport on the counter, he realized that she was easily one of the most beautiful women he had ever seen in his life.
    Careful, he reminded himself — watching her examine his passport and credential photographs, and then look up directly up at him with dark eyes that were gorgeous; but, at the same time, curious and penetrating — you’re in Thailand now, but it’s undoubtedly the same as in Japan. Politeness counts for everything. Pay no attention to the fact that she’s gorgeous. She’s just a bureaucrat. No big deal.
    “You don’t look very much like your passport photograph, Mr. Bulatt,” the young customs officer pointed out in heavily Thai-accented English.
    “No, I suppose I don’t,” Bulatt agreed as he reached into his jacket pocket, pulled out his federal law enforcement badge case, and placed it on the counter. “The photograph on my credentials was taken when I was working on one of my undercover assignments. It probably resembles my current appearance a lot more than my passport,” he added as he watched her pick up the badge case, open it up and examine the credentials photo carefully.
    “Yes, this does look more like you,” the young woman agreed. “Does that mean you’re coming into Thailand on a covert assignment?”
    Bulatt blinked at the unexpected question. “No, not at all; I just completed an investigation yesterday and I haven’t had a chance to, uh, improve my appearance.”
    “Your appearance is perfectly acceptable, Agent Bulatt. So what brings you to Thailand?” the young woman asked in what could have passed for Oxford English, her suddenly unaccented voice almost haunting in its softness. “Business or pleasure?”
    It took every ounce of willpower that Bulatt possessed to force the imagined images of pleasure in Bangkok into the deep recesses of his mind.
    “Just business, I’m afraid,” he said what he hoped was a neutral voice; and then blinked in surprise when the young woman burst out laughing. Instantly, her flawless light-tanned features turned bright red. She quickly covered her mouth, but not before Bulatt saw her absolutely enticing dimples.
    “I’m sorry. Did I say something wrong?” he asked, his eyebrows furrowed in confusion.
    “No, no, I am so sorry. It was my fault.” The young woman brought the palms of her hands together in the traditional wai gesture that had the unfortunate effect of drawing Bulatt’s attention to her more-than-ample chest that her neatly pressed uniform shirt did nothing to hide.
    Bulatt felt his own tanned cheeks flush as he snapped his eyes back up to the young woman’s face, and discovered, to his dismay, that she had observed the movement of his eyes; and that her dimpled smile was, if possible, even more enticing that before.
    “It is not your fault, Agent Bulatt. I have been teasing you, and you are doing a very commendable job of being polite. I was just surprised by your surname,” the young woman explained as she reflexively stamped his passport. “It is such an interesting name for a law enforcement officer.”
    Bulatt nodded, grateful to be back on what he hoped was neutral ground. “My family name is Bulattus — a traditional Lithuanian name. But when my grandfather immigrated to the United States, he had it changed to Bulatt.” He shrugged his muscular shoulders. “He probably didn’t think much about it at the time, but I do get a lot of kidding from my associates.”
    “I’m sure you do. Well, I hope your stay in Thailand will not turn out to be all business,” she said as she handed back the credentials and passport.
    “Don’t even think about enjoying yourself here, Special Agent Bulatt,” a firm and oddly-familiar voice said.
    Bulatt turned and saw the familiar face of Colonel Prathun Kulawnit standing a few feet behind the customs booth, looking impressively official with his neatly-trimmed gray hair and crisply-ironed uniform.
    “Prathun! You’re the reason I was sent here?” Bulatt grinned in delight. He started forward to greet his Interpol friend, but then remembered. “Excuse me,” he said, coming to a halt and bringing the palms of his hands together at his chest and bowing slightly. “Khun Prathun, it is good to see you again.”
    Colonel Kulawnit acknowledged his friend’s politeness with a wai of his own, and then stepped forward and extended his hand. “Khun Ged, it is good to see you again, too, my friend,” he said, locking his gaze on Bulatt’s face for a brief moment. “Thank you most sincerely for coming.” The Colonel then turned to the young woman in the customs booth.
    “And thank you, also, Officer Achara, for seeing to Agent Bulatt’s papers so efficiently. I will now assume responsibility for his stay in Thailand,” he said, giving the young customs officer what — to Bulatt — looked like a disapproving glare.
    “It was my privilege, Colonel Kulawnit.” The young woman acknowledged her superior with a slight bow of her head, and then turned her attention back to Bulatt. In doing so, she brought her palms back together at her chest once more. “I do hope you’ll find time for some pleasure in Thailand, Khun Ged, as well as success in your business.”
    Bulatt quickly wai-d and bowed his thanks, and then gratefully followed Kulawnit to the baggage area where he found his suitcase, and then was quickly escorted through the rest of the Customs formalities.
    “That’s really unfair, you know,” Bulatt said when they were finally outside of the main terminal and walking to the curb where a uniformed Thai police officer was waiting beside new black Range Rover.
    “What’s unfair?” Colonel Kulawnit asked as he gestured for the uniformed officer to take Bulatt’s bag, and then opened the rear door and motioned Bulatt inside.
    Once they were out of the airport, Kulawnit had immediately reverted to his habit of treating Bulatt like some combination of younger brother and family friend. Kulawnit was older than Bulatt by a good fifteen years; but the two had met at an Interpol meeting in Lyon, France, three years earlier… and, in the course of three days, had managed to form a friendship based on mutual respect and a shared irreverence for bureaucracy, not to mention a genuine appreciation for each other’s sense of humor.
    “Officer Achara. Putting a beautiful young woman like that in a Customs booth — the first Thai woman the average male tourist is going to meet — and expecting the poor fellow to act polite, and not to start drooling on the spot, is asking a bit much, don’t you think?”
    Kulawnit laughed as the uniformed officer started up the engine and headed out of the airport. “Officer Achara, in my opinion, apart from occasional acts of questionable judgment and behavior, is an outstanding example of the young modern Thai woman. She is beautiful — as you certainly noticed — intelligent, thoughtful, polite, generally respectful of her elders; and, I should warn you, extremely lethal in the art of Thai kick-boxing. But then, as her father, I suppose I’m a bit biased.”
    “That’s — ?” Bulatt’s mouth dropped open as he stared disbelieving at his Thai friend, “I mean, Officer Achara is your daughter? How can that be? That picture of your family you showed me in Lyon — ”
    “Had been taken several years earlier, and the Lyon meeting was three years ago,” Kulawnit reminded. “Children will grow up. What can a father do?”
    “I’d start by sending a daughter who looked and acted like that to the Thai equivalent of a nunnery,” Bulatt said seriously.
    “You can tell her that tonight, when we meet for dinner.”
    Bulatt blinked in sudden realization. “She knew I was coming to Thailand?”
    “Oh yes, she most certainly did; and was quite put out when I informed her that you and I had business to attend to, and that she would have to wait a few hours for her introduction. I’m afraid I’ve probably exaggerated some of your adventures over the past years, and she’s been quite anxious to meet the infamous Khun Ged in person; which undoubtedly explains why she arranged to temporarily reassume one of her earlier jobs with our Department. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised; she’s always been a devious and persistent child.”
    “But also innovative,” Bulatt pointed out.
    “Yes, that too,” Kulawnit agreed. “It will make for an interesting topic of discussion over dinner, I think; assuming that we are still in Bangkok,” he added, his facial expression turning grim.
    “Yes, you must have asked me here for a serious purpose, Khun Prathun. I didn’t mean to — ”
    “No,” Kulawnit shook his head. “It is good we can share a few moments of good humor together. I am afraid the rest of our morning will not be so pleasant.”


    Inside the Bangkok International Airport
    Wallis had gone on alert status the moment he’d exited the Thai Airlines 737, walked down the ramp, and stepped into the busy Bangkok Airport terminal — the most vulnerable point of his escape from Thailand.
    Unarmed by necessity, and surrounded by security personnel both inside and outside the airport terminal, Wallis knew he’d have little chance of evading capture if an alarm were raised. But, as far as he could tell, no one was taking an undue interest in his arrival as he strode through the domestic arrival lounge and entered the main passenger hall.
    Wallis smiled.
    He’d been tempted to take a more covert escape route out of Thailand — by small boat and private aircraft, much like he’d arranged for Lanyard and Gavin — where his survival skills, combat expertise, and access to weapons would have given him a significant advantage in any confrontation with the Thai authorities.
    But he also knew that using his real passport to travel openly from Surat Thani to Bangkok would provide a useful diversion for Lanyard and Gavin; and might make a crucial difference in timing once the Thai Forestry patrol teams began a hard search for the killers of their four Rangers.
    It wasn’t likely that anyone had found the bodies yet; but the fact that they’d been reported missing was bound to make the Royal Thai Police and Ranger forces more alert and aggressive — which meant hundreds of new check-points and pervasive luggage and vehicle searches. But Wallis wasn’t about to put his men and Hateley’s expensively-produced Clouded Leopard trophy at additional risk of being seized just to make his own escape a little easier.
    And besides, he had another very important reason for making a temporary stop in Bangkok.
    He was walking toward the doors leading out to the taxi stand with his carry-on bag, looking exactly like almost all of the other Caucasians in the terminal neatly dressed in varying renditions of tropical khaki, when he spotted the familiar face of Colonel Prathun Kulawnit entering the main passenger hall from the international customs lounge with a younger Caucasian man with a scraggly white beard, white hair tied back in a short, neat ponytail and vaguely Slavic features, who looked and acted — to Wallis’ practiced eye — very much like a covert American law enforcement officer.
    Bloody hell?
    Reacting instinctively, Wallis casually diverted from his exit route, walked over to a telephone kiosk, set his carry-on bag down, picked up the handset, and then stared casually across the passenger hall at the two familiar faces now heading in his direction.
    As he did so, he also glanced around the passenger hall, searching for any signs of an active or passive surveillance. But all he saw were the seemingly random movements of uniformed air crews, airport staff and arriving passengers. No coordinated movements, no furtive glances, no brief or hurried conversations on pack-set radios or cell phones.
    And, most important of all, no signs of focused attention on his position.
    The Thai’s can’t have a surveillance on; nobody has a spotting or tracking team this good, Wallis reassured himself as he refocused his attention on Kulawnit.
    Wallis knew Colonel Kulawnit’s reputation all too well. He’d done extensive research on the commander of the Thai Wildlife Ranger Force — an operational unit of the Thai Forestry Police Division tasked with protecting the country’s wildlife — when he and Lanyard and Gavin first considered the idea of running illegal safari hunts in the isolated rainforests of Thailand. What he’d discovered was a highly professional and aggressive military man completely devoted to his Rangers and his children; and a man of some family wealth who was apparently indifferent to the luxuries of life that additional money might buy.
    “Don’t ever try to bribe Kulawnit,” one of his sources had warned. “That would be a terrible mistake. The Colonel has no tolerance for such insults.”
    Well versed in the cultural art of progressive bribery, Wallis wasn’t accustomed to dealing with adversaries who handicapped themselves with scruples. And, at first, Kulawnit’s stubborn sense of honor made things awkward for Wallis and his surveilling teammates.
    But, as it turned out, they’d found no such human failings in a Ranger Captain assigned to the Phuket Field Office by the name of Choonhavan, AKA Choon.
    So who is your friend, Colonel Kulawnit? Wallis asked himself, staring at the athletic-looking man who was walking beside the Forestry Ranger commander and pulling a heavy-duty, roll-along suitcase that appeared to have weathered many such international flights. And, more to the point, why are you still in Bangkok? You’re supposed to be in Tokyo, attending your bloody Interpol meeting.
    Wallis could only think of one thing that might have drawn Kulawnit away from a Pacific Rim regional meeting of the Interpol Working Group on Wildlife — of which the Colonel was a charter member — and back to Bangkok; and he didn’t like the idea at all.
    Muttering to himself, Wallis waited until the two men walked outside, then hung up the phone and followed them out the door.
    He was hoping they’d take a cab to wherever they were going, which would give him a chance to follow in another cab; but the sight of the uniformed police officer waiting beside the black Range Rover, and the half-dozen people waiting in the Taxi queue, dashed Wallis’ hopes.
    Instead, he got in line for a taxi and watched as Kulawnit and Bulatt loaded their gear into the official vehicle, hopped in, and then disappeared down the airport expressway leading to the city center.

    Outside the Bangkok International Airport
    Wallis stood outside Bangkok International Airport’s main departure terminal in the misting rain, carefully watching the security guards going through their well-practiced routines of monitoring the flow of cars, buses, taxi’s and people from the shelter of his umbrella.
    Nothing he observed looked out of the ordinary; but the alarm bells continued to chime softly in the back of his head, and he didn’t like that at all.
    In almost any other situation, Wallis would have been perfectly content to sit and watch and wait until the unknown entities brushing up against his highly-sensitive survival instincts became evident, no matter if it took hours or even days. But time was starting to become a serious issue for his team, and he knew he didn’t have days or even hours to spare.
    Not with twelve dead bodies waiting to be found and linked together, the gypsy pirate Kai on the loose, and possibly several hundred increasingly alert and angry Thai police investigators and patrol officers out looking for their missing comrades.
    He glanced down at his watch. The flight to Narita would start boarding in less than an hour; which meant he either had to begin going through the security process in a few minutes, or walk away.
    Wallis took one last look around, started toward the terminal entrance, hesitated, and then walked over to the far side of the walkway where a small number of tables, chairs and large umbrellas had been placed for the convenience of waiting passengers.
    He placed the suitcase and briefcase under one of the tables, sat down beneath a large umbrella to avoid the misting rain, pulled the encrypted satellite cell phone out of his raincoat, punched in a memorized series of numbers, and then waited.
    “Gecko-two, go.” Lanyard’s voice, sounding calm and professional, as usual.
    “Gecko-one, what’s your status?”
    “Fair to decent,” Lanyard replied. “We’re anchored off Tanga Island. I’m stretched out on the deck, enjoying a frosty one, and Jack’s doing a spot of diving off the bow, looking for dinner. I think he’s feeling better. Say’s we’ll have to settle for lobster if he can’t find anything better.”
    “What about Kai?”
    “No sign of him or any of his pirate mates yet. Figure it’s a bit early for those lads to be up and about; especially if they’re planning on mucking us over tonight. Which reminds me, did you tell Kai we’d be using the bright green visible flashers to mark our location for the swap?”
    “Yes, I did.”
    “Good, then we’ve got a proper surprise all laid out for the little buggers.” Lanyard hesitated. “How did things go with our rainy day fund?”
    “It’s all moved over to the Caiman account,” Wallis replied. “I’m transporting our hard assets in carry-on, including a nice last-minute contribution from Yak and Boon-Nam.”
    “Bless their rotten souls. How’s your six looking?” Lanyard asked, using the military pilot’s terminology for the ever-vulnerable rear — or six o’clock — position.
    “I’m clear so far, but we may have a problem. I spotted Colonel Kulawnit in the Bangkok International airport this morning.”
    “Heading out to Tokyo to attend his bloody Interpol meeting, I trust?”
    “No, picking up someone who looked and acted very much like a covert American or Canadian law enforcement officer, and who almost certainly came in on the Tokyo flight. They drove back into the city together.”
    “So, he’s probably one of Kulawnit’s Wildlife Interpol mates.” Lanyard was silent for a moment. “That doesn’t sound good,” he finally said.
    “No, it doesn’t,” Wallis agreed. “I’m still at the airport and there doesn’t seem to be an alert on, so I’m assuming they haven’t found any of the bodies yet. But something is definitely on; something serious enough to pull Kulawnit away from a Pacific Rim Interpol meeting that he never fails to attend, and to possibly bring in outside help from North America.”
    “And you’re thinking it might involve us, or Hateley?”
    “We’re not the only ones taking advantage of the Thai wildlife preserves, by a long shot; but if Kai was the one who informed on us, and he and Yak were conspiring, and the police are at Yak’s home now — ”
    “Too many paths starting to cross,” Lanyard agreed. “What about Kai? You want us to walk away, so to speak?”
    “No. If he and Yak were actually cooperating with each other, instead of just conspiring, then he knows too much about us; especially if he’s got other police contacts besides Choon. Carry on with the plan, but be prepared to break off and disappear if the Thai police show up.”
    “Five hours of darkness and the weather gives us some wiggle room, but not much,” Lanyard said. “I don’t mind playing coastal tag with a pack of Thai and Malaysian patrol boats at night. But come dawn, if we’re still in open water, we’re going to be a right proper sitting duck.”
    “Yes, you will, which is why I’m changing my flight,” Wallis said. “Stay close to the satellite phone. By the time you’re finished with Kai, I’ll have a new back door waiting. Gecko-one, out.”


    The Genetics Section of the Draganov Research Center
    Intent on initiating his latest set of experiments, Sergei Draganov’s eyes swept back and forth from his lab notebook to the rack of ninety-six vials, smoothly pipetting micro-amounts of genetic material with robot-like precision until he realized that the rack of pipette tips on the lab bench next to his right hand was empty.
    He blinked, looked up at the glass-paneled storage shelf overhead where he kept his pipetting supplies, saw that it too was empty, and sighed.
    Leaning over to his left, the pipette still clutched in his right hand, he activated the wall-mounted intercom that was the primary communication tool between the administration office where the old woman sat, and the widely scattered buildings of his research center operation.
    “Where is Borya? I need more pipette tips and vials from the supply shed.”
    “I don’t know,” the old woman responded, her raspy voice echoing throughout the genetics lab. “At MAX I think.”
    “Why would he be there now?”
    “Because he has become crazy. Why else would anyone want to be there with all those evil things?”
    Draganov rolled his eyes. “Borya has not become crazy and the animals in MAX are not evil. They are just… damaged. It’s not their fault.”
    “No, it is our fault. All of us. We caused their grief.”
    Draganov sighed. “We have discussed this many times. They are experimental lab animals. In any other research facility, they would have been sacrificed after the data was gathered, but I want to learn more from them so we keep them alive and well cared for. That is Borya’s primary job, to help me care for them.”
    “But you have been gone too much, Sergei Arturovich. Left to himself, Borya becomes more distant every day. He hardly talks with us anymore, not even on the intercom. And Aleksei says that Tanya — ”
    “Borya drinks too much, and Aleksei fills your head with nonsense.”
    “But Tanya not getting better and Aleksei says we could all be in danger if — ”
    “Tanya will be fine and Aleksei is wrong. Our work is very safe. You have no need to worry.”
    “But — ”
    “Enough. I’m tired and I need to sleep. Find Aleksei and — ”
    The voice of Aleksei Tsarovich, the Center’s burly veterinarian, suddenly boomed out over the intercom.
    “I’m here, Sergei. What do you want?”
    “Where are you? I’ve been trying — ”
    “At the medical clinic with Tanya. Her fever is worse, and the x-rays — ”
    “What x-rays?”
    “The ones I’ve been taking of her. You must come see for yourself.”

    Tanga Island, Malacca Strait, Thailand
    Lanyard was leaning back in his deck chair, sipping at his beer and contemplating the contours of Tanga Island and the positioning of the other dozen or so boats anchored around the popular diving spot, when a pair of dark-green-shelled abalone arched up out of the water and clattered onto the deck.
    Moments later, Jack Gavin climbed up the stern ladder, set his scuba tank, mask and fins aside, caught a chilled can of beer tossed by Lanyard, and settled into a second deck chair with a squish of warm seawater.
    “Ah, this is more like it — a bloody patch of water that stays flat and calm.” Gavin popped the tab on the can and took a deep swig of the cold brew. “So, how are things going in the planning department?”
    “A bit dicey,” Lanyard said, still staring across the glistening water at the small island, and the clouds that were starting to darken again. “Wallis called a few minutes ago.” Lanyard quickly summarized the information on Kulawnit and Bulatt, and the concern about the Thai police showing up.
    “I think he’s dead-bang-on about Kai,” Gavin said after considering the new information for a few moments. “We don’t dare leave that bastard in a position to cut a deal with the Thai police and Interpol; we’d end up running for the rest of our lives. But I don’t like the idea of them popping up and cutting off our escape either. I think we need a better plan.”
    “Come up with that all by yourself, did you?” Lanyard raised his eyes skyward and shook his head sadly. “Just goes to show there’s nothing like a little compressed air to stimulate the brain. Don’t suppose you happen to have one handy?”
    “What, a better plan? Not likely, mate. Planning’s not my cup of tea, you know that. Always forgetting about the ‘what happens afterwards’ parts.” Gavin shrugged cheerfully as he took another sip of beer. “That’s why you and Wallis are the thinkers, and I’m the ops go-to bloke. And speaking of Wallis, what’d he have to say? I’ve never known him not to have an alternate plan.”
    “Oh, he has one,” Lanyard said. “Basically, you and I deal with Kai, and he’ll cover our arses like he always does.”
    “There you go, mate.” Gavin raised his beer can in salute. “Sounds like a plan to me. So how do you want your ‘Ab’ cooked, with or without the bloody lobster?”


    Police Bureau — Scientific Crime Detection Laboratory, Bangkok, Thailand
    Special Agent Gedimin Bulatt and Colonel Prathun Kulawnit waited in the main examination room of the Royal Thai Police Bureau’s Scientific Crime Detection Laboratory as two men in white lab coats rolled a pair of stainless steel autopsy tables into the room through a large stainless-steel double-door.
    The two bodies, each covered with a clean white sheet, appeared to be the size of a small child.
    As Bulatt and Kulawnit watched, the lab technician uncovered the first body, and then stood back as the second white-coated man — Dr. P.K. Chalermchai, a professor of biology from the local University — stepped up to the table.
    “As you can see,” he said calmly, “the carcass is that of a Clouded Leopard; in this case, a very young adult male weighing approximately 25 kilos — fifty-five English pounds,” the professor translated for Bulatt’s benefit. “He was found just outside the boundary of the Khlong Saeng Wildlife Preserve in the southern peninsula. Apart from being slightly malnourished, this particular leopard was very large for its age, lean, fit, and otherwise in excellent health at the time of his death.”
    “How did he die?” Bulatt asked.
    “A cobra bite, to the right foreleg.” The professor pointed out an area on the creature’s right foreleg where the fur had been shaved away, revealing bare skin and at pair of puncture wounds approximately two inches apart.”
    Bulatt whistled softly. “That must have been one hell of a cobra.”
    “A King, almost certainly,” the professor said, nodding. “Based on the distance between the fangs, I would estimate its length at about six meters — twenty English feet. And that is the curious aspect of this leopard’s death, as I explained earlier to Colonel Kulawnit. We almost never see a Clouded Leopard killed by a cobra or any other poisonous snake; they are usually very adept at recognizing and avoiding such dangers.”
    The professor stepped over to the second table, and waited for the technician to remove the sheet.
    “Here again, we have what appears to have been another large and healthy — albeit slightly malnourished — young male Clouded Leopard, also found near the outer boundary of the Khlong Saeng Wildlife Preserve. The weight was probably in the area of twenty-five kilos, although it’s difficult to be sure because of the loss of tissue.” The professor pointed to the left front shoulder of the carcass where, as Bulatt could easily see, the left front leg had been ripped away.
    “I assume this one didn’t run into a cobra,” Bulatt commented.
    The professor smiled. “No, a creature far more dangerous: a tiger. We were able to confirm the species of the attacker by the saliva saturating the wound area; but the size of the teeth marks and the massive hemorrhaging to the surrounding tissues would have been indicative in any case.”
    “And I take it you rarely see Clouded Leopards killed by Tigers?” Bulatt said.
    “Almost never. Clouded Leopards are taught by their parents to be very wary of Tigers and other large predators from the time they are cubs. Also, Clouded Leopards are excellent climbers, extremely agile, and see very well at night,” the professor explained. “Given the deteriorated condition of the body, it’s difficult to make a conclusive finding; but if I were to guess, I would say that this leopard was taken by surprise… by a Tiger… and on the ground — a very unusual situation, indeed.
    “So,” the professor went on when Bulatt and Kulawnit remained silent, “what we have here are two extremely unlikely deaths of two magnificent specimens of Thai wildlife that should not have been so big — or so hungry — occurring within days of each other at roughly the same location. Which brings us to these interesting items,” he said, turning to the technician who handed him a pair of stainless steel trays. “We found these attached to the necks of both leopards.”
    Bulatt walked up to the professor, stared down into the trays, and blinked in confusion.
    “You recognize them?” Colonel Kulawnit asked.
    “I think so. These look like a variation of the tracking devices we use to follow suspect vehicles or shipments at night with night-vision goggles,” Bulatt said. “They kick out a burst of infra-red light every few seconds that you can easily spot miles away. The ones I used worked on small lithium batteries, and usually burned out pretty quickly, especially in cold weather; but these seem to be more sophisticated.”
    “The batteries are built into the device and recharged through small strips of solar cells attached to the collar,” Kulawnit said.
    “Interesting,” Bulatt said. “So who makes them?”
    “We don’t know.” Kulawnit shrugged. “We are making inquiries with our military experts now. The professor is familiar with electronic equipment used to track animals for biological research, but he has never seen anything like these devices; and he’s certain that no Thai research biologists are using them in the southern peninsula. Among many other reasons, the cost would be prohibitive.”
    “So why were these cats wearing them?” Bulatt asked.
    “Exactly.” Kulawnit nodded. “We think the devices were attached to the necks of these creatures in order to make them easy to find, and to kill.”
    “But that would be a pretty expensive proposition, to capture an animal like this, tag it with a fire-fly™, release it, and then what — hope you run across it again? That’s an insane way to run a canned hunt, unless you’ve got money to burn.”
    “It doesn’t make much sense,” Kulawnit agreed. “But we are constantly trying to deal with wealthy foreign hunters who bribe their way into Thailand to kill our wildlife as trophies, and we don’t like it when mysterious events like this start occurring in our National Preserves. That’s why, when the second leopard was found, I called your office. When they said you were already in Tokyo for our Interpol meeting, I asked them to divert you to Bangkok, but not to tell you why. I wanted to surprise you, and give you the opportunity to enjoy an evening of Thai hospitality too, of course, before we fly back to Tokyo; but my hope also is that you can encourage some of your scientific experts to help us resolve this — ”
    At that moment, the cell phone on Colonel Kulawnit’s belt beeped plaintively.
    “Excuse me a moment,” he said as he stepped away and brought the phone up to his ear. “Colonel Kulawnit.” He listened for a few moments. “What?!”
    As Bulatt and the professor watched in confusion, Kulawnit’s face turned ashen. “I’m on my way there now,” he snapped, and closed the cell phone.
    “Khun Prathun, what — ?”
    “Four of our Forestry Rangers have been found dead, shot, in the southern peninsula,” he whispered. “One of them is my son.”


    Charter Flights Section of the Bangkok International Airport
    The cab dropped Wallis off in front of a medium-sized hanger with the name ‘RIGLEY CHARTERS’ painted in big blue letters on the side. As he walked inside the attached office, a slender, clean-cut man in his mid-thirties looked up from a computer. The tabs on his uniform shirt identified him as a pilot.
    “Help you, sir?”
    “I understand your company charters fast and slow flights from varying locations on short notice?”
    “Fast and slow flights?” The pilot cocked his head, looking puzzled.
    “Private jets and seaplanes,” Wallis translated.
    “Well, yes, as a matter of fact, we do. There’s a sweet little G-Four out on the tarmac right now that can get you just about anywhere you want to go very quickly, and with a great deal of comfort and privacy,” the pilot said. “And we do operate out of several other major airports in Southeast Asia. We’re not cheap, by any means; but we do pride ourselves on being adaptive to our customer’s needs. What destination did you have in mind?”
    “Singapore; and then, ideally, connecting right away to a seaplane for a flight to the Malacca Strait — somewhere near Langkawi — to pick up a couple of passengers.”
    “A Seaplane? Hummm.” The pilot consulted his computer for a few moments and then shrugged. “We do have a converted twin-engine Grumman Super Widgeon based in Singapore that we use mostly for search and rescue operations these days. She’s a little old in the tooth, and bounces around a bit in rough weather, but she’ll get you up the Strait and back, no problem. The pilot’s ex-military, RAF. Bit of an odd duck, but — ”
    “He’ll do just fine,” Wallis said.
    The pilot shrugged agreeable. “So, how many passengers are we talking about for the flight to Singapore, and when did you want to go? We can configure the G-Four for as many as six, and — ”
    “One passenger, right now,” Wallis said.
    “You mean — ?”
    “Right now,” Wallis repeated as he reached inside his raincoat and pulled out a band-wrapped stack of hundred dollar bills.

    The Medical Clinic at the Draganov Research Center
    Sergei Draganov and Aleksei Tsarovich stood side by side in the small veterinary medical exam room located in a small building near the research center’s Minimal Containment (MIN) facilities, shivering and still covered with snow from the raging snowstorm outside. They were staring at a set of skull x-rays on a wall-mounted, backlit viewer.
    “See how the brow and eye-sockets are thickened?” Tsarovich pointed out with the tip of the pen he held in his thick muscular hand. “Now compare that to the x-ray from three weeks ago.”
    Draganov nodded his head slowly. “Yes, I agree, it does look like gamma-five bone-growth. But her eyes — ”
    “- are clear, yes. No dye infusion that would indicate a transition infection. But the growth pattern is unmistakable.”
    “But how could she be infected?” Draganov demanded, the frustration evident in his strained voice. “She cleans cages and feeds the animals at MIN, never here. Only you and I handle the newly exposed animals.”
    “I don’t know. Right now, I’m more interested in reducing her fever.”
    Draganov suddenly blinked in awareness. “Wait a minute. What about Borya? Could he be infected also?”
    Tsarovich paused for a moment. “It’s unlikely. He has no physical contact with the ones at MAX. It would be much too dangerous, and he understands that. He just cleans cages, distributes food, and drinks.”
    Draganov slowly shook his head for a few seconds, his mind racing ahead. Then finally: “We must check, to be sure.”
    “Now, in this storm, and so late at night?” Tsarovich looked as if he couldn’t believe his ears.
    “Yes,” Draganov nodded firmly, “we must go now.”

    Tanya’s room inside the veterinary Medical Clinic
    Veterinary Lab Technician Tanya waited quietly in her bed, pretending to be asleep, until she heard Draganov and Tsarovich leave the clinic. She continued to wait until she heard the Sno-cat’s engine rev up. Then she got up, locked her door, pulled a dresser aside, opened a concealed door, and pulled a small Clouded Leopard kitten out of a hidden cage.
    Back in her bed, a feverish Tanya held the kitten close and smiled weakly as it cuddled happily into her arms, it’s eyes flashing a bright emerald green.


    Forestry Division Headquarters, Phuket, Thailand
    It was nearing dusk when the police helicopter carrying Colonel Kulawnit, Bulatt, and two M4 carbine-armed Thai Forestry investigators who functioned as Kulawnit’s bodyguards, landed at the Forestry Division headquarters in Phuket. A unformed Major was waiting beside a pair of black SUV’s at the edge of the helipad.
    “Colonel, I offer my most humble apologies. Your son died while under my supervision and care, and there is no excuse for my failure. I will forward my resignation immediately,” Major Sathan Preithat said in English, acknowledging Bulatt’s presence, as he opened the rear door of the SUV and stepped aside.
    Bulatt glanced at the Major’s face and decided that he’d never before seen anyone who managed to combine the looks of utter dismay and absolute rage into one barely-controlled expression.
    Kulawnit had been stone-faced as he walked toward the waiting vehicles; but he hesitated at Major Preithat’s words, blinked, and then shook his head and turned to face his subordinate commander.
    “Khun Sat,” Kulawnit said. “There shall be no more talk of your resignation. I placed my son in your charge because I considered you to be the most competent and loyal commander in our Division. I did so because I believed he would have the best opportunity to become a skilled leader of good men under your guidance. And I know from his letters that you were succeeding in his training beyond all of my expectations. His death was not your fault. Please devote your skills now to helping me find the killers of my son, and our Rangers.”
    The Major’s expression shifted slightly, his sorrow- and rage-filled eyes taking on a glistening edge. “We will find them, Khun Prathun, I promise you that.”
    “Khun Sat, this is U.S. Wildlife Special Agent Gedimin Bulatt, a member of Interpol, and my friend.”
    Bulatt and Preithat acknowledged each other with brief nods.
    “Khun Ged left the Tokyo Interpol meeting this morning to assist us with the Clouded Leopard investigation,” Kulawnit went on. “He now offers us his skills as a crime scene investigator. He also believes he may have useful knowledge about the foreign hunters who plague our country that could help us in tracking down these killers, so I want him to be a part of our investigation. I trust him as I trust you, so please give both of us your full briefing.”
    “Yes sir, of course.”
    “If there’s anything I can do without interfering with your work, I’m at your service, Major,” Bulatt said, staring into Preithat’s glint-edged eyes. “And I promise to help you and Khun Prathun find these people, and bring them to justice, in any way that I possibly can.
    Preithat hesitated, and Bulatt thought he could see the Major having to fight against a deeply ingrained sense of national pride; but if there was an internal battle being fought, it didn’t last long.
    “If you see or know anything that will help us identify and locate these… creatures, Agent Bulatt — ” Preithat struggled visibly to control his words. “Please, do not hesitate to speak out. I would be both grateful, and in your debt.”
    “Good, then we’re all in agreement. Let us not waste any more time,” Kulawnit said as he pulled himself into the back seat of the SUV. “Tell us everything you know so far about my son’s death.”

    On the road to the Police Morgue, Phuket, Thailand
    “I sent them out on patrol to investigate some information I received from an informant — that three British or Australian guides were taking their wealthy clients into the Khlong Saeng Wildlife Preserve to kill endangered animals for trophies,” Major Preithat said from the front seat of the SUV. “We’ve had many such complaints against foreign guides in the last two years; but when we investigate, we almost never find evidence of illegal kills.”
    “Instead, you find them in possession of legal kills, and with all of the proper documentation; as if they knew your Rangers were coming?” Bulatt asked.
    “Yes, exactly.”
    Bulatt could almost hear the Major’s teeth grinding together.
    “Our Interpol associates in Russian are facing the same situation,” Bulatt said, and then hesitated before continuing on. “In their case, the foreign clients — mostly hunters from the United States — are wealthy enough to bribe the Russian permit officials and their supervisors, who make sure the efforts of Russian game wardens in the area are focused on ‘less valuable’ suspects.”
    “That may be our situation as well, only worse,” Preithat said bitterly. “Our informant also suggested these guides were working under the protection of a senior Forestry Division Ranger.”
    “One of your own men?” Bulatt blinked in surprise. “Did the informant give you a name?”
    “No, but I — ” Preithat hesitated and looked over at Colonel Kulawnit who nodded his head silently.
    “I had reason to believe one of my Captains might be taking bribes — from the foreign guides as well as some of our own criminals,” Preithat continued. “I was investigating this possibility when one of my informants called yesterday morning. So I sent Captain Choonhavan on an assignment that would require him to spend the next two days in Surat Thani. After he left, I sent Lieutenant Kulawnit and Sergeant Tongproh out to patrol the Chieo Lan Reservoir area with a pair of Rangers they brought down from headquarters.”
    “So that no one in your office except you would know Lieutenant Kulawnit and Sergeant Tongproh were out on patrol last night?” Bulatt asked.
    “That was my intent,” Preithat replied with a heavy sigh. “With Choonhavan out of the way — and unable to provide a warning or a false permit at the last minute — I had hoped these guides might be caught in the act with their wealthy client.”
    “Do you know if Lieutenant Kulawnit and his patrol made contact with these individuals?” Bulatt asked.
    “No, I don’t. The last radio contact we had with them was late last night when Lieutenant Kulawnit advised our dispatcher they were going to investigate a gunshot in the southern portion of the Khlong Saeng Preserve.”
    “So we do know that someone was poaching in the Preserve last night?” Kulawnit asked.
    “We think so, but we don’t know where. There are so many tire tracks on the roads, and the rains make it very difficult to distinguish and follow any one set. However,” Preithat added, “we do know that someone with an Australian or possibly British accent tried to contact Captain Choonhavan late last night. Unfortunately, the night duty clerk hadn’t been properly briefed, so she provided the caller with his contact information in Surat Thani.”
    “So we must assume he’s been warned,” Kulawnit muttered. “Do we have him in custody yet?”
    “No, we are looking for him now. We have a witness who thinks they saw him leaving his hotel early this morning with a Caucasian male.”
    “We need to find him quickly,” Kulawnit growled.
    “Yes, we will, Khun Prathun,” Preithat promised. “In the meantime, we know that three Australian or British nationals checked out of the Shining Wind hotel late last night, along with an American hunter who is extremely wealthy. They stayed in expensive suites and ate expensive meals; but, at the moment, no one at the hotel can find any of their records. We’re trying to locate the hotel manager now.”
    “Did anyone see these men leave Phuket?” Kulawnit asked.
    “Not that we’ve found so far,” Preithat replied. “We know a helicopter arrived at the Phuket heliport late last night, and a private jet took off shortly thereafter. It seems likely they would be connected. We’re talking with the night shift personnel at the airport and examining their records now.”
    “Assuming it’s an American plane, if you can get me the registration number, I’ll try to track it down from our end,” Bulatt said.
    Preithat made a quick note in his field notebook.
    “We also understand that the three guides often chartered a local helicopter and pilot, and two local workmen to assist in their hunts. The helicopter is missing and we’re trying to locate the workmen and the pilot now. And we have some information that the guides owned an expensive fishing yacht — the Avatar — which they moored at Phuket Harbor. The Avatar is no longer at the harbor, and no one seems to know its whereabouts. We’re looking for the harbor master now.”
    “Major Preithat, you seem to be looking for a large number of people related to this incident,” Bulatt said hesitantly. “I don’t mean to sound critical. It just seems… unusual that so many significant people would suddenly be so difficult for the Thai police to find. Conspiracies can be large, of course, but — ”
    “It is very unusual, and puzzling,” Preithat agreed. “It’s understandable that the people involved would try to disappear if they knew we’d found Lieutenant Kulawnit and his team; but we have that information tightly controlled.”
    “What about your informant?”
    “There are two who have been providing us information. One is a corrupt businessman named Yak who works out of Surat Thani. What you would call ‘organized crime’ in your country, only in Thailand they are not so much organized as competitive. When pressed, he grudgingly provides information, but mostly about his competitors. The other is a Malaysian pirate named Kai. We have reason to believe that these informants may be conspiring to control the illegal guiding business in southern Thailand.”
    “By control, you mean putting themselves in direct competition — and presumably in conflict — with these Australian or British guides?”
    “Yes, but I should add a working alliance between these two informants is highly unlikely,” Preithat said. “These are extremely devious, daring and dangerous adversaries. I’m sure they’re both planning on cutting the other out of the business once they’ve eliminated their competition.”
    “But do you really think either of them would be devious and daring enough to arrange for the death of Lieutenant Kulawnit?” Bulatt asked.
    “No, I don’t,” Preithat said after a moment, “I cannot believe either of them would be so stupid.” His eyes flickered briefly to Colonel Kulawnit, who remained stone-faced and silent. “They’d know the consequences would be severe, and impossible to escape.”
    “So Captain Choonhavan is probably your best lead?” Bulatt suggested.
    “Yes,” Preithat agreed. “And when we find him, I’m certain he’ll be anxious to tell us everything he knows about these foreign guides.” Preithat turned to stare out the windshield at the isolated facility they were rapidly approaching. “Very anxious, indeed.”

    The Police Morgue, Phuket, Thailand
    The familiar heavy odors of death and decay hit Bulatt the moment he followed Colonel Kulawnit and Major Preithat in through the double-doors of the police morgue.
    Kulawnit’s two bodyguards — both hardened investigators — took positions inside the doorway with their M4 carbines at the ready, apparently unaffected by the familiar sights and odors. The room was air-conditioned; but the straining chillers and air-handlers were no match for the effects of Thai heat, humidity and insects on human corpses.
    Bulatt had spent five years as a police homicide detective in southern California before joining the federal government, so he wasn’t jarred by the sight of four blood- and mud-stained Forestry Division Ranger uniforms lying on the morgue floor — on lengths of white butcher paper — next to three morgue carts bearing bodies draped with white sheets. A fourth body, naked and partially dissected out, lay on the nearest of the three autopsy tables in the room.
    “They were found in their jeep, by the ocean near Khuraburi, yesterday morning,” Major Preithat said as he motioned for the pathologist to pull back the first sheet.
    Colonel Kulawnit’s only reaction as the sight of his son’s partially-decomposed corpse was to walk over to the front end of cart and stand there, staring down with his hands clenched behind his back.
    The pathologist hesitated, glanced questioningly at the Major, received a curt nod, and began his presentation.
    “As you can see, Lieutenant Kulawnit was struck in the right side of his head by two bullets. His wounds are similar to those of Sergeant Tongproh and the other two Rangers. All head shots, no other wounds on the bodies. If it is of any consolation, Colonel,” the white-coated pathologist added, turning to face the grim-faced Kulawnit, “death appears to have been instantaneous for all four men.”
    As the pathologist continued to recite his initial findings, Bulatt knelt down beside the blood- and mud-stained uniforms, closely examined the four uniform shirts, and then stood up and walked over to the stainless steel table where Sergeant Tongproh’s body was in the final stages of the autopsy process.
    He nodded silently to the white-coated technician standing guard beside the table, and then bent forward to examine the entry wounds through the left side of Tongproh’s exposed and empty lower skull. The upper half of the sergeant’s skull and his brain were lying in a tray hovering over his dissected-out chest cavity. Next to the skull top was a small stainless steel bowl containing two partially-mushroomed bullets lying in a bloodied wad of gauze.
    “Do you see something of interest, Khun Ged?” Colonel Kulawnit asked quietly as he walked up beside Bulatt.
    For reasons that were completely beyond Bulatt’s comprehension, the Colonel now seemed calm, almost at peace with himself. But beneath that calm exterior, Bulatt sensed a vengeful presence waiting patiently to be released.
    “The uniform shirts belonging to the sergeant, the corporal and the constable,” Bulatt replied, still staring at the pair of bullets in the bowl. “The blood-splatter patterns suggest all three men had their heads turned sharply to the left when they were shot from the left side. It also appears that your son’s head was turned sharply to his left when he was shot from the right side.” Bulatt hesitated. “Do we know if any of them managed to fire a shot of their own?”
    Colonel Kulawnit and Bulatt both turned to look at Major Preithat who had joined them beside Sergeant Tongproh’s body.
    “It appears not,” Preithat said. “All of their pistols and rifles were found fully loaded, as were all of their extra magazines and ammo pouches.”
    “Was there anything about their jeep that tells you something about the direction of the fired shots?” Bulatt asked.
    “Not that I’m aware of.” Preithat shook his head. “The jeep appears untouched by gunfire, externally and internally. There were some blood spatterings on the left front and rear seats, and perhaps some on the right passenger seat, but that’s all. Our crime scene team is now examining the jeep and searching the area where it was found. I will take you there, once we are finished here.”
    “Would Lieutenant Kulawnit have been sitting in the front passenger seat?” Bulatt asked.
    “Yes, that would be normal procedure. And Sergeant Tongproh would have been driving.”
    “So Lieutenant Kulawnit could have been standing outside the jeep, on the right side, and the others could have been standing outside the jeep on the left side, or perhaps behind the jeep, when the shooting occurred?”
    “Yes, that could be consistent with our procedures; especially if they were confronting someone,” Preithat said.
    “And could have been surprised by a second person — someone they didn’t know was there?”
    Preithat nodded silently, the expression on his face slowly shifting from controlled rage to thoughtfulness. Finally, he said: “I have known Sergeant Tongproh for many years. He was a very professional police officer, and very careful in the field; easily my best non-commissioned officer. I still find it difficult to believe that anyone could have surprised him like this.”
    “Surprise being the key word,” Bulatt said. “Which is interesting, given the condition of these bullets — ” Bulatt nodded his head at the stainless steel bowl, “- which, I assume were removed from Sergeant Tongproh’s head?”
    The pathologist — who was now standing beside Major Preithat — nodded silently.
    “Why do you say that?” Preithat asked.
    “They didn’t mushroom very much.”
    “Is that significant?”
    Bulatt shrugged. “Perhaps not; but nine-millimeter hollow-point rounds are usually high-velocity and do a good job of expanding after they hit a solid target. The fact that these didn’t suggest a number of possible situations: long-distance shots, reduced powder-loads, old ammo, or — perhaps more likely in this case — a silenced pistol; which could explain how Sergeant Tongproh and the others were all caught by surprise.”
    “You’re suggesting Sergeant Tongproh, the corporal and the constable were shot by someone who came up behind them, to their left, by surprise,” Preithat said, “and Lieutenant Kulawnit — ?”
    “- by the person he was interrogating,” Bulatt finished.
    “Which would mean — ” Preithat started to say when a uniformed constable stepped into the mortuary, winced, and motioned for his attention.
    “What is it?” Preithat demanded.
    “You have a call, sir,” the young constable said, trying not to look at Tongproh’s body on the table. “The captain said it was important.”
    Preithat excused himself and went outside with the constable. As he did so, Colonel Kulawnit turned to Bulatt.
    “If I understood you correctly, you’re suggesting this might have been an ambush conducted by at least two people, at least one of whom may have been armed with a silenced pistol? Not poachers, but professional killers?” Kulawnit’s voice expressed his disbelief.
    “It doesn’t make sense to me, either, Khun Prathun,” Bulatt said softly. “I’m sure your crime lab staff will be able to tell us much more, once they’ve examined the evidence; but — ”
    “Excuse me, Colonel,” Preithat interrupted as he quickly re-entered the morgue room. “That was the police commander of the Surat Thani district. They’ve located Captain Choonhavan.”


    The Maximum Containment Facilities (MAX) at the Draganov Research Center
    Although it hardly seemed possible, the raging storm outside had actually gotten worse. Nearly blinded by high-velocity ice particles, Draganov and Tsarovich staggered toward the nearby parked Sno-Cat, guided in good part by the noise of its idling engine.
    Once inside the cab, the two men continued to shiver as Draganov carefully drove the treaded vehicle slowly up a long snow-covered gravel road toward a distant dimly-lit structure barely visible in the storm that was known by everyone at the research center simply as MAX.
    “How can Borya stand to be up there in this cold?” Tsarovich whispered through chattering teeth.
    “With his vodka.” Draganov snorted. “How else?”
    As the Sno-Cat approached the top of the hill, all of the MAX lights suddenly went out. Draganov quickly brought the Sno-Cat up to the high metal shed structure that comprised MAX, headlights reflecting off the thick metal bars of the padlocked gate and surrounding fence, set the brakes, and then swung his head around, staring out into the whirling blizzard.
    “Did Borya do that?” he demanded.
    “No, I don’t think so,” Tsarovich replied, turned around in his seat to look back down the hill, “it looks like all of the Center’s lights are out. Must be another power failure.”
    The two men look at each other, their unease apparent.
    “Let’s go back,” Tsarovich said. “I don’t like this. The creatures here frighten me.”
    “No, it’s all right,” Draganov said firmly. “They are all tightly contained, and we must check on Borya.”
    The two men stepped out of the Sno-Cat with powerful torch lights in their shaking hands. Tsarovich nervously swept the fence line with his light beam as Draganov fumbled with the heavy gate padlock. After unlocking the door padlock, the two men cautiously entered the shed.
    Inside the MAX structure, the torch beams revealed a wide gravel walkway with nine six-foot-high, metal-barred and concrete-walled cages on the left, and three wider, triple-height cages on the right.
    The aggressive rustling sounds of disturbed creatures both large and small began to fill the shed.
    “Quick, shut off your torch and activate the emergency lights!” Tsarovich whispered urgently.
    The interior lighting of the shed changed to a very dim battery-powered glow, and the rustling sounds ceased.
    “Borya, are you here?” Draganov called out.
    After a long silence, a deep gravelly voice answered: “Yes, Sergei Arturovich, I am here.”
    “Where?” Draganov demanded.
    “In the middle cage — number five.”
    Draganov and Tsarovich stared at each other in shocked surprise, then cautiously and slowly approached the middle cage on the left. They could see that the metal-bar door was closed and secured like on all of the other cages.
    “Don’t turn on your torch,” Borya warned as the two men came up to the cage front.
    “No, we won’t,” Draganov replied, trying to sound calming and reassuring. “We won’t. We just wanted to make sure you’re not sick like Tanya.”
    “I’m not sick. I’m fine.”
    “Yes, I’m sure you are,” Tsarovich agreed, “but as the senior medical officer at the center, I need to see for myself. Please come out so that — ”
    “No. Go away. Leave me alone.”
    Before he could catch himself, Draganov yelled out in an angry voice: “Borya, why are you in — ?!”
    The whimpering sounds of a frightened creature somewhere near Borya — and a very upset big animal in the middle large cage across the way — caused the two men to freeze. They look at each other, wide-eyed.”
    “It’s okay, Borya,” Tsarovich said in a gentle, soothing voice. “We’re not angry. We just wanted to make sure you’re okay. We’ll leave now and talk with you later.”
    The two research scientists slowly walked back to the shed door.
    As Draganov and Tsarovich exited the shed and carefully shut and locked the heavy doors, the emergency interior lights went out. Immediately, ten pairs of bright emerald animal eyes flashed open inside the left-side cages.
    In cage five, one of the two eye-pairs was clearly human.


    Surat Thani, Thailand
    It was nearly ten P.M. by the time Bulatt, Kulawnit, Preithat and the bodyguards finally arrived at Yak’s palatial estate. The rains had mercifully stopped, turning the exquisitely landscaped gardens into a steaming outdoor sauna festooned by dripping lengths of bright yellow scene perimeter tape that provided — among many other things — a safe pathway to the first body.
    The scene commander waited patiently for Kulawnit, Preithat and Bulatt to negotiate the designated route, introduced himself, and nodded respectfully as Preithat made the introductions.
    “The bodies were discovered by the resident chef’s son who came here looking for his father,” the scene commander — a Lieutenant of the Thai Police Central Investigation Bureau — began. “He entered through the south garden gate, observed this man lying here, ran into the house, and ultimately found three more bodies.”
    “Including his father?” Colonel Kulawnit asked softly.
    “Yes. He found his father’s body in the walk-in freezer; shot twice, like the others in the house. At that point, he called the police.”
    Kulawnit looked down at the body sprawled face-down at his feet, a semi-automatic pistol with an attached silencer lying near the man’s outstretched right hand. There were five widely-scattered bullet holes in the back of the man’s shirt that was bunched together in places by the straps of a shoulder holster, and what looked like five matching holes in the back of a raincoat stretched out beside the body.
    “This one was shot several times,” Kulawnit noted. His eyes were focused on the silenced pistol. “Who is he?”
    “Boon-Nam, a criminal well known to us in Surat Thani,” the scene commander replied. “He is suspected of killing at least thirty people — mostly drug dealers, couriers, body-guards, thieves, burglars and the like — which is to say, mostly the competitors of the people who employ him.”
    “A killer for hire?” Preithat asked. “An assassin?”
    “Yes, he was exactly that. We’ve arrested him several times, but he always — please, don’t touch anything!” the scene commander said quickly when Bulatt knelt down to examine the body and weapon more closely.
    “No, I won’t; I’m just looking,” Bulatt promised, his eyes sweeping the wet grass around the body, and noting the fourteen bright yellow flags stuck in the grass around the steps leading up to a back door to the house.
    “Special Agent Bulatt is an American covert operator for Interpol, and also an experienced homicide crime scene investigator, who will be assisting us with our investigation,” Preithat said firmly. “He is aware of our rules and restrictions, and will honor them implicitly.”
    “Excellent. We are happy to have you here, Agent Bulatt,” the scene commander said unconvincingly.
    “Thank you, lieutenant,” Bulatt replied, looking up. “I apologize for the interruption, and I certainly will not interfere with your work; but could you tell me something? Did one of your investigators remove this man’s raincoat, or was the scene like this when the officers arrived?”
    “One of our crime scene technicians removed it a few minutes ago, at my direction. We wanted a photograph clearly showing Boon-Nam was wearing the shoulder holster, and therefore came here with intent to kill.”
    Bulatt nodded as if that was the answer he’d been expecting. “Thank you.”
    “I was told that one of our Captains is in the house?” Colonel Kulawnit said, finally turning his gaze away from the silenced pistol.
    “Yes, of course. Follow me,” the scene commander said.
    As Kulawnit and the scene commander walked toward the door leading into Yak’s den, Preithat held Bulatt back and leaned his head forward. “Did you see something of interest back there?” he whispered.
    Bulatt nodded. “Yes. I think this scene’s been rigged.”
    Preithat blinked. “What do you mean?”
    “I think I should explain when we’re alone.” Bulatt gestured slightly with his head in the direction of the scene commander.
    “Yes, I understand,” Preithat acknowledged, and then motioned for Bulatt to follow Kulawnit and the scene commander into the den.
    “So this is how a corrupt Ranger Captain ends his career, soiled by his own piss and shit,” Kulawnit said, staring down at the familiar figure lying on his back, still bound tightly to the chair, with his wide-open mouth and eyes frozen in a horrified stare. “He appears to have suffered appropriately. Was he tortured?”
    “Not that we can tell,” the scene commander replied. “We’ll know more once we get them to the morgue, but there are no other obvious wounds or bruising; just the two bullet holes you see — heart and forehead.”
    “And this man?” Kulawnit nodded down at the second much-scrawnier body lying face up on the floor with a silenced semiautomatic pistol lying a few inches from his outstretched hand.”
    “This is Yak, the owner of this estate,” the scene commander said.
    “As well as one of my informants,” Preithat added.
    “Was he also an assassin for hire?” Kulawnit asked, staring down at the pistol that looked identical to the one lying out in the garden.
    “Yak, an assassin?” The scene commander chuckled. “No, I would not call him that. A crook, con man, thief, drug dealer, child abuser, and consummate liar, yes; and I’m sure, as Major Preithat said, an informer many times over; but not an assassin. Mr. Yak did not like to get his hands soiled, in any manner. I have no doubt that he hired Boon-Nam many times to do his dirty work; but I would not be surprised if this was the first time he had ever fired that pistol — and, as you saw outside, did so poorly. Fourteen or fifteen rounds fired, and only five hit the target — three barely.”
    “Do you have a sense of what happened here?” Preithat asked the scene commander.
    “Not a clear one yet,” the scene commander said, “but we believe Boon-Nam was the one who secured Captain Choonhavan to the chair — only because Yak was not physically capable of doing so — and probably executed him and the chef. We’ll be able to confirm that when we conduct the ballistic examinations on the two pistols and the bullets from the bodies.”
    “Do we have any idea why he would do this?” Preithat pressed.
    “At this point, we’re assuming there was an argument which resulted in Boon-Nam shooting Yak in the stomach, perhaps accidentally, perhaps not. He goes outside. Yak gets to his gun, shoots back through the screen door — possibly hitting Boon-Nam, possibly not. Boon-Nam runs out to the garden, Yak staggers outside, empties his weapon at Boon-Nam, hitting him a few times, but none of the wounds immediately fatal. Then Boon-Nam fires his pistol one last time, striking Yak in the forehead and flinging him backwards into the den.”
    The scene commander then stared at Bulatt thoughtfully for a long moment. “There are some difficulties with this theory, as you undoubtedly realize, Agent Bulatt; the apparent lack of blood spattering around the doorway to the garden being one. But, as you might imagine, the rain always makes such determinations difficult.”
    “I don’t envy you your job here, commander,” Bulatt said honestly.
    “Do you think it’s possible that — ?” Preithat started to ask when the cell phone on his belt began to ring.
    “Excuse me,” he said as he brought the phone up to his ear. “Yes?” He listened for about twenty seconds. “Where, exactly?” He listened for a few more seconds. “Thank you, we’ll be there as soon as possible,” he said, then closed the cell phone and looked at Colonel Kulawnit. “The foreign guide’s fishing yacht — the Avatar. It’s been located.”
    “Where?” Kulawnit demanded.
    “Anchored off Ko Tanga. Our resident Ranger remembered seeing it earlier this afternoon when he received our alert. There are at least two Caucasian males on board, both matching the descriptions we obtained from the Shining Wind hotel staff: in their mid-to-late thirties, tanned, muscular and fit.”
    “What are they doing there?” Bulatt asked.
    “Fishing and diving, acting like normal vacationers.”
    “Why would they anchor themselves in Thai waters?” Kulawnit demanded, his eyes flashing. “If they were involved in my son’s death, why wouldn’t they be trying to escape — presumably into Malaysia?”
    “I think they’re going to see Kai, Khun Prathun,” Preithat said, smiling in pleasant anticipation. “Perhaps now we will finally understand what happened, and why.”


