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Authors: William W. Johnstone,J. A. Johnstone

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BOOK: Target Response
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“It already hurts, so go ahead,” Raynor said.

Kilroy flicked on the lighter, a trusty model that had served him well in the past. It did not fail him now but burned with a steady yellow flame. He liked his cigars, and if he’d had one available he would have lit it and applied the hot end directly to the centipede’s head. But he didn’t, so he used a broken twig instead. The twig was sodden with dampness and took a bit of time to ignite. When he got the pointed end of it going he blew on it, fanning it into a glowing orange red ember.

He pressed the tip against the centipede’s head where it butted up against Raynor’s flesh, right at the midpoint of the black helmeted carapace where its clawlike mandibles were buried in the muscle of the forearm.

There was a hissing sound as the twig’s hot point met ebony exoskeleton. A line of nasty-smelling smoke rose from the area of contact.

The creature’s eyes were a pair of shiny black beads on opposite sides of its globed head. They rolled wildly during the burning. Its severed head twitched and jerked.

Raynor’s body was taut, quivering. Veins stood out on his face, his neck cording. His skin was sallow under its bronze tan, misted with a sheen of cold sweat.

Blind instinct caused the centipede’s head to retreat from the stimulus of the burning point applied to it. Its curved mandibles retracted partway, wickedly barbed tips still penetrating the flesh.

Kilroy touched the flame once more to the point of the twig, reheating the fading orange tip before applying it to the centipede’s head again.

Raynor groaned. With a final wriggling spasm the mandibles pulled free and the centipede’s head fell to the ground with a soft plopping sound. Raynor let out with a gasp the breath he’d been holding.

The job was only half done. Like most denizens of the swamp, the centipede was toxic. It injected venom along with its bite.

Kilroy freed his knife from its belt sheath. He ran the lighter flame along the razor-sharp edge near the tip of the blade, sterilizing it as best he could.

His free hand gripped Raynor’s wrist, steadying the other’s arm. The bite was on the top of the forearm. The area was already swollen into an egg-sized red bump. Kilroy made an X-cut over the affected area. Raynor bit down on the edge of his shirt collar to keep from crying out. There was a smell of scorched hair and flesh.

Kilroy knew better than to try to suck out the venom. That would risk poisoning himself. No, that doctrine was exploded. His fingers gripped the flesh around the bite area and squeezed, expelling globs of blood streaked with brown mucouslike veins, spilling it to the ground. He was careful not to get any of the stuff on him.

Raynor shuddered like a wet dog shaking itself dry.

The metal lighter grew too hot to handle. Kilroy paused for a moment until it cooled off. He then held the flame against the flat of the tip of the blade, heating it until it took on a dull red glow. He pressed it against the wound, cauterizing it.

Raynor’s legs started to fold at the knees. Kilroy got an arm around him, holding him up until the spasm passed.

“I’m okay,” Raynor rasped, his voice a croak. He didn’t sound okay.

Kilroy cut a long strip from the bottom of his shirt and used it as a makeshift bandage to wrap the bitten area of Raynor’s forearm.

“Stupid of me,” Raynor said, shaking his head. “I put my hand on the tree without looking and the damned thing got a piece of me.”

“Look at the bright side—at least it wasn’t your gun hand,” Kilroy said.

“Yeah, sure…”

“Take a drink of water,” Kilroy said, indicating the canteen hanging from a strap around Raynor’s neck and across his shoulder.

Raynor shook his head. “That’s all right. Let’s get going.”

“Doctor’s orders. It’ll give you a boost and you need one now.”

“No—”

“Quit fucking around and do it. You can play hero later.”

Raynor unslung the canteen and screwed off the cap, which was secured to it by a tiny length of chain. He held the canteen to his lips and tilted his head back, taking a mouthful. He swirled the water around in his mouth before swallowing, the muscles of his throat working painfully.

He held out the canteen to Kilroy. “Not thirsty,” Kilroy said.

“Now who’s playing hero? Cut the shit,” Raynor said.

Kilroy accepted the canteen, taking a small swig from it. The water was warm, almost hot, but the wetness was refreshing. He screwed the cap back on and reached toward Raynor to return it.

“You keep it,” Raynor said.

