One shot...one kill. The sixteen-pound sledgehammer came down with such fierce power that the granite boulder shattered instantly. A spray of glittering mica exploded into the air and sparkled momentarily around the man who wielded the tool as if it were a weapon. Sweat ran in rivulets down Reno Manchahi's drawn face. Naked from the waist up, feeling the hot July sun beating down on his back, he hefted the sledgehammer skyward once more. Muscles in his forearms leaped and biceps bulged. Even his breath was focused on the boulder. In his mind's eye, he pictured Army General Robert Hampton's fleshy, arrogant, fifty-year-old features on the rock's surface. Air exploded from between his thinned lips as he brought the avenging hammer downward. The boulder pulverized beneath his funneled hatred. One shot...one kill...
Nostrils flaring, Reno inhaled the dank, humid heat and drew it deep into his lungs. The only way he felt alive was to picture Hampton on every rock he destroyed. Revenge allowed Reno to endure his imprisonment at a U.S. Navy brig near San Diego, California. Droplets of sweat were flung in all directions as the crack of his sledgehammer claimed a third boulder victim.
Mouth taut, Reno moved to the next one. The other prisoners in the stone yard gave him a wide berth, since they instinctively felt his simmering hatred, the revenge that was palpable in his cinnamon-colored eyes.
And they whispered that he was different.
Reno enjoyed being a loner for good reason. He came from a medicine family of shape-shifters. The genes and training he'd inherited allowed him to transform from human to jaguar at will. But even this secret power had not protectedhim--or his family. What life did he have left? His wife, Ilona, and his three-year-old daughter, Sarah, were dead. Murdered by Army General Hampton in their former home on the USMC base in Camp Pendleton, California. The lusting son of a bitch had stalked Reno's Hungarian-born wife while Reno was deployed to Afghanistan to hunt down the Taliban.
Bitterness thrummed through him as he savagely pushed the toe of his scarred leather boot against smaller stones that were in his way. A massive black-and-white striated boulder stood in front of him. The prisoners, all military, knew he'd want the big ones. They were happy to give them to Manchahi. They wanted him to take his rage out on the rocks--not on them.
The sun poured down upon Manchahi's bare chest, grown dark red over time. From his straight black hair grazing his shoulders, his copper skin, broad face and high cheekbones, everyone knew he was Indian. When he'd first arrived at the brig and they'd discovered he was part Apache, some of the prisoners had taunted him and called him Geronimo.
Only once did they provoke him. During the fight that ensued, something strange had happened. Leaning down after he'd won the scuffle, Reno snarled into each of their bloodied faces that if they were going to call him anything, it should be gan, the Apache word for "devil."
His assailants had been shocked at the wounds on their faces--deep claw marks. Reno recalled doubling his fists as they'd attacked him en masse. In that split second, he had felt as if he'd gone into an altered state of consciousness. Because he had feared for his life, his jaguar guide had started to come over his physical body to protect him. A deep, growling sound had emitted from his throat as he defended himself in the three-against-one fracas. For an instant, strange changes occurred to his body--so fast, he thought he might have imagined them. His hands had morphed into the forelegs and paws, claws extended, of his jaguar guide. The slashes left on the three men's faces after the fight told Reno he'd begun to shape-shift. A fist caused bruises and swelling, not four deep parallel marks.
Stunned and anxious, he had buried his secret knowledge of what he was, promising the beaten prisoners that the next time he heard the name Geronimo, he'd smash in their front teeth and break their noses. If his spirit guide completely enclosed his physical form, they'd be staring into the yellow eyes of a jaguar. He had to keep that to himself and hope never to shape-shift again while in prison. If a guard ever saw a jaguar, he'd shoot to kill. Reno's best defense was to make all the prisoners so damn scared of him that they'd never consider attacking him.
Though he wanted to melt into the background, whispers about him circulated throughout the prison. Some said they'd heard the snarl of a big cat coming from his cell late at night. Reno just scoffed.
Yet he often saw two large, yellow eyes with huge black pupils staring at him in the darkness. And those eyes... Reno never divulged his odd dreams to anyone. His jaguar guide would talk to him in dreams, soothe him and try to help him during his incarceration.
No one called him anything after that first day. Just "the loner." Alone. Yeah, he was alone, all right. At age twenty-eight, in a way he never had envisioned. His heart clenched with anguish. Three years after the murder of his wife and child, Reno still couldn't avoid the red-hot agony that slashed savagely through his wounded heart every time he pictured Ilona with Sarah in her arms.
Hampton, a U.S. Army general, had adroitly covered his tracks, Reno had to admit. As he hefted the hammer, his muscles flexing, he pictured Hampton's face once again on the rock. Revenge. Yeah. You're damn straight it's revenge. His rage mounted as he remembered how the general had secretly lusted after Reno's beautiful, carefree wife. Hampton had watched Ilona's movements daily. And on that fateful night in December, shortly before Christmas, he had broken into their quarters. He'd raped and then killed Ilona to ensure her silence. And Reno's daughter, in the next room, was found strangled to death in her bed.