    Tanga Island Cove, Malacca Strait, Thailand
    “Can you see him?” Quince Lanyard whispered to his throat mike.
    The three low-riding outboard motorboats had been moving in slowly for the past hour; each one in turn accelerating for a few seconds, and then coasting to a stop in the dark water off Tanga Island. Lanyard and Gavin had been monitoring their progress with night-vision-scoped rifles from two separate positions — Lanyard from the Kevlar-and-titanium-armored bridge deck of the Avatar anchored two hundred yards off the Tanga Island Cove, along with four other similar yachts, and Gavin from a rock-lined promontory on Tanga Island overlooking the cove where the meet was supposed to take place.
    “I count twelve unfriendlies — all armed with AKs and extra mags, but no armor — and maybe half of them equipped with one those old hand-held single-lens night-scopes. Looks like two scopes for each boat, driver and team leader. None of the twelve look like Kai.” Gavin’s whispered reply was clearly audible in Lanyard’s tactical earphones. “Maybe he decided to stay home, let his minions do all the dirty work.”
    “And miss all the fun? Not bloody likely,” Lanyard muttered. “My guess is — wait. There’s something moving out there — your two o’clock position, out past the second buoy. Can’t make it out; too much fog down here.”
    “Hold one.” Gavin readjusted his position, centered the cross-hairs of his modern night-scope on the second buoy that was barely visible in the low-lying greenish fog, and then brought the cross-hairs up slightly. As he did so, an indistinct and blurry dark-spot almost hidden by the fog slowly resolved into a recognizable shape. “Got it. Looks like a fast boat, mini-cig, heading your way from the east. Coming in slow; two passengers, one of whom… is definitely Kai. Got you, you sneaky bastard!” Gavin chuckled.
    “Okay, time to mess with their little pirate minds,” Lanyard said, “Turn on the first flasher.”
    Moments later, a bright green light began flashing on and off at a point close to the rocky shoreline and almost a hundred feet below and to the left of Gavin’s barricaded position.
    As Lanyard and Gavin watched through their night-scopes, confused activity erupted in the three low-lying surveillance boats as the men without the hand-held night-scopes began pointing frantically at the blinking light that the men with the hand-scopes were obviously having trouble seeing.
    “Bright green on bright green. Ah, Quince, me lad, you’re a devious bastard indeed.” Gavin chuckled again as the most of the men with the hand-held scopes set them aside and began gesturing at the blinking light. Finally, two of the boats began to move cautiously toward shore in the direction of the light flashes while the third turned sharply and began accelerating in the direction of the Avatar.
    “Stand by, mate,” Gavin whispered into his throat mike, “it looks like you’re about to be boarded, bow and stern.”

    Over the Malacca Strait, Thailand
    The Blackhawk helicopter — on loan from the Thai Army, and carrying five heavily armed Forestry Division Rangers and a Ranger Sergeant Fire-Team Leader, in addition to Bulatt, Kulawnit, Preithat, the two bodyguards, and a pair of Army crew chiefs manning the two M60 machineguns mounted at the open cabin doors, all wearing camouflaged and inflatable life vests over their heavy armored vests — was flying low over the Malacca Strait, heading south, halfway to Tanga Island, the pilots eyeing the storm clouds that threatened to disgorge their liquid contents at any moment, when Major Preithat turned to Bulatt and motioned that they should put their helmets together.
    The physical connection between the two helmets caused the output from their throat mikes to be picked up by both sets of embedded earphones.
    “You said you thought the scene at Yak’s house was rigged,” Preithat reminded. “What did you see that made you suspicious?”
    “A couple of things,” Bulatt replied. “First of all, the shoulder holster Boon-Nam was wearing. It wasn’t his; or, at least, I don’t think it was.”
    “Why do you say that?”
    “I could see a deeply indented buckle mark near the end of the shoulder strap, where the strap would have been buckled for a man with a much bigger chest; but no indentation at all on the strap where it was buckled for Boon-Nam. It was as if the strap had never been buckled in that location before.”
    “Will that show up in the lieutenant’s crime scene photo?”
    “I hope so,” Bulatt said. “Also, I saw what looked like some gun-oil stains at the shirt and waistband of Boon-Nam’s trousers, right at the spinal area where a man might conceal a small pistol. He could certainly have decided to change pistols — maybe going for some extra firepower — at the last minute; but that doesn’t sound like something a professional assassin would do. I’m guessing, of course; I know very little about the habits of professional assassins, and nothing at all about Boon-Nam.”
    “Interesting.” Preithat’s eyes looked deeply thoughtful. “Was there anything else?”
    “The fourteen spent casings outside the door,” Bulatt said. “All located more-or-less where you would expect them to fall — after being ejected from the pistol and bouncing off the walls and door of the house — if the shooter was standing on the porch and firing toward the garden; but that would mean the door was shut.”
    “So, according to the lieutenant’s theory, Yak would have had to be flung backwards through at least the screen door by the last bullet — fired by Boon-Nam, presumably — that hit him in the head; but I didn’t see any damage the door. So how did Yak manage to end up dead, and on his back, inside the house?”
    “Which bring us to Boon-Nam’s last shot.”
    Preithat cocked his head, waiting.
    “It looked to me as if one of the bullets hit Boon-Nam right in the spine, just above his shoulder blades; a perfect place to paralyze a man’s arms and legs, but not necessarily kill him. It would be an easy shot for an expert or experienced marksman, especially if he was using low-velocity ammo or a silencer.”
    “But, according to the lieutenant, Yak was not a good shot.”
    “So it would seem.”
    “Of course, he could have gotten lucky.” Preithat started to shrug, and then blinked in sudden realization. “Oh… no, of course not; because then, as you said, Boon-Nam would have been paralyzed, and not been able to fire the last shot.”
    “You see the problem,” Bulatt said. “There was nothing definitive by itself; or, at least, nothing that I could see. But, in total, it was a very curious crime scene.”
    “Yes, I do see what you’re saying,” Preithat nodded his head slowly, and then sighed as he glanced over at Colonel Kulawnit who was sitting apart on the opposite side of the transport helicopter, in one of the crew chief seats, staring at nothing. “The colonel is not going to be pleased when he hears this. I think it made some sense to him that his son would be killed by malicious criminals like Yak and Boon-Nam; but if they weren’t the ones, then who? The foreign guides? Their client? Kai and his pirates?” Preithat frowned.
    “Perhaps Kai will have an answer for you,” Bulatt suggested.
    “Yes.” Preithat nodded, glancing over at Kulawnit again. “That would be a good thing, for all of us.”

    Tanga Island Cove, Malacca Strait, Thailand
    Jack Gavin waited patiently in the almost total darkness, watching through the night-vision scope attached to his M4 assault rifle until the two boats — the mini-cig and the single outboard motorboat — approaching the Avatar were only a few feet away from the anchored fishing yacht; which coincided nicely with the cautious approach of the other two outboard motorboats heading to shore in the cove below his barricaded position. Then he reached down to the transmitter resting on a rock near his right knee and pressed a button.
    Instantly, two dozen flashers — in varying colors of bright red, yellow and green — began to pulse in varying rhythms in the rocks in randomly set positions within a fifty-yard of his position. Then, two seconds later, strings of firecrackers began going off in the area of the flashers.
    The effect on the armed eight men coming ashore was instantaneous. Seven of the men scrambled for their rifles and began firing wildly the flashing lights. The eighth man — one of the team leaders, Gavin noted — grabbed his night-scope instead, brought it up to his eyes, and began scanning the rocky promontory overhead.
    He had just spotted an odd shape that looked out of place in the rocks high overhead when a single bullet from Gavin’s flash-repressed and moderately silenced rifle tore through his head. His body was still tumbling backwards into the boat when the remaining seven men began falling under the methodical onslaught of Gavin’s rifle.
    The effect on the six armed men from the other two boats rapidly approaching the Avatar was equally instantaneous. Two of the men from the outboard motorboat leaped up on the bow of the fishing yacht — and immediately tumbled backwards into the water, victims of Lanyard’s similarly equipped rifle — as the min-cigarette boat approaching the stern veered away, made a wide circle, and then began to accelerate in a straight line parallel to the Avatar.

    Approaching Tanga Island Cove
    The Blackhawk helicopter was less than three nautical miles from Tanga Island when the pilots got the radio call.
    “Colonel,” the pilot called on the Blackhawk’s internal radio system, “our resident Ranger on Rawi Island is reporting a gun battle taking place in the Ko Tanga cove between some Malaysian pirates and the men on the Avatar. We can see the flashes of gunfire from our position. The Ranger and his constable are approaching the cove in their patrol boat now, and a second boat with three more constables is on the way. What are your orders?”
    Colonel Kulawnit unbuckled his seat harness, stood up, and looked out the cockpit window at the distant flickers of light, barely visible through the low clouds.
    “Tell them to stay back and observe, and not to engage either side. We’ll be there shortly,” Kulawnit said. He returned to his seat, buckled in, then looked up at Preithat and reached for the selector on his throat mike.
    “Kuhn Sat, I want these foreign guides taken into custody alive, if at all possible; but do not risk your men unnecessarily. I have no such concern for Kai and his pirates. They are within our jurisdiction; deal with them as you please.”
    “I understand, Colonel,” Preithat acknowledged as Kulawnit turned his attention to Bulatt.
    “Khun Ged, I am grateful that you were willing to accompany us on this investigation; your input has been invaluable. But you are not armed, by treaty convention; so I ask you also to please stay back and not to engage these men, if at all possible. I do not wish your life placed at risk.”
    “Don’t worry, Khun Prathun, I’ll stay here in the helicopter,” Bulatt said, smiling as he glanced around at Preithat, the six assault rangers, and the two investigator bodyguards who were all busy checking their weapons, ammunition pouches, radios, vests, inflatable life jackets and night-vision gear while the two crew chiefs loaded their 7.65mm machineguns and double-checked their safety harnesses. “I think you have more than enough resources to deal with a few illegal hunting guides.”

    Tanga Island Cove
    Lanyard was lining up the dark green cross-hairs of his night-scope on the driver of the mini-cig boat — who had completed his wide circle and was accelerating into a power run along the starboard side of the Avatar — when he saw the other occupant, Kai, crouch down into the cockpit, and then jerk back up with his arms and legs to pull a concealed heavy machinegun up into a mount-locked firing position.
    “Oh bloody hell!”
    Lanyard dove to the deck just as the. 50-caliber armor-piercing rounds began ripping through the Avatar’s titanium- and Kevlar-lined bridge walls that had been designed to stop much smaller and far-less-lethal projectiles.
    Cursing furiously as the half-inch-diameter bullets progressively shredded the Avatar’s bridge structure, Lanyard discarded his rifle, grabbed the 25mm M109 payload rifle, tucked the stubby weapon to his chest, and rolled to the rear of the deck just as the. 50-caliber bullets began a return sweep, ripping through the Avatar’s main cabin walls directly underneath the bridge as if they were made of tissue paper.
    Still cursing, Lanyard came up to one knee, shouldered the fifty-pound rifle, and sent a pair of 25mm explosive armor-piercing rounds streaking into the engine compartment of Kai’s racing boat. The detonations blew apart the port-side engine and ripped the port-side drive shaft loose, skewing the boat sideways and catapulting Kai and his driver into the water.
    Shaking off the recoil effects of the rapid two-round volley, Lanyard stood up and quickly sent a third AP explosive round into the engine of the outboard motorboat hovering near the Avatar’s bow — shredding the engine cowling and killing the two cowering occupants — and then instinctively swung around and sent the last two rounds in the M109’s magazine arcing across the water and into the engine compartment of the Forestry Division patrol boat that suddenly appeared, accelerating past the western edge of the island at flank speed with searchlights sweeping.
    The explosive impact of the two AP projectiles inside the confined space of the patrol boat’s small engine compartment brought the coastal vessel to a surging halt, cutting off all power to the single propeller shaft and the two glaring searchlights in the process; but not before their final sweep revealed Kai pulling himself into the smoking cockpit of the mini-cig boat and fumbling for the. 50-caliber machine gun.
    Too busy to curse now, Lanyard tossed aside the spare magazine of armor-piercing rounds he’d instinctively pulled out of the blue-striped ammo box, grabbed instead the single magazine of anti-personnel rounds, slammed the heavy box magazine into the M109, pulled back on the arming bolt, thumbed the weapon’s computerized BORS ranging system to the new ammo, and came up to one knee with the payload rifle already on his shoulder.
    He triggered the first anti-personnel round at the moment Kai — visibly stunned and bleeding profusely, but still furiously intent on destroying the fishing yacht and anyone on board — was bringing the. 50-caliber machinegun around to bear again on the Avatar’s bridge.
    The ‘slow-velocity’ 1-inch-diameter bullet, electronically controlled by the M109’s optical ranging system, detonated against the breach of the. 50-caliber weapon into hundreds of extremely-high-energy fragments, dislodging the heavy machinegun from its mount and literally vaporizing Kai’s upper torso — just as the blinding searchlights from a rapidly approaching Blackhawk helicopter switched on, illuminating the Avatar and flaring-out Lanyard’s night-vision goggles.
    Reacting instinctively, Lanyard flipped his recycling night-goggles up and away from his eyes, winced against the searing glare of the searchlights, and fired the M109 twice in the general direction of the hovering helicopter.

    Distracted by the barrage of AK-47 rounds ricocheting off rocks in a fifty-foot radius around his position, and only vaguely aware of the big-caliber firestorm that had erupted on the far side of the distant Avatar, Jack Gavin was having a much easier time with his assignment.
    In the time it took Quince Lanyard to empty the first magazine of M109 explosive rounds into the three approaching boats, dodging nearly a hundred. 50-caliber bullets in the process, Gavin had dispatched seven of Kai’s wildly-firing assault team. He was waiting for the last pirate — a grizzled older man with enough common sense to take cover when he saw or heard the effects of Gavin’s first few shots — to make a run for one of the boats when he heard the M109 fire again; and then saw the searchlight from a rapidly approaching Blackhawk helicopter suddenly light up the Avatar.
    Gavin cursed as he reached down, grabbed a small rock, and threw it in the approximate location where he thought the last of Kai’s pirates was hiding. He waited until the old man broke away from his hiding place in a desperate run for the water, dropped him with a pair of shots to the chest and head, and then raised the rifle and began firing at the Blackhawk just as the two anti-personnel rounds from Lanyard’s M109 detonated against the left side of the helicopter’s armored windshield.
    Not designed to penetrate armored glass, the high-energy metal fragments simply scarred and blackened the Blackhawk’s windshield; shredding and disabling, instead, the unarmored searchlight mounted beneath the transport helicopter’s nose. But the pilots reacted instinctively, and understandably, by wrenching the Blackhawk away from the unexpected flack.
    In doing so, they inadvertently exposed the Rangers in the main cabin — many of whom were already standing up, in anticipation of the helicopter’s imminent beach landing — to the incoming bullets from Gavin’s rifle.

    Colonel Kulawnit and Major Preithat, intent on being the first Rangers on the beach when they landed at Tanga Island, were standing in the open doorway of the Blackhawk’s main cabin, holding onto safety straps, when the nose of the armored helicopter suddenly veered to the right in response to the M109 projectile explosions. The two men were still trying to regain their balance when the first bullet from Gavin’s rifle ricocheted off the titanium plate in Preithat’s armored vest, staggering him backwards into the arms of another Ranger.
    The next four bullets hit Colonel Kulawnit’s Kevlar vest — in the high chest area, just to the right of his protective titanium plate, one bullet slicing in between the thick-meshed panels — and his unprotected left arm, sending him spinning him around and tumbling to the floor of the heaving helicopter next to the dangling body of the port-side crew chief who had been hit in the vest by the sixth bullet and then struck fatally in the throat by the seventh.
    Gedimin Bulatt saw Kulawnit fall, yelled out as he released his seat harness, and dove for the sprawled body of his Interpol friend, trying to pull him away from the exposed open doorway. At that moment, two more anti-personnel rounds from the M109 payload rifle exploded against the tail rotor of the Blackhawk.
    Built to withstand the glancing impacts of. 50-caliber anti-aircraft rounds, the Blackhawk’s tail rotor mechanism was no match for the explosive power of the M109 projectiles. Torn and jarred out of alignment, the tail rotors shuddered and then failed, wrenching the powerful transport helicopter away in an uncontrollable tail spin that flung Bulatt and Kulawnit out the door and tumbling down into the warm waters of the Tanga Island cove.

    Gavin was in the reflexive process of reloading his rifle with a full 30-round magazine, his attention fixed on the wildly spinning helicopter as the Blackhawk pilots fought for control, when he realized that Lanyard was yelling in his earphones.
    “What?” Gavin said.
    “Get your arse down to the beach and into the bloody dinghy, you daft idiot! The Rangers are coming in with Blackhawks and machineguns. We’ve got to get out of here, now!” Lanyard repeated as he set the payload rifle aside, grabbed up his night-vision-scoped M4 carbine, and began scanning the water for more targets.


    The first thing Bulatt saw after he thrashed to the surface — coughing and choking, with Kulawnit still grasped tightly in his left arm — pulled the inflation tabs on both of their vests, and then quickly readjusted the night-vision goggles over his eyes, was the Blackhawk helicopter crashing into the water a hundred yards away.
    Then he turned and saw one of Kai’s low-riding outboard motorboats drifting in the water halfway between his position and the anchored Avatar with what looked like a pair of lifeless bodies dangling over the side.
    After pulling a military bandage out of a pouch on his vest, and then tightening it as best he could around Kulawnit’s badly wounded arm — all the while struggling to keep the unconscious Colonel’s face out of the water — Bulatt quickly pulled off and discarded his armored vest, lifejacket and boots, and then started kicking and stroking the classic one-handed lifeguard tow in the direction of the drifting boat.
    He was still a good twenty yards away, gasping for breath as he fought against the weight and drag of Kulawnit’s vest and armaments, when he first heard and then saw a small dinghy motoring out from the beach. As he watched, the small boat made a sharp turn toward the still-anchored fishing yacht whose engines were starting to rumble loudly in the darkness. At that moment, Bulatt saw the familiar outline of the night-vision goggles on the operator’s face, and realized the small boat would pass within twenty yards of his position in the water.
    Bulatt’s first thought was to dive under the water, knowing there was little or no chance that he and Kulawnit would remain unseen on the surface. But then he remembered the colonel’s inflated life vest. He was fumbling for the vest’s plastic zipper when his hand brushed against the grip of the 9mm Beretta semiautomatic pistol strapped to Kulawnit’s armored vest.
    Bulatt’s thumb was reflexively unsnapping the safety strap holding the pistol in the black nylon holster when Gavin — accelerating the small dinghy in the direction of the Avatar where Lanyard was now working feverishly to raise the anchor — spotted the two figures in the water, and grabbed for his rifle.
    Cursing, Bulatt yanked the pistol loose from the holster, momentarily let go of Kulawnit in order to jack a round into the Beretta’s chamber with his left hand, and then began firing at the figure in the bouncing dinghy.

    Gavin was still trying to bring his M4 carbine around one-handed, so that he didn’t lose control of the small watercraft, when the first 9mm round streaked past his shoulder and shattered the dinghy’s small transom windshield. The next two struck his armored vest, the high-velocity impacts of the mushrooming rounds staggering him backwards and sideways just in time to save his life.
    Instead of hitting Gavin in the head — as Bulatt had been trying very hard to do while fighting against the currents, the swells, and the drag of Kulawnit’s still-unconscious body — the fourth 9mm bullet whipped past his right ear just before the fifth tore a deep gouge across the right side of his head. The last impact sent him bouncing off the dinghy’s rubberized-tube railing and tumbling to the narrow deck, at the same time loosening his one-handed grip on the carbine which spun overboard into the water.
    Momentarily stunned, Gavin lay in the bottom of the dinghy until the thumping sounds of two 9mm hollow-point rounds tearing into the transom of the now-wildly-swerving craft’s outboard motor jarred him into action. Keeping his head as low as possible, he reached up, grabbed the steering wheel, and quickly accelerated the small boat toward the now-moving Avatar; realizing as he did so that a second Forestry Division patrol boat was rapidly approaching the distant spot where the Blackhawk had crashed, its searchlights sweeping across the water.
    Moments later, Gavin came alongside the now-slowly-moving Avatar, cut his engine, scrambled aboard the fishing yacht, quickly tied the dinghy’s bow line to the Avatar’s stern rail, and then scrambled across the lower deck and up the ladder to the bridge, holding his hand tight against his head wound. “Bloody hell, Quince,” Gavin yelled as he came up onto the bridge, “can’t we go any — ?”
    Then he froze in disbelief when his night-vision-aided eyes took in the degree of carnage. “Christ Almighty! What’d that Kai bastard do, lob a bomb up here?”
    “Might as well have.” Lanyard was at the helm of the Avatar, monitoring gauges and fighting against controls that were no longer responding properly. He glanced back at Gavin and saw the blood covering the right side of his long-time-partner’s face. “You okay?”
    “Bloody splitting headache,” Gavin growled as he fumbled around in a wall-mounted first aid kit for a compress bandage that he pressed against his cheek. “You get Kai?”
    “Shredded him into fish food with the one-oh-nine,” Lanyard responded. “What happened to you? Somebody get off a lucky one?”
    “Lucky, my arse. Some bloke in the water who was trying to keep his mate afloat double-tapped my vest plate with a couple of nine-mils, and then nearly did the same thing with my noggin.”
    “You get him?”
    “No, lost my carbine overboard when I got hit. He’s still out there somewhere by that drifting outboard. Better keep any eye out if he gets that boat going; that lad’s a bloody good shot.”
    Lanyard glanced back where Gavin was pointing and smiled.
    “No worries, your bloke won’t be going anywhere in that boat unless he brought along a spare engine. Here, take the helm and try to maintain this heading. The rudder’s not responding, so you’re going to have to work the throttles to make any course changes,” Lanyard explained, and then proceeded to use the contents of the first-aid kit to clean, sterilize and bandage the relatively superficial but freely bleeding wound as the Avatar surged back and forth on her erratic course away from the islands.
    “Thanks, mate,” Gavin said when Lanyard was done, gratefully giving up what little control he had over the struggling yacht. “How bad are we shot up?”
    “Both engines are still running, and there’s no compartment fuel leaks as far as I can tell, which is pretty bloody amazing given the number of fifty-cal rounds Kai punched through her guts. But we’re losing fuel steadily from one of the main tanks, and the starboard shaft starts vibrating at anything over half-speed. Which wouldn’t be too bad, all things considered, but our controls are shot to bloody hell and we’re taking on water faster than the pumps can spit it out,” Lanyard added. “How’s the dinghy?”
    “Hull and rail tubes are still intact. Took a couple of rounds in the transom and engine cowling, but I don’t think anything vital got hit. Why?”
    “We may need it. Wallis is heading our way with a seaplane, but I told him we’d try to get clear of these islands and into Malaysian air space first.”
    “What are we talking about, in terms of distance?” Gavin asked, trying to ignore the growing distress in his stomach.
    “Maybe fifteen nautical miles, give or take, assuming the rescue crews don’t spot us — which they shouldn’t in all this fog — and we can hold a steady course.”
    Gavin looked around at the choppy water that was now causing the Avatar to surge up and down as well as back and forth back as Lanyard tried to keep her on course. “Fifteen miles? In a bloody twelve-foot dinghy? Are you mad? We’ll be lucky if we make a half-mile before we’re swamped.”
    “May not have to find out how lucky we are if we can baby the engines on this gal and keep her afloat for another — ”
    A red light began flashing on the control panel.
    “Oh bloody hell, we just lost another pump. Only the two back-ups operating now, and they sound like they’re on their last legs,” Lanyard muttered as he watched the gauges for a few more seconds, and then sighed. “Well, Jack me lad, it looks like it’s going to be the dinghy or a long swim. No way in creation we’re going to get this gal into Malaysian waters before the water starts washing over her bow. And I don’t really fancy the idea of swimming alongside a bloke who’s leaving a chum trail for the sharks to follow.”
    Holding onto a rail for balance, Gavin looked back at the rescue patrol boat lights — now only glowing pinpoints in the fog that hovered over the dark choppy water — and the erratic wake being produced by the struggling yacht.
    “Okay, the dinghy it is, as long as we bring along a couple of buckets for bailing,” Gavin agreed reluctantly. “I don’t fancy being in that water at night either, bleeding or not; and I’ll be damned if we’re going to be the reason Wallis has to fly into Thai air space. Piss him off right proper, we would, if we got him shot down by the bloody Thai Air Force.”
    “Yeah, he’s got enough to be pissed about already,” Lanyard agreed.
    “You mean the Avatar?” Gavin looked around the shattered bridge. “Come on, mate, she’s a good old broad, but no great loss. He was going to leave her to Kai anyway.”
    “No, I mean that,” Lanyard said, pointing to a dark-stained burlap bag lying on the deck in the far stern corner of the bridge that looked like it might contain the better part of a freshly-killed chicken.
    “And that is?”
    “You do remember the Clouded Leopard carcass we stashed in the fish freezer, where we figured it was going to be safe?
    “I do. What about it?” Gavin stared at the stained and lumpy bag with a growing sense of foreboding.
    “Thanks to that bastard Kai, and his bloody big fifty, that’s all we’ve got left — of the big bits, anyway.”


    Off Tanga Island Cove
    It had taken the better part of Bulatt’s remaining strength to tow Colonel Kulawnit over to the low-lying outboard, pull the two lifeless and shattered bodies of Kai’s men into the water, and then shove the unconscious colonel up and into the boat.
    He was in the process of pulling himself in, holding onto the splintered railing and trying not to swamp the low-riding boat, when he felt the pressure wave of something big coming fast beneath the boat.
    “Shit!” Bulatt cursed reflexively even as his survival instincts found new reserves of energy to help him twist, yank and propel himself up and into the boat just as a huge tiger shark struck at the nearest of the floating bodies a few inches from his flailing feet. The impact of the thick dorsal fin — and then the massive thrashing tail — against the boat’s keel jarred it sideways, forcing Bulatt to grab desperately at the opposite railing to keep himself and Kulawnit from being tossed back into the water.
    For a few seconds, the water around the boat churned madly as a second and third shark fought over the carcasses. Then, finally, the water surface grew relatively still, allowing Bulatt to release his grip on the railing and Kulawnit, catch his breath, re-adjust his night-vision goggles, and then examine the colonel’s wounds.
    Finally convinced that he’d gotten most of the bleeding stopped with the bandage from Kulawnit’s vest pouch, Bulatt rose up on his knees, trying not to rock the shallow-beamed boat any more than necessary, then waved and yelled — to no avail — at the patrol rescue boat that was some hundred yards and barely visible in the growing fog as the crew continued to search for Rangers from the crashed Blackhawk.
    Got to get over there before they decide to take off and leave us here, Bulatt thought grimly as he looked around for something he could use as a paddle. To his dismay, the only thing he could find was a torn and jagged piece of the outboard engine cowling that was roughly nine inches square.
    After staring out at the deceptively calm dark water for a few moments, Bulatt crawled over to Kulawnit, pulled the 9mm pistol out of his vest holster again, loaded a fresh magazine, aimed it upward, started to pull the trigger, and then hesitated.
    No, better not, he told himself. They see gunfire coming from one of these outboards, they’ll probably fire back with everything they’ve got, including the deck gun, and then come over to scoop up the pieces.
    Sighing in resignation, Bulatt picked up the torn piece of aluminum cowling by the one non-jagged edge with his left hand, adjusted his grip on the pistol, cautiously moved forward to the bow of the low-riding boat, leaned forward so that his chest and right arm were braced against the bow railing, hesitated, dug his left hand deep into the water in a single hard stroke, and then quickly pulled his hand out of the water.
    The boat moved slightly forward and to the left.
    That’s right, gotta use a ‘J’ stroke, just like they taught us at the training center, or I’m going to be going around in a big circle.
    Steeling himself, Bulatt dug the piece of cowling deep into the water again, only this time in a ‘J’ stroke pattern, and saw with satisfaction that the outboard was now drifting more-or-less in the direction of the distant patrol boat lights.
    Okay, just another fifty or sixty strokes. No problem.
    Bulatt started to dig his hand deep into the water a third time when he felt the pressure wave suddenly surge up against the piece of cowling and barely managed to pull his hand away when the massive head of the huge tiger shark came lunging up out of the water beneath his fingers, the powerful jaws snapping at empty air. An instant later, the underside of the shark’s huge head crashed down on the boat’s already splintered railing, propelling Bulatt’s head forward and into the shark’s blunt sandpaper-like nose.
    The night-vision goggles absorbed most of the impact, the lens scraping against the rasp-like skin as the goggles were ripped away from Bulatt’s face. Blinded now in the almost total darkness, he desperately shoved himself away from the thrashing shark’s head and snapping jaws; and then felt the recoil of the Beretta — and heard the concussive gunshots — before he even realized he was shooting.
    The 9mm hollow-points ripped into the nose and gaping mouth of the fearsome-looking beast; its nightmarish black eye and glistening teeth intermittently visualized by the blinding gun-flashes.
    Then, suddenly, the upper torso of the huge shark was completely visible — bathed in a brilliant overhead light — as it whipped its head away from the bullet impacts, jarring and nearly swamping the boat again, and then swung back in an instinctive and unrelenting attempt to reach its human prey.
    Stunned by the horrific sight of the huge beast, whose jaws were snapping only inches away from his deflecting left hand and feet, Bulatt continued to fire as fast as he could pull the trigger, sending the last three bullets ripping into the shark’s left eye and brain as the Beretta’s slide locked open against the now-empty magazine.
    Working on instinct and adrenaline now, Bulatt scrambled back to the rear of the violently rocking boat on his hands and knees, ejecting the empty magazine somewhere along the way, yanked another loaded magazine out of Kulawnit’s vest, slammed it into the Beretta’s grip, released the slide, and then whipped the pistol around, searching for the nightmarish creature.
    But there was nothing on the rain-splattered surface; just the violent swirling of water a dozen yards away.
    Go to it, guys, tear him apart, Bulatt thought, gasping for breath and silently cheering on the other sharks as he continued to stare at the churning surface. It was only when he finally managed to catch his breath that he realized he was still being bathed in a dazzling white light.
    Wincing against the blinding glare, he looked up into the drizzling rain and found himself staring into the barrel of a machine gun mounted in the open doorway of a hovering Thai Coastal Patrol helicopter some fifty feet from and above the boat.
    An amplified voice from the hovering chopper barked out what sounded like an order in Thai, but Bulatt had no idea what the words meant.
    “You, in the boat,” the voice barked again, this time in English, “drop your weapon!”
    Bulatt blinked in confusion, then looked down at his right hand and realized he was still holding Kulawnit’s empty pistol. He quickly dropped it at his feet — hearing the weapon splash into the water that was close to swamping the badly-damaged boat — and raised his hands high in the air.
    As the helicopter moved in closer — now hovering less than twenty-five from and above the boat, the downdraft from its spinning blades churning the water and forcing Bulatt to try to maintain his balance with his wide-spread knees — the distant patrol boat began a wide turn in his direction.

    South of Tanga Island, in the Malacca Strait — still in Thailand territory
    They were a little more than twelve nautical miles off Tanga Island — Lanyard struggling with the few remaining controls while Gavin worked feverishly to stock the small dinghy with food, water, gasoline and a basic load of survival gear — when the vaguely soothing sound of the rain striking the flying bridge awning and windows of the wallowing Avatar was suddenly overwhelmed by a high-pitched shriek, followed by a concussive roar, that sent Lanyard and Gavin diving to their respective decks.
    “What the bloody hell — ?!” Gavin yelled from the foredeck as he struggled to readjust his night-vision goggles.
    “F-fives, pair of the buggers, probably flying out of Phuket,” Lanyard yelled back as he stared up at the twin-afterburners of the low-flying fighter jets. He continued to monitor the course of the planes — now just two rapidly dwindling pairs of bright green spots in the viewer of his night-vision goggles — until they finally disappeared in the distance.
    “Good,” he sighed. “I don’t think they spotted us.” He looked around at the swirling fog now surrounding the Avatar. “Probably damn near impossible to see anything in this soup from the air, thank God.”
    “You really think they’re out here looking for us?” Gavin asked as he scrambled back into the bridge.
    “Would you be out flying low-level off-shore recon in this bloody weather, and in the middle of the night, unless some pissed-off general told you to get your arse up in the air and be quick about it?”
    “You wouldn’t see me volunteering for the job,” Gavin acknowledged. Then, after a moment: “You think they’re going to care much about whose air space we’re in if they do spot us?”
    “I wouldn’t, if I were them,” Lanyard said. “But then I — oh bloody hell!”
    “What’s the matter?” Gavin asked, but the sudden shift in the decibel levels on the bridge gave him the answer he didn’t want to hear. “Don’t tell me we lost another bilge pump?”
    “Afraid so, mate; down to one, now.” Lanyard stared glumly at the four grouped lights on the control panel, three of which were now glowing bright red.
    “How much time, do you think?”
    “At the rate we’re taking on water, maybe another twenty minutes; less if we lose the last pump. At that point, we might as well shut the engines off and pull the plugs ourselves.”
    Gavin sighed. “Okay, I’d better start heaving the odd bits overboard. Anything you want me to hold back for a last go?”
    Lanyard shook his head. “If they’ve got the Thai Navy and Air Force out looking for us, we’re way past a ‘last go.’ Toss everything that looks out of place on a fishing boat — the weapons and ammo first — but bring along extra batteries for the goggles and a couple of the emergency flashers to signal Wallis. We’ll keep that lot with us as long as we can; but the important thing, if they spot us, is to look exactly like a couple of distressed fishermen who buggered up their boat in the storm. Might not do us any good if we get picked up in Thai water, but it’s always worth a try.”
    “What about this?” Gavin held up the shredded and bloody burlap sack.
    “Toss that, too. Wallis’ll take our word for what happened. And besides, maybe it’ll give the sharks something to poke at instead of following after us.”


    Onboard the Thai Coastal Patrol Cutter Sawaeke Pinsinchai — off Tanga Island
    Bulatt stood beside Major Preithat at the stern of the Thai Coastal Patrol Cutter Sawaeke Pinsinchai and watched as the paramedic team carefully loaded Colonel Kulawnit — who was now strapped tightly into a transport litter — into the medivac helicopter that had just moments earlier landed on the Cutter’s stern heliport platform.
    “Don’t worry, my friend,” Preithat said. “The corpsman assures me the Colonel is stable, and that a team of surgeons are waiting in an operating room for his arrival. Thanks to you, he is certain to recover from his wounds.”
    Lost in thought, Bulatt blinked and then turned to Preithat. “What about you, Khun Sat? You’re injured too; aren’t you going with him?” he asked, nodded at the bloodied bandages wrapped around the Preithat’s head and right arm.
    “My wounds are minor.” Preithat shrugged. “We’re sending three other Rangers with far more serious injuries in the helicopter with the Colonel. You and I will follow in the patrol boat.”
    “You mean back to Phuket?”
    Preithat nodded. “Yes, Phuket is where our investigation and my command are based. Where else would we go?”
    “How about after those bastards in the yacht? The ones who shot at us and damn near killed Kulawnit; and perhaps the ones who killed his son?”
    The understanding smile on Preithat’s face didn’t quite match the frustrated look in his eyes. “Colonel Kulawnit admires you, Khun Ged, because he sees you as an honest and stubborn and unrelenting investigator who devotes his professional life to confronting and destroying the evil forces in this world. Which is to say a man very much like himself; and, I gather, like many of your Interpol peers.”
    Bulatt started to say something, but Preithat held up his hand.
    “I, too, admire your determination and your courage; and I certainly share your desire for justice and revenge. But I must tell you that being in a small patrol boat south of Ko Tanga during the next few hours would not be a good thing for any of us.”
    “Why is that?” Bulatt asked.
    “As we speak, every one of our Navy’s counter-piracy patrol boats in the Malacca Strait is in position — or moving there now — to intercept any vessel attempting to escape south into Malaysian waters. The Sawaeke Pinsinchai will be joining them — using her assault helicopter to help close the trap — as soon as we transfer over to our Forestry patrol boat. Also, the Royal Thai Air Force now has six fighter jets in the air who will be acting as a final escape deterrent as well as spotters.”
    “That’s a lot of fire power for a couple of illegal hunting guides,” Bulatt commented.
    “Yes, but these men are no longer being viewed as simply violators of our wildlife laws. The shooting down of the Royal Army’s Blackhawk helicopter changed our investigation into a military matter of some complexity, especially since we think foreigners are involved,” Preithat explained. “And the fact that our suspects are apparently heading for Malaysian territorial waters has made things even more complex.”
    “In terms of international politics, I assume?” Bulatt nodded in rueful understanding.
    “Yes, exactly. And you should also know,” Preithat went on, “that these Navy patrol boats are manned by Thai Sea Rangers who have orders to engage and sink any vessel that fails to obey their orders. These Sea Rangers are an elite group of fighters — very much like your Navy SEALS — who have been made aware of our losses, and therefore are certain to be aggressive in their actions. So you can imagine how easy it would be, at night and in this weather, for an unfortunate mistake to occur.”
    “But their boat — the Avatar, I think you said? — surely must be easy to identify,” Bulatt said.
    “Yes, all of the boats and planes have her description,” Preithat nodded. “But based on their response to our arrival, we’re assuming these men are perfectly capable of commandeering another vessel, should the opportunity occur. All things considered,” Preithat smiled as he patted Bulatt sympathetically on the shoulder, “I think the seas south of Ko Tanga are not the best place for a few Wildlife Rangers and an American Special Agent in a small patrol boat to be right now; even though I certainly share your desire to be present when these men are intercepted.”
    “I see the logic of your words, Khun Sat.” Bulatt nodded. “I will try to be patient and wait for your soldiers and sailors to do their job; but, in the meantime, do you mind if I stay here?”
    “On the Sawaeke Pinsinchai?”
    “No, on Tanga Island.”
    “Why would you want to do that?”
    “There’s a crime scene out there that needs to be searched as soon as possible — ideally at first light — and a rifle that I saw one of our suspects drop into the water when I shot at him with Colonel Kulawnit’s pistol,” Bulatt explained. “I know I promised not to intrude on your investigation; but with the Colonel and many of your investigative team injured, you have many tasks to perform, and very few people to do the work. Searching the island for evidence is, perhaps, something I could do to help without getting in the way.”
    “Are you saying you intend to go into the water after that rifle, after your encounter with that shark?” Preithat cocked his head curiously.
    “Actually, I was thinking of using a rope and hook to drag the area,” Bulatt said. “I know roughly where — ”
    “Pardon me a moment, Kuhn Ged,” Preithat said, and then disappeared into the Cutter’s main cabin.

    A few minutes later, as the medivac helicopter bearing Colonel Kulawnit and the three seriously wounded Rangers rose up and hovered above the Cutter for a moment before disappearing into the dark sky, Preithat reappeared with two men. One was wearing a set of gold Royal Thai Navy Commander’s stripes on the shoulder tabs of his crisply clean uniform — clearly the commander of the Sawaeke Pinsinchai.
    The second man wore a chief petty officer’s insignia on the sleeves of his much less crisp and clean dungarees that almost exactly matched the oil-stained duffel bag he held in his muscular left hand. In his right, he carried a medium-sized black waterproof case.
    After introducing Bulatt and the two men to each other, Preithat turned to Bulatt.
    “I’ve explained your request to the Commander. He is aware of your actions in saving Colonel Kulawnit’s life, and he has offered to leave one of his rescue boats and three of his men to assist you in your search for evidence; one of whom is Chief Petty Officer Narusan who, among his many other skills and ratings, is the ship’s senior diver.”
    “He’s willing to go diving in those waters, by himself?” Bulatt asked, incredulous, as he stared at the smiling sailor.
    Preithat translated Bulatt’s comment to the two Navy men, both of whom chuckled in amusement. Then, after listening to the chief petty officer’s grinning response, Preithat turned back to Bulatt.
    “Apparently the chief grew up on Ko Tarutao, and has dived in these waters all his life; as do many tourists during daylight hours. And, as it turns out, he was also in the assault helicopter observing when you defended yourself against that shark. He knows you’re an Interpol wildlife officer; but he hopes that since you killed a protected species only doing what it does naturally, you won’t mind if he dives down and collects whatever fins might be left along with the rifle. And he’ll be happy to take you with him on the dive. He assures me the fins of a tiger shark make a delicious soup which he will be happy to share with you and his men, once you’re finished with your crime scene work.”
    “I, uh, would be honored, I think,” Bulatt replied uneasily.
    “In that case, I’ll send someone to pick you up as soon as you’ve completed your work,” Preithat said. “Now, there’s one more thing.” He nodded to the chief petty officer who stepped forward and handed the waterproof case and the duffel bag to Bulatt.
    “What’s all this?” Bulatt asked, juggling the case and the deceptively heavy bag in his hands.
    “The case holds a camera and some basic investigative equipment. It belongs to this ship. The Commander is happy to loan it to you, but wants it back; ideally in good condition. The bag contains Colonel Kulawnit’s vest, his radio, and his pistol,” Preithat said.
    “But I’m not — ” Bulatt started to say, but Preithat shook his head firmly.
    “Your call-sign is CSI-One, and the radio is adjusted to the proper frequency. Use it to notify our dispatcher when you and the chief are ready to be picked up.”
    “Ah, American CSI — very good!” The chief petty officer grinned widely, holding his thumb high up in the air, and then said something to Preithat in Thai.
    “Chief Petty Officer Narusan says he enjoys watching your American CSI show on Thai television, and hopes you’ll show him how to do this work so he can be the ship’s CSI officer also,” Preithat translated.
    “Not a problem.” Bulatt nodded agreeably, and returned the thumbs-up gesture, which caused the chief to grin even more widely.
    “The chief also assures me,” Preithat went on, “that he is perfectly capable of protecting you from the unlikely approach of any shark that might appear in these waters during daylight hours. But he’s not so confident about dealing with all of the friends and relatives of the pirate Kai, or the mysterious men on the Avatar, should any of them show up unannounced; and I would not want to be the one to tell Colonel Kulawnit, when he regains consciousness, that the friend who saved his life had come to harm.”
    “I think I understand, Khun Sat,” Bulatt replied seriously. “Please assure the Commander that I’ll take good care of his equipment, and that I’ll try very hard to avoid any conflicts.”
    “Yes, it is best for everyone if you concentrate on your search for evidence, and leave the hunting of these criminals to the Royal Navy, Agent Bulatt,” the Commander of the Sawaeke Pinsinchai added in halting English. “But if, in the process, you find it necessary to protect yourself — against sharks or any other such creatures who might try to harm you or any of my sailors — please do so with my blessing, and my authority.”

    In the cabin of a Grumman Seaplane — somewhere over the Malacca Strait
    The Grumman pilot was maintaining a steady low altitude in spite of stormy wind gusts that intermittently toss the old plane around like a toy. Wallis sat in the copilot seat searching the water below with a powerful N/V scope.
    “Should have spotted them by now,” the pilot muttered into his headset mike. “You sure about that heading?
    “No, I’m not… but I’m certain they wouldn’t have sailed south into a naval blockade.”
    “Speaking of which,” the Grumman pilot responded, “we’re rapidly approaching Thai waters.”
    “Is that going to be a problem?”
    “Only if we pop up on their radar screens, or they triangulate our location when you make that call.”
    Wallis stared down at the satellite phone in his hand.
    “I’ll make it brief.”

    South of Tanga Island, in the Malacca Strait — within two nautical miles of Malaysian territory
    It had taken Gavin nearly fifteen minutes and two hacksaw blades to cut away the Avatar’s flying bridge, giving the stricken yacht a much lower silhouette. He was in the process of tossing the last of the tubular structure overboard when he spotted the first patrol boat, and then the second — in the far distance, their running lights flickering intermittently through the fog — with his night-vision-goggles.
    “We’ve got a lot of company out there,” Gavin said as he scrambled down to the bridge. “Couple of patrol boats — maybe three, I couldn’t tell for sure — off the bow and the port beam; definitely between us and Langkawi Island, and probably running the territorial line.”
    “What about off the starboard beam?” Lanyard asked.
    “Couldn’t see anything, but that doesn’t mean much. They could be a hundred yards out in this bloody fog, and we wouldn’t see the bastards coming until they ran us down.”
    “Okay, starboard beam it is,” Lanyard said as he slowly pushed the left throttle up to half-speed, causing the yacht to slowly turn to the right.
    “How far to the territorial line if we stay on this course?” Gavin asked, looking amazingly focused for a man who had been fighting against nausea for last hour, and frequently losing the battle.
    Lanyard checked the GPS screen. “Maybe another fifteen minutes.”
    “Think the pump’ll hold out that long?”
    “It might.”
    Two minutes later, the fourth pump light on the control board began flashing, and Lanyard made the reluctant decision to abandon and scuttle the crippled yacht.
    The rain had stopped and the dark surface of the Malacca Strait — or at least what little of it they could see through the fog — was relatively calm; which made the idea of taking a twelve-foot dinghy out on the open ocean in stormy weather, in the middle of the night, with a limited store of food and water, and an ocean full of patrol boats looking to blow them out of the water at the first opportunity, seem only foolish instead of suicidal.

    Ten minutes later, Lanyard was braced against the wallowing dinghy’s steering wheel, watching the Avatar slowly settle into the water, while Gavin hung over the tubular bow and vomited what little food and drink he’d managed to keep down over the past hour. Then, as the yacht’s torn bridge structure finally disappeared beneath the waves, Lanyard checked his compass heading and accelerated the small boat into the face of the low swells.
    Twenty long minutes later, Lanyard’s satellite cell phone finally rang.
    “Gecko-two,” he said, and then listened for a few seconds, a smile growing on his grizzled face. “Right, we’re probably the lads the whole bloody Thai Navy and Air Force are out looking for; but, fortunately for us, they‘re searching west and south instead of east. They won’t find the Avatar in any case. She’s resting on the bottom a couple miles back. We’re in the dinghy, keeping our heads down. Jack’s a little worse for the wear, took a nick alongside the head, but he’s still game. My navigation’s a bit rough, but I think we’re in Malaysian territory right now. Hold one.”
    Lanyard reached into his life jacket, pulled out a GPS unit, and read off the coordinates into the phone. “Aye, we’ll put an IR-flasher out. Water’s a bit of a chop down here; try not to run us over when you come in. Gecko-two, out.”
    Chuckling in satisfaction, Lanyard re-secured the cell phone to his belt, reached for the emergency infrared flasher attached to the transom, turned it on, and then turned to the dark figure of Gavin, who was sprawled on his back in the bottom of the dinghy muttering to himself.
    “See, what’d I tell you, laddie? Just because we sank the Avatar and let Hateley’s hundred-thousand-dollar trophy get blown to bits, that doesn’t mean Wallis would leave us out here to paddle all the way to Darwin.”
    “That may be true, but he doesn’t know we did all that just yet, does he?” Gavin said morosely.
    “No, he doesn’t,” Lanyard conceded. “Let’s just hope the plane ride put him in a good mood.”

    On the Malacca Strait, Malaysia
    Ten minutes later, the ex-RAF pilot of the completely blacked-out, fifty-year-old, high-winged, dual-engine seaplane came in low over the water, visually verified the dinghy’s position; and then came back around and touched down, landing into the face of the rolling swells with an ease that suggested a history of many such landings in far worse conditions.
    As the pilot kept his engines running, maintaining the seaplane’s position heading into the wind, Lanyard brought the dinghy around behind the plane and up to the open main cabin door where Wallis was waiting with a grappling hook.
    Then, as Gavin scrambled up and in through open doorway, Wallis held the dinghy tight against the plane while Lanyard leaned down with a combat knife, punched a few holes in the hull, and slashed the flotation tubes.
    Finally, as Lanyard and Gavin pulled themselves into two of the four main cabin seats, and Wallis secured the door, the pilot made a final adjustment to his wind alignment, advised his passengers to hang on, and then firmly shoved the throttles forward to takeoff speed, sending the old seaplane crashing through the swells of the Malacca Strait one more time.
    Moments later, they were airborne, the gallant old plane roaring into the darkness several miles south of the line where the Thai patrol boats were maintaining a determined grid search for the missing Avatar.

    Across the Malacca Strait
    To their surprise, given all of the unfortunate events of the past twenty-four hours, the subsequent two-hour, very-low-level flight across the Malacca Strait to Singapore proved to be a relatively quiet and uneventful affair for Lanyard and Gavin.
    After listening to their stories, seeing to their medical and food needs, and congratulating them on their narrow escape, Wallis sat back in one of the two rear seats and proceeded to stare out the window, lost in thought, as the twin-engine seaplane surged and rumbled through the dark southeastern Asia sky.
    Lanyard and Gavin would occasionally glance back to see if Wallis’ mood had changed; but they knew better than to disturb their fearsome and occasionally unpredictable leader when he was thinking about a new plan, or the failure of the previous one.
    It was only when the pilot announced their pending arrival in Singapore Harbor, and suggested that everyone might want to strap in, that Wallis sat up, leaned forward, and slapped both men on their muscular shoulders.
    “Okay, lads,” he said, “I think I’ve figured out a way we can keep Mr. Hateley and his friends happy, and make us moderately rich in the process.”


    Tanga Island Cove — late the next afternoon
    To the numerous tourists and residents who remained a careful distance off shore in their boats, watching the activities of Bulatt and the three Navy seamen with their binoculars, the four crime scene investigators must have appeared tired, sunburned, and otherwise thoroughly satisfied with their accomplishments over the past nine hours.
    They were sitting on a series of tarps they’d laid out around a small, stone-lined cook fire on a grassy knoll just above the beach of Tanga Island Cove — Bulatt sitting bare-chested with his scraggly beard and his white hair hanging loose over his muscular and reddish-tanned shoulders, looking very much like a shipwrecked Viking at rest as he sipped cautiously at his bowl of hot soup, while Chief Petty Officer Narusan and his two seamen compared crime scene notes, lists and sketches against items of collected evidence neatly arranged on one of the tarps — and keeping a wary eye on the surrounding boat-crowd, when they all heard the sound of a distant aircraft.
    Chief Narusan spotted it first.
    “Helicopter,” he said to Bulatt, pointing at the northeastern horizon.
    Setting his soup bowl aside, Bulatt shielded his eyes from the sun, and then finally spotted the incoming aircraft — a small surveillance helicopter with military markings and a pair of pontoons attached to the landing skids.
    “About time they showed up,” Bulatt commented, generating a brief series of smiles and thumbs-up from the chief and his crew before they returned to their paperwork.
    Two minutes later, the four men watched the helicopter pilot flare the rotors of the small aircraft above the cove, settle it down onto the water, and then use a series of brief engine revs to nudge the leading edges of the pontoons into the shoreline sand.
    As they continued to watch with tired curiosity, a familiar figure opened the co-pilot’s door, stepped out onto the metal floats, hopped down to the sand, and strode up the beach to the grassy knoll with a grim look on his face.
    “Welcome to the Tanga Cove crime scene, Khun Sat,” Bulatt said, forcing himself up to his feet along with the three Royal Navy seamen who were already at attention. “I hope you bring us good news from the search.”
    Preithat shook his head. “I’m sorry to say there is no sign of the Avatar or the two suspects; they seem to have vanished.”
    “’Retreated’ might be a better description for their actions,” Bulatt suggested. “I have reason to believe the men in the Avatar possess military backgrounds, and are not just simple hunting guides.”
    “Military? How can you be sure of that?” Preithat demanded.
    “I’m not,” Bulatt said. “It’s still a theory, but probably a good one. As best we can tell from the evidence we’ve found so far, these two men set up a sophisticated ambush and drew as many as fourteen Malaysian pirates in to their deaths before shooting down your military helicopter and escaping in the confusion. That sounds pretty military-like to me, and chief Narusan agrees.”
    Still frowning, Preithat turned and motioned for the helicopter pilot — who was now kneeling beside the floats, securing a beach anchor — to come up and join the group. Then he turned back and stared down at the array of evidence items laid out on the tarps, which included a tree limb stuck in the sand with at least three dozen expended rifle casings stuck onto the ends of the small branches.
    “What’s all this?” he asked.
    “I think I’ll let Chief Narusan describe the evidence,” Bulatt said. “He and his men are the ones who did all of the work. I just watched and coached a little bit.”
    Bulatt motioned to the chief petty officer who looked surprised, but then hurried over to stand beside Preithat with the scene notes in his hand and a broad smile on his deeply suntanned face.
    “Good CSI, Major,” the chief said as he bowed respectfully to Preithat and the still-helmeted pilot who had come up beside him, and then fumbled with his notes to put them in the proper order.
    “Yes, very good CSI,” Bulatt agreed, smiling as he watched the chief carefully reassemble the hand-written CSI report. “The chief and his gunner’s mates conducted the entire search, documented the scene, made a scene sketch, photographed the entire process, made an evidence list, and collected the evidence. They’ll be able to testify to all of that in Thai court if we can ever bring these people to justice. You won’t need to bring me back.”
    “Very nice,” Preithat nodded approvingly.
    “Yes, Major, we collect — ” the chief hesitated, seeming to struggle with the English words but determined to use them in Bulatt’s presence, “ten flashers, not broken, and many pieces of other flashers from up there.” He pointed to the rocky promontory, and then looked down at his list again.
    “Flashers?” Preithat said.
    “Devices very much like the infrared Fire-flies™ one of your biologists discovered on some Clouded Leopard carcasses that Colonel Kulawnit showed me yesterday afternoon in Bangkok,” Bulatt explained, “only these don’t seem to be infrared. They flash in certain distinct and visible colors at certain set intervals, both of which are adjustable on the flashers themselves. The floppy adhesive cups on the back seem to adhere to just about anything, which is why we have them stuck together in pairs. According to the chief, who seems to be a ship’s electrician in his spare time, the flashers can be turned on and off — or re-adjusted — by a remote device which we also found.” Bulatt pointed to a small transmitter lying next to the flashers.
    “Yes, transmitter makes flashers work. I confirm,” Chief Narusan said, momentarily looking up from his list and nodding happily.
    “And, if I’m remembering all the details correctly,” Bulatt went on, “these flashers and the remote were probably manufactured by the same company that made the infrared ones. In any case, they shouldn’t be hard to find.”
    “You think these men were involved with the tagged leopards found by our biologists; the ones that were killed by a cobra and a tiger? Why would that be?” Preithat blinked in disbelief.
    “I have no idea why, or how, even if it is true,” Bulatt admitted. “But what I think I know is our friend in the dinghy set himself up in the cliffs, in a sniper position, against two of the pirate boats, and then — based on all the bullet impact marks on the surrounding rocks — turned on these flashers with the remote to distract their fire while he picked them off one by one with the rifle. I’m guessing on the flashers and the transmitter, but they all fit the scene.
    “Based on the empty magazine,” Bulatt went on, “and the expended casings we found for the M-four carbine, and the rounds remaining in the weapon, he fired maybe forty shots, total, at night, and killed eight men; nine counting the air crew chief in your helicopter. That, from my perspective, is good shooting. The pirates, on the other hand, fired several hundred rounds in return; and, apparently, hit nothing but rocks and a few of the flashers. We put their AKs and the bags of expended casings we collected in the chief’s boat, along with the bodies.”
    “And this is the weapon he used?” Preithat pointed down at the weapon lying on the tarp.
    Bulatt shrugged. “We’ll see what your crime lab says.”
    “Yes, rifle, one, American M-Four Carbine,” the chief added, looking up from his list again, “from water.” He pointed to the cove. “Many brass casings, from there.” He pointed to a specific spot on the rocky promontory. “Kuhn Ged say if we careful to put casings on tree branches, fingerprints not get damaged.” He smiled as if particularly proud of this bit of make-do CSI. “And eight dead bodies, Malaysian pirates, from there.” He pointed to a rocky section of the beach below the cliff. “Start to smell, so we put in bags right away, then put in boat. All done. Good CSI,” the chief finished, handing the notes to Preithat and coming to attention.
    Preithat said something to Narusan that caused the chief petty officer to puff out his chest proudly and smile once more. Then he turned back to Bulatt.
    “Military, or perhaps ex-military,” he added thoughtfully. “That would explain the cannon — or whatever it was — that they used to shoot down our Army helicopter.”
    “Perhaps you’ll learn more about that when you recover the Blackhawk and examine the damage,” Bulatt suggested.
    Preithat briefly turned and said something in Thai to the helicopter pilot — who nodded in acknowledgment and made a notation in a notebook — and then returned his attention to Bulatt.
    “Did you find anything else?” he asked.
    “A few more things,” Bulatt said as he reached down and retrieved his soup bowl. “My boots, which the chief recovered; and pieces of the dorsal and ventral fins of one large tiger shark, also collected by the chief, which he made into an excellent soup. If I understood him correctly, this is going to help my investigative spirit as well as my general health.”
    Preithat smiled, nodded approvingly, and started to say something when the helicopter pilot standing beside him interrupted.
    “Excuse me, major, may I say something?” the pilot asked in a distinctly feminine voice as she took off her helmet, shook out her long black hair, and stared into Bulatt’s startled eyes.
    “Officer Achara?” Bulatt blinked in disbelief before he realized what he had said. “I mean — ”
    “Actually, it’s Captain,” the pilot replied evenly. “I was deceitful about my rank as well as my occupation yesterday, Khun Ged; my apologies.” She brought her palms together in the familiar wai.
    “Your brother… and your father,” Bulatt hesitated. “I’m so very sorry — ”
    “I am grateful for your caring words, but there is nothing you need say,” she replied softly. “My brother and my mother were both gentle Buddhists who understood and accepted the unpredictable nature of life. My father and I are Buddhists, also; but perhaps less gentle and less accepting.”
    “You saved my father life last night, and I am deeply grateful for that as well,” Achara Kulawnit went on. “And I am also grateful to Chief Narusan — ” she bowed and wai’d in Narusan’s direction also, causing the sunburned face of the chief petty officer to turn an even deeper red — “for preparing a traditional Thai dish for your physical and spiritual nourishment,” she added as she stepped forward and gently took the soup bowl out of Bulatt’s hands. “If you are to help us hunt down these dangerous men who killed my brother and shot my father, it’s proper and fitting that you possess within your soul the spirit of the shark you defeated.”
    As Bulatt watched, speechless, Achara brought the soup bowl up to her lips, sipped a portion of the liquid, and then handed the bowl to Preithat, who did the same.
    “And it is equally fitting that we share in the fearsome spirit you have brought to us, Khun Ged,” Achara added, staring deep into Bulatt’s eyes. “I hope you don’t mind.”
    Before Bulatt could respond, Chief Petty Officer Narusan laughed heartily and said something to his two gunner’s mates that caused them to laugh — and Preithat and Achara to glance at each other and then smile in agreement.
    “Do I dare ask what he said?” Bulatt asked.
    “There is a Thai children’s story very much like your Beauty and the Beast, which the chief seems to think you and I vaguely resemble,” Captain Achara Kulawnit said, her cheeks flushing slightly. “But there may be some confusion as to which one of us is the fearsome beast.”
    “Ah,” Bulatt said, having no idea what else to say.
    “But the chief also suggested,” Achara went on, her eyes glistening with some additional emotions beyond her embarrassment, “that perhaps all of us — different as we are from each other but still working together easily — make a very good team. And if that is truly the case, as I believe it is, then the killers of my brother have much to fear.”

