Home > Wild Fire (Leopard People #4)(3)

Wild Fire (Leopard People #4)(3)
Author: Christine Feehan

Rio nodded. “I wouldn’t have asked but we really need you on this one. None of us is familiar with this territory.”

“Have you informed the locals?” Conner meant the elders of his own village. They were reclusive and difficult to find, but the leopards could send word when they were passing through one another’s backyards.

Rio shook his head. “The client’s representative warned us that a couple of the leopards have gone rogue and now work for this woman.” Rio tossed a photograph on the rough tabletop. “They call her mujer sin corazón.”

“Woman without a heart,” Conner translated. “Imelda Cortez. I know of her. Anyone growing up in those parts knows her family. She’s also known as víbora, the viper. You don’t want anything to do with her. When they say she has no heart, they mean it. She’s been murdering the local Indians for years, and stealing their land for her coca growing. Rumor has it she’s been pressing deeper and deeper into the jungle, trying to open up more smuggling routes.”

“Rumor is right,” Rio said. “What else do you know about her?”

Conner shrugged. “Imelda is the daughter of the late Manuel Cortez. She learned her cruelty and arrogance in the cradle and took over his connections after his death. She pays top dollar to all the local militia and buys officials like they are candy.”

His eyes met Rio’s. “Whatever the operation is, everyone will be against you. Even some of my own people will have been bought off. You won’t be able to trust anyone. You certain you want to do this?”

“I don’t think we have a choice,” Rio replied. “I understand she’s a man-eater and prefers very masculine, dominant males.”

The room went silent. The tension stretched thin. Conner’s golden cat eyes deepened to pure whiskey, gleaming with some faint threat. A muscle ticked in his jaw. “You do it, Rio. I don’t do that kind of work anymore.”

“You know I can’t. Rachel would kill me, and quite frankly, I don’t have the same kind of dominant quality you have. Women always go for you.”

“I have a mate. She may hate my guts, but I will not betray her any more than I already have. No.” He half turned, ready to leave.

“Your father sent much of the information to us,” Rio said, his voice quiet.

Conner had his back to the man. He stopped, closing his eyes briefly before turning back. His entire demeanor changed. The leopard blazed in his eyes. There was a threat in the movements of his body, in the fluid, dangerous glide toward Rio. The threat was sufficient enough to get the other three men on their feet. Conner ignored them, stopping just in front of Rio, his golden eyes focused completely on his prey. “My father observed the old ways. He would not ask outsiders for help. Ever. And he has not spoken to me since he disowned me many years ago.”

Rio pulled a tanned leather skin from his backpack. “I was told you wouldn’t believe me and was asked to give you this. They said you would know what it meant.”

Conner’s fingers closed over the thick fur, tunneling deep. His breath caught in his lungs. His throat burned raw. He turned away from the others and stood at the door, breathing in the night air. Twice he opened his mouth but nothing came out. He forced air through his lungs. “What’s the job?”

“I’m sorry,” Rio said.

All of them knew what a leopard pelt meant, and the way Conner held it to him, there was no doubt he knew and loved the owner.

“Conner . . . man . . .” Felipe started and then broke off.

“What’s the job?” Conner repeated without looking at any of them. He couldn’t. His eyes burned like acid. He stood with his back to the others, holding his mother’s pelt against his heart, trying not to let anything into his mind but the job.

“Imelda Cortez has decided to run her smuggling routes through the rain forest. She can’t use her men because they aren’t accustomed to the environment. The roads turn to mud, they get lost, the mosquitoes eat them alive, and even small cuts turn septic. She’s lost a number of her men to injury and disease, and local predators. Once they’re deep in the forest, they’re easy to pick off with poison darts.”

“She needs the cooperation of the Indian tribes she’s been annihilating, but they aren’t too fond of her,” Conner guessed.

“That’s right,” Rio said. “She needed leverage to get them to work for her. She’s started taking their children and holding them hostage. The parents don’t want to get their children back in pieces, so they’ve been running her drugs through the new routes where it’s unlikely government agents can track or intercept them. With the children hostage, she has the added bonus of not having to pay her couriers.” Rio pulled a sealed envelope out of the backpack. “This came for you as well.”

Conner turned then, avoiding Rio’s all too knowing eyes. He held out his hand and Rio put the envelope in his palm.

“I’ll need to know if your father believes our leopard species have been compromised,” Rio said. “Have the two rogues working for her revealed what they are to her, or are they just taking her money?”

Conner looked at him then. The irises had nearly disappeared in his eyes. Flames smoldered in their depths. It would be the height of betrayal for a leopard ever to reveal to an outsider what he was. He ripped the envelope and pulled out a single sheet of paper. He stared at it for a long moment, reading his father’s missive. The night insects sounded overly loud in the small room. A muscle ticked in his jaw. The silence stretched.

“Conner,” Rio prompted.

“You may want to change your mind about the mission,” Conner said and carefully, with reverent hands, folded and returned the pelt to the backpack. “It isn’t just a hostage rescue. It’s a hit. One of the two rogue leopards working for Imelda murdered my mother. She knows about the leopard people.”

Rio swore and crossed to the stove to pour a cup of coffee. “We’ve been compromised.”

“Two of our own betrayed us to Imelda.” Conner looked up, rubbed at his eyes, and sighed. “I have no choice if we want to make certain our secrets remain just that, to the rest of the world. It seems Imelda would like an army of leopards. The two rogues have been trying to recruit, not only from our ranks here, but other places as well. The elders have moved the location of the village deeper into the rain forest in an effort to prevent her reaching out to others who might want her money. The only ones who can get to them are the two rogue leopards already working with her, and they would be killed instantly if they dared come near the village.” He smiled and there was no humor in that flash of sharp white teeth. “They would never be that stupid.”

“How did your mother die?” Felipe asked, his voice very quiet.

There was another long silence before Conner answered. Outside a howler monkey shrieked and several birds called back. “According to my father’s letter, one of the rogues, Martin Suma, killed her when she tried to prevent the taking of the children. She was with Adan Carpio, one of the ten elders of the Embera tribe, and his wife, when Cortez’s men attacked and took the children hostage. Suma led Cortez’s men and he murdered my mother first, knowing she was the biggest threat to them.” Conner kept his tone without expression. “Suma has never seen me, if you’re worried about that. I’ve been in Borneo long enough to appear as one from that area. Felipe and Leonardo are from Brazil; Elijah could be anyone, few people have ever seen his face; and you’re from Borneo. They will not suspect me. I’ll get into the compound, locate the children, and once we move them to safety, I’ll eliminate the three of them. It’s my job, not yours.”

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