Paradisio Island, somewhere in the Pacific
Earth crumbled around him as he burrowed into an animal’s den.
A gagging smell.
Roars and screams.
A taunting voice—Coward, coward…
Then, a white bird dove toward his face, arrested his attention, and brought him back to the present. The bird circled, squawked, and zoomed ahead. Tail feathers urged him to follow.
Fully in charge of his senses once again, he glanced over his shoulder at the black feline pursuer and grinned.
Then Jaguar Jack ran like hell.
He jumped over fallen branches, dodged infested insect mounds, and scrambled around the huge trunks of trees that formed the canopy of the rain forest.
“Rroww!” The big cat’s howl echoed in the humid air.
Jack sensed the angry feline gaining on him. The sleek jaguar rounded a gigantic trunk, too close for comfort.
You can’t outrun a cat, mate, and she’s not losing interest. Better come up with a plan … and fast.
A gnarled kapok tree caught his eye, perfect for a man to catch a foothold and make a natural ladder to the green universe above. He zigzagged away from the tree, ripped the buttons of his shirt open, and tore the garment off his back. He threw the sweat-drenched shirt into the branches of a prickly bush, ran through dense underbrush, and doubled back toward the kapok.
The ferocious jag passed the kapok, following Jack’s path, and stopped at the discarded shirt. She sniffed and pawed it, then circled the bush for traces of the man.
Jack hurled himself onto the rough-ribbed wood behind the stalled cat, gashed his naked chest as he found hand holds to climb toward the leafy ceiling. A flock of startled parrots lit out from tangled foliage as he reached the first limbs twenty feet in the air. Splashes of bright red and blue filled the sky as they surged to another roost. Their disturbed chirps caught the cat’s attention.
Jack grabbed a thick branch thirty feet up, sturdy enough to hold his weight. Rope-like muscles of his biceps bulged as he hefted himself skyward. He swung his leg over the branch and gazed below. Sweat dripped off his forehead, but his breathing remained steady. Excitement sped his heart beat. Playing tag with cantankerous kitties really got the juices going.
The perturbed black cat circled the base, tail whipping in the air.
“Rrooww!” She let her roar rip.
Even from thirty feet above, Jack glimpsed the glint of long, carnivorous fangs in the cat’s mouth.
“I’m up here, darlin’. What’s the matter, afraid of heights?”
The cat howled again, as if in reply to his taunt, and stretched her long body, claws digging into the coarse trunk. Her hind legs added a powerful climbing force the man hadn’t possessed.
Jack lingered on his resting spot a moment, admiring the sheer grace of his pursuer as she conquered the climb with instinctive precision. Her yellow eyes targeted him with a killer’s intent.
“All right, Jack,” he muttered. “Best be moving on.”
He scampered higher into the dense canopy of intermingled trees. A coiled green snake, camouflaged in the greenery lifted its head. Its tongue flicked to sense the identity of the intruder.
“Sorry, mate, I need a diversion.” Jack grabbed the hefty snake and aimed for the rising black feline. Splat, the snake’s body hit the cat in the face. The surprise assault caused her to momentarily lose her grip and slide a couple of feet, catching her rump on a branch. She lost sight of Jack long enough for him to grab hold of a sturdy vine and swing Tarzan-style to a neighboring kapok. Hugging the trunk, he used his legs to hold and release the tree in the efficient manner he’d learned from his native friends. Ms. Furious Feline continued her upward motion, not realizing her quarry now traveled in a downward mode on another trunk.
Jack glimpsed welcome terra-firma and jumped the last few feet to the ground. He leaned a broad hand against the trunk and saluted his wayward pursuer with his other hand. “It’s been fun, sweetheart.”
High above, the cat screeched her frustration again. “Rrooww!”
She sprawled on a strong limb, panting, much of her fight lost in the chase.
The camera crew materialized out of the jungle.“Cut! That’s a wrap, Jack.”
Mulligan, the tall, balding cameraman, checked his equipment. “I think I got a lot of good shots. Taking off the shirt was a great move. That ought to push your ratings up a couple points.”
Catching his breath, Jack grinned. “Always happy to oblige.”
A white cockatoo circled in for a landing on Jack’s shoulder and cooed bird love talk.
Jack patted the silken feathers. “Lorelei, my own sweet girl.”
Mulligan shook his head. “You had me worried for a moment back there when you froze. I was afraid you were going to turn it into a wrestling match. You cut it close, pal.”
A cloud of apprehension passed through Jack. What the devil had happened in that moment? The world had blurred, reality distorted. A bad dream escaping from his subconscious. Lorelei rubbed against his cheek. Better not to think about it.
Auntie Edith handed Jack a clean shirt. “The cat really wanted to rip your heart out. I almost gave the signal to hit her with the tranquilizer gun. If she’d have come one foot closer to your back, I’d have done it. You have no idea how angry she was.”
Jack shrugged his wide shoulders into the shirt. “Oh, I have a pretty fair idea. I may not be able to read their minds like you do, but I saw into her eyes. Bloody scary.”
Edith pursed her pixie lips. “You loved every minute of it and you know it.”
Jack reached out and mussed his aunt’s short-cropped cap of gray hair. “By God, you’re right. Did you see the way she put her head back and yowled? Gorgeous sight. Hey Mulligan, did you get that shot of her howling?”
“Got it,” he said as he removed Jack’s body mike.
Jack gazed up. The jag still roosted in the tree, posing now with queenly disdain. “What’s she thinking?”
Edith focused her mental beam on the cat. “She’s thinking, ‘next time, next time.’ You better keep your guard up. This one is more intelligent than most. She’d love nothing more than to rake her claws across your naked back.”
Jack reared his head and laughed. “I seem to have that effect on so many females.”
Edith continued her mental exchange with the jag. “I’ve told her to stay put or we’ll have to shoot her. She’s really annoyed. I also told her not to worry about her cubs. You hadn’t meant them any harm.”
Jack walked to the base of the jag’s tree. “So long, darlin’! You don’t know it, but I’ve just made you a television star.”
The cat’s tail snapped in irritation.
Jack wrapped his arm around Edith as they began to walk away. “That bit of excitement really worked up my appetite. Let’s get back to camp and you can grill me a deer steak.”
“Of course, luv. Then promise me we can leave this godforsaken island.”
Jack halted a moment and listened to the wild noises—birds, monkeys, insects. He stood trying to hear…something. What was it that drew him back to this place again and again, even when he had no desire to return? He shivered slightly. Ghosts walking over his grave or some such nonsense. He shook off the foreboding.
“You got it, Auntie. Hey, Mulligan, is there any beer left?”
Jack and his crew took a leisurely stroll back to their jungle camp.
Another working day in the life of Jaguar Jack Campbell, star of television and movies, international celebrity, daredevil extraordinaire.
And unbeknownst to him, soon to be undercover agent for the United States of America.