'And we got it on tape, too,' Karla tapped the waterproof tape recorder strapped to her waist.

'You got it?'

'Every word. Including, I believe, some interesting comments earlier this morning relating to the death of someone named Lou Eliot

… which, as I understand the situation, should please the indomitable agent Boggs as much as that female Ranger's confession.'

'It will please Mike, too. He went to a lot of work installing those microphones in that blind.'

'He's a nice guy. Too bad he couldn't be here to see it.'

'Actually,' Lightstone mused thoughtfully, 'knowing Mike, I'd be willing to bet a nice bottle of wine and a cozy evening without Sasha hanging around that he mounted a video camera somewhere in this blind.'

'No bet,' she laughed. 'I'm wearing one of them.'

'Really?' Lightstone looked suspiciously at the ornate clasp that held the purple scarf above his partner's Kevlar and flotation-vest-padded chest.


'None of your business. Not yet, anyway.'


They both remained silent for a long, more tantalizing than contemplative moment.

'Just one more question before they come for us, Agent Lightstone?'


'Were you really serious… about what you said this morning?'

'You mean…?'

'Uh, huh.'

Lightstone hesitated.

'Well, now that you mention it… maybe it's not such a great idea after all. I mean, you saw it with your very own eyes.'

'You trying to take the chicken-shit way out on me again, Special Agent Henry Lightstone?' A soft smile formed on her lips.

Lightstone shook his head. 'Nope. I don't think I could ever top my last chicken-shit act. And besides, I wouldn't necessarily call it being chicken shit. It just seems to me that if we really are going to spend some time together in a remote Alaskan wilderness cabin, without Sasha like you promised, then maybe we should find ourselves a better bush pilot to get us there.'

'What's the matter with Woeshack? I think he's wonderful. Just because he scared A1 half to death with that evasive-maneuver landing

'No, it's not that,' Lightstone sighed as he put his arm around the ever-enticing federal-government postmistress, witch, FBI agent, waitress, and fortune-teller who — it suddenly occurred to him — might or might not really be named Karla, another little detail they'd yet to discuss.

'I just thought you ought to know, that's pretty much the way he always flies… and lands.'

'Oh.' Her eyes glittered in anticipation. 'Well, you did promise me the trip would be interesting. Something I've never done before. I'm sure that Woeshack's flying will be a memorable part of that experience.'

'If we actually get there in one piece, I'm sure it will be, too.' An odd look suddenly crossed Lightstone's face. 'And speaking of memorable experiences, I just remembered: I'm supposed to tell you that our crime lab people are very interested in that hair you gave me.'

'Really? How come?'

'Well, according to their report, the hairs are bear-like and primate-like, but they don't match any bears or primates in their collection.'

'How odd.' Her gold-flecked green eyes suddenly lit up with amusement.

'That's pretty much what they said, too, since as far as they know, they've got hair samples from every species and subspecies of bear- and primate-like creatures in the world. So what they'd like to know is, first of all, what is it? And second, where did you find it?'

A mysterious smile played on her sensuous lips.

'Well, I really don't know what she is, but I do know she's quite happy living on your friend's ranch — with the others.'

Henry Lightstone tried to say something but at first nothing came out.

'You mean…' he finally got out, but she quickly put her finger on his lips.

'There's a little one, too, Henry, and she's precious. Let's let them be.'


'Like Dad always says,' she whispered in a distinctly sultry voice that instantly made Henry Lightstone forget all about mythical creatures who might be real, 'nothing is ever as it seems.'


Aldridge Hammond, the spotted, reclusive, and deadly chairman of ICER sat alone in the dim light of his private office, allowing the memory of the incredible chain of events that had — once again — claimed a powerful member of his carefully orchestrated conspiracy, to flow through his mind.

He was still sitting there, an hour later, when his executive assistant entered the private office through a side door, placed a state-of-the-art infrared videocassette on his desk, and whispered a question in his ear.

He nodded his mottled head silently.

Some moments later, Hammond watched in fascination as the two camouflage-clad green figures instantaneously recoiled from the door of the helicopter, first in shock… then in death.

He had his assistant stop the tape at that point, freezing the almost painfully sharp image at that precise moment of betrayal, the instant First Sergeant Aran Wintersole realized he was to be sacrificed in a failed — and in retrospect, meaningless — attempt to protect Tisbury and Smallsreed.

Then Hammond motioned for the assistant to go back to the beginning, seeking the earlier segment that had caught his attention.

She located it, and this time he watched a different green figure hit the ground hard, start to fight his way out of the encircling chokehold, and get knocked back by the sleek green creature that lunged out of the trees… But then the two of them hesitated and looked up — directly into the far distant lens — at what?

The silenced helicopter?

The camera?


'You see something, don't you?' he whispered fiercely, irresistibly drawn to the glaring eyes of the panther and the searching eyes of the man who — thanks to some incomprehensible twist of fate — had become the nemesis of ICER.

And, so it would seem, my most dangerous enemy.

He signaled his assistant again, then watched silently as a thin white rectangle appeared on the screen… then enlarged to frame the two dissimilar heads. Moments later, the printer stopped churning, and she placed the resulting digitized photograph on his desk.

He stared at it for a long moment, slowly dissipating his tightly controlled rage with soothing thoughts of his yet-unused resources.

Then, in a deliberate action that spoke volumes about his future intentions, the chairman of ICER slowly placed his mottled fingers over the glaring eyes of the panther and the seeking eyes of Special Agent Henry Lightstone.

And obliterated them from his sight.

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