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Many years ago
The jungle was one hell of a place to die.
Calvin West dropped to his knees in the muck and rotted vines. The storm did little to relieve the humidity, turning the air into liquid oxygen, making it difficult to breathe and his head thick and fuzzy.
A flash of lightning lit the shadows, adding a jolt of electricity to the fetid, moist surroundings.
The crack of thunder came at a snail's pace, telling Cal the worst of the storm lingered in the mountains miles away.
The bullet wound in his side throbbed. The small hole oozed blood under the muddy cocoon of clothes that stuck to his body.
He'd lost his pistol while crossing the river. The same place he'd picked up the wound.
Gunfire burst behind him. Less than a hundred meters back. Cristo's men were closing in.
The order shot through the trees, making the birds flutter from their perches, their wings battling the downpour in fear of the hunters.
Cal nearly smiled over the frustration in his enemy's command. It was Solaris. Cristo's enforcer. The mercenary was good and would make sure no one ever found Cal's body.
But, Cal was damn good himself and wouldn't give Solaris the satisfaction.
He staggered to his feet and veered back into the canal, sinking calf-deep into the rancid mire and slime beneath. Cursing the ache in his side, he trudged through the muck. Rain pelted the stagnant water, making it jump and spit in front of him, while his eyes scanned the churning current for the sleek, rolling movement of a snake or crocodile.
Bloody hell. He should have known the deal had been too easy, the lure too tempting. He should have realized his cover had been blown.
But after four years, he'd been eager to hit Delgado. Bring the drug lord to his knees.
Still, he refused to pay for his mistake with his life.
A shadow slithered along the curve of the bank. Cal swore as a boa constrictor slipped from the undergrowth and into the canal.
He stumbled from the water, fighting the riverbed's suction, his breath heavy with the exertion, his head swimming from dehydration and loss of blood.
Dizziness tilted the ground beneath his feet, while sweat and rain stung his eyes. He held no illusions. He had another hour, maybe less, before he lost consciousness. If he didn't find a path, a hollow, anything, he was a dead man.
He broke through the trees, stopped short on top of an overhang of saturated jungle rot. Quickly, he scanned the shadows.
Branches broke somewhere behind hima brief warning before another burst of gunfire. The slap of the bullet hit his thigh, the white-hot stab of pain shot through his hip.
His leg gave out from under him, bringing him to his knees. Suddenly, the slope collapsed beneath him. Grasping at air, he hit the side of the precipice. His body tumbled over thorns and rocks and broken trees. His ribs slammed together, knocking the wind from his chest, setting his wounds on fire.
Without warning, he hit flat ground, barely missing the canal edge and the water beyond.
He struggled to rise against the swirl and pitch of his head. Acid clung to the back of his throat. Suddenly, a foot slammed into his chest, knocking him back into the mud.
"Going somewhere, West?" A laugh, thick with pleasure, rumbled above his head.
Unconsciousness slithered through him, blurring stark lines into murky shadows.
"Or are you just waiting for me to send you to hell?" The man ground his heel into Cal's wound. Pain screamed through Cal's gut.
"Haven't you heard, Solaris?" Cal struggled to get the words out before blackness engulfed him. "Hell's my playground."