small launch chugged up the fast moving river at a pace that allowed
the group of travelers to see the surrounding forest. Thousands
of trees competed for space, as far as the eye could see. Creeping
vines and plants hung low, some sweeping the water's surface.
Brilliantly colored parrots, lorikeets and kingfishers flitted
continually from branch to branch, so that the foliage appeared
to be alive with movement.
"It's so beautiful here," Amy
Somber said, turning away from the forest to look at the others.
"But all I can think about is snakes and leeches and mosquitoes."
the humidity," Simon Freeman added, unbuttoning the top two
buttons of his shirt. "I'm always sweating like a pig."
"It is oppressive," Duncan Powell
agreed. "I feel like I'm suffocating."
"That's strange," Rachael Lospostos
said. And it was strange. The humidity didn't bother her at all.
The heavy trees and creeping vines sent blood singing through
her veins, making her feel more alive than ever. She lifted the
heavy mass of thick dark hair from her neck. She'd always worn
it long in memory of her mother, but had sacrificed it for the
sake of a very good cause. Saving her own life. "I really
love it here. I can't imagine anyone lucky enough to live here."
She exchanged a small smile of camaraderie with Kim Pang, their
He nodded toward the forest and Rachael
caught a glimpse of a noisy troop of long-tailed macaques leaping
from branch to branch. She smiled as she heard the rasping call
of the sap-sucking cicadas even above the roar of the water.
"I like it too," Don Gregson
admitted. He was the acknowledged and respected leader of their
group, a man who often visited the rainforest and raised funds
for medical supplies to regions in need.
Rachael stared into the rich, lush forest,
longing growing in her with a strength that shook her. She heard
the continual call of the birds, so many of them, saw them flitting
from branch to branch, always busy, always in flight. She had
a mad desire to dive out of the boat and swim away to disappear
into the dark interior.
The boat hit a particularly choppy wave and threw her against
Simon. She had always had a figure, even as a young girl, developing
quickly with lush curves and a woman's generous body. Simon pressed
her close when he caught her courteously, her breasts mashing
against his chest. His hands slid down her spine unnecessarily.
She dug her thumb into his ribs, smiling sweetly as she extracted
herself from his arms.
"Thanks, Simon, the currents seems
to be getting stronger." There was no annoyance in her voice.
Her expression was serene, innocent. It was impossible for him
to see the smoldering anger at the way he took every opportunity
to touch her. She glanced at Kim Pang. He saw everything, his
expression every bit as tranquil as hers, but he had noted the
position of Simon's roving hands. "Why is the river becoming
so wild and choppy, Kim?"
"Rain upriver, there is much flooding.
I warned you, but Don consulted with another and was told the
river was passable. As we get further upriver, we shall see."
"I thought a series of storms was
coming," Duncan defended. "I checked the weather this
"Yes, the wind smells of rain."
"At least with the wind blowing so
hard, the bugs leave us alone," Amy said. "I am waiting
for the day I don't have fifty bites on me."
There was a long silence while the wind
tugged at their clothing and whipped through their hair. Rachael
kept her gaze on the shore and the trees with their branches raised
to the rolling clouds. Once she saw a snake coiled around a low
lying branch and another time she spotted flying fox hanging in
the trees. The world seemed a rich and wonderful place. A place
far from people. Far from deceit and treachery. A place in which
one might be able to vanish without a trace. It was a dream she
meant to make a reality.
"The storm is coming. We have to
take shelter fast. If we're caught on the river, we could all
drown." Kim Pang delivered the ominous warning, startling
her. She'd been so absorbed in the forest she hadn't been paying
attention to the darkening sky and spinning clouds.
A collective gasp of alarm went up from
the small group and instinctively they huddled closer together
in the power launch, hoping Kim could get them up river before
the storm broke.
A surge of adrenaline rushed through Rachael's
bloodstream, triggering a rush of hope. This was the chance she'd
been waiting for. She lifted her face to the sky, smelled the
storm in the wild wind and felt droplets on her skin.
"Be careful, Rachael," Simon
advised, tugging at her arm, wanting her to hang onto the edges
of the boat as they whipped through the choppy water toward the
encampment upriver. He had to shout the words to be heard above
the roar of the water.
Rachael smiled at him and obediently caught
at the boat, not wanting to appear different in any way. Someone
was trying to kill her. Maybe even Simon. She wasn't about to
trust anyone. She'd learned that lesson the hard way, more than
once before it sank in, and she wasn't about to make the same
mistakes again. A smile and a word of warning didn't mean friendship.