    The Graystone Fields Ranch, Jackson Hole, Wyoming
    Michael Hateley was sitting in one of the four over-stuffed leather chairs in the center of his hidden, luxurious, underground trophy room — all carefully positioned so that the occupants could easily view the coveted boar’s head, as well as Hateley’s entire endangered species collection — sipping at a glass of rich Merlot, and staring at the empty section of wall that he’d set aside for his world record Clouded Leopard trophy, when the intercom beeped.
    “A Mr. Emerson for you, sir, line one.”
    “Thank you,” Hateley said as he reached over to the receiver on the nearby lamp stand and punched the hands-free button. “Marcus? Is that you?”
    “It is, Mr. Hateley.”
    “Where are you?”
    “In Singapore; I’m afraid I have some bad news for you.”
    Hateley sat silently in his chair, staring at the blank space on the wall, the rich wine forgotten, as Wallis explained how his Clouded Leopard trophy had been lost in a gun battle with Malaysian pirates. When Wallis finished, Hateley continued to stare at the wall for a few moments, and then sighed heavily.
    “Are Quince and Jack okay?”
    “They’re fine, Mr. Hateley; good as new in a few days.”
    “I’m glad to hear it.” Hateley paused. “And I assume our options for more hunts in Thailand are still… limited?”
    “To the extreme,” Wallis replied. “We had to shut down our operation in southeast Asia. It will be some time before we’re able to return.”
    “I see.”
    “On the other hand,” Wallis continued, “there is a bit of silver lining in all these dark clouds.”
    “Really? And what would that be?”
    “Your next hunt, Mr. Hateley,” Wallis replied. “How would you like to be the first man in a very long time to hunt and kill an extinct species?”
    Part III: The Interpol Intervention


    Phuket Military Hospital
    Prethat, Bulatt and Interpol Officer Pete Younger are sitting in the visitors waiting room of the Phuket Military Hospital. They all rise when Achara emerges from the intensive care ward with a strained look on her face.
    “They say my father is doing as well as can be expected. The second surgery drained his strength, but his prognosis for recovery is good.”
    “That’s wonderful news,” Bulatt said, smiling.
    “Yes, I hope so.”
    “Achara,” Bulatt went on, “this is Pete Younger, the friend I told you about.”
    Achara turned and took Younger’s extended hand in both of hers.
    “Yes, Khun Ged’s New Zealand Interpol friend who will help us find my brother’s killers. I am so pleased to meet you.”
    “The pleasure is mine, Khun Achara,” Younger responded warmly. “Interpol has many resources for finding people, and I promise you that Ged and I will use them all.”
    “But before you do that,” Prethat interrupted, “we must talk. There is a conference room on this floor that we can use.”
    A few minutes later, the four investigators were sitting in stuffed chairs around a small table in a corner of the large conference room.
    “I regret to inform you,” Prethat began, “that as the acting commander of our Wildlife Ranger Force, I am unable to remain a part of this investigation.”
    “We understand, Major,” Bulatt acknowledged. “There will be many things requiring your attention while Colonel Kulawnit recovers.”
    “That is sadly true, but I wish to remain aware of your progress. There may be ways I help, and it would please me greatly to do so.”
    “You will receive a daily report,” Bulatt promised.
    “That won’t be necessary. To keep Captain Kulawnit from taking an improper role in this case, I would like to assign her to your Interpol team. Is that acceptable?”
    Bulatt blinked in surprise, then looked over at Achara and saw her nodding in smiling satisfaction.
    “Very acceptable, Major.”
    “Yes, welcome to the team, such as we are, Khun Achara,” Younger added with a cheerful smile.
    “In that case,” Prethat said as he began handing out reports, “here is everything we know about the men who shot and killed our Rangers so far.
    Bulatt, Younger and Achara started skimming through the reports. At the third page, Bulatt's head snapped up.
    “You got a registration number for a Gulfstream-four that left Phuket Airport very early that morning?”
    Prethat nodded. “Yes, but it’s registered to a charter company based in Bangkok, and not in the US as we had hoped.
    “But why would a wealthy and presumably smart man use a US registered plane on an illegal hunt if he’s trying to remain covert?”
    “Exactly,” Younger agreed. “Much better to return home from a larger nearby airport. If cost didn’t matter, I’d pick Singapore.
    “Where his own plane might have been waiting for him, if we’re lucky,” Achara added.
    Prethat nodded approvingly at the interplay of the newly-assembled Interpol team.
    “Maybe we should visit this company and see what they can tell us about people who charter expensive planes for short trips at late hours?” Bulatt suggested.
    “An excellent idea,” Prethat said. “And since I am going to Bangkok also, I will be happy to join you as my final part in your investigation.”
    “You don't think we can convince these blokes to cooperate, Major? We do have our clever little ways,” Younger added with a smile.
    “Yes, Colonel Kulawnit has often described how his Interpol friends gain cooperation from suspects,” Prethat replied. “I believe the term is verbal judo.
    The Thai Major was smiling also, but his eyes were deadly cold.
    “Just think of me as Plan B.”

    The break room of the Draganov Research Center
    Shaken by the inexplicable behavior of Borya, Draganov and Tsarovich locked themselves in the clinic’s small break room, and have been drinking vodka and arguing passionately for the past hour.
    “This is wrong, Sergei Arturovich,” Tsarovich insisted, throwing up his hands in frustration. “We cannot accelerate the Clouded Leopard program until we know what happened to Tanya, and why.”
    “The nano-probes are so tiny, a few could have escaped containment,
    Draganov argued. “And remember, no one in the Clinic has been infected, only Tanya.”
    “And possibly Borya also — both are in daily contact with the animals, and exposed to urine and feces.”
    “But we know the probes break down as they pass through a liver,” Draganov reminded. “How many tests did we run? Hundreds, and not one intact probe detected. So it can't be an excretion issue. It must be something else.”
    “But what?”
    “I don’t know. Perhaps we’ll know more once we expose Tanya to the first of the reversal probes.”
    “When will you have it ready?”
    “Not by tonight. There are so many switches that must be reversed in the right order, and I must work first on the next Cloud.”
    A pained expression filled Tsarovich’s face.
    “But — ”
    “We have no choice,” Draganov said, shaking his head firmly. “Emerson is a very dangerous man. I have seen him hurt people, and I’m now convinced that and his men are responsible for my brother’s disappearance.”
    “So, just one more enlarged Cloud. Is that all he wants?”
    Draganov stared down at the floor for a long moment, and then looked back up at Tsarovich.
    “No, that is not all. He also wants one of the little ones, Baba — the oldest.”
    “For what, a petting zoo?”
    “No, for the hunt he plans… soon, perhaps in a few days.”
    “No,” Tsarovich shook his head in disbelief, “he cannot possibly want that now. Baba is much too young to be hunted.”
    “I know, but Emerson insists. I sent him photos, but he says Baba now looks enough like an adult and that’s all he cares about.”
    “Does Borya know of this?”
    Draganov’s eyes widened in horror.
    “No, he doesn’t, and he must not know until after Baba is gone. Can you imagine how he would react?”
    “Badly. Very badly.
    “Yes, exactly, so say nothing to anyone. It’s late and I must get to work.”
    As the two men get up and leave the small break room, they fail to notice the glowing light on the intercom indicating that someone has been listening.

    Tanya’s room
    As Tanya continues to stare at the intercom on her lamp table in horror, the little Cloud kitten begins to lick her face happily, his eyes glowing a bright emerald green.


    The Graystone Fields Ranch
    Michael Hateley was sitting alone in the middle of his spacious and luxurious underground den, sipping at a glass of expensive single-malt scotch and staring contemplatively at the empty section of wall opposite his chair — an area he’d once set aside for his world record Clouded Leopard trophy, but was now re-structuring in his mind for a far grander trophy — when the intercom beeped.
    “Dr. Stuart Jackson Caldreaux is calling, on the secure line, sir.”
    Hateley reached over to the receiver on the nearby lamp stand and punched the hands-free button. “Hello, Stuart, how are things going in the Big Easy these days?”
    “’Nawlins will rise up from the proverbial ashes once again, just as she always has,” Caldreaux replied in his rich Cajun drawl. “Not sure Ah can say the same fo’ myself, though.”
    “Oh, why is that?”
    “Ah jest received a call from a mutual friend of ours, tellin’ me that he had to cancel my planned hunt in Thailand and Malaysia next month. Said the po-litical situation is currently too unstable in the southern peninsula. Don’t know ‘xactly what he meant by that, but it did sound a mite ominous.”
    “Did you ask him for specifics?”
    “Yes sir, Ah did, but our mutual friend was a little vague. Wasn’t tellin’ me the whole story, Ah’m pretty sure — which isn’t like the man, if you know what Ah mean?”
    “I agree, that doesn’t sound like him at all,” Hateley said supportively. “He’s always been straight-forward and up-front with me, as far as I know.”
    “But that led me to thinking,” Caldreaux went on, “didn’t you go on a hunt with our mutual friend in Thailand just recently, lookin’ for that mythical Giant Clouded Leopard you’re always goin’ on about?”
    “Yes, I did. Matter of fact, I just got back a couple of days ago.”
    “How’d it go? Any luck?”
    “The hunt itself was spectacular. Set myself up a midnight shoot on a bamboo stand, using the two-forty-three Remington and a new fourth-generation Aries Crusader night scope I just picked up; and managed to drop a big Cloud that was prowling around high in the trees about a hundred yards out. Magnificent specimen — had to be in the hundred-and-twenty kilo range; definitely world record class.”
    “Pardon me for sayin’ so, Michael, but it sounds like you’re describin’ a big fish what got away, ‘stead of a big trophy you’re havin’ center-stage mounted for our next get-together? Or did I misunderstand your meanin’?”
    Hateley sighed. “No, Stuart, you were quite perceptive, as always. It seems our mutual friend managed to lose my trophy on his way out of the country; a major disappointment, as you might imagine. I never even got to touch it.”
    “Gawd almighty! How’d he manage to do an outrageous thing like that?”
    “I don’t know. Something about increased Ranger patrols in the entire southern peninsula, and having to abandon everything when they ran into an unexpected check-point situation. Like you, I don’t think I’ve heard the entire story.”
    “Ah thought we’ve been payin’ a significant premium on our license fees to take care of them penny-ante check-point issues?”
    “That was my understanding, too,” Hateley agreed. “Sounds like the Thais might have put a new park and wildlife management team in place. If that’s the case, we may have to renegotiate our access privileges.”
    “Damn, Ah sure do hate to hear that. Ah always enjoy our little excursions into that part of the world, both the huntin’ and the socializing’ afterwards. You think it might be a pressure tactic by some of the locals, to try to get us to pay more?”
    “That’s always possible,” Hateley said, “but I got the impression it had more to do with how the Thai hunting laws are being interpreted in the field. There was a bit of a confrontation out on the road near our hunting site between our friend and some Rangers on patrol on our last night, which ultimately led our hasty departure. I’d like to believe our mutual friend was being overly cautious in the face of unexpected circumstances in a foreign environment; but, in any case, I can’t imagine it’s going to take very long for things to regain their natural balance.”
    “That would be nice.” Caldreaux was silent for a moment. “So Ah guess you’re plannin’ on canceling our dinner arrangements?”
    Hateley sighed. “No, I’m not; I can’t see any reason to do that just because I came back empty-handed. And besides, we’ve got a nice menu all planned out for you fellows; just have to change my own entree selection to ‘fricassee of crow.’”
    Caldreaux chuckled. “Well, it’s been nice chattin’ with you, Michael, as always. Good to hear you’re still maintain’ that marvelous sense of humor of yours; and Ah’m certainly looking forward to our little get-together.”
    “Yes, Stuart,” Hateley said, staring at the empty spot on his trophy wall, “so am I.”


    At Rigley Charters — Bangkok International Airport
    The bright-blue-lettered sign on the hanger door read ‘RIGLEY CHARTERS.’
    As Ged Bulatt, Pete Younger and Achara Kulawnit opened the door and walked inside the office, a slender, clean-cut man in his mid-thirties looked up from a computer. The tabs on his uniform shirt identified him as a pilot. A much larger man bearing Chinese character tattoos on his very muscular forearms and wearing a mechanics uniform sat at a far corner desk sorting through paperwork.
    “May I help you?”
    “I certainly hope so,” Younger said. “My mates and I would like to charter one of your aircraft for a week; and maybe keep it a few more days if things work out right.”
    The pilot stood up from his computer, walked up to the counter and extended his hand. “Roger Rigley, owner and chief pilot, at your service. What exactly did you gentlemen have in mind?”
    “We’re looking for something fast and fancy, capable of landing on small runways, adaptable to a change in flight plans on short notice, refrigeration for transporting anything we happen to snag on a hook, a couple of crackerjack pilots, a competent steward with an amiable sense of humor, and seating for six with full meal service,” Younger replied.
    “That would be full meal and beverage service,” Bulatt amended.
    “Goes without saying,” Younger agreed.
    The pilot picked up a clipboard from a nearby desk and began to make notes. “You did say six?” He asked, looking up questioningly at the three men.
    “We might be picking up a Sheila or two on the way,” Younger explained.
    “Ah, yes, of course.” The pilot nodded in understanding as he made a few more notes. “I believe our G-Four would meet your requirements quite nicely, gentlemen. She’s a bit on the pricey side, but if we’re talking a full week — ”
    “Price is not an object,” Younger said. “My American friend here is picking up the tab. I’m sure he wouldn’t want to offend us with anything but the finest.”
    The pilot cocked his eyebrow at Bulatt who shrugged agreeably. “They tend to be expensive friends, but still cheaper than another wife,” he said. “What’s the availability of the plane?”
    “Are we talking today?”
    “That would be ideal.”
    The pilot checked his watch. “Actually, she’s due in from Singapore in another half-hour or so; dead-heading back in from a previous charter. Fully cleaned and maintenance checked. We’ll have to re-configure the cabin, gas-up and re-supply the larder, of course; but that won’t take long once you make your selections.”
    “You just have the one; G-Four, I believe it was?” Bulatt asked.
    “At the moment,” the pilot nodded. “We’re hoping to pick up a G-Five next year if things continue to go well.”
    “If you’ve only got the one, I hope the previous bloke didn’t fume the bloody place up,” Younger commented.
    “I beg your pardon?” The pilot looked puzzled.
    “I believe my friend is expressing his concern that your previous charter might have smoked on the plane,” Bulatt translated.
    “Puts the Sheilas right off their feed, every time,” Younger added helpfully.
    “Well, I know for a fact that Mr. — ah, Smith, doesn’t smoke; or, at least, he never has on our plane,” the pilot said confidently. “But, even if he did, I can assure you the cleaning service we employ is top-rate. The carpets and holding tanks are steam-cleaned, and the main cabin, galley, and toilet facilities get a complete vacuuming and sterile wipe-down after every charter. The only scent your, ah, lady-friends are apt to notice will be the warming hors d’oeuvres and the freshly-grilled lobster; or the prime rib, of course. I’m assuming you’d prefer the deluxe service package?”
    “Bloody right he does.” Younger smiled cheerfully.
    “Sounds good to me,” Bulatt said as he pulled a wallet out of his jacket pocket. “Let’s get the paperwork started.”
    “Hold on just a minute,” Younger said, putting his hand on Bulatt’s arm. “Before I let my mate here spend a bloody fortune on our amusements, I’m thinking we ought to do a bit more reference checking; just to be on the safe side.”
    “I think that’s a good idea,” Bulatt said, turning to the pilot. “No offense intended, Mr. Rigley. The thing is, we’ve already inquired into your reputation as a charter operator and pilot, as well as the quality of your maintenance service; and both came back as first-rate. No worries there.”
    “That’s very nice to hear,” the pilot replied, smiling confidently as if he’d expected nothing less.
    “But we never did get around to checking into your catering sources,” Younger added. “Hate to go to all this effort and then have one of the little darlings chomp into the odd slice of shoe leather, if you know what I mean. I assume your, ah, Mr. Smith routinely orders the deluxe service package as well?”
    “I think that would be a reasonable assumption,” the pilot acknowledged with an amused expression in his eyes.
    “Excellent. Then how about putting us into contact with the good fellow for a brief chat? Help us reassure our friend here that his money’s being well spent.”
    The pilot shook his head politely. “I’m sorry, gentlemen, but our number one rule at Rigley Charters is that we don’t discuss our clients with each other. We’re rather firm on that, for all of the obvious reasons.”
    “Completely within your rights, and admirable as well,” Bulatt agreed. “But perhaps you could put him into contact with us by cell phone? Have his secretary reverse the charges, of course. We’re not asking you to tell us who your client is; we’d just like to ask him a couple of general questions about his satisfaction with your catering service. It is, after all, a considerable amount of money that I’m prepared to spend; now, and in future years,” he added pointedly.
    “Yes, I understand completely,” the pilot said, his eyes and body language suggesting he wasn’t the least bit happy with the way the conversation was going, “but I hope you understand as well that I cannot — ”
    “Of course, we would expect to pay an additional service fee for all of your trouble,” Younger added, patting his jacket pocket suggestively.
    Somehow, Roger Rigley managed to look offended, embarrassed, apologetic, and tempted all at the same time.
    “I’m sorry, gentlemen,” he said firmly, “but what you’re asking is simply impossible.”
    “Would it help if we told you that you‘d be assisting us with a matter of some international importance?” Younger added as he placed one of his Interpol business cards on the counter.
    The pilot took one look at the card, glanced over at Younger and Bulatt — both of whom nodded somberly — and immediately shook his head, his face turning pale. “Bloody hell, I should have guessed it was something like this. I don’t suppose you men have proper identification?”
    The two Interpol officers displayed their badges and credentials.
    “All we’re looking for is a name, Mr. Rigley, nothing else,” Bulatt said reassuringly. “We have no reason to ever reveal the source of that information.”
    “But I — can’t.”
    “Yes, actually, you can,” Younger suggested helpfully. “It’s just a matter of being cooperative; as opposed to not.”
    Roger Rigley took in a deep breath. “I believe I know what it means to be cooperative with law enforcement,” he said, an angry glint appearing in his eyes. “God knows I’ve paid more than my fair share to the local gendarmes to keep things flowing smoothly around here.”
    Bulatt and Younger both winced, looked at each other, and shook their heads sadly.
    “I’m truly sorry you chose to bring that topic into our discussion, Mr. Rigley,” Younger said, his deeply suntanned face shifting into an expression that seemed genuinely sympathetic.
    “And you’re going to be even sorrier in a few moments,” Rigley went on heatedly, “because it just so happens that I know a few things about international law. For example, I know that foreign Interpol officers have no actual law enforcement authority in Bangkok or anywhere else in Thailand.” He turned to the mechanic who had already stood up from his desk and was now standing in from of Bulatt and Younger with a broad smile on his face, clenching his large grease-stained fists.
    “John, throw their Interpol asses out of here, and don’t be gentle about it, while I call the — ”
    The big mechanic started for Bulatt, and then crumbled to the floor unconscious from the impact of a vicious Achara spin kick to the side of his head. Ridley was still staring open-mouthed at Achara when the front door slammed open.
    “While you call the police, perhaps?” an audibly furious voice inquired from the doorway.
    Roger Rigley’s mouth dropped open and his eyes grew wide in shock.
    “Uh, may I help you, officer,” he managed to croak out.
    “Yes, you may,” Major Preithat acknowledged as he stepped into the office and made a point of removing a microphone from his ear. “You may start by grounding all of your aircraft based at this facility, and all others now occupying Thai Air Space, which specifically includes your G-Four jet that is now in route from Singapore.”
    “I beg your pardon?”
    Preithat looked at his watch. “I believe I spoke quite clearly. You have precisely five minutes to obey my order. If you fail to do so, I will direct the Thai Air Force to ground them for you, by whatever means they find necessary and appropriate. Do you understand the meaning of the phrase ‘necessary and appropriate’?”
    “But — ”
    Preithat looked at his watch again. “Four minutes and fifty seconds. And kindly be advised that you are now, officially, under arrest for suspicion of taking part in a conspiracy to murder six Thai Rangers, so please make no attempt to leave these facilities until I tell you to do so. It would be inconvenient to have you shot before we have finished our discussion.”
    As the now-ashen pilot-owner frantically grabbed for the radio-mike on the adjacent desk, Preithat turned to the new Interpol team.
    “I’ve heard some very interesting things from Kuhn Prathun over the years about these verbal judo techniques, and the three of you did seem to be making excellent progress,” he said, his dark eyes remaining fixed on Rigley much like a cobra observing a tasty rat, “but I’ve always preferred the direct approach myself, especially when time is of the essence.”

    An hour and fifteen minutes later, Bulatt and Younger stood outside the hanger beside Preithat’s official vehicle, holding cups of hot tea thoughtfully provided by a young police clerk. The entire hanger complex was now surrounded by a dozen Royal Thai Police and Ranger vehicles, with several uniformed officers maintaining a watchful presence. Four additional vehicles had taken positions out on the tarmac.
    Younger looked around approvingly. “Don’t you just love the Thai approach to hostile witness situations?” he commented.
    “It does cut down on a lot of extraneous bullshit,” Bulatt acknowledged.
    “I thought the ‘inconvenient to have you shot’ part was a nice finishing touch,” Younger went on. “I’m actually rather envious; the New Zealand legal system tends to frown on that sort of interrogative approach. And speaking of which, do you think the Major’s going to let our Mr. Rigley call his lawyer any time soon?”
    “I don’t think any defense attorney in his right mind is going to want to be anywhere near Major Preithat and Mr. Rigley right about now,” Bulatt said seriously.
    “All in all, an elegant approach to problem-solving.” Younger raised his tea cup in salute, presumably to Preithat and his aggressively responding Ranger force, and then sipped cautiously at the hot tea.

    A few minutes later, Major Preithat stepped out of the hanger and called out to the two Interpol investigators. “Gentlemen, I believe Khun Achara has found something.”
    The three men hurriedly entered the office area and found Achara typing furiously at a computer keyboard.
    “Tell me you found bank records,” Bulatt said hopefully.
    “No, better,” Achara responded. “Look at this.”
    She turns the computer screen around so that they could all see it.
    “What are we looking at?” Younger asked.
    “A hidden file for four clients listed as ‘A’, ‘B’, ‘C” and ‘D.’ Our suspect’s recent flights match client ‘A.’”
    “Exactly?” Bulatt whispered.
    “Yes. The dates are different for each client, but the flights are the same — same locations and five days apart. And all pay in cash.”
    “So what are we looking at, a hunting and poaching club?”
    “If they are a club,” Prethat said, “why don’t they hunt together? These clients are hunting in synchrony but apart, as if they’re — ”
    “Competing?” Bulatt suggested. “Three wealthy clients competing against each other?”
    Bulatt and Younger looked at each other and smiled.
    “Achara, do you have access to those landing and take-off records?” Younger asked.
    “I’m running our dates against the Bangkok landings now, but Singapore International is being difficult.”
    Prethat grunted, stepped away from the group, and was soon talking heatedly with someone in Mandarin.
    “The same private plane arriving in Bangkok and then departing five days later from Singapore on the right dates. Can we be that lucky?”
    “Don’t hold your breath,” Bulatt commented. “Everything about this set-up so far smells of big money and aggressive smarts.”
    Prethat rejoined the group and turned to Achara.
    “You have access for one hour. The pass-code is Panther.”
    Achara began typing furiously again, and then paused to watch the computer screen flash through blocks of data.
    “Come on, one of you bastards be stupid for once in your bloody lives,” Younger muttered.
    Achara’s eyes suddenly widen in amazement.
    “Yes, the same private plane — a G-five — matches the last two flight data sets at Bangkok and Singapore for client ‘C.’”
    Bulatt smiled. “It looks like somebody got tired of suffering in first-class.
    Younger pulled out his Blackberry and moved behind Achara.
    “Do we have a registration number?” he asked.
    Achara pointed at the screen. “Yes… there.”
    Younger began typing on his Blackberry as Achara turned to Bulatt.
    “If we get a hit on that plane, you and Pete can track it down while the Chief and I overfly the Khlong Preserve with his new toy.”
    “Is that thing really going to work?”
    “He thinks so. We’ll have plenty of power from the plane’s engine, but the trees may be — ”
    “Well, folks, according to the Interpol computers, it looks like we have a winner in the category of upper-class arrogance and stupidity.”
    Prethat, Bulatt and Achara all turn to stare at Younger.
    “Our G-five luxury aircraft,” Younger continued, “is registered to a corporation owned by a Mr. Samuel Houston Fogarty.”
    “And just what, exactly, do we know about Mr. Fogarty?” Bulatt asked pointedly.
    “Not much, at the moment; but that’s about to change.”
    “I like the way this is going,” Preithat smiled. “Colonel Kulawnit was correct about the value of your organization; I should have listened more carefully. Perhaps we do have more evidence than I thought.”
    “In that regard, Major Prethat,” Bulatt said, “would you mind if I take the remains of those two Clouded Leopards and a few of the items we found at the Tanga Island scene and send them back to our wildlife forensics lab in Oregon? Our scientists may be able to find some additional evidentiary links that we’re not aware of at this point.”
    “Of course,” Preithat said. “I’ll have them transferred to you immediately. And while you are doing that, I will have Captain Kulawnit and her Rangers continue their search for additional evidence and information about our illicit hunters and killers here in Thailand.”
    “The team approach. Works every time,” Younger smiled broadly.
    “Yes, it does,” Bulatt agreed as he brought his palms together in a polite wai, and then extended his right hand to Preithat. “Major, if you’ll please excuse us, and pass on our congratulations and good-byes to Khun Achara, I believe Peter and I have some work to do.”


    In the suite of a modest and very remote Phuket hotel
    Yawning tiredly, Pete Younger finally looked up from his laptop computer screen, stretched, and then surveyed the darkened living room of their two bedroom suite. There wasn’t much to it. A pair of old desks and chairs — the second set requiring an extra bribe to the maintenance man — a cheap dresser bearing an old CRT television and a desk phone, two additional stuffed chairs, three doors leading to the two small bedrooms and the shared bathroom, and a service cart bearing plates of half-eaten food and four empty coffee pots standing by the locked and bolted door.
    They’d been working well into the evening, each digging relentlessly at their available data-sets while intermittently reaching out to the internet.
    “Well,” Younger muttered, “I think it’s safe to conclude that our Mr. Fogarty is not a very nice chap.”
    Bulatt looked from his computer hopefully. “Find something we can use?”
    “No, unfortunately, it’s not illegal to play cut-throat politics in the exporting small arms industries. Pretty much SOP for that group.”
    “Any long-standing partnerships?”
    “Not so far. Looks like he back-stabs everyone pretty early in his deals. Classic predatory lone wolf behavior. You finding anything?”
    “Residence in Bend, Oregon. Current Oregon and Idaho hunting licenses, but no active tags. I’ve got messages in to both fish and game agencies.”
    “Any violations on file?”
    “Several in Washington State prior to five years ago resulting in a life-time hunting ban,” Bulatt replied. “Nothing after that.”
    “Think he learned his lesson?”
    “A predatory lone wolf with a taste for blood and money to burn? I doubt it.”
    “Sure, why hunt among the riffraff when you can form a competitive killing pack with some like souls?”
    “Find anything else?”
    “I’ve got an interesting lead,” Bulatt said. “The likely manufacturer of those flashers is located in Redmond, Washington. I used to work that area as a field agent, so I’m going to check it out personally.”
    “So, at least we’re making some progress.”
    “Yeah, but not much. Let’s hope that Achara is having a little better luck at her end.”


    In the break room of the Draganov Research Center
    Sergei Draganov and Aleksei Tsarovich had returned to the sanctuary of the Center’s lockable break room, and were now back to drinking vodka and arguing passionately. Both men were physically and emotionally exhausted.
    “They will be here in one week,” Draganov pointed out for the second time. “We must have everything arranged by then. We have no choice in the matter. None whatsoever.”
    “But would you let them come here, on our clinic grounds?”
    Draganov’s blurry eyes widened in shock. “No, certainly not! We can never let them see the early mistakes — the creatures at MAX. If word got out to the research community, we would be finished. At best, we would never receive financial support again from anyone… at worst, we would be arrested.”
    “I tell you again, we should have destroyed them at birth, Sergei Arturovich. We never should have let them live.”
    “But there is so much we can learn from their development, even if it is… abnormal development.”
    “There’s a big difference between learning and keeping evidence that can be used against us.”
    “Yes, I understand that now,” Draganov acknowledged. “After the hunt is over, and Marcus and his men are gone, we will deal with the animals in MAX.”

    In the Phuket hotel suite
    Gedimin Bulatt had just drifted into a blissful sleep when the phone on the lamp table near his head began to ring loudly.
    He fumbled for the phone, listened intently for about twenty seconds, reached for his Blackberry, quickly checked his e-mail listing, and then said “okay, we’ve got it. Thanks!”
    He was starting to type with his thumbs on the Blackberry’s small keyboard when Pete Younger stumbled into the doorway of his small suite room.
    “What the hell’s all that bloody racket about… and what time is it?” Younger demanded, trying to blink himself awake.
    “That was Achara, and it’s four-thirty in the morning.”
    “Achara? What’s she doing up at this hour?”
    “Apparently working harder than we are,” Bulatt replied as he continued to type. “Chief Narusan found a latent print on the battery of that remote transmitter when he took it apart. She sent a photo of it to me, and I’m forwarding it to you right now.”
    Younger’s eyes snapped wide open. “Christ, one of those bastards may be on file somewhere. I’ll get our Interpol lads on it ASAP.” He whirled around and ran over to his desk, indifferent to the fact that he was still in his underwear, sat down, activated his satellite-linked laptop, and quickly began calling up screens.
    Bulatt pulled himself into a pair of jeans and then followed Younger into the living room where he collapsed into one of the stuffed chairs.
    “Hell of a bloke, that Narusan. Sounds to me like you created yourself a CSI monster to go along with your princess warrior,” Younger said, his eyes now completely focused on his computer screen, “who, by the way, is an absolute doll, in case you hadn’t noticed.”
    “I noticed,” Bulatt said with a discernable edge to his voice.
    “And?” Younger said, looking up from his laptop quizzically.
    “And nothing. She’s Kulawnit’s daughter, for Christ sake.”
    Younger smiled. “Feeling a little predatory, are we?”
    “She’s a family friend, and a kid who’s deeply upset about her brother and father. I’m not going to take advantage of her emotions.”
    “Good on you, mate,” Younger nodded approvingly as he went back to his computer. “Try to keep those noble thoughts in mind when she gets tired of waiting for you to be properly consoling, knocks you silly, and drags you off to a nice cozy cave.”
    Bulatt blinked, starts to say something, and then hesitated as Younger visibly recoiled from his laptop screen.
    “Bloody hell!”
    “What’s the matter?”
    “My latent query. I got a negative hit — no match to any of our linked databases.”
    “In thirty seconds? That was fast.”
    “Not just fast. Absolutely bloody impossible. My input generated an automatic full database scan, but there’s no way in hell our computers could have searched — ”
    The desk phone on the lamp table next to Bulatt’s chair suddenly rang loudly.
    Bulatt glanced curiously at Younger, who shrugged, and then picked up the handset.
    “Agent Bulatt?”
    “Who’s asking?”
    “Agent Smith. We need to talk.”
    “About what?”
    “Your recent latent query.”
    “You mean the recent query we made approximately one minute ago?” Bulatt asked, his voice turning cold and dangerous.
    “That’s correct. The Phuket Mariott coffee shop in one hour. Be there.”


    In the Phuket Mariott coffee shop
    Ged Bulatt and Pete Younger sat quietly at a small, isolated table at the rear of the coffee shop and watched as a broad-shouldered and tough-looking Caucasian man entered and walked straight to their table. Two similar-looking men followed, taking seats near the front door.
    “I’m Agent Smith. May I join you, gentlemen?” the tough-looking man asked.
    “Do we have a choice?”
    “There are other options. This one is easier for everyone concerned.”
    Bulatt gestured Smith to one of the empty chairs. For a long beat, the three men stared at each other.
    “And who might these other ‘concerned’ people be?” Younger finally asked.
    “People who are interested in the origins of that latent print.”
    “Why would they care?” Bulatt asked.
    “I can’t tell you that.”
    “Which actually tells us a lot,” Younger pointed out.
    Smith shrugged as if to acknowledge the obvious.
    “You’ve been monitoring us for a while, aware of our investigation into the Khlong shootings, waiting to see what we found,” Bulatt said matter-of-factly.
    “Actually, we’ve been monitoring the two of you ever since you took down the Captain of the Muluku.”
    Bulatt snorted derisively. “Are you suggesting that incompetent idiot was involved in the Khlong killings?”
    “I can’t talk about that.”
    Younger stared at Smith for a long moment, and then smiled.
    “Of course, it’s the Russians, isn’t it?”
    “What Russians?” Bulatt asked.
    “We had intel that a Russian drug smuggler named Gregor was using the Muluku as a cut-out for some of his transactions,” Younger said, “but we never got a lead on the guy.”
    “And you never will,” Smith said, “because he’s dead… along with his entire crew.”
    “How did they die?” Bulatt asked.
    “I can’t tell you that.”
    “Pure coincidence, of course,” Younger added, “that we’re looking for three former military-types who are quite good at killing people; one of whom carelessly left his fingerprint on a transmitter battery.”
    “You want to find them, and we want to know who they are,” Bulatt pointed out, “so let’s work together, share what we know.”
    “I can’t. Info can only go one way on this deal.”
    Bulatt sighs, pulls a cellphone out of his pocket, punches a couple of buttons and handed it to Smith. “Here, I think a Major Prethat wants to talk with you. He’s been listening in on a ‘remote’ line.”
    Smith stared at Bulatt, takes the phone, listens for a long moment, then slowly places the phone on the table.
    “I’m sure you have some kind of diplomatic immunity,” Younger suggested helpfully, “but you should also be aware that the Major has a one-track mind where shooting of Colonel Kulawnit is concerned. He’s not likely to care about that immunity.”
    “My guess is he rolls up your entire operation within the hour, then takes his sweet time in responding to your Embassy’s ‘query’” Bulatt added with a tight smile.
    Smith stared at the two men coldly for a few moments, and then sighed.
    “I can’t tell you much about them. They were in the Australian Special Air Service before they decided to free-lance their skills.”
    “With your Agency?”
    Smith ignored the question. “They excel at what they do, but not necessarily at staying on point.”
    “The Russian drug smugglers — ?”
    “Were apparently too tempting.”
    “What did they take?” Bulatt asked.
    “A yacht and a lot of cash.”
    “The Avatar?” Younger asked.
    Smith nodded silently.
    “So why are you after them?” Bulatt asked. “You can’t possibly care about dead drug smugglers and their missing assets.”
    “It doesn’t matter why, Agent Bulatt,” Smith said firmly. “You and your Interpol pals are getting in our way, and that's not going to be acceptable.”
    Bulatt seemed to consider that idea for a few moments.
    “You know,” he finally said, “I’d like to believe you really do intend to take these men down; and it’s really tempting to just step aside and let you do that.”
    Smith stared at Bulatt, saying nothing.
    “But if we did,” Bulatt went on, “you might decide to put them back to work, and that’s not going to be acceptable to us… or to Major Prethat.”
    Bulatt looked up to see flashing red lights outside.
    “And it looks like his internal affairs team has arrived for their heart-to-heart talk, so we’ll be leaving now.”
    “Oh, and may I suggest that you try not to become an ‘inconvenience’ to the Major, Agent Smith,” Younger said as he and Bulatt got up from the table. “He’s not likely to find that very amusing.”

    As Bulatt and Younger walked outside the Mariott hotel, they saw a tired-looking Achara Kulawnit in her Ranger Captain’s uniform, directing teams of SWAT-armed Rangers toward the front and back of the hotel lobby.
    Bulatt walked up to her as Younger responded to his beeping Blackberry.
    “I seriously doubt this was what the Major had in mind when he assigned you to our Interpol team,” he pointed out. “If nothing else, he probably expects you to get some sleep every now and then.”
    Achara smiled cheerfully. “The Major also expects me to keep you and Peter safe while you are in Thailand, and that is precisely what I am doing — protecting the two of you from this very dangerous man.”
    “And we thank you kindly for that,” Bulatt said seriously, trying to ignore the flashing gleam of amusement in Achara’s dark eyes. “Any chance you and Major Prethat can keep Agent Smith and his goons in protective custody for about twenty-four hours?”
    “I’m certain that can be arranged,” Achara said with a dimpled smile.
    “Good.” Bulatt turned to Younger. “And do you think you and Achara can watch out for each other, and stay out of trouble, if I make a quick trip to Oregon and Washington?”
    Younger smiled brightly. “No worries, mate.”
    “But why would you do that when so much is happening here?” Achara asked, looking puzzled.
    “I’m going to go meet with some very smart people who just might be able to help us put the pieces of this puzzle together.”


    Outside a private plane terminal — Bangkok International Airport
    Pete Younger, Major Prethat and Captain Kulawnit all watched as Agent Smith and his two men boarded a small private jet. Younger waited until they were all on board and the door was shut, then he reached for his cell phone and began typing:

    International Terminal — LAX Airport
    As Bulatt entered the International Terminal at LAX with his carry-on bag, he activated his shut-off Blackberry, read the message from Younger, and then smiled. Then he looked up and saw a pair of three-piece-suited men headed in their direction. The one seemingly in charge stepped forward in front of Bulatt and held out a set of FBI credentials.
    “Special Agent Gedimin Bulatt?”
    “That’s right.”
    “Sir, I’m FBI Special Agent in Charge Ted Grendel from the LA Office. Your boss apparently talked to my boss who ordered me to assist you in any way I can with your current assignment.”
    “Really?” Bullet cocked his head curiously. “Would that order possibly include seriously messing with an aggressively obnoxious Fed Spook who plans on tailing me around the country in the comfort of his private jet and interfering with my Interpol investigation… ideally delaying him here for a while… maybe twenty-four hours or so… and then letting him think I’m going up to Seattle?”
    The FBI SAC blinked, paused for a moment, and then smiled pleasantly. “That would be my pleasure, sir.”

    On the tarmac of the Private Plane Terminal at Ashland, Oregon
    As Bulatt stepped out of the FBI plane and onto the small tarmac of the Ashland Municipal Airport he saw a long-dark-haired young woman in a white lab coat approaching.
    “Special Agent Bulatt?” the young woman asked.
    “Yes, that’s right,” Bulatt nodded.
    “Great. Welcome to Ashland. I’m Juliana from the US Fish amp; Wildlife Forensics Lab. I know you planned on visiting with us first before going on to Seattle; but after talking with his Interpol friend — and apparently yours also — Pete Younger, our director thought you might want to see these right away.”
    She handed Bulatt a piece of paper and an envelope.
    “That is my lab report on the analysis of blood on a skinning knife taken from subject Carolyn Fogarty. I confirmed the blood as coming from a Bighorn Sheep,” the forensic scientist continued.
    “Could you match it to a specific trophy head?” Bulatt asked.
    “If you bring me the head, yes sir, I could.”
    “A second question. Did you receive the two Clouded Leopard carcasses from Bangkok?”
    “Yes, we received them yesterday morning.”
    “Wonderful.” Bulatt opened the envelope, read the message, and then turned to the FBI pilot standing at the doorway of their plane.
    “Can you guys stand by for another quick flight either late this evening or very early tomorrow morning… this time to Redmond?”
    “Hop, skip and a jump, sir.” The FBI pilot replied. “You’ve got my cell number. We’ll be ready to leave anytime you are.”


    The National Fish amp; Wildlife Forensics Laboratory, Ashland, Oregon
    Special Agent Gedimin Bulatt and Special Agent in Charge Fred Schweer sat in the main conference room of the National Fish amp; Wildlife Forensics Laboratory, and stared across the table at three white-lab-coated forensic scientists — Steve Hager, Donn Renwick and Juliana Ferreira — who sat calmly behind their individual stacks of lab notes and case files.
    They were all waiting with varying degrees of patience for the triangular conference-call system positioned in the center of the small conference table to ring back.
    Schweer, by far the least technically-astute member of the group, was staring at the no-longer-familiar-looking communication device like it might suddenly lunge out and bite him if he didn’t hit it first.
    In the time since their first call to Thailand that morning, the U.S. Fish amp; Wildlife Service Forensics Lab’s conference-call device had been significantly modified by the lab’s chief computer expert. There were now three separate electronic ‘black-boxes’ linked between the conference phone and the lab’s security phone line, and cross-connected with a dizzying array of cables; all three of which were rigged with big mushroom-like ON/OFF buttons that were all glowing a bright green.
    The instructions left by Linda Reston — the lab’s the decidedly distracted technical support chief — were simple and to the point:
    “If any one of those buttons turns red,” she’d said, meeting the gaze of every scientist and agent in the conference room, one at a time, “you hit it with your fist, immediately, and then come tell me about it. Any questions?”
    “If more than one button turns red, which one do we hit first?” Schweer had asked reasonably.
    “In the highly unlikely event that should happen, you immediately grab the phone line, rip it out of the wall, and then come tell me about it,” Reston had replied matter-of-factly before collecting up her tools and heading back to the lab’s Technical Support Section, where she had far more significant problems waiting.
    That had been a half hour ago. They were still waiting for the call-back.
    “Rip it out of the wall? Was she serious?” Schweer asked.
    “Yes, I’m sure she was,” Ferreira replied.
    “Definitely serious,” Hager added.
    “And since you’re the closest one to the phone line, you’re the one she’s going to blame if you don’t rip it out quickly enough and the hackers get into our servers during our call,” Renwick pointed out.
    Schweer seemed to contemplate that idea for a few seconds. “All of this really is your fault, you know,” he finally said to no one in particular.
    The three forensic specialists raised their eyebrows collectively.
    “Scientists, as a whole,” Schweer clarified, glaring at the white-coated figures, “definitely all your fault.”
    The three forensic specialists looked at each other and shrugged. None of them seemed particularly concerned about the comments being made by the SAC of Special Operations… mostly because he wasn’t in their chain-of-command, but also because they’d been hearing variations on that general theme all morning.
    “It’s true,” Schweer went on when he failed to get the hoped-for defensive response from the amused scientific specialists. “When I joined the Service, way back when, the life of a federal wildlife agent was pretty damned simple and straight-forward. Catch a guy with an over-limit of ducks, geese, deer, elk, bear, whatever; check his tags and license; write him up; petition the courts to revoke his hunting privileges; and then go on to the next guy. No pieces, parts and products to worry about; no hybridized species; no DNA testing complicating the issue of what the victim was or wasn’t; no god-damned computers for good ‘ol Bubba and his kids to hide their guide lists and jay-pegs in; and absolutely no god-damned spooks sticking their noses in our business where they don’t belong. Fact is, the way I see it, everything was going along just fine until you scientists started using all these expensive toys of yours to push the envelope.”
    The three white-coated scientists looked at each other again and shrugged agreeably.
    “Of course that was back when the agents and game wardens had to catch their suspects in the act or in possession — when they were still armed with a scoped rifle or shotgun, and were far more dangerous — because we didn’t have the tools and techniques to match the gut pile from a crime scene back to blood or tissue at the suspect’s house,” DNA specialist Juliana Ferreira reminded.
    “And that was before we had automated international fingerprint databases capable of matching a partial latent lift off a cartridge casing to a suspect from another state or country,” latent print specialist Steve Hager added.
    “And definitely before we had a computerized bullet and cartridge case system to link up firearms evidence from a single gun to poaching scenes all over the world,” firearms examiner Donn Renwick finished with a cheerful smile.
    “Not to mention the fact that if their lab director hadn’t pushed a whole bunch of envelopes, in between driving you duck-cops up the wall, you wouldn’t even have snooping crime scene investigators like me on the force, much less a wildlife crime lab capable of pissing off nosey spooks,” Bulatt pointed out helpfully.
    “A mixed blessing at best,” Schweer grumbled. “And speaking of the devil, what the hell was your boss doing in DC when all this started anyway? I thought he was supposed to stay here and keep you people from getting into trouble.”
    “As I understand the situation, he was back there trying to con the government into buying us some more expensive toys,” Ferreira replied.
    “So we can continue to push our envelopes, and make things more complicated for everyone; good guys and bad guys alike,” Hager added.
    “Which nobody told us included a bunch of spooks; but I don’t know that we really care, because that’s what we do for a living anyway,” Renwick finished with a cheerful smile. “No real problem to pick on them, too, while we’re at it.”
    “Using a couple of fourteen-year-old juvenile delinquents?” Schweer was starting to look apoplectic.
    “Well, no, not normally,” Renwick conceded. “But they’re better at it than we are, in their own area of expertise.”
    “Truly evil little bastards,” Hager agreed.
    “Fact is, after that first little incident, back when they were twelve, the boss never lets them anywhere near the lab any more — much less near any of our computers — because he doesn’t trust them,” Ferreira added.
    “Not that anyone else around here trusts them, either; specifically including their mother,” Hager pointed out.
    “You think your boss trusts them now?” Schweer sputtered.
    “No, probably not,” Renwick acknowledged, “I think he’s just pissed because the CIA and NSA crime lab directors back in DC slammed the doors in his face this morning when he tried asking for the latent print information nice and friendly-like; and then started ripping into our firewalls right after he left; so he decided to go nuclear.”
    “Nuclear?” Shweer’s eyes widened in alarm.
    “So to speak,” Ferreira shrugged.
    “Yeah, I just hope the kids don’t fry anything expensive, like one of those Cray’s,” Hager added. “Washington Office would probably try to take it out of our budget.”
    “What’s a Cray?” Schweer asked.
    “Supercomputer,” Renwick explained. “NSA buys them by the dozen.”
    “How much do they cost?”
    Renwick shrugged. “Depends on how many tera-flops you want.”
    “Flops, meaning operations per second, and tera meaning trillion,” Hager explained. “Basically, lots of very fast flopping.”
    “And the prices are coming down,” Ferreira pointed out. “The new ones only cost a couple hundred million, give or take.”
    “Those kids are going to try to fry a — ” Schweer couldn’t get the words out of his suddenly constricted throat.
    “Not fry, really,” Hager said. “More like tug on.”
    “Exactly,” Renwick nodded in agreement.
    “Tug on?” Schweer was definitely looking apoplectic now.
    “Yeah, think of a big tinker-toy structure, made up of lots of extremely powerful computers, all connected together three-dimensionally, and all sending out lots of little tentacles that try to probe at doors and brick walls,” Ferreira explained.
    “These kids are going to tug at a tentacle — ?”
    “Actually, if they can get a good grip on one, they’re probably going to try to rip it out by its roots,” Renwick corrected.
    “And then what?” Schweer’s mouth had dropped open.
    “Good question.” Renwick shrugged. “I imagine it’s going to hurt.”
    “Jesus — ”
    “Might as well face it, boss,” Bulatt said, leaning back in his chair and smiling at to his stunned boss, “you’re a technological dinosaur, at best, and I’m rapidly heading toward — ”
    The jury-rigged conference-call system rang, and Bulatt lunged for the ANSWER button.
    “Hello?” he queried.
    “Khun Ged?”
    “Hello, Achara, it’s good to hear your voice again.” Bulatt smiled pleasantly, ignoring the raised eyebrows and suspicious looks passing between the three forensic scientists and his SAC boss.
    “And good to hear your voice as well, Khun Ged. As you requested, I now have Biology Professor Chalermchai and Chief Narusan here as well, and we are now speaking on a secure Interpol line.”
    “Excellent,” Bulatt exclaimed happily. “Professor Chalermchai, Chief Narusan, I have here with me this morning my supervisor, Special Agent in Charge Fred Schweer, the commander of our Special Operations Branch; Dr. Juliana Ferreira, our chief geneticist; Donn Renwick, our senior firearms examiner; and Steve Hager, our senior latent print examiner. As I told Captain Kulawnit, I’m calling to make you aware of some things our forensics lab staff discovered with respect to your evidence, and make you aware of some other on-going issues as well. I’m going to ask Dr. Ferreira to speak first because her information, I think, is the most crucial.”
    Bulatt nodded to Ferreira who leaned in toward the speaker.
    “Professor Chalermchai,” Ferreira began, “the information I have involves the two Clouded Leopards that Agent Bulatt sent to us from Thailand. In examining the carcasses, and collecting samples for our analysis, we discovered that both animals have considerable numbers of nano-tube-based genetic probes in their blood and tissues. Are you familiar with these materials?”
    The men around the conference table could hear the Thai biology professor hesitate. “I’m familiar with the theory that nano-tube structures might, someday, be used as a transport mechanism for gene manipulation; but I’m not aware that such materials have actually been applied to wildlife populations.”
    “This is the first application we’ve seen, also,” Ferreira replied. “As I’m sure you’re aware, these nano-tube probes can easily pass through cell and nuclear membranes, including human skin; which makes them potentially very dangerous to the handlers. But, according to theory, the probes should be destroyed by the liver before they ever managed to escape the animal’s blood stream. Unfortunately, it seems that theory is no longer valid, because we found large numbers of the intact probes in the leopard’s saliva.”
    “Oh, dear,” Professor Chalermchai whispered.
    “On the positive side, based on the attached DNA segments, we believe these particular probes were specifically configured to increase the body mass of felines such as the Clouded Leopard. As such, they shouldn’t have any direct impact on humans; but as a safety precaution, we would strongly suggest you decontaminate your laboratory and any other facilities and personnel who might have come in contact with these animals as soon as possible. I faxed you the procedures we use for such situations a few minutes ago, and I’m sure there are several other neutralizing protocols that work equally well.”
    “Yes, thank you, Dr. Ferreira, I will see to that precaution immediately.” The sound of a scraping chair and then an opening door was audible to the men in the Ashland conference room.
    “Dr. Ferreira,” Achara Kulawnit broke in, “I gather from your comments that you believe these leopards were deliberately enhanced in size with an experimental genetic probe, and I understand from Professor Chalermchai that such research is not being conducted anywhere in Thailand. As such, do you have any idea where these leopards might have come from?”
    “No, I don’t,” Ferreira replied, “but we’re assuming, for the moment, that the leopards were brought into Thailand and let loose in the Wildlife Preserves by the suspect guides in this case. I’ve put out confidential queries to a few of my trusted geneticist colleagues to see if we can figure out who might have jumped the gun on this experimental technology, hopefully without alerting the perpetrator in the process. I’ll contact you and Professor Chalermchai the moment I hear anything of interest.”
    “Yes, please do. Thank you.”
    “Captain Achara,” Bulatt broke in, “Steve Hager, our latent print expert, has some information that may be of use to you and the Chief.”
    Bulatt nodded to Hager who leaned in toward the speaker.
    “Yes, I wanted you both to know that I processed all of the internal component parts of the M4 carbine and flashers that agent Bulatt brought to us from Thailand. And I’m sorry to say that I found no latent prints on any of the components. In fact, it’s fairly obvious from the oil smears that the individuals who handled the weapon — including disassembling and cleaning — wore gloves the entire time.”
    Achara sighed. “I suppose we should have expected these men to be careful about leaving incriminating evidence. I’m surprised they were so careless about that remote battery that Chief Narusan processed.”
    “I am too,” Hager agreed, “but I took that latent that the Chief found and sent electronic copies of it to several federal fingerprint database search engines. They all came back negative, which wouldn’t have been all that unusual, especially in an international case like this, except for the fact that one of the responses — the one from our Defense Department — came back almost instantaneously instead of hours later, like all of the others. I understand a similar situation occurred when Agent Younger sent that same print to his Interpol people.”
    “I’m sorry,” Achara said, “but I’m not sure I understand.”
    “Donn and I send out hundreds of queries to federal fingerprint and firearm databases every week, and we never get instant responses back,” Hager explained. “Probably because we’re working ‘bunnies and guppies’ cases that have a lower priority in the greater scheme of things; which is perfectly understandable, and fine with us, as long as we do get a response back within some reasonable time-frame. But in this case, the instant response seemed a little curious — not to mention suspicious — so we asked Linda Reston, our senior computer wizard to take a look at the response.
    “At this point, I’m going to let Donn explain what Linda found out,” Hager said, nodding to Renwick. “I’m talking a little over my head here.”
    “What Linda did was look at the packet-distribution data that’s attached in a ‘behind-the-scenes’ manner to every e-mail message traveling through the Internet,” Renwick said, leaning in toward the conference microphone. “When she didn’t like what she saw, she queried the chain of individual servers across the United States that received and transmitted the packets of data that comprised the response message.”
    “Yes, I understand that part,” Achara said. “What did she discover?”
    “That the message we received was an automated response from a fingerprint data search engine we’d never heard of, probably because it seems to be located within our National Security Agency; or, more likely, I suppose, at one of their off-site facilities.”
    “Am I correct: you did say ‘search engine’ and not ‘database’?” Achara asked.
    “Yes, Linda was very specific about that,” Renwick replied. “She believes this is a system specifically programmed to look for a small subset of subjects.”
    “But it did send back a response as if it was a database?”
    “Yes, according to Linda, that’s correct. Only the response wasn’t sent back to us, it was sent back to the Defense Department search engine. What we got was a copy of the response, probably transmitted back to us accidentally — again according to Linda — because the DOD server that did the transmitting is no longer operational as of two hours ago. And, at this point, I’m talking over my head also.”
    “Uh, I don’t wish to be impolite, Mr. Renwick, but could I please speak to Linda directly?” Achara asked.
    “Yes, you could, except for the fact that approximately an hour and half hour ago, someone made a very determined and very professional attempt to penetrate the firewalls that protect our lab server systems,” Renwick replied. “At the moment, Linda and three of her sub-wizards are engaged in what sounds to us — if we’re interpreting her cussing and their activities correctly — like electronic warfare.”
    “This sounds terribly serious,” Achara said quietly, the concern audible in her transmitted voice.
    “Serious enough that Linda asked and received permission from our lab director to bring her fourteen-year-old twins in to help,” Hager commented.
    “Her own children… really?” There was a pause. “Are they, uh, sufficiently experienced to help defend against a professional probe?”
    “Actually, their forte doesn’t seem to be defense,” Ferreira corrected.
    “Oh.” Another pause. “Is your lab director authorized to do something like that, against another federal agency?”
    “I don’t think he asked,” Renwick said. “I gather he’s still a little irritated at the moment. I’m sure the shit will hit the proverbial fan at some point; but I guess that’s what he gets paid for.”
    “Then I suppose we should assume this conversation is being monitored?” Achara asked after a moment.
    “I don’t think so,” Renwick said. “According to Linda, your call-back was linked through an encrypted Interpol line at our end that would take NSA and their supercomputers several years to break into; and she also made some alterations to our conference phone which she claims will send out an extremely high frequency jamming signal that should fry any unauthorized device that attempts to link into our conference call. I probably should explain that we stole Linda from the CIA a couple of years ago, and she looked pretty pissed — but also pretty determined — when she was working on our conference phone, so I assume she knows what she’s doing.”
    “And the twins?”
    “As of fifteen minutes ago, they were working side-by-side at a pair of terminals next to their mom’s workstation, and occasionally whispering to each other. I assume she’s keeping an eye on them; but, to tell you the truth, I don’t think any of us really want to know,” Hager said.
    “But, in the meantime, Captain Kulawnit,” Bulatt broke in, “on the assumption that we may be dealing with a rogue element within the intelligence community, we’re going to try a more conventional approach to resolving the issue.”
    “Really, what’s that?”
    “We believe the security clearance my boss — Special Agent in Charge Schweer — holds will be high enough to give him access to that latent print information we’re requesting if he makes direct contact with the appropriate people at our Pentagon and our National Security Agency.”
    Schweer leaned toward the conference phone.
    “Yes, that’s correct, Captain Kulawanit,” Schweer confirmed. “I’m flying back to Washington DC later this morning in an attempt to do just that. And if I discover my clearance level isn’t sufficient, I assure you that I’ll find someone with the necessary clearance if I have to go all the way to the Director of the Fish and Wildlife Service himself. No government agency should be attempting to hack into our federal crime lab servers; and I seriously doubt that any individual in our military forces — active, retired or otherwise — has been authorized to shoot at Thai Rangers, much less a member of Interpol. Someone will give us that information.”
    “That’s wonderful, Agent Schweer,” Achara said somberly. “We will all be most grateful for your efforts.”
    “Perfect job for a guy with a T-Rex personality,” Ferreira stage-whispered to Hager, who grinned and nodded in agreement.
    “What was that?” Schweer growled, glaring at the two scientists.
    “Ah, I was suggesting to Mr. Hager that I’m sure the intelligence community will be looking forward to your arrival, sir.” Ferreira smiled cheerfully.
    “And, finally,” Bulatt broke in again before the playful forensic harassment of his boss got out of control, “I wanted you to hear from Donn Renwick, our firearms expert, regarding his work in this case.”
    Renwick replaced Schweer at the microphone.
    “Yes, Captain Kulawanit, Chief Narusan, Donn Renwick here. First of all, I want you to know that ran a background check on that M-Four carbine and determined that it was manufactured in the United States on October twenty-fourth, two-thousand-and-four, for our Military Special Forces Command. The weapon was officially transferred to Afghanistan on March seventh, two-thousand-and-five, as part of a re-supply drop for our troops hunting down bin-Laden; and was never heard from again, until a few days ago.”
    “Are you saying our suspects may be American Special Forces personnel?” Achara asked, sounding shocked.
    “Not necessarily,” Renwick replied. “Several of our allies dispatched Special Forces or Commando teams to Afghanistan in two-thousand-and-five, many of whom had access to U.S. weaponry; and I have no doubt our soldiers distributed U.S. weapons and ammunition to NATO and friendly Afghan troops. And if you add to that all of the firearms lost or stolen during that conflict, there are clearly many ways this specific M-Four carbine could have ended up in the hands of your suspects.”
    “But would it be fair to say there’s an obvious link to soldiers with Special Forces training; especially considering the possible intelligence agency issues?”
    Renwick turned to Schweer with a shrug, as if to say ‘your bailiwick.’
    “Yes, that would seem to be the case,” Schweer said into the microphone. “I’ll have our office run a link analysis; but I think it’s fair to say the information we have so far corresponds nicely with Chief Narusan’s crime scene report.”
    “I think very much, yes, a professional soldier who did shooting,” Narusan agreed.
    “Also,” Renwick went on, “I helped Steve disassemble the rifle for latent print processing… and, in doing so, examined the individual parts fairly closely. Apart from some corrosion and recent impact damage, the weapon was well-maintained and otherwise in excellent condition, with very little wear on the bolt, chamber, barrel and firing pin. In my opinion, it hadn’t been fired very often; possibly only a few dozen rounds.”
    “Use once, throw away; very smart, very professional.” Chief Narusan chuckled audibly.
    “Yes, I think the Chief is correct on all counts,” Renwick said. “It’s probably not likely that we’ll ever be able to match this rifle to any other crime scenes; but I entered the bullet and cartridge data into NIBIN anyway, just to be safe.”
    “Thank you very much for your efforts, Mr. Renwick; and all the rest of you as well,” Achara said. “It seems we are making some progress on this investigation, after all. If nothing else, we are certainly ruffling some powerful feathers.”
    “A couple more things, Captain Achara,” Bulatt broke in again. “First of all, I think we may have located the manufacturer of the flashers found on the Clouded Leopards and at Tanga Island. I’m going to be checking on them tomorrow morning, and I’ll let you know what I find out as soon as I can.”
    “Excellent. That would be very helpful for us,” Achara replied.
    “Also,” Bulatt went on, “one of our lab’s electronics experts took a look at the photos you sent of the internal mechanisms of that remote transmitter. As best they can tell, with a nine-volt battery, the device should only be capable of activating flashers within a hundred-meter range. But they also say there’s no reason why the Chief couldn’t construct a new transmitter with much more power that operates on the same frequencies. It occurred to me that you might have other animals in your Wildlife Preserves with similar flashers attached to their necks — or, perhaps, a hidden stockpile of the flashers — that such a device might help locate, much to the dismay of our suspects. I asked our expert to fax the relevant technical information to the Chief at your office, and I believe he’s already done so.”
    Chief Narusan laughed delightedly. “Yes, very good idea, Kuhn Ged. I will make new transmitter right away; easy to do.”
    “I believe that’s all we have at the moment, Captain Achara,” Bulatt spoke into the microphone, and then looked quickly around the conference table. “Anything else, guys?”
    “One more thing for the Chief,” Renwick said. “We’re assuming our wealthy hunter used an expensive rifle on his Thai hunt that he’s not likely to throw away after every illegal kill. As such, during your continuing search for evidence, we hope you can find an expended bullet or cartridge casing from this weapon that we can enter into our NIBIN system.”
    The sound of muted and otherwise unintelligible conversation back and forth could be heard through the sensitive conference phone speaker for a few seconds. Then Achara voice came back on the air.
    “Chief Narusan has asked me to inform you that — in addition to his temporary assignment as my primary crime scene examiner — he was recently designated the official CSI officer for his ship, the Sawaeke Pinsinchai. And as such, the Chief wants me to assure you that he will find these items if he has to search the entire southern peninsula of Thailand on his hands and knees, meter by meter. And with that, gentlemen, we wish you well in your endeavors, and bid you goodbye; the Chief and I have work to do.”