Kilroy made a face. “Aw, for chrissakes—”

“You’ll be doing me a favor. It’s one less thing for me to worry about.”

“All right, but only because it’s easier than arguing about it. We’ve wasted enough time here already,” Kilroy said. He fitted the strap over his head and slung the canteen down along his side.

A faint noise behind him caused Kilroy to glance back over his shoulder toward the far end of the glade, the way they’d come. There was a rustling in the brush and a flicker of motion in the bushes about thirty yards away.

A Nigerian soldier in olive drab fatigues parted the foliage and stepped into view in the open. He saw Kilroy and Raynor as he entered the glade. He froze for a beat, then shouted something and reached for the rifle strapped over his left shoulder.

Kilroy already had his AK-47 raised, shouldered, and swinging toward the newcomer. The selector was set for single shots. He squeezed the trigger. The rifle barked.

The trooper fell backward, dead. The space that he’d been occupying opened up, affording a view of several more soldiers positioned in single file along a trail reaching back through the brush.

Kilroy shot the next man in line. The others jumped to the sides, taking cover.

Angry shouts and shots erupted along the trail. A racketing clamor of autofire erupted. The soldiers weren’t aiming at anything they could see—they were just shooting into the glade in the direction from which the gunfire had come.

Other shouts sounded in the near distance, coming from the right and left of the trail, the voices of other hunting bands calling out to their comrades under fire.

Hot rounds zipped through the air, smacking tree limbs and cutting down branches. They all fell wide of the mark, but once the troopers got their bearings and augmented their numbers with reinforcements, they’d zero in on their targets.

Kilroy’s expression was rueful. If he only had a tenth of the ammunition they were so prodigally expending, he could clean house. But he didn’t, so—

It was time to move out.

“Here we go again,” he said sourly.

Crouching low, he and Raynor scrambled into the brush on the near side of the glade, disappearing behind a tangle of green.

The chase was on again.

 

By midafternoon they seemed to have lost their pursuers. One thing that couldn’t be outrun, though, was the poison in Bill Raynor’s system. Raynor had been favoring his left arm, the limb that had been bitten by the black centipede, holding it close to his side, using it as little as possible.

He and Kilroy were making their way through a patch of dense scrub brush. Kilroy was a few paces ahead, blazing the trail. The ground was spongy underfoot, the tangled foliage bunched up close.

Raynor stumbled, bumping into a low, shrub-like tree with his left side. He gasped, trying to regain his balance. He grabbed a tree branch with his right hand, steadying himself.

Kilroy looked back. Raynor stood frozen, eyes squeezed shut, face a mask of agony. Kilroy caught a glimpse of Raynor’s left arm. The forearm was swollen to twice its normal size.

Raynor opened his eyes; it took several beats before they came into focus. Kilroy went to him. “Let me see that arm,” he said.

“It’s nothing,” Raynor said.

“What affects you affects me. So let’s see.”

The arm was deep red from elbow to wrist. A paler red blush extended into the bicep area and the back of the hand, outriders of the crawler’s toxic contagion. Kilroy touched Raynor’s bare arm, careful to rest his fingertips well away from the bandaged area of the bite. The skin was hot to the touch.

Raynor’s glassy-orbed gaze met Kilroy’s clear-eyed appraisal without flinching. “It is what it is. Nothing to be done about it. It hasn’t reached my legs, so let’s keep moving. Cover as much ground as possible while it’s still daylight,” Raynor said.

Kilroy nodded. “You ready?”

“Lead on.”

Kilroy turned, resuming his forward progress. Now that his face was turned where Raynor couldn’t see it, his expression was worried. Not for himself but for Raynor.

Kilroy trudged onward, the other following. He caught himself listening for the sound of Raynor’s footfalls, to make sure he was keeping up behind him. Were they making progress?

Yes, of a sort, if progress was defined as putting some distance between them and the hunters. But their course was taking them not out of the swamp but ever deeper into it.

Kilroy glanced over his shoulder, back along the trail. “If you need a break, sing out,” he said.

“Don’t worry about me. I’ll walk your ass into the ground,” Raynor said. His face was sallow, strained. He did not so much walk as stagger.

The slog into the morass continued. The two men didn’t talk much. They needed to save their breath for the hike, and besides, when they opened their mouths to speak, gnats flew into them.

