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"No, no! Hell, no! Not just hell no, fu"
"At ease, Sergeant!" It wasn't a suggestion.
Luc Boudreaux clamped his mouth shut and wondered who in the hell he had pissed off badly enough to lead him to this. He thought he'd made it through his Afghan tour of duty without stepping on his crank. He'd stayed away from the local girls, avoided shooting anyone who didn't deserve it and brought some decent health care to several tribes whose only technology was Soviet-era weaponry.
He took a deep breath. "Sir, may I ask why I am being selected for this task?"
Captain Olson, his commanding officer snorted. "Can the 'sir' shityou haven't called me 'sir' in years. Now pull the stick out of your ass and sit down."
Luc dropped into the beat-up office chair and stared at his boss across the equally beat-up desk. Special Forces spent their budget on gear, not furniture. "Okay, Olie, what the hell?" He spread his hands wide in frustration.
Magnus Olson, or "Olie" as he was known to his men and half of Afghanistan, stroked the long blond beard that made him look like a recruiting poster for Viking pillagers. Luc guessed his own black beard made him a pirate poster boy. "Like I was trying to say before you ripped me a new one, here's the rest of the deal, and I have to admit it's a crappy oneyou train Congressman Cook's daughter in jungle survival skills, and the fine congressman won't torpedo your career."
"What?" Luc leaped to his feet.
Olie let him blow off several choice remarks before lifting a meaty hand. "Okay, okay. Sit down, Rage, and I'll go over this again real slow with you."
Foronce, Luc was living up to his nickname of the Ragin' Cajun. Most of the time it was a team joke since he was usually a mellow guy. But now, no. The battle lines were drawn.
Olie reached behind him, pulled a beer out of the minifridge and tossed the bottle to Luc. "Drink up. We deserve it."
Luc popped the cap and took a long pull of the icy brew, suddenly weary. "Seriously, why me? Get a jungle survival school instructor. I have lots and lots of leave coming my way, and I need to get back to Louisiana." His parents and grandparents had had serious home damage from the last hurricane that blew through, and Luc was going to help them rebuild.
"'It has to be you, it has to be you-u-u-u,'" Olie crooned to the old show-tune melody. "You're the only guy I know who survived the jungles of San Lucas de la Selva alone for more than a month with only the clothes on his back and a machete."
"Oh, mon Dieu." Luc sat up in horror. "His daughter is going to San Lucas de la Selva?"
Olie nodded, all traces of laughter gone from his face. "That she is. The lovely country San Lucas de la Selva, joke of the jungle, armpit of the Amazon."
Hellish nightmare here on earth was more like it. Luc was firmly convinced that his survivaland a close thing that had beenhad rested entirely on his grandmother's daily rosary for his health and the fact that he shared a name with le bon père Saint Lucas of the Jungle, the rugged nineteenth century priest who had disappeared into the jungle to bring the natives to Christ. Three years later, explorers from the outpost had been stunned to find Saint Lucas alive and well, ministering to his local parishioners. Every stinking, nasty day in that jungle, Luc had prayed to Saint Lucas to, well, basically intercede for his sorry ass and get him the hell out of there. He'd prayed for other things, too, but they hadn't been granted.
And now it looked as if Saint Lucas was collecting on the promises Luc had made him. "This girl, she can't know what it's like down there, or else she wouldn't even think of going." Luc still got a chill down his spine when he saw a map of the Amazon.
"According to the congressman, his late wife grew up in a missionary settlement in San Lucas, where her parents were doctors."
"They lived there on purpose?" Luc couldn't even imagine. "And why can't the congressman talk his daughter out of it? Is she dumb or something? Has a death wish?"
"He's tried everything short of having the State Department pull her passport but she has apparently grown up on exotic tales of the jungle." Olie waggled his fingers in a fake-mystic way. "She's signed up to teach the locals in the same settlementwants to follow in the family footsteps."
"And she's picking the jungle over politics."
Olie laughed. "Might be fewer snakes in the jungle."
Luc snorted. "So what the hell do I do, Olie? This jerk-off would really screw me over?"
"In a heartbeat." His CO looked away and drank some beer, flicking his forefinger against his thumb.
"What is it?" Olie only did that little thing with his hand when he was jittery.
"Olie " Luc cajoled him.
"Nothing. I said it was nothing, and I mean nothing, Boudreaux."
"No way." Luc shook his head in amazement. "He threatened you and the rest of the team, too, didn't he? And you didn't want to tell me 'cuz that would pressure me to agree."
"In case you haven't noticed, Sergeant Boudreaux, I am a big boy whose career doesn't depend on the good opinion of some shit-eating congressmanand yours doesn't, either."
"Shit," Luc said. He never figured on making general someday but didn't want to leave the army before he was good and ready. Or slink out with his tail between his legs as if he'd been dishonorably discharged. And to let Olie and the team get screwed over, too?
"I'll do it."
"You sure?" Olie gave him a steely glare.
"I'm sure." Luc managed to fake a laugh. "Maybe once Daddy's Little Princess sees what survival training is like, she'll go back to the snakes in Washington, D.C."
"You made arrangements for what?" Claire Cook dug her nails into her palms and winced at the pain.
"Jungle survival lessons." Her father gave her a wide smile and helped himself to a glass of sweet tea from the pitcher in the cherry-paneled, extra-large refrigerator. "Ah, delicious. Did you brew mint leaves into it, as well? Very refreshing."
Claire had been a politician's daughter long enough to know tap dancing when she saw it. "Survival lessons?" she prompted.
Her dad set down the glass and dropped his soothing tone. "Since you have decided this is your course of action, foolish as it may be, I am helping you to implement your choice in the safest way possible."
