That night, after a celebration that included repeated toasts and a bottle of champagne, the camp was quiet. Pik Verhoven stood watch, covering the north side of the camp, while one of his men stood seventy yards downstream, covering the south end.
If and when they decided on a permanent site, Danielle had promised all kinds of equipment to help—motion detectors, heat sensors and other electronic devices, the type of equipment that often failed at precisely the wrong moment in places like the rainforest. Verhoven insisted he’d put more faith in a pack of trained dogs, and so Danielle had promised that as well, but until then Verhoven and his men would guard the camp the old-fashioned way—watching the forest day and night, easy money for a group more accustomed to hard fighting in close combat.
Verhoven and his men were mercenaries in the truest, hardest sense of the word. All five were former South African Special Forces members who had drifted abroad in the years after apartheid. Under Verhoven’s leadership they’d become a sought-after group. Their résumé included places like Somalia, Angola and the Congo. They’d stormed their way into the Rwandan carnage of the mid-’90s to rescue members of the TransAfrican mining corporation. A decade later they’d fought in Liberia, pointedly searching for Charles Taylor, the nation’s faltering, maniacal leader, first on a contract to aid his escape, and then, after being stiffed on the payment, attempting to catch him and collect the million-dollar bounty that had been placed on his head.
Verhoven smiled as he remembered that particular dustup. So close, too bad it hadn’t worked out. Still, he figured they’d get their chance again someday, and when they did, he’d leave the world with one less madman, and he’d do it for free.
In the meantime, he and his men would go where the money led them, and if it meant a fight, so be it, the bloodier the better. For the right price, they would storm the gates of hell.
As Verhoven scanned the quiet jungle around him, he saw nothing that would force him to do that tonight. He’d seen no sign of danger since the body in the river; not the natives on the warpath or the competing parties that Danielle had warned him about, not even any wildlife to speak of.
Only the last part struck him as odd.
With a dearth of rainfall over the interior, the animals should have been plentiful near the streams that still flowed. This wasn’t Africa, where the herds crowded water holes until the monsoons arrived, but the principle was the same: lack of rain brought animals to the water, concentrating them in a restricted area. They should have found tracks and droppings and heard them day and night at the riverbanks and in the areas of forest around them. But the jungle had been strangely vacant and muted. Plenty of birds, along with fish in the streams and reptiles on the banks, but the animals seemed to be missing, the mammals in particular. Verhoven had seen nothing much larger than a rat. Maybe the rainforest was dying, like all the tree-huggers said. A shame if it was, but not really his problem.
Verhoven put a thermal scope to his eye and scanned the broad swath of jungle that lay ahead of him. Little blips of heat could be seen here and there in the undergrowth, phosphorescent flares in the red tint of the eyepiece; more rodents and other tiny mammals. He panned along a wide arc and saw nothing more. As he lowered the device something rustled the trees.
He brought the scope back up. Deeper in the forest, almost at eye level, he saw a spread of branches swaying in a vertical recoil, the way they did when a monkey launched itself from them. He scanned across an arc, looking up into the trees and then back down. Nothing. No sign of anything that might have bent the branches in such a manner.
He heard a sound to the right and swung in that direction, bringing his rifle up as he turned.
A figure held out a hand in warning: Hawker.
Verhoven lowered the rifle slightly, staring at his old acquaintance. He spat a shot of tobacco juice onto the dirt an inch from Hawker’s feet. “You’re supposed to be dead.”
Hawker stared back at him for a long moment. “I was once.”
Verhoven lowered the rifle the rest of the way. “Walk up on me like that again and you’ll be dead for good.”
Verhoven didn’t like the question, nor did he like the fact that Hawker was armed, carrying a black pistol: a PA-45—a big gun, forty-five caliber, fourteen shots. “What the hell are you doing out here?”
Hawker nodded toward the trees. “Something didn’t feel right.”
Verhoven turned back to the forest. Hawker had always been slightly paranoid, but that sixth sense had saved him more than once. Verhoven remembered a time when he and Hawker had been targeted for a mortar round that ended up hitting the spot they’d been standing in only a minute before, a spot they’d left because of Hawker’s paranoia. “You’re hearing things again, mate. There’s nothing out there.”
“You sure about that?”
In all honesty, Verhoven wasn’t sure, but he didn’t like the question, or having Hawker poking around. He held out the scope. “Take the watch, if you want. I’ll go catch some rest.”
Hawker declined the offer and Verhoven began to wonder what Hawker was really doing out there, both in the immediate sense and in general. “So you’re with the NRI now.”
Hawker shook his head. “Hired hand, just like you.”
