The world's most dangerous man becomes the world's most dangerous prey. In this thrilling installment in the Crucible series, Max Ahlgren's hunt for his family's killers unearths a secret that changes everything he thought he knew about his past. And his future...
All his life, he had run for the sheer joy of it.
Now he ran in terror from sadistic men whose names and motives he would never know and couldn't possibly understand. Why? he asked himself as he crashed through thick jungle undergrowth, colorful birds taking wing at his frantic approach. But it was not a question someone like Pierre could answer; not a query any sane man could contemplate. He only knew the grave reality of his current situation. He responded the only way he knew how-he ran.
Get higher! Faster! Run!
The booming pulse of his blood pounded through his brain, nearly drowning out his thoughts. He had never felt such unsettling sensations when running, and the cause was no mystery-he could feel the blood oozing down his left leg. The shot had only grazed him; nevertheless blood flowed steadily from the gash. He thought of stopping, catching his breath, perhaps attempting to stanch the flow of blood by stuffing jungle moss or spider silk into his wound.
Never had he run so slowly, yet perhaps he'd lost them anyway. Despite his mediocre hobble, Pierre could still move faster than most men on the planet.
He had no idea what day of the week it might be yet remembered that not long ago he'd been an engineering student at the University of the Antilles in Cayenne, French Guiana, his higher education subsidized by a track-and-field scholarship. His prowess at long-distance running had earned him an upcoming tryout for the 2020 French Olympic team, an appointment he'd been eagerly anticipating.
Then, while walking home one night after visiting his girlfriend, the world simply went black.
He awoke as an animal in captivity, his quarters a filthy concrete cell that reeked of human waste. A narrow shaft of electric light penetrated the small barred window in the cell's steel door, dimly illuminating walls covered with patches of mildew and smears of blood and shit. The back of his skull thumped with a bass vibration that made him nauseous, but he stood and shouted vain pleas through the bars.
If anyone heard him, they did not respond.
His first human contact came hours later when a guard in a black paramilitary uniform shoved a food tray though a horizontal hatch in the door. Pierre barked questions at him: Where am I? Why am I here? What have I done? Tell me!
Once Pierre had shouted himself hoarse, the guard merely shrugged. "Take your food, or I'll drop it on the floor."
Realizing the futility of further questions-as well as his own hunger-Pierre took the tray and retreated to a far corner of his cell.
He spent most of the interminable period that followed asleep on the floor, his only respite from the constant pound of his aching skull. Guards delivered trays of food from time to time. His pain slowly abated while the noise level outside of his cell increased. Shouts rang out in French and Spanish-some pleading, some demanding, all desperate. They all fell on deaf ears. After a while he tuned out the raving, panicked voices that had transformed the place from mere jail into an insane asylum.
The guards took a woman first-Pierre could tell from her screams. All day they removed people, mostly men, from the cell block at irregular intervals. The place grew quiet. Apprehensive in his anticipation, he began pacing his cell. He demanded release, if only to work off a bit of his pent-up energy. Now fully healed, he felt like running.
He got his wish soon enough. Two guards armed with submachine guns entered his cell, handcuffed him behind his back and blindfolded him.
"Where have you taken the others? Where are we going?"
The guards did not respond. They marched him from the cell and up a few flights of stairs. Blazing sunshine warmed Pierre when they brought him outside, into the soupy humidity. They must have walked several hundred yards before halting. His handcuffs were removed, followed by the blindfold. Though they stood in the shade of many trees at the edge of a jungle, Pierre shielded his eyes from the unfamiliar daylight.
After a minute or so he dared lift his head to gaze at his surroundings. The high forest canopy appeared primeval. A passing cloud blotted out the sun, which hung midway between the horizons. In the broad daylight Pierre noticed his tattered and filthy clothing, so pristine when he'd left his girlfriend's house on a night that seemed years in the past. When he dared turn his head, one of the guards slapped him hard across the face.
"Don't look back. Get moving."
"In there?" Pierre asked, incredulous.
