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I crept as quietly as I could out of cover and, considering my size and bulk, I tend to surprise people by how silent I can be if needed. It just requires intense focus and care, each step measured and slow. Maddening, when time is of the essence. As now, with the guard watching the water, expecting an assault, probably.
Sure, I know, it's the oldest trick in the book to toss a stick to distract the guard left behind, but there's a reason it's a common trope in books and movies: it really does work. The guy left behind is always on high alert, especially if left behind with a prisoner, and he'll be even more on edge if he knows a deadly threat is out there.
Like me, in that moment.
I crept across the forest floor, knife out, making my way up behind the guard. Filipo caught my movement out of the corner of his eye, and when he saw me he grinned. I flattened my hand and pressed my palm toward the ground, a gesture that Filipo, being ex-military, recognized as a command to hit the deck. He did, and with alacrity, flattening himself beside the dugout canoe, where there was less of a chance for a stray round to hit him. The old guy was no dummy.
I made it to within six feet of the guard when he dismissed the noise as incidental, probably thinking it was an animal or something. He pivoted, blowing my plan to take him out silently. As soon as he saw me, he squeezed off a four-round blast, which, if I weren't as good as I was, would've ripped me open stem to stern. As it was, I barely managed to leap to the side as soon as I saw him move. The bullets snapped past me, and then I was lunging forward, blade held hammer-fisted, cutting edge up, jabbing for his gut. No finesse, no technique, just intent to hurt as much as possible as fast as possible. The blade went in, I retracted, plunged it in again, pivoted to the side and dragged the blade along his inside wrist, severing the tendons and immediately compromising his grip on the machine gun. He dropped it, staggering backward, clutching his gut, and I struck again, another upward strike, this one angled to go up under his ribcage to hit his heart. I hit my target, and he blinked twice, gasping, and fell to the ground. He'd be dead in a few seconds. I scooped up his UMP, searched him for extra magazines, and stuffed them in my back pocket.
I glanced at Filipo. "Get out of here."
He rose to his feet, squinting at me derisively. "Kissi la'u muli, kefe. That's my best friend and goddaughter out there." He went to his boat, reached under the seat by the outboard, and ripped free a sawed-off shotgun he had taped underneath the seat. "Never had a good chance to go for it."
"These guys are no joke," I warned.
"Good thing I ain't playin' then, yeah?" He jerked his head at the path. "They heard that, I figure. Best get off the path."
I hesitated. "How'd they find you?"
Filipo shrugged. "That Jeep you left, all slick and new. Found that, somehow. Kicked in my door, early. Ain't no fool, so I played along, hoping you might find some way of making the odds more even, know what I mean?"
"I'm sorry you got involved, Filipo."
Another shrug. "Yeah, well, nothing else to do but what we gotta do, huh?"
"Guess so," I said.
I melted into the forest, sheathing my knife now that the element of surprise was gone. Using a UMP one-handed wasn't my notion of ideal, but it was a far sight better than a 9mm, so I went with it. We crept parallel to the path, made it as far as the camp, but the other two were nowhere to be seen. I heard voices, though, two of them, speaking in low tones in a foreign language. They were up ahead, around a curve in the path, which I realized, in the light of day, led to the waterfall.
We left the forest, making our way after the voices.
I never saw it coming.
One second the path was empty, the next it wasn't. They swept out from either side of the path, UMPs blasting.
Every once in a while, I'm granted a moment of pure unexplainable luck. Or maybe it's fate or God or whoever, whatever, telling me my time here isn't done. Those moments of luck are never free. The luck took me, then. I felt the rounds snap and buzz past my cheek, felt one pluck at the cotton of my shirt, felt another tag the denim of my jeans.
They were less than fifty yards away, well inside the effective range of a UMP-45, especially if the shooter has training. They should have hit me. I should have died.
For whatever reason, they missed me. I didn't even have time to duck or dodge, they just...missed.
Filipo didn't get my luck.
He took three rounds to the chest, smacksmacksmack, wet thunks hitting muscle and bone. Filipo stayed upright, leveled his shotgun, knocked one back with a blast, shredding his chest into wet red ribbons, and then he fell.
Another blast of a UMP, and I felt the gun in my hand jerk and then was ripped out of my hands; more luck. That blast should have hit me, but the gun in my hands saved my life.
But now I was out of options. He'd closed the distance between us, UMP leveled at me. "Where is she?"
I just stared at him. No way I'd give her up.
He stuck the gun barrel under my chin, the hot metal searing my flesh. "I'LL KILL HIM! COME OUT, BITCH!"
"Why do you want her? She's not even involved," I asked.
He shrugged. "Orders. Cain wants her. You're protecting her, means she's worth something to you. Means Cain wants her. Leverage, I think."
Another shrug. "We will see if it works. If not, I'll kill you and be done with it. The bitch can rot out here for all I care." He cast a glance at Filipo, who was writhing and gasping in the dirt. "So can he."
A few moments of silence, and then Lola appeared on the path, my Sig in her hand, held low at her side. "Let him go. You can have me."
A snicker. "Not how this goes. Drop it, or he dies." He dug the gun barrel deeper into the soft flesh under my chin, which, let me say, didn't feel too hot.
Lola didn't drop the gun. Instead, she lifted it, aimed it. "You can kill him. You're probably going to anyway. So you shoot him, I'll shoot you. No way you're gonna get him and then me, not before I get you. Or, let him go and I'll go with you, no fighting."
"Goddamn it, Lola," I said, fear seizing me.
This wasn't happening.
Shoot me. Torture me. Fuck, do anything, but leave her alone. I couldn't say any of that, though, because he'd take it as a challenge.
My captor gave that stupid snickering laugh again. "This bitch, she's got balls, huh?"
"You have no idea," I said. I met Lola's steady stare. "Babe? Whatcha doin'?"
She shrugged. "I figure you'll come after me. No worries."
I couldn't keep anger and fear out of my voice. "Yeah, but--"
"Shut up." The barrel jabbing into my jaw was an effective way to quiet me. "Fine. Count to three, I'll lower mine, let him go, you lower yours and come with me."
Lola nodded. "Fine. One--"
"Don't do it, Lola," I snarled. "These guys don't keep promises."
"I do," said the guy beside me.
"Two--" Lola slowly began lowering the pistol crouching toward the ground as she did so.
"Goddamn it." I tensed, ready to move. "Lola, you can't. You don't know what you're doing."
Panic had me by the throat, had me by the balls. I wasn't about to let her go. Not with these guys. I'd already gotten Filipo killed, I wasn't about to let Lola go too--
But there was something in her eyes as she crouched, a warning? A plea, a meaningful look.
The next several seconds were a blur. I wasn't even sure what happened until it was over.
As soon as Lola said "three", the gun in my chin was lowered, and he stepped toward Lola, reaching for her, for the gun she'd set on the ground. But she hadn't stood up, she was still crouched low. And then there was a blur of something black hurtling through the air, and there was the wet squishing thud of metal slicing into flesh, and my erstwhile captor was staggering backward, Tai's huge kukri buried to the hilt in his chest.
He wasn't dead, though, fumbling with his UMP, gasping, gagging, stumbling. He managed to