"I wish we'd waited. I don't know
why we listened to that old man saying today was the best day
for travel." Simon continued, yelling the words in her ear.
"First we wait through two nearly clear days because the
omens were bad and then on the word of some man with no teeth
we just all climb in the launch like sheep."
Rachael remembered the old man with shifty
eyes and great gaps where his teeth should have been. Most of
the people they met were friendly, more than friendly. Laughing
and always willing to share everything they had, the people along
the river lived simply yet happily. The old man had bothered her.
He sought them out, talking Don Gregson into leaving in spite
of Kim Pang's obvious reluctance. Kim had nearly backed out of
guiding them to the village, but the people needed the medicine
and he guarded it carefully.
"Is the medicine worth money to the
bandits?" She shouted the question to Simon above the roar
of the river. Bandits were reputed to be commonplace along the
river systems of the countries. They had been warned by more than
one friendly source to be cautious as they continued up river.
"Not only the medicine, but we are
too," Simon confirmed. "There's been a rash of kidnappings
by some rebel groups to supposedly raise money for their cause."
"What's their cause?" Rachael
"To get richer." Simon laughed
at his own joke.
The boat bumped over the water, jarring
them all, shooting sprays of water into their face and hair. "I
hate this place," Simon complained. "I hate everything
about this place. How could you want to live here?"
"Really?" Rachael looked into
the jungle as they rushed by. Tall trees, so many blurring together
she couldn't tell one from the other, but they looked inviting.
A refuge. Her sanctuary. "It's beautiful to me."
"Even the snakes?" The boat
pitched wildly and Simon grabbed for a hold to keep from being
"There are snakes everywhere."
Rachael replied softly, unheard above the roar of the river.
had been careful to disappear from her home in the States. Had
planned out each step carefully, with patience. Knowing she was
watched, she had gone casually to the department store and paid
a huge sum of money to a stranger to walk out wearing her trendy
clothes, dark glasses and jacket. Rachael paid attention to details.
Even the shoes were the same. The wig was perfection. The woman
strolled slowly along the street, window-shopping, picked a large
store, changed clothes in the restroom and walked away a good
deal wealthier than she had ever imagined. Rachael should have
disappeared without a trace right then.
She purchased a passport and identification
in the name of a woman long deceased and made her way to a different
state, joined a church group on a medical relief tour of the remote
areas of Malaysia, Borneo and Indochina. She managed to escape
the United States undetected. Her plan had been brilliant. Except
it didn't work. Someone found her. Two days earlier a cobra found
its way into her locked room. Rachael knew it wasn't a coincidence.
The cobra had been deliberately planted in her room. She had been
lucky to see it before it had a chance to bite her, but she knew
better than to depend on luck. Anyone she met could be a paid
assassin. She had no choice but to die and the storm would provide
the perfect opportunity.
Rachael was comfortable in a world of
deceit and treachery. She knew no other way of life. She knew
better than to depend on anyone else. Her existence would have
to be solitary if she managed to survive. She kept her face averted
from the others, loving the feel of the wind. The humidity should
have been oppressive, but she felt it as a shroud, a blanket of
protection. The forest called to her with the fragrance of orchids,
with the cry of the birds and the hum of insects. Where others
cringed at every sound and looked around fearfully, she embraced
the heat and the moisture. She knew she had come home.
The boat rounded a bend and headed for
the rickety pier. A collective sigh of relief went up. All of
them could hear the roar of falls in the distance and the current
was increasing in strength. The men worked to maneuver the boat
to the small dock. One lone man stood waiting for them. The wind
tore at his clothes. He stared into the surrounding forest nervously
but stepped onto the shaky muddy platform that served as a landing,
raising his hand to catch the rope thrown to him by Kim Pang.
Rachael could see beads of sweat on his
forehead and dripping down his neck. His shirt was stained with
sweat. It was humid, but it wasn't that humid. She looked carefully
around, her hands automatically reaching for her backpack. She
needed the contents for survival. She noted the man tying off
the rope to their launch was shaking, his hands trembling so much
he had difficulty with the knot. He suddenly dropped flat, his
hands covering his head.
The world erupted into a nightmare of
bullets and chaos. Amy's high-pitched screaming sent birds shrieking
out of the treetops, rising upward toward the boiling clouds.