"If you want to live."
The second guard laughed at this.
"But what did I-?"
"Get moving! The clock started two minutes ago."
The submachine gun in the other guard's hands erupted with a burp of fire. Fine dirt and clumps of turf showered Pierre as bullets chewed the earth at his feet. He didn't need to be told again. Adrenaline pumped into his bloodstream as he sprinted for the jungle and plunged into its thick, gloomy embrace.
Now, hours later, he dared pause a moment to examine the bullet wound on his leg. Dark, venous blood continued to ooze from the four-inch gash in his mighty quadriceps. He needed something to stop the slow leak: mud to pack the wound or a vine to slow the circulation. Something... anything!
Then he heard again the faint whine of an engine toiling to power a vehicle over rough terrain. He hadn't time for even primitive medical attention. Not when the hunters closed on him with every passing second.
Tired, dizzy, panting, he took off again.
All day he heard sporadic gunfire-the chatter of automatic weapons or the lone boom of a high-powered rifle as the hunters methodically murdered other human animals loosed in this jungle hell. He'd used his wits and God-given talent to evade the hunters so far. Had they been chasing him solely afoot, they wouldn't have gotten within a mile. As if guns weren't advantage enough, these killers chased down their prey with Land Rovers. They always homed in on him, no matter how far and fast he ran, which led Pierre to believe he might have some sort of transmitter in his clothes. Maybe even an implant under his skin.
The pitch of the engine increased as the vehicle approached his location via a road hidden somewhere in the tangle of lush foliage. Though he didn't think it possible, he willed himself to run faster despite his aches and fatigue. Soon it would be dusk, and darkness might offer some reprieve from their relentless pursuit.
I will survive this!
At the sight of sea all the way to the horizon, an escape plan, or at least the beginnings of one, formed. At present he ran up a gentle grade, toward what he guessed to be the highest point on what he presumed to be an island. Upon reaching the summit he would climb the highest tree he could find. From there he hoped to spot a boat that he could steal.
If he was successful, he had a good idea what direction home lay in. South. He'd heard mostly old folk speak in hushed awe of the Ile des Esprits but had always dismissed their stories as tall tales spouted by the ignorant. His gut instinct told him he'd been wrong.
The engine noise grew closer, then stopped-they had to be within a hundred yards.
Pierre dipped into the dregs of his formerly bottomless fortitude and charged up the grade at nearly a sprint. Fronds and branches slapped him in the face, and his left leg burned in agony as he bounded over rocks and gnarled roots of ancient trees.
Fatigue forced him to halt after a few minutes. He listened but heard very little. His headlong dash through the jungle had silenced the birds and insects. They should resume where they'd left off, but they did not.
The hunters are close.
But Pierre could run no longer. He moved on at a fast walk, the best he could manage. As he skirted a rock formation he espied a dark fissure in the stone, nearly hidden by surrounding scrub bushes.
Hopefully the opening would lead to a cave or at least be large enough to hide in.
Except the hunters would spot the hole as easily as he had.
He climbed a few feet over scattered boulders before reaching the fissure, which bore some distance into the rock. He uprooted two shrubs before entering the cave and arranged them outside the fissure in a manner that would hopefully hide the entrance. He descended several feet, relishing the cool air drafting up from the depths of the earth. Wet, rotting leaves scattered on the cave's uneven floor gave off the scent of decay. Beneath that foul smell he detected a more powerful stench resembling garbage rotting on a hot day, which made him squint and wrinkle his nose.
His bare foot came down hard on something brittle enough to snap beneath his weight. Within the confines of the cave, the sound echoed loud as a pistol shot.
Shit! Could they have heard it outside? Likely yes, he figured as he descended further.
A few feet later, at the very limit of the light penetrating from the surface, an object on the floor caught his eye-the carcass of some animal, a fresh kill with gnawed ribbons of meat still clinging to the bones. Fat flies buzzed lazy circles over the carrion in the chilly cave air, and the stench of corruption walloped him again with a force so violent...