    In a helicopter over the Khlong Preserve
    As Captain Achara Kulawnit smoothly piloted the blacked-out military surveillance helicopter fifty feet over the treetops of the massive Khlong Preserve with her night-vision goggles, a similarly equipped Chief Narusan monitored the bright-green lit forest from his copilot seat. Underneath the helicopter, mounted to its landing skid, Narusan’s jury-rigged — but extremely powerful — flasher-activating transmitter pulsed steadily.
    They had almost completed covered the western edge of the Preserve with four successive passes when Narusan suddenly yelled out and then pointed at a distant burst of light — a flash that quickly steadied out into a rhythmic pulsing.
    As Narusan carefully read out coordinates from a map into his helmet mike, transmitting the information to their ground team, Achara turned the helicopter toward the flashing light.

    At a landing site in the Khlong Preserve
    Ten minutes later, Achara landed the surveillance helicopter in a clearing near a pair of jeeps that were lighting the landing site with their crossed headlights. She and Narusan hopped out of the chopper and ran to one of the jeeps.
    After a brief discussion about who was in charge of the operation that left no doubt in anyone’s mind, Achara jumped into the driver’s seat, yelled at everyone — specifically including Chief Narusan — to hold on, then accelerated out of the landing area, leaving the former jeep driver guard the helicopter.

    In a jeep in the Khlong Preserve
    Captain Achara Kulawnit continued to accelerate the four-wheel-drive Cherokee jeep through the deep muddy ruts of a tree-lined dirt road leading into the western section of the Khlong Saeng Wildlife Preserve, pushing her battered Thai Forestry Police patrol vehicle — and the two others following closely behind — to their limits of their engines and headlights because she sensed they were finally on to something that might give her access to the killers who had dared to strike at her brother and father and fellow Rangers.
    Next to her in the front passenger seat, Chief Narusan — seemingly oblivious to the police captain’s manic driving — read a map with a flashlight and monitored an electronic tracking device mounted on the jeep’s dash while Colonel Kulawnit’s two re-assigned bodyguards held onto the overhead safety straps with one hand and their M4 carbines with the other.
    In the second jeep, the Ranger lieutenant — who had started out in charge of this raid team — in the front passenger seat and the senior sergeant behind the steering wheel chuckled approvingly at the driving skills of Colonel Kulawnit’s famously aggressive daughter, while the three constables stuffed into the back seat simply held on.
    In the trailing jeep, the junior sergeant in the front passenger seat chided his corporal — a lesser-skilled driver — to go faster while the second trio of constables in the back seat rolled their eyes and prayed.
    Every few seconds, Captain Achara Kulawnit briefly took her eyes off the road to check her odometer.
    At the 5.8 kilometer mark, she slowed down, made a sharp left turn onto a very narrow mud trail just barely wide enough for the jeep to slip through, and followed a crossed-over set of old tire tracks for another thirty seconds until she came to a small, chain-sawed clearing in front of an old maintenance storage shed.
    Achara brought the jeep to a sliding stop in front of the shed, shut off the engine, and then turned to Narusan; only vaguely aware that the driver of the trailing jeep had taken up a blocking position on the road, and that her newly assigned bodyguards and all of the uniformed Rangers were rapidly taking up protective positions around her jeep, carbines and assault rifles aimed outward and at the ready.
    Major Preithat had made one thing very clear to the assault team members: anyone who allowed Captain Achara Kulawnit to be injured in her search for the killers of their fellow Rangers would answer to the Colonel personally; an unthinkable possibility that the Colonel’s two hardened, chastened, re-assigned and now coldly furious bodyguards informed the other uniformed Rangers would simply not happen. They would all die first; an admonition firmly echoed by the assault team’s senior sergeant who had been a close friend of Sergeant Tongproh.
    “Where do we go now?” Achara asked, the controlled anger in her voice matching the fierce expression in her dark eyes.
    The Chief Petty Officer consulted his electronic device and map once more, and pointed with his open left hand at a distant point in the trees off to their left. Then, having done so, he set the map and electronic device aside, pulled an IR-filtered flashlight out from under the seat, and then reached up and snapped the night-vision goggles over his eyes. Achara did the same.
    Outside, one at a time, the two uniformed sergeants directed the highly-trained members of their assault team to put on and activate their own night-vision gear.

    On foot in the Khlong Preserve
    They went in a single file, Chief Narusan and the senior sergeant in the lead, closely followed by Achara and her two mothering bodyguards, and backed up by the corporal and two constables. The junior sergeant and the other four constables maintained a rear-guard position around the shed and jeeps.
    Twenty yards into the dense forest, everyone paused while Narusan pulled a small transmitter out of his jacket pocket and pressed the center button. Instantly, off to their right and deep in the trees, a periodically-flashing firefly became faintly visible.
    “Ha, good CSI!” the chief exclaimed to the senior sergeant, smiling broadly.
    Using the flickering light as a guide — the senior sergeant, Achara and her two bodyguards probing their way with long sticks to scare off lurking snakes and predators while Narusan kept the distant flasher in sight, and the three trailing Rangers monitored their flanks with forefingers softly brushing against the trigger guards of their rifles — the assault team slowly and methodically worked their way through the trees, brush, fronds and clinging vines until, finally, they came to a small, machete-cut, ten-foot-square clearing that was already starting to be covered over and filled with new plant growth.
    Above their heads, the newly-awakened flasher originally attached to the extended tree limb by Quince Lanyard pulsed cheerfully; the intermittent bursts of light clearly revealing the irregular squares of sod beneath the new forest growth that hadn’t quite grown back together yet.
    Moments later, roles reversed, Achara, the senior sergeant and the two bodyguards maintained a watchful vigilance while Chief Narusan and the three uniformed Rangers got down on their hands and knees to dig up chunks of sod, tear away lengths of board, and cut away sections of black plastic tarp under the blinding greenish glare of eight IR-filtered flashlights that had been secured to surrounding tree limbs and branches.

    Fifteen minutes later, Captain Achara Kulawnit stood at the edge of the six-by-six-by-eight-foot-deep hole and stared silently down at the pair of twisted bodies at the bottom partially covered by machete-chopped lengths of bamboo.
    Beside her, Chief Narusan was carefully arranging a pair of machetes, three back-packs, three scoped hunting rifles in waterproof cases, two tied plastic bags filled with shredded paper, several cut-up handfuls of thin nylon cord, and three separate piles of chopped bamboo sections — divided into the piles by length — on a clean tarp that he’d brought along for just this purpose.
    As Achara Kulawnit continued to stare down at the twisted bodies, the anger in her heart growing, Narusan paused in his inventorying to pick up and examine the four sections of thick bamboo that had been sharpened at one end and visibly hammered on at the other end. All four of the sharpened ends had clearly been driven into soft soil to a depth of about six inches.
    “What are you doing?” she asked, forcing herself to look away from the bodies.
    “Thinking CSI,” the chief explained as he continued to examine the cut ends of the bamboo. “Khun Ged said a good crime scene investigator should always think about what he sees; not just collect, package and tag evidence like a robot.”
    “Do those pieces of bamboo tell you something?”
    “Maybe… yes, I think so,” the chief nodded firmly.
    “That’s good,” she said as she reached into her jacket pocket for her satellite phone, “we definitely need to know more than we do right now.” Sighing, she selected a rarely-used number from the phone’s menu, thumbed the TALK button, and then waited patiently for the satellite relays to make the connection.
    Finally, a familiar voice answered. Major Preithat’s wife, sounding very sleepy.
    “This is Captain Achara Kulawnit,” she spoke into the phone. “I apologize for calling so late, but may I speak to Major Preithat?” A pause. “Yes, I’m sure he’s very tired, but please wake him anyway. Tell him it’s very important.”


    Redmond, WA
    The Hood Electronics building was located in an older industrial section of Redmond, Washington, just west of the Sammamish River and about three miles north of the far more spectacular Microsoft facilities. According to King County records, the one-story cement block structure had been built thirty-six years ago, and had five previous owners — all electronic manufacturing operations that had quickly gone out of business.
    But from Special Agent Gedimin Bulatt’s perspective, the grey and purple paint on the building looked new; the surrounding parking lot for employees and visitors had recently been resurfaced and striped; there were forty-two cars in the lot — almost all relatively new and well-cared-for — taking up almost half the parking spaces; and the Plexiglas sign high over the main entrance looked modern and intriguing.
    Must have found yourself an interesting and profitable niche in the electronics manufacturing business, Mr. Rightmore, Bulatt thought as he put down his telephoto-lens-equipped digital camera. Can’t wait to find out what that might be.
    Bulatt figured he had every right to be suspicious and skeptical of what appeared, on the surface, to be a perfectly normal light manufacturing company.
    In the past hour, a total of eight supposed customers had driven into the Hood Electronics parking lot, entered the building, and then departed ten-to-fifteen minutes later. The two individuals who had left with small packages in their hands displayed all the outward signs of being biologists or naturalists. The remaining six — actually three separate pairs, all of whom had left empty-handed — looked and acted, as far as Bulatt was concerned, like federal agents or cops.
    Especially the last two — the ones he’d just photographed — who gave the distinct impression of being off-duty members of a SWAT team; as well as men who put a lot of emphasis on their weight training, aggressive demeanors, and constant sweep-checks of their surroundings.
    Surprised you guys aren’t wearing bright red SWAT t-shirts with eight-inch-letters on the front; which actually wouldn’t be a bad idea, Bulatt thought as he made a few more notations in his field notebook, not liking what he was seeing at all.
    The federal, state and local law enforcement academy lectures were routinely filled with horror-story examples of how things could go terribly wrong when undercover investigators from completely different or isolated agencies suddenly found themselves converged on a single suspect or location; having no idea that anyone else was in the immediate area.
    It was a relevant concern to Bulatt because he was reasonably sure there were at least two identifiable federal agencies among those three sets of supposed customers; both of whom were known for keeping their shooting review boards very busy.
    Wonderful, just wonderful, Bulatt muttered to himself as he tapped his fingers contemplatively against his field notebook, checked his watch again, and then stared out across the parking lot. Now what?
    The ideal solution would have been to maintain his position for another hour or so, observing and photographing the apparently steady stream of clients who did business with Hood Electronics; and thereby, ideally, gain some sense of what was going on before he inadvertently stepped into some kind of cops-and crooks crossfire.
    But it was one-fifty-five in the afternoon, he was still recovering from jet-lag, and his appointment with the owner of Hood Electronics was for 2:00 PM. It was also starting to rain steadily now, which would make viewing and photographing through the windows of his rented van increasingly difficult. And if the temperature dropped another couple of degrees — as it likely would — the rain would turn to snow, which would make covert photo surveillance in an open parking lot virtually impossible anyway.
    And just to make things more interesting, the two likely SWAT team guys were still sitting in their dark blue van, about half-way between his position and the building… and there was at least one other van with dark-tinted windows in the parking lot that seemed to be occupied
    … and a new green truck rigged with an over-the-cab camper unit in the warehouse was parked across the street, about a hundred yards away, at an odd angle, and generally looking out-of-place among a half-dozen much-older cars and trucks.
    All of which told Bulatt that he’d probably been under surveillance from the moment he’d driven into the Hood Electronics parking lot.
    The question was: by whom?
    He was tempted to pick up his cell phone, call Mr. Rightmore’s secretary, and ask to change his appointment; but he knew that might make things even worse.
    If he was right about the general occupations of the supposed Hood Electronics customers, it was likely that one or more of the interested parties would follow him back to his hotel room — probably using a team and vehicle he hadn’t seen yet — and monitor his activities until they finally figured out he was a covert federal wildlife agent working a Clouded Leopard case with other Interpol officers.
    Which wouldn’t be all that big of a deal, all things considered, as long as one of those interested parties isn’t a group of extremely dangerous international hunting guides who probably have special ops training and weapons; and may be looking to replenish the flashers they’d lost at Tanga Island a few days ago, Bulatt thought morosely.
    Sighing to himself, Bulatt placed his wallet, camera, field notebook, 40-caliber Sig Sauer pistol, extra magazines, badge and credentials into an extremely sturdy titanium camera case that couldn’t be opened easily without either the combination or some serious metal-working tools; took out his covert wallet; locked the case; slid it behind his seat; picked up a small zipped black nylon satchel; then got out of the van, locked the door, ducked his head away from the wind-driven rain, and began walking toward the brightly-painted building.
    In doing so, he was able to ignore the seemingly empty dark blue van parked about ten spaces ahead and to his right.
    At the building entrance, he paused to take a final look around the parking lot, acting as if he’d been waiting impatiently all this time for someone else to arrive. Then he pulled the door open and walked inside.
    The receptionist at the front counter looked up expectantly with a pleasant smile. “Yes, may I help you?”
    “Hello, I’m Dr. Drew Pratt.” Bulatt handed her one of his covert business cards that listed him as a research biologist for the state of Idaho. “I have an appointment to see Mr. Rightmore this morning.”
    The receptionist checked her schedule.
    “Yes, here you are; Dr. Pratt, nine A.M. Just a moment please.” She picked up a phone, punched in a two-digit number, waited a moment, then said “Mr. Rightmore, I have a Dr. Pratt here to see you. Yes, sir, I’ll send him right in.”
    The receptionist looked back up at Bulatt. “If you’ll go inside that door, and walk down the hallway,” she said, pointing to the doorway on her left, “Mr. Rightmore will meet you there.”

    At the end of the hallway, as promised, Bulatt was met by a non-descript man in his mid-fifties — wearing casual deck shoes, khakis, and a buttoned-down collared shirt — who could have been, believably, anything and anyone from a grown-up electronics nerd to a covert operative nearing mandatory retirement.
    “Dr. Pratt,” the man said, offering a firm but welcoming hand-shake, and then gesturing for Bulatt to follow him inside a large room that looked like a rarely-cleaned electronics research lab. “I’m Bill Rightmore. Welcome to my playground. I understand you’re interested in some of our tracking devices. How can I help you?”
    “Well, I was hoping you could tell me if these flashers were made by your company; and, if so, anything at all about the people who might have purchased them,” Bulatt said as he unzipped the black nylon satchel, pulled out one of the flashers from Tanga Island, and one of the collars that had been cut off the two Clouded Leopards found by the Thailand wildlife authorities.
    He handed the two items to Rightmore, and then zipped the satchel closed and placed it on a nearby layout table top.
    Rightmore set the collar aside on a stainless-steel-topped workbench, placed the flasher under the lens of a dissecting microscope, and began to examine it closely.
    “Yes, this is definitely one of our flasher units,” Rightmore confirmed, looking up from the microscope, “a WB-7E, our latest and most expensive model. We’re actually quite proud of these new units. They’re quite small, as you can see; but still capable of sending out a pulsed signal in the IR, UV and visual bands of the spectrum in addition to the standard UHF and VHF frequencies. They’re also self-charging by solar cell; and can be adjusted as to signal output, duration and start/stop time by a remote transmitter. And this — ” he picked up the severed and still-blood-stained collar with attached flasher, “- appears to be an interesting modification of a WB-7E.”
    Rightmore examined the collar unit more closely for a few seconds. “Yes, definitely a WB-7E, with a larger solar cell re-charger and battery mounted on the collar.” Then he looked up at Bulatt. “May I ask where you obtained it?”
    “One of our maintenance workers found it on a big cat that had been shot in one of our state parks,” Bulatt said. “Apparently, someone had been tracking it for some purpose; but it definitely wasn’t one of our biologists or wardens. That’s why we’re hoping you’d be able to link us to whoever’s using your devices in our area.”
    Rightmore seemed to consider the idea for a few seconds.
    “We may be able to give you some leads; but — as you probably noticed — we don’t put serial numbers on these particular devices, so tracking them back to a specific individual really isn’t possible. However, this collar modification might give us something to go on. There aren’t many people working in this specific field of research, and most of us know do each other. Would, uh, these people be in some sort of trouble?”
    “Oh, I don’t think so,” Bulatt said. “We were going to turn the devices over to our law enforcement folks, and let them deal with whatever hunting violations might be involved. But, to tell you the truth,” Bulatt dropped his voice slightly, “these trackers are far better than anything we’ve got in our inventory, and we’re kind of hoping we can work out some kind of cooperative arrangement with whoever’s using them in our park. You know, sharing data, that sort of thing. I, uh, assume the WB-7E’s are pretty expensive?”
    “A hundred-and-ten each; with a fifteen-percent discount in orders of ten or more,” Rightmore nodded, shrugging apologetically. “We’d certainly like to make them more affordable; but the multi-phase transmitter chips we’re using to regulate the output signal are still very expensive, even when we buy them in thousand-unit lots.”
    Bulatt grimaced and then sighed. “I was afraid the situation might be something like that; they’re definitely way out of our budget, as usual.”
    Rightmore smiled sympathetically.
    “I guess you probably hear that a lot from the state research biologists here in Washington, too,” Bulatt went on. “It’s been a constant battle trying to get the state fish and game agencies in the Northwest to properly fund basic wildlife research these last few years.”
    “We do get a lot of queries from the states,” Rightmore said. “And, on occasion, we have been able to come up with much less expensive devices that more-or-less meet their needs.”
    “Then you must have to put up with a local friend of mine, Dr. Philip Rainier, on a fairly regular basis.” Bulatt smiled. “Phil’s pretty much a legend in the Northwest animal behavior research community; jury-rigs tracking devices with just about anything he can get his hands on that possesses an electronic pulse.”
    “Dr. Rainier has stopped by a few times in the past,” Rightmore acknowledged, “but I don’t believe we’ve seen him recently.”
    “Probably just as well. Knowing Phil, he probably took one look at your gear, and then spent the rest of his visit trying to figure out how he could pry your back door without setting off the alarms.”
    “Actually, we’ve enjoyed his occasional visits. You could always count on him to come up with some innovative approaches to data collection; but we did have to keep a close eye on him around the stockroom,” Rightmore acknowledged with a seemingly amused shrug.
    “Well, for better or worse, he did finally retire; almost a year ago now,” Bulatt said. “I understand he spends most of his time now fishing in Oregon with his two grandkids.”
    “Heard a lot about those kids over the years,” Rightmore said. “Good for Phil, couldn’t happen to a more deserving fellow.” Then he looked back down at the flashers and collar. “As for these units, our chief design engineer will be back in the office tomorrow. Perhaps, if you could leave them with me for a couple of days, he may be able to give you a lead on your lion trackers.”
    “Actually, I’d like to,” Bulatt said as he walked over to the workbench, picked up the flasher and collar, put them back into the nylon satchel, and zipped it closed, “but I’ve already promised to show them to a group of Northwest park managers at a coordination meeting in Olympia tomorrow. But, if you don’t mind, I would like to bring them back later — maybe in a couple of days — so we can try to get a lead on their owners? I really hate to give up on a potential equipment-sharing opportunity.”
    Bulatt caught a brief flash of annoyance in Rightmore’s expression, but it quickly disappeared as the electronics researcher nodded his head agreeably.
    “That would be fine, of course. We’re always happy to try to help potential customers, even if their resources are a bit limited.”
    Bulatt shrugged. “Actually, it’s been my experience that people with limited resources can always find ways to solve problems, as long as they’re willing to work together.” Bulatt picked up the satchel and extended his hand. “Mr. Rightmore, I really do appreciate your help in this matter.”
    “Not at all,” Rightmore said as he led Bulatt back down the hallway to the reception area. “And please, the next time you hear from Dr. Rainier, please give him my regards.”
    “Yes,” Bulatt said, “I’ll certainly do that.”

    “Gecko-Two to Gecko-One.”
    “Gecko-One, go.”
    “You called it right on the money, boss,” Quince Lanyard spoke into his throat mike as he adjusted the range and focus of his spotting scope to bring the dark blue van back into focus. “The place is crawling with bleedin’ coppers; you’d think they were holding a convention.”
    “Any idea who we’re dealing with?”
    “Not at this distance. With weather conditions the way they are, we’re doing good to pick out the bloody vehicles; but they’re definitely using spotter teams. We’re set up in a warehouse parking lot across the road, maybe a hundred meters out. The rain’s a bit of a bitch, so we’re not getting much in the way of usable photos; but I wouldn’t want to chance trying to get in any closer just yet. We’re counting at least three teams on the watch, and it looks like they’re working staggered eight hour rotations. If that’s the case, we can bloody well forget about re-supplying the larder.”
    “That’s all right, we can make do with what we’ve got for a while,” Wallis replied. “I don’t see how they’re going to be of much use on this next job anyway.”
    “Actually, that’s one of the reasons I checked in. Our lad, Jack-o, may have come up with a clever solution to our problem.”
    Lanyard could hear the amusement in Wallis’ voice.
    “Thing is, I think his plan is fucking brilliant, unlikely as that might seem,” Lanyard went on, giving Gavin a broad wink. “And since there’s not much of interest going on around here, I thought — ”
    “Give it another hour, in case the weather clears, and then bring it in,” Wallis agreed. “We need to talk.”

    It was raining even harder when Bulatt stepped outside the Hood Electronics entrance and started walking toward his rented van, wondering how he was going to play this latest bit of interesting information.
    Thirty seconds later, as he was walking past the dark blue van, he had his answer.
    One of the SWAT types suddenly stood up between two nearby cars, walked casually over into the driving lane and placed himself in Bulatt’s path, both hands folded casually in front of his belt.
    Bulatt stopped, cocked his head curiously, glanced back to confirm that the second member of the team had taken up position six feet behind him, and then turned his attention back to his first confronter.
    “Can I help you?” Bulatt asked.
    “We’d like to see what you’ve got in the bag.”
    “Really? Why would that be any of your business?” Bulatt asked reasonably.
    “We don’t have to give you a reason,” the first man said matter-of-factly.
    “Are you planning on showing me a badge, or maybe a set of credentials, along with a signed search warrant?”
    “No, I’m not.”
    “Well, in that case, whatever I’ve got in this bag is definitely none of your business,” Bulatt said with a slight smile and shrug. “So, if you’ll excuse me — ”
    Bulatt heard the man behind him coming in fast, glanced back, saw the sap arcing toward his head, reflexively turned as he tossed the satchel aside, and deflected the potentially lethal blow with a sweeping right forearm block. Then — because he sensed the front man moving in just as fast — he brought his right leg up, twisted his hips sideways, drove his right boot sharply down into the side of his rear assailant’s knee with a ki-yi yell that completely masked the crunching sound of bone against bone.
    Continuing his hip-twisting, counter-clockwise spin-move, Bulatt slammed his right forearm solidly into his rear assailant’s face; the brain-scrambling strike crushing the man’s nose and knocked him unconscious at the same instant, thereby cutting off his agonized scream in mid-shriek.
    Then, as his rear-assailant was still crumbling to the ground, Bulatt reversed his spin move, used a sweeping left forearm block to deflect his front assailant’s slashing fist strike and knock him sideways; caught the man’s wrist with both hands; pulled him forward off balance; and then drove a hip-snapping round-kick square into his solar plexus. The impact drove most of the air out of the muscular man’s lungs, and dropped him to his knees in shock.

    “Hold on,” Quince Lanyard said, suddenly shifting the focal point of his spotting scope over a few feet, zooming in, and then refocusing, “I think we’ve got something interesting going on out there after all.”
    “What is it,” Jake Gavin asked from the back of the camper, his head snapping up alert.
    “Not sure just yet, mate; but I think the copper’s are starting to have a go at each other.”
    “Bloody hell,” Gavin exclaimed as he scrambled up into the main camper bed, “let me see.”

    Reacting with reflexes honed from twenty-some years of martial arts and law enforcement training, Bulatt immediately stepped away from his two downed assailants — one now face down unconscious on the wet asphalt, and the other trying to regain his feet, red-faced and gasping for air — into a classic defensive stance.
    “You fucking… bastard — ” his front assailant managed to gasp out with what little air he’d managed to suck into his nearly-paralyzed lungs.
    “You really want to stay down,” Bulatt warned. “Don’t push it.”
    The struggling man looked like he was going to try to say something else. But then, with what appeared to be a super-human effort, he forced himself erect, lunged at Bulatt with his hands extended for what he probably intended to be a lethal throat strike; and then absorbed the full boot-sole impact of a leaping front kick that snapped his head back with a burst of blood from his split lips.
    Bulatt could have stepped back, allowing his front assailant to crumble to the ground next to his unmoving partner, and then resorted to far-less-violent control techniques to subdue and handcuff his assailants. Both men were badly hurt, and not really capable of causing any further grief at the moment.
    He considered the idea as he watched the big man stagger backwards, trying to maintain his balance on wobbling legs; and probably would have halted his counter-attack, had the man’s initial hand-strike not been attempted in such a savage and potentially lethal manner.
    And then, too, it occurred to Bulatt that the big fellow just might be useful in the serious discussion that was going to take place in the next few minutes.
    So, instead of showing mercy to a defeated opponent, he lunged forward into the man’s muscular chest with his shoulder, whirled to his left, driving his left elbow into the man’s ribs and sternum with another screaming ki-yi — shattering and separating left-side rib bones from cartilage; whirled back around sharply with his right elbow, causing precisely the same damage to the big man’s right rib cage and sternum; and then stepped back and away into the same defensive stance as the stricken man collapsed to the wet pavement in a unconscious heap.

    “Holy mother of God,” Jake Gavin whispered, his right eye glued to the spotting scope.
    “What’s the matter?” Quince Lanyard demanded.
    “He took them out, those big SWAT roosters, both of them, one-two, like they were a couple of snot-nosed kids.”
    “What? Let me see that scope,” Lanyard demanded, grabbing for the spotting scope.
    “I’m telling you, mate,” Gavin said as Lanyard fumbled to re-set the scope on the camper mattress, “I think that bloke could take our man Wallis on, straight up, hand-to-hand, and maybe even walk away with the silver cup.”
    “No fucking way,” Lanyard whispered, and then blinked in disbelief as he tried to focus the scope’s rain-blurred field on view on the two sprawled bodies in front of the dark blue van.
    “Maybe not; but you and I definitely want to be there to watch if the boss and that lad ever do square up.”

    Bulatt was moving quickly now, working on the assumption that his freedom of movement could start closing down at any moment.
    A search of the dark blue van’s rear storage compartment revealed a number of useful items, including a roll of nylon strapping tape, a six-foot length of heavy chain that was probably used to tow cars, a pair of heavy-duty padlocks, and several soft drink cans in a plastic ice chest filled with crushed ice and water.
    Bulatt used the strapping tape to tightly secure the hands of his rear assailant behind his back; taped his ankles together; dragged the limp body into the back of the van; turned him over and around so that he was lying face down with his head near the van’s rear double doors; checked to make sure he was breathing steadily; secured one end of the chain snugly — but not too tight — around the man’s thick neck with one of the locks; and connected the other end of the chain to the welded portion of the van’s rear bumper mount with the second lock.
    After gently closing the van doors against the chain, Bulatt used the strapping tape again to secure his front assailant’s hands behind his back, creating a strapping-tape hobble that would limit the extended movement any one foot to eighteen inches.
    Then he went back to his van to collect some of his gear, inserted a pair of electronic noise-suppressors in his ears, locked the satchel in the camera case, returned to the dark blue van, grabbed the now-semiconscious and softly-moaning man by his jacket collar, propped him up against the side of the van, set the soft drink cans aside, and then tossed the ice-water contents of the plastic chest into his face.
    The big man’s eyes flew open in shock; first from the sudden impact of the icy water, and then from the searing pains in his ribs and sternum that sent hot needles into his brain with every slight movement of his legs, arms and upper torso.
    “Okay, sport,” Bulatt said as he yanked the big man to his feet, and then held him steady until he finally stopped blinking in shock and gasping for breath, “now that we’ve come to a mutual understanding, I think it’s time we had a serious talk with some of your friends.”

    The receptionist looked up — first in surprise, and then in shock — as Bulatt shoved his bleeding and strapping-tape-secured assailant in through the front door entrance to Hood Electronics; and then proceeded to support and muscle the barely-conscious man past the reception counter toward the right-side door in staggering eighteen-inch steps.
    “Can I help — ?” the receptionist tried.
    “That’s all right, I’ll announce myself,” Bulatt said as he shoved his trussed-up assailant through the second door.
    Bill Rightmore was still holding the phone in his hand, trying to understand what his frantic receptionist was trying to tell him, when a big man — whose arms and feet were restrained by strapping tape — staggered through the closed swing-doors to his research lab and then collapsed to the floor; immediately followed by another familiar figure with a pistol in one hand and a federal agent badge case in the other.
    “What the hell — ?!” Rightmore started to demand, his right hand making a reflexive grab for a nearby drawer before Bulatt waved him off with the Sig Sauer.
    “Federal Agent,” Bulatt said calmly as he sat down on the edge of one of the lay-out tables, and placed his badge case back into his jacket pocket. “Move over by the doors.”
    “But — ?”
    “Do it now,” Bulatt ordered, calming aiming the Sig at the ashen electronics expert’s chest with his right hand while he pulled his Blackberry cell phone out of its belt holder with his left.
    “You won’t shoot me,” Rightmore tried as he began to move grudgingly toward the now-closed doors. “You can’t; I haven’t done anything to provoke you.”
    “Yes, you have… and yes, I can, Mr. Rightmore, because I consider you to be a very dangerous man; someone who is perfectly capable of going for a hidden weapon — as you tried to do just a moment ago — and making a lethal attempt on my life. That will be my testimony before the board of review; and, if necessary, on the witness stand. You, of course, won’t be testifying.”
    “But I am not — ”
    “Yes, you are. Pick him up,” Bulatt directed, motioning with the Sig at the taped man sprawled on the floor as he began working the Blackberry with his left index finger.
    “But — ”
    “Pick that man up and brace him against those doors, right now, Mr. Rightmore; or take a bullet in the knee, your choice,” Bulatt ordered as he selected the Blackberry’s CALL function. He could hear a commotion starting up in the distant reception room.
    “Listen to me, you don’t know what — !”
    The sound of heavy boots began to echo down the hallway.
    Bulatt shifted his aim to Rightmore’s left knee.
    “No! Wait! Don’t shoot… I’ll do it!”
    The heavy doors crashed open just as Rightmore managed to get Bulatt’s semi-conscious assailant standing upright; the left one slamming into Rightmore hard and sending both men tumbling to the floor. The re-bounding impact of the door knocked the first newcomer off-balance, causing him to stumble into his partner; whereupon both men tripped over the sprawled legs and arms of Rightmore and the still-unconscious parking lot assailant.
    By the time the two newcomers managed to regain their balance, they found themselves staring at the working end a Sig Sauer. 40-caliber semiautomatic pistol; and at a federal agent belt-badge visible under Bulatt’s open jacket.
    “Hello, this is Special Agent Gedimin Bulatt, of the U.S. Fish amp; Wildlife Service, requesting immediate assistance,” Bulatt said, watching the two newcomers as he spoke calmly into his Blackberry cell phone. “I’m in the office of a Mr. Bill Rightmore, the owner of Hood Electronics in the city of Redmond; and I’m holding a gun on three men, at least two of whom are visibly armed and presumably dangerous. There’s fourth man in the parking lot — in the back of a dark blue van — that I’ve chained to the trailer hitch, and probably a couple others on the perimeter.”
    There was a pause. “No, I’m fine here, but I would appreciate it if you’d send some officers by to check on the fellow in the van; make sure he’s ok. Yes, as soon as you can; but no, a code-run won’t be necessary. Yes, thank you.”
    Bulatt shut off the Blackberry, set it on the table, and then stared amiably at the two newcomers.
    “That was the local police dispatcher,” he explained. “There should be uniformed patrol officers arriving in the parking lot, oh, I’d say within three-to-four minutes, tops. I understand they’re pretty good about officer-needs-assistance calls around here, even when it involves the feds.”
    “You son-of-a-bitch,” first arriving newcomer whispered. Both of the casually-dressed men looked thoroughly pissed, and ready to go for the holstered weapons under their unzipped jackets at any second.
    “Yes, I agree; a truly nasty trick to play on a fellow fed, assuming that’s what you fellows really are,” Bulatt said. “But your two thugs out in the parking lot deserved what they got; and you will too if you don’t decide to start talking in the next couple of minutes.”
    “I’ll take Tommy with me, and drive him and Joe out of here with their van,” the second newcomer said to the first as he bend down and dead-lifted his bound and semi-conscious comrade to his feet. “You cover; this asshole’s not going to shoot.”
    “Not unless one of you does something really stupid, like go for a gun,” Bulatt agreed. “And I’m not even going to shoot if both of you decide to turn around and walk back out that door,” he added. “But I don’t think you’re going to want to do that without these.” He held up a pair of padlock keys.
    “Why would I need keys?” the second newcomer demanded. “I’ll just cut the fucking chain off.”
    “Possibly because it’s going to take you at least a half-hour to hack-saw your way through that chain, or the locks, assuming you manage to find a decent hacksaw with some extra blades,” Bulatt suggested, “and I’m guessing at least that long to find bolt-cutter big enough to do the job.”
    “You ever hear of a fucking blow torch?”
    “That ought to do the trick,” Bulatt agreed; “but don’t forget, if you do decide to use a torch, the heat transfer’s probably going to cook your buddy’s larynx before you complete the cut; even if you start at the hitch end of the chain. You’ll know it’s time to stop when he starts screaming, so you might keep a bucket of cold water handy.”
    The second newcomer blinked, and then stared at Bulatt uncertainly.
    “None of which really matters, or is even relevant,” Bulatt went on, “because you guys don’t have a half hour. I copied down the license plate of that very distinctive blue van; which means I can have a serious, multi-jurisdictional APB out on the street in five minutes or less if you both try to run. End result: I interrogate you guys down at the local police station sometime later today, under more formal conditions; but I don’t think you want that.”
    The second newcomer started to say something, and then hesitated.
    “What one of you really wants to do, and I really don’t care who,” Bulatt went on calmly, “is to go outside, unlock Joe from that bumper hitch, and get him — and, of course, Tommy, here — into one of your other vans and onto the freeway, as quickly as possible, and certainly before the cops get here, while the other one stays here and talks to me. And, just as a reminder, you are running out of time to make that decision.”
    “What keeps us from just taking Tommy and Joe out of here and telling you to go fuck yourself?” the first newcomer asked suspiciously.
    Bulatt shrugged. “Aside from the fact that I still have the upper hand, and might decide to shoot your ass at any moment,” he pointed out, gently waving the Sig, “I’d say the rapidly approaching cops; and, of course, Mr. Rightmore here, who isn’t leaving under any circumstances. He and I still need to talk.”
    “Mind if I call my supervisor?”
    “Be my guest.” Bulatt shrugged.
    The first newcomer carefully pulled the unzipped flap of his jacket open, clearly revealing a semi-automatic pistol secured in a well-worn shoulder holster; then slowly unclipped a cell phone from his belt, opened it up, thumbed a couple of buttons and brought the phone up to his ear and mouth.
    “Tomcat-two,” he said after a moment, “I’m in the lab. Turns out subject White is federal wildlife agent.” A pause. “No, actually, at the moment, we’re under his control.” He briefly summarized the situation, and then listened for a few seconds. “No, he’s not being cooperative at all.” He listened a few more seconds before saying: “yes, sir, will do.” He then set the still-open cell phone down on the table, and then turned to his partner.
    “Take Tommy out of here and link up with the boss. I’ll stay here,” the first newcomer directed, gesturing his head at Bulatt who agreeably tossed the keys to the second newcomer. They both watched the wiry but clearly muscular man hurriedly drag ‘Tommy’ out the door.
    “Okay, sport,” the first newcomer snarled as he suddenly whirled back toward Bulatt, “You and I are — ”
    The first newcomer’s hand — now wrapped around the grip of the shoulder-holstered pistol — was still coming clear of the jacket when three concussive explosions rocked the lab. Three hollow-pointed rounds struck the attacking newcomer center-of-chest, the impacts sending him staggering backwards and crumbling to the ground in agony.
    After waving his now-smoking pistol suggestively to keep the shocked and now speechless Rightmore in place, Bulatt walked over to the sprawled gunman, reached down and scooped up the dropped pistol, put it on the bench, and then used his right boot to turn the gasping and trembling man over onto his back.
    The man tried to ignore the painful damage to his chest, and get back up to his feet; but his eyes bulged in agony at the first attempt. After an even-less-effective second attempt, he remained on his back and glared helplessly at Bulatt — who briefly examined man’s reddened face for signs of shock, then bent down, picked up the dropped cell phone, and brought it up to his ear and mouth.
    “Hi,” he said calmly, “this is Special Agent Bulatt, AKA subject White; and no, I’m still not being cooperative.”
    “What just happened in there?” a familiar voice demanded.
    “Ah, Agent Smith, I believe. How odd that our paths should cross again. But to answer your question, your man here went for his gun, so I shot him.”
    “You… shot one of my men?!” ‘Agent Smith’ rasped in disbelief.
    “Three rounds, center of mass, three-inch group, in self-defense,” Bulatt replied matter-of-factly. “Good thing you guys bought the expensive vests instead of the cheap shit. He was flopping on the floor for a while, and turning an interesting shade of purple, trying to catch his breath; but he looks pretty stable now. Probably cracked his sternum in a couple of places; but I stayed away from his heart, so the bruises ought to heal in a few weeks. Pity he and the other fellows didn’t have the foresight to insert ear-plugs before I arrived, but I’m sure their ears will stop ringing after a while.”
    “All right, Agent Bulatt, here’s the deal. You have precisely two minutes to walk out of there with your hands up or I’m sending in — ” Smith started to say when Bulatt interrupted.
    “Two minutes ought to be just about the time my Redmond Police buddies start showing up and taking everyone into custody who isn’t willing to identify himself as a federal law enforcement officer,” Bulatt pointed out. “And, so far, I’m the only one who has.”
    There was another pause.
    “Your time is rapidly approaching one minute and counting,” Bulatt reminded, “and, yes, I will take a polygraph if things ever get to the formal review board stage; which I’m sure they won’t.”
    “I — we need to talk, face to face,” Smith finally said.
    “Fine with me,” Bulatt said agreeably. “Come on in; and don’t forget to bring along someone to haul this character out of here. He’s starting to smell; I think he shit his pants.”
    “I’ll bring two — ” the voice started to say, but Bulatt interrupted again
    “No, I said you’ll bring one, and no weapons. We’ve got plenty here already, and I really don’t want to have to write any more ‘shots fired’ memos; they tend to upset our Washington Office.”

    Approximately five minutes later, the all-too-familiar ‘Agent Smith’ — now dressed in jeans, boots and a flannel shirt, but with no concealing jacket or visible weapons — cautiously opened the swinging doors of the electronic lab.
    “Just us federales,” Bulatt said from his sitting position on the lab table. “Come on in and take a seat.”
    Smith stepped inside, immediately followed by a pair of uniformed Redmond police officers who entered with drawn pistols held down and away in both hands.
    The uniformed sergeant instantly took in the sight of a glowering Rightmore sitting on the floor in the far corner of the room; the still-purple-faced and intermittently moaning gunman lying glassy-eyed — but breathing steadily — on the floor; the two semi-auto pistols on the table; the Sig and a federal agent’s badge case lying next to Bulatt’s right hand; and then stepped over to the side wall where he could watch the entire room.
    The uniformed lieutenant smiled and holstered his pistol.
    “Everything okay here, Ged?” the lieutenant asked, thereby providing Smith and Rightmore with just about everything they needed to know about their current situation.
    “Everything’s fine here, Al,” Bulatt said, as he stood up from the table and extended a welcoming hand, “just a little misunderstanding about jurisdiction; typical Federal fu-bar. I think we’re about to get it all straightened up.”
    “Glad to hear it.” The lieutenant nodded, his eyes twinkling with amusement as he glanced down at the now-only-slightly trembling figure on the floor. “Accidental discharge?”
    “Something like that,” Bulatt agreed.
    “You do realize we have rules about discharging firearms within the city limit?”
    “Absolutely,” Bulatt nodded, “and well you should; but I think if you dig deep enough, you’ll discover this place is actually federal property, in a vague sort of way.”
    “Really?” The lieutenant looked over at the grey-haired man, who answered with a non-committal shrug. “Interesting.” The lieutenant continued to look around the shop for a few seconds before returning his attention to the groaning man on the floor. “What about this fellow; is he okay?”
    “More or less,” Bulatt said, “but I don’t think he’d object to some medical attention right about now.”
    The lieutenant nodded at the sergeant, who reached up to his shoulder with his free hand, activated and then spoke softly into his shoulder-mounted radio mike.
    Moments later, a pair of EMTs entered the electronics lab with a stretcher and quickly transported the groaning man out of the room.
    “And about that blue van you called in about,” the lieutenant said after the EMTs had departed, “it seems the driver was in a hurry to get a couple other guys some medical attention, so we’re giving them a full escort to the hospital. Want us to take any statements while we’re there?”
    “I don’t think that’ll be necessary.” Bulatt looked quizzically over at Smith who shook his head.
    “In that case, I guess we’ll just leave you fellows to your federal ‘un-fu-baring’ business,” the lieutenant said, motioning to his sergeant who backed out of the door with his gun at his side with one hand, still keeping an eye on the room.
    “Glad you could stop by, Al,” Bulatt said, smiling. “Dinner’s on me, next time I’m in town.”
    “Definitely going to take you up on that,” the lieutenant replied as he took one last look around the room, visibly taking the time to memorize the grey-haired man’s face, and then departed.
    “Mind if I sit down?” Smith asked after the swinging doors grew still.
    “Be my guest,” Bulatt said, motioning him to a nearby chair.
    “Was it really necessary to work those guys over like that?” he asked as he settled into the chair and stared at Bulatt curiously.
    Bulatt reached into his jacket pocket and tossed the sap out onto the table. “You tell me.”
    Smith looked at the lethal sap, winced visibly, and then nodded his head. “Okay, I understand; some of these snake-eater types do tend to get a little carried away, every now and then,” he acknowledged.
    “Probably the steroids; always an unfortunate side-effect,” Bulatt commented as he glanced over at the remaining man on the floor. “So how’s our Mr. Rightmore doing down there? You figure he’s still thinking about that gun in the drawer?”
    Smith looked over at the glowering supposed-electronics-expert.
    “Yeah, probably,” he said. “Come on up, Bill; I think he’s got us stalemated for the moment.” Smith extended a hand and helped Rightmore into an adjoining chair where he sat and continued to glare sullenly at Bulatt.
    “Just for the record,” Bulatt said to Rightmore, “There never has been a biologist named Rainier who worked for Washington State Fish I know that because I called and checked this morning. There is, however, a Phil Rainier who happens to be the resident agent in charge of our Bellingham office; but he doesn’t have any kids, much less grandkids, and I seriously doubt that he would recognize a modern tracking device if he tripped over one. Never was much of a technical type. You, of course, would have known most — or all — of that if you’d been working as closely with wildlife law enforcement around here, as you said you were; or if you’d bothered to flesh out your cover with some local cross-references.”
    Smith glared at Rightmore, who now looked more chagrined than furious.
    “Okay, gentlemen,” Bulatt said, “short and sweet: why do you care about a couple of your tracking devices that may or may not be linked to a violation of federal and international wildlife laws?”
    “Short and sweet, we don’t care… about the wildlife violations,” Smith said calmly. “I tried to explain that to Major Preithat.”
    “Good, glad to hear it.” Bulatt nodded. “But if I were to tell you those devices are definitely linked to the death of Major Preithat’s five Thai Rangers; the near-fatal assault on the Thai Interpol Colonel in charge of those Rangers — one of whom was his son; the downing of a Thai Army helicopter; and an assault on a Federal wildlife agent, not counting the deaths of a few assorted crooks and civilians who got caught in the cross-fire, what would you say to all of that?”
    “Fuck,” Smith said with an exasperated sigh.
    “Yeah, I’m sure all of that complicates your situation a bit,” Bulatt agreed. “So, let’s get to the basic questions: one, who are you guys?; two, who are you?; three, who are these people — the ones who did all the shooting in Thailand?; and four, why are you looking for them?”
    “Like I told you in Phuket, I can’t answer any of those questions,” Smith said matter-of-factly.
    “I do recall you saying that,” Bulatt acknowledged. “But, at the same time, I have to assume that you don’t want my investigation or my interactions with the local police to reveal the fact that Hood Electronics is, in fact, an Agency asset that provides you guys with state-of-the-art electronic devices — as well as some interesting intelligence info on outside users of those devices — instead of just being ‘vaguely federal property.’”
    Rightmore’s eyes widened in horror. He started to say something; but Smith waved him off.
    “If any part of what you just said was even remotely true, then no, we wouldn’t want that to happen.”
    “And I don’t have any particular desire to cause you guys any more grief than I already have; but I’m not going to back off on my investigation either, so we’re going to need to find a compromise acceptable to all sides,” Bulatt went on as he slid one of his business cards across the table. “Here’s a contact number on the back for the cell phone of the agent in charge of our special ops branch, who happens to be my immediate supervisor. Why don‘t you call your people and have them contact him, see what they can work out?”
    “Mind if I step over to the far side of the room to make the call?” Smith asked after briefly glancing at the Blackberry screen.
    “No, not at all; just as long as you’re willing to leave that back-up gun here on the table.”
    “Oh yeah; forgot about that one.”
    Bulatt smiled.
    Smith stood up, unclipped a cell phone from his belt with his right hand, and then — in a slow and deliberate manner — reached down with his left to carefully removed the hide-out pistol from his boot and place it on the lab table. Then, at Bulatt’s nod, he walked over to the far side of the room and began working the cell phone.
    As he did so, Bulatt busied himself by removing the magazine from the grip — and the round from the chamber — of the hide-out pistol, emptying the magazine, and dropping all of the loose rounds into his jacket pocket.
    Thirty seconds later, Smith walked over and sat back down in the chair. “You should be getting a call from your SAC any moment now,” he said.
    Another twenty seconds later, Bulatt’s Blackberry began to vibrate.
    Bulatt glanced at the screen, then brought the rectangular device up to his ear and said: “Bulatt.”
    He listened for approximately two minutes, nodded, said “I understand,” disconnected the call, re-holstered the Blackberry and his pistol on his belt, slide the hide-out pistol and empty magazine back across the table toward Smith, and then sat down in a nearby chair.
    “Mind if I call you John?” he asked the grey-haired man who was busy returning his empty back-up weapon to its boot holster. “It seems to go well with Smith.”
    Smith looked up and shrugged agreeably. “Sure, why not.”
    “Okay, John, I’m Ged.” Bulatt said. “And now that we’ve got all the niceties out of the way, what exactly can you tell me about three former snake-eaters and some Russian smugglers they may or may not be working with?”

    “I can’t tell you much about your three primaries,” Smith said after sending Rightmore out for some fresh coffee and telling him to take his time, “other than the fact that all three of them were in the Australian Special Air Service Regiment for a few formative years — where they performed their assigned tasks with what we might describe as a great deal of competence, intensity and enthusiasm — before they decided to free-lance their skills.”
    “With you folks?” Bulatt asked.
    Smith shrugged as if to say he wasn’t taking the question seriously. “They worked a few assignments in Afghanistan — long range recon and as a four-man hunter-killer team — came close to nailing bin-Laden with a long-shot at least once, possibly twice, before they lost one of their team to a lucky Taliban ricochet; and then, in some manner that we still don’t fully understand, they tripped across Gregor the drug smuggler.”
    “Are you talking about Gregor the infamous Chinese Medicinal smuggler?” Bulatt asked, his eyebrows rising in surprise.
    “Among his many side operations,” Smith acknowledged. “Gregor was a highly-regarded specialist in the movement of merchandise across unfriendly borders with minimal losses, and at a reasonable cost.”
    “His operation suffered a collective fatal accident,” Smith explained. “Every one of his associates died in a sudden and extremely violent aircraft explosion. And Gregor himself; well, let’s just say he died more slowly and painfully.”
    “How do you know this, if you don’t mind my asking?”
    “We had an asset on the plane,” Smith said matter-of-factly.
    “Ah.” Bulatt was thoughtful for a moment. “You knew about Gregor, and probably used him to move things from ‘A’ to ‘B’ on occasion; so you couldn’t have been all that concerned about his other extracurricular activities.”
    “Individuals or agencies who hired Gregor for a job would quite naturally assume he always had other irons in the fire,” Smith said obliquely.
    Bulatt suddenly blinked in understanding.
    “So your asset was actually looking for them — the three Australians, not Gregor and his men?”
    Smith nodded silently.
    “Stupid question, I’m sure, but I’ll ask it anyway. Why?”
    “I assume you’re familiar with the means by which an internal affairs division keeps an eye on full-time permanent government employees?”
    Bulatt nodded slowly. “I understand the basic process.”
    “Then I’m sure you can also understand why — and how — a similar but substantively different division might be set up to deal with the hired help; which is to say, the extremely dangerous hired help?”
    “Sounds like a tough way to make a living,” Bulatt commented.
    “It can be… but there are two things you need to understand about these men, Agent Bulatt… excuse me, Ged,” Smith said. “The first being that we consider them to be terribly dangerous, because they are quite good at killing whoever or whatever gets in their way; which they will do without the slightest hesitation or emotional concern. Secondly, that in any civilized context, their leader would be categorized as a brilliant, ruthless and amazingly stable sociopath who also happens to care much more about his men than he does himself. That makes him — if possible and from our perspective — even more dangerous.”
    Bulatt thought about the patrolling Rangers — led by Colonel Kulawnit’s son — who’d had the misfortune to run across these three professional killers, and shook his head sadly.
    “And finally,” Smith finished, meeting Bulatt’s gaze squarely with his dark eyes, “you need to understand that you and your Interpol associates are in our way; and that’s not going to be acceptable.”
    Bulatt thought about that for a few moments.
    “I don’t doubt what you said is true: that these men are perfectly capable of hurting or killing a goodly number my Interpol friends and associates if we try to confront them; and that it makes perfect sense to have them hunted down by some of their peers,” he finally said. “I’m assuming, of course, that you have capable people available for such an assignment.”
    Smith shrugged noncommittally.
    “And I’ll admit I am tempted to just step aside and let your internal affairs team, or whatever you call it, move in and take over our job of bring them to justice. I’d do it in a heartbeat if I had any way of knowing for sure that justice — in terms of a very dear friend of mine — had been served. But the reality is, if I did step aside, I’d never know if you dealt with these malicious assholes in some appropriate manner; or simply brought them back into the fold, so to speak… would I?”
    Smith’s silence provided Bulatt with his expected answer.
    “More to the point,” Bulatt went on, “I’m not even convinced you’ve brought your ‘A’ team to the game; because your two clowns out in the parking lot lost their cool and blew your surveillance on this place — not to mention my cover — like a couple of rank amateurs.”
    “Actually, those guys were walk-ons, auditioning for a full-time role, which they certainly aren’t going to get,” Smith acknowledged. “But what makes you think they blew anything at all, other than the way they dealt with you?”
    “I’m guessing you weren’t using a new green truck rigged with an over-the-cab camper unit, parked across the street at an odd angle, and looking just a little out-of-place among the rest of the cars and trucks in the warehouse parking lot; mostly because your people seem to like the ‘new van’ look, and a camper-rig’s pretty much old school in terms of surveillance,” Bulatt said. “On the other hand, that upper bunk would make a real nice staging point for a team of extremely dangerous sociopaths who don’t mind taking medium-range shots at people who get in their way; such as nosey internal affairs teams.
    “But I could be wrong,” Bulatt added as he watched Smith lunge up out of his chair, pull the cell phone out of his jacket pocket, and walk a few feet away before making a hurried call. “It could still be over there — green, parked at an odd angle — but I doubt it.”
    Thirty seconds later, Smith cursed, snapped his cell phone shut, walked back to the chair, sat down and stared contemplatively at Bulatt.
    Smith nodded silently, still staring.
    “You owe me something,” Bulatt said after a long moment. “Will you at least tell me their names?
    “Why not?”
    “Even if I did, their real names wouldn’t give you anything to go on. You’d just be wasting your time. They stopped using them a long time ago.”
    “What about their military or paramilitary records?”
    “Don’t even think about going that route,” Smith advised. “Those files are out of reach, if they even still exist in the first place; too many cross-links to events that never happened.”
    “What about our latent print hit? Can you tell me anything at all about that?” Bulatt pressed. “I’m guessing the fingerprint search engine our lab folks stumbled into had to have been yours. Who else would be looking for those guys with that kind of technology?”
    Smith hesitated, and then said: “Look, you now know there are three individuals involved in all of this: the team leader, a second man who is basically a very talented hunter-killer and long-range shot, and a third who possesses certain technical skills useful to a hunter-killer team.”
    “But who occasionally forgets to wear gloves when he’s changing the batteries in their remotes?” Bulatt guessed.
    Smith nodded his head slowly. “We appreciated the latent submission. It was comforting to know these guys can actually screw up every now and then.”
    “But, in any case, based on that latent print, you’re absolutely certain these men you described are our subjects? No chance we might be talking about a misidentified latent?”
    Smith hesitated again, and then nodded. “We’re certain.”
    “Can you give me anything else to go on?” Bulatt asked. “Anything else at all?”
    “I can give you a piece of tangential information,” Smith said after a moment. “Before he was killed, our asset reported that Gregor was doing something with a group of Russians who immigrated to the U.S. several years ago; he didn’t know who, what or why.”
    “Surely Gregor kept some kind of records.”
    “We presume so; but, after his plane disappeared, we tracked him back to a hide-away office. That’s where we found his body and a couple of empty file cabinets.”
    “What about the office itself?”
    “It was professionally torched,” Smith said. “Anything in the way of useful information that might have still been there went up in smoke and ash.”
    “And the plane?”
    Smith hesitated again. “Let’s just say the debris situation is being looked into,” he finally said. “But don’t get your hopes up; it’s not likely we’re ever going to find anything useful. The plane was at twenty-five thousand feet when it blew, and it was one hell of an explosion.”
    “So now, presumably, all you’ve got to go on is a green camper-rigged truck,” Bulatt said as he stood up, “and me, of course; which probably means you’re going to make an effort to monitor my movements — try to use me as bait if you can.”
    Smith stared silently at Bulatt, not bothering to answer.
    “Normally, I probably wouldn’t care; as long as your people kept their distance and stayed low profile, like they’re supposed to be able to do,” Bulatt said. “But based on what I’ve seen of your ground surveillance techniques so far, and what you’ve told me about these characters, all your surveillance is going to do is blow my cover again, and possibly get me or one of my partners killed; and I’m not going to stand for that.”
    “Oh?” Smith’s right eyebrow rose skeptically.
    “So,” Bulatt went on, ignoring the sarcasm, “we can continue to play grab-ass with each other, see if my game-playing trumps yours; or we can go on about our own business, and try not to trip over each other again. I’d prefer the latter, but I don’t mind the former; whatever gets the job done. Fair deal?”
    Smith shrugged in what might have been an agreement.
    “Okay, I’m done here,” Bulatt said. “Anything you want to ask me before I go?”
    “Actually, there is one more thing,” Smith said with some hesitation.
    “What’s that?”
    “The twins.”
    Bulatt smiled. “You’d like our lab staff to have them to stop doing whatever it is they’re doing?”
    “That’s right.”
    “Are they really that good?” Bulatt asked, finding it difficult to believe that a pair of fourteen-year-olds could be having any significant impact on the secretive entity that ‘John Smith’ and his associates presumably worked for.
    “’Good’ is a relative term; I think the appropriate descriptors are ‘inventive,’ ‘persistent’ and ‘unpredictable,’” Smith replied with a discernable edge to his voice. “At least that’s what I’m told by our tech chief, who would dearly like to throttle their little necks personally. He seems to think their baby spider egg sac disguised as a happy face was a dirty trick.”
    “Baby spider… egg sac?”
    “Apparently technical terms,” Smith said. “At least I hope the hell they are. I don’t know what spiders have to do with computers, and I don’t particularly want to know. But, in any case, I’ve been asked to tell you that our techies have stopped digging at your lab’s firewalls; and they would appreciate it if the kids would do the same.”
    “They got through, didn’t they?”
    Smith’s glaring look was all the answer he needed.
    “But you do know that their mother will be seriously pissed if one of your people actually tries to cause them grief,” Bulatt reminded, trying very hard not to smile. “And I have a feeling she could be a lot more dangerous to your ongoing operations — not to mention your personal set of balls — than any of us bunnies-and-guppies agent-types.”
    “We’re all aware that Linda seems to have developed some maternal instincts following childbirth, although God alone knows why,” Smith acknowledged. “The appropriate warnings have been issued at the directorate level. The kids will be left alone, provided that you stop them — ” Smith glanced at his watch “- soon.”
    “You could always give them an audition,” Bulatt suggested as he got up out of the chair, and walked over to the swinging doors. “Bring them onto the team; you know, keep your friends close and your enemies closer, that sort of thing.”
    “And actually let those little bastards inside our building?” Smith blinked, his expression implying that Bulatt had finally said something completely absurd. “Are you out of your fucking mind?”


