She’d worked in São Paulo. She didn’t know jack about life in the jungle. Mac didn’t have the details, but her assignment to his team had been punishment for some infraction.
“Maybe.” He had his doubts about some of the fishing boats they’d seen. The occupants hadn’t look all that interested in the water.
Cheryl swatted at a mosquito the size of a kitten. “The biggest danger here is the bugs. Why don’t they ever bite you?”
Ignoring her complaints, Mac glanced back at the water. The otters had disappeared. Bad sign. He held up a hand to quiet his companion. “The animals know something’s up.”
“Great,” Cheryl muttered. “I had to pull the Dances With Otters assignment.”
“I am a wildlife biologist,” Mac whispered. “Now shut up so I can listen.”
The faint sputter of a motor drifted over the water. Most of the local fishing boats were man-powered. Engines were faster, but they were also expensive and required fuel. Most locals didn’t have the resources for such luxury.
An ecotour maybe?
This was a particularly dangerous region in South America, where the borders of Peru, Brazil, and Colombia converged. Drug traffickers, both large cartels and small-scale operations run by families tired of hardscrabble, subsistence living, used the river as a key method of transportation.
Cheryl went still. They both knew their university credentials satisfied villagers and officials but garnered no respect from drug traffickers.
The nose of a boat appeared around the bend in the river. The craft was a long, dilapidated vessel with a rectangular cabin and a pair of rusted outboard motors that looked like they belonged in a salvage yard. A man in the bow, wearing only a pair of frayed denim cutoffs, lifted a hand in greeting. His skin was brown, his hair black, his body slim and hard in a way that suggested a lifetime of manual labor and minimal nourishment. A second man sat in the stern, one hand on the tiller to steer the boat.
“See. Fishermen.” Cheryl gestured toward the boat. She raised the camera. The lens whirred and clicked as she snapped pictures.
He pushed the camera’s nose down. “I know most of the villagers, and these guys don’t look familiar. That boat could be full of coca paste instead of fish.” Not to mention men with machetes and machine guns. Mac’s gaze swept the riverbanks.
“Sorry.” She snapped on the lens cap.
Not her fault, he reminded himself. She hadn’t asked for this assignment. She didn’t have the necessary experience. With his eyes focused on the waterway, he asked, “What brought you out here anyway?”
Cheryl and the third member of their team, a guide named Juan, had just returned to the camp for an afternoon siesta. Napping was the only part of South American life she embraced. “You got a call from the States. Your brother.”
An instant ache tightened behind Mac’s sternum, and guilt washed through him with the force of the river. His brother Grant would not have called unless it was an emergency. “Did he leave a message?”
“Yes.” Cheryl waved her hand at a swarm of insects buzzing around her face. “It’s your dad.” Sympathy softened her voice. “Your brother said, ‘This is it, Mac,’ and that you should hurry if you want to get there before . . .”
“Oh. OK. Thanks.” Mac lowered his binoculars, his emotions going into limbo. Their father had been actively dying for the past fifteen months. A paraplegic war hero, the Colonel had been robbed of his mental faculties by dementia in recent years. Mac had thought he’d come to terms with his father’s imminent death, but the scratching sensation inside his chest said otherwise.
“You should go home, Mac.” Cheryl nodded toward the river. She might be a disaster in the jungle, but she was a decent soul. “This will keep.”
“You’re right.” Mac turned toward their camp, dread slowing his movements. Home. A small word with big meaning. He’d spent most of his childhood watching his father suffer. Just thinking about returning to his hometown made the ground feel unstable under his feet. But after his brother Lee’s murder last year and his sister’s close brush with death last November, Mac had sworn he wouldn’t leave his family high and dry again. He’d be there for them this time, no matter what the cost.
“I’ll drive you into the village,” Cheryl said. The team had only one vehicle, and no one wanted to be stranded in the jungle without transportation. The mile to the nearest village would feel like twenty in sweltering temperatures and jungle humidity.
“Thanks. From there I should be able to bum a ride into Tabatinga.” The border city’s airport had limited flights. He’d be lucky to get on a plane in the next twenty-four hours. Once he got to Manaus, catching a flight to New York would be easier. If he got lucky, he could be home in two days. But transportation in the South American jungle was highly unreliable.
