Wild Rain

By: Christine Feehan

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 thin 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.