    Hidden underground trophy room at the Graystone Fields Ranch
    The dining table had been set so that Michael Hateley’s three guests all had a clear view of the centerpiece section of wall that was the focus of his luxurious, underground endangered species trophy room.
    The dinner — consisting of a truffle salad, Szechwan green beans, glazed Georgian yams, and young Alaskan Moose steaks easily cut with a fork, followed by an almond creme brule and savory fresh-ground Brazilian coffee, all served by Hateley’s personal chef from a heated stainless steel cart- provided a pleasant distraction from the issues yet to be discussed; and an easy topic of muted conversation among men who had known and engaged with each other for almost two decades.
    But finally — after Hateley’s butler had filled each crystal sniffer with a generous portion of rare French Brandy, distributed fine Cuban cigars all around, placed the carafe in the center of the South African yellow-wood table, and then quietly departed — Dr. Stuart Jackson Caldreaux raised his glass in salute.
    “Gentlemen,” he said, “once again, thanks to our host this evening, we have been privileged to indulge ourselves with the best that life has to offer. If I may be so bold as to offer a toast: to Michael Hateley, a man who savors life to the fullest and graciously shares that life with his friends.”
    The three men facing the empty centerpiece all raised the brandy sniffers in salute. Michael Hateley acknowledged their appreciation with a brief nod of his head.
    “And, having said that,” Caldreaux went on, “I would like to start the evening’s discussion off with a serious question to our esteemed host.”
    Suddenly, the underground room grew silent.
    “Why is it, do you think, Michael,” Caldreaux said quietly in his deep Louisiana drawl, “that my friends and I were recently informed that we are no longer welcome to hunt rare game in the wildlife preserves of Thailand; and that if we persist in our amusements, we would either be taken into custody or shot on sight?”
    “I’m told…” Hateley began, but then stopped when Caldreaux held up his hand in a pausing gesture.
    “To further focus my question, Michael, could it possibly have anything to do with the empty centerpiece on your wall that Max, Sam and I have been staring at for the past two hours?”
    Michael Hateley briefly closed his eyes, took in a deep steadying breath, and then locked his gaze on his accuser, annoyed because he’d already explained the Clouded Leopard situation to Caldreaux; which meant his chief competitor in the trophy stakes was taking the opportunity probe deeper into his affairs, and to gain a useful edge in their annual competition.
    Fine with me, Stuart, Hateley thought, your rooster tail’s going to be drooping sadly by the time this dinner is over.
    “When I originally made plans for this dinner,” he began, looking around at all three men, “it was my intent that all of you would dine under the gaze of a trophy Clouded Leopard, the likes of which have not been seen on this planet for at least five hundred years; and that you would all be envious of my accomplishment for at least a few weeks — until each of you could book a similar hunt to bag a similar trophy.”
    The other three men around the table briefly favored each other with amused glances. The idea that this was a highly motivated group of cut-throat competitors determined to win at any cost had never been in question.
    “It was a reasonable intent, because I recently shot that animal in the Khlong Saeng Wildlife Preserve of southern Thailand.”
    This time, the exchanged glances among Hateley’s three guests were longer and more meaningful.
    “So you were involved in the Phuket incident that got us tossed out of Thailand,” Sam Fogarty said accusingly.
    “I’m not sure the word ‘incident’ accurately describes the situation,” Max Kingman added. “I understand two helicopters were shot down, and a number of Thai Rangers were killed.”
    “I don’t know anything about helicopters being shot down, or anyone getting killed; certainly not during our hunt,” Hateley said emphatically. “We did have a brief confrontation with some Rangers on patrol that night, but I believe everything was resolved amicably with an appropriate exchange of cash. They drove away and we continued on with our business. However, some kind of unfortunate event apparently did happen at a checkpoint later on — after I’d left Thailand — which resulted in the loss of my Clouded Leopard; and, it seems, our Thai hunting privileges being revoked, at least for the time being.”
    The other three men looked at each other uneasily.
    “Let me assure you, I regret that as much as anyone in this room; and I promise you that I’m going to do whatever it takes — and pay whatever it costs — to get that situation turned around as quickly as possible,” Hateley went on forcefully. “But, in the meantime, I also want you to know how much I value our friendship, and our little club; so much so that I am going to do something tonight that I never thought I would ever do.”
    The three men were watching Hateley intently now.
    “What I’m going to do is offer to share my next hunt with all three of you,” Hateley said. “A once-in-a-lifetime hunt that, if all goes well, will provide each of us with a trophy beyond our wildest dreams.”
    “As you well know, Michael, ’beyond your wildest dreams’ is a mighty big mountain to climb, especially where my dreams and aspirations are concerned,” Caldreaux drawled before taking a sip from his brandy sniffer. “What exactly are you talking about?”
    “Rather than tell you, because you won’t believe me,” Hateley said as he reached for a remote lying on the table beside his plate, “I’m going to show you.”
    As Hateley pressed buttons on the remote, the room darkened, a four-foot-by-eight-foot digital screen slid silently down from the ceiling in front of the trophy wall, and a bright blue Powerpoint™ slide suddenly appeared bearing the words: the hunt of an era
    Then, as the room remained hushed, Hateley clicked the remote once more and the picture of a single animal standing in front of a concrete wall filled the huge screen.
    “What the hell — ?” Caldreaux rasped hoarsely.
    “That’s… that’s — ” Fogarty sputtered, trying to get the word out.
    “A mammoth?” Kingman whispered the word in an incredulous voice.
    “My God, it looks real,” Caldreaux said as he leaned forward to get a better view.
    “That creature is as real — and as alive — as the four of us in this room,” Hateley said matter-of-factly.
    “But how is that possible?” Fogarty demanded. “I thought — ?”
    “That Jurassic Park was a fictional tale?” Hateley smiled. “Well, you’re right, Sam, it was — and still is — a fairy tale. That creature you see on the scene was not created from the reassembled DNA of a mammoth, but rather by the genetic manipulation of DNA within a like-creature.”
    Hateley thumbed the remote and a new image of a single animal filled the screen.
    “You manipulated the DNA of an elephant, and turned it into a mammoth? Is that actually possible?” Caldreaux whispered disbelievingly.
    Hateley thumbed the remote again and the mammoth image filled the screen again, only this time the image was digital video; and for a stunning ten seconds, the four men in the hushed room watched the creature swing its thick trunk back and forth between its two curved tusks as it stared at the camera. The sound of Caldreaux’s brandy sniffer shattering on the floor was barely noticed.
    The video stopped, and for a long moment, the room was deathly silent.
    “One of us is actually going to be able to kill and mount a real mammoth? Is that what you’re saying?” Kingman could barely get the words out of his suddenly dry mouth.
    “But how would we chose — a drawing of straws?” The desperate greed in Fogarty’s voice was apparent to all three of Hateley’s guests, because each and every one of them was thinking precisely the same thing.
    That mammoth has to be mine.
    “No, we’re not going to draw straws,” Hateley said. “We couldn’t do that; we’d end up shooting each other in the back.”
    The other three men were silent, almost afraid to speak, knowing that their host was right.
    “Fortunately,” Hateley went on calmly, “we won’t have to compete with each other for the privilege of being the first human hunter in twenty thousand years to take a mammoth; because I happen to have access to four of these wondrous creatures — one for each of us.”
    The other three men sagged in their chairs as one, relief and joy spilling across their now-smiling faces.
    “My God, Michael, you are a genius; the Merchant da Morte, without question,” Caldreaux rasped, raising his water glass toward the wall-mounted boar’s head in salute, a gesture immediately followed by the other two men.
    “Don’t be so quick with your praise,” Hateley said somberly. “There’s a very serious problem we all have to deal with before we can have our hunt and mount these trophies on our walls.”
    “What problem? Are you talking about the law?” Caldreaux demanded. “That’s preposterous! This is none of their business!”
    “After all, it’s not illegal to shoot a mammoth, is it?” Fogarty said. “I mean, how could it be? They don’t exist.”
    “Except that now they do,” Kingman reminded in a voice that could only be described as reverent.
    “The law is not our problem, gentlemen; or, at least, not for the moment,” Hateley said. “As Sam correctly pointed out, it is not against the law to kill mammoths. Our problem is more of an emotional issue.”
    Hateley thumbed the remote once more, and this time the two images of the elephant and mammoth appeared to have been merged into one; except that one of the animals was suddenly much bigger than the other.
    “Oh my God, it’s a baby,” Kingman said in a hushed voice.
    The three men sat mute in the darkened room as the magnitude of the problem struck home with a finality that tore at their hearts.
    “I — can’t shoot a baby mammoth,” Fogarty finally said in a choked voice. “Jesus, I mean, if anyone ever found out — ”
    “At this stage of my life, as you all know, I don’t have many scruples left; perhaps none at all,” Caldreaux said in a voice filled with anguish. “But I can tell you one thing that’s as certain as the passage of time: I am not going to sit down to dinner and stare at that little creature’s head on my wall; or on any of your walls either, for that matter.”
    “Then we just have to wait, until they get older,” Kingman offered hesitantly.
    “But, what if someone else — ?” Fogarty couldn’t finish the unthinkable question.
    “They do belong to you, Michael; that is what you said, isn’t it?” Caldreaux demanded, turning his head sharply to stare at Hateley.
    “I said I have access to them; but I don’t own them,” Hateley replied evenly. “They will have to be purchased.”
    “Then we have to buy them now, immediately,” Kingman said, “at whatever the cost, before someone outbids us.”
    “Or we could just steal them, if the price turns out to be unacceptable,” Fogarty pointed out.
    “Either way, I don’t care; just as long as one of them ends up being mine,” Caldreaux said emphatically.
    The solemn nodding of all three heads around his table told Hateley what he had desperately wanted to hear from the members of his club. It meant the plan was now thinkable, and perhaps even doable.
    “Gentlemen,” he said after pausing a few moments for effect, “now that I have your full attention to the crucial matter at hand, I would like to introduce a fifth guest to our table this evening.”
    “What?!” Caldreaux’s eyes bulged wide as he quickly looked around the darkened room. “You invited a stranger to our dinner?”
    “Have you lost your mind?” Fogarty demanded as he and Kingman started up out of their chairs.
    “Gentlemen, please stay seated,” Hateley said in a soothing voice. “And no, I have not lost my mind on this momentous evening, because the man I’m about to introduce is not a stranger to anyone in this room; or to the covert nature of our amusements.”
    Hateley waited until all three of his guests had regained their chairs and at least some degree of their composure before thumbing the remote one last time.
    In the far corner of the underground room, a single overhead light came on, revealing the figure of a man they all knew all too well.
    “Gentlemen,” Marcus Wallis said, “thank you very much for inviting me to your annual dinner. The meal — which I had the honor of sharing with the chef, and as you’ve already noted — was superb. However, I came here tonight for more important reasons than food. First, to apologize for the unfortunate incident in Thailand; and, secondly, to offer a solution to what I see as a simple moral dilemma.”
    Wallis paused for a moment, his cold eyes surveying the darkened room and the three men at the table, two of whom aappeared frozen in place.
    “Every hunter has his limitations; shots they cannot or will not take. You four men seem to have discovered yours, and understandably so. But I would suggest to you that your revulsion to the idea of shooting an immature animal — especially one newly risen from extinction — and putting that creature’s head on your wall, is a perfectly rational response. I’m certain it’s not the act of shooting or killing that repels any of you; but, rather, the lack of a challenge.
    “In essence,” Wallis concluded, “you would never be able to look up at these mounts with any sense of pride or accomplishment; therefore, they would never be a true trophy in any of your eyes.”
    Wallis paused again to survey the frozen expressions of his audience, and smiled.
    “Unless,” he said, as he reached down to the floor and picked up a pair of objects,” you chose to do something, as a group, that hasn’t been done for twenty thousand years.”
    He held up a flint-tipped wooden spear in one hand, and a hide-wrapped flint knife in the other.
    “Hunt down your mammoths and kill them the old-fashioned way.”


    At the Khlong Preserve shooting site
    The night rain in Khlong Saeng Wildlife Preserve had turned into a light mist, causing the resident Hornbills, Bamboo Rats, tree frogs and insects to shift slightly out of their protective niches; because interesting things were happening in their wetlands neighborhood.
    All of these diverse creatures were aware, in their own ways, of the single human figure stretched out on the top a crudely-reconstructed bamboo hunting platform standing six feet and a half feet above the lush undergrowth, and the other human’s standing beside the platform; but none of them seemed to view this latest intrusion as threatening. Very possibly because Chief Narusan — who was quietly contemplating the logical actions of a midnight poacher from the top of the platform he’d carefully reconstructed from the chopped bamboo lengths collected from the hidden grave site — was clearly at home in this lush Thai rainforest.
    That and possibly the fact that the Chief, who had hunted and fished for his dinner all of his adult life, had no intention of killing anything other than a fellow human on this particular night; and only then if it became absolutely necessary.
    Tonight, the Chief was fully engaged and focused on the complexities of his latest professional interest: the reconstruction of events at a crime scene. The confrontation and killing would come later; after all of the clues and evidence items had fallen into place.
    And, in fact, it had been Narusan, the amateur naturalist, who thought he recognized the four larger-diameter sections of bamboo he’d found at the grave site — the ones that turned out to be platform legs when he finally managed to reassemble the pieces — as being an almost extinct south Asian variety replanted at the Khlong Saeng Wildlife Preserve, with some ceremony, a few years earlier.
    Captain Achara Kulawnit had then used her law enforcement authority to awaken and demand the immediate services of the Preserve’s senior horticulturalist, who — when he arrived at the Preserve headquarters, groggy and disheveled — took one horrified look at the sharpened and pounded seven-foot bamboo sections, and then immediately drove the investigative team to the specific area in the Preserve where the ceremonial planting had taken place.
    Ten minutes after the enraged horticulturalist pointed his flashlight beam at the shattered-stump areas when the components of the platform had clearly been taken, Achara Kulawnit — searching through a nearby section of recently trampled tall grass with a long snake stick — found the four barely-discernable holes where the platform legs had been pounded into the ground.
    But it was Narusan, on his hands and knees while in the process of putting the thick bamboo legs into their original hole positions, who discovered the single expended brass casing nestled under a clump of trampled grass.
    The casing — now rattling around on the end of a small twig — was being examined carefully by Achara while Narusan lay on the platform and stared across the wetland clearing at the distant stretch of trees, ferns, bamboo, and massive limestone formations that lay in line with the angular direction of the platform.
    They were waiting for the arrival of a laser-beam equipped transit so that Narusan, an amateur surveyor in addition to his other skills, could make a better estimate of the flight vector of a. 243 Remington Magnum bullet fired by a wealthy poacher resting comfortably on the protective platform; undoubtedly never imagining that his illicit actions might be re-enacted at some later time by a now very enthusiastic and persistent Thai Royal Navy crime scene investigator.

    At the Draganov Center
    “You’re going to let them kill all four of the little ones?” Aleksei Tsarovich stared at Sergei Draganov in disbelief. “No, you can’t be serious.”
    They were off by themselves, in the Center’s small conference room; talking in hoarse whispers because they didn’t dare let word of Marcus Emerson’s latest order get out to everyone else at the Center.
    “What choice do we have?” Draganov demanded, the anguish evident on his flushed face. “You know what these people are like. They killed my brother and his entire smuggling organization like they were pests… they as much as admitted it! Do you think they would hesitate for an instant to kill us too?”
    “That’s just it, I really don’t think they would kill us,” Tsarovich argued. “Think about it; they need us — you especially. How else can they obtain more exotic creatures for their barbaric hunts?”
    “They might not kill us,” Draganov said uneasily, “but they would certainly kill the others here; probably one by one, until we agree to their terms. Could you stand by and watch while they were all executed, over a few creatures that we know we can easily replicate?”
    The logic was as clear to the two scientists as it was disheartening.
    “No, I couldn’t,” Aleksei agreed with a deep sigh. “We have to do as they say; but how will we be able to explain it to the others — and especially to Borya?”
    “Borya can’t know, at least not right away,” Sergei Draganov said emphatically. “He would never bow to such heresy, and they would certainly execute him as an example to the others — and to us.”
    “But how do we keep it from him? You know our staff; once they find out what we’re going to do, they’ll get word to him somehow.”
    “Not necessarily,” Aleksei said. “Not if we disable the wireless communication system and delay for a while repairing our phone line. And even if he should become suspicious, the snow must be at least ten feet deep up at MAX by now — and it is still falling — so digging his way out to where we release the little ones from MIN would be an impossible task, even for Borya.”
    “And he has no reason to do so, anyway, because his primary job — which we know he takes very seriously — is to stay at MAX and care for those creatures.” Draganov smiled.
    “Yes, it could work,” his brother agreed, “especially if no shots are fired during the hunt, and we release the animals far enough away from the Center so that no one here will know what’s happening.”
    “Don’t forget, it has to be a place with at least four caves nearby,” Draganov went on, “so that Wallis’ hunters will have shelter at night; that was one of his requirements. But also, ideally, from our standpoint, it should be a place where the little ones have a least some chance to remain hidden from — ”
    The two scientists looked at each other in sudden realization.
    “The Maze,” Draganov whispered.
    “What better place could we find? Thousands of big rocks and trees, dozens of caves, and a labyrinth of inter-connecting chasms and gorges with the obvious pathways all circling back on each other.” Tsarovich smiled. “What better place for these crazy fools to try to hunt and kill the little ones with their ancient knives and spears and cleverly-rigged traps? With luck — especially if the storms continue, as they likely will — the little ones will simply disappear within the Maze and never be found; at least not by any of them.”
    “According to Emerson, the four intend to hunt only with the tools of early cavemen; flint knives, flint spears and lengths of crudely-woven rope. They will have thermal clothing, and backpacks with water, basic survival rations, sleeping bags, and some kind of emergency shelters, no doubt; but no firearms, no radios or other electronic means of communicating with the outside or each other. And no tracking devices either; which means no compasses or GPS units. Those were the rules they all agreed upon.”
    “They are fools to attempt such a thing in these mountains, and in this weather,” Tsarovich said flatly.
    “Yes, but apparently wealthy fools, as well as avid hunters,” Draganov reminded. “I’m sure they all possess survival skills.”
    “Yes, undoubtedly; but, even so, without GPS units or a compass, it will be easy for them to become lost and perhaps never find their way out.” Tsarovich smiled. “It’s happened to many others over the years who were far better equipped. And, in that case, perhaps our problem will be solved for good also; especially if Emerson and his two assistants take part in the hunt — which I believe they intend to do.”
    “But how do we get the little ones all the way out to the Maze?” Draganov asked, suddenly looking concerned. “We can’t possibly transport them there. The access road is more of a bicycle path, at best; and the last mile to the south entrance is barely accessibly on foot, even in good weather.”
    “Simple.” Tsarovich shrugged. “I will lay a trail of hay and fruit — using the Sno-Cat as far as it will go, and then the rest of the way on foot — from MIN to the southern entrance; and then go back and release the little ones with their mothers. If I don’t put any more food into the bins, the mothers will certainly follow the food trail.”
    The burly veterinarian started to say something else, and then hesitated when he saw the uncertain look on his brother’s face. “What’s the matter?” he demanded.
    “Emerson said he wanted the little ones released in an isolated hunting area,” Draganov said uneasily. “He didn’t say anything about releasing the mothers too. That could create a dangerous situation. It is one thing for these wealthy and influential men to fail in their hunt; but it would be something else, entirely, if one of them should be killed by — ”
    “By a mother elephant trying to protect her young from the greatest predator that has ever lived on this planet; is that what we should be concerned about? That one of these arrogant men might be gored or crushed? So what if one of them dies?” Tsarovich scoffed. “They claim they want a fair hunt — using only their brains, their hands and their crude weapons — so they can be proud of their trophies; fine, they shall have one. But they should realize, also, that mammoths so young — no matter what the era — would always be in the company of their mothers. These men should be happy they won’t have to deal with the protective fathers, as well; like the real cavemen most certainly did.”
    “I suppose that is true,” Draganov conceded.
    “And besides,” Tsarovich went on, “if all goes well in the Maze, perhaps predator and prey will never cross paths.”
    “But if they do manage to escape, what will they do for food? We can’t possibly carry enough food up there on foot to last them even a few days, much less through the entire winter; not even with Borya’s help.”
    “The evergreens will provide some nourishment,” Tsarovich said. “But as soon as the weather clears, even for a few hours, I’ll arrange for air-drops of hay throughout the Maze. A hundred tons at least — enough to last all eight of them until spring — and I’ll make sure its spread out so that the mothers will be forced to hunt for the food, making little ones even more difficult to find. It is a good plan, I think.” The burly veterinarian nodded his head in satisfaction.
    “Yes, I agree, it might work; but do we have enough time?” Draganov asked, suddenly looking panicked.
    Aleksei nodded. “Yes, I believe so, if I begin now and pace myself.”
    “But you can’t do all of that work yourself,” his brother protested. “You’ll need help, especially in this weather.”
    Aleksei shook his head. “No, you have to stay at the lab and continue working on the reverse probes to save Tanya. The first set of cocktails slowed the structural changes down, certainly, and may even have stopped them for good; but Tanya cannot stay as she is forever. Her heart rate is dangerously elevated, and the changes in her liver chemistry are becoming more pronounced. You have to find a way to reverse the process.”
    “Yes, I know.” Draganov nodded his head, the fatigue evident in his reddened eyes. “There has to be some aspect — a subset, perhaps — of the original switching processes that I’m missing; or simply not seeing.”
    “Go back to work, Sergei,” Aleksei said, slapping his thick right hand on Draganov’s slumped shoulder. “I’m sure you’ll figure out the right sequences; you always do. And, in the meantime, while you are busy saving Tanya with your pipettes and probes, I will see how many of the little ones I can save with my tools.”
    “And those would be?” Draganov asked, raising one tired eyebrow.
    “The same one our forefathers have always used against far more powerful invading forces,” Tsarovich answered, “Russian stubbornness, guile, deceit and treachery.”

    At the Khlong Preserve shooting site — later
    It had started raining again, and the air was filled with the muted sounds of Hornbills, Bamboo Rats, tree frogs and insects all watching uneasily as Narusan and the professor finish mounting the laser-transit onto the re-assembled shooting platform.
    Then, as Narusan and two Rangers headed out into the brush, Captain Achara Kulawnit stretched out on the platform and began to stare through the transit scope at a distant clump of trees. She was covered by a long waterproof poncho.
    After several minutes of slow and methodical searching, the image of recent impact damage to a distant tree filled the transit scope view-field. After activating the transit’s laser beam and setting the beam-point on the damaged area, she began calling out instructions to a Ranger who relayed them to the naval chief.
    As Narusan began to climb the tree, Achara followed his progress with the scope. At the first impact point, she watched him pull out a belt knife and begin digging at the damaged area. Then, a few moments later, he held something up in his hand.
    “Captain Kulawnit,” Narusan found a bullet,” the communications Ranger reported.
    Smiling tiredly, Achara pushed the laser-transit aside and reached for her cell phone.


    San Francisco International Airport
    The Eva Airways flight from Bangkok via Taipei was scheduled to land at San Francisco International Airport at three-forty-five in the afternoon; but the ever-unpredictable San Francisco fog had already forced the controllers in the tower to shut down one of the too-close-together SFO runways once that morning — thereby delaying and diverting landings — and it looked like the fog might be rolling in again at any moment.
    “I should have had her land in Seattle,” Bulatt said into his cell phone. “If things get any worse out here, they’re either going to have her plane circling for an hour, or diverted to another airport.”
    “I suggested that to her, Pete Younger said, “but the storm fronts in the northwest are growing in strength, which could have made SEA-TAC a worse choice. And, in any case, the airport switch would have added at least another eight hours to her flying and ground times, and she wasn’t willing to wait that long. She’s very anxious to get that bullet and cartridge case they found scanned into your NIBIN system. A very stubborn young woman. Reminds me a great deal of her father.”
    “Speaking of whom, is there any more word on his condition?”
    “Still in critical but stable condition, as before,” Younger said. “The bullet that pierced the side of his vest is lodged against his heart and aorta, and the surgeons are reluctant to go after it. If they can keep the internal bleeding stopped, they want to wait and go back in later when he’s stronger.”
    “How’s Achara taking it? Did she say?” Bulatt asked, saddened by the vision of his Interpol friend lying helpless in an ICU ward.
    “She’s convinced her father is strong, and that he will survive. She sounded groggy, and with bloody good reason. I understand she and the Chief spent the entire night digging through rainforest mud and vegetation at their two Phuket crime scenes; and that she only had a few hours to clean up, fly back to Bangkok, pack and get to the airport in time to catch her flight.”
    Bulatt looked down at his watch. “That was a little over seventeen hours ago. I’m not sure if she’s still fourteen hours ahead of us out here, time-zone-wise; or if a few hours of sleep on a plane, over a forty-eight hour period, actually re-sets her body-clock back to zero.”
    Younger laughed. “If you ever manage to figure that out, bloody well let me know. I’m guessing she’s going to be tired and grumpy when she finally lands; and in no mood to put up with anything that further delays her arrival to your forensics lab.”
    “Good point.” Bulatt looked out the window at the gradually moving fog bank. “As things stand right now, we’re looking at a three-hour delay for our connecting flight to Medford. I think I’m going to make other arrangements.”

    The International Terminal, San Francisco Airport — Customs and Immigration Arrivals
    Captain Achara Kulawnit waited behind the designated line until the Customs Officer — a heavyset man in his late fifties with long graying hair combed back over his ears and a healthy paunch threatening the lower buttons on his white Custom’s shirt — motioned her forward.
    “Welcome to the United States,” he said as he accepted her passport, opened it, compared her fatigued but still exquisite facial features against the photo imbedded in the passport, and then ran the open-faced document across his scanner. “Are you here for business or pleasure?”
    “I’m here on official business,” she replied.
    The Customs officer glanced at his screen, blinked, and then refocused his gaze on the young woman’s face.
    “I see you’re listed as an international law enforcement officer. May I see your credentials, please?”
    “Yes, of course.” Achara reached into her purse and handed over her badge case and credentials, which the officer examined closely before looking back up.
    “Are you carrying any weapons with you, in your carry-on or checked luggage?”
    “Is this your first trip to the United States?”
    “Yes, it is.”
    “I understand you’re carrying items of evidence in your carry-on luggage?”
    “Yes, I am.” She reached into her carry-on bag, and pulled out a shipping box bearing red Thai Forestry Division evidence tape wrapped tightly around all of the cardboard edges.
    The Customs officer stared first at the box, and then at his computer screen before turning his attention back to Achara.
    “I’m going to have to take that box into custody for inspection.”
    It was Achara Kulawnit’s turn to blink. “I’m sorry, officer, but I am not authorized to release this evidence into anyone’s custody except the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s crime lab,” she said emphatically. “And they specifically told me not to open it under any circumstances, for safety and security reasons.”
    The Customs officer started to say something, hesitated, then reached for his phone. For approximately two minutes, he and someone at the other end of the line engaged in a serious if not heated discussion. Finally, the Customs officer hung up the phone and turned his attention back to Achara once again.
    “I understand your concern about the chain-of-custody of your evidence,” he said, “but there are specific rules and regulations about potentially dangerous materials entering this country that must be observed.”
    “Yes, I understand all of that; I was a customs inspector in my country. But — ”
    The Customs officer turned and motioned to an armed and uniformed officer who was standing near the exit to come over to the booth.
    “I’m going to ask this officer to escort you and your evidence package to the U.S. Marshall’s Office,” the Customs officer said as he stamped her passport and handed it back.
    “But — ”
    “I’m sure they’ll be able to assist you with your problem, Captain Kulawnit,” he said firmly, and then motioned for the next person in line.

    U.S. Marshall’s Office, Customs and Immigration Arrivals, San Francisco Airport
    Fifteen minutes later, under the watchful eye of the armed Customs officer, fatigued, and now more than a little grumpy, Captain Achara Kulawnit retrieved her suitcase from the slowly-moving carrousel, set it in the airport cart, walked over to the door marked U.S. Marshall’s office, gently pushed it open with one hand while she pushed her cart in with the other, stepped inside the office; and then immediately saw Bulatt.
    “You’re here?” she said, her eyes widening with surprise.
    “Yes, of course, I’m here.” Bulatt grinned. “Where did you expect me to be?”
    Achara started to say something, hesitated, then quickly brought the palms of her hands together in a polite wai. “Khun-Ged,” she said, her cheeks visibly turning red, “I am happy to see you again. Thank you so much for meeting me here, instead of waiting for me at Medford. I–I — ”
    Then, before Bulatt could say anything in response, she walked up to him, put her arms around his neck and shoulder, and hugged him tightly.
    “I’m not just happy to see you,” she whispered against his ear, “I am delighted to see you; more than I can possibly tell you here.” Then she stepped back, stared into Bulatt’s widened and shocked eyes; and only then saw the lanky and deeply-tanned man out of the corner of her eye. He was sitting in chair at the opposite side of the room, wearing a nicely-tailored dark suit, cowboy boots and a bolo tie, and starring at her and Bulatt with a wide dimpled grin on his dark mustached face.
    “Captain Achara Kulawnit,” Bulatt said once he was able to regain his composure, “I’d like you to meet a very good friend of mine, U.S. Marshall Bill Clark.”
    Still grinning, Clark stood up from his chair, paused a brief moment to savor the shared looks of embarrassment between Bulatt and the young woman, and then stepped forward and offered his hand.
    “Captain Kulawnit, I’ve been looking forward to meeting you for a very long time.”
    Achara cocked her head curiously as she took the federal law enforcement officer’s hand in a firm handshake. “Oh?”
    Clark glanced down at his watch. “Well, for at least for thirty-seven minutes, anyway; but that can be a very long time for us impatient types.”
    Achara’s eyebrows were now furrowed in confusion. “I’m sorry, but I don’t understand — ”
    The dimpled grin seemed to be a permanent fixture on Clark’s tanned face.
    “Ma’am,” he said, “anytime my good buddy here starts looking vaguely embarrassed when he’s asking the U.S. Marshall Service for an official favor, I definitely want to meet the reason why.”
    “A favor?” Achara looked over at Bulatt in confusion.
    “Yes, ma’am,” Clark nodded. “I understand you’re running a bit late, and that you’ve got some anxious forensic scientists waiting to get their hands on that bullet and cartridge case you toted all this way; so I am going to do my buddy here a very official favor and see to it that you folks get to Ashland post-haste, U.S. Marshall Transport Service style.”

    Outside the MAX facility at the Draganov Research Center
    Sergei Draganov stood beside the rumbling Sno-Cat, trying to ignore the snowstorm that raged around him, as he anxiously watched Aleksei Tsarovich hurry out of the MAX facility.
    “Did you find him?” Draganov demanded.
    “No, he is nowhere in the facility, and he does not answer his pager.”
    “Are the animals fed and watered?”
    “Good,” Draganov said with a relieved sigh, and then hesitated. “We could be running out of time. I think I need to help you — to get everything done — before he returns.”
    Tsarovich started to argue but Draganov shook his head. “Another two or three days won’t make any difference to Tanya. I have an approach that I think will work; but this must be done first, or we’ll all be dead.”
    Tsarovich stared at his long-time associate for a long moment, and then reluctantly nodded his assent.
    The two men quickly pulled themselves into the Sno-Cat and drove down to a mid-way point between MIN and the entrance to the Maze.
    Then, as Draganov continued to guide the lurching heavy vehicle toward the distant Maze entrance, Aleksei Tsarovich stood in the attached trailer-sled with a sharp knife and began tossing bales of hay and pouring sacks of feed across the snow-covered ground.

    On a snow-covered rock crag overlooking the lurching Sno-Cat
    The green-glowing eyes of Borya watched the scene below.


    Criminalistics Examination Room, National Fish amp; Wildlife Forensics Lab
    As Bulatt and Achara Kulawnit watched from the far side of the Criminalistics examination room, Donn Renwick, Steve Hager and Dr. Juliana Ferreira — who were now dressed in white lab coats and sitting across from each other at a table-height lab bench, with the shipping box bearing the red Thai Forestry Division evidence tape sitting between them in the middle of the table — began to record information from the evidence tag onto their individual examination note forms.
    Once they finished their initial note-taking, all three forensic scientists put on pairs of white cotton gloves and masks. Then Ferreira picked up the colorfully wrapped and tagged box and walked over to the far opposite side of the room, followed closely by Hager and Renwick.
    Stopping in front of a ‘glove box’ — a three-foot-wide-by-two-foot-deep-by-three-foot-high glass-faced box equipped with a sealable-door at one end, a double-door vacuum chamber at the other, and a pair of long rubber gloves that allowed an examiner to handle items inside the box without physical contact — Ferreira opened the side door, placed the box inside, and sealed the door shut.
    Then, after slipping her arms into the long gloves, she used a scalpel to slowly and carefully cut open the box. A small manila envelope and a six-inch-square box, both sealed with evidence tape, slid out onto the floor of the glove box.
    Ferreira used the scalpel to cut the envelope open; slid a clump of wrapped tissue out into her gloved hand; placed the tissue clump in a vial; filled the rest of the vial with a liquid from a squeeze bottle marked ‘PROBE DECON’; screwed on a cap; placed the vial inside the vacuum chamber; shut and locked the inside door; pulled her hands out of the gloves; made a few valve adjustments on the vacuum chamber console; pressed a button marked ‘DECON’; and waited thirty seconds.
    Then, after walking around to the side of the glove box and opening the outside door of the vacuum chamber, the three forensic scientists came back to the workbench, the vial in Ferreira’s hand and the evidence box in Hager’s.
    “Can we watch what you’re doing, or should we be running for the door?” Bulatt asked.
    “Sure, come on over, no problem,” Ferreira said as she sat back down at the workbench and began making adjustments to a low-power dissection microscope. Renwick and Hager took chairs on either side of the microscope station.
    “Was all that glove-box business really necessary?” Bulatt asked as he and Achara cautiously approached the workbench.
    “Probably not,” Ferreira said as she opened the vial, removed the now-soggy white tissue clump with a pair of plastic forceps, set it into a small glass Petri dish, placed the dish under the dissection microscope, and began to tease apart the wet tissue. “The nano-probes we found in those Clouded Leopard carcasses broke down real quick under UV light, once we isolated them from the lymphatic system, so exposure to air and sunlight at the Preserve in Thailand should have sterilized the bullet and the cartridge case. But there may be some completely isolated tissue under that peeled-back jacketing, and we’re still trying to figure out what the DNA segments attached to the nano-tubes do, so we don’t want to take any chances.”
    “Appreciate that,” Bulatt muttered, eyeing the now-exposed mushroomed rifle bullet that Ferreira was slowly moving into the view-field of the microscope with a whole new appreciation for its lethal nature.
    “That’s also why we asked you and the Chief to take a good soapy shower and go though that decontamination procedure with the evidence box,” Ferreira explained to Achara as she carefully turned the pullet onto its mushroomed tip, “just in case.”
    “Finding anything?” Renwick asked.
    “Um, yeah, definitely picked up some animal hairs — looks like grey, white and light brown — and a bunch of tissue, all tucked up nice and safe under the peeled-back jacketing.” Mumbling to herself now, Ferreira began using the plastic forceps and another plastic probe to carefully remove hairs and bits of bloody tissue from under the mushroomed bullet tip, placing the recovered hairs in a small sterile capped vial and the tissue bits into a second identical vial.
    After another thirty seconds, Ferreira got up, said, “I’ve got my samples,” and walked purposefully out the door of the Criminalistics lab; on her way to the Genetics lab with her vials and notes.
    “My turn,” Renwick said as he moved into the chair vacated by Ferreira, and put his eyes up against the eyepieces of the dissecting microscope. “Let’s see what we’ve got here.”
    As Renwick carefully manipulated the bullet under the microscope with the same plastic forceps, Hager gently slid a folded ‘C-shaped’ two-inch-wide strip of cardboard out of the small evidence box. The top and bottom ‘C’ ends of the cardboard strip were pressed against the base and mouth of a fired brass rifle cartridge casing — the casing being held in place by a twig stuck through the top end of the cardboard and into the cartridge mouth — the entire structure being held tightly together with a looping wrap of duct tape. The effect was a protective three-sided cardboard shield protecting the secured casing from any outside source of abrasion.
    “Looks like a point-two-four-three casing,” Hager said. “I’ll check the base for confirmation after I finish the latent work.”
    “Based on the scope reticule, the bullet appears to be a two-four-three also,” Renwick said, talking mostly to Hager who was now examining the casing under a low-powered magnifying lens. “I’ll confirm with the calipers after I make the scan.” He reached over with one hand to take another series of photos with the digital camera built into the microscope, and then made a few notations to his exam form.
    “The twig’s a nice touch,” Hager said as he continued to examine the surface of the protected casing with an angled flashlight beam. “You teach him that?” he asked, looking back up at Bulatt.
    “All I did was explain the basic principles of preserving evidence; he took it from there,” Bulatt said. “From what I could see, the Chief’s a natural crime scene investigator.”
    “Yes, Chief Narusan is very enthusiastic, and very happy with his new assignment,” Achara added.
    “Well, keep encouraging him; he does a lot better job of collecting and preserving evidence than most of our agents,” Hager said as he placed the ‘’C’ structure back on the workbench, took a series of quick digital photographs from different angles, and then began to make more notations on his evidence exam form.
    “I’m going to start a NIBIN scan on the bullet,” Renwick said as he stood up with the gauze-wrapped bullet in one hand and his notes in the other.
    “Sounds good,” Hager acknowledged as Renwick headed toward the door. “I’ll get the casing over to you in about a half hour or so, as soon as I finish the processing.”
    Then Hager looked up at Bulatt and Achara. “This is the exciting part for us latent-print jockeys; you two like to watch?”

    Latent Print Lab, National Fish amp; Wildlife Forensics Lab
    In the latent print lab, Bulatt and Achara adjusted pairs of orange-tinted goggles over their eyes, and then watched as Hager first carefully fumed the cartridge casing that was now mounted inside a glass-faced fume hood, and then adjusted the beam of an adjustable-frequency light source until the brass surface began to glow.
    “Oh yes,” Hager finally laughed in cheerful satisfaction as he stepped back from the front of the fume hood, allowing Bulatt and Achara a clear view of his work.
    “Is that really a fingerprint?” she asked in a disbelieving whisper.
    “No, my dear, that is what us forensic types call a perfect partial thumbprint,” Hager corrected.
    As if responding to Hager’s words as much as the dial under his fingers, the orange-yellow thumbprint glowed even brighter, each whorl and ridge ending clearly visible to the naked — albeit goggle-aided and protected — eye.
    “My god, a perfect print, how is that possible after all those hours in the sun and rain?” Achara whispered, still visibly enthralled by the glowing evidence.
    “Very simple,” Hager said. “Every time you load a cartridge into a rifle magazine or chamber, you apply a perfectly identifiable latent fingerprint to the oily surface of that cartridge, which does not get obliterated when the cartridge is fired or ejected or lays around in a rainforest for several days, as this one apparently did. So, if the scene investigator knows what he or she is doing, and collects the casing properly — and gets it to the lab without rubbing it against any other casings or objects — we can usually visualize that print and make a database search.”
    “And you’re going to be able to do that with this fingerprint; run a database search?” Achara asked, wanting confirmation.”
    “Not a problem; we rarely get a print this nice to work with,” Hager confirmed.
    “How long will it take to get results back?” Bulatt asked.
    “On a print that distinct? Once I get the print scanned and coded, anywhere from five minutes to an hour, if we’re lucky.”
    “And if not?”
    Several hours, maybe several days,” Hager replied. “Depends on a lot of factors we don’t control. I could give it a higher priority, but you said you wanted to stay low-profile on our data runs.”
    “Low profile is better,” Bulatt said, and then looked over at Achara. “Why don’t we go have dinner, check into a hotel, get some sleep, and let these guys do their work.”
    “That sounds like a very nice idea,” Achara said, nodding sleepily. “I think my brain and my body are residing in different countries.”
    “Already taken care of,” Renwick said from the doorway. “We made reservations for you at the Windmill Inn, a couple of miles down the road. Take one of our lab rigs.” Renwick tossed a set of keys to Bulatt. “There are a lot of nice restaurants downtown, take your pick. Be back here by nine A.M. tomorrow, and we may have something for you.”
    “Any place you recommend?” Bulatt asked.
    Renwick and Hager looked at each other.
    “The Kat Wok?” Hager suggested.
    Renwick looked over at Achara. “How do you feel about Pan Asian stir-fry?”
    “Depends on who’s doing the cooking,” she said with a tired smile. “If you were eating there tonight, instead of working, what would you order?”
    “Probably grilled salmon, or the beer batter shrimp, along with the saffron rice and a spinach salad,” Renwick said.
    “And don’t forget the Szechwan beans as an appetizer,” Hager added. “You can make a meal out of the beans, if you don’t mind a lot of garlic.”
    Bulatt and Achara looked at each other in unspoken agreement.
    “Yes,” Achara said with a dimpled smile, “the Kat Wok will do just fine.”
    “You guys are welcome to join us,” Bulatt said as he got up from the chair. “Special Ops is buying.”
    “Appreciate the offer,” Renwick said, “but Steve, Juliana and I are going to have to rack up some serious overtime if you want — ”
    “Pardon the interruption, folks,” a heavyset woman with shoulder-length red hair who looked to be in her mid-forties said as she walked into the room with a no-nonsense stride and stopped in front of Bulatt, who immediately stood up. “Hi,” she said, sticking out her hand, “I’m Linda.”
    “Ged,” Bulatt said as he met her surprisingly firm handshake. “And this is Captain Achara Kulawnit from the Forestry Division of Thailand.”
    “Achara will do fine,” Achara said as she also stood up and shook Linda Reston’s hand. “I’m very pleased to meet you. I’ve heard a lot about your work, and your sons.”
    “Don’t get me started on those two. I blame it all on their father,” Reston said as she took a grainy eight-by-ten photo out of a manila folder in her left hand and placed it on the lab bench. “What I need to know, right now, is if any of you recognize this fellow?
    Bulatt took a quick look at the face of a man looking out the driver’s side window of a dark SUV and said: “yeah, I do. He’s some kind of federal government spook; goes by the name John Smith — at least with me, anyway.”
    “And you know him from where?” Reston pressed.
    “We gotten into a couple of altercations, first in Phuket a couple of days ago, and then at an electronics shop up in Redmond yesterday,” Bulatt said. “Both of us happened to be looking for the same people, and our wires got tangled.”
    “You — you’re subject White?!” Reston blinked in surprise.
    “One of his men referred to me by that name,” Bulatt said hesitantly. “How would you know that?”
    Reston was fumbling in her manila folder, and came up with a stapled-together set of pages which she began flipping through quickly.
    “Bit of an altercation?” Reston looked up from her papers, her eyes widened in disbelief. “ You’re the federal wildlife agent who beat the crap out of two of Smith’s operatives and shot a third?!”
    “It sounds worse than it really was,” Bulatt said defensively. “The two goons in the parking lot wanted to walk away with my evidence, and the third guy drew a gun on me. None of them identified themselves as being a federal anything. What did they expect me to do, put my hands up, surrender, and hand over my evidence? Besides, the third guy was wearing a vest; I just bruised him up a little bit.”
    “Which is presumably why he’s only lying in a Seattle hospital with his two buddies, listed as ‘out of action for an indeterminate time,’ instead of being planted,” Reston said, shaking her head. “Do you have any idea who your ‘John Smith’ is?”
    “Some kind of Internal Affairs honcho from the Agency; or, at least, that’s what he implied. Can I see that report?”
    “No, this report does not exist,” Reston said firmly. “And, yes, he does work for the Agency; but his name is not Smith, and that is not what he does.”
    “How would you — ?” Bulatt started to say, but then remembered. “Oh yeah, that’s right, you used to — ”
    “Work for the bastards when they were more civilized, and when the ‘John Smith’ teams were used sparingly and carefully controlled,” Reston finished.
    “He claims to be one of the controllers,” Bulatt said.
    “Yeah, that’s a funny one. Has it occurred to any of you to wonder where I got that photograph?” Reston gestured at the photo lying on the bench.
    “That looks like it was taken by one of our lab surveillance cameras,” Hager said hesitantly.
    “Kudos to the latent print guy,” Reston said with only a slight trace of sarcasm.
    Bulatt picked it up and examined the familiar face for a moment before his eyes flicked down to the imprinted numerals at the bottom of the photo. He blinked in surprise and then quickly checked his watch. “Jesus, this was taken an hour ago?!”
    “Outside the lab, on Campus Way, and hour and seven minutes ago,” Reston corrected.
    “That son-of-a-bitch tailed a U.S. Marshall’s plane here — to Ashland?!” Bulatt’s eyes blazed.
    “Not just to Ashland,” Reston corrected again, “to your specific hotel in Ashland. ‘Smith’ and five of his men checked in to the Windmill a little over two hours ago; probably because someone here at the lab made reservations in your real names with a government credit card.” Reston looked over at Hager who nodded ruefully. “These people have incredible resources. That’s how they work.”
    “The snake-eaters… hunter/killer teams,” Reston said. “Seriously dangerous people. You were out of your mind to mess with them up in Redmond.”
    “And they’re all checked in at the Windmill in, right now?” Bulatt asked.
    “All except for the guy taking first watch.”
    “And where is he?”
    “Behind the building, in the Campus way cul-de-sac.”
    “Ah, excuse me,” Bulatt said as he got up, looked around the room, grabbed a roll of nylon strapping tape, and disappeared out the doorway.
    “Hey, where the hell is he going?!” Reston demanded, looking around at Hager and Achara, both of whom shrugged their shoulders.
    “My father says that Khun Ged is a man who instinctively confronts evil, because he knows no other way of dealing with it,” Achara said calmly. “Therefore, I would assume he’s going outside to confront evil.”
    “Jesus,” Reston muttered as she lunged for a computer terminal.
    While Reston was busy punching keys and working her mouse, Captain Achara Kulawnit calmly walked over to the lab bench, picked up the ‘non-existent’ report, and began to read.

    Outside the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Lab
    The man ‘John Smith’ left on first watch in the dark blue SUV was still searching the broadband for a good AM station when he caught movement out of the corner of his eye, looked up, saw a government-licensed pickup truck pull out of the rear parking lot of the National Fish amp; wildlife Forensics Lab and turn up Campus way — in his direction — at a high rate of speed, and with all lights off.
    “What the — !”
    Reacting instantly, as he’d been trained, the man turned on the SUV’s engine and started to reach for his safety belt.
    At that moment, the on-coming truck’s high-beam headlights erupted in a blinding burst of light that caused the man to bring his hands up, reflexively, to protect his eyes. In doing so, he never saw the truck suddenly swerve directly toward the front bumper of his vehicle.
    The impact flung the watchman forward, his face and upper torso impacting the amazingly responsive air-bag with such force that his legs and lower body were driven back and then under the bag and steering wheel.
    Stunned, the watchman was barely aware of being dragged out of the SUV, or of being sat upright a split second before a sharply-driven elbow slammed down into the space between his neck and shoulder joint; the resulting hydrostolic shock from the blow sending a mass of blood rushing into his brain and rendering him instantly unconscious.
    Moments later, as he began to regain consciousness, the watchman was vaguely aware of being in a dark and enclosed space with his mouth loosely taped, his ankles taped together, and his wrists taped behind his back.
    Minutes later, the watchman was fully aware that he was lying on his back; jammed into the rear seat floor of the SUV; effectively encased by the fully-backed-up and reclined front seats; and unable to get to his cell phone and pistol that were no longer attached to his belt.

    Renwick was waiting as Bulatt drove the lab pickup back into its assigned space, got out, and then walked over to the Lab’s rear parking lot door.
    “Sorry about the bumper,” Bulatt said. “Tell your boss I’ll file the accident report when I get back to the office, and arrange for a replacement vehicle.”
    “I’ll tell him,” Renwick said agreeably, “but I have a feeling he’ll settle for a copy of the surveillance tape.”
    “Steve and Linda tell you what’s going on?”
    “Yeah, they filled me in,” Renwick said. “You special ops guys have an interesting approach to problem-solving.”
    “I haven’t solved much yet, but I did learn something,” Bulatt said. “Did you know those assholes get to rent vehicles equipped with that Satellite Security system that can track their cars all over the U.S. — presumably in case they forgot where they left them — and even unlocks the damned things remotely if they lose their keys or lock them inside the car?”
    “No, I didn’t” Renwick admitted as they walked down the hallway toward the criminalistics exam room. “Sounds like an expensive option. The Service makes us rent compact cars with no frills. God knows what we’d have to do if we lost our keys. Probably have to walk.”
    “Exactly,” Bulatt said, nodding. “Which reminds me, do you remember that big case that one of our special ops agents — Henry Lightstone — worked last year? The one where we asked you to track back on the country and population source of a bunch of hairy-legged critters?”
    “I think it’s safe to say the entire lab is aware of that case,” Renwick said, “mostly due to reoccurring nightmares.”
    “You guys ever get the genetics worked out?”
    “I don’t think so. Too many other higher priority issues; although I’ll bet if you took a vote amongst the lab staff — ”
    “So they’re still here?”
    “Every one of the damned things; in their own tanks, and locked securely in the bug room. Or at least we assume they’re all there. I seriously doubt that anyone’s gone back there to take a count, except for the university kid we hired to do the feeding.” Renwick gave Bulatt a questioning look. “Why, are you thinking about taking them with you?”
    “Yeah,” Bulatt said. “That’s exactly what I was thinking about.”

    Conference Room, National Fish amp; Wildlife Forensics Lab
    Twenty minutes later, when Bulatt walked back into the lab conference room with a large cardboard box in his hand, he found Donn Renwick, Steve Hager, Juliana Ferreira, Linda Reston and her twin sons waiting for him. The boys were now sitting extremely close to Achara at the far end of the table, and pointing out something on a computer screen.
    “Things are about to get interesting,” Bulatt said as he carefully placed the box on the floor and then sat down in the one empty chair.
    “You mean more interesting than assaulting federal agents, and stuffing them in the back of a SUV?” Reston inquired.
    “I think so,” Bulatt said, nodding.
    “Before you tell us why that might be the case, maybe we should fill you in on a few things first,” Renwick suggested.
    “Sure,” Bulatt said agreeably. “Go ahead.”
    “I’ll start,” Ferreira said. “The tissue under the jacketing of that bullet is definitely from a Clouded Leopard. I confirmed that with the mass-spec a few minutes ago. I don’t know if it’s been genetically altered, like the other two; but I should know more about that by tomorrow afternoon.”
    “And we’ve gotten three hits out of NIBIN on the cartridge casing,” Renwick said. “one out of Russia, one out of Alaska, and one out of South Africa; all within the last two years. No suspects, but a lot of scene evidence that we can try to link up.”
    “Any hits on the bullet?” Bulatt asked.
    “No, just the casing, so far.”
    “Okay, that still fits the wealthy international hunting pattern,” Bulatt said, nodding. “Anything else?”
    “Just one minor thing,” Hager said. “We got a match on the print.”
    “You — what?!” Bulatt’s eyes widened in disbelief.
    “Michael Hateley. Fifty-five year old Caucasian male, CEO of a major defense industry subcontracting firm in Denver, busted for drunk-and-disorderly and assaulting a police officer in Anchorage thirty-four years ago,” Hager said, reading from his notes. “That’s where the computer found a set of his prints. Based on his reported blood alcohol level, he probably didn’t even remember having his prints taken.”
    “Are you absolutely sure about the match?” Bulatt said in a hushed voice.
    “Ninety-eight percent confirmation by the system, which is as high as the software is programmed to go. I’ll have a copy of the original prints faxed to us tomorrow morning, so I can make the final confirmation under a glass; but, yeah, odds are extremely high that he’s the guy who put his thumb on that two-four-three casing. Unfortunately, I don’t think that solves your problem.”
    Bulatt blinked in sudden realization.
    “Shit, you can’t match the casing to the bullet with the Clouded Leopard tissue, can you?”
    “No, we can’t,” Renwick said. ‘We would have some arguable degree of probability if there were bullets collected from those Russia, Alaska and South African scenes; but the only thing they submitted were cartridge cases.”
    “But you can still link those cartridges — and therefore the scenes — to Hateley’s rifle, can’t you?” Bulatt asked hesitantly.
    “Very possibly,” Renwick agreed, “assuming he didn’t buy it from some other internationally-traveling hunter, which is exactly what his lawyer is going to claim.”
    “And even if we can prove he bought the rifle two years ago, and didn’t lend it to anyone, he still could have been hunting at each of those locations the week — or month — before; which is something else his lawyer is likely to claim,” Hager added.
    “And you can’t tell when those cartridges were fired?” Bulatt asked.
    The two forensic scientists shook their heads.
    “Shit,” Bulatt muttered to himself. He stared down at the table, lost in thought for a few seconds. Then his head suddenly snapped back up.
    “Can we get a copy of Hateley’s mug shot from that Anchorage arrest; or, ideally, an updated photo,” Bulatt asked.
    “We’re already working on it,” Achara said, looking up from the computer. “The boys are digging into his Corporate website right now. If they can find something — ”
    “Not ‘if’ — we will find something,” one of the identical twins said. “No doubt about it.”
    “Yeah, absolutely no doubt,” the other confirmed.
    “You two just be careful where you dig; you know your limits,” Linda Reston warned her sons, and received a quick pair of “yes, moms.”
    “Limits?” Bulatt asked quizzically.
    “There are some relevant federal rules about hacking firewalls and private databases; and, contrary to my son’s opinions, the computers they’re using can be traced,” Reston said. “Being the responsible parent, I’d like to keep them out of federal prison for a few more years.”
    “Perfectly understandable,” Bulatt said absentmindedly as he looked around the conference room, grabbed a pad of paper, and began writing furiously. After a minute or so, he tore the top sheet off the pad and handed it to Reston. “Can you do any or all of that?” he asked.
    Reston examined the block-printed notes. “Satellite Security?”
    “The window sticker on the rental car I smacked into claims it’s protected by their full system,” Bulatt explained. “Why rent something like that for one car and not the others?”
    Reston shrugged. “I can check. When do you need it?”
    Bulatt looked at his watch. “Is a half-hour asking too much?”
    “Yes, it is, but I’m starting to enjoy this; so I’ll see what I can do,” Reston said after a moment’s hesitation. Then she looked over at her twins. “Can you keep an eye on those two while I try to get some work done?” she asked Achara, very much aware that the hormones of her sons were finally kicking into high gear.
    “As long as I can stay awake, sure, no problem,” Achara said with a tired yawn, generating a pair of wide grins among her two charges.
    “Actually,” Bulatt said, “I think I’m going to need Achara for a while; but I guess I could take the boys along too,” he offered.
    “Absolutely not, they get enough free-wheeling inspiration from their father as it is,” Reston said emphatically. “I’ll keep an eye on them; they can help me on the car registrations.”
    The twins started to protest, but Bulatt cut in: “after that, Achara and I will be happy to take them out for all the pizza they can eat; but only if they manage to track down those links.”
    “Going out for pizza afterwards is fine, just as long as their computers stay right here,” Reston reminded.
    The promise of all the pizza they could eat while in the presence of an exotic woman like Captain Achara Kulawnit was apparently too much for a pair of fourteen-year-old male minds to resist. They followed their mother out of the room obediently.
    Bulatt turned to Renwick. “Got another government rig we can borrow?” he asked.
    “I think we’ve got a couple that are still in reasonable shape,” Renwick replied. “Truck or van?”
    Bulatt looked over at Achara. “How do you feel about being in close proximity to a bunch of critters with hairy legs?”
    “My father always said I was born to be a biologist, and my mother never liked to go in my room,” Achara said with a smile. “Does that answer your question?”
    “I think so,” Bulatt said as he tore the next page off the note pad, took out his wallet, pulled out five one-hundred-dollar bills and handed them over to Renwick along with the page of block-printed notes. “The van will do just fine,” he said. “You think you could arrange for all of those things to happen without identifying yourself as a federal government employee?”
    “Yeah, sure, no problem,” Renwick said as he scanned through the notes. Then he looked back up at Bulatt. “ Two large pizza’s?”
    “Better make it three,” Bulatt said. “I’m going to need those fourteen-year-old brains well fed.”

