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

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

“We go in together,” Rio said. “As a team.”

“You took this assignment in good faith that it was a rescue, and it is. The rest of it, leave to me.” He turned his head and looked directly at the team leader. “It’s not like I have a lot waiting for me, Rio, and you’ve got Rachel. You need to go back to her in one piece.”

“This is no suicide mission, Conner. If you’re thinking along those lines, then we end your participation right here,” Rio said. “We all go in, we do the job, and we get out.”

“Your elders do not allow retaliation when one of us is killed in our leopard form,” Conner said, bringing up a painful subject. Rio had been banished from his tribe after tracking down his mother’s killer.

“It isn’t the same thing,” Rio said. “Suma murdered your mother. A hunter killed mine. I knew the penalty and I still tracked him down. This is justice. He not only murdered a woman of our people, but he betrayed all of us. He could get us exterminated. We go in together. Before anything, the children have to be secured first.”

“We’ll need supplies dropped along a prearranged route to move fast. The team can take the children into the interior until they neutralize Imelda, but not without supplies to feed and care for them until they reach safety,” Conner said. “I’ll go in, mark the areas from above, and you’ll make the drops. We’ll also want to run a couple of escape lines. We’ll need to map them out and cache clothes, weapons and food along the routes.”

“We’ll have to do it fast. We’ve got an opportunity for contact in six days. The chief of tourism is giving a party and Imelda will be there. We’ve arranged for a Brazilian businessman, Marcos Suza Santos, to be invited. We’re his security detail. It’s our only chance for an invitation to her place, otherwise we’re going to have to break in. Not knowing exactly where the children are makes that very risky.”

“I take it he’s a relation to you two,” Conner said, glancing at the two Brazilians.

“Uncle,” they said together.

Conner squared his shoulders and returned to the table. “Do we have any idea of the layout of Imelda’s compound?”

“Adan Carpio is the man who initiated the original contact with our team,” Rio said. “He has provided sketches of the exterior, security, that sort of thing, but nothing inside the compound. He’s trying to get information from some of the Indians who have been servants there, but apparently few ever leave her service alive.”

“I know him well, a good man,” Conner said. “There are few like him in the rain forest. He speaks Spanish and English as well as his own language and is easy to communicate with. If he says something, it’s true. Take him at his word. Adan is considered a very serious man in the rain forest hierarchy, very respected by all the tribes, including my own.”

From a leopard, that was high praise, and Rio knew it. “His grandsons are two of the children taken. Seven hostages were taken, three from the Embera tribe and two others from the Waounan tribe, sons, daughters or grand-children of the elders. Imelda has threatened to chop the children into pieces and send them back that way if anyone tries to rescue them, or if the tribes refuse to work for her.”

Conner’s breath hitched in his lungs. “She means it. We’ll have one shot to get in and get out clean. Adan knows the rain forest like the back of his hand. He’s trained Special Forces from several countries in survival. He’ll stand and be an asset, believe me. You can trust him.” He scrubbed his hand over his face. “The two rogue leopards who betrayed our people—is Adan certain they’re on her payroll or acting independently?”

Rio nodded. “Most of the information on them came from your father . . .”

“Raul or Fernandez. I haven’t called him Father in years,” Conner interrupted. “I use Vega, my mother’s name. He may have written to me, but we aren’t close, Rio.”

Rio frowned. “Can he be trusted? Would he set us up? Set you up?”

“Because we despise each other?” Conner asked. “No. He’s loyal to our people. I can guarantee his information. I can also tell you with certainty that he is not our client. He would never even think to pay for the rescue of these children. He’s taking advantage of whoever our client is and adding the hit to our work. And he won’t be working with us or giving us aid.”

There was another long silence. Rio sighed. “The names on that list?”

“Imelda Cortez. No one can trust her with the information she has, and even if we take the children, she’ll be back for more. The other two names are the two rogue leopards working for her who betrayed our people.”

“Those two will recognize us as leopards,” Rio pointed out. “And they’ll know you’re from this region.”

Conner shrugged. “They’ll recognize your businessman as leopard. Santos is bound to have leopard for security. He’d be insane not to. As for me, there are three leopard tribes residing in the Panama-Colombia rain forest, but we don’t mix that much. The traitors would probably recognize my father’s name as he’s an elder in the village, but I use my mother’s name. Plus, few people know of me—I lived with my mother apart from our village.”

There was a collective gasp. Mates stayed together—always. Conner shot them a hard look. “I grew up despising my old man. I guess I turned out just like him.”

Conner felt the knots in his belly tighten. They were giving him no choice. He crossed to the window and stared out into the darkness. The noose had slipped over his neck and was slowly tightening, strangling him. If they wanted to get to the compound to rescue the children, he had to charm the socks off Imelda Cortez and get Marcos Suza Santos and his security detail invited to her fortress of a home. Maybe he’d entertained some romantic notion that he’d go back to Borneo and find Isabeau Chandler, and she’d forgive him and they would live happily ever after. There were no happily-ever-afters for men like him. He knew that. He just couldn’t accept that he had to let her go.

It was dead calm beneath the canopy, but in the utter darkness he could still make out the shapes of the leaves, feel the heat seeping into his pores, squeezing his heart like a vise. He was going to seduce another woman. Look at her. Touch her. Draw her to him. Betray Isabeau one more time. It was another sin among so many.

“Can you do it?” Rio asked, evidently following his train of thought.

Conner turned his head, a slow animal-like motion. His eyes held distance. Self-loathing. “I was born for the job.” He couldn’t quite cover the bitterness in his voice.

Rio inhaled sharply. He couldn’t imagine betraying Rachel. “One of the others can try it. You can teach them.”

Felipe and Leonardo looked at one another. How did one learn charisma? Conner had an animal quality about him that they all shared, but his was predominant, inherent, something he was born with and wore on the outside as well as the inside. He walked into a room and everyone was instantly aware of him. They didn’t try to hide Conner, rather used his presence to their advantage. He could look bored, amused and indifferent all at the same time.

For the first time Elijah stirred, drawing attention to himself. He had a past in the drug industry and knew most of those involved by reputation. He was also a very dangerous, charismatic man. “I might be able to help with this matter. I have a past. This woman, Imelda Cortez, she will recognize my name if I use it. Just my presence alone will cast a taint on Santos.” He cast a quick glance at Felipe and Leonardo. “I’m sorry, but you know it is the truth. She will have all of us checked out and my name is known to every law enforcement agency around the world. She might be interested enough to invite us because I’m there as well. I can try seduction.”

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