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Lazy drops drummed a unique rhythm on the emerald leaves. Not rainnot yet, just the humid air weeping in the South American rain forest. Ripened fruit dropped from the mango trees, one nearly hitting a capuchin monkey. The animal jumped aside with a shriek, which sent a flock of parrots flying from the canopy, red-blue wings flapping. The soft and harsh noises blended into perfect harmony, pulsing with lifethe morning song of the jungle.
A few hundred yards to the east, boots splashed in the shallow water of the ravine. Guns clinked against the water canteens on the men's hips. The intruders must not have heard the jungle's music, because they didn't even try to fit in, creating disharmony.
Mochi perched halfway up the kapok tree, his feet dangling a hundred feet above the jungle floor. He'd sneaked out of the village at dawn to spy on the new batch of baby monkeys, hoping to spot one without a mother, an orphan he could take home. Since a jaguar had stolen his pet dog in the spring, the mud hut where he lived with his three mothers seemed empty.
But the monkeys dashed off the moment those boots came too close for comfort. Slow minutes passed before the six men came into view, then stopped to rest right below Mochi. He stayed to see what they were about, even if his mothers would be awake by now and looking for him. When he got home, nothing would save him from a good beating. He bristled at that. Nobody seemed to appreciate that he was now the man of the family.
An accident at the diamond mine up north had killed his father three months ago, the same week that his oldest brother had been shot by the drug lord who controlled their village. His three middle brothers had been taken more recently by a curse from an angry jungle spirit one of them had stepped on accidentally. A potion from the witch doctor could have helped, but the witch doctor had been on his annual pilgrimage. So the spirit-curse disease spread through the family, nearly taking Mochi, too. The witch doctor had come back in time to save him, but he'd been too late for the others.
He was still weak and now hungry. A line of lemon ants marched up the trunk not far from him. Not much, but enough to take the taste of hunger out of his mouth. He stood on the wet branch to reach them, balancing on bare feet.
He would never have slipped if a small part of the jungle spirit's curse wasn't still wedged somewhere inside him, making his legs unsteady. He grabbed the branch, his feet scrambling in the air for only a second before they found purchase. He barely made any noise at all. But one of the intruders below looked up, right at him.
A dark smile spread on the man's face.
He weighed the mango in his hand, then threw it hard. The missile hit Mochi square in the middle of his chest, and the boy lost his perilous perch in the tree.
A kid was the dead-last thing Jase Campbell needed in the middle of this particular undercover op. He swore under his breath as he watched the boy drop. The soft leaf carpet and the kid's age, meaning flexibility, saved him from any broken bones, as proven by his quick recovery and dash into the trees.
Most of the men were too tired or too lazy to do anything about it. Mercenaries of the biggest crime lord in the area, they were returning to camp after a weeklong trek through the jungle, tired and sweaty. They just wanted to sit for a second and grab a bite to eat.
"¡Alto!" But Alejandro, having gotten the kid out of the tree, took off after him.
Which left Jase no choice but to follow. Not that he knew what he could do without blowing his cover.
He watched where he stepped as he ran. Even a small scratch from a broken shaft of bamboo could cause a fatal infection out here; the bite of a poisonous snake would mean near-instant death. He didn't have to look up to know which way Alejandro went. The idiot made enough noise for a deaf man to followfirst with his feet, then with his wheezing. He'd had way too much palm wine the night before.
"I got it." Jase passed him when the man slowed to catch his breath.
There had to be a village around somewhere, one that wasn't on their itinerary. The kid couldn't have been more than six years old, wouldn't wander into the woods on his own farther than a couple of miles. The boy ran a lot quieter than Alejandro, his tan skin and drab loincloth blending into his surroundings. Only the screeching birds above betrayed the direction he took.
"Hey," he yelled. Not to make the boy stop, but to scare him into running faster.
Trees became sparser, the undergrowth thicker as Jase followed. Soon he came out onto a well-worn trail. Probably led to the boy's village. The kid would reach home safely following it. Jase looked after the boy for a second, then turned back. Time to return to the others and let them mercilessly make fun of both him and Alejandro for being so old and feeble that a child could outrun them.
But he barely walked ten yards before a high-pitched shriek of terror stopped him. He spun on his heels and darted down the trail after the boy.
He expected some sort of an animal attack, but soon he could smell smoke. Then the village came into viewabout two dozen primitive dwellings, the huts burned, bodies littering the ground.
He slipped his rifle off his shoulder and waited a few seconds. Nothing moved. He stepped into the clearing and followed the shrieking to a partially burned hut. Inside, the boy kneeled next to a dead woman, tears streaming, leaving shiny tracks on his dirty face. Another woman lay facedown in the back of the hut. The smell of death and smoke hung in the air.
"Take it easy, I'm not going to hurt you."
Every cell of him protested the senseless destruction as Jase reached for the wrist of the woman nearer to him, then the other's. Neither had a pulse. Anger burned in his gut. The wanton murder of innocent villagers was a good reminder of why he did the work he didto stop tragedies like this from happening. The crime lords of the area considered the locals disposable pawns in their games, and gave even less thought to the countless victims of the drugs and guns they sent north on a regular basis.