    Rear Parking Lot, Windmill Inn, Ashland, Oregon
    Bulatt drove the damaged dark blue SUV around to the rear parking lot of the Windmill Inn, ignoring the thrashing and muffled cursing from the man who was still jammed into the rear seat floor space. He parked next to a trio of like vehicles — two similar SUVs and a new van — all of which sported identical warning stickers on the driver’s side windows.
    “So much for covert tradecraft,” Bulatt muttered to himself as he waited for Achara to park next to his SUV. Once she was parked, he got out and walked around to the driver’s side of the lab van. As he did so, he thumbed a call number on his Blackberry.
    “How did it go?” he asked Achara, looking past her shoulder at the array of fifty duct-taped glass aquariums that took up most of the floor space of the van’s cargo bay.
    “Just fine,” she said, her brightly flashing eyes matching her dimpled smile. “They’re actually very cute little fellows.”
    “Maybe to their mothers, or born-to-be biologist,” Bulatt replied with a grin as he brought his Blackberry up to his ear. “This is Ged,” he replied to the responding voice. “I’m looking at two SUV’s and a van.” He quickly read off the license plates, and then waited.
    “Right now would be just fine,” he finally said, then disconnected the call, slipped the Blackberry back onto his belt and turned to Achara. “Are you ready to go to work?”

    The Ashland Springs Hotel, Ashland, Oregon
    Two hours later, Bulatt opened the door to the top-floor, two-room suite that Renwick had paid cash for; stepped inside with a hole-punched cardboard file box in his hand; turned on the light; looked around briefly; and then moved aside to make room for Achara and the two Reston boys.
    “Oh, wow,” the two boys whispered wide-eyed when they saw the contents of the living room.
    In addition to the stuffed couch and chairs that had been moved against the walls near the suite door, the room contained three cloth-covered round tables with pairs of chairs at each. The table furthest to the right held three large pizza boxes still nestled in warming pouch that was plugged into the nearby wall; six bottles of soda in an ice bucket; a plate holding a dozen chocolate chip cookies; and assorted plates and silverware. The table in the middle of the room, pushed up against the far wall, held a single laptop computer that was connected to a small color printer, and to a grey electronic box that, in turn, was connected to the wall by a thick white cable.
    “There are more sodas in the fridge. The laptop, printer and firewall are mine, so your mother’s concerns are not an issue here,” Bulatt said as he closed the door, locked it, set the file box down, and then dragged the couch over so that it blocked the door. “There’s only one computer, so you guys will have to share.”
    “Who’s the software registered to?” one of the twins asked.
    “The hardware and software are registered to a covert business I set up in Redmond to work fresh water mussel cases,” Bulatt said. “According to your mother, the system’s connected up to the Ashland Fiber Network so that all routine tracking queries link back to Redmond. As long as you don’t use any of your personal passwords to access programs and data, everything you do should track back to my dummy corporation. I don’t understand how that happens, but I suppose you both do.”
    “Oh sure,” the other boy who was eagerly pulling one of the pizza boxes out of the warmer said, “all you have to do is — ”
    “Don’t tell me,” Bulatt said, holding up his left hand as he unsnapped his holstered pistol with his right and dropped it on the couch, “I’m not going to understand what you’re saying, and it would just make my head hurt if I tried.”
    “Hey, is that a Sig-forty?” The boy paused in the middle of opening the first box.
    “It looks just like the one our dad carries. Can I see it?”
    “What if — ?”
    “You touch the gun, I dislocate both of your thumbs,” Bulatt said matter-of-factly. “I’m sure your father would approve, and it would simplify the computer-sharing problem.”
    “Oh,” the boy said, apparently intimidated by at least one of the threats as he turned his attentions back to the pizza box.
    “Are you sure our mom knows about this?” the second boy — who had already set himself down in front of the computer and was eyeing the connections warily as the odor of hot pizza began to fill the room.
    “She knows you’re going to be using my covert business laptop through this specific Internet connection to see what you can find out about Michael Hateley and his globe-hopping buddies, and I’m sure she’s got some clever way of monitoring what you do; but — ” Bulatt started to say.
    “Did she actually turn on and operate your laptop?” the boy interrupted.
    “Not as far as I know,” Bulatt said. “She just gave me the firewall box.”
    The two boys looked at each other, smiled, and nodded. The boy at the computer quickly disconnected the firewall box at the wall and laptop, reconnected the computer directly to the wall, and then turned back to Bulatt. “Now she can’t monitor us.”
    “At least not very easily,” the boy stacking slices of pizza onto a plate amended.
    “Yeah, that’s true, she’s pretty sneaky,” the boy at computer agreed as he grabbed a slice of pizza from the plate his brother sat next to the laptop. “But, at least this way, it’s not really our fault if we go too far.”
    “That’s precisely the idea,” Bulatt said.
    The pizza boy started to sit down next to his brother, but then looked over at Bulatt. “Hey, you guys want some of this pizza?”
    At that moment, the pungent aroma of Thai spices and garlic erupted into the room, easily competing with — and quickly overwhelming — the odors of baked cheese, crust, tomato paste and pepperoni.
    “Eeew, what’s that?” the boys chimed in unison as they turned their attention to Achara, who had turned away from the computer discussion and was now busily opening up boxes labeled KAT WOK and filling plates.
    “That,” Bulatt said with a satisfied sigh, “is what real food smells like.”

    An hour later, Bulatt set his plate aside, leaned back into the soft cushions of the couch, and sighed contentedly, very much aware of the enticingly warm leg of Achara Kulawnit pressed tightly against his. “That was an excellent meal.”
    Ten feet away, the twins continued to mutter, point at the laptop screen, and then quickly work the keyboard and mouse; just as they’d been doing for the last hour in between occasional bathroom, soda and cookie breaks.
    “It was very nice,” Achara agreed with a yawn as she contemplated the last Szechwan green bean that she held casually at the end of her chopsticks, “but I can do better.”
    “Really?” Bulatt’s right eyebrow rose skeptically.
    “Absolutely.” Achara extended the green bean in front of Bulatt who groaned, leaned forward, bit off half, and then sank back into the cushions with another contented sigh as Achara popped the remaining bean half into her mouth. “It’s just a matter of carefully controlling the heat.”
    “And you know how to do that.”
    Achara glanced over at the twins, eyeing them with an expression on her face that Bulatt couldn’t quite interpret, shook her head, and then turned to Bulatt.
    “Speaking of which, I assume you do realize that we could have had a much more intimate dinner if you hadn’t brought along the chaperones,” she added in a quiet voice, her facial features shifting to an expression that was much easier to read. “Tell me you did that because you want very badly to find the men who killed my brother and shot my father.”
    “Definitely because of your father,” Bulatt said, meeting her gaze. “I promised him I would find and deal with the men who killed your brother and his Rangers.”
    “My brother is at peace with my mother, my father is a very understanding man, and that was an evasive answer,” she said softly.
    “Yes, it was,” Bulatt agreed.
    “But you still plan on sleeping out here on the couch, guarding the door all night; just in case this John Smith character figures out where we are, and tries to interfere with our investigation again?”
    Bulatt glanced down at his wristwatch. “Smith isn’t going to find us, even if he’s awake and looking, which I seriously doubt; and, in about three more hours, he’s going to be much too busy to care about us at all. So, to answer your question: yes, I am going to stay here on this couch and keep an eye on those two, because they’re my biggest concern at the moment,” Bulatt said, nodding his head in the direction of the twins.
    “Why, because you’re concerned they might go too far?”
    “No, actually, I’m concerned they might be too afraid of their mother to go far enough.”
    “Ah.” Achara considered the implications for a few seconds. “And while all of this illicit probing and data mining is going on, you really think the little ones are going to be sufficiently… distracting?”
    “Not necessarily, but I do think they’re going to scare the shit out of Smith and his pals for at least fifteen seconds — and make them a lot more thoughtful about other possible consequences down the road — while they’re busy discovering that all their tires are flat, all their car-door keyholes are filled with glue, all their lock releases are duct-taped, and all the Satellite Security systems are disabled. And after that, they’re going to be very busy trying to figure out how to get their trussed-up watchman out of that SUV without breaking a window and setting off the car alarms and waking up the neighborhood.”
    “Or getting bit, I suppose.”
    “That too,” Bulatt agreed.
    “And you’re sure Smith won’t try to hurt them?” Achara asked, looking concerned.
    “Oh I’m sure he’d get around to thinking about hurting them, eventually,” Bulatt said. “But, long before that happens, he’s going to find himself confronted by a team of pissed-off special ops agents who are going to want all of their evidence back; and who are going to be very upset if a single hairy leg is harmed.”
    “You’re talking about Henry Lightstone, that agent who you said couldn’t tell a dead Cat Island turtle from a live one?” Achara said dubiously
    “Henry is making dramatic improvements as a wildlife agent,” Bulatt said, smiling. “And he’s actually getting pretty good at telling dead turtles from live ones. He just doesn’t like getting bit.”
    “By turtles?”
    “By just about anything; it’s sort of a personality quirk.”
    “But you did say he’s more aggressive than you are?” Achara pressed, still sounding dubious.
    “Henry is definitely more aggressive than I am, in a devious sort of way; Larry knows every bureaucratic trick in the book; Mike’s off the chart in terms of technical skills; and Dwight’s perfectly capable of ripping arms and legs off guys like Smith and his associates,” Bulatt said. “All things considered, I don’t think you have to worry about the little ones at all.”
    “Well, in that case,” Achara said, making an unsuccessful attempt to mask another yawn, “I’m going to go to bed, and I’m taking our little ones with me.” She got up from the couch, bent down, and picked up the cardboard file box. She started toward the bedroom on the left, paused, looked back at Bulatt — who was in the process of stretching his legs out on the couch — lifted one end of the box top slightly, reached in, pulled something out, and then walked back to the couch. “But I wouldn’t want you to get lonely out here, all by yourself,” she added with a dimpled emphasis as she dropped a little furry bundle on Bulatt’s chest.
    Bulatt and the twins all watched Achara walk into the bedroom and close the door.
    “Wow,” the boy at the computer keyboard said, “she is definitely hot.”
    “Classic warrior-princess babe,” the other brother agreed.
    “Hey, and if you’re not interested in her,” the first boy said, glancing over at Bulatt, “we’ll be happy to — ”
    Bulatt reached down to his chest, picked up the furry bundle, and placed it on his knee. Instantly, the little furry body rose up on all eight legs and scampered back up to Bulatt’s chest.
    “Holy shit!” both boys screamed in unison.
    “What’s the matter, I thought you guys liked to play with little spiders?” Bulatt inquired, watching with amusement as the furry creature stared at him with glistening eyes and then settled back down in the center of his chest.
    “That’s not a little spider,” the first boy whispered.
    “That’s not even… little,” the second rasped.
    Both boys looked as if they were about ready to faint.
    “No, I suppose not,” Bulatt agreed. “He’s actually a red-kneed tarantula. One of our special ops teams seized about seven hundred and fifty of these guys last year. Hell of a bust.”
    “You have… seven hundred and fifty of those… things?” The boy could barely get the words out.
    “More or less,” Bulatt said. “I’ve got the one here, Achara’s got fourteen more in the box, and — at the moment — we’re storing the rest out at the Windmill Inn.”
    “How can you let it just… sit there?” the boy at the keyboard said, looking like he was about ready to cry.
    “Just a personal preference, I suppose.” Bulatt shrugged. “Some people are terrified of tarantulas. Other people — like Achara, for example — let them wander around their bedrooms at night.”
    “You mean she — ?”
    “All night — ?”
    “Walking around on top of her bed?”
    “On top of… her?”
    “Sure, why not. They won’t bother her,” Bulatt said as he picked up the tarantula again, this time dropping it gently onto the floor. “Mostly, they like to wander around on the floor looking for food.
    Suddenly alert, the tarantula squatted up and down a couple of times — like he was warming up with some eight-legged knee bends — and then scampered over to the floor where one of the boys had dropped a piece of pizza.
    “Don’t worry, he’s just looking — ” Bulatt started to say when both boys screamed in unison; quickly unplugged the laptop from the wall; grabbed up the laptop, the printer and the bucket of sodas; and then disappeared into the far right bedroom with a solid slam of the door.
    “- for crickets and other things that like to hang around scraps of pizza,” Bulatt finished as he got up, shut off the lights, settled back into the couch, and closed his eyes with a contented sigh.

    At four-thirty-two in the morning, a light tapping on the hotel room door caused Bulatt’s eyes to snap open. After a quick look through the peep-hole, he pulled the couch aside and opened the door.
    “George Reston,” the tough and very tired looking man said, holding out an opened federal agent credentials case. “I believe you were the designated kid-sitter this evening?”
    “Ged Bulatt,” Bulatt said as he shook Reston’s hand, motioned him inside, and then quietly shutting the door. “Appreciate the use of your boys; they turned out to be extremely helpful, once I got them away from their mom.”
    “You mean you actually got some useful work out of these characters?” Reston said as he quietly opened the bedroom door and observed his two sons sprawled out on the twin beds, sound asleep. “How’d you manage that?”
    “Classic good-cop bad-cop act,” Bulatt said as he and Reston each picked up one of the boys. “Had a beautiful Thai warrior princess on hand for the good cop, so all I had to do was come up with an effective twist for the bad cop.”
    “I heard about your partner,” Reston said. “What did you use for a twist, if you don’t mind my asking?”
    “Turns out your boys like to play with baby electronic spiders, but turn pale at the sight of a bigger one that’s real.” Bulatt motioned with his head at the red-kneed tarantula squatting on the arm of the couch, apparently watching the scene with some interest.
    “Really?” Reston walked over to the couch and stared down at the inquisitive spider. “You think I could arrange to borrow this little guy, every now and then?”
    “I’m sure we can work something out,” Bulatt said, nodding agreeably.

    A half hour later, a buzzing sound emanating from the couch woke Bulatt out of a light sleep. He fumbled around, found the Blackberry, pressed the light button, noted that it was five-fifteen in the morning, and then thumbed the ‘ANSWER’ button.
    “Morning, Henry, where are you at?”
    “Rear parking lot of the Windmill Inn,” Henry Lightstone answered.
    “Have a pleasant flight?”
    “Have you ever flown with Woeshack, at night, and during bad weather?”
    “Ah, right, my apologies.”
    “Tell it to Paxton, Stoner and Takahara. They just spent the last three hours discussing the best way to dispose of your body, in between watching out for radio towers and tall trees. I don’t suppose you’d care to tell us where you’re staying?”
    “Tell the guys I’m hiding out from a bunch of government goons in a hotel room with a gorgeous Thai warrior-princess; a pair of very clever fourteen-year-old CIA-trained hackers; and a boxful of red-knees,” Bulatt said. “No need to add to my grief.”
    There was some murmured conversation on the other end of the line.
    “Larry thinks you’re bullshitting us, as usual; Mike wants to meet the kids; and Dwight says you’re not going to be of much use to the princess when he’s done ripping assorted parts off your body,” Lightstone said, coming back on the line. “Personally, I’m in favor of handcuffing you into the plane with Woeshack.”
    “Which is precisely why I arranged for your morning entertainment; something special to take your minds off your troubles,” Bulatt said, and went on to describe the latest modifications to his plan.
    “These are more of the hunter/killer guys you’ve already beaten up and shot; the ones that Schweer told us about?” Lightstone inquired.
    “Probably the back-up team,” Bulatt corrected. “If they’re anything like the first group, and the fellow on first-watch, look for them to be heavy on the muscles and firearms, but not real alert. Personally, I’d let them all get a good look at the red-knees wandering around loose in the cars before you make contact; they don’t seem to be able to handle distractions very well.”
    “And you really need us to deal with these idiots?”
    “Actually, the one I’m concerned about is Smith,” Bulatt explained. “He seems to be experienced, and half-way smart; and he’s probably going to be seriously pissed when he finds out the kids cancelled all of his team’s government travel cards, and messed with their cell phone accounts.”
    “No shit?”
    “Like I said, they’re very clever kids,” Bulatt reminded.
    “And this gorgeous Thai warrior-princess; you saying she’s real?”
    “You recall that Colonel Prathun Kulawnit has a daughter?”
    “I vaguely remember him showing us a photo one evening,” Lightstone acknowledged.
    “Well, she’s all grown up now; and, at the moment, safely nestled in bed about twenty feet from my couch with a bunch of red-knees crawling over her very gorgeous body,” Bulatt said. “Would you like for me to make up some lurid details, or would you rather take all of your frustrations in life out on a bunch of government thugs who are trying to keep us from hunting down the assholes that killed her brother and shot her father; most likely because they want to recruit the assholes for their own purposes?”
    There was a long pause.
    “Okay,” Lightstone said agreeably, “how much time do you need?”
    “Twenty-four hours would be nice; forty-eight even nicer. Smith seems to have a wallet-full of get-out-of-jail cards.”
    “How about Smith goes down for assaulting a federal agent, with witnesses present, and I get to meet the princess?”
    “Who gets assaulted?”
    “Think there’ll be any serious bruising involved? I really don’t like these guys hanging around our lab; kinda makes me nervous.”
    “Count on it.”
    “Sounds like a deal,” Bulatt agreed.
    “You’ll still owe the rest of the guys, though,” Lightstone reminded. “We flew the whole way under the clouds, and some of those trees were pretty goddamned tall.”
    “How about I let all you guys in on the take-down?”
    “What are we talking about?”
    “Right now, four extremely wealthy trophy-killers, probably in-your-face arrogant CEO-types with hidden collections who like to travel a lot; three ex-Australian SASR commandos turned hunting guides who, according to Smith, are good for the deaths of an international smuggler named Gregor and his entire crew, not to mention at least five dead Thai Rangers — including the Colonel’s son — and a lot of collateral damage that we know about; and maybe a bunch of Russian immigrants thrown in for good luck.”
    “And you were planning on keeping these assholes all for yourself?” Lightstone asked accusingly.
    “Just trying to stay flexible until the last minute,” Bulatt corrected. “Also, there’s the minor problem that I don’t know who they really are, or where they’re at, right now… except for Smith, of course.”
    “But you do have a lead?”
    “On one of the CEO’s,” Bulatt acknowledged. “A guy named Michael Hateley. I should know a lot more about Mr. Hateley and his associates in a few hours, assuming I can keep Smith and his goons away from my kid-hackers.”
    “Consider it done. You want to make the wake-up call?”
    “Later.” Bulatt disconnected the call, slipped the Blackberry back onto his belt, and then reached for the cell phone he’d taken off the watchman and punched in a series of numbers.
    After four rings, a sleepy voice answered. “This is Smith, what’s the hell’s happening out — ?”
    “Help,” Bulatt said calmly. Then he disconnected the call, turned the cell phone off, set it aside, and snuggled back into the comfortable cushions with a contented sigh.


    Conference Room, Fish and Wildlife Forensics Lab
    At fifteen minutes after eight in the morning, Gedimin Bulatt and Achara Kulawnit entered the National Fish and Wildlife Forensic Lab’s conference room where they found Renwick, Hager and Reston waiting.
    “Have a productive evening?” Renwick asked as he glanced meaningfully at his watch.
    “You might say that,” Bulatt said as he placed a satchel he’d been carrying on the table and then sat down at one of the empty chairs; Achara taking the adjacent chair. “Sorry we’re late. Achara and I had to stop by the Windmill Inn this morning to help some fellow agents deal with a few loose spiders.”
    “Which you are going to keep, and not bring back here, like you promised?” Hager reminded.
    Bulatt nodded. “That was the agreement; but it looks like I’m going have put them back in the bug room, temporarily, until the indictments get filed,” he added apologetically. “After that, we’re going to ship the little guys back to Mexico where they presumably came from. Achara and I will take care of the details.”
    “Thank god,” Hager whispered.
    “Indictments?” Reston said, her eyebrows rising curiously.
    “There was a little altercation in the parking lot earlier this morning,” Bulatt explained. “A couple of our special ops agents managed to get themselves assaulted by some fellows who claimed to be federal law enforcement officers, but who couldn’t explain why they were in possession of illegal wildlife — our little red-legged friends — and some possibly-bogus federal government travel cards. Sounded like a pretty confusing deal; probably have to be worked out at the Washington Office level.”
    “But it was very exciting to watch,” Achara added. “Lot’s of police cars and ambulances with flashing lights, tow trucks, the works; just like you see on American TV.”
    “’Lots’ of police cars — meaning more than one — in Ashland, that early in the morning?” Hager looked skeptical.
    “It helps to plan your altercations ahead of time,” Bulatt explained. “Gives the locals plenty of time to get their coffee, call in extra back-ups, and get a good front-seat view of the proceedings.”
    “And our Mr. Smith?” Renwick asked.
    “According to the EMT’s, his prognosis looks fairly good. They said he’ll probably be back on his feet in a few days without any serious complications, if you don’t count the assault complaint our agents will be filing with the local U.S. Attorney,” Bulatt said matter-of-factly. “In any case, I don’t think he’ll be bothering us for a while. The guy who pulled a knife on Stoner is another issue entirely; he won’t be up and moving around quite so soon.”
    “What about my children?” Reston asked, looking tired and even more grumpy than usual from working all night. “Please tell me they weren’t involved in this… planned altercation.”
    “Your sons spent the entire night in their hotel room, presumably working their little typing and mouse fingers to the bone,” Bulatt said, raising his hand in a ‘Scout’s honor’ gesture. “They were sound asleep when their father picked them up a four-thirty this morning. He seemed like a nice fellow.”
    “If you happen to like big, ornery and aggressive federal law enforcement types,” Reston said with a shrug. “George had to fill-in on a stake-out last night. You and Achara saved us the expense of an overnight baby-sitter.”
    “You actually leave those boys alone, overnight, with a baby-sitter?” Achara said, blinking in surprise.
    “Not very often; their grandmother charges too much,” Reston said, keeping her reddened eyes focused on Bulatt. “You didn’t tell them I had access to your laptop, did you?”
    Bulatt shook his head. “I didn’t figure that was something they needed to know.”
    “Well, they didn’t believe you; that much was obvious,” Reston said. “But I have a feeling they were too busy showing off for Achara to make a thorough check. They found three of the worm programs I inserted, but missed the other two — one of which they should have found. And they really should have opened up the case and spotted the back-up transmitter. I thought I’d taught them better than that.”
    “We might have clogged up their brains a bit with all that pizza and the chocolate chip cookies,” Bulatt suggested.
    “More likely their brains are just starting to migrate south, which may or may not be a good thing,” Reston said. “Which reminds me, did you bring that laptop in?”
    “Yep, right here.” Bulatt reached into the satchel, pulled out his laptop computer, and handed it to Reston who turned it over, examined the serial numbers on the back; then held it out at arm’s length and allowed it to drop to the floor with a loud crash.
    “Oops,” Hager said casually.
    Bulatt blinked in surprise. “Aren’t you being a little rough on my equipment?”
    “Look who’s talking,” Reston muttered as she reached down, picked up the laptop, opened it up, turned it on, watched the computer screen flicker to life, frowned, then held it up higher and let it drop to the floor a second time.
    Unable to resist, Bulatt looked around the edge of the table and saw that the computer screen was cracked but still glowing brightly.
    “Impressive,” he commented. “I didn’t realize they were making computers that tough these days.”
    “Neither did I,” Reston said, frowning. “I’ll take a sledge hammer to it later, and then run the parts through a metal shredder.”
    Bulatt’s eyebrows furrowed in confusion for a moment, but then it came to him.
    “They went too far — with my laptop — didn’t they?” he said, smiling hopefully.
    “Much too far,” Reston acknowledged.
    “Credit card and cell phone records; definitely forbidden territory for those two. Not to mention hacking into a local mainframe when they decided your computer was too small and too slow; which is why I don’t want any evidence hanging around for an IG investigator to poke at. I’ve got a replacement laptop for you in my office.”
    “Which — if I was fourteen, and knew what I was doing — I’d probably open up and check for worms, transmitters and baby spider eggs right off the bat, correct?”
    “You’re starting to catch on,” Reston said approvingly.
    “I’ll have Mike check it out, just to be on the safe side,” Bulatt promised.
    “So how did they approach it?” Achara asked, unable to contain herself any longer.
    “That’s the amazing thing,” Reston said, “every now and then these kids still manage to surprise me. Their general approaches to probes and database links are still pretty unsophisticated; but they have this odd ability to make huge logic leaps at the most illogical moments. It’s probably a generational thing; but I would have started with the registration number for Hateley’s Gulfstream, and worked outwards in linear searches from there.”
    “They didn’t?”
    “No, they went straight into a seven-dimensional array with jet-fuel accounts and Gulfstream maintenance firm records in the first two positions, cross-linked to credit cards, cell phone calls, hotel bookings, national newspaper articles and CITES permits, and then ran the entire matrix through a Boolean logic deep-search with Hateley as the common factor. In effect, they ran forty-two comprehensive searches simultaneously, all of which were cross-linked. They should have set up a logic tree right away, anchored their roots, and covered their tracks better, but they were probably in a hurry to show their stuff; and I had the transmitter set for one second bursts every half hour, to keep them from picking up on the RAM usage, so I was always playing catch-up. But I was still able to follow their trail, clean up the log files and — ”
    Bulatt saw that Achara was listening intently.
    “Did you actually understand any single part of what she just said?” Bulatt asked Achara, interrupting Reston’s summary.
    “Sure.” Achara shrugged, nodding her head. Bulatt looked around and discovered that Renwick and Hager were also nodding their heads.
    Bulatt decided that his head was definitely starting to hurt. “Uh, could we skip the technical details and go straight to the ‘oh my god’ part, assuming there is one,” he asked.
    “Absolutely,” Reston said, motioning to Hager who reached over and thumbed a remote device. A glowing Powerpoint™ slide suddenly appeared on the far white wall, showing the faces of four men, all of whom appeared to be in their mid-fifties.
    “And just who would these fellows be?” Bulatt asked.
    “Starting from upper left hand corner and working clockwise, Michael Hateley, Dr. Stuart Jackson Caldreaux, Max Kingman, and Sam Fogarty,” Reston said. “The internationally-traveling CEO hunters we’ve been looking for.”
    Bulatt blinked. “You’re joking.”
    “No, actually, I’m not,” Reston said seriously. “I hate to admit it, but the kids pulled it off. You are looking at four extremely wealthy CEOs of relatively small corporations that profit handsomely from operating as subsidiaries to the much bigger war industry conglomerates. Interestingly enough, they all own Gulfstream G-fives that have a habit of landing at the same airports on the same days with amazing regularity. They also purchase national and international hunting licenses and file for trophy-import permits on a regular basis.”
    “I assume there’s more?” Bulatt asked.
    “A great deal more,” Reston said as she reached into a cardboard box beside her chair and pulled out four stacks of paper that someone had marked HATELEY, CALDREAUX, KINGMAN and FOGARTY on the top pages with a thick black marker, and placed them down on the table. Each stack was held together with a steel spring clip at the upper left edge, and appeared to be at least a half-inch thick
    “This is what we know about them so far, in undigested form. I have a link analysis running now, but I thought you’d like to see the raw data.”
    “I’ll be damned.” Bulatt said, shaking his head in amazement as he picked up the set labeled HATELEY and began to flip through the pages. Achara, Renwick and Hager picked up the other three. “Did the kids happen to trip across any hunting violations while they were at it?”
    “I’m still running branched searches for additional information, and I haven’t had time to read most of what’s in those reports; but I do know that all four of these characters have had run-ins with state wardens, as well as with our federal agents. Mostly misdemeanor stuff, and mostly when they were a lot younger,” Reston said, glancing down at her hand-written notes. “Caldreaux was charged with a couple of Lacey Act violations nine years ago that his lawyers managed to get dismissed; but, as far as we know right now, that was the only time any of them have been charged with a felony.”
    “Learned their lessons early in life,” Bulatt commented. “What about club memberships or private hunting areas?”
    “All four have been members of several local, national and international hunt clubs; but, interestingly enough, they all cancelled their club memberships a little over eight years ago.”
    “Why would they do that? It doesn’t make sense,” Bulatt said. “The main reason guys like these hunt is to brag about their trophies. If they dropped their memberships, who would they brag to?”
    “Each other,” Achara whispered.
    “What?” Bulatt turned to stare curiously at his beautiful associate.
    “They must have set up their own club, so they could brag and compete with each other,” she said, staring at the four photographs with an expression on her face that was part loathing and part amazement. “After all, who else can they trust not to give them up at the first sign of law enforcement pressure?”
    “Their own club, to hunt things like Clouded Leopards in Thailand; which presumably means smuggling their trophies back home, so they can show off their illegal kills to each other,” Bulatt said, nodding his head thoughtfully. Then he turned to Reston.
    “You said these guys get together regularly?”
    “Yes, they do. In fact, the last time was just a few days ago: in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where Hateley has his primary residence. The timing corresponds with what appears to be a once-a-year meeting at one of their three home towns. And since none of them purchased a meal with their credit cards that night, we can reasonably assume they got together for dinner; probably at Hateley’s home.”
    “Find the rest of that Clouded Leopard at Hateley’s place, and Juliana will be able to match it to the tissue from the bullet,” Renwick reminded. “She’s working up the statistical data now.”
    “Getting hold of that two-four-three Magnum rifle would be nice too, while you’re at it,” Hager added.
    “Unfortunately, a seizure like that is going to require a search warrant, and getting together for dinner once a year is not a violation of federal law,” Bulatt reminded. “In point of fact — or at least as far as we know for sure — none of these men have ever committed a serious crime against wildlife, much less murder.”
    “But, at the moment, they are the only link we have to the men who killed our Rangers and shot my father,” Achara said.
    “Yes, that seems to be the case,” Bulatt agreed. He tossed the report set down on the table and turned to Reston. “Do you have anything else on these guys?”
    “Yes, as a matter of fact, I do. It appears that all four of them are making arrangements to fly to the state of Washington the day after tomorrow.”
    “How do we know that?” Bulatt asked, now staring intently at the four faces displayed on the white wall.
    “It takes a lot of coordinated effort and behind-the-scenes work to keep four Gulfstream G-Fives in the air,” Reston explained. “The pilots of these planes like to schedule maintenance checks when they know they’re going to be laying over for a couple of days at a major airport; especially if they’ve been flying in bad weather conditions. Turns out the pilots of all four of these planes scheduled routine maintenance checks at SEA-TAC two days from now.”
    “Does that mean SEA-TAC is the probable get-together point?” Bulatt asked.
    “Not necessarily, but I’m guessing the get-together point is probably within an hour’s flight radius of SEA-TAC. The pilots could drop their passengers off at a local airport, lay over at SEA-TAC, and be available for a pick-up a couple of days later. That would fit within their previous maintenance check patterns.”
    “And now they are planning to fly to the same location again, in Washington State, only a few days later? Have they ever gotten together like that before, apart from their annual meetings?” Achara asked Reston
    “Not according to the records we have now, but they could have used different planes.”
    “So they must be going to Washington to hunt,” Achara said. “What else would bring these three together?”
    “And if they’re all getting together to hunt for the first time,” Bulatt said thoughtfully, “my guess is they’re going to want to have their guides and helpers along. These characters don’t strike me as the types who like to do all the heavy lifting themselves.”
    “So we have to be there, when the hunt takes place,” Achara said firmly. “Somehow, we have to be there.”
    “Yes, we do,” Bulatt agreed. “The question is how we manage to pull that off. We’d need a federal warrant to satellite-track those planes; and, so far, just about everything we’ve got on these characters is either inadmissible in court or based on supposition. And I doubt that we’re going to be able to talk one of them into taking us along on their hunt.”
    At that moment, Bulatt’s Blackberry began to vibrate on his hip.
    “Excuse me for a moment,” he said after checking the Blackberry’s screen, “I’ll be right back.”

    When Bulatt returned to the conference room, he found Achara looking over Hager’s shoulder while the latent print expert marked up one of the last pages of the report marked FOGARTY with a yellow highlighter; Reston typing away on a computer with Ferreira hovering over her shoulder in one side of the room; and Renwick talking on his cell phone over at the opposite side.
    “You folks come up with something interesting?” Bulatt asked as he closed the door and sat down at the table.
    “Could be,” Hager mumbled, still highlighting sections of the page with short sweeps of the pen. “Might have stumbled across one of those ‘good-news bad-news’ deals that could actually work in our favor.”
    “Oh, how’s that?”
    “You remember saying, just before you left, that we probably weren’t going to be able to talk one of these characters into taking us along on their hunt?”
    “Yeah, so?”
    “Well, it turns out that Sam Fogarty lives in Oregon with a twenty-four-year-old adopted daughter who apparently likes to bow-hunt deer in Idaho.”
    “Okay, I’ll bite, why is she relevant to our problems?”
    “It seems dear daughter likes to hunt with a bow; but doesn’t necessarily like to waste a lot of time trying to get close enough to her targets to make a fatal shot, or to pack her kills a couple of miles back to her truck. I’m guessing she probably takes after dear old dad in that category.”
    “So you’re going to tell me she shoots the deer with a bullet first, from a more reasonable distance, and then stuffs an arrow down the bullet hole?” Bulatt guessed.
    “Three bow seasons in a row,” Hager said. “Got caught at the check-points the first two years, pled guilty both times after the x-rays revealed the bullets up ahead of the broad heads, and daddy paid her fines. This year, when one of the wardens heard a gunshot in the range area reserved for bow hunts, went investigating on his ATV, and found her loading a buck with an arrow sticking out of its neck in the back of a old pickup, she must have decided she didn’t want to go through the hassle of getting daddy to pay up again, so she took off… and made it across the border before the warden could get the state patrols to set up a road block. The warden told the story to a local reporter who wrote a standard ‘rich girl cheats on bow-hunt and then runs from the law’ story; which is what I’m marking up right now.”
    “Did Idaho Fish and Game follow up with a warrant?” Bulatt asked.
    “No, unfortunately, they didn’t,” Renwick said as he hung up the phone. “Mostly because the warden recognized her, but didn’t get the license plate of the truck — which he assumes was borrowed from one of her friends, because she apparently gets a new truck from daddy every year. The warden and his supervisor talked it over, came to the conclusion that the fine wouldn’t be worth the cost to the State to take on dad’s legal firm and a likely mistaken-identity defense, and then decided to just wait and catch her dirty next bow season. But the warden did submit blood from the scene to our lab,” Renwick added with a smile, “and he said he’ll be happy to file for the warrant, right now, if we’re interested in following up on the Lacey Act violation.”
    “We ran a quick mass-spec on the hemoglobin, confirmed the blood was mule deer; then extracted the DNA, and put a sample in the ultra-freezer pending any further work requests,” Ferreira said, looking up from the computer.
    “Meaning you could match that DNA to a mounted mule deer head if I brought it in?”
    “Sure. Or a little piece of dried hide would work just as well; whatever’s easier at your end. It makes no difference to us.”
    “And where does Sam Fogarty and his daughter live?” Bulatt asked.
    “In Bend, Oregon,” Reston said.
    Bulatt looked over at Achara. “I think it’s time I paid Miss Fogarty a visit,” he said. “Want to go for a ride?”
    “Absolutely.” Achara started to say something else, and then hesitated.
    “Yes?” Bulatt said inquiringly.
    “You’re planning on confronting her with the Lacey Act violation, and then using that as a twist on her father to make him take us to the hunt, right?”
    “Something along those lines,” Bulatt said, nodding his head. “You have a better idea?”
    “I was just thinking that if we were to call her up and identify ourselves as outdoor writers who want to do a story on her bow hunting adventures, she might be more helpful and cooperative than her father.”
    “What, no violence? Just walk in and con her out of the information? There’s a novel approach,” Reston said sarcastically.
    “Federal agents working covert assignments have certain limitations on posing as a member of the media,” Bulatt said hesitantly. “I’d have to ask for permission from the Washington Office, and I doubt that Fred or the Chief would say yes. It’s a touchy issue.”
    “You’d have to ask permission, but I wouldn’t,” Achara said. “It just so happens that I’m an internationally published outdoor writer with two articles in print. I wouldn’t be role-playing, just engaging in one of my hobbies. And you could come along as a hired local photographer.”
    “We’d even lend you a professional-looking camera, as long as you promise not to hit anyone with it,” Renwick offered.
    “Sounds good to me,” Bulatt said with a shrug. “Do we have a phone number for the house?”
    “That we do,” Reston replied cheerfully. “Here’s her address and phone numbers — residence and cell — and a map showing the way to her house.” She handed Bulatt a brightly colored map from her printer, and a second typed page. “Take I-Five to the Crater Lake Highway, and keep on heading north. You ought to be able to make it in three and a half hours, max, if the roads are still clear.”
    “Or we could probably get Woeshack to fly us up there,” Achara suggested. “It might save some time.”
    “Let’s not,” Bulatt said, “I try not to live quite that close to the edge.”


    Sam Fogarty’s Ranch, Bend, Oregon
    The young woman who came to the door looked angry and frustrated and depressed; and quite possibly ready to hit someone with the hand-sewn leather quiver of arrows she held in her right hand. To Bulatt and Achara’s surprise, she also appeared to be of Southeast Asian descent.
    “Yes, may I help you?” The young woman said curtly, her mind clearly elsewhere.
    “Uh, my name is Achara, I’m here to meet with Carolyn Fogarty,” Achara said. “I called ahead and she’s expecting us.”
    The young woman blinked, first in confusion and then in surprise. “Oh, right, you’re that outdoor writer. You meant today?” She shook her head as if to trying to dislodge some dark, hovering cloud from her mind. “Sorry, I don’t mean to be rude. I’m just… upset today.”
    “If this is an inconvenient time, we can certainly come back later,” Achara said soothingly. “But I really do want to interview you for the article. I think your interest in bow hunting is fascinating, and I’m sure my readers will feel that way also. It’s not something you find many women hunters doing these days. And now that I know you’re of Asian descent, I’m even more intrigued because I don’t think I’ve ever met an Asian women who bow-hunts. Would you mind if I asked you where you were born?”
    “I — no, I don’t mind, I just don’t know where I was born, or who my parents are,” Fogarty said hesitantly, acting as if she wanted to slam the door in Achara’s face; but, at the same time, wanted desperately to talk with someone.
    “You look as if you might be Thai, like me,” Achara said, pressing cautiously. “Were you an orphan?”
    “Yes, I was adopted by Mr. Fogarty from an orphanage in southern Thailand. Their records indicated that I’d been found on the beach after a severe storm, but nobody seemed to know where — ”
    Carolyn Fogarty shook her head again, looking more confused now than upset. “I’m sorry, please come in, I didn’t mean to leave you standing out here.” She stepped back inside the foyer and opened the door wider.
    “Are you sure we’re not intruding,” Achara said as she quickly stepped into the doorway.
    “No, not at all,” Fogarty said. “In fact, it would be helpful to talk with someone right now.”
    “In that case, I will be happy to listen,” Achara said. “Oh, and this is Gedimin, my photographer,” she added. “I hope you won’t mind if he takes some photographs to illustrate my article.”
    “Uh, no, of course not; he’s welcome to do so,” Fogarty said as she closed the door. “Would either of you like something to drink? Coffee? Tea? Hot chocolate?”
    “Coffee, please,” Bulatt said as he took the strobe-mounted digital camera he’d borrowed from the lab out of its carrier bag and thumbed the power switch to the ON position.
    “Yes, coffee would be wonderful,” Achara said as she and Bulatt followed Fogarty into the wide-windowed kitchen, and then stood at the window and looked down at the expanse of landscaped yard behind the house — a huge grassy area that butted up against a densely-forested area — while Carolyn Fogarty set the quiver aside and poured coffee into three earthen mugs. Near the trees, a man was doing something with a mounted bulls-eye target; one of three that extended out at increasing distances from the back porch.
    “Milk or cream?
    “Black will be fine,” Achara said. “What a beautiful place you have.”
    “Spectacular,” Bulatt agreed as he accepted the steaming mug. “I see you even have a set of distance-targets for your bow. Do you think we could try to get a photograph of you from an over-your-shoulder view, with your bow drawn back, and the target in the distance hovering just over the arrowhead?”
    “I’m certainly willing to try, but we’ll have to wait until my father gets finished with his practicing first,” she said with an audible edge to her voice. “I don’t want to interfere with his… preparations.”
    “That’s your father down there?” Bulatt asked. “It looks like he’s throwing spears.”
    “Apparently his new approach to hunting,” Fogarty said, the chill in her voice contrasting vividly with the fire in her eyes.
    “Really? That seems like an odd choice for a hunting weapon, unless you’re hunting boar,” Achara said. “And even then — ”
    “More odd than you could possibly imagine.” Fogarty nodded grimly.
    “I’m sure he has his reasons, but I’m much more interested in learning about your choice of weapons,” Achara said hurriedly. “Could we see your bow?”
    “Yes, of course,” Fogarty said, the fire in her eyes starting to recede again, if only for the moment.
    She picked up the quiver and led them into a spacious, rosewood paneled den that was filled with the trapping and paraphernalia of sports hunting. On the left side wall, the heads of three mule deer with impressive racks were prominently displayed. Below the trophy heads and to the left, a modern unstrung re-curved bow and a machine-sewn leather quiver filled with factory-made arrows hung from a set of wooden pegs. To the right, a hand-carved single-curved bow hung from an identical set of pegs.
    Fogarty started to hang the hand-sewn quiver of arrows next to the crude bow when Achara stepped up next to her. “May I,” she asked, holding out her hand.
    The young woman hesitated, and then handed Achara the quiver filled with what were now clearly hand-made arrows. Achara drew one of the arrows out of the quiver and began to examine it closely.
    “Did you make this?” she asked.
    “Yes, out of turkey feathers and obsidian,” Fogarty said with an audible sense of pride. “I scraped the shaft, and even flaked the heads myself — out of obsidian, just like the early Indians used to do. It was one of my hobbies when I was younger.”
    “And the bow?”
    “Hand-carved from an Ash tree branch with an obsidian knife,” Fogarty said, smiling openly now. “It took me almost a month to make it. It’s nowhere near as powerful as a re-curved fiberglass bow, of course; and my arrows don’t fly as far or as straight as my aluminum broad heads. But I can still put an arrow in the black at thirty feet, two out of three times. Watch this.”
    Working quickly, Fogarty strung the hand-made bow, pulled a home-made arrow out of the quiver, spun around and sent the arrow streaking across the room; the obsidian tip burying itself into the thick, wall-mounted target just inside the outer edge of the black bulls-eye.
    “That is incredible,” Achara said as they watched the young woman stride across the room and yank the arrow out of the target. “Do you actually hunt with them?” Achara asked.
    “I was going to,” Fogarty said bitterly, the fire in her eyes suddenly back again. “That was always my plan, but — ”
    “Those are beautiful specimens,” Bulatt said quickly, deliberately interrupting the conversation as he moved in closer and began taking close-up shots of each head. “I can’t imagine taking an animal like that with a home-made bow. Did you hunt them locally?”
    “Around here? Fat chance,” Fogarty snorted. “You want to bow-hunt a deer like one of these guys, you’ve got to go to Idaho, Wyoming or Montana.”
    “Let me guess, Idaho?” Bulatt offered.
    “All three of them; Idaho bred and born, from just south of the Gospel Hump Wilderness Area,” Fogarty said with a fierce expression of pride on her face. “The one on the far left was two seasons ago, the one in the middle last year, and the one on the right this year. I’d like to see my father match that with one of his damned spears.” She laughed harshly.
    “You can see the progression,” Bulatt said. “Each year, you’ve taken a bigger — and I can only assume a stronger — animal. I think we’ve got the central theme for the article,” he said to Achara with a meaningful tone to his voice.
    “I was told that you usually bow-hunt alone. Do you ever go hunting with your father?” Achara asked, instinctively deciding to press the sensitive issue just a little bit more; and was startled to see Fogarty’s face redden from some inner fury that seemed barely under control.
    “We used to go hunting together all the time,” she said bitterly, “but now he and his friends only care about themselves and their goddamned trophy rooms. The biggest hunt of an era,” she snarled, “and he won’t even take me along to watch, much less take part in the hunt; something I’ve dreamed about doing since I was a kid. Something I think I was destined to do. Can you believe that?!”
    “I’m sorry,” Achara said soothingly, “I didn’t mean — ”
    Some barrier in Fogarty’s mind suddenly seemed to rupture.
    “Do you want to see what I have to compete against? Come on, let me show you.”
    Then, before Achara and Bulatt could do or say anything, Carolyn Fogarty moved over to the wall directly across from the doorway, reached up, turned two mounted lamps to a ninety-degree angle, and then stood back as the entire wall slid apart in two receding panels.
    “Oh my god,” Achara whispered as she stared disbelievingly at the dozens of endangered species mounts displayed on the cavernous walls of the hidden room, only vague aware of the flash from Bulatt’s camera.
    “That’s all he cares about any more,” Fogarty said, the tears now flowing down her face. “And it’s only going to get worse if he actually manages to kill a — ”
    The door burst open behind the three figures, and Sam Fogarty charged into the room with an obsidian-tipped spear clenched in his right hand.
    “What the hell are you two doing here?!” he demanded, his face almost purple with rage.
    “I let them in here, father!” Carolyn Fogarty yelled back. “I wanted them to see for themselves exactly what kind of man you really are!”
    “You… you…” Fogarty looked as if he was going apoplectic. “Get out of my house!” he finally managed to rasp at Achara. “You have no right to be here!”
    “Actually, we were invited into this house, and into this room, by your daughter, Mr. Fogarty,” Bulatt said, holding up his special agent badge-case in his left hand, and sweeping his jacket back with his right to expose his holstered Sig Sauer pistol. “My name is Gedimin Bulatt. I’m a special agent of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; and because your daughter also invited us into this trophy room, willingly and of her own accord, I’m placing you — as the head of this household — under arrest for suspicion of numerous violations of the Endangered Species Act. Put the spear down, right now.”
    “SHE… WHAT?!” Fogarty screamed in furious disbelief.
    “Put the spear down, Fogarty, now!” Bulatt ordered again, swiftly drawing his pistol, but keeping it pointed at the floor.
    “Ha, so much for your goddamned ‘hunt of the era’, father,” Carolyn Fogarty sneered, her eyes glistening now with the fury of vengeance delivered. “Let’s see you try to spear that baby mammoth from a prison cell!”
    “You… you traitorous bitch!” Fogarty started to bring the spear up, and then screamed in surprise and agony as an obsidian-tipped arrow streaked across the room and ripped into his right shoulder. The spear clattered on the wooden floor. Fogarty started to reach for it, and Bulatt was sighting on his center of mass — prepared to put a forty-caliber hollow-point bullet in the enraged man’s heart, and a second in his head — when he sensed a figure moving quickly to his right. He spun around, saw Carolyn Fogarty pull another homemade arrow out of the quiver, and then watched her crumble to the floor under the savage impact of a spinning head-kick from Achara Kulawnit.
    Sam Fogarty — dazed now from the combination of rage and searing pain — was still fumbling for the dropped spear when Bulatt’s right boot came down hard on the shaft; followed by his left boot that shoved Fogarty away from the ancient weapon and onto his back.
    “This is Ged. Get your butts up here, and while you’re at it, roll a paramedic unit. We’ve got two suspects down who need some medical attention,” Bulatt said, speaking into his Blackberry. Then he looked over at Achara, who was on her knees, examining the unconscious figure of Carolyn Fogarty.
    “Are you okay?” he asked.
    Achara gave him a thumbs-up sign.
    “Good. If and when she comes to, keep her down and away from anything sharp,” he said as he replaced the Blackberry in his belt holder and tossed Achara a set of handcuffs. Then he turned his attention back to the bleeding man sprawled on the floor.
    “Now then,” Mr. Fogarty,” Bulatt said as kicked the spear aside, holstered his pistol, and then squatted down next to the pale-faced and whimpering CEO, “while we’re waiting for medical help to arrive, and while I’m trying to make some sense out of a lot of very confusing information, why don’t you explain to me — as carefully and precisely as you can — exactly why your daughter seems to think you’re planning on going out and spearing a baby mammoth.”

    An hour later, the emergency medical technician finished tying a sling around Sam Fogarty’s right arm and shoulder, stepped away from the couch where the still dazed and now mildly drugged CEO was lying, and approached Bulatt.
    “I really ought to be transporting both of them,” he said with a serious expression on his face.
    “Is he really that badly hurt?” Bulatt asked.
    The EMT shrugged. “No, I suppose not. Looks like the arrow missed the major nerves and blood vessels. He’s got some significant tissue damage, and he definitely won’t be using that arm for a while; but he’s not in any immediate danger of anything other than infection. The wound’s dressed, and the bleeding’s stopped, so a couple of hours, one way or the other, isn’t going to make much difference. His daughter, however, took a serious blow to the head. We really do need to get her to the hospital.”
    “What do you think, Fogarty?” Bulatt said, walking over to the sprawled CEO. “You want a ride to the hospital, in handcuffs, along with your daughter, so a doctor can take a look at that shoulder before we throw your ass in the can; or do you want to stay here for a couple more hours and discuss your situation?”
    Fogarty blinked, and then stared at Bulatt.
    “Do I have any options?”
    “Everybody’s got options.” Bulatt shrugged. “Yours are just a little more complicated than most. If it helps you with your decision, I really don’t care if you end up being charged with a couple dozen ES violations, or not.”
    “Are you serious?”
    “Yes, I’m very serious.”
    “Can I have my lawyer here?”
    “I advised you of your rights under Miranda, and you agreed that you understood the terms,” Bulatt reminded. “You can have your lawyer here any time you want; but the moment you make that call, we stop talking about everything — which specifically includes your options.”
    “Your daughter needs medical attention, Mr. Fogarty. The ambulance is leaving right now. You can go with them, or stay here with me; your choice, but make it now.”
    “I’ll… stay.”
    Bulatt nodded to the EMT who immediately walked out of the room.
    “She’s not really my daughter, you know,” Fogarty said when the EMT was gone.
    “Yeah, we kind of gathered that,” Bulatt acknowledged. “Most fathers don’t sleep with their real or adopted daughters; kind of a cultural standard in most parts of the world.”
    “What I meant is, she’s not really my daughter, in a true legal sense, so she couldn’t legally invite you into my home,” Fogarty said with an edge to his voice. “My lawyers will make something of that.”
    “Yes, I’m sure they will,” Bulatt agreed. “But I’m also sure our lawyers will make something of the fact that, sarcasm aside, she did address you as ‘father’ in our presence. Also, we know you registered the new truck you bought her in the name of Carolyn Fogarty, and we know you listed this home as her legal address; all of which suggests, to us, that she had every legal right to invite us into this house.”
    “But — ” Fogarty tried, but Bulatt ignored him and continued on.
    “And then there’s also the side issue of how old Carolyn was when your ‘adoptive’ relationship began. She looks awfully young in some of those photographs; but maybe she explains all of that in her diary. It appeared to be rather… detailed.”
    “I… uh — ”
    “It ought to be a fascinating trial, Mr. Fogarty. I understand Assistant U.S. Attorneys live for cases like this; especially the smart and aggressive ones who know how to use the media to their advantage. I’m sure your stockholders will be delighted with all the free publicity.”
    Henry Lightstone stuck his head in the doorway to the living room. “Larry’s gone to the hospital with the girl; Mike’s making an inventory of the trophy room; Dwight’s finished upstairs; and I’m going over the war-plan with our warrior-princess, which leaves Dwight here with some free time on his hands.”
    “Who are those people?” Fogarty asked.
    “Special Ops agents,” Bulatt replied.
    “What does that mean?”
    “It means they’re very tough, smart, devious, aggressive and technically skilled special agents of the federal government who work undercover to mess with serious bad guys, and who also live for investigations like this one,” Bulatt said evenly. “That’s probably why you heard them humming cheerfully to themselves out there in your trophy room.”
    “And you’re one of them, too?”
    “In a manner of speaking,” Bulatt said. “They work as a team. I tend to work by myself; more of a liaison between teams, if you will.”
    “What does that mean?”
    “It means he doesn’t play well with others; probably some kind of childhood problem,” Lightstone answered from the doorway. And then to Bulatt: “you want Dwight to take over the interrogation of this asshole? He says he’s real fond of child abusers; likes to get into their heads.”
    The huge, glowering image of ex-Oakland Raider tackle Dwight Stoner filled the doorway.
    “What do you think, Mr. Fogarty? Would you like to talk lawyer bullshit with Special Agent Stoner, who I believe just finished searching your and Carolyn’s upstairs bedrooms, or would you like to talk serious options with me?”
    Fogarty stared at the terrifying image of Stoner — whose huge hands were slowly clenching and unclenching — and shook his head. “No, I know you’re trying to scare me; but I… I don’t want to talk with that man.”
    “And I’m sure he doesn’t want to talk with you, either,” Bulatt said. He waved Lightstone and Stoner away, then pulled a chair up next to the couch and sat down facing Fogarty. “So let’s just you and I talk for a while.”
    “I know you’re playing games with me,” Fogarty said. “What do you really want?”
    Bulatt reached into his pocket, pulled out a small tape recorder, held it up in front of Fogarty as he turned it on, set it down on the coffee table next to the couch and chair, and then stared directly at Fogarty as he said, loudly and clearly: “The following is a continuation of my investigative notes pursuant to the consensual search of the residence of Sam Fogarty. Mr. Fogarty and I are in the living room of his home. The time is now fourteen hundred and eleven hours. Mr. Fogarty has been read his Miranda rights, he acknowledges that he understands his rights, and he has agreed to wave his right to have his attorney present during this conversation. Is all of that correct, Mr. Fogarty?”
    “Yes, it is.”
    “Mr. Fogarty, is it true that you are an active member of a small and very private hunting club that emphasizes the collection of endangered species trophies?”
    “Fogarty hesitated. “I don’t think — ”
    “Yes, or no?” Bulatt repeated.
    Fogarty took in a deep breath. “Yes.”
    “Besides you, how many members are there in this club?”
    “Three others.”
    “What are their names?”
    Fogarty hesitated again, and then said: “Michael Hateley, Max Kingman and Stuart Caldreaux.”
    “How did the three of you originally meet?”
    “We’re all CEO’s of defense-supply-related corporations. We met at a conference on Government Subcontracting put on by the Defense Department, got into a discussion about our mutual interest in hunting, had dinner together that evening, decided to set up a private hunting club.”
    “When was that?”
    “I don’t recall exactly; approximately eight years ago.”
    “And how often does your club meet?”
    “We get together for dinner once a year; usually in winter, at one of our houses.”
    “When and where did you last meet?”
    “A few days ago, at Michael’s house.”
    “Is there any specific purpose to these annual meetings?”
    “We… vote on who made the most impressive kill that year, and award the boar’s head to the winner.”
    “The boar’s head?”
    “It’s a trophy mount,” Fogarty explained. “We went hunting together for boar, on the Kingman Ranch, right after we established our club. Stuart killed the biggest one, and almost got gored doing it; so we had it mounted and presented to him at our next dinner, calling it the Merchant of Death Trophy.”
    “Since then, have you all hunted together?”
    “No, tomorrow will be the first time all three of us have gotten together in the field since that boar hunt.”
    “Why now?”
    “We… one of our members went to Thailand a week or two ago, and apparently got into some kind of trouble that resulted in all three of us being banned from hunting in Thailand for a while. As an apology, he arranged for our hunt tomorrow.”
    “Who was that member — the one who got in trouble in Thailand?”
    Fogarty hesitated. “If I — ?”
    “We can stop this conversation any time you wish, Mr. Fogarty,” Bulatt said. “It’s your decision entirely.”
    “It was Michael Hateley.”
    “Do you know what kind of trouble Mr. Hateley got into?”
    “No, he didn’t say. But there was some indication — ” Fogarty paused.
    “Some indication of what?” Bulatt pressed.
    “Caldreaux told me he’d heard something about some Thai Rangers being killed, and that was why we were being banned from Thailand. Hateley claimed not to know anything about that; but he seemed… I don’t know, uneasy about that part of the conversation.”
    “Do you know where Hateley was hunting on that trip?”
    “He told us he was in the Khlong Saeng Wildlife Preserve of southern Thailand. That made sense because we’ve all hunted there before; several times, in fact.”
    “By yourselves?”
    “No, with our hired guides; they arrange the hunts.”
    “Do you know what kind of animal Hateley was hunting?”
    “He claimed he was going to bring back a trophy Clouded Leopard, bigger than anyone had ever shot before,” Fogarty said. “I don’t think any of us really believed him; but that was, supposedly, his intent.”
    “Did he?”
    “No, something happened with the shipment; something about it getting lost.”
    “Hateley lost his trophy?”
    “No, I gather the guides lost it. They’re the ones who always arrange for the transport of our trophies back to the States, and the mounting also. We never travel with — ”
    “The evidence of your illegal hunts?” Bulatt suggested.
    “Yes, that’s right,” Fogarty said uneasily.
    “Who are these guides?”
    “They’re — ” Fogarty paused and took in a deep breath.
    “What are their names?” Bulatt pressed again.
    “Marcus, Quince and Jake.”
    “Tell me about them.”
    “They’re seriously tough guys, let me tell you,” Fogarty said nervously, looking much paler now. “Probably Australian or British, I can’t tell from their accents. Marcus — Marcus Emerson — he’s the head honcho who makes the arrangements and takes us out on the hunts.”
    “Emerson? You mean E-M-E-R-S-O-N?”
    “I guess so,” Fogarty said with a wincing shrug, “although that’s probably not his real name; and probably not theirs, either, I suppose,” he added thoughtfully.
    “How do we find this Mr. Emerson?” Bulatt asked.
    “You don’t, or at least none of us ever has; and we have tried,” Fogarty said. “Marcus finds us, lets us know when the next hunt is ready, tells us where to go; and then shows up in the middle of the night like a goddamned vampire bat.”
    “And he’s the one who arranged this alleged mammoth hunt?”
    “It’s not alleged,” Fogarty insisted. “I saw them on video with my own eyes. They are real, believe me. Some Russian scientists apparently made four of them for Marcus out of elephant eggs or fetuses or babies, I’m not sure which. And we were going to hunt them — one for each of us. But then we discovered they’re still babies, and that’s when Marcus — ”
    “Suggested an old-fashioned hunt, with spears?”
    “Yes, exactly,” Fogarty nodded feverishly, and then winced again from the pain he seemed to be causing his shoulder. “But it’s still a perfectly legal hunt, right? I mean it’s not illegal to kill a mammoth, is it?”
    “Beats the shit out of me,” Bulatt admitted. “But you’re sure this Marcus character will be there during the hunt?”
    “Oh yes, no doubt about that,” Fogarty said.
    “But you don’t know where it’s going to be held?”
    “All we know is that we’re all supposed to fly to Cle Elum Municipal Airport tomorrow morning with all of our gear — nine o’clock arrival time — and they were going to meet us there and take us out to the hunt location in a helicopter.
    “Cle Elum? You mean that little town northeast of Mount Rainier?”
    “Yes, that’s it. But I gather the on-going snowstorm up there that has made the airport inaccessible for our planes, so we’re supposed to fly to McAllister Field in Yakima, Washington, instead. After we land, we’ll be taken to the hunt site by helicopter; apparently making it a ninety-mile trip instead of fifty.”
    Bulatt looked up and saw Mike Takahara standing in the doorway. “You hear that?” he asked.
    Takahara nodded. “Sounds like they’re going to be somewhere due north of Cle Elum; probably up in the middle of the Wenatchee National Forest. Some seriously rough country up in that area; high mountains, dense forest areas, and very few access roads. Bad place to get caught in a snow storm, especially if the temperature starts dropping like it is right now.”
    “In other words, a perfect place to hold an old-fashioned mammoth hunt?”
    “Especially if you want to shift the odds in favor of the mammoths,” Takahara said, nodding.
    “According to Hateley, who was relaying instructions from Marcus, we’re supposed to dress for very cold conditions, and expect an added wind-chill factor; but not to worry about food and shelter because that will be provided,” Fogarty said. “Apparently, the snow is still coming down intermittently; but it shouldn’t impact our planes landing at Yakima, or our helicopter ride to the site. If anything, Marcus expects the storm to conceal our hunt from hikers or low-flying planes, and to force the animals into protected areas where they’ll be easier to hunt.”
    “Have any of your CEO friends ever met Carolyn, face to face?”
    “No.” Fogarty shook his head. “They’ve see pictures of her when she was… younger, but nothing recent.”
    “Who’s going to meet you at Yakima?”
    “I don’t know; probably Quince or Jake, one of the two.”
    “Not Marcus?”
    “No, I’m sure not; Marcus is never there when we arrive. He only shows up when the hunt actually begins.”
    “Shit,” Bulatt muttered.
    “Is something wrong?” A look of panic flashed across Fogarty’s face.
    Bulatt looked up, and saw Stoner hovering in the doorway, picked up and shut off the tape recorder, and then stood up out of the chair. “You stay here, sport,” he said to Fogarty, gesturing with his head at the doorway, “I’ll right back.”