The air was so heavy, so humid, it was as moisture-laden as it was possible to be without actually raining. Kilroy longed for a rainfall. It would give them a chance to slake their thirst and refill the canteen with fresh rainwater.

Distant thunder rumbled, but no drop of rain fell. Tortuous miles grew as the day lengthened and the gloom deepened.

They came to a basin, a shallow hollow several football fields in length. The boggy ground was a maze of dozens of small ponds linked by twisty creeks and threaded by narrow lanes of solid ground. There had been a fire here once, possibly caused by a lightning strike during the dry season. The basin was studded with skeletal remains of dead trees killed by the blaze. Most stood upright but a number of them had fallen, forming impromptu walkways and bridges.

Kilroy halted. “What are you stopping for?” Raynor demanded.

“I’m going to climb a tree and take a look around,” Kilroy said.

“Oh—sorry. Thought you were stopping on my account…”

“Don’t think so hard.”

Raynor sat down on the trunk of a fallen tree. He looked like hell—filthy, haggard, and exhausted—but so would any man who’d spent a day and a half in the swamp.

Kilroy figured he looked the same. What worried him was the haunted, feverish look in Raynor’s eyes and the way the bones of his skull showed beneath taut, yellowish skin. His face was taking on the semblance of a death’s head. And his left arm—it wasn’t good. The swelling had reached his hand and the red flush was stealing up into his shoulder.

Kilroy unslung his rifle and set it butt down on the ground, leaning it against the fallen tree.

He crossed to a nearby tree that he’d picked to use for his vantage point. It showed a number of limbs that had broken off close to the trunk, forming ladderlike handholds. The green fought to reclaim its fire-blighted hulk, wrapping it with a mass of flowering lianas and dangling vines.

Kilroy reached for a low-hanging limb that looked sturdy enough to support him and tested his weight against it.

It held, so he pulled himself up, knees and thighs gripping the trunk as he reached for the next handhold. He wedged a booted foot in the crotch where a branch joined the trunk, affording him a steady platform. He groped for the next handhold and mounted higher.

In this fashion he scaled the tree. His ascent was not without incident. More than once, a branch that he tested snapped off under his hand and fell to the ground. That’s what testing is for. When it happened he was braced and ready with a solid perch beneath him. But it always came as an unpleasant discovery.

The noise was the worst part, for a dead tree limb breaks with a sharp, sudden crack like a rifle report, and it sounded dangerously loud in his ears. The first time it happened, it started a sudden flight of birds from a nearby tree. They took to the air as one, scattering in all directions. Kilroy worried that the sound or sight would draw the attention of nearby spotters.

He did not climb straight up the tree. The branches were not uniformly steady enough for that. He followed a spiraling course up and around the trunk. When he was fifty feet above the ground he stopped. That was high enough. None of the branches above him looked able to hold his weight.

In his treetop perch Kilroy took his bearings. Heat, haze, clouds, and the long shadows of falling day all conspired to obscure his vision and blur the view, hemming in the horizon.

Below, swampland extended in all directions out and away from him. No structures, no signs of human habitation showed as far as the eye could see. A pale sun disk hung about thirty degrees above the western horizon, floating amid towering gray clouds.

Nearer, a quarter mile west of the basin, a branch of the river wound and coiled its way down from the north, sluggishly flowing south. The water was so brown it was almost black, the color of coffee murky with coffee grounds.

Kilroy and Raynor had come down from the northwest, striking a roughly southeasterly course. Kilroy scanned the northwest quadrant, searching in vain for some sign of the derricks of the Vurukoo oil fields rising above the treeline. An unbroken vista of swampland unrolled toward the north.

East of the basin lay a vast tract of flooded forest, masses of gray-green foliage held in a web whose strands were channels of stagnant water.

South, the swamp extended to a low ridge that stretched east–west along the horizon. Beyond it, a tantalizing sliver of silver emptiness wavered at the limits of visibility. It glimmered like a mirage, winking in and out of sight.

That razor line of open space could be the Kondo, the big river into which all the water-courses of the swampland ultimately drained. An avenue of escape to the coast, the goal that he and Raynor sought.

BOOK: Target Response
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