"Come on." He grabbed the boy by the arm and pulled him outside before the smoldering roof could collapse on them.
A third woman's lifeless body sprawled behind the hut, the sight sending the kid into a renewed fit of crying.
"Para," he told the boy. Stop. Then pushed the kid behind him. Someone was coming.
Alejandro burst from the jungle. "What the hell happened here?" he asked in rapid Spanish.
"Cristobal is pushing his boundaries forward," Jase responded in the same language.
Alejandro's facial muscles tightened as he raised his gun to the sky to squeeze off a jungle telegram.
Jase lifted his hand to hold him off. "Those bastards can't be too far. The huts are still burning."
Alejandro nodded and lowered his weapon. "Better take the news back to Don Pedro as fast as we can. I'll go tell Lucas."
If Cristobal's men were pillaging through this corner of the junglea group that likely outnumbered Jase's small team judging by the damage they'd wrought heretheir best bet was not to engage them but to take information to Don Pedro instead. The big boss could then decide how he wanted to respond to Cristobal, an ex-captain of his who'd recently turned against him.
Alejandro ran off with a scowl on his pockmarked face.
Jase waited until the man disappeared from sight before turning to the kid.
"Go to the other village." He pointed east.
The small collection of huts they'd left the previous morning was a day's trek for the adults, would be only slightly more for the kid. The boy should be safe there. Cristobal's men weren't heading that way. Jase and the others would have met them if they had been.
He stepped back into the smoldering hut and grabbed some fruit that had been spilled to the ground, took a piece of cloth to wrap the food, then added his canteen to the bundle. "Here."
The boy wouldn't move an inch. He shoved the kid gently in the right direction. The boy stepped two feet away, then stopped and stared at him expectantly.
Might as well have been talking to a wild fig tree.
He turned his back on the boy and moved toward the jungle, hoping the kid would understand that the both of them needed to get going.
But instead of heading for relative safety, the kid followed him.
"You can't come with me," he said in Spanish, having no idea if the kid spoke that language or some isolated native tongue. A day's trek in the jungle to the nearest village would be perilous for the boy, but a day's trek in the jungle with a team of seasoned killers would be even worse.
The kid knew the jungle. With some luck, he had a chance to reach the village. But if he went to Don Pedro's place on the river, his life wouldn't be worth a damn thereafter.
"Run for it." Jase put on a scary face and stomped his foot.
But instead of taking off, the boy began crying again, which made him feel like a heartless bastard. Which he was, by the way, so he didn't fully understand why his conscience would choose this moment to have a fit.
"Go," he said again, his tone suspiciously close to pleading.
But Alejandro reappeared from the jungle, followed by the other four, and the boy's options disappeared.
The team spread through the village, looking for evidence of Cristobal's men and picking out whatever they wanted to take. No sense in waste.
Alejandro came for the kid.
Jase stepped between them in a stance that would allow him action no matter which way he needed to move.
"I saw him first." The man put his hands on his hip.
His protest drew the others' attention. Lucas strolled closer. As team leader, he was responsible for settling trouble.
Jase being the latest addition to the group, he ranked lowest, firmly on the bottom of the pecking order. He didn't have enough influence to take what he wanted, and to show weakness by admitting that he wanted to save the boy would make the others suspicious. It would conflict too much with the killer image he'd been taking care to cultivate.
"I looked into his dead mother's eyes. Her spirit said it'll curse me if I don't take care of the kid." He nodded toward the charred hut with a grave face.
Lucas moved on. Jungle superstition was its own thing. Nobody went against it.
Alejandro kept the scowl on his face. "Don Pedro would pay me a hundred dollars for him."
Unlikely. Maybe twenty, if Don Pedro needed someone to help out around the dog-fighting rings he ran in the larger towns downriver, or another runner, or a jungle spyall jobs with a very low life expectancy.
Jase pulled his second-best knife, the one with the serrated double edge that Alejandro had coveted from the beginning, and held it out on his palm.
The man accepted it with a shrug as if being generous, as if the knife wasn't worth ten times more than what he could have gotten for the boy.
"Hey, Jase found himself a little brother," he called out to the rest, and joined in their laughter as he loped off, not wanting to miss any of the scavenging.
The men thought of the forest-dwelling natives as little more than animals, so calling one Jase's brother was an insult. Like calling him stupid, which he was. He risked a multimillion-dollar mission almost a year in the making for a scrawny kid.
He shook his head, then squatted in front of the boy and pointed at himself. "Jase." Then lifted his eyebrows and pointed at the latest complication in his life. Now he would have the responsibility to protect the kid at the compound, and find a way to get him out of this godforsaken corner of the jungle to safety, the sooner the better.
"Mochi." The boy wiped his tears with the back of his dirty little hand.
Jase rubbed the bridge of his nose then looked at the men picking through the village. Rough and tough killers, every one of them. On some level, he wasn't much better. He'd certainly seen and caused plenty of violence over the years. What on earth was he going to do with a kid? It'd be a miracle if his cover wasn't blown and they both survived the day.