The steel hammer swept downward with hellish ferocity. As the granite groaned in protest, Reno shut his eyes for just a moment. More sweat dripped off his nose and chin. Mouth tightening, he opened his eyes, grunted and swung the sledge upward, then brought it down with such feeling that the boulder shattered, splitting into three huge, jagged pieces.
Oh, Great Spirit, why did you let Ilona and Sarah die? Reno still couldn't understand. All he could do was feel helpless rage. The general was smart like a coyote. He'd thought of almost everything. What Hampton hadn't counted on was Ilona's reaction to the assault. She'd fought back with the fury of a cougar, which Reno saw from looking at the photos taken of her in death. The Shore Patrol and Naval Criminal Investigative Service had performed DNA testing, and the results identified the general as her assailant. But before Hampton could be arraigned for the crime, the DNA results disappeared from the forensics lab, never to be located again.
Both Ilona and Sarah had been cremated before Reno had arrived home. He'd never got to hold them, to say goodbye or give either of them a final farewell kiss. Now he was truly a prisoner, in so many ways. Denied justice, denied his family, denied the wide-open spaces he loved. Only the pale blue sky above offered some escape from his depressing confinement.
Straightening, Reno wiped his furrowed, wet brow and looked around the rectangular yard enclosed by a twenty-foot-tall brick wall. Suddenly, his attention was caught by the sharp cry of a red-tailed hawk. Squinting, he looked up at the bird flying over the brig yard. Reno could make out its rust-colored tail. As a kid growing up on the Apache reservation in Arizona, he'd learned that all animals appearing before him could be messengers.
For a brief moment, he was lifted out of his grief and rage. The bird was less than three hundred feet above him. The prison yard was large, holding thirty prisoners and tons of rocks. The clanging of hammers striking granite didn't drown out the piercing shriek of the raptor.
Reno called mentally to the winged one. Brother, what message do you bring me? The Great Spirit knew how much he looked forward to getting out of his small, confining cell every day for three hours, even for this brutal manual labor. Reno's sanity hinged on being out here in the elements.
Allowing the sledgehammer to drop to his side, he concentrated on the hawk, which wheeled in tightening circles above him.
Freedom! the hawk cried in return.
Reno shook his head, his black hair brushing against his shoulders. Freedom? No way, Brother. No way. Figuring he was imagining the hawk's shrill message, he turned away. Back to his rocks. Back to picturing Hampton's smug face.
Reno heard and felt the piercing voice as if it were inside his head. Following the red-tail's flight, he allowed himself to hope for one second. Was he imagining this? Had to be, since the general had orchestrated a twenty-year prison sentence for him.
And yet Reno had spent his whole childhood out in the mountains on the reservation, learning to talk to animals. He could commune with the deer, the coyote, the hawk and the reptile nations, such were his abilities as a shape-shifter. Even golden eagles flying over his people's land would speak with him.
If Reno were set free, he would finally have his vengeance. Unleashed, he'd be more than dangerous. It was no accident that his last name, Manchahi, meant "wolf" in the Apache language. Reno always found his assigned quarry and shot him. Sniper teams disappeared into the steep, jagged Tora Bora mountains, seeking out Taliban leaders. One shot...one kill. That was a sniper's maxim. With forty-two kills under his belt, Reno was considered the best sniper in the U.S. military. Of course, his gift of shape-shifting into a jaguar gave him an advantage in picking up the scent of his enemy.
Shaking his head, Reno telepathically sent a message to the red-tail. Ho, Brother! While I honor your coming to me, there is no way I'm going to get free.
Freedom was impossible, and Reno knew it. He began work on the next boulder and tried to ignore the pleading call of the hawk stubbornly circling overhead. Reno had seventeen years left before he could hunt General Hampton down and kill him.
"Manchahi!" a young U.S. Navy brig guard near the door called.
Now what? Reno turned, the sledgehammer gripped in his hand. "What?" he snarled.
"Get in here! You have a visitor!"
Wiping the sweat off his face, he scowled at the eighteen-year-old guard standing with a second sentry in the shade of the doorway. The kid was new, and Reno could see he was afraid of him and his fierce reputation.
"You're wrong." The only visitors he'd wanted were his wife and child. They were dead. Gone, but never forgotten. His mother had died of a heart attack when she'd heard that his family had been ruthlessly slaughtered. His father, a Mexican Yaqui Indian, had had a massive stroke shortly after they'd found Reno guilty of assault on the general's aide-de-camp and attempted murder of the general himself. Reno had been two days into his twenty-year sentence when word came to him that his father had died. Reno knew he'd really died of heartbreak over his son's unfair sentencing.