As the road grew steadily more slippery, they soon found themselves measuring progress in terms of one meter slid sideways for every two gained forward. The rain stopped as suddenly as it had begun, giving way to feathery gray-white clouds that swept down from the emerald mountaintops like gathering ghosts. Once, an enormous bird, all white and black feathers, talons and beak, soared directly past the front of the car, screeling sharply as it wheeled out of the oncoming 4X4’s path. Even a brief glimpse was enough to show that its wingspan was greater than two meters. A startled Hyaki slammed on the brakes, forcing Cardenas to grab the dash with both hands to keep from being thrown forward. Fortunately, none of the six protective foambags surrounding him inflated.
“Sorry,” the sergeant apologized. “It surprised me. I was watching the road and didn’t see it coming. What the hell was it, anyway? The damn thing looked like a hang glider.”
“Harpy eagle.” An attentive Cardenas heard the high-pitched screel again. It was far away now, and fading. “You’re not supposed to see it coming.”
His partner eyed him uncertainly. “How do you know that’s what it was?”
“I watch a lot of nature vits.” He nodded at the tattered track that continued to unspool in front of them. “Take it low and slow when it shifts back in gear. We don’t want to put too much pressure on the sensors, and we definitely don’t want to get stuck here. It’s a long, wet walk back to Progresso.”
“I know that.” Grumbling, Hyaki reached for the shifter to put the vehicle back in drive. There was only one forward gear, of course. The car’s onboard box would sense whenever anything lower was required, and allocate power accordingly.
A figure materialized from among the trees off to their left, stumbling downslope. He wore a simple plastic rainshawl striped in local colors. Except for the rainshawl and the hitech walking stick he carried, he might have stepped straight out of a Mayan stela. He was followed by a young woman carrying a babe in arms and two more men who were visibly younger than their predecessor. While these three waited by the side of the road, which under the effects of the intermittent pounding rain had become virtually indistinguishable from its center, the patriarch of the group hobbled toward the idling 4X4, using his walking stick for support. Hyaki lowered his window.
“Your pardon, senores,” he said in passable English, “but my family and I were caught out in the weather today.” Turning slightly, he gestured up the graded quagmire of a thoroughfare. “Our truck, full of produce from our farm, broke down on the way back from the Reserva. We are very tired, and my daughter-in-law’s child is cold and hungry. Could you perhaps give us a ride into the Ciudad? From there we can arrange for the parts necessary to fix our truck.”
Cardenas scrutinized the speaker and the waiting supplicants. “Sure, we’ll be happy to help.” He reached into an inside pocket. “Here’s a little something for the nino”
As he drew his gun and pointed it directly at the petitioner’s face, Hyaki pressed himself backward as far as the driver’s seat would allow and used his left hand to recline it even farther. The eyes of the rain-shawl-bedecked local widened as he stared down the barrel of the tiny but lethal pistol.
“Step back.” Most of the time, Cardenas’s voice was calm, even soothing. But when he wanted to, he could chill it deep enough to neutralize habanero sauce. “Keep your hands out and up where I can see them. No sudden moves. Fredoso, get us moving.”
“Oh yeah,” murmured the sergeant tensely. Staying back, he maneuvered his bulk until he could reach the shift controller. The 4X4 started forward, sensors in the wheels and the undercarriage combining their readings to determine that full low gear was in order. The transmission responded accordingly.
As they inched forward and began to roll past the tiny family group, the young woman brought both arms up and to one side and threw the cloth-swaddled babe she was holding straight at the windshield. With a shout, Cardenas shoved open the door on his side and threw himself out. Hyaki did the same on the driver’s side, landing hard in the gravel-flecked mud. Detecting the absence of an operating driver, the vehicle immediately shut down its engine and started to slide into park. It never made it.
