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THE 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.”
“And 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 causesaving 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 guide.
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 rain forest and raised funds for medical supplies for 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 good 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 farther upriver, we shall see.”
“I thought a series of storms was coming,” Don defended. “I checked the weather this morning.”
“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 upriver 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 on to 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 Indochina. They had been warned by more than one friendly source to be cautious as they continued upriver.
“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 asked curiously.
“To get richer.” Simon laughed at his own joke.
The boat bumped over the water, jarring them all, shooting sprays of water into their faces 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 thrown overboard.
“There are snakes everywhere,” Rachael replied softly, unheard above the roar of the river.
She 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 rest room 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 that 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 roar 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 downriver. 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 river.
Her sleeve caught on a snag below the surface, jerking her to a standstill 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, forcing her toward the bottom. Somehow she hung on to 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, lying 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 that sucked at her boot when she tried to pull it free.
Rachael took the remaining boot 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. They were all shaking their heads. Several men paced along the riverbank looking for something . . . 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 had 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 memory.
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 continually 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 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 and 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 scrambling into foliage. Once she spotted an 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 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 adjust quickly to a different kind 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 males searched for females. She caught sight of a gliding snake, zigzagging from one branch to another.
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. Stalked. Hunted.
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 rain forest. 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 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.
“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 floor.
The mission had been a success. They had snatched back the son of a Japanese businessman from the rebels, hightailed 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 furious 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 storm, but with each burst of static, he breathed another sigh of relief.
The continuous noise of rushing water 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 sights 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 spot them.
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 on 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 through 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 the 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 reached from 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 rain forest. 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 enough. 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, crisscrossing back and forth, hissing and spitting in warning.
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 such injuries 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 mistake.
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 moment. 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 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. 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 inside upward.
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 painfully.
He remained motionless, flat on the floor, knife in his teeth, trying to breathe through the pain, breathe away the urge for 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, illuminated the bed briefly and was gone.