Authors: R.D. Brady
Jen nodded. “Of course. But can you give us a hint?”
Nana paused. “It’s the reason the Shuar’s guard this land so fiercely. It’s the reason the oil companies can never be allowed in.”
Nana wouldn’t expand her cryptic statement. A few minutes later Laney and Jen said good night and walked down the steep path back to their camp. Whenever they visited, they always set up camp away from the Shuar. It seemed important to not intrude.
When Laney was settled into her tent, she wondered what Nana had been referring to. It had to be the source of the Crespi collection. That was the only thing that made sense.
Laney pulled off her sweatshirt, taking her Glock out of the holster. Checking the magazine, she placed it on the ground next to her bed. Ever since Montana, she’d never felt safe unless she had a weapon nearby. She figured she had two options, go talk to a therapist or carry a concealed weapon. Right now, the latter was working.
Laying down, she closed her eyes, focusing on counting to a hundred. Another little habit she’d developed since Montana. If she focused on the numbers, no other thoughts were able to sift their way in.
Around seventy, she could tell it was working. But Nana’s worried face slipped in. She pushed the image aside. There was nothing she could do about Nana’s problem tonight. It would keep until morning.
A few hours before dawn, an ear-piercing scream yanked Laney from her sleep. She sat straight up on her cot, her heart pounding. More screams and automatic gunfire joined a cacophony of cries.
Laney grabbed her Glock and launched herself from the tent.
People streamed down the path from the village. Behind them, an orange glow lit the night sky.
“Someone’s burning the village,” Jen said as she appeared out of her tent.
Laney stared up at the flames, trying to think of a reason someone would attack the village. She knew the Shuar had difficult relationships with some other indigenous tribes in the area, especially the Achura. But this kind of attack, with women and children sleeping, was cowardly. It wasn’t the Achura.
Jen's ebony eyes caught Laney's, and didn't waver. She tipped her chin towards the path the villagers were streaming down. “You in?”
Gripping the gun with a nod, Laney took a step forward. A hand latched onto her arm. She glanced down at its owner in disgust. Warren.
“Where are you going?” he shrieked, his receding hairline more obvious in the fire’s
. She yanked her arm free.
He switched his grip to Jen’s left arm. “You can’t. We need to get out of here. You’re both responsible for my safety.”
Laney watched Jen’s face. Her expression didn’t change, except for the small tick in her cheek.
Oh, you stupid, stupid boy
Jen reached over with her right hand and twisted Warren’s wrist until it was bent at a ninety-degree angle. With a screech, he dropped to his knees, his arm contorted in the air. She leaned down. “Help. Or. Get. Out. Of. The. Way.”
Warren nodded his head so ferociously, Laney worried it would snap off his neck. “Okay, okay.”
Jen released him. He stumbled to his feet and with a glare, followed after the retreating villagers.
Dismissing him, Laney turned to Jen. “Let’s go.”
Taking off at a run, they sprinted up the steep path. Although Jen’s legs were a good few inches longer than Laney’s, Laney soon outpaced her. Her smaller size made it easier for her to slip through the panicked crowd streaming down the trail.
Screams and the ring of gunfire grew louder. Smoke wafted down the path, the smell of burning wood. She could see the glow ahead where the buildings burned. Her heart sank. Everything here was made of thatch and wood. The fire would spread easily; nothing would be left.
Her thigh muscles strained, but she didn’t slow. Picturing the villagers she’d come to know and care for over the last three months, she increased her pace.
Nearing the top, the crowd began to thin out. Soon, there was no one. Jen drew up beside her and they reached the top together.
Laney quickly stepped into the trees and Jen followed. A girl’s scream erupted. Laney’s heart pounded even harder.
“Elena,” Jen whispered, her voice even, but Laney heard the emotion nonetheless.
Silently, they made their way through the foliage. They circled the village, drawing closer to the noise.
“Who do you think it is?” Jen whispered.
Laney pushed a branch out of the way. “I’m guessing one of the cartels. A huge field was burned just over the border in Colombia two weeks ago. They’re probably looking for new fields.”
“But why here?”
Laney glanced over her shoulder, her eyes finding Jen’s in the fire’s glow. “When cartels’ take over, they don’t just grab the land. They also grab the people as workers. Elena’s village is perfect.”
“And the children?”
“The boys will be turned into workers. And the girls—” She paused, taking a breath. “The girls will be used for entertainment.”
The main community hut came into view. Laney pulled Jen to the ground. Together, they stared at the destruction before them.
Armed men gathered the villagers together. Others lay where they’d been felled, pools of blood surrounding their bodies. Huts burned, and families clung together, wailing at their loss. A few hours earlier, they’d walked through this same village and it had been a place of peace and family. Now it was the scene from a nightmare.
Smoke wafted through the buildings and armed men walked in and out of the smoke like specters, dragging or shoving villagers. The violence, the weapons, it was a perfect example of a cartel taking over. And yet . . .
“Something’s not right,” Laney mumbled, not being able to put her finger on exactly what was bothering her.
Jen stared back at her, incredulous. “Something? Nothing here is right.”
“I know. But there’s something else.” She stared at the men. They were all dressed in common clothes, loose cotton tops and dirty pants. The right costume for cartel men . . . Costumes? Why did she think costumes?
She grabbed Jen’s arm. “Look at their boots.”
The men were wearing the exact same black boots – military issue, if she wasn’t mistaken. These weren’t cartel members, although they were playing the part.
