JD left Saigon disguised as a crippled ex-soldier who was no longer of use to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. He caught a fast barge heading north on the Mekong River to Phnom Penh and from there was able to hitch a truck ride up to the mountainous Highlands where he ditched the crutch and changed into a black Hmong tunic and trousers. Carrying only a walking stick, a knife, and a small container of fresh pig blood, he followed a game trail that took him deep into the jungle. For most people, this would be a Joseph Conrad Heart of Darkness kind of hell. Hot, humid. Grasping vines with thorns and spiders and snakes. Biting ants and insects.
For JD, it felt like home.
Southeast Asian tigers were not rare here, but it was certainly rare to ever come across one unless it had decided you were going to meet it. His brother Zhang was like the tiger. Somehow he would sense where JD was heading, an old plantation not far ahead.
A prickling sensation at the base of his neck stopped JD in mid-step.
He was being tracked.
Maybe it was a tiger. He could hope. He had been letting the pig blood drip out on the trail in very small amounts; like a dinner bell ringing for an animal that may be of use to him should there be trackers of the two-legged kind.
Creeper vines ran rampant and JD completely buried himself beneath the big leaves of the creeper. Yes, there were insects crawling all over him, even across his eyelids, but he had endured much worse. There was a loud scratching noise outside his right ear, but fortunately he had plugged his ear holes with leaves since an insect crawling down his ear would be unbearable—
Wait. There it was. The vibration of footsteps approaching. Coming closer . . . closer . . . but they didn’t stop and kept going.
Once he was certain the tracker—definitely human, not tiger—was well out of range, JD moved up and out of the leaves. Now it would be him doing the following. Who was this guy?
As JD walked quietly, on cat feet as he had been trained, he felt not right. His brain should be detached, not succumbing to worry. Worry was poison—
And that’s when he felt the dart enter his neck.
He jerked his arm up and pulled the dart out, but even his refined reflexes were too late to the party. A man dressed in camo and built like a battering ram came at JD with a knife.
JD no sooner managed to kick it out of his hand and hear the crack of bone than another voice came from behind him.
“Idiot! We were instructed not to get too close, he’s dangerous!”
But who was the idiot really, JD dizzily wondered, as he weakly withdrew the hidden knife from his trousers. There were two of them here, not one. How had he missed that? And why was he unable to do more than command his wobbly wrist to wave the knife he should be planting into the nearest heart?
Another dart speared him. JD felt the ground connect with his knees. His vision swam, and he wondered if he was imagining another man in tribal garb drop from the tree branches, his face obscured by a tiger mask. JD thought he saw two knives impale the throats of two trackers. No longer surrounding him, they flopped beside his own supine position and gurgled what remained of their lives onto the jungle floor.
The eye in the tiger mask winked as it ripped JD’s knife from his lax grip. In one swift motion the masked man crouched, hurled the knife between his legs like he was hiking an American football, and in the blade went through the last tracker standing. Straight through the right eyeball and into his brain before the battering ram could pull the trigger.
A Russian/Chinese issue AK-47—or was it an American M-16? Hard to tell when the world was fading and all JD could hear in his mind were the Rolling Stones singing “Paint It Black.”