“Odd coincidence, that.”
“Very odd,” Hawker said. “Almost like fate.”
Verhoven believed in fate, but he knew Hawker didn’t. Do everything right and you can live forever, Hawker had once said. Verhoven disagreed. When your number’s up, it’s up. Maybe one of their numbers was about to be up, a long-standing debt about to be paid. Maybe Hawker had even recommended him for the mission in order to draw him out, to finally settle the old score. He laughed at the thought. Who sounded paranoid now?
He checked the trees and then looked back at Hawker. “So why’d you take the job, then? Find the Queen’s shilling in the bottom of your flask?”
“Something like that,” Hawker said.
Verhoven moved the ever-present tobacco wad around in his mouth, forcing it back into place and spitting out some of the excess. He looked over at Hawker. They hadn’t spoken on the boat or in the jungle for the past week, doing their jobs and ignoring each other, and it was a strange, almost surreal feeling to be holding a conversation with him now. Old friends and old enemies who’d spent two years working together in Angola a decade ago, when Hawker was with the CIA and Verhoven was still with the SASF.
The alliance had worked well, until new orders came down from the CIA, orders that Hawker had chosen not to follow. That decision divided them, setting Hawker on a collision course with everyone he knew, making enemies out of friends. Verhoven had even played a small part in Hawker’s capture, but then things had spiraled out of control, leading everyone to anguish, and eventually to what had seemed like Hawker’s death.
Not long after, he’d learned that Hawker was alive, and seeking some manner of revenge against those who had betrayed him. Quite sure his name was on that list, Verhoven never expected to see Hawker and have the moment pass without one of them ending up dead. And yet here they were, standing in the middle of the Amazon, half a world away from where they’d fought, talking and not shooting.
“Well, you couldn’t hide forever,” Verhoven said finally. “Not from what you fear.”
Hawker looked at him strangely. “And just what might that be?”
“You fear yourself, Hawk. You want to talk about destiny, you know what yours is. You can hide from it all you want, but it still comes to find you. Why else would the two of us be here?”
Hawker glared at him, as close to a look of hatred as Verhoven had ever seen in the man’s eyes. The truth did that to people.
“Our time is going to come,” Hawker said. “But not here, not now.”
So that was it, Verhoven thought. Hawker had come out to set the ground rules; fine by him. He stared at the pilot. “It’s all clear out here, Hawk. Go back to your tent.”
Hawker cut his eyes at Verhoven and then nodded out toward the trees. “Keep your eyes open,” he said. “I’m telling you, we’re not alone.”
Hawker turned to head back to the camp, but stopped as a pair of night birds whipped by, cawing as they flew overhead. The sound masked a second noise, a rustling in the trees, but both he and Verhoven sensed it.
Hawker dropped to one knee.
A second later the sound of gunfire jolted the night. Shots fired to the south.
“Who’s down there?” Hawker asked.
“Bosch,” Verhoven replied. One of his men.
From that direction something was racing through the forest, coming toward them. Verhoven raised his rifle.
Two natives burst through the undergrowth, eyes wide with shock at running into Verhoven and Hawker.
Verhoven went to fire, but as he did Hawker shoved the barrel of his rifle aside. The shells tore into the loose earth.
The natives dashed off.
“Damn you,” Verhoven shouted.
Hawker was up and running, giving chase.
Furious, Verhoven followed, charging through the forest. “Where the hell are you going?”
“We need to talk to them,” Hawker shouted back.
Ducking around a tree, barely keeping Hawker in sight, Verhoven yelled, “What the hell for?”
Hawker again shouted to him but didn’t slow, and Verhoven couldn’t make out the words. He heard the natives ahead, crashing through the branches. He caught sight of Hawker for a second. And then he was gone.
Before he could stop, Verhoven met the same fate; the ground suddenly gone from underneath his feet, he fell through the darkness. He slammed into a musty wall of earth and then crashed backward with a splash, landing in three feet of mud and water.
He’d fallen into a pit of some kind: a trap. He stood awkwardly, the mud squishing under his feet, the cold muck dripping off him. The fetid water stank, but it had probably saved his life.
“Hawk!” he shouted. “Are you down here?”
Sounding as if he was in a certain amount of pain, Hawker replied, “Unfortunately.”
Verhoven turned toward the sound of Hawker’s voice, the water swirling just above knees. “Better hope it stays dark, mate. Because if I see you I’m gonna kill you.”
“For bringing me down here.”
He heard the sound of water sloshing as Hawker moved around in the darkness. “If you hadn’t tried to shoot the son of bitch, we might have been able to talk to him.”
“A bloke charges you like that, you shoot first, ask questions later.”