A scream pulled her attention. A young girl was being dragged into one of the huts. The large man pulling her laughed as she struggled. Finally, he grabbed her around the waist and slung her over his shoulder.
Laney felt like she’d been punched in the chest. “Elena.”
Stealth forgotten, Laney and Jen stormed through the trees on the outskirts of the village. The hut Elena had been taken to backed onto the forest. They reached the tree line closest to the hut. Thirty feet of open space separated them and their target. Two mercenaries herded a family out of hiding from the hut next to it.
Laney hefted her sidearm. She wouldn't be able to take them from here. They were too far away. She'd have to get closer. She could move along the tree line until she was right behind them, but that would take time.
She turned to Jen. “I’ll take care of the guards and the family. You get our girl.”
Jen rocked back on her heels. “On the count of three.”
One of the gunmen roughly shoved a boy no older than seven. The father grabbed the gunman’s arm and the gunman back-fisted the poor man. He crashed to the ground. The two gunmen started kicking the man with their heavy boots, the family crying.
The mother threw herself at one of the gunmen. He backhanded her away.
Elena’s scream cut through the air.
Anger and fear warred for control in Laney. She burst from the tree line, Jen at her side.
One of the mercenaries turned, his gun raised. Laney didn't even break her stride. Two shots, dead center. The other gunman dove away from his comrade.
In Spanish, Laney yelled to the family. “Run to the trees! Run!”
The family scurried out of sight as she continued to take shots at the spot where the other mercenary had found cover. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Jen’s long-legged stride eating up the distance before she disappeared into the doorway.
The second mercenary returned fire. Diving behind an empty oil drum, she waited for the pause between shots and leapt up. The man aimed for her, but she was faster. Her bullet burrowed through his forehead.
She stepped from behind the drum, her gun extended in front of her. A fist slammed down on her arm.
Pain charged through her arm and she dropped it. Shoved forward, she slammed into the drum and rolled over it, landing on the ground. Her uncle’s voice rang through her head.
Always check your six
A mountain of a man stalked towards her. His hair was dark, his skin pock-marked. A wicked serrated knife in his hand led his way.
He loomed over her and spoke without any trace of a South American accent. In fact, he sounded like he was from Jersey. “Bitch with a gun. Let’s see how you do without it.”
Laney’s boot slammed into side of the man’s knee. He stumbled and lurched to his right to compensate. She rolled onto her right hip, kicked at his other leg. Her next kick got him in the face. He crashed to the ground.
Bringing up her left boot, she drove her heel into his chin and then changing her angle, brought it down into the middle of his face. Blood exploded from his nose.
She brought her heel down again and again and again, onto his neck, his chest and finally his groin. Rolling to her feet, she snatched his knife from where it had fallen. He lay curled in the fetal position, moaning.
She leaned down. “This bitch does just fine without a gun.”
Pushing herself back from the body, she tucked his knife into her belt and grabbed her Glock. She ran for the hut, reaching it just as Jen stepped out, Elena cradled protectively in her arms.
Laney glanced back through the doorway. The man who’d grabbed Elena was lying spread eagle, a knife protruding from his chest.
Jen nodded. “Good. The family?”
“Escaped into the woods.” Laney reached out to stroke Elena’s hair.
Elena looked up at her, her eyes as big as saucers. “Nana?”
“I don’t know, sweetheart,” Laney said. “But we’ll find her.”
Elena nodded before closing her eyes. Laney met Jen’s eyes. They hadn’t been able to tell if one of the bodies in front of the community hut had been Nana. Laney prayed it hadn’t been.
“We need to move. We’re lucky my gun exchange didn’t draw them,” Laney said.
Jen started towards the trees. “They probably just thought it was their own men having fun.”
Laney nodded, knowing she was probably right. She trailed behind Jen as they headed for the tree line, her eyes darting between the trees ahead and the village behind. She slipped into the trees behind Jen, knowing Jen was avoiding the main path. They would take a back trail that led from the village to the church.
Laney quickly overtook Jen and Elena once on the path. She'd lead the way in case any of the mercenaries had made their way into the forest.
Laney was hyper-aware now. Every snap of a twig had her imagining gunmen hidden in the trees. Who was targeting these villagers? The village was poor. They had nothing of value. Except . . . She stumbled, not noticing a root sticking out of the ground.
"Laney?" Jen asked, her voice concerned.
"I'm fine. Just tripped." She kept her voice calm.
The Shuar’s connection to the source of the Crespi Collection was well known. In fact, it had been known for decades. Uncovering that source would be an absolutely priceless find. Was that why they’d been attacked? But why now?
A twig snapped to her right. Laney whirled around, dropping to her knee and lining up the poor Andean fox. She let out a breath, getting back to her feet as the poor thing scampered away. She glanced back at Jen. "Just a fox."
Jen nodded, clutching Elena to her.
Laney continued on the path. The violence of this group was coordinated. It was big. That took money, lots of it.
A cold chill stole through her. And if they were after the source of Crespi's collection, the violence wasn’t going to stop at the village.
Hugo paced in front of the villagers who’d been unable to escape. Their muffled cries were the only sounds now. The forest surrounding them had gone silent, as had the gunfire.
The village had been relatively easy to subdue. He glanced at the bodies that littered the ground. Only about fifteen had been killed. An acceptable number and none of them had been their target.
He watched as his 'second in command' walked towards him, casting a dismissive eye on the bodies around him. His love handles strained against the new camos he'd put on and an M16 hung carelessly across his chest. One of his men had found him struggling up the steep path to the village.