Smoke mixed with the veil of mist. Bandits poured out of the forest,
waving guns wildly and shouting orders that couldn't be heard
above the anger of the river. Beside her, Simon suddenly slumped
down into the bottom of the boat. Don Gregson bent over him. Duncan
dragged Amy to the bottom of the boat and reached for Rachael.
Eluding Duncan's hands, Rachael quietly pulled on her backpack
and snapped the safety catch around her middle. Kim frantically
tried to cut through the rope tying them to shore. Whispering
a silent prayer for the others and for her own safety, Rachael
went over the side of the boat, slipped into the fast moving water
and was immediately swept downstream.
As if on cue, the heavens opened up and
poured down a wall of water feeding the strength of the river.
Debris churned and raced by her. She kept her feet drawn up in
an effort to avoid any rocks or snags. It was difficult to keep
her head above the choppy waves, but she struggled to keep the
water from her mouth and nose as she allowed the current to carry
her away from the bandits running toward the launch. No one saw
her in the swirling rush of tree branches, leaves and foliage
being carried rapidly down river. Again and again she went under
and had to fight her way to the surface. Coughing and choking,
feeling as if she'd swallowed half of the river, Rachael began
an attempt to catch at one or two of the larger trees the force
of the water had toppled. The first one she missed and her heart
nearly stopped as she felt the pull of the water dragging her
downward again. She wasn't certain she had enough strength left
to fight the monstrous suction of the raging river.
Her sleeve caught on a snag below the
surface, jerking her to a stand still while the water swirled
around her. She clawed frantically for a branch. Leaves came away
in her hand. The water tugged relentlessly, pulling at her clothes.
One boot flew off and spun away from her. Her fingertips found
the rounded edge of a thick branch and dug in. Her shirt ripped
and the water claimed her, pouring over her head, taking her toward
the bottom. Somehow she hung onto the stationary branch. Rachael
wrapped both arms around it and hugged it tightly, once more breaking
the surface with her face, gasping for air, shivering with terror.
She was a strong swimmer but there was no way she could stay alive
in the raging waters.
Rachael clung to the branch, fighting
for air. She was already exhausted, her arms and legs leaden.
Although she had gone with the current, trying to keep her head
above water had been a terrible fight. Even now the water fought
to get her back, pulling at her, dragging at her body continually.
When she was able she edged along the fallen tree until she was
wedged between the trunk and the branch and could pull herself
up enough to gain the massive root system. She was on the far
side of the river now, away from the rebels and hopefully too
difficult too see in the downpour.
Concentrating on each inch she could gain,
Rachael began to scoot onto the closest branch. A snake struck
her hip and was swept away. She couldn't tell if it was alive
or dead but it set her heart pounding all over again. Cautiously
she stretched her body along the root, pulled herself up out of
the water, laid there panting, afraid of her precarious position.
One wrong move could send her toppling back into the water. The
tree shuddered as the water tried to pull it free of its anchor.
The branch was slick with mud from the
embankment where it had torn lose, but it formed a bridge of sorts
to the shore. It seemed a million miles away. All the while the
rain poured down adding to the slippery surface. Rachael wrapped
her arms around the root and slowly scooted, inch by inch over
the twisting, curving limb. Several times she slipped and had
to hug the root, her heart pounding until she regained her courage
and could continue forward. An eternity later she managed to step
onto the bank. Her foot sank into mire, sucked at her boot when
she tried to pull it free.
Rachael took her remaining shoe off and
threw it far out into the water, away from the trees where it
might get stuck and call attention to where she had managed to
get ashore. Her one hope was that the tree, holding on by a few
precarious roots, would be swept downstream, leaving no trace
of her escape.
Barefoot, mud squishing between her toes,
soaked and shaking with fear, Rachael crawled over the marsh to
the edge of the tree-line. Only then did she try to see what was
happening on the opposite shore. She had been swept hundreds of
yards downstream and the pounding rain formed a nearly impenetrable
curtain. Rachael sank down behind foliage, peering through the
sheets of rain as she donned her spare boots, brought along for
the very purpose of sacrificing her other pair should she have
the opportunity to go overboard. She hadn't counted on such a
wild current, but the chance to make an escape in spite of the
danger, was too good to turn down.
