Lluvia Roja, Colombia
Shivering more from fear than the cold from the river, Elena Diaz clambered up the bank and into the jungle, then hunkered down behind dense undergrowth, the Ceiba trees towering overhead. Her lungs burned, breath ragged from her escape. She listened to El Serpiente's men crush through the coca fields on the other side of the river, watched the glow of their flashlights, thirty or more, sweeping back and forth, back and forth--searching for her, while the dogs barked and howled in frustration.
Water trickled from her hair, down her back, and from the hem of her capris, spreading a stain at her feet that she could just make out in the moonlight. The chill night air cut through her wet clothes and she rubbed her bare arms, while praying her swim threw off the dogs long enough for her to reach the Jeep.
Then she heard the first splash. Shouts.
They were crossing the river.
Move, move, move.
In a half-crouch, she edged her way deeper into the jungle, counting her steps. At twenty-seven steps, she reached out toward the barely visible Ascacia. The bark was smooth. She ran her hands up and down the trunk, willing herself to stay calm. This had to be the tree. Her fingertips found the cross she'd carved into the bark. She wasn't lost.
She stood and started forward again, counting off steps inside her head. One, two, three... Every crunch of leaves beneath her sandals sounded like an announcement that said, "Here I am, come get me."
John had made her memorize this route, go through it at night until she could do it without a flashlight or compass, calling it "their worst-case scenario." Of course, then he'd been smiling and confident, not beaten to a pulp.
Don't think about it, she told herself. Don't remember him that way. But tears poured down her cheeks, dripped from her chin. She wiped them away. Keep moving.
The sounds of the guards and dogs grew fainter. For the moment, they were searching for her along the river bank.
She walked faster now, counting steps, while she thought of El Serpiente's palacial home--bars on the windows, locks on all the doors, guards walking the grounds. His wife and daughter, little Juanita, imprisoned inside, peering out, obedient and frightened.
The wide-eyed child had been a silent witness to at least one murder, maybe more.
Elena paused at fifty steps to listen.
The guards were moving inland from the river now.
Not much time left.
Where was the Jeep? She knew she was close.
She dropped to a crouch and edged her way forward.
Ten steps, twenty, twenty-five. The outline of the Jeep appeared.
She paused, breathing through her mouth, straining to hear anything or anyone nearby.
The guards sounded at least two hundred feet away, maybe more. Still, the hairs on the back of her neck stood on end. Someone was here. Watching. Waiting.
She lowered herself to the ground and belly-crawled forward. Slow. Silent.
The Jeep grew closer, a black shape against shades of dark.