'The thing is,' Paul McNulty finished, 'we don't like to lose either. Which is why we're looking to bring on another man who can be flexible in a tight spot. Balance out the team. Maybe give us an edge in the likely event that we run into somebody with serious connections.'

'Like the boss said, a crazy fellow,' Dwight Stoner agreed. 'The game is bunnies and guppies. Big playing field, shit pot full of rules and no referee. Last guy still on his feet wins.'

Stoner paused for a moment and glanced around the table. Then he looked back at Lightstone with a serious expression on his meaty face.

'You wanna play?'

Chapter Three

Sunday, December 2nd

The cat had been aware of their presence for almost a half hour before he finally chose to show himself, silently pushing his massive head through the concealing sheath of yellow-draping flowers and broad mango leaves to verify with his eyes what his far more sensitive ears and nose had confirmed long ago.

There were five of the upright human creatures now- four in the tree and one on the ground.

If a Bengal tiger could have smiled, this one would have done so.

Taken from his mother and his native India in his second season, the huge male cat had endured six long and frustrating years of captivity at the hands of these creatures.

Six long years of living in narrow, confining cages, with little else to do but pace back and forth and snarl at his hated captors. Waiting for the chain-link barriers to finally give way against his savage bursts of rage. And watching as the fragile humans winced and cowered back in spite of themselves, their eyes widening with instinctive fear as the cage wire bulged outward, yet held once again.

He had suffered those six years with implacable patience, waiting for that one moment-the moment that had occurred less than an hour ago now-when the massive steel door was suddenly winched up to reveal a long, narrow, open-ended runway that led out to a wide expanse of brush and trees, and a barely remembered freedom that had been the driving force of the Bengal's very existence for all those many years.

And when that moment arrived, the Bengal had paused for only a brief second before lunging out onto the sawdust- covered ground, his incredibly powerful muscles tensed, his terrible claws extended, and his fearsome teeth bared in a deep-throated and spine-chilling roar as he searched with fierce yellow eyes for the first human creature to make the fatal mistake of trying to drive him back into the hated cage.

Several of them had been there, watching his release from the security of a high, restraining fence, and he had stared at each one with a savage hopefulness.

But none of them had been so foolish as to climb over the fence and stand in his way, and so now he was free… to hunt, to kill, to tear apart the fragile, upright creatures, one by hated one.

'There he is!' Lisa Abercombie whispered, all too aware that her normally calm and authoritative voice was choked and raspy with a nervous excitement that she hadn't felt since her childhood.

'Where?' Dr. Reston Wolfe and Dr. Morito Asai whispered simultaneously.

'Two o'clock, in the mangoes,' Abercombie responded in a forcibly controlled voice, her hands trembling slightly as she brushed her dark, shoulder-length hair away from her sweating face. She refocused the low-powered binoculars.

They were perched twenty-two feet off the ground in a tree with a forty-inch main trunk whose secondary branches were at least twelve feet off the ground, and surrounded by enough waist-high oak planking and iron bracing to stop a rogue bull elephant. The cat knew they were there, so there was no real point in trying to keep their voices low anyway.

But because the observation platform that had seemed so high and secure earlier that morning now seemed unacceptably fragile and much too low to the ground, the urge to be as silent as possible was instinctive.

What made it worse was the chilling sense that the six- hundred- pound Bengal hated each one of them personally.

Each of them had seen the glint of purposeful rage in the cat's furious yellow eyes as he lunged his massive body into the steel mesh again and again, trying to tear through the chain links.

'I see him,' Dr. Reston Wolfe nodded, once again glancing nervously over at Tom Frank's bolt-action. 416 Weatherby Magnum rifle propped up against the far wall of the platform. Wolfe could still feel the strength of the beams that had been so reassuring that morning, but at this moment, more than anything else, he wanted that Weatherby Magnum rifle in his hands. Wolfe understood now, in a way that he hadn't understood before, that twenty-two feet of height and oak wood barriers wouldn't begin to stop the fiercely dangerous creature that remained partially hidden in the mangoes, staring up at them with those cold, deadly, and absolutely merciless yellow eyes.

As if sensing the human creatures' fear, the big cat opened its jaws wide, exposing its glistening yellow- white incisors, and roared. The thunderous and primeval sound reverberated through the trees and sent cold chills down the spines of the four treetop observers.

It was probably just as well that Dr. Reston Wolfe didn't know that his career, and his life, were in the ands of a woman who savored the intensity of a risk-filled adventure. Because if he had known, and had truly understood the forces that motivated a woman such as Lisa Abercombie, he would have been forced to recognize himself as the sacrificial goat. And that would have been more than a self-serving bureaucrat like Wolfe could have tolerated.

Two years earlier, a strikingly beautiful grass-roots campaign worker from Riverdale, in the Bronx, had used her Italian father's considerable political connections to broker her way into an exclusive 'power loop' of wealthy and influential Northeastern conservatives. She could finally say what most of the party elders were afraid to even think.

'Gentlemen,' she had begun in her characteristically forceful voice, 'you know and I know goddamned well that the United States of America has squandered its birthright.'

Several pairs of watery eyes had blinked, and the room had suddenly grown still.

'We have become a second-rate economic power,' Abercombie had continued, 'and are certainly heading toward third if we don't do something about these damnable environmental terrorists who are crippling our critical industries.'

The subdued applause had suggested that, her point made, she should quickly conclude so that the professionals in the room could get back to business.

But Lisa Abercombie had come too far to stop now.

'And if we are going to do something, instead of just clipping our goddamned coupons,' she had said, her eyes filled with rage, 'we damn well better do it right now, while those coupons are still worth something!'

The room had gone deathly silent again.

And then, to the shock of every man present, Lisa Abercombie had described not only what could be done, and how, but also why she was the woman who should be allowed to pull it off.

All she needed were money and contacts-and the authority to use them as she willed. She would take all the risks and get the job done. Those coupons would continue to reflect the wealth and authority of the Northeastern conservative power structure.

With that, Lisa Abercombie had excused herself from the meeting, leaving phone numbers where she could be reached during the next seventy-two hours.

The debates that followed were tense and emotional. Dozens of private meetings held in electronically swept rooms were dominated by arguments. Decisions were made and reversed in an atmosphere of chaos.

Three days later, Lisa Abercombie had found herself on the seventh floor of the Main Interior Building in Washington, D.C., being sworn in to the newly created position of special executive assistant to the most deputy assistant undersecretary for internal affairs of the Department of Interior.

The position had not required the approval of Congress. It was one of those vague Washington titles that would basically allow her to maintain anonymity within the department. This was considered crucial to Lisa Abercombie's secret, but now official, mission: to establish a fully operational covert entity within the executive

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