The bandits seemed to be angry, herding
those remaining alive into a small shivering group. Everyone was
shaking heads. Several men paced along the river bank looking
or someone. Rachael's heart sank. She had a
sneaking suspicion the raid had been aimed at killing her. What
better way to insure her death than to have her meet with a stray
bullet while they rounded up prisoners to ransom? Kidnapping was
a common enough occurrence and the bandits could be bought easily
to perform an assassination. Rachael adjusted her pack, took one
last look at the river and headed into the jungle.
She couldn't stop shivering as she raced
through the forest, searching for a faint path leading into the
interior. She spent nearly a year preparing for this moment. She
ran every day, lifted weights and climbed rock walls. She was
not a particularly small woman but she learned how to turn every
pound into muscle. A private instructor worked with her on self-defense,
throwing knifes and stick fighting. She had gone so far as to
search out survival books, committing as much as she could to
The wind whipped the feathery canopy in
all directions, showering Rachael with leaves and twigs and a
multitude of flowers. In spite of the wind, the dense canopy helped
to shield her from the rain, breaking up the solid wall of water
so that it fell with a dull thudding rhythm. She hurried as fast
as she dared, determined to put as much distance between the river
and her destination. She was certain she could build or find one
of the old native dwellings. A hut with three walls of leaves
and bark and a sloping roof. She had studied the design and it
seemed simple enough to follow.
In spite of the continual shivering, Rachael
moved with confidence and hope. For the first time in months the
terrible weight pressing down on her shoulders lifted. She had
a chance. A real chance at living. She might have to live alone,
but she could choose how she would live.
Something crashed in the brush off to
her left but she hardly glanced in that direction, trusting to
her warning system to alert her should there be a real threat.
Water squished in her boots, but she didn't dare take the time
to change into dry clothes. It wouldn't do any good, she had to
cross several waist-deep streams, some with strong currents. She
was forced to use creepers to drag herself up a steep slope to
hold her course. Rachael Lospostos was gone forever, tragically
drowned when she tried to take medical supplies to a remote village.
In her place, a new, independent woman was born. Her hands ached
from the many times she dragged herself up the steep rocks to
push deeper into the forest.
Night began to fall. The interior was
already dim but without the occasional ray of sunlight pushing
through the clouds, the world around her changed radically. Tiny
hairs on the back of her neck rose. She stopped walking and took
time to look up into the network of branches running over her
head. It was the first time she really looked at her surroundings.
The world was a lush riot of colors, every
shade of green vying with vivid brilliant colors erupting up and
down the trunks of trees. High overhead and on the forest floor,
flowers, fauna and fungi vied for space in the secret, hidden
world. Even in the rain, she could see evidence of wildlife, shadows
flitting from branch to branch, lizards tucked into foliage. Once
she spotted the elusive orangutan high up in the trees, tucked
in a nest of leaves. She stopped and stared at the creature, amazed
at the wonder she felt.
Rachael found a very dim path, barely
discernable in the wealth of thick vegetation covering the forest
floor. She dropped down on one knee, peering intently at the trail.
Humans had used the path, not just the deer and animals. It led
away from the river, deeper into the interior. Exactly what she
was looking for. Following the faint route slowed her down, but
she stayed on it, her step lighter as she moved toward the heart
of the forest.
Something in her was coming alive. She
felt it moving inside of her. Awareness. Heat. Joy. A mixture
of every emotion. Maybe it was the first time she felt she had
a chance at life. Rachael didn't know the reason. She was exhausted.
Every muscle ached. She was tired and sore and soaked to the skin,
but she felt happy. She should have been afraid, or at the very
least, nervous, but she wanted to sing.
As darkness blanketed the forest, she
should have been blind, but her eyes seemed to find renewed life,
a different way of vision. She could make out things, not just
the tall tree trunks with the multitude of fauna climbing up them,
but tiny details. Frogs, lizards, even small cocoons. Her muscles
hummed and vibrated in tune with nature around her. A fallen log
was no obstacle but a chance to leap, feeling the steel in her
muscles, an awareness of how smoothly they worked beneath her
skin. She almost felt as if she could hear the very sap running
in the trees.
The forest was alive with insects, great
spiders and fireflies. Beetles busily moved along the earth and
over trees and leaves. A world within a world and all of it surprising,
yet familiar. The rush of wings overhead was audible as night
birds flitted from tree to tree and owls went on the hunt. A noisy
chorus of frogs began, loud calls as male searched for females.
She caught sight of a gliding snake, zigzagging from one branch
Smiling, Rachael continued, knowing she
was on the right path. Knowing she was finally home. Far off,
she heard the sound of gunfire, muffled and faint, dimmed by the
steady rhythm of the rain and the distance she was from the river.
