obvious. 'Because that's exactly what she is. A cat… and a witch as well,' he added with a mischievous smile.

A palpable wave of relief swept over those seated around the now dead campfire.

Laughing and clapping each other on the back, the men stumbled to their feet, suddenly aware that they were stiff and cold, and thirsty for a good warming shot of home brew. They were also, to a man, secretly relieved that their resident Sage had turned out to be truly crazy after all.

It was a good story, about the forces of light and darkness being drawn to this sensuous cat- woman/priestess/whore/witch, who would pit these terrible warriors against each other and evoke the Apocalypse. Even better when told by a demented old blind man who could see. Yes, a good story indeed.

But nothing worth taking too seriously.

Feeling in a celebratory mood, they tapped a new keg, poured everyone a generous shot, and a second… and went home to bed, comforted by the knowledge that life as they had known it for the past twenty years, a life of dreary, poverty-stricken, and invariably paranoid delusions, would go on as always.

And it did — until the next day, when they awoke and discovered that the woman had appeared.

Chapter One

At precisely 5:45 in the morning, the first flight came in low on the horizon.

Eight glistening figures, flying in a near perfect V-formation and silhouetted against the brightening sky. An increasingly rare sight in the southern marshlands of Jasper County, Oregon.

Congressman Regis J. Smallsreed smiled in anticipation.

'Look, over there!' Maria Cordovian whispered excitedly.

The eighteen-year-old intern — just completing one of the more miserable hours of her life, crouched down and shivering in the far corner of the concealed duck blind with a heavy shotgun cradled awkwardly in her arms — started to come up from the low wooden bench as she pointed in the direction of the oncoming V, but a cold glare from the imposing white-haired figure seated in the padded center shooting chair warned her back down.

'You stay put, young lady, and keep that shotgun out of sight,' Smallsreed ordered as he slowly brought his own intricately engraved and tightly choked auto-loading shotgun up to a ready position. 'I can see them just fine.'

'My God, Regis, I think they're all cans,' Simon Whatley, the congressman's longtime district office manager whispered hoarsely as he lowered his binoculars. 'Every damned one of them.'



The elusive Holy Grail of the southern Oregon duck hunter.

For a brief moment, every pair of male eyes in the concealed blind — both human and canine — watched in lustful awe as the unbalanced formation of migratory birds announced their approach with intermittent quacks, long necks craning forward as their powerful wings sliced through the chilled morning air in precise, synchronized strokes.

From his crouched position in Lt. Colonel John Rustman's spacious VIP blind, Congressman Regis J. Smallsreed convinced himself that he could actually hear the cold air hissing through the microscopic gaps in the primary feathers of the glistening wings that stroked the air with choreographed precision.

Seconds passed, the soft anticipatory whine of the pair of chocolate Labrador retrievers underscoring the reverential silence that enveloped the occupants of the expensively constructed, below-water-level blind as they each absorbed, in their own way, the richness of the moment.

It was one of those precious intervals of time that any true waterfowler would later describe in hushed and respectful tones, in the quiet corner of a darkened bar or the luxurious solitude of a pristine boardroom, as being as close to absolute perfection as mankind could ever experience.

But like all such moments, it ended too soon.

The concussive roar of the 12-gauge auto-loading shotgun instantly shattered the treasured memory into illusionary fragments as the lead canvasback erupted in an explosion of feathers, tissue, and blood.

The shock wave had barely registered on the gun-wary instincts of the remaining birds when four more blasts erupted from the blind, sending four more tight patterns of lead pellets streaking upward in intersecting paths with the entire left side of the rapidly separating formation. Four more bloody explosions sent four more lifeless canvasbacks plummeting into the water.

In the brief interval it took for the remaining three Canvasbacks to veer off in three separate zigzagging paths in a desperate effort to escape the deadly barrage, Regis J. Smallsreed quickly set the still-smoking empty shotgun against the insulated wall of the blind. Then he reached down and took an identical, fully loaded shotgun out of the ice-cold hands of the stunned young intern, all the while keeping his eyes locked on the nearest surviving canvasback.

In one smooth, swift motion, he brought the stock of the handcrafted weapon against his right cheek, calculated the lead in his head, and squeezed the trigger.


Cursing furiously, the congressman glared down at the offending weapon, quickly spotted the problem, and thumbed the safety to the OFF position. Looking back up, he whipped the shotgun to the left, sensed rather than saw his target, and instinctively fired… then grunted in satisfaction when the close-range shot caused a shower of Canvasback blood, tissue, and feathers to rain on the occupants of the concealed blind.

A spectacular shot by any measure… and one well worth a momentary pause to savor the appreciative nods and comments of his hunting companions. But at that particular moment, one of the country's most powerful and influential politicians didn't care about applause. Smallsreed could get all the ego-massaging he needed simply by stepping outside the door of his congressional office on any morning of the congressional work week.

What he wanted on this particular morning, or more to the point, what he craved far more than any of his usual pleasures — expensive liquor, illicit sex, exquisite food, or completely untraceable campaign cash — was the thrill and taste of blood.

Congressman Regis J. Smallsreed was greedy.

He wanted to kill them all.

Completely focused on the frantic escape efforts of the remaining birds, Smallsreed swung the smoking shotgun barrel directly over the rapidly ducking heads of his companions and fired two more times, the expended hulls ejecting over his shoulder in wide parabolic arcs.

The seventh canvasback died instantly as three of the tightly patterned number-two shot pellets tore through its neck and fragile skull.

But the delay created by the mistakenly armed safety on the congressman's backup shotgun allowed the eighth to come within an extra fifteen feet from the blind before the white-haired legislator triggered his last two shots — just far enough to reduce both the number and the velocity of the number-two lead pellets striking the bird.

Smallsreed saw a small cloud of feathers burst away from the rear of the bird, and started to smile. But his pleasure gave way to anguished disbelief when the injured bird remained airborne — desperately quacking and flapping its wings as it tried to reach the reed-choked sanctuary of the far-distant western shoreline.

John Rustman, fourth-generation owner and manager of this private hunting preserve, and a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Ranger Reserves, took one look at the directional vector of the duck's erratic but determined course, cursed silently, activated a small radio transmitter on his belt, and made a minor adjustment of the headset microphone almost completely hidden by his black knit cap and the high collar of his windbreaker.

'Wintersole,' he whispered tersely into the mike. 'Take it out.'

Congressman Regis J. Smallsreed was still standing there, clutching his empty smoking shotgun and staring at the rapidly escaping Canvasback — his Canvasback-a good eighty yards away and gaining distance with each frantic wing stroke, when a dark-hooded figure suddenly stood in one of the smaller adjoining blinds.

A moment later, a single sharp, explosive crack echoed across the water.

Ninety yards away, the injured bird suddenly tumbled in midair, its bloody feathers momentarily fluttering protectively over the splash point where the dead Canvasback struck the water.

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