"Dad, really. The settlement at Río San Lucas is its own little townjust like Cooksville." Their hometown was named after their ancestor, who helped settle central Virginia before the Revolutionary War. The redbrick house they were standing in had been commandeered by the British as a barracks during that war and barely escaped being burned by the Yankees during what her grandfather Cook had always referred to as the War of Northern Aggression.
But her dad was on a roll. "Cooksville isn't surrounded by deadly rain forest, killer snakes and venomous spiders."
Claire made a face. There he was harping on the snakes and spiders again, just because she didn't even like the supposedly harmless daddy longlegs spiders. Maybe she should try killing them on her own rather than yelling for their housekeeper, Louella. She flinched at a tickle on her neck and realized it was a stray dark hair falling out of her ponytail. She really had to get over that.
"Not to mention jaguars, feral pigs and half-naked tribesmen who would be more than happy to add an exotically beautiful young girl to their harem, or squad of wives, or concubine crew, or whatever they call it down there."
Claire had to roll her eyes. Brown hair, brown eyes and brown freckles scattered across a nose that hovered on the edge of snub was hardly exotic. And honestly, she'd had plenty of practice fighting off overly amorous men among the suit-wearing tribes of the Potomac River. A couple she hadn't fought at all, but her dad didn't need to know that.
"I will be fine," she enunciated carefully. "So thank you, but no thanks. Dr. Schmidt will show me the ropes once I get down there and I won't have any problems."
"Claire, Claire, Claire." Her father shook his carefully coiffed silver head in what she figured was mock ruefulness.
"Dad, Dad, Dad." She copied him right back.
He dropped the Mr. Nice Dad act and pulled on his congressman facenot the kindly, wise face the cameras saw, but the face his opponents saw when they tried to block his bills or basically thwart his not-inconsiderable will. "You will take this training, or you won't go to San Lucas. Not to teach, not to visit, not even to fly over it."
"And I told you, if you try to pull my passport, I will go to the media. I'm sure that TV reporter you accidentally called a 'slime-sucking son of a bitch' on live feed would be happy to interview me."
Her old man pulled his face into a half grin. "Ah, you wound me, Claire. To think that I of all people would be so obvious, and after all these years in politics, no less."
A knot tightened in her stomach. "If you're not going to be obvious, then what?"
"Dr. Schmidt is coming to the States on a fund-raising lecture tour in January, isn't he?"
"Yes." Claire eyed him narrowly.
"And the settlement gets most of its funding from American donations, doesn't it?"
"Yes," she muttered. Dammit, she knew what was coming.
"If the kind European Dr. Schmidt is found to have some problem that might prevent his American visa from being approved, perhaps the nasty rumor of association with the narcoterrorists in the south of San Lucas"
"Dad!" Claire's chest tightened. "Dr. Schmidt has never associated with the drug runnersnever!"
"Come on, Claire, we both know he doesn't ask many questions when some scumbag shows up with a mysterious gunshot wound he got while 'cleaning his automatic rifle.'" Her dad made air quotes with his fingers. "Your grandfather did the same thing when he ran the settlement, so don't try to tell me different."
Claire pursed her lips. "The settlement is neutral territory down there. That's why they need me as a teacher. The local villagers know it's safe to send their children for schooling so they can get an education, have a better life than what their parents had."
"And do what? Move to the city where they can live in slums and pick over the garbage dump for food?" Dad shook his head. "Your mother and I had this discussion a million times. What if they are better off in the jungle, doing what their ancestors have done for thousands of years?"
"And what did Mom say? She was the one who grew up in the settlement."
"Your mother was adopted into the tribe, knew the languages and cultures and was generally regarded as a world expert on San Lucas de la Selva, but even she didn't know the answers. How do you expect to?"
This was what was so infuriating about arguing with her father. He had the politician's trick of turning her argument back on her and twisting her words all around. She resorted to what did work: stubbornness. "I don't expect to fix everything. I expect to go."
"My God, you're pigheaded." He shook his head. "Just like your mother and grandfather. All right. You'll goif you pass the survival training."
Claire protested but he held up his hand, his blue eyes blazing. "You are my only child, the only child of your mother, and I will be damned if I put you on a plane to the dangerous jungle when you can't even make yourself kill a harmless spider here in Virginia. I'm willing to let you go, but not as some lamb to the jungle slaughter."
"Fine." Claire gritted her teeth and relaxed. She'd been a Girl Scout, knew how to build a fire, find out which way was north. This would be similar, only designed for a more tropical climate than central Virginia. "How hard can it be?"
Her dad smiled, but it was his sharky smile that Claire had never seen directed at her before. "How hard can it be?" he mocked. "I guess you'll have to ask Sergeant First Class Luc Boudreaux. He's the Green Beret soldier who will be training you."
"Oh, wow. Your dad said 'Green Beret Sergeant First Class Boudreaux'?" Claire's best friend Janey Merrick stopped midjog and bit her lip.
"Yes, why?" Claire sucked in some oxygen, glad for the break. Janey was in much better shape than she was, being an army first lieutenant at the Pentagon attached to some general's staff. She had gone through the Reserve Officers Training Corps at the University of Virginia, where she and Claire had met.
Janey pushed her light brown bangs off her forehead while Claire drank some water. "Green Berets are trained for anything and everything, but their specialty is working with and training indigenous forces. Back in the Vietnam War, they were the jungle warfare specialiststhey called them the snake eaters."
"Snake eaters?" Claire's stomach pitched.
"They've branched out since, especially to desert and mountain warfare, but they are some of the toughest SOBs in the army." Janey eyed her. "Well, if you have a Green Beret sergeant first-class training you, I won't worry so much. Those guys know everything. You'll learn how to take care of yourself or die trying."
"Oh, Janey." Claire staggered to a park bench and collapsed. "Why did my dad do this to me? Am I going to have to eat snakes?"