The sound seemed intrusive in her paradise. It brought with it
a strange ominous warning. With each step her joy diminished and
dread began to grow. She was no longer alone. She was being watched.
Rachael looked carefully around her, paying
particular attention to the network of branches above her head,
looking for shadows. Leopards were rare, even here in the rainforest.
Surely, one hadn't found her and padded silently after her. The
idea was frightening. Leopards were deadly hunters, swift and
merciless and able to bring down very large prey. Her skin prickled
with unease and she used far more caution as she moved along the
path toward whatever destination fate had decreed for her.
The rain fell steadily, not a slow drizzle,
but sheets of pounding rain so dense visibility was nearly nil.
Thunder shook the trees, reverberating through the high canopy
of the forest treetops, all the way down to deep canyons and gorges
cut into the Earth by an overabundance of water. Lightning lit
the forest floor revealing huge ferns, dense foliage and a thick
carpet of needles, leaves and countless decaying matter from hundreds
of species of plants.
The unexpected light fell across the hunter,
throwing the hard angles and planes of his face into sharp relief.
Water glistened in the thick wavy black hair falling across his
forehead. Despite the heavy weight of the large pack on his back,
he moved easily and silently. He didn't appear to be bothered
by the vicious rainfall drenching his clothes as he followed the
dim path. His eyes moved restlessly, continually, forever seeking
movement in the dark of the forest. Artic cold, his eyes showed
no mercy, held no life, were the eyes of a predator seeking prey.
He showed no sign that the spectacular display of raw nature bothered
him. Instead, he seemed to blend in with fluid, animal grace,
very much at home in the primitive forest.
A pace behind him, like a shadowy wolf,
a fifty pound clouded leopard prowled, eyes gleaming, every bit
as alert as the hunter. Off to the right, scouting first ahead,
and then their back trail, a second leopard, twin to the first,
had smaller forest animals quivering in alarm at his passing.
The three moved together, a uniquely trained unit.
Twice, the hunter deliberately reached
out his hand and twisted a large leaf, allowing it to spring back
into place. Somewhere behind them a twig snapped, the sound carried
on the unrelenting wind. The lead leopard swung around, baring
teeth, a hiss of a threat emitting a warning.
"Fritz." The single word was
enough of a reprimand to keep the animal pacing at the man's side
as they worked their way through the wet vegetation on the forest
The mission had been a success. They had
snatched back the son of a Japanese businessman from the rebels,
high-tailed it across the border, his team spreading out and melting
into the forest. Drake was responsible for getting the kid to
the waiting family and out of the country while Rio deliberately
drew the pursuers away from the others, leading them deep into
territory known for cobras and other unpleasant and highly dangerous
creatures. Rio Santana was comfortable in the vast jungles, comfortable
with being alone surrounded by danger. The forest was home to
him. Would always be his home.
Rio picked up his pace, nearly jogging,
heading for the swollen bank of the raging river. The water had
been rising steadily for hours and he had little time if he wanted
to get the leopards across with him. He led his enemies through
the forest, circling several times, but staying just out of reach
to keep them coming after him. One by one his men reported in.
The radio was mostly crackle in the raging storm, but with each
burst of static, he breathed another sigh of relief.
The continuous noise of the river rushing
was too loud, drowning out all sound so that he had to rely on
the pair of cats to sound the alarm should his tenacious adversaries
catch up with him sooner than he planned. He found the tall tree
beside the embankment. The tree had a silvery gray trunk topped
with a feathery bright green crown and it rose high above the
bank making it an easy landmark. Water already swirled around
it, moving fast, dragging at the roots surrounding the wide trunk.
He signaled the cats to follow as he went up it fast, high, into
the canopy, leaping easily from branch to branch, every bit as
agile as the clouded leopards. Near the top, concealed in the
foliage was a pulley and sling he had secured long ago. The pack
went first, crossing high above the river. It was far more time
consuming to take the cats. There was no network of branches to
bridge the river and it was moving far too swiftly to swim. The
cats had to be placed one by one into the sling and hauled across
the river, something neither of them was too fond of doing. They
knew how to crawl out of the sling onto the branches. It was an
escape they had performed and perfected many times.
