Wild Rain

By: Christine Feehan

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.