In all likelihood, whatever was going to happen at home would happen without him.
“You shouldn’t stay out here by yourself,” Mac said.
“Because I’m a woman?” She crossed her arms over her chest.
“Because your jungle survival skills suck.” And because she was a woman. As much as he believed in equality, the dangerous men who trafficked drugs on the Amazon didn’t.
“You have a point,” she admitted. “Let’s pack up. I’ll stay in Tabatinga until you come back. How long do you think you’ll be gone?”
“Couple of weeks.” Long enough to bury the Colonel and help his siblings deal with the fallout. Hopefully not long enough for his troubled youth to catch up with him. The gang he’d been in back then was still active. And still dangerous.
Pushing aside the poke of guilt, Mac turned toward the rough path that led to their campsite just as rain began to fall. Grant wouldn’t have called unless there was a chance that Mac could get there in time to say good-bye. He quickened his steps.
On the bright side, in Scarlet Falls there was the possibility he’d run into Stella Dane, the only police officer he’d ever wanted to see in his life. Since he’d met her last November, dreams of her all buttoned up in her uniform had made some hot South American nights swelter. The chances of anything happening between them were slim. She’d helped find his sister and stop a killer. She was totally out of his league, and since his past wasn’t exactly a secret, he was pretty sure she didn’t trust him. But a man could fantasize.
“Wait.” Cheryl was looking out over the water. Rain speckled its surface. “Where’s the boat?”
Mac pivoted. The river was empty and silent. Even if the boat had rounded the bend, the motor should still be audible. Despite the intense and steamy heat of the jungle, his insides went cold. He shoved at her. “Move. Back to camp.”
She nodded. The rain increased to its usual afternoon torrent. A gunshot rang out, and Cheryl’s body jerked.
He dove for cover, one arm catching Cheryl around the middle and taking her to the ground.
Cheryl. Mac rolled her to her back. She blinked at the canopy, raindrops beating on her face as blood spread across the chest of her soaked safari shirt.
Another bullet zinged past. Mac draped his body across her torso, shielding her as best he could.
“Hold tight.” Mac lurched to his feet.
He grabbed her under the armpits and dragged her into a patch of underbrush. Then Mac pulled a clean bandana from his back pocket, folded it, and pressed it to the wound high on her chest. He took her hand, put it over the square, and whispered, “Pressure.”
Eyes wide and shivering, Cheryl pleaded in a whisper, “Don’t leave me.”
Another shot rang out. Mac got to his feet and hesitated. He needed to do something about the men with the guns. “I’ll be right back. I promise.”
“No.” She shook her head. Rain slicked her hair and face as blood darkened the entire front of her shirt. She reached out for him.
Backing out of the foliage, Mac put a finger over his lips. She needed to be quiet. If they found her, she was dead.
A voice yelled, “Get them!” in Portuguese.
He sprinted down the trail toward camp. He needed the satellite phone, and the SUV was their best hope for escape. If these men had come from the boat, they wouldn’t have land transportation. He also had to warn Juan, although their guide certainly would have heard the gunshots.
Vegetation sliced at Mac’s arms and face as he raced down the rough path. Behind him, over the echo of his thundering heartbeat, men shouted and foliage snapped as bodies crashed through the jungle. He broke into the clearing. No Juan. Odds were he had run. Money could buy interpretive and guide services, but not loyalty. Had Juan sold them out? Mac ran behind the supply tent and skidded to a stop.
The spot where the four-wheeler should have been parked was empty. The SUV was gone.
A figure burst into the clearing. It was the man from the bow of the boat. Brown skin glistened with sweat as he slashed a machete toward Mac’s head. He ducked. The blade kissed his hair.
Mac lunged forward and grabbed his assailant’s right wrist with both hands. A solid front kick drove the ball of his foot into the man’s solar plexus. The machete fell to the ground. Mac kicked out again, this time striking him in the side of the knee. The man’s leg buckled, and he swung out with his left hand. Light glimmered on a short blade. Mac yanked hard on his right arm, throwing him further off balance.
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