On the opposite bank Rio hunkered down
in between the roots of a tall Menggaris tree and peered through
the driving rain across the swollen river. The wind tore at his
face and ripped at his clothing. He was impervious to the weather,
night vision glasses raised and focused on the bank across from
him. He had them in his sites now, four of them. Faceless enemies
furious over his interference with their plans. He had robbed
them of their prey, kept them from their ultimate goal and they
were determined to bring him down. He eased his rifle into position,
adjusting the scope. He could take two of them before the others
could get off a shot. His position was fairly protected.
The radio tucked inside his jacket
crackled. The last of the signals he'd been waiting for. Keeping
a steady eye on the four men across the river, he pulled the small
radio from his inside pocket. "Go ahead," he said softly.
"All clear," the disembodied
voice proclaimed. The last of his men was safe.
Rio wiped his hand over his face,
suddenly weary. It was over. He didn't have to take another life.
For once the isolation of his existence was inviting. He wanted
to lie down and listen to the rain, to sleep. Be grateful he was
alive for one more day. He tucked the binoculars into his pack,
his movements slow and easy, careful not to draw attention. His
signal sent Fritz crawling backward out of the tangle of roots,
deeper into the timberline. The small leopards blended perfectly
with the leaves and jungle floor. It was nearly impossible to
Lightning flashed directly overhead,
the clap of thunder booming through the forest. Rio didn't know
if it was the thunder or the cats that startled a fully-grown
bearded pig into crashing through the undergrowth. At once the
sky erupted with bursts of red flames, a stream of bullets bridging
the river and blasting into the network of roots. Splinters of
bark peppered his face and neck, fell harmlessly against his thick
clothing. Something bit at his hip, skidding over flesh and removing
a small chunk as it continued traveling.
Rio cradled the rifle to his shoulder,
his targets already chosen, and squeezed off two deadly accurate
rounds in answer. He followed with a burst of fire, laying down
rapid cover as he scooted back to follow the cats. His pursuers
wouldn't be able to cross the river and with two dead or wounded,
they would drop the search for the moment. But they would be back
and bring reinforcements. It was a way of life. Not one he had
necessarily chosen, but it was one he accepted.
Scattered shots zinged threw the
shrubbery, angry bees without aim. The river drowned out the threats
hurled at him, the promises of retribution and blood. He shouldered
his rifle and slipped into deeper forest, allowing the creeping
greenery to shield him.
Rio set a hard pace. The storm was
dangerous, the wind threatening to topple more than one tree.
The cats shared his life, but had the freedom to go their own
way. He expected them to seek cover, to ride out the storm under
protection, but they stayed close to him, occasionally taking
to the trees to travel along the highway of interlocking branches.
They looked at him expectantly, wondering why he didn't join them,
but eventually settled into his steady, ground-eating rhythm.
Miles of rain-soaked travel passed.
Close to home, Rio was beginning to relax when Fritz raised his
head, suddenly alert, swerving to brush the man who instantly
stilled, becoming nearly invisible, a shadow among the tall trees.
Behind him, the second cat slunk to ground, frozen, a statue with
glowing eyes. Rio hissed softly between his teeth and made a small
circular motion with one hand. Fritz immediately disappeared into
the forest, moving cautiously, halting beside a tree. The animal
circled the large trunk once, then, like a silent wraith, returned
to the man. Together, all three approached, making no more noise
than the single clouded leopard had. Taking no notice of the ferocious
storm raging around him, Rio made a thorough inspection of the
tree. A rope bridged one trunk to another.
"It isn't a garrote,"
he murmured aloud to the cats. "It's just a piece of rope,
not even hidden. Why would they give away their presence like
this?" Puzzled he examined the ground, clearly expecting
a trap of some kind. It was impossible to find a track in the
soaked vegetation. He signaled the animals to spread out and continued
with more caution along the faint trail.
Rio was always careful to use different
routes to reach the tree beside the river. If someone did a thorough
inspection of the tree, they would most likely find the claw marks
of a leopard, or think any scarring had been caused by the makeshift
ladders, pegs going up the tree to a wild honeybee nest. He left
little or no sign, and always carried the pulley system away with
him. Still, if his route had been compromised, it was possible
the rebels had sent an assassin to circle ahead and lie in wait
for him. Although his identity was a mystery, he had been at the
top of the hit list for a long time.
His home was deep in the interior
of the rainforest. He used many different routes to get there,
often taking to the trees to leave no trail, but still, someone
could have found him had they been persistent in looking. He was
more than adept at tracking and a few of his kind sold out if
the money was good enough.