The bundle that struck the windshield bounced once off the non-conductive transparency before landing on the hood. Containing nothing organic, it promptly delivered itself of a violent electric discharge. The smell of ozone flashed through the damp air as sparks erupted from the hood, roof, sides, back, and underbody of the 4X4. Designed to instantly electrocute any occupants of the car, the packet ended up frying only the electrical system of the vehicle, which promptly caught on fire.
Rolling madly, the Inspector brought his weapon up and around as something hot and superfast sliced a groove in the ground precisely where he had been lying a moment earlier. The young woman who had hurled the packet had flung her rainshawl aside and was in the process of aiming the multibarreled burster in Hyaki’s direction just as Cardenas’s second shot tore through her right shoulder. Her face contorting, she dropped the burster and grabbed at her upper arm. On the other side of the road, Hyaki had rolled into a ditch and was now firing steadily.
While the senior member of the phony farming quartet provided very unpeasantlike covering fire, the two younger men grabbed their wounded associate and half dragged, half carried her off down the road. One of the sergeant’s shots caught the retreating elder in the ribs and forcefully evacuated his chest cavity. As he slammed facedown into the mud, his three retreating colleagues increased their pace. In less than a minute, they had disappeared around the first bend in the road.
A heavy mist began to fall as the two federales warily approached the unmoving body of the man who had asked them for a lift. There was no sign of his three companions. Blood and drizzle swirled together and collected in puddles, to be soaked up by the ever-porous tropical soil.
Hyaki holstered his weapon as he peered back the way they had come. “I don’t think the others will be back. What was that all about?”
Kneeling beside the dead man, Cardenas pushed back a sleeve to expose a tattoo lavish with coiling serpents, feathers, and Mayan glyphs. “Sensemaya. Primarily a CAF gang, but they’ve been known to reconnoiter as far north as Four Corners.”
The sergeant ran a big hand from his forehead across his reviving scalp and down the back of his neck. “I’ve read about them. How’d you know, Angel?”
“That they were Sensemaya?” He straightened, brushing clinging mud from his pants. “I didn’t, until just now. What I did know was that they weren’t simple farmers, and that they wanted more than a ride.” Hyaki nodded perceptively. Better than anyone else, he knew his partner’s capabilities.
Cardenas considered the body. “Their postures were all wrong. Stiff instead of submissive. Taut instead of tired from walking. The woman held her ‘baby’ the wrong way. The two agros with her were tense and apprehensive instead of hopeful.” Bending, he picked up the fallen walking stick and turned it over in his hands, studying it with interest.
“Grandpa here had the best teeth and the smoothest hands of any farmer I’ve ever seen. As for his cane, it’s a fine piece of facading, but the dissimulation isn’t quite perfect.”
Turning, he pointed the upper segment of the walking stick toward the rainforest and ran a finger along a depression embedded in one side. There was a flash of flame, and a good-sized tree, blown in half, toppled noisily into the surrounding jungle. Hyaki contemplated the weapon respectfully.
“What do you think, Angel? Mataros sent out by The Mock to intercept us? Maybe people working with the Inzini, or some other faction?”
Cardenas sounded dubious. “They may not be farmers, but they looked and acted local. According to what I read before we got here, this is still pretty wild country. All kinds of banditos and scaves hide in the mountains and pop out to ambush unwary travelers.” He indicated their vehicle, from which smoke continued to pour. The flames had already been dampened by the vehicle’s integrated fire-suppressant system. “Probably thought we were tourists, or maybe researchers bound for the Ciudad. Easy marks, little likelihood of any resistance, much less a fight, and loaded down with credit and valuable gear.” He shook his head regretfully. “Didn’t even have time to flash an ident at them. Not that it would necessarily have changed their minds.”
They discussed the veiled features of the lethal walking stick as they cautiously approached their 4X4. Its internal systems had finally succeeded in putting out the fire. In lieu of the preceding flames, black smoke now rose from beneath the vehicle’s hood as well as from the interior dash. The bundle that had been thrown by the young woman lay melted and motionless on the hood. Fully discharged, it was now perfectly harmless.