    “You’re out of your mind,” Lightstone said flatly.
    Bulatt and Achara were in the trophy room with Lightstone and Takahara, arguing back and forth. They’d been at it for almost five minutes.
    “We can do it,” Achara insisted. “I’m telling you, we can.”
    “I was referring to you, not Ged,” Lightstone said, glaring at Achara. “We already know he’s a nut case; but we thought you might have a little more common sense.”
    “You just don’t think I can do it because I’m a woman! Go ahead, admit it!” Achara glared back at Lightstone.
    “I tend to agree with Henry,” Bulatt said, ignoring Achara’s angry accusations. “But, the thing is, I just don’t know how else we can play it. According to Fogarty, this guy Emerson — presumably the main perpetrator we’re after — doesn’t show until everything’s in motion. Probably hangs out on the perimeter monitoring the environment. We’ve got to get him engaged in the hunt before you guys show up; or he’ll rabbit on us and go to ground, and then we’ll never find him.”
    “It really is a woman thing, isn’t it?” Achara demanded, refusing to back down.
    “If you two go in there cold like that, you’re going to get yourselves killed,” Lightstone said to Bulatt. “They’re not going to believe she’s Fogarty’s daughter, and when the shit hits the fan, there’s no way we’ll be able to get there in time to back you up; assuming we can even find you in the first place. The Wenatchee National Forest is a hell of a place to be looking for two people on the run in the middle of a snow storm. And don’t forget, we’re talking at least one expert long-range shooter here. You won’t even know you’re in the cross-hairs until your head suddenly explodes.”
    “Thanks for the cheerful image; I’ll try to remember to keep my head down,” Bulatt said sarcastically.
    “I can rig you up with an emergency GPS satellite transmitter that you can activate to call for help,” Takahara said, “but if this Quince character is up on his technology, which he probably is, he’ll be scanning for active transmitters. Once you turn it on, the game’s going to be up. They can use the signal to find you just as easily as we can, and they’ll have a big head start.”
    “Why won’t they believe I’m his daughter? Did you see what she looks like? She’s got to be at least half Thai. Do you really think these goons can tell the difference?” Achara demanded.
    Lightstone sighed and turned back to Achara. “You do look the part, I’ll concede that; but have you ever shot an arrow from a bow before?” he asked calmly.
    “No, I haven’t. What difference does that make?”
    “The difference is that Fogarty’s daughter is widely-known in the Northwest to be skilled with a bow; and it’s not going to take those assholes very long to figure out that you — ” Lightstone stared to add, and then stopped when Achara whirled away, stomped over to the corner of the trophy room, picked up Sam Fogarty’s spear, and sent it flying across the room. The long obsidian spear-point slammed solidly into a mounted bull African elephant head staring out mournfully from the far wall.
    All three special agents stared wordlessly at the six-foot spear shaft vibrating almost exactly mid-distance between elephant’s glassy eyes.
    “Who says I have to use a goddamned bow and arrow?” Achara demanded. “Is that some kind of sexist thing? I can’t hunt with a spear like the guys?”
    “Could you do that?” Bulatt asked Lightstone.
    “No, not likely,” he admitted. “I’m not even sure I could come close to the center of the wall, much less the frigging elephant.”
    “Me neither,” Bulatt said. “And I’m starting to think we might be able to pull it off; especially if Mike can rig us a couple of emergency beacons that they can’t spot until we turn them on.”
    “No problem with the transmitter,” Takahara said, “but we’re going to have to hustle to get you two outfitted with some cold-weather gear and camping equipment — and then out to McAllister Field — by nine tomorrow morning.”
    “Can you do it?”
    Takahara nodded. “There’s a U.S. Military Training Center just outside of Yakima. They ought to have plenty of cold weather gear on hand. I’ll give them a call; see what we can work out.” The Tech Agent hurried out of the room.
    “Her father is going to be seriously pissed at both of us if she gets hurt,” Lightstone reminded. “We won’t even discuss the ‘if she gets killed’ part. If that happens, he’ll hunt us both down to the ends of the earth.”
    “My father is an understanding man, and he knows me well,” Achara said as she walked over to the elephant head, yanked the spear out, and then walked back to the two special agents with a look of defiant determination on her face. “And I’ll tell you one thing for certain: he does not expect me to be a coward in the face of our enemies.”
    Bulatt met her gaze for a long moment, sighed, and then walked back into the living room where Stoner was gazing thoughtfully down at the cowered Fogarty.
    “Okay, sport,” Bulatt said, staring solemnly at Fogarty as he sat back down in the chair, “here’s how you’re going to play it.”


    Sam Fogarty’s Living Room
    “Listen to me, Michael, I know what you’re thinking,” Sam Fogarty snarled into the phone. “If I can’t hunt, that just means one more for the taking; but you three are not going to cheat me out of my mammoth! That is not going to happen!”
    There were in Fogarty’s expensively furnished living room; Bulatt, Lightstone, Stoner and Takahara sitting in chairs facing Fogarty on the couch as the sweating CEO made his pitch to the acknowledged leader of their private hunting club. Achara was back in the den, sending Carolyn Fogarty’s homemade arrows across the room into the wall-mounted target with varying results, and what the agents all assumed was colorful Thai cussing. There were now several arrowhead holes in the surrounding rosewood paneling that had been smuggled into the country from one of the last such trees clear-cut from a Brazilian Rainforest.
    Fogarty winced visibly as another loud ‘THUNK’ and muttered curse signaled the latest damage to his likely irreplaceable paneling, and then listened for a few seconds to the voice on the other end of the line.
    “I know what we all agreed to eight years ago,” Fogarty interrupted. “But this is a different situation entirely. There will never be another ‘first hunt of extinct species’ like this again, no matter what kind of creatures these scientists manage to come up with next, and I will not simply ‘sit this one out’ because of an untimely accident.”
    Fogarty listened again for a few more seconds.
    “That’s not true at all. I’m sure Carolyn is perfectly capable of keeping up with the two of you. In fact, if anything, I expect her to be way out ahead. After all, she’s thirty years younger than any of us, and works out regularly. With any luck, she’ll be the one who makes the first kill.”
    Another pause.
    “I’m going to send her with the spears, of course; and also that bow I told you all about — the one she hand-carved with that obsidian knife, and then hand-chipped the arrowheads. What? How the hell do I know if the cavemen hunted mammoths with bows and arrows? For all I know, they launched boulders at the damned things with catapults. Who cares? The only things that matter, as far as I’m concerned, are that she makes the kill without using a modern firearm; and that she brings home my mammoth, so I can put it on my wall.”
    Fogarty then looked up at Bulatt as he listened to Hateley’s response.
    “No, I can’t come with her; I’ve got surgery scheduled for tomorrow, and I have no intention of being crippled for life because I put it off,” Fogarty said. “But I will see to it that she arrives at the airport tomorrow, well before ten, with her fiance — ”
    Fogarty hesitated. “His name is Gediminas Bulattus, a Lithuanian-American, nice fellow; and yes, of course he’s going with her! What did you think — that I was going to send my only daughter out in the wilderness on her own, knowing that Stuart would be there? Be serious! Ged will see to it that she’s safe, and that she brings my trophy back to where it belongs. And then, at our next get-together, we will see who takes possession of the boar’s head!”
    With that, Fogarty disconnected the call.
    “It’s done,” he said, still staring at Bulatt.
    “Did he agree?”
    “He was reluctant, as you heard; but the four of us have already made substantial — and non-refundable — down payments for this hunt, and he agrees that I have a right to protect my investment.”
    “Substantial meaning?”
    “A half-million dollars apiece, with another one-point-five million payable when our trophies are delivered to our doors.”
    Bulatt blinked. “Two million dollars each, for what amounts to a baby elephant hunt? Are you people out of your collective minds?”
    “At some point in the accumulation of wealth, Agent Bulatt, dollars become little more than illusionary numbers in a ledger; things that you use but don’t really much care about,” Fogarty explained. “Those young mammoths, however, are very real and very rare — to put it mildly — and I want one. It’s all a matter of what you value most in life.”
    “I’ll have to take your word for that,” Bulatt said. “What about Emerson? How is he likely to take this switch at the last minute?”
    “Marcus strikes all of us as being a simple mercenary. I’m sure he won’t care who actually takes part in the hunt, just as long as he gets paid,” Fogarty said. “But what about Carolyn and I? How will you see to it that we have protection — from prosecution, and from Marcus and his men?”
    “Larry’s going to take you to the U.S. Attorney’s office tomorrow morning. I’ve already called ahead and let them know that we’re amiable to a deal on your endangered species trophy collection, depending on how things go with this hunt,” Bulatt said.
    “But you can’t blame me if things don’t work out.”
    “It’s up to us to conduct the covert investigation properly,” Bulatt agreed. “But I wouldn’t want to get out there and discover, in some unfortunate manner, that Emerson and his men — not to mention your CEO buddies — had been warned off. That would turn out to be a much more serious issue.”
    “Yes, I understand,” Fogarty acknowledged.
    “Carolyn was booked into the hospital as a Jane Doe,” Bulatt went on. “As soon as the both of you have received proper medical treatment, and talked with the local U.S. Attorney, you’ll both be moved to a secure location by the U.S. Marshall’s Service.”
    “You mean witness protection?”
    “The arrangement I set up isn’t as formal as witness protection,” Bulatt said, “but that program is available to you if you need it or want it. Personally, I don’t think you will. By the time you’re ready to make that decision, we’ll have dealt with Emerson and his men; and both you and Carolyn will be able to go back to living your normal lives, such as they are.”
    “And what if you don’t manage to deal with them,” Fogarty demanded. “What if they do manage to escape and ‘go to ground,’ as you put it?”
    “In that unlikely event,” Mr. Fogarty, “Bulatt said calmly, “you can take some comfort in the fact that they’re going to be a lot more upset at us than they will be at you.”


    McAllister Field, Yakima, Washington
    Gedimin Bulatt and Achara Kulawnit were parked on a side road in a rented pickup truck, wearing white cammo suits with drawn-back hoods over the cold weather gear they’d borrowed from the nearby U.S. Military Training Facility earlier that morning. Now they were sitting silently and staring out across an open field at the tarmac where older men were standing next to a blue-and-white-painted helicopter; while two much younger men were helping unload equipment bags out of the rear cargo compartment of a Gulfstream-Four jet.
    A light flurry of snow was falling around the truck, forcing Bulatt to use the wipers every minute or so to keep the windshield clear.
    About ten minutes later, after the crew of the G-Five secured the cargo hatch, got back in the plane, and began taxiing out to the runway, Bulatt turned to Achara.
    “Are you ready?” he asked, and then realized she was staring at him with a bemused expression on her face. “What’s the matter?”
    “Nothing.” Achara shook her head. “It’s just… this is the first time I’ve seen you without the beard and long hair, that’s all; it takes some getting used to.”
    “An improvement?” Bulatt grinned.
    “Definitely different,” Achara said noncommittally.
    “Right now, I’ll settle for different,” Bulatt said, turning his attention back to the six figures now gathered around the helicopter that — from his vague knowledge of military helicopters — looked like a Blackhawk transport aircraft modified for civilian use. “There’s a good chance that Emerson or one of his men saw me from a distance out at the electronics shop. I doubt that they got a close or clear look; but there’s no sense in making our lives difficult from the onset. And besides, I’m supposed to be a jarhead, remember?”
    “You definitely… look the part,” Achara said.
    He set the truck into gear and then reached down and released the emergency brake.
    “Okay,” he said with a smile of anticipatory satisfaction, “one last time: everything that happened from the moment we stepped off the U.S. Marshall’s transport G-Four yesterday is a relevant part of our cover. We flew into Yakima last night to pick up our field gear at the training center, stayed on base in separate NCO billets — because the U.S. Military’s got a thing about cohabitation — and had breakfast at the mess hall very early this morning, which gave me just enough time to get a ‘trim’ before driving out here. You’re Carolyn Fogarty, the ornery bow-hunting daughter of Sam Fogarty; and I’m Marine Master Gunnery Sergeant Gediminas Bulattus, your indifferent-to-hunting-critters fiance. We first met when you were bow-hunting in southwestern Idaho — where you always hunt, and I was out hiking — and you damn near put an arrow through my head, which made it love at first sight, as far as I was concerned. Anything that’s happened between then and now is none of their business. Got it?”
    “Apart from the fact that I don’t think I believe you about the cohabitation rules,” Achara said with a half-smile and a dangerous glint in her eyes, “yes, I’ve got it.”
    “And you are going to be able to maintain your character, and a reasonably calm demeanor, even when we meet Marcus Emerson and his men, correct? You do understand that we don’t have any direct evidence that puts any of them at the scenes with your brother or your father; and that we’re going to need Michael Hateley’s cooperation and testimony to take them down?”
    “Yes, I understand that we need Mr. Hateley, and that I have to stay in character with Emerson and his men no matter what they say or do,” Achara acknowledged. “But what if things get out of control, and they start shooting at us.”
    “If that happens,” Bulatt said, “you’ll have a simple choice: either duck and run, or join me in fighting back.”
    Achara smiled. “Excellent,” she said, the dangerous glint still visible in her eyes, “because fighting back that is exactly what I intend to do.”

    Bulatt drove the truck up to the chain-link fence separating a dirt parking lot from the make-shift helipad, and parked. Then he and Achara got out, and started taking their equipment bags, a military rifle case, the spears, the bow and quiver of arrows, and other camping gear out of the back of the pick-up’s bed.
    As they did so, four green-cammo-jacketed figures broke away from the group around the helicopter, walked thru the gate and came over to the truck. One of the figures — the largest and tallest by at least fifty pounds and a good twelve inches — was carrying a kit bag. The two figures wearing coveralls and down jackets with pilot insignias remained by the helicopter.
    “Mike Hateley,” one of the green-camouflage-dressed figures said as he stopped in front of Achara and extended his hand. “I assume you’re Carolyn, Sam’s daughter?”
    “That’s right,” Achara said with an amiable nod as she took Hateley’s hand. “Nice to meet you, finally, after all these years. And this is my fiance, Ged.”
    As Bulatt and Hateley shook hands, the other three figures moved in closer.
    “This fellow is Stuart Caldreaux, a name I’m sure you’ve also heard many times,” Hateley said, “although we all much prefer to be called by our first names.”
    “Stuart, nice to meet you also,” Achara said as she shook both of their hands.
    “And this is Quince,” Hateley went on, “the fellow who’s going to be leading us into the field today.”
    Lanyard took Achara’s hand, cocked his head slightly as he casually examined the features of her face. “Carolyn, I’m told you’re substituting for your father today.”
    “Yes, I am,” she said, meeting his gaze calmly. “It was my fault he was hurt; so, with all due respect to the other hunters here, I intend to bring him back the best mammoth of the lot as a fitting trophy for his wall.”
    “Gentlemen, I think we’ve just had the gauntlet laid down,” Caldreaux said with a grin.
    “I like your spirit, lass,” Lanyard said. “I’ll see to it you get a fair start against this scrummy lot.”
    Then he turned to Bulatt, giving him the same once-over with probing eyes as they shook hands. “Ged, it looks to me as if you and your lady-friend were planning on going out on maneuvers, instead of hunting,” he said, gesturing with his head at the white cammo tunics and pants, and the camping and survival gear with visible US ARMY markings.
    “The advantage of knowing an amiable supply sergeant with a taste for Black Jack,” Bulatt said. “I’m not familiar with the weather in this part of Washington, so I figured military cold weather gear would be a good choice. And I also assumed the whites would be helpful in tracking big game in a snow storm,” he added, looking around at the others who were dressed in green camouflage clothing, “although I might have misjudged that situation.”
    “Probably depends on who’s tracking what… or who,” Lanyard said with a grin, although his eyes remained wary and curious. “I expect our quarry will know we’re coming from quite some distance away, but it never hurts to blend in a bit. I gather you’ve got a military background?”
    “Still on active duty, E-eight, Master Gunny, working on my fourth tour,” Bulatt said with deliberate vagueness as he calmly met Lanyard’s gaze. “Haven’t found anything better to do with my life; although that may have changed recently,” he added with a nod toward Achara, who returned a dimpled grin as she took her home-made bow, quiver of arrows, and four spears out of the truck bed.
    “I can only assume your prior military experiences pale in comparison,” Lanyard said with a wink at Achara, who responded with a dimpled grin. “Did Mr. Fogarty fill you in on the rules of this hunt?”
    “My understanding is that the three hunters will make their kills with old-fashioned spears; and possibly with a couple of home-made arrows,” Bulatt said, gesturing with his head at Achara’s quiver. “The rest of us maintain camp, cook, wash the pots, cut wood, haul things from ‘A’ to ‘B’, and presumably stand by with the more-modern weapons to make sure no one gets hurt.”
    “You’re not joining in on the hunt?” Lanyard cocked his head, staring at Bulatt quizzically.
    “No.” Bulatt shook his head. “Carolyn’s the one who wants to take over her father’s hunt; I’m just along to haul the gear, and to make sure she stays safe. Game hunting’s not really my thing.”
    “What, you mean to say tracking down a wild creature in the woods with a spear — and in the middle of a raging snowstorm — doesn’t appeal to your sporting blood?” Lanyard was grinning widely now; but his dark eyes were still probing, making an assessment.
    “Actually, I do like the way you evened the odds a bit,” Bulatt said. “But I’ve spent the better part of my professional life hunting a species that shoots back, so that’s probably jaded my view of game-hunting. Not quite the same adrenaline rush; although I’ll concede that Carolyn and the rest of you may prove me wrong today.”
    “I believe your Mr. Hemingway felt the same way; a man after my own heart,” Lanyard said as he reached into his kit bag and brought out a hand-wand scanner. “Hope you don’t mind,” he said, holding up the wand. “One of the agreed-upon rules is that nobody brings along any tracking devices, transmitters, GPS units or other modern gadgetry that might give one hunter an unfair advantage over the others; and I get paid to see to it that the rules are followed.”
    “Sounds reasonable to me, as long as we get to keep our compasses,” Bulatt said as he stuck out his arms, allowing Lanyard to scan first his entire body with the frequency-detection wand.
    Then, as Lanyard moved over and scanned Achara, Bulatt pulled a green military compass out of his jacket pocket and handed it to Lanyard. Moments later, Achara did the same.
    “Basic survival gear is definitely allowed. Personally, I wouldn’t walk outside the house without mine,” Lanyard said as he examined the small instruments briefly, handed them back, and then tapped the back of his hand against Bulatt’s upper left ribcage. “Mind if I take a look at that?”
    Bulatt unzipped his white cammo tunic, drew the four-inch stainless steel Smith amp; Wesson. 44-caliber Magnum revolver from his shoulder holster and handed it to Lanyard.
    “Mountain Gun model; nice weapon,” Lanyard said appraisingly as he opened the cylinder, checked the loads, and then handed it back to Bulatt. “Not exactly military issue, though.”
    “I didn’t think a nine-mil round was going to do much against whatever Carolyn manages to piss off with an arrow or spear; so I brought along an M14 and a couple hundred rounds of seven-six-two ball, with the forty-four as backup,” Bulatt said, gesturing with his head at the military issue rifle case. “If that doesn’t do the job, you’ll find us up the nearest tree, waiting for the cavalry to arrive.”
    “Sounds like a plan to me,” Lanyard said agreeably as he bent down, opened the rifle case, briefly examined the lethal Vietnam War era rifle, and then looked back up at Bulatt. “No scope?”
    Bulatt shrugged. “Like I said, I’m planning on playing defense, not offense. And besides, if we’ve got something closing in on us fast, I’d much prefer open sights.”
    “Good on you, mate,” Lanyard said as he closed the case and stood up. “Okay, let’s all gather around for a moment.”
    As Hateley, Caldreaux, Bulatt and Achara all moved close, Lanyard reached into the kit bag again and brought out five plastic-sealed maps. He handed four of the maps to the designated hunters.
    “Okay, here’s the plan,” he said, holding up the fifth map. “The hunt will take place in this six-hundred-acre canyon enclosure up in the Wenatchee National Forest area of the Cascades north of Mount Stuart; elevation about six thousand feet. I call it a canyon, but it’s more like a wide and shallow granite bowl filled with a lot of big boulders, fir and pine trees, and surrounded on all sides by rocky crags and cliffs. The locals call it “the Maze.” The only easy access route in winter is from the southwest. That’s where your four targets were released, a couple of days ago, along with a three-day supply of food.”
    Lanyard looked around to confirm that everyone was paying attention.
    “In the last forty-eight hours,” he went on, “we’ve used the chopper here to establish four large bait piles — mostly hay and fruit — at these four locations, each of which is at least five hundred yards from the entrance to the bowl.” Lanyard pointed at four bright green ‘X’s that formed a wide arc running from west to east across the canyon enclosure. “Also, we made sure that each of the bait piles is no more than a hundred yards from a small cave where we’ve stockpiled a two-week supply of food, water, fuel, and a miscellaneous stock of cooking and survival equipment. The caves are the blue ‘X’s.”
    “What’s this yellow ‘X’?” Kingman asked.
    “That’s a low area at the southwest corner of the bowl where we’ve established a base camp with additional supplies, a landing zone for the chopper, and a sniper post where we can keep a long-distance eye on all four caves and bait piles.” Lanyard said. “The entire Maze slopes uphill from that point. Posting ourselves there also allows us to monitor the entrance to the bowl, to make sure none of the target animals tries to escape.”
    “Do you think they will try?” Caldreaux asked.
    “I would think they’d want to remain by a known food source, especially during a storm,” Lanyard replied. “But, the truth is, we have no idea how these creatures will react once we begin the hunt; which is why we intend to be out in the field, as much as possible, where we can monitor the situation. The original plan was to have Marcus, Jack or I maintain a rotating watch at the sniper post, while the other two roamed the field. But with Gunny Sergeant Bulattus and his M14 now available for emergency situations in the hunt zone, I think Marcus will want to keep one of us back at base camp on stand-by with the chopper crew to respond by air if something does go wrong.”
    “So who gets which bait pile?” Hateley asked.
    “That’s up to you four,” Lanyard said. “Not sure that it matters much. All four piles are well separated and close to forested areas where we assume the targets are hiding. The furthest one out from our base camp — number two — might get a little more attention from the wary feeders; but there’s also the issue of dragging your kill further out to an open area where the chopper can make a pick-up. Getting to any of the sites won’t be a problem; we’ll be using the chopper to drop you and your equipment off as close to your selected caves as possible.”
    Achara looked at Bulatt who nodded agreeably.
    “If none of you gentlemen object, I’d like to take the number-two position,” Achara said. “I consider myself aerobically fit, so the extra distances won’t be a problem; I think the wariest animal is likely to be the greatest challenge, and perhaps the biggest trophy; and I also have someone to help with the dragging.”
    “Miss Fogarty, you do lay down a heavy gauntlet,” Caldreaux said with a smile. “Being somewhat less aerobically conditioned, I would like to opt for the number-three position. It looks much closer to the base camp than the others, and I believe I see an open area for the helicopter right next to the bait pile.”
    Hateley and Kingman shrugged agreeably, then looked at each other. “I don’t much care,” Kingman said with a shrug, “four’s fine with me.”
    “Thus leaving me with the number-one position, the sound of which I find very appealing,” Hateley said.
    “I don’t see a scale on this map,” Bulatt said. “What’s the distance from our bait pile to the sniper post?”
    “Approximately a thousand yards,” Lanyard replied.
    “And you’re planning on keeping a protective eye on us at that distance with a rifle, and in this weather?” Bulatt cocked his head skeptically.
    “As it happens, we’ve got two rather nice U.S. Marine Corps rifles positioned in the sniper post,” Lanyard replied. “A standard M40A1, and a M107 adapted to a computer-controlled platform mount; both equipped with state-of-the-art daylight and night-vision scopes. As you might imagine, on this particular hunt, distance won’t be so much a factor as visibility.”
    “What’s a M107?” Caldreaux asked Bulatt, looking puzzled.
    “A fifty-caliber military sniper rifle that’s accurate and lethal out to a couple thousand yards,” Bulatt answered, “but only if you can see your target in the scope.”
    “And with the snow falling as it is now, it’s doubtful that we’ll be able to see much beyond a hundred yards,” Lanyard said, “which may turn out to be a very relevant safety issue, indeed, because of the new problem we haven’t discussed yet.”
    “A new problem?” Hateley asked.
    “More of a complication, I think, than an actual problem; but it may be a significant one. When the people in charge of the release baited the mammoths out to the Maze, they didn’t separate them from their mothers first.”
    “The host mothers are out there, with the young mammoths?” Achara blinked, looking shocked.
    “Yes.” Lanyard nodded. “We only learned about this situation yesterday. Had we know earlier, we would have certainly told you, and made alternate arrangements for the hunt.”
    “But how dangerous are the females likely to be?” Hateley asked. “I mean, we’re not talking about a bull elephant running amok in the hunting area. Aren’t the females considerably smaller than the males?”
    “Considerably smaller, and much less aggressive,” Lanyard said, nodding, “but they are protective of their young, none-the-less, and perfectly capable of stomping a human flat. As such, all of you are going to have to be a bit more cautious — and perhaps even a little inventive — in your approaches than we had originally planned. For this reason, we’re suggesting that you might give some consideration to hunting in pairs, or perhaps even as a foursome.”
    “I think that discussion will have to wait for day-two, or perhaps even day-three,” Hateley said. “I came here to put a mammoth head on my wall, and I really don’t want to end up arguing with my associates — or Carolyn — as to who merely wounded the biggest trophy animal, and who actually made the kill.”
    Caldreaux Kulawnit both nodded in agreement.
    “Marcus thought you would all feel that way,” Lanyard said, “so I’m to offer you a second option that may be a bit more to your liking: the prospect of conducting your hunts at night, when the animals are naturally more active.”
    “At night?! Are you insane?” Caldreaux demanded.
    “At night, using night vision goggles,” Lanyard corrected, “which should help you deal with the presence of the mother elephants. You’ll be able to hear and see and perhaps smell them, but they’ll only be able to hear and smell you. Not exactly the old-fashioned cave-man hunt we originally envisioned; but, perhaps, an appropriate balance of the old and the new. And, in any case, I think you’ll find the task of taking these creatures with spears — while watching out for the protective mothers — to be sufficiently challenging to justify mounting them on your walls.”
    Hateley, Caldreaux, Kingman and Achara all looked at each other and shrugged agreeably.
    “And because the snow storm shows every sign of continuing, and possibly getting worse, maintaining visual contact with all of you — even with the night scopes and infrared filtered flashlights — is going to be a bit iffy at times. So we’re going to modify the rules a bit more and issue the four hunters and Gunny Sergeant Bulattus with short-range walkie-talkies. The functional range is roughly a mile with line-of-sight. But you’re not likely to be in sight of each other, with all the rocks and outcroppings; so plan on climbing to high ground — to a point where you can see the yellow flasher of our sniper post — if you need to make an emergency call and want to be absolutely certain that we’ll hear you.”
    Lanyard reached into his kit bag and handed out five of the walkie-talkies, each tape-marked with a user’s call-sign. “They’re all set to channel one, and your call-signs are your cave positions: CAVE-ONE, CAVE-TWO, CAVE-THREE and CAVE-FOUR. Gunny Sergeant Bulattus will be SARGE-ONE.”
    “What about your call sign?” Hateley asked.
    “Don’t worry about that,” Lanyard advised. “If you need help, just get on the horn and whichever one of us is within range will respond; which will certainly include Gunny Sergeant Bulattus if he’s closer and more readily available. That okay with you, Sarge?”
    “Roger that,” Bulatt said.
    “Well, in that case,” Lanyard said, “I think we’d better finish loading up the chopper and get moving out to the base camp before the storm up there gets any worse. We’ll have a few hours of daylight to make a last-minute equipment check, practice with the radios and night-vision gear, and then get you all settled into your camp sites before its time for the fun to start.”
    Part IV: Chimera


    Base Camp, the Maze
    Dressed in winter white-cammo-shell tunic and pants that were identical to those worn by Gedimin Bulatt and Achara Kulawnit, Marcus Wallis remained in the snow-covered trees about fifty yards from the base camp and watched — with a pair of adjustable 4x binoculars — as the modified Blackhawk helicopter landed at the make-shift helipad.
    Moments later, the four familiar figures of Quince Lanyard, Michael Hateley, Max Kingman and Stuart Caldreaux climbed down out of the Blackhawk’s main cabin door, immediately followed by the unfamiliar figures of Gedimin Bulatt and Achara Kulawnit.
    As Wallis continued to watch, Lanyard led his five charges down a pathway from the base camp’s heliport and sniper post to the mouth of a deep natural cavern that Wallis had selected as a place to train their clients in the use of night vision goggles. He watched the group disappear into the mouth of the cavern, waited two more minutes, and then worked his way up to the sniper post.
    There, he found Jack Gavin sitting on a trunk-like green aluminum rifle case underneath a tied and staked-down tarp shelter.
    Gavin was working on the cabling connections between a laptop computer and a large digital telescopic sight mounted on the receiver of a thick-barreled stainless-steel rifle. The rifle was clamped solidly onto a slot within a heavy platform mount, in turn, was bolted to an electronically adjustable x-y-z servo-box. The thick legs of the tripod bolted to the underside of the servo-box were held solidly in place with a combination of sandbags and heavy rocks. A second set of cables ran from the servo-box and the platform mount to the laptop; and a third set ran from out from the laptop in opposite directions, connecting to a pair of pole-mounted directional transceiver antennas mounted one hundred feet apart.
    In effect, the software program on the laptop controlled the three-dimensional aim-point of the heavy-barreled rifle; or, at least, that was the theory.
    “Got it working yet?” Wallis asked.
    “Not bloody likely,” Gavin muttered. “We need to get Quince back on the job. He built the bugger; he should know how to fix it.”
    “What’s the problem?”
    “He thinks it’s one of the connecting cables; a real pisser, seeing as how all the complicated bits seem to be working spot-on.”
    “Show me what’s working,” Wallis said.
    “I’ll start with the signal-tracking mode.” Gavin hit an Alt-F key and the laptop screen instantly shifted to a graphic overhead image of the Maze with a pulsing point in the lower left corner. Gavin then zoomed-in on the lower left corner, and they both watched the pulsing point separated out into eight distinct points; six of them clumped together at a section of the graphic marked helipad.
    “Those were the positions of all eight walkie-talkies ten minutes ago,” Gavin said, pointing at the screen. “That’s Quince and our five clients coming off the chopper, me right here, and you out in the woods.”
    As Wallis watched, six of the pulsing points — labeled on the screen in bright gold letters as ‘G2’, ‘CA’, ‘HA’, ‘KI’, ‘FO’ and ‘BU’ — moved as a group to a section of the graphic labeled ‘TEST CAVE ENTRANCE’ and then disappeared, one by one. The point labeled ‘G1’ slowly approached the point labeled ‘G3’ which remained motionless.
    “That’s us, now, in real time,” Gavin said as he hit another Alt-F key. “As you can see, the signal-tracking part of the program is dead-on. We’ll lose a signal for a moment, every now and then, when a big rock gets in the way. But we’ve got a lot of relay sensors out there, and the computer always maintains the ‘last-known’ position. Given all that, we’re not going to have any trouble keeping track of the players in this little game.”
    “So where’s the problem?” Wallis asked.
    “In the auto-targeting mode, probably the feed-back system,” Gavin said. “Or, at least, that’s what Quince thinks. The system will track a signal just fine. When you were other there near Cave Three, an hour ago, I clicked on your radio icon, and the scope locked onto your signal like a bloody SAM; held your last-known-position every time you disappeared behind a rock, locked right back on you the instant you re-appeared, and then disengaged — for manual tracking by the computer and joystick — when I gave it the signal without a hitch. It was only when I actually tried to manually aim and dry-fire the bugger at a nearby target that I got the hiccup.”
    “When I hit the fire button, the bloody computer re-engaged into the auto-tracking mode all by itself, moved the cross-hairs back onto the G1 icon, and then fired the round.”
    “Damn near crapped me drawers, I did,” Gavin said. “Good thing the chamber on that one-oh-seven was empty, or we’d have been out a perfectly good walkie-talkie.”
    “Not to mention the jacket I had it in,” Wallis said. “Tell Quince he’d bloody well better fix that glitch, or he’s going to be walking post out there by himself.” Wallis was silent for a few moments. “Do you think he can re-program the computer so that it never fires directly at the radio signal, no matter what instructions we give it; basically, create a fail-safe system?”
    “Beats me, but I’ll ask,” Gavin said. “We’re probably pushing things a bit, trying to jury-rig a complicated system like this at the last minute; but you know Quince — man’s a bloody genius with his electronic toys. I’ll wager he’ll come up with something that works.”
    “He’d better,” Wallis said. “The idea is to track and cover our clients if one of those mother elephant’s starts giving them a bad time; not blow them into shreds with a bloody fifty.”
    “He mentioned he was going to pick up a set of replacement cables in town,” Gavin said. “If the wiring really is the problem, we should be good-to-go well before dark. If not, I can always disconnect the weapon and go manual. I’m not going to be able to lead the target, look out ahead for rocks, and calculate all those distance, windage and drop numbers out to a thousand yards in my head as fast as this computer can — especially in this bloody weather — but I’m not going to start popping off rounds at our clients either.”
    “In clear weather, I’d trust your eye over a bloody computer anytime, lad,” Wallis said, clapping Gavin on the shoulder as he stared out into the swirling snow storm. “But, seeing as how Quince and I are going to be wandering around out in that muck, trying to keep everything in order, I’d just as soon not have the odd stray round whistling over our heads. Tell Quince to get this bugger fixed if he can. We’re not likely to need it; but eight-million-dollar payoffs don’t come around every day, and I don’t want to have a paying customer get stomped flat before we see the green.”
    “Will do.”
    “So what do we know about Fogarty’s last-minute substitution?”
    “Not much; only what Quince relayed to me from the airport,” Gavin said. “The Asian lass basically confirmed what Fogarty told Hateley: that she’s his adopted daughter; that she likes to hunt with a bow and arrows she makes herself; and that she insisted on taking over for her father when he got hurt. The tough-looking bloke’s her U.S. Marine boyfriend; claims to be a Master Gunny. Quince says he fits the part — quiet, confident, no bragging, no bullshit — and showed up with all the proper gear. Odd thing is, though: he says he’s not interested in hunting; just going along for the ride, and to watch out for his Sheila.”
    “Really?” Wallis cocked his head curiously. “What about confirmations?”
    “Quince was getting on that when this bloody robot started getting the shakes,” Gavin said. “I could try to do a little digging myself, but — ”
    “That’s all right, lad,” Wallis said, patting Gavin on the shoulder again. “We’ll leave that sort of thing to Quince when he’s got a spare moment. Long as we get paid, I don’t care who does the hunting. And besides,” he added, looking up at the sky, “I don’t think the weather’s going to get any better in the next few hours, so I’d better get back out there and get those last flashers in place while I can still find the bloody rocks.”


    Hovering over the Maze, Cascade Mountain Range, Washington.
    At four o’clock that afternoon, looking out from the cargo bay windows of the hovering Blackhawk helicopter, the huge granite bowl sprawled out below looked very much as its name implied: a large and complicated maze of tall rocks and trees interspersed with small natural clearings, all of which were covered with a layer of white snow that was now falling from the darkening sky in large clumps.
    From their aerial position five hundred feet over the base camp, Bulatt, Achara, Hateley, Kingman and Caldreaux could see four sets of flashing blue lights and four sets of greens, all of which was surrounded by an irregular array of flashing red lights.
    “The blue flashers show the position of the caves, the green ones mark the bait piles, and the reds give the pilots positions of high-rising rocks near the landing zones,” Lanyard said, speaking into his helmet mike. “Marcus and Jack have spent the last couple of days setting them in place, and it looks like they’ve just about finished the job. The batteries should be good for at least forty hours of continuous operation in this weather, and we can turn them on or off — or switch them from visible to IR light — remotely from the chopper, so they should last us for the duration. Just another safety system we set in place to make sure we can get to you in a hurry if the need arises. Wouldn’t want you lads — and the lass, of course — to think we’re skimping on the life rings.”
    Lanyard looked around at his five passengers, all of whom were staring out the windows at the scene below as they listened to his spiel through their helmet earphones.
    “I’m sure you’ve all noticed that the storm is getting worse, as we thought it might; so we’ll probably shut down helicopter operations as soon as we’ve dropped all of you off at your landing zones. Not to worry, though, because Marcus, Jack and I will be out and about, keeping an eye on things. And if an emergency situation should arrive, we can always get this chopper back up in the air and to your location, using the flashers as beacons. She’s a sturdy craft — designed for search and rescue operations — and perfectly capable of flying in much worse weather; especially with the talented lads we’ve got up front at the controls. We’re going to start dropping you off at your cave positions, and give you time to get settled in before the evening festivities begin; starting with the farthest position out, which means Carolyn and Ged. Everybody good to go?”
    Four helmeted figures either gestured or nodded ‘yes.’
    “All right, gentlemen… and lady,” Lanyard said, as he gave the ‘go-ahead’ signal to the pilots, “your ‘hunt of an era’ has now officially begun.”

    Drop Zone, Cave 2, the Maze.
    The snow was coming down steadily as the pilots set the modified Blackhawk down on the roughly flat landing zone that — as best Bulatt could tell — was about eighty yards from the blue-flashing cave site, and a good hundred and fifty from the green-flashing bait pile.
    At Quince’s signal, Bulatt and Achara hopped out of the cargo bay door, took their equipment and supply bags from Quince and the co-pilot, and then stepped back out of the range of the whirling rotors as the Blackhawk rose back up in the air and then disappeared in the drifting snow swirls and darkening sky.
    Moments later, the distinctive whop-whop noise of the rapidly disappearing Blackhawk was lost in the more subtle whistling and creaking sounds of the wind sweeping through the surrounding trees.
    From Bulatt’s perspective, the snow-flakes seemed to be bigger and falling faster now.
    “I think we’d better get this gear up to the cave and get a fire started before it gets too dark to search for wood,” he said, looking down at the collection of packs, duffle bags and equipment cases. “Think we can make it in two trips?”
    “We can certainly try,” Achara said.
    Working quickly, they secured the two sleeping bags onto the tops of the hiking packs; strapped Achara’s bow and quiver to her pack, and a white-nylon assault vest loaded with extra magazines for the M14 onto Bulatt’s; and tied pairs of Achara’s spears onto the sides of the two smaller kit bags. Then, after slipping the heavy packs over their shoulders and pulling the waist-support straps snug, Achara picked up one of the small kit bags in each hand while Bulatt picked up one of the heavy duffel bags in his left hand and the M14 rifle case in his right.
    Walking slowly and carefully over the unfamiliar ground that was covered with at least a foot of snow, Bulatt and Achara worked their way up the gradual slope to what turned out to be a cave entrance — about five feet high and three feet across — that was partially concealed by the trunk and lower branches of a thirty-foot pine tree.
    “Looks cozy,” Achara commented as they stopped about fifteen feet from the cave entrance and looked around.
    “And recently visited, too,” Bulatt added. In spite of the foot-thick-covering of snow, it was obvious that someone — or something — had been in and out of the cave in the past hour or so. “I think I’d better check it out first.”
    Reaching into his pack, Bulatt pulled out a four-cell flashlight, turned it on, drew the. 44-Magnum revolver from under his tunic, and then cautiously stepped forward to the cave entrance. Once there, he knelt down, aimed the flashlight beam into the cave, cursed, and then scrambled inside.
    Moments later, Achara entered the cave cautiously with her own flashlight, and saw Bulatt kneeling down at the far end of the irregularly-shaped grotto that looked like it had been enlarged from its original shape with dynamite, spikes and a sledgehammer many years earlier. The resulting cavern ranged from six feet wide at the entrance to twelve at the back, and was approximately twenty feet deep with an irregularly-jagged ceiling that rose from six to ten feet from the more-or-less smooth and upward sloping granite and dirt floor.
    “What’s the matter?” she asked as she came up to Bulatt’s left side, and then saw the carnage for herself.
    “Looks like we’ve had a visitor,” Bulatt said, motioning with his flashlight beam at the torn-apart boxes that — according to the block-printed labels — had contained and assortment of freeze-dried meals, juice, coffee, medical supplies, batteries, blankets and cooking gear.
    “A bear?”
    “Certainly looks like it,” Bulatt said. “A lot of the food packs are torn apart, and the non-edible stuff’s scattered all over the cave.”
    “You think he’s still around?”
    “I doubt it, but we’d better get our gear inside, just in case.”
    Working cautiously now, Bulatt and Achara quickly moved the packs and bags inside the cave. Then, after loading the M14 rifle with a heavy 20-round magazine, and making sure that Achara was familiar with its operation, Bulatt worked his way back down to the drop zone that was becoming increasingly more difficult to see in the rapidly falling snow.
    It took him three trips to transport the rest of their equipment and supply bags up to the cave; the extra trips necessitated by the. 44 Magnum Smith amp; Wesson that had become a comforting presence in his gloved right hand.
    By the time he managed to shove the last of the bags into the cave mouth, and then work himself inside, Bulatt discovered that Achara had been busy.
    The cave that had looked exactly like the site of a bear ransacking when he’d left was now neatly organized. A pair of propane-fueled lamps dangled overhead from knotted lines wedged into cracks in the jagged ceiling rock surface; sacks of packaged food and juice — mostly the supplies they’d brought with them — were hung on similar cords from the highest wall points in the rear of the cave. Equipment bags containing their extra sets of clothes, and two boxes containing their remaining stock of canned food — with their extra blankets stacked on top — formed a three-foot high barrier partially dividing the cave into front and back halves, in addition to providing a pair of comfortable seats. The cooking gear and backpacks were stacked along the wall near the entrance, and a bed area had been made out of insulating layers of torn cardboard and pine tree boughs spread out beneath their inflatable mattresses and rolled-out sleeping bags. A visibly bent and dented propane stove had been set up against the wall on the cave-entrance side of the barrier, and was busily heating a tea-pot and a skillet — its inner surfaces glistening with cooking oil. The loaded M14 rifle; the assault vest with the extra loaded magazines; four boxes of 7.62mm rifle and two of. 44-Magnum pistol ammo; and the spears, the bow and quiver of arrows were all stacked against the back wall next to the two night-vision goggle cases and within easy reach of the bed.
    “Definitely looks cozy now,” Bulatt commented. “But are you sure you want your sleeping bag that close to mine? I tend to snore.”
    “Thai women are very practical,” Achara said as she came up to Bulatt and handed him a steaming cup of aromatic tea. “When it is snowing outside, we like our men to stay close, to help keep us warm; but when bears are wandering around outside, we also like to make sure their sleeping bag is closest to the cave entrance.”
    “An interesting tradition, seeing as how it probably doesn’t snow real often in Thailand,” Bulatt pointed out.
    “Which is why Thai women must always be adaptable and thoughtful, as well as practical,” she said with a dimpled grin.
    “Ah,” Bulatt said as he took a cautious sip at the tea.
    “And as a traditionally-trained Thai woman,” Achara went on in a suddenly more-serious voice, “I fully intend to cook you a warm and nutritious meal before we go outside and conduct our own hunt to locate and control Mr. Hateley and the men who killed our Rangers. But before I do that, I want you to help me understand something.”
    “And what would that be?”
    “Whatever else they may be, these killers we seek — Marcus and Quince and Jack — are clearly military men with a disciplined sense of order. All of the supply and equipment boxes stocked here for us were clearly marked, and the contents itemized on a separate check list.”
    She reached into her pocket and pulled out a plastic-sealed check list.
    “So help me understand, please,” she said, holding up the torn but still readable list, “why a bear would ransack our cave, eat some of our food, and then carry most of the food that remained away; along with a cooking pot, a spoon, a fork, and a can-opener?”


    Outside Cave 2, the Maze.
    The rocks that Bulatt had lugged and dragged to the front of the cave entrance now formed a two-foot-high barrier that — along with the pair of cross-tied tree limbs that could be pulled up and held tight against the entrance with a rope tied to a cross-bracing spear — would force any intruders, man or beast, to stay upright as they tried to work their way past the entanglements; thus exposing them to the lethal impact of a spear, an arrow, or a. 44 Magnum hollow point.
    “What do you think?” Bulatt asked, kneeling in front of the cave entrance and peering in through the cross-tied branches. Behind him, the sky was darkening rapidly, forming a contrasting backdrop for the falling clumps of snow that had already filled the multiple sets of boot prints leading down to the now-invisible drop zone.
    “I think I’m much safer in here than you are out there,” Achara said, her beautiful features visible in the reflection of the propane lanterns overhead as she brandished the stainless-steel revolver, “so don’t stay out there too long without me.”
    “I’m just going to get to high ground long enough to contact Quince and let him know we had some interesting company,” Bulatt said. “I’ll come right back after that, we’ll eat dinner, and then we’ll go looking for Hateley and have our heart-to-heart talk, fair deal?”
    “Yes, just as long as you leave that flasher on,” Achara said.
    They had argued about that while they were outside searching for suitably-sized rocks to form the cave entrance barrier. Bulatt wanted to disable the blue flasher mounted over their cave — or at least move it some distance away — to make it more difficult for whoever had stolen their food and cooking equipment to find their way back; but Achara had insisted that Bulatt leave it on, to make it easier for him to find his way back.
    “I am a Thai Ranger Captain armed with a barrier, four spears, twelve arrows, and a forty-four Magnum revolver with fifty rounds of ammunition,” Achara had reminded Bulatt firmly when he continued to look uneasily up at the intermittently-flashing blue light. “With all of that, I should be able to hold off an army of bears and thieves for days if necessary; but I do need you to deal with Marcus and the others. So, you either leave that flasher on, or I’m going outside with you; and that means you will miss out my delicious dinner.”
    “Okay, I’ll leave it on,” Bulatt promised as he stood up, reached for the M14 rifle leaning against the cave entrance, and started working his way uphill — through the snow drifts and in the growing darkness — toward the distant green-flashing bait pile.
    He was half-way to the bait pile, and no longer able to see anything of the cave behind him through the flurries of falling snow — except for the intermittently-flashing blue light — when the walkie-talkie in his left hand suddenly crackled.
    “- stole all my goddamned food!” a voice raged.
    Caldreaux. Bulatt smiled, recognizing the Cajun’s distinct voice.
    “- four… stay there… coming — ” a deeply accented Australian voice responded.
    Who’s that? Bulatt wondered as he held the walkie-talkie up, trying to get better reception. Definitely not Quince.
    “- shit… after my trophy… not going to let — ”
    Frustrated by the poor reception, Bulatt tried changing channels on the walkie-talkie, got to channel seven, and heard — a little more clearly — the same deeply accented Australian voice say “… heading over to position three, now, to check on Caldreaux…” and then the familiar voice of Quince respond with a “Gecko-Two, copy that.”
    Okay, interesting to know, Bulatt thought as he listened to static for another thirty seconds.
    Then, after switching the walkie-talkie back to channel one, he looked around; saw a high granite outcropping nearby; stuck the walkie-talkie into one of the empty pouches of his assault vest; quickly scrambled his way up and around the surrounding trees and boulders, using the stock of the M14 for leverage, his boots slipping frequently on the snow-covered rocks; and finally reached the top of the rocky outcropping. He could already hear the voices — much clearer now — as he retrieved the walkie-talkie from his vest.
    “Cave-Four, this is Cave-One.” Hateley, sounding calm and amused, Bulatt thought.
    “Don’t worry about the food, Stuart,” Hateley said. “Marcus is aware of the bear situation. He’s going to arrange to run them off and re-supply us tomorrow morning. Max and I both found our food stores ransacked, and probably Carolyn and her boyfriend did too, I’m guessing, but we haven’t heard from them yet.”
    “Cave-One, this is Sarge-One,” Bulatt said. “Be advised we got hit also, but I don’t think it was — ”
    At that moment, the suddenly hushed voice of Kingman interrupted. “They’re here! I can see them… at my feeding pile. I’m going off the air. We’re making too much noise, don’t want to scare them.”
    “I can see mine also, and they are beautiful things to behold,” Hateley said with an almost reverent tone to his voice. Good hunting, everyone. Cave-One, out.”
    Bulatt stared at the now-silent walkie-talkie for a few moments, shrugged, stuck it back in his vest, and began working his way back down the outcropping.
    He was half-way back down the slope, the blue-flasher in sight, when a sudden movement off in the distance to his left caught his attention. Coming to an immediate halt, he slowly turned and then stared in disbelief as the two creatures — first the larger mother and then her smaller offspring — slowly stepped out of the trees and approached the intermittently-green-lit bait pile less than fifty feet away from his position. It was obvious that both creatures saw him; but neither of them seemed concerned as they slowly approached the piles of hay and fruit.
    I’ll be damned, Bulatt thought, as he stood there and watched the two creatures — one very familiar looking and other something he’d only seen before in drawings and paintings — begin to feed. I guess we really are on a mammoth hunt.

    Sniper Post, Base Camp
    Quince Lanyard and Jack Gavin were huddled under the canvas shelter over the tripod-mounted M107 rifle, Gavin talking on one of the walkie-talkies, when Wallis appeared out of the darkness and sat down on a second trunk-like aluminum rifle case, setting the M40A1 bolt-action sniper rifle he’d been carrying next to a pair of loaded M4 carbines.
    “I checked on Hateley’s cave,” Wallis said, pulling off his night-vision goggles and brushing away the accumulated snow and ice. “It was definitely a bear. Big bastard; probably injured from the look of the tracks. I followed him for a while, until the snow got too deep. It looks like he’s working his way back to an area somewhere between Cave-One and Cave-Two; probably where his den is located. Given the amount of food he seems to have consumed, I doubt that he’s going to be hungry again for a while. I got Hateley settled down. What’s the status on the others?”
    “Caldreaux was a little worked up at first,” Gavin responded, “but it sounds like the elephants have just come out to feed, so nobody seems to be worried about bears anymore.”
    “What about the lass?”
    “Her boyfriend called in, said their cave had been ransacked too; but he didn’t sound too concerned,” Lanyard replied, his eyes focused on the laptop computer screen.
    “I wouldn’t be concerned about a wandering bear, either, if I was tucked into a cozy little cave with that young lady and an M14,” Gavin commented. “Not sure I’d even be getting around to the hunting part until tomorrow; and maybe not even then.”
    “That’s the trouble with you hunter/killer types, mate,” Lanyard commented. “Just can’t get yourselves worked up to hunt things that don’t shoot back; especially when there’s a lively lass to be had.”
    Wallis blinked, cocked his head and stared at Lanyard for a long moment. “Speaking of shooting,” he finally said, “what’s the status of the one-oh-seven’s auto-tracking system?”
    “Back up and running,” Lanyard said, looking up from the laptop. “I replaced both feed cables, and now everything seems to be working fine. But I wasn’t too thrilled about that glitch you and Jack ran into, so I did what you suggested and re-programmed the auto-target-and-shoot mode with a safety feature so that the computer can’t trigger a round any closer than four feet to the original signal source, even if the source moves. My fault; I should have thought of that earlier.”
    “That’s why we always want to conduct field exercises, to work the bugs out of the systems first,” Wallis said, sounding distracted. “Probably asking a bit much to have something this complicated working correctly right out of the box.”
    “I think we’re going to be okay,” Lanyard said. “I put an option to disable the safety feature in the main menu; but I wouldn’t recommend doing that until we know more about that glitch. If you want, I can erase the entire auto-target-and-shoot mode from the drive until I have a chance to de-bug the program.”
    “No.” Wallis shook his head. “What I want you to do now is get back into that computer and tell me everything you can about this Gunny Sergeant Bulattus.”