Roots from the trees were tall and
fanned out wide, taking in considerable territory as if claiming
it. The large networks of roots created a mini jungle. Along the
trunks hundreds of other species of plants and mold grew to create
a myriad of colors. In the tremendous deluge the fungi growing
on fallen, rotting logs glowed in the dark with eerie luminous
greens and whites. Rio's restless gaze observed and catalogued
the phenomenon, dismissed it as unimportant until he registered
a small smear on a log, then a tiny print on a root. A twist of
his fingers sent a silent signal to the cats. The animals quartered
the area, criss-crossing back and forth, hissing and spitting
He approached his home from the
south, knowing that was the side most blind and therefore most
vulnerable should the enemy be lying in wait. The house was built
into the trees, a structure running along the higher, thicker
branches, up off the ground and not easily seen in the thick foliage.
Over the years fungi and creeping orchids covered the walls of
his home, making it nearly invisible. He had encouraged the growth
of thick vines to further hide the house from prying eyes.
Rio lifted his head to scent the
air. With the rain it should have been impossible to detect the
faint odor of wood burning, but he had an acute sense of smell.
He was seventy-two hours without sleep. Two weeks of bone-weary,
hard travel. A knife had sliced across his belly and still burned
like a hot poker. A bullet shaved skin from his hip. Neither wound
was noteworthy. He certainly had suffered worse over the years,
but left untreated too long in the forest could spell disaster.
He squared his shoulders and stared up at his home with hard resolution.
In spite of the river flooding, in spite of all his careful precautions
it appeared as though the enemy had circled around to get in front
of him and lay in wait in his own home. A very stupid and costly
The cats approached from either
side, slinking along the ground, moving toward the trees where
the house was located. Rio shrugged out of his pack, easing it
onto the ground against a thick tree trunk. All the while he stayed
low, knowing he would be difficult to see in the driving rain.
The wind howled and moaned through the trees, shaking leaves and
hurling small twigs and branches in every direction. He remained
still, studying the house for a long passage of time. A thin trail
of smoke rose from the chimney to be dissipated quickly in the
high canopy. A dim flickering light cast from a low fire onto
the woven blankets hanging over the windows could be glimpsed
through the ever-moving foliage. There was no movement in the
cabin. Whoever had been sent to assassinate him was either so
certain he was still a good distance away, or they had set an
enticing trap. Rio hissed between his teeth to draw the attention
of the cats, gave a hand signal, a quick flick with his fingers
and the three of them, like dark phantoms, scouted the ground
below the trees for whatever tracks the fierce rain had not obliterated.
They moved in an ever-tightening
circle until they gained the large network of roots and branches.
Rio's muscles bunched, contracted, rippled beneath the layer of
skin as he leapt into the tree, landing in a crouch with perfect
balance. He moved with absolute confidence, a silent predator
hunting prey. The cats crept silently into the thick network of
tree branches to gain the verandah. The branches were slick from
the downpour, but the trio of hunters maneuvered up to the house
with familiar ease. Rio tested the door. Finding resistance, he
drew the knife from the leather sheath concealed between his shoulder
blades. In the flash of lightning, the long, wicked razor-sharp
metal gleamed brightly. He slipped the blade in the crack of the
door and slowly, inch by inch, forced the heavy metal bar on the
As the door opened, then closed furtively,
the sudden cold draft sent the flames of the fire blazing high,
dancing and crackling before settling back down. Rio waited a
heartbeat for his eyes to adjust to the change in lighting. He
moved stealthily across the wide expanse of floor, carefully placing
his feet, avoiding every squeaking board. A shadowy figure moved
restlessly on the bed.
Rio went to the floor, on his belly
even as the wildness flared in him, ripping through his body,
heightening his senses. His skin itched, his bones aching and
his muscles contorting. He fought it back, forcing his brain to
work, to think, to reason when his body sought to embrace the
change. For a moment his hand rippled with life, with fur, fingers
bursting as claws clicked on the wooden floor, then retracted
He remained motionless, flat on
the floor, knife in his teeth trying to breathe through the pain,
breathe away the urge for the transformation. The cats separated
without visible instruction, both low to the floor, two sets of
burning eyes on the figure beneath the blanket. Rio could make
out the shotgun against the wall beside the bed within easy reaching
distance. In the fireplace the log disintegrated into bright red
coals. Light flared in the room, reached the bedroom briefly and