“He wasn’t charging,” Hawker replied. “He was looking up in the trees, hunting something. He just found us by accident.”
Verhoven paused, realizing that Hawker was right. He moved to his right, bumping against something. He touched it with his hand, and realized it was the carcass of a dead animal. He pulled back. “Looks like we’re not the only ones to fall in this …”
The words died on Verhoven’s lips and he went still. He thought he’d heard something moving around in the pit, in the opposite direction from where Hawker’s voice came. He turned slightly, stirring the water.
“Don’t move,” he whispered. “There’s something else down here.”
Verhoven crouched, his nose close to the stinking muck, straining to see. The pit was clearly designed as a trap, and any animal that might have fallen down there with them could be dangerous. He moved slowly to one side, feeling for the wall of the pit, bumping against it.
A low, almost inaudible growl reached toward him, drifting out of the darkness, like the guttural rumble that comes from the back of a crocodile’s throat. The sound was labored, a deep heavy groan, a warning almost below the range of human hearing.
What made that sound? A caiman, a large snake, maybe—pythons were rumored to make low rumbles in their guts—or even a jaguar, wounded and weak in the bottom of a pit, it could still kill with a single claw.
Verhoven backed away from the sound, moving along the length of the trench.
“I have a flare,” Hawker said, his voice a whisper.
Verhoven paused, making sure his hands were ready. “Light it.”
Behind him the flare snapped and with the sizzle of the phosphorous it lit, flashing in the darkness. For an instant, Verhoven went blind. When his eyes adjusted, he saw nothing in front of him except filthy water and the muddy walls at the closed end of the rectangular pit. Something moved on his left, clinging to the wall. It lunged toward his face, hissing, with its jaws open.
Scampering sounds came toward him. Verhoven fired from his fallen position.
Something clawed him and then pushed off, using him as a stepping stone to launch itself up the wall. The flare bobbed to the surface and Verhoven caught a glimpse of a shape clambering up the side of the pit. He fired as it went over the top, blasting it forward as its momentum carried it out into the jungle night. The thing shrieked in agony.
As Hawker plucked the flare from the water, the light improved. Verhoven dropped his gaze, checking the rest of the pit, side to side, up and down.
They were alone.
Hawker fell back, racked with laughter.
“What’s so damn funny?”
“Keystone Cops,” Hawker said, barely able to get the words out.
“You’re the chief, then.”
Hawker couldn’t stop chuckling. “And you’re having monkey for dinner.”
Verhoven hadn’t gotten a good enough look at the scrambling thing to know what it was, but the size was about right—thirty to forty pounds—and there was little else he could think of that could climb like that. For a moment he was almost embarrassed, blasting a little monkey with an AK-47. Then again, a starving, cornered monkey could have made a mess of them, even if it wasn’t a life-threatening situation.
“Better than him having us,” he replied.
As Hawker continued laughing, Verhoven fished out his radio. Fortunately, like everything else electronic they had brought along, it was waterproof. He clicked the switch, told one of his men what had happened and ordered him to bring a rescue party and some rope.
As Verhoven finished the conversation, Hawker tapped him on the shoulder and pointed to one of the walls, holding the flare up to give him more light.
The central part of the left wall appeared to be made of stone. It was covered in lumpy chunks of mud, but even in the flickering light, a large face could be seen beneath that mud. A face carved in the stone. Around it were other marks, hieroglyphics that looked remarkably similar to those Danielle had showed him.
As they studied it, the rescue party arrived and dropped down a rope. Hawker and Verhoven climbed out and the group shined their lights into the pit. Danielle nodded her approval. “We’ll show McCarter in the morning,” she said.
Weary and covered in muck, Verhoven began his walk back to the camp, ignoring the questions about what had happened and glad that the ridiculous situation was over.
Before he’d gone ten paces Hawker spoke, stopping him in his tracks.
“Where is it?” Hawker asked.
“Where’s what?” Danielle replied.
Hawker’s voice rang with suspicion. “Verhoven’s monkey.”
Danielle, and the men who’d helped with the rescue, only seemed more confused, but Verhoven understood. He looked around. There was no monkey carcass, no blood on the ground or a trail to indicate that something else had dragged it off into the woods. No sign of the thing he’d blasted.
“There was a monkey in the pit,” Verhoven explained. “I shot at the bugger as he went over the top of the wall. Looks like I missed.”
The others seemed to accept that and appeared un-worried, but Hawker’s stare was unrelenting, his suspicious nature locked on to the latest small thing that seemed out of order. Verhoven met his eyes and then scanned the forest around them again.
Both of them knew he didn’t miss.