    Outside Cave 2
    “What’s the matter, don’t you want to eat my dinner and enjoy the warmth of our cave for a while?” Achara asked as she stood outside the cave and watched Bulatt lash the cross-tied branch barrier back into place.
    “I very much want to eat your dinner, and I can’t think of anything much more enticing than that cave right now,” Bulatt said. “But if I stay in there and eat and enjoy, instead of taking you to see this, you’ll be mad at me for a very long time.”
    He refused to tell her why, only that it was very important that she turn the stove off, get back into her cammo-white outer-shell tunic and pants, pick up the bow and quiver of arrows, and follow him.
    “And you don’t want me to take the spears?”
    “There’s no need,” Bulatt said as he slung the M14 rifle over his shoulder, and then took the unstrung bow from Achara’s hand and slid it over her shoulder into the quiver. “We’re not really hunting anything, and I can protect us with the rifle or the pistol if it becomes necessary; but, more importantly, I don’t want you to scare them.”
    “Yes, them.”
    It was dark enough now that both of them were wearing the night vision goggles, turning the surrounding rocks and trees into darker green shapes against the pale green of the snow that covered everything and still continued to fall; the big fluffy swirling clumps reflecting brightly in the beams of their IR-filtered flashlights.
    On the climb back up the slope, Bulatt placed himself on Achara’s right, and kept his flashlight beam centered on the trail of mostly-filled boot prints — his from his recent trip to the outcropping — so that the expanse of rocks and clearings off to their right remained in darkness. At the top of the hill, he stopped.
    “Are you ready?” he asked.
    “Yes, of course I’m ready,” Achara said impatiently. “But I don’t see why — ”
    In answer, Bulatt slowly swung the beam of his flashlight to the right until it centered on the two creatures that were standing still, staring back at the two figures in the darkness they could hear and smell, but only intermittently see.
    “Oh my god, it’s true,” Achara whispered, her voice hoarse with disbelief as she centered the beam of her flashlight on the smaller creature standing calmly next to its mother.
    “Apparently,” Bulatt said.
    “I understand the science,” she said in a hushed voice, “but I still didn’t believe it could really be possible.”
    “And now that you’ve seen it with your own eyes?”
    “I… I want to see it closer,” Achara said. “Do you think we can?”
    “They certainly know we’re here, and they don’t seem concerned,” Bulatt said. “I suppose it won’t hurt to get a little closer, so that they can see us.”
    Slowly, cautiously, they approached the bait pile, expecting at any moment for the two creatures to suddenly spook or retreat back into the safety of the nearby trees.
    But they didn’t.
    Instead, the mother elephant and the smaller mammoth simply stood motionless and watched the two white-tunic-clad figures approach.
    Twenty feet away, Achara stopped, knelt down, picked up a pair of apples with her gloved hands — the apples seemingly coated with some kind of sticky substance and oatmeal — stood back up, and then began walking again, even slower now, toward the waiting creatures.
    She was less than ten feet away from the mother elephant, Bulatt maintaining a watchful but relaxed presence at her side, when the mother suddenly took three steps forward and extended her trunk out.
    Achara stopped, hesitated, then took two steps forward of her own, and extended the apple out with her left hand.
    Casually and gently, as if she’d done it hundreds of times before, the mother elephant swept the end of her trunk around the apple in Achara’s hand, and smoothly slipped it into her mouth.
    The crunching sound of apple giving way under the grinding pressure of an elephant’s molars echoed in the crisp night air.
    Achara was still watching the mother elephant, barely breathing in her excitement, and thus never saw the young mammoth come forward; until it suddenly yanked the other apple out of her hand with an impatient sweep of its smaller trunk, slipped it into its mouth, and began to crunch down loudly on the savory bit of fruit.
    Then, as Achara stood frozen in amazement, the young mammoth began to probe her tunic pockets — presumably looking for another apple — while its mother watched with what Bulatt interpreted as calm parental oversight.
    Seemingly frustrated by its failure to find more apples, the mammoth began probing higher up Achara’s tunic, and Bulatt suddenly remembered.
    “The saliva,” he said softly. “Remember what Juliana said about the probes in the salivary glands of those Clouded Leopards. It could still be dangerous.”
    “Yes, you’re right,” Achara said as she reluctantly stepped back away from the curious and playful mammal. “The probes should all have been excreted or destroyed by their immune systems by now, but it makes sense to be cautious.”
    She watched, visibly saddened now, as the two creatures — apparently satisfied that they’d gotten all that was to be had from the two humans — walked back over to the bait pile and began feeding again.

    High above Bait Pile 2
    Standing silently on a granite outcropping that overlooked the bait pile where the two human figures continued to stand and observe mother and offspring select choice morsels, two similar — but at the same time, vastly different — creatures watched with narrowed eyes and tensed muscles.
    Like the mother elephant and her mammoth-like youngster — but unlike Bulatt and Achara, who were hindered by the color background of their night vision goggles — these two genetically-altered mammals were able to make use of the intermittent green flashes of light that marked the bait pile to carefully monitor the actions of the humans below.
    Finally, satisfied in some acknowledged but unspoken manner, these two mismatched and misshapen creatures from a long-past era — who, in their own unique ways, were far more dangerous than any other living organism moving about in the Maze on this particular night — turned away from the granite cliff edge and disappeared into the darkness in opposite directions.

    Bait Pile 2
    “Did you hear that?” Achara asked, looking up at the distant outcroppings for the source of the crackling sound that had briefly caused the mother elephant and her offspring to suddenly stop eating for a moment and look up.
    “I thought I heard something,” Bulatt said as he swept the bream of his IR-filtered flashlight across the exposed edges of the distant outcroppings, “but I don’t see anything. It might have been the wind.”
    “But they reacted to it… differently,” Achara reminded, watching in undiminished awe as the small mammoth went back to feeding on the bait pile.
    Bulatt nodded. “I think we need to go find Hateley, and leave them be for a while,” he said.
    “And in the process, figure out a way to stop this hunt,” Achara said, reluctantly turning away and following Bulatt back to the top of the hill.

    Sniper Post, Base Camp
    Quince Lanyard was hunched over his laptop, working the attached mouse with reflexive motions. He’d hooked the laptop up to a satellite phone, and was busy calling up Google-sorted pages off the Internet, one after another.
    “Looks like there’s a Master Gunny G. Bulattus, based out of Pendleton; one of the resident field training companies,” Lanyard mumbled, to himself as much as to Wallis, who was standing over his shoulder. “That would explain how he had access to equipment at the Yakima Training Center.”
    “Any first name?” Wallis asked.
    “No, just what’s on the company org chart, and that could be way out of date,” Lanyard replied. “Have to make do with what links I can find from the regimental web sites. No way I can get into the official DOD rosters; at least not with this gear,” he amended.
    “What about the girl?”
    “She’s next,” Lanyard said. “I found a lot of references to that newspaper article about her running off from the Idaho Game Wardens; but nothing that we don’t already know: adopted daughter, parents unknown, made her own bow and arrows. I think I’m going to dig into that last one a little deeper.”
    Still mumbling to himself, Lanyard modified his Google search, hit ‘GO,’ watched the list come up, and then began scrolling down in a search for new material.
    “Here’s one, Field and Stream, Carolyn Fogarty uses ancient tools to craft an arrow, see photo.” Lanyard clicked on the referenced web page. “And there she is, scraping away at… oh bloody hell.”
    “What’s the matter?” Wallis demanded.
    “That’s not her,” Lanyard said, pointing at the grainy picture on the laptop screen.
    “Are you positive?”
    “I spent the better part of the morning with that young lady, loading her gear into the helicopter, and then adjusting a set of night vision goggles around her pretty head,” Lanyard said firmly. “The lass in that picture is definitely not her.”
    “Then who the hell…?” Gavin started to ask, but Wallis interrupted.
    “Those surveillance shots you lads took at the electronics shop,” he said. “Call them up.”
    Lanyard’s hands flew over the laptop keys. Moments later, an array of ‘thumbnail’-sized photos appeared on the screen.
    “You mentioned there was a cop out in the parking lot with a beard and long white hair,” Wallis said.
    “A bloke who looked and acted like a cop; the one who beat the crap out of those two Agency goons,” Lanyard said as he used the mouse to scroll down through the array of small photos. “Don’t think I got anything clear enough for ID, though. We couldn’t get all that close, and the bloody rain was — here we go.”
    Moments later, a rain-blurred color photo filled the screen, showing an indistinct figure in the process of kicking a much-larger figure in the face. A second large figure was sprawled on the ground.
    “Is that the best you’ve got?” Wallis demanded.
    “It’s the only one that shows him in a frontal view.”
    “Can you sharpen it any?”
    “Not enough give us anything useful,” Lanyard replied. “He’s in motion in just about every shot, and the bloody rain’s absorbing — or reflecting — just about all the ambient light that was out there. Anything we got in the way of an improvement would be the computer making a series of approximations; nothing you could bank on.”
    “Show me the other shots.”
    Lanyard started to click through the blurred photos.
    “There, that one,” Wallis said, pointing to the screen.
    “He’s standing still there, confronting the bastards. That gives us a little more latitude in terms of enhancing sharpness,” Lanyard said, “but you’re not going to see his face.”
    “That’s all right, try anyway,” Wallis directed.
    Moments later, Lanyard had blurry photo displayed in a Photoshop™ frame, and was working with the adjustment options. Progressively, the software displayed the blurred image of a man with a white beard and long white hair tied back in a short ponytail. “I could try sharpening it a bit more,” he said finally, but — ”
    “No need,” Wallis said. “That’s the man I saw with Colonel Kulawnit at Bangkok International, when I was going to the bank to move our money.”
    “You think he’s Bulattus?” Gavin asked
    “He’s definitely something, taking on those two brawlers like that,” Wallis said, his eyes boring into the indistinct image on the screen. “And if he’s a federal agent, it wouldn’t have been difficult for him to get a haircut and shave on a military base.”
    “I’ve got a lot of stuff in the hard drive on Colonel Kulawnit, from the time we were doing a background check on the local Thai opposition,” Lanyard said as he used the mouse to call up archived file folders. “Maybe he shows up in one of those photos.”
    Lanyard had scrolled through a dozen electronic copies of newspaper and magazine articles when Wallis suddenly said: “Stop.”
    Lanyard quickly zoomed-in on the photo illustration.
    “That’s her,” he said, pointing to a young woman in uniform standing to Kulawnit’s left, and then bringing his finger down to the photo caption. “Captain Achara Kulawnit. Bloody hell, she’s the colonel’s daughter!”
    “No,” Wallis said, pointing to the other uniformed figure standing to Colonel Kulawnit’s right side. “That’s him — Lieutenant Anada Kulawnit — the patrol leader in the jeep, the one I shot that night.”
    “Lord Mother Mary,” Gavin whispered as the significance of the information settled in.
    Lanyard shook his head in confusion. “I don’t understand. Why would they be working us covertly? If they’ve got enough information from the Khlong Saeng incident to track us here, why don’t they just come at us with a bloody raid team?”
    “Because they don’t have enough on us for an arrest warrant, yet, or they would have,” Wallis said. “The lass, and Bulattus, where are they now?”
    Lanyard quickly re-set the laptop screen to show the tracking data for the Maze.
    “There they are,” he said, pointing to a pair of flashing dots.
    “What the bloody hell are they doing moving toward position-one?” Gavin asked.
    “They’re going after Hateley,” Wallis said. “He has all the information about us and the Khlong Saeng incident that they need. He testifies, and we get extradited back to Thailand.”
    “That’s not going to happen,” Gavin said grimly.
    “No, it’s not, because Mr. Hateley is about to have an unfortunate hunting accident,” Wallis said as he reached for the M40A1 bolt-action sniper rifle.
    “What about Bulattus and the Colonel’s daughter?” Lanyard asked.
    “You two stay flexible, but make sure they don’t get to Hateley before I do,” Wallis said, and then disappeared down the hill, heading directly toward the distant green flashing light designated in the computer program as BP1.
    Less than thirty seconds later, as Gavin was working quickly to load the platform-mounted M107 sniper rifle with a magazine of ten. 50-caliber rounds, and then clamp it back into the platform mount, an inhuman scream echoed across the chilled night air; followed moments later by a second scream that was far more agonized, and definitely human.


    Bait Pile 4
    Like the creatures Achara and Bulatt had interacted with at Bait Pile 2, the mother elephant and the young mammoth feeding at Bait Pile 4 watched the approaching human figure with only casual interest.
    Having been hand-fed by humans for the entire twenty-one-month gestation period leading to the birth of her genetically-altered offspring, the mother elephant wasn’t the least bit concerned about their safety; nor was she particularly interested in the long pointed sticks the human carried in his hands. She was aware that, unlike elephants, humans had two long appendages with which they could hold or grab onto things; but awareness and concern were two very different things to a mother elephant long accustomed to being bigger and stronger than any other creature in her immediate vicinity.
    The fact that this particular human seemed to be moving slowly and cautiously toward the feed pile, as if it was afraid of the hay or fruit, was also of little interest to the mother elephant. Humans were strange creatures, and it was often difficult to predict what they might do next; but food was the focus of her concern at this particular moment.
    Thus it wasn’t until Max Kingman suddenly broke out of his cautious approach pattern, ran forward toward the feed pile and threw one of the sticks at her young one — the pointed stick glancing off the small mammoth’s back, and causing it to squeal in surprise — that the mother elephant became alarmed.
    Instinctively, the mother elephant moved forward, placing herself directly between the human and her offspring, and trumpeted a warning.
    But Max Kingman didn’t heed the nature or the importance of the warning. To Kingman, the mother elephant was just another big and more-or-less dumb animal standing in the way of his coveted trophy. Intent on getting her out of the way, and not thinking about the possible consequences, Kingman took another lunging step forward and threw his second spear directly at the mother elephant; the obsidian spear point slicing deep into her trunk.
    Shocked by the unexpected attack, the mother elephant screamed in rage and pain; the bellowing roar almost completely masking the outraged scream another creature that was closing in on the feed pile fast.
    But Max Kingman heard the lesser-cry of outrage, turned, saw the furious and now-completely-altered greenish-tinged face of Borya coming at him, froze in shock; and then screamed in soul-wrenching agony when the home-made spear ripped into his shoulder and sent him sprawling backwards into the now-blood-splattered snow.

    Bait Pile 3
    Stuart Caldreaux, a far more cautious man than Max Kingman, was still working his way through the trees on his hands and knees, intent on approaching his feeding pair in a wide loop from the rear, when the first non-human scream of rage and pain echoed off the surrounding rocks and outcroppings like an artillery airburst.
    The mother elephant reacted instantly by yanking her unresponsive offspring away from the bait pile, and driving him toward a cluster of protective rocks a few yards away.
    Frustrated that all of his tracking efforts were now for naught, and he would have to start over again, Caldreaux rose to his feet and was starting toward the rocky cluster where the feeding pair had disappeared when the second all-too-human scream ripped through the icy night air.
    Startled and deeply frightened, Caldreaux suddenly wanted nothing more than to be as far away from the source of that agonized scream as possible. Accordingly, he began to run in the opposite direction, bouncing off trees, tripping and slipping off rocks, and seemingly catching the long spears in every scraggly bush and tree branch in his way; until, suddenly, he found himself stumbling backwards into a small clearing that he quickly recognized as the landing zone where Quince Lanyard had dropped him off in the helicopter a few hours earlier.
    Caldreaux had the walkie-talkie out of his pocket and up to his mouth without ever realizing he’s do so.
    “Quince!” he yelled into the small device, realized he’d forgotten to press the talk button, did so, and then yelled “Quince, did you hear that?!”
    “Yeah, we heard something, mate,” Quince Lanyard voice rasped from the small speaker. “Do you know what it was?”
    “I don’t know, it sounded like Max, but — ”
    Stuart Caldreaux then stopped dead in his tracks, and blinked in horrified disbelief.
    “Oh my God,” he whispered, unaware that his thumb was still pressing the TALK button, as he stared at the huge, dark-green creature that was charging toward him from the opposite side of the drop zone.
    Reacting purely on instinct, because every rational thought had been driven out of his head, Caldreaux turned and ran for the trees. Behind him, he could hear the incredibly heavy sounds of huge feet slamming down hard on the snow-packed ground.
    “Help! Help me!” he shrieked in between frantic gasps for breath as he ran as fast as he possibly could, knowing that the nightmarish creature was closing in fast… almost there…
    With a final desperate lunge that consumed every last bit of his remaining strength, Caldreaux dove in-between the trunks of two large fir trees a bare second before an earth-shattering impact drove both trees backwards, tearing portions of their roots from the frozen ground.

    Sniper Post, Base Camp
    Quince Lanyard stared at the walkie-talkie in his hand in disbelief, and then looked over at Jack Gavin, who was at the computer, using the powerful digital night-vision scope attached to the M107 rifle to search the area around Bait Pile 3.
    “Can you see anything?”
    “No. We’re still getting a signal from Caldreaux’s radio, and I’m scanning around it, but I can’t see… oh bloody hell, what was that?” Gavin whispered as he stared at the intermittent ghostly images on the laptop screen. “Quince, how do I go backwards on this thing?”
    Lanyard came up beside Gavin, looking over his shoulder. “Hit Alt-F-Nine, then use your back arrow key to scroll back — ”
    Then Lanyard blinked in disbelief as the dark partial-image of a huge head and a portion of a strangely-curved tusk — mostly concealed by the light green swirls of snow — suddenly appeared on the screen. He quickly reached over Gavin’s shoulder and hit the F-Twelve key, freezing the image in place. “What the hell is that?”
    “I don’t know, but it’s bloody-well big,” Gavin whispered.
    “Whatever it is, it’s going after Caldreaux. Disengage the auto-tracking mode and try to get a clear shot,” Lanyard directed as he grabbed one of the nearby M4 carbines and magazine-filled assault vest. “I’m heading out there with the chopper.”
    “What do you think you’re going to do with that pop-gun?” Gavin asked as he re-set the laptop screen to real time, disengaged the tracking program, and began to manipulate the aim-point of the M107 with a joystick.
    “Create a distraction until you can start pumping rounds into that bloody big head,” Lanyard yelled over his shoulder as he ran toward the landing zone, signaling for the pilots to get the helicopter revving up fast.
    “I can’t find it!” Gavin yelled, frustrated by the slow response of the servo to the joystick. Then he realized that Lanyard couldn’t possibly hear him over the sound to the revving rotors. Cursing, he pulled the walkie-talkie out of his vest, switched it over to channel seven, waved it at Lanyard — who was at the open cargo door of the Blackhawk — and then yelled into the walkie-talkie: “Quince, I can’t find the damned thing!”
    “Put a couple of rounds high into the trees, try to get its attention, and then keep on looking!” Lanyard’s crackling voice from the walkie-talkie’s low-range speaker. “And let Marcus know what’s going on.”
    “What about Caldreaux?”
    “Let’s just hope he got to the bloody trees in time,” Lanyard’s voice crackled again.

    Between Cave 1 and Cave 2
    The concussive roar of a. 50-caliber round ripping through the chilled night air echoed throughout the Maze, causing every creature in the area to stop and turn in confusion, disbelief, or pure fright.
    As Bulatt and Achara stood on a rocky outcropping roughly two thirds of the way from their cave position to Hateley’s, they saw — and then heard — the billowing muzzle-blast of a second. 50-caliber round streaking across the snow-strewn sky in the direction of Bait Pile 3.
    “What are they shooting at?” Achara asked.
    “I don’t know,” Bulatt said as he pulled the walkie-talkie out of his vest and switched it to channel seven, “but I’m going to find out.”
    The sound of Jack Gavin’s British-accented voice erupted from the small speaker.
    “… into the trees. Still can’t spot Caldreaux. Hope the hell I missed him!”
    “Gecko-Two to Gecko-Three, cease fire! Repeat, cease fire! We’re coming in over landing zone three now,” Lanyard yelled over the noise of the Blackhawks’ rotors.
    “Gecko-Three, copy cease fire. Can you see it?” Gavin’s voice again.
    “Gecko-Two, I can’t see anything from up here; too much snow. We’re going to set the chopper down and take a look around. Can you still see the lass and the Gunny?”
    “Affirmative. They’re about two thirds of the way to Hateley’s cave position.”
    Bulatt and Achara looked at each other, wide-eyed.
    “Gecko-Two to Gecko-Three, suggest you disengage the one-oh-seven safety feature, main menu.”
    “Gecko-Three, copy that, disengaging now.”
    “They know where we are,” Achara said, “but how — ?”
    “Gecko-Three, this is Gecko-One, they’re getting too close to Cave-One,” the deeply-accented Australian voice crackled from the walkie-talkie in Bulatt’s hand. “Snow’s too deep; I can’t get there in time. Put them down.”
    “What?!” Achara stared disbelieving at the walkie-talkie.
    “They’re tracking this damned thing,” Bulatt yelled as he threw the walkie-talkie aside, grabbed Achara and wrenched her to the ground an instant before a. 50-caliber bullet streaked through the snow-filled night air — a few inches from where his hand had been — and exploded into a nearby boulder, sending rock fragments flying in all directions.
    Moments later, a second round ripped into the ground a few feet away in a violent eruption of snow and ice, sending rock, dirt, tree root and walkie-talkie fragments in all directions as Bulatt and Achara scrambled for the protection of the nearby boulder. They got behind it just as a third bullet — and then a fourth — slammed into the opposite side of the boulder.
    “Your walkie-talkie, give it to me, quick!” Bulatt yelled, and then flung the small communications device as far as he could in the direction of the nearby trees. Seconds later, another pair of. 50-caliber bullets shredded Achara’s walkie-talkie and most of the lower trunk of a fifteen-foot Douglas Fir.

    Landing Zone, Cave 3
    Quince Lanyard waited until the Blackhawk had settled down onto the flasher-marked landing zone for Cave 3 and reduced rotor speed. Then he jumped out of the cargo door with the M4 carbine in one hand, looked around quickly, ran out past the marked zone, and got back on his walkie-talkie.
    “Gecko-Three, this is Gecko-Two. I’m boots-down at landing zone three. I can see the bait pile, but no sign of Caldreaux or any of the targets. What’s your status?”
    “Gecko-Three, I’m detecting negative transmission signals from Cave-Two or Sarge-One radios. Subjects disappeared behind a big boulder. May have killed or wounded one, can’t tell. Visibility that far out is spotty at best.”
    “Gecko-One to Gecko-Three, do you still have a shot?”
    “Gecko-Three to One, negative on a shot; but I’ve got a clear field of fire on their general position. If they’re still alive, they’re not going anywhere.”
    While Gavin and Wallis had been talking, Lanyard had taken several more steps toward the seemingly abandoned bait pile. He stopped when he spotted something on the ground. He bent down and picked up what he immediately recognized as one of the spears he and Gavin had spent many hours constructing. The shaft on this one was visibly cracked and bent, as if it had been run over.
    “Gecko-Two, I found one of Caldreaux’s spears. I’m going to check out the area and — oh shit!”

    The huge and misshapen Bull Mammoth — the first of the creatures Sergei Draganov had created through genetic manipulation, and then subsequently labeled ‘a serious mistake’ before hiding it away in the MAX facilities — had stood in the trees and watched the Blackhawk helicopter land.
    It continued to watch, as the single human figure got out and walked around, with an emotion that was more curiosity than anything else. The huge mammal didn’t recognize the M4 carbine in Quince Lanyard’s hands as being anything threatening to the female and her calf; so it remained where it was, hidden in the trees and watching contentedly, until the human figure bent down and picked up the spear.
    The reflective glow of the green-flasher light off the obsidian head of the spear had an instant effect on the hulking creature with the mismatched tusks and extremely long trunk. Recognition sent a surge of testosterone and adrenaline coursing through the mammal’s hose-like arteries, propelling it in that instant to do the one thing that all such creatures of its extended Family had long been programmed to do:
    It charged.


    Between Cave 1 and Cave 2
    Bulatt and Achara were both crouched down against the protective mass of the huge granite boulder that had started out as a refuge from the devastating 50-caliber bullets; but had now become a snow-covered trap, because they realized they couldn’t leave it without exposing themselves to another barrage.
    “Okay,” Bulatt said as he reached into his tunic pocket and pulled out his compass, “I think we can assume they’re on to us. It’s about time we called in the cavalry.” He took the compass in both hands, wrenched top and bottom in different directions, and then reached up and set it on top of the boulder.
    “What’s it doing?” Achara asked.
    “Ideally, it’s sending a distress signal up to a satellite and then down to Mike Takahara, along with our GPS position that tells him where to find us,” Bulatt said. “All we have to do is — ”
    The incoming. 50-caliber round exploded into the top of the boulder, vaporizing several ounces of granite along with the GPS-transmitting compass, and sending Bulatt and Achara diving to the icy ground again.
    “Are you okay?” Bulatt asked, winching as he rubbed at his ears.
    “Yes, I’m fine, just frightened and angry,” Achara responded, blinking and shaking her head from the ear-ringing effects of the nearby concussive impact. “I don’t understand. How can they see us this far away, and in this storm?”
    The big clumps of snowflakes were falling all around them now.
    “They can’t, at least not clearly,” Bulatt said. “They’ve got some means of zeroing that one-oh-seven rifle in on transmitter signals — the walkie-talkies and apparently our emergency beacons as well. We’re not transmitting any more, but they still know our rough location. If we try to make a run for it, and they spot the movement, they’ll just start firing rounds in our general location, and keep it up until we run out of rocks to hide behind. Which, reminds me,” he said, reaching into his tunic pocket and coming out with two sets of ear plugs wrapped in cellophane packets, one of which he tossed to Achara. “Better put those in before we get deafened.”
    “So what do we do, just stay here?” Achara demanded as she pulled out the sponge-like plugs and inserted them into her ears.
    “No, we can’t; or, at least, I can’t. That Emerson character is moving in on Hateley right now. They must have realized he’s our critical witness. We lose Hateley, we lose the connection to Thailand.” As he was talking, Bulatt brushed the snow away from the M14’s rear sight, and then carefully turned the elevation knob six clicks.
    “What are we going to do?”
    “Who said anything about ‘we’?” Bulatt asked as he pulled the action rod back and then released it, sending a 7.62mm round into the M14’s chamber.
    “You told me I had two choices if they started shooting, remember? I could either duck and run, or join you in fighting back? Well, I’m going to fight back.”
    “Okay, fair enough,” Bulatt said as he slid over to the far side of the boulder, stuck the rifle barrel through a small gap between the massive granite rock and a smaller adjoining boulder, aimed, fired three rounds in the direction of the base camp, pulled the rifle back out of the gap, handed it to Achara, and began to unzip the white-cammo assault vest. As he did so, a pair of. 50-caliber rounds slammed into the back-side of the larger bounder, sending more vaporized rock flying in the air.
    “Much better with the ear-plugs in,” Bulatt commented as he slid out of the heavy vest and set it down next to Achara.
    “Do we have any chance at all of hitting them at this distance without a telescopic sight?” she asked.
    “Highly unlikely,” Bulatt said, “but I could see the sniper post well enough with these goggles to line up on it; and you can too,” he added, gently tapping the M14 with his gloved hand. “This thing kicks a lot more that the rifles you’re used to, but you can handle it; especially if you brace the front stock in the gap between those rocks. I set the sights for seven hundred yards, which is probably a good guess, based on Lanyard’s map; doesn’t really matter as long as you’re firing high enough to keep them ducking. You’ve got seventeen more rounds in the rifle, and eight twenty-round mags in reserve.” He gestured at the assault vest. “If you can send a couple of rounds their way every minute or so, and keep your head down in the process, it may keep them distracted enough that they’ll forget about me for a while. Can you do that?”
    “Of course I can,” Achara said, “but what are you going to do?”
    “Get to Hateley before Emerson does,” Bulatt said as he drew the. 44 Magnum revolver from the shoulder holster under his tunic. “After that, we’ll work things out from there.”

    Landing Zone, Cave 3
    It was the thunderous pounding of huge feet on the cold, icy ground that caused Lanyard to turn his head, take one wide-eyed look, curse reflexively, and then run desperately for the helicopter.
    The copilot, seeing Lanyard start to run out of the corner of his eye, also looked around, saw the on-coming beast, and grabbed for the throttles and controls.
    The Blackhawk’s rotors were still coming up to speed, the copilot staring wide-eyed past Lanyard’s shoulder as the ex-SASR commando dove into the open cargo door. Lanyard looked back, realized that the charging beast was too close, scrambled out the opposite side door, and kept on running.
    The pilots, desperately working to get the Blackhawk airborne, never had a chance.
    The Blackhawk was just starting to lift off when the charging beast drove its thicker and straighter tusk through the metal skin of the helicopter and then yanked upward, sending the heavy rescue aircraft lurching sideways… and then exploding into hundreds of sharp fragments as the rotors disintegrated against the dirt and stone floor of the Maze.
    The explosion sent Lanyard tumbling to the ground.
    Stunned by the concussion of the helicopter’s exploding fuel tanks, and blinded by the glare of the roaring flames, it took the ex-SASR commando a good thirty seconds to regain awareness of his situation.
    Pulling the now-useless night-vision goggles off his head, he tried to stand up, gasped at the sudden sensation of pain, looked down, and discovered that he’d been hit by one of the flying metal fragments from the shattered Blackhawk. He stared at the jagged edge of metal protruding from his right thigh for a long moment, started to pull it out; and only then became aware that he was not alone.
    Less than a dozen feet away, a huge misshapen beast stood — highlighted in the glare of the helicopter flames and staring down at him — blood gushing from the stump of its once-too-long trunk.
    Quince Lanyard had a moment to wonder why such a creature would have two tusks so differently shaped, and how such an odd twist of nature could possibly have occurred.
    Then, stepping forward with the last impulse of its massive but suddenly-empty heart, the huge animal lurched forward to the ground, the momentum of its fall driving its one mammoth-like tusk through Lanyard’s upper torso and into the frozen ground.

    Sniper Post, Base Camp
    The unexpected flashes from the boulder he’d been shooting at, and the all-too-familiar sound of 7.62mm NATO rounds whistling over his head, sent Jack Gavin diving to the floor of the sniper post. In doing so, his knee slammed into the laptop, knocking it to the ground.
    Gavin cursed as he fumbled for the small computer, set it back up on its sandbag table, and then blinked in dismay at the now-blank screen. He tried several keys, including the power button. Nothing.
    “Oh bloody hell,” he whispered, and then ducked down again as three more rounds whipped past the sniper post.
    Cursing savagely now, Gavin scrambled over to the platform-mounted rifle, reached up, pressed a button on the side of the mechanical mount to manually fire off two. 50-caliber rounds, and then looked around for the walkie-talkie that he’d dropped in the process of taking cover.
    He finally found it behind one of the rifle cases, pressed the TALK button with the intent of calling Quince Lanyard to find out how to get the laptop back on again.
    At that moment, a billowing ball of fire — followed by a loud, echoing explosion — erupted from the area of Bait Pile 3.
    “Gecko-Three to Gecko-Two,” he yelled into the walkie-talkie, “do you copy?”
    “Gecko-Three to Gecko-Two, do you copy?” Gavin repeated after a moment, feeling a dull ache in his stomach.
    Still nothing.
    “Gecko-Three to — ” Gavin started to call again, and then remembered Wallis’ order.
    Cursing, Gavin scrambled over to the platform-mounted sniper rifle. Working quickly, he disengaged the servo unit; set his right hand over the protruding metal stock of the rifle and his right eye up against the rubberized eyepiece of the night-scope; swung the cross-hairs slightly up and to the left; spotted a light-green-tunic-covered figure; instinctively pressed the manual-fire button to send a round streaking out into the darkness that missed high; started to steady the cross-hairs on the target… and then twisted away to the floor of the sniper post again when a second flurry of bullets — at least eight or nine this time — suddenly began whistling around his position.
    One bullet punched a hole in the over-head tarp, and a second ripped through a sandbag above Gavin’s head, sending a stream of sand and snow pouring onto his head. The rest of the bullets streaked through the snow-filled air, disappearing into the darkness without seeming to impact anything close by.
    “Bloody hell, Quince, what do I do now?” Gavin whispered, staring down at the apparently dead laptop.
    As if in response, Gavin’s walkie-talkie suddenly squawked.
    “Gecko-One to Gecko-Three, was that the chopper?”
    Gavin raised the walkie-talkie to his mouth. “I think so.”
    “Did you hear anything from Gecko-Two after the explosion?”
    “Negative. Two tries, no response.”
    “Stay focused, lad,” Wallis said calmly. “Have you still got the Gunny and the lass pinned down?”
    “Negative,” Gavin said. “One of them started popping off rounds in my direction while the other one took off toward Cave-One again. The computer took a spill and won’t come back on, so I had to switch the one-oh-seven over to manual.”
    “Probably the lass on the M14,” Wallis replied after a moment. “Don’t spend much time worrying about her; she’s too far out for anything but a lucky shot. Try to get the Gunny pinned down again. I need more time; up to my arse in this bloody snow. Gecko-One, out.”
    Muttering to himself, Gavin unscrewed the cables from the M107’s digital night scope, unclamped and removed the rifle from the platform mount, settled it into one of the sandbags, brought the eyepiece of the scope up to his eye again, and began sweeping the area where he’d last seen the scrambling figure; trying to find open patches in the huge expanse of falling snow where he could actually see a rock or tree.
    For three minutes… four… then five, Gavin continued to scan his target area with the patience of a man who had done this sort of thing many times before, and knew he had every advantage. It was only a matter of time.
    A pale-green-tunic-covered figure suddenly flicked into view for a brief moment. Gavin fired instinctively; saw the impact point against a rock at the upper left portion of the scope’s field; realized he’d led his target a little too much; shifted his aim; started to squeeze on the trigger again; and then lunged backwards as a third barrage of bullets began hitting all around the sniper post.
    Stunned by the suddenly-increased accuracy of the incoming bullets, Gavin shoved the heavy M107 rifle aside, grabbed the nearby M4 carbine, thumbed the selector switch to full auto, held it up over the sandbag barrier, and sent a stream of 5.56mm bullets flying out into the darkness.


    Near the Sniper Post, Base Camp
    It had been Achara’s intention to move in closer to the sniper post after each covering volley of shots — the rifle in one hand, the bow and quiver in the other, and the heavy vest dragging on her shoulders; taking advantage of the terrain and the falling snow to gain ten or fifteen yards and a new protective boulder with every advance.
    It was a well-intended goal, but the process would have taken her a good half-hour before she got within effective range of the sniper post; the effort almost certainly exhausting her remaining strength long before she reached that point.
    But she’d slipped on a rock after her second burst of shots, tumbling down a snow bank; and suddenly found herself sliding helplessly downhill — feet first and on her back — so fast that it was all she could do to keep the rifle, bow and quiver clutched to her chest as she dug her boot heels and shoulders back and forth into the snow, trying as best she could to steer herself away from the rapidly-appearing boulders and trees.
    Thirty seconds later — although it seemed to her much longer than that — Achara found herself buried up to her chest in a deep snowdrift, and next to a large boulder; seemingly anchored in place by a mass of compressed ice and snow that had been forced in and under the vest by the long slide.
    Pausing only a moment to catch her breath, she set the rifle, bow and quiver of arrows aside; unzipped the assault vest; worked herself first out of the vest and then the snow drift; got to her feet; peeked carefully around the boulder; and discovered, to her amazement, that she had slid to a spot less than a hundred yards away from — and to the left of — the sniper post.
    Still breathing hard, but smiling to herself now, she carefully removed the partially-emptied magazine from the M14; fumbled for a fully-loaded one from the vest; discovered that all but two of her remaining magazines had been lost during her long slide; pulled both of them out of the still-secured pouches; discovered that one was jammed with snow and ice; and then shoved the one functional 20-round magazine into the weapon with what sounded to her like a terribly loud click.
    She started forward again, and then hesitated, Setting the rifle aside, she reached for the bow; strung it; slid the bow and quiver over her shoulder; and then started to crawl on her left hand and knees toward the now-clearly-visible sniper post, with the heavy rifle clutched and dragging along in her right hand.
    She had gone a good twenty yards, intent on flanking the sniper post from the left, when a ball of flame — immediately followed by a concussive explosion — erupted from the muzzle of the M107 rifle in Jack Gavin’s hands.
    Realizing that he was almost certainly shooting at Bulatt, Achara scrambled to a nearby boulder, rose up one knee, brought the M14 up to her shoulder, and began firing at the distant sandbag-protected figure; the recoil from each shot slamming the rifle butt painfully into her already-bruised shoulder. As soon as the dark-green figure disappeared behind the sandbags, she rose to her feet and lunged though the almost-knee-deep snow; wincing, but not stopping, as Gavin sent a volley of 5.56mm bullets streaking up and out into the snow-filled sky.
    Much closer now — perhaps fifty yards away — she saw Gavin come back up with the M4 carbine. But he was looking away from her, up the hill, in the direction where she’d begun her slide, so she continued to run… forty yards away now… thirty… her lungs starting to burn… twenty…
    And then, when he must have seen something out of the corner of his eye and started to turn in her direction, she brought the rifle up to her shoulder and began firing as she continued to run forward; seeing the sandbags exploding around Gavin; seeing him spin away, disappearing again behind the barricade as the carbine flew out of his hand; and then seeing him come back up a second later with a pistol gripped in both hands.
    They both fired at almost the same instant, the 7.62mm rifle bullet catching Gavin square in the center of his armored vest and flinging him backwards again at the moment he pulled the trigger of the pistol; causing the 9mm hollow-point bullet to rip a gouge across Achara’s cheek — instead of catching her center-of-face, where he’d aimed — and twisting her sideways as the M14’s bolt locked open on the now-empty magazine.
    Catching her balance, and ignoring the wound, Achara threw the empty rifle aside; yanked the bow off her shoulder; grabbed an arrow out of the quiver and notched it as she charged forward with mindless fury; leapt up on top of the sandbag wall; and sent the obsidian-tipped arrow tearing into the side of Gavin’s vest as the severely-injured ex-SASR commando desperately fumbled for his dropped pistol.
    He was still grasping for the pistol — and almost had it — when the second arrow slammed into his neck, severing his spinal cord and pinning him to the sandbagged floor.
    Scrambling down to the floor of the sniper post, Achara quickly knelt beside Gavin and felt for a pulse, making sure there was none. Then she took the compass out of her tunic pocket, twisted top and bottom in opposite directions, and set the now-transmitting emergency beacon on one of the still-intact sandbags.
    Having done that, she picked up Gavin’s M4 carbine, pulled the partially-empty magazine out of the familiar weapon, and loaded it with a full magazine from the nearby assault vest.
    Then, after going through the same re-loading steps with Gavin’s pistol, she set both weapons on the floor beside her, leaned back against the sandbag wall and stared out at the distant hillside as she tried to catch her breath; wondering, as she did so, if the man she had come to treasure was still alive.

    On the Road leading to the Maze
    Half-way up the barely-visible road leading up the southwest entrance to the Maze, Sergei Draganov was alternately driving the rumbling Snow-Cat™ and explaining to Special Agents Henry Lightstone, Larry Paxton, Dwight Stoner and Mike Takahara how he and his brother had never intended to let things get out of control the way they had — and how it had never occurred to anyone that Borya would actually release the ‘mistakes’ from MAX — when the receiver in Takahara’s hand began beeping wildly.
    “That’s the second beacon,” the tech agent said, looking up at his fellow agents. “Guess we’d better hurry up and get our butts up there. Ged might actually be serious about being rescued this time.”

    Sniper Post, Base Camp
    Exhausted and fearful of what might have happened to Bulatt, Achara Kulawnit was still staring up at the distant hillside when the all-too-familiar voice of Marcus Wallis crackled from the walkie-talkie lying on the floor next to the sprawled and bloodied body of Jack Gavin.
    “Gecko-One to Gecko-Three.”
    Achara started to crawl over to the crackling walkie-talkie, intent on venting her rage at the man she believed had cold-heartedly killed her brother; but she paused when her gloved hand came down on piece of loose cable.
    She lifted the cable up, followed it back to a dark rectangular shape that she immediately recognized as a laptop computer, picked it up in both hands, felt the loose battery with her right hand, shoved the battery back into place, and then blinked in surprise when the laptop screen came alive.
    Quickly pulling off her night vision goggles, she stared in amazement at a color graphic of the Maze, and a series of multi-colored icons identified with the letters ‘C1’, ‘PB1’, ‘C2’, ‘PB2’, ‘C3’, ‘BP3’, ‘C4’, ‘PB4’, ‘G1’, ‘G2’, ‘G3’ and ‘X1’. Down near the bottom of the screen, she saw that the icons marked ‘G3’ and ‘X1’ were next to each other above a small red square marked ‘BASE,’ and that the ‘X1’ icon was flashing. At the top of the screen, she saw three tabs, labeled ‘MAZE VIEW’, ‘MANUAL TRACKING’ and ‘AUTO-TRACKING.’
    “Gecko-One to Gecko-Three,” the walkie-talkie crackled again, the deeply-Australian-accented voice sounding impatient now; and as it did, Achara saw the ‘G1’ icon briefly flash.
    Smiling now in understanding, Achara used the mouse pad on the laptop to activate the ‘AUTO-TRACKING’ tab.
    Instantly, a white textbox appeared in the center of the screen: weapon disconnected from computer
    In the darkness, Achara fumbled around until she found the small flashlight in one of the assault vest pouches. She turned it on, pulled the IR-gel-filter off the front of the lens, swept the narrow beam around the inside of the sniper post, and saw the M107 rifle lying against the sandbag wall.
    Keeping her head low, because she could no longer see outside, she picked up the heavy weapon, examined the telescopic sight, saw an empty cable connection, picked up the connector-end of the cable she’d found, screwed it back onto the scope, and then saw the white textbox on the computer screen change to: weapon disconnected from servo
    Feeling her heart start to pound, she carefully set the heavy sniper rifle onto the shoebox-sized platform mount that had a large open slot in the middle, moving the weapon around until she felt the entire trigger housing and extended box magazine drop down into place with a solid metallic ‘click’; pushed the opened clamp-lever on the mount forward, feeling the weapon lock into place; heard a series of gears move inside the mechanized platform mount; and then looked over at the screen. The bright white textbox had disappeared, replaced with the flashing words at the top of the screen: select icon target
    Smiling grimly now, Achara moved the select-arrow on the screen over to the icon marked ‘G1’ and hit the ENTER key. Instantly, a round circle with a set of cross-hairs in the center appeared — centered on the icon — and a pair of red selection buttons marked ‘FIRE ONE ROUND’ and ‘FIRE TWO ROUNDS’ appeared in the upper right corner of the screen.
    “Gecko-One to Gecko-Three, do you copy?” The gravely voice sounding cold and resigned now.
    “Yes, Gecko-One, I copy,” Achara snarled into the walkie-talkie microphone, and then clicked the selector arrow on the ‘FIRE TWO ROUNDS’ box.
    She heard gears inside the platform mount engage — apparently pressing some kind of rod against the M107’s trigger — and then nothing.
    Stunned, Achara stared at a new white textbox in the center of the screen that read: weapon jammed or empty — unjam or reload
    Blinking in disbelief, she looked over at the mounted weapon, and saw that the action bar lever was only partially forward — indicating that the inner bolt was locked against an empty magazine. Cursing in Thai now, she quickly unclamped and removed the weapon from the platform mount, and started to remove the empty magazine when Wallis’ voice crackled from the walkie-talkie again.
    “Hello, Cave-Two. What did you do, manage a lucky shot on my lad?”
    Achara extracted the empty magazine from the heavy rifle, tossed it aside, and looked around for a box of spare magazines.
    “A nice thought,” she said, speaking calmly into the walkie-talkie as she spotted a box labeled ‘M107 MAGS — LOADED’ magazines, reached over and pulled one out, “but I’d rather get a lucky one on you.”
    “Why would you say something like that, lass?” The gravely voice mocking now.
    Achara slid the new magazine in the sniper rifle, pulled the action rod back, released it with a loud ‘clack’, and then pressed the walkie-talkie’s TALK button again.
    “Because I think you killed my brother.”
    There was a long pause as Achara carefully set the heavy weapon back into the platform mount slot, and slowly pushed the opened side-lever on the mount forward; feeling the weapon lock into place, and hearing the series of gears move inside the mount-structure.
    “If it helps any, lass, I didn’t intend for things to work out that way.”
    The bright white textbox on the laptop disappeared, replaced with the flashing words at the top of the screen: select icon target
    “Then why did you do it?” she asked, speaking softly into the walkie-talkie she held in her left hand as she moved the select arrow on the screen over to the icon marked ‘G1’ and hit the ENTER key. Instantly, a round circle with a set of cross-hairs in the center appeared — centered on the icon — and a pair of red selection buttons marked ‘FIRE ONE ROUND’ and ‘FIRE TWO ROUNDS’ appeared in the upper right corner of the screen.
    “Simple answer: your brother and his mates were in the way. Jack and I did what we had to do.”
    “Meaning Jack — excuse me — Gecko-Three shot Sergeant Tongproh and the two young Rangers, and you shot my brother?”
    “Clever lass. How did you figure that out?”
    “I didn’t, Ged did.”
    “Ged? You mean your Gunny Sergeant boyfriend?”
    “No, I mean Special Agent Gedimin Bulatt, of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.”
    “Ah, that lad. Yes, Agent Bulatt and I have some business to attend to up here; after I deal with Mr. Hateley, of course. After that, if you’re still around, perhaps you and I will have a chat.”
    “Fine with me,” Achara replied, her eyes deadly cold as she stared at the flashing icon in the middle of the red cross-hairs. “I just want to tell you something truly ironic first; something a person like you might appreciate.”
    “Oh, and what would that be?”
    “I want you to know that you’re now in the way of something that I intend to do.”
    With that, Achara Kulawnit clicked on the ‘FIRE TWO ROUNDS’ and then turned away to protect her eyes and ears as the billowing fireballs from the M107’s muzzle — punctuated by a pair of concussive roars that seemed to echo across the base camp from all directions — sent two. 50-caliber bullet streaking out into the night.


    Bait Pile 1
    High on the upper ridge of the Maze now, Gedimin Bulatt was standing behind a large fir tree at the edge of the Mike Hateley’s bait pile, staring back down the hillside that was little more than a blur of falling snowflake clumps and wondering if the sudden cessation of the distant gunshots meant that Achara Kulawnit had been wounded or killed, when he heard the faint voice calling for help.
    Moving cautiously from tree to tree in the now-knee-deep snow, knowing that Marcus Emerson could be anywhere in the area now, Bulatt headed toward the faint sound.
    Twenty mostly-uphill yards later, he saw the bear; or, at least, what at first looked like a bear.
    But as Bulatt cautiously moved closer, he realized the creature was completely unlike any bear he’d ever seen. Big as a grizzly, but with a muzzle that looked more like a bulldog, a neck as big as its oddly-shaped head, and rear legs much shorter than the ones in front; the creature looked like it would have been more comfortable standing upright if it hadn’t been busy growling into the mouth of a small cave.
    “Hateley, are you in there?” Bulatt called out.
    “Sergeant Bulattus — is that you?!”
    “Not exactly; I’m Special Agent Gedimin Bulatt of the Fish and Wildlife Service. What the hell are you doing in there?”
    “The damned thing chased me in here. I — ”
    At that instant, a. 50-caliber bullet streaked up the hillside and exploded into a big Douglas Fir midway between Bulatt and the strange bear, sending chunks of bark and heartwood flying in all directions; followed almost immediately by the echoing roar of two distant and concussive gunshots.

    Sixty yards below Bait Pile 1
    Crouched down in front of a large boulder some sixty yards below the ridge line of where Bulatt, Hateley and the bear were located, Marcus Wallis was still staring the walkie-talkie he held in his left hand — amused by the defiance in Archna Kulawnit’s voice — when a fifty-caliber bullet suddenly streaked through the air just above his left shoulder and exploded into the huge rock a few inches from his face.
    The violent impact of the Mark 211 650-grain. 50-caliber military bullet traveling at twenty-eight hundred feet-per-second against an immobile mass of granite sent shards of rock and fragments of copper, aluminum and tungsten steel flying in all directions.
    Several of the shards and fragments ripped into Wallis’ exposed night-vision goggles, face, neck and arm; sending him and the M40A1 sniper rifle tumbling backwards into the deep snow drifts.

    Bait Pile 1
    Bulatt dropped down behind the trunk of another Douglas Fir, aiming the. 44 Magnum Smith and Wesson down the hillside, and waiting for some sign of a target; but he heard and saw nothing.
    “What was that?” Hateley yelled from inside the nearby cave.
    “Hard to tell,” Bulatt called out, still keeping his night-vision-enhanced eyes on the downhill slope. “Maybe the cavalry, maybe not; just stay where you are.”
    “You think I’ve got a choice?”
    The bear had spun around and bared his fearsome teeth at the sound of the. 50-caliber bullet’s impact against the tree. But then, when nothing else happened, it went back to its position in front of the cave, apparently indifferent to Bulatt’s presence.
    Bulatt waited another minute or so, then slowly came back to his feet. This time, apparently warier now, the bear turned his head to follow Bulatt’s movements, exposing cuts on his nose and muzzle — presumably from Hateley’s spear.
    “I’m going to get you out of that cave, Mr. Hateley,” Bulatt called out as he slowly approached the cave, trying to keep as little of his body exposed to the downhill slope as possible, “and then I’m going to take you into protective custody.”
    “Why would you want to do a damn fool thing like that?” Hateley demanded in a weak voice.
    “Because Marcus Emerson and his friends have every intention of killing you; so that you can’t testify as to your presence — and theirs — at the Khlong Saeng Preserve the night four Thai Rangers were executed while trying to do their job.”
    “But — but I didn’t — !”
    “No, I’m sure you didn’t, Mr. Hateley,” Bulatt said calmly as he continued to slowly approach the bear that had now risen up on its hind legs. “But they did, and that makes all the difference.”
    “But how are you going to — ?”
    “First I’m going to try to scare this fellow away,” Bulatt said, “and then I’m going to — ”
    The rifle shot exploded in the cold night air, sending Bulatt and the bear tumbling to the ground.
    “You should know you can’t scare a big fellow like that away, Agent Bulatt,” the voice of Marcus Wallis — sounding different now, as if he was in severe pain — called out from the darkness. “Not when Mr. Hateley is sitting in his cave, and hording the poor fellow’s food cache.”
    Bulatt could hear the bear snarling and thrashing around in the snow, and then go quiet.
    “That’s one more charge against you, Emerson,” Bulatt called out, “not that it’s going to matter much where you’re going.”
    “Oh, and where would that be, Agent Bulatt?”
    Marcus Wallis’ laugh echoed in the darkness. “I don’t think that will be happening, mate.”
    “Really, why not?” Bulatt was watching the downhill slope carefully for the first sign of movement. “Time’s on my side, you know. You and I can trade shots out here all night — or, at least, until the cavalry arrives, which won’t be all that long now — and then you go down. Dead or alive; either way is fine with me.”
    “And Mr. Hateley?”
    “He’s going to testify against you and your associates. Isn’t that right, Mr. Hateley?” Bulatt called out toward the cave.
    “Yes, I will, I — ”
    A second rifle shot detonated in the darkness, somewhere below, causing Hateley to scream out in fear and pain.
    “You’re right, Agent Bulatt, time is on your side; but distance is very much on mine. Are you really going to try to stop me from hanging out down here, and plinking away at Mr. Hateley’s lair, with that piss-ant forty-four? Have to be a lucky shot, indeed, mate; and a lot luckier than the one the little lass almost pulled off — God bless her conniving little soul.”
    “Hateley, are you okay?” Bulatt yelled out.
    “He — he shot at me! My arm, I’m — ”
    “Probably just nicked you, judging from all that whining up there. What kind of ‘merchant of death’ are you, anyway, Hateley? Scared by a little ricochet shot? Well, get yourself hunkered down in there, lad, because there’s a lot more just like that one coming your way.” Wallis’ pained laugh echoed in the darkness again. “Bound to hit a vital spot eventually, you know; and then — ”
    A sound somewhere between a gasp and a scream echoed out of the darkness; and then silence.
    Bulatt waited for a count of sixty.
    Still nothing.
    Bulatt was in the process of deciding how long it would take him to move to the next tree down — and how long such a move would put him in the cross-hairs of Emerson’s rifle — when a hulking figure suddenly became visible in the falling snow as it slowly trudged up the hill.
    Bulatt started to sight on the figure; and then watched, hardly able to believe his eyes, as the huge and horribly swollen figure of Borya staggered up to the top of the hill with M40A1 sniper rifle in one hand and a bloodied obsidian-bladed knife in the other. He stopped beside the fir tree and stared at Bulatt for a long moment.
    “Did you kill him?” Bulatt finally asked the misshapen man whose facial features now looked far more Neanderthalish than Homo sapien, keeping the. 44-Magnum revolver down at his side.
    Borya smiled and nodded his head slowly as he held the rifle and bloodied-knife up on display for a brief moment. Then he dropped them to the snow-packed ground, and continued walking toward the cave where the bear lay still on the ground.
    Borya was kneeling beside the bear, his huge hands pressing against the bloody hole in the creature’s chest when Bulatt came up beside him. Both of them could see small, ragged puffs of air coming from the animal’s blunt and bleeding snout. They ignored Hateley who was staring out at the macabre scene from the mouth of the small cave.
    “You can’t do anything to help him,” Bulatt said softly.
    Borya looked up at Bulatt, nodded his head slowly in agreement, slowly lumbered up to his feet, smiled again, slapped a muscular hand onto Bulatt’s shoulder, turned, took two steps toward the woods, and then collapsed face down in the snow.
    Bulatt was kneeling beside the horribly disfigured Russian, feeling for a pulse and finding none, when he heard Hateley scrambling out of the cave. As he turned around to look, he saw Hateley stand up with a spear in his hand.
    Bulatt started to yell as he brought the. 44-Magnum up in both hands; and then stared in disbelief as Hateley placed the obsidian point of the into the center of the bear’s chest, and then drove it downward with the weight of his own body. The bear gave one last snort of pain and rage, and then went still.
    “What the hell are you doing?” Bulatt demanded as he stood up and approached the triumphant poacher, seeing that Hateley had driven the spear deep into the hole created by Wallis’ rifle bullet.
    “I just killed my trophy,” Hateley said defiantly.
    “ You killed it?”
    “You saw me do it, and you could see it was still alive. You’ll testify to that for me, won’t you?”
    “Don’t worry, Mr. Hateley,” Bulatt nodded as he holstered the. 44 revolver, grabbed Hateley’s wrist, leveraged him down to his knees, and then handcuffed both of the CEO’s hands behind his back before turning and starting to walk down the hill to check on Wallis’ body, “my testimony is one thing you can definitely count on.”


    Base Camp, the Maze
    Henry Lightstone stood in the middle of the now-brightly-lit base camp, watching as Special Agents Dwight Stoner, Larry Paxton and the responding search and rescue team walked by carrying litters bearing the groaning figures of Stuart Caldreaux and Max Kingman to the waiting helicopter; Caldreaux with a tree branch sticking through his lower right leg, and Kingman with the spear still lodged in his shoulder.
    In doing so, they trundled past four bodies laid out on the snow-covered ground next to the landing zone: Borya, Wallis, Gavin and Lanyard — the latter three with a spear, a pair of home-made arrows and a chain-sawed-off mammoth tusk sticking out of their back, neck and chest respectively.
    Off in the distance, at Landing Zone 3 that was now also illuminated, a State Police Emergency Response team could be seen working the helicopter crash scene.
    Finally, Lightstone turned to Bulatt and Achara who were standing beside him, arms wrapped around each other, and looking very happy to be back together again. “I feel like I’m the CSI officer at the aftermath of Little Big Horn,” he said, looking down at the pile of hand-made spears and knives at his feet, and shaking his head. “You sure you don’t want to write the report?”
    “Be happy to,” Bulatt said, “but I’d probably be accused of being emotionally involved with the primary shooter.”
    Lightstone turned to face Achara with a skeptical look on his face. “ You’re going to take credit for all of this carnage?”
    “Not all of it,” Achara replied, “just the ‘attacking the fort’ and ‘saving the special agent’s posterior’ parts. The Chimera did all the hard work.”
    “The Chimera saved the day? Do you really expect me to put that in an official investigative report?” Lightstone asked.
    “Why not?” Achara shrugged innocently. “After all, it would be the truth.”
    “And her father will definitely be proud of her when he reads the report, and might even forgive us for putting her at risk in the first place,” Bulatt added helpfully.
    “Yes, I’m sure he will,” Achara agreed, looking up at Bulatt with a dimpled grin that suggested she had a few other activities in mind that her father might not approve of quite as readily.
    “Okay,” Lightstone held up his hand in surrender. “I’ll write the damned report. What do you want me to do with Sitting Bull?” He nodded over at Michael Hateley who was sitting cross-legged in the middle of the sniper post with his hands still handcuffed behind his back.
    “For the moment, you can charge him with killing a protected species on Federal Government property,” Bulatt said. “I imagine we’ll tack a few more charges on later, once we get the search warrant for his house.”
    “And the bear… or Bulldog Bear… or whatever the hell Draganov called it?”
    “Seize it as evidence.”
    “What?!” Hateley’s head snapped up. “You can’t do that! That bear isn’t on any endangered or protected species list!”
    Bulatt looked over at Mike Takahara, who was busy taking photos of the base camp.”
    “Hey, Mike,” he called out, “would you tell Mr. Hateley exactly where we’re standing right now?”
    Takahara set down his camera, took out his GPS receiver, thumbed a couple of buttons, and then said: “we are, precisely, one hundred and twenty-three feet inside the boundary of the Glacier Peak Wilderness Area.”
    “And the location of Cave-Three?”
    “Same answer, only further inside the boundary,” Takahara replied.
    “The relevant words being ‘wilderness area,’” Bulatt said, turning back to Hateley, “where it happens to be a violation of law to hunt and take any species, regardless of how long it may or may not have existed on this planet.”
    Hateley blinked in disbelief. “But — ”
    “And before you and your lawyer start working on a new story,” Bulatt added, “don’t forget: I will testify that your trophy was still breathing when you jabbed that spear in its chest. I always like to keep my promises.”