Three men crashed loudly through the bushes. They had extinguished their flashlights. The cops had been on their tails for miles and were only deterred at last by the rough terrain of the dense jungle they ran through. The cops were gone for now, but Paco Guerrero knew they would come back with helicopters and rangers who knew the area.
"This plan of yours better work," Paco growled at their guide, a rookie named Rafe Tierno.
Paco typically wouldn't trust someone that green with this much responsibility, but he didn't have much of a choice. His usual guide broke her leg a week before the job went down, and Paco was forced to recruit local talent. Angel Eva swore the guy was the best in the region. It was true he got them put of the city easy enough, but this trek into the jungle worried him.
"Don't worry," Rafe said, doing nothing to alleviate Paco's concerns. "My uncle used to work for a cartel running drugs through here, back in the '90s. He doesn't know why they left, but they left quick and didn't take anything down. It should all still be here."
'Should.' Paco sighed. They were basing everything on a 'should.'
In truth, Paco had a bad feeling about this job from the start. The mark was a bit more upscale than his usual work. So was the client, for that matter. It was the clearest warning a man could have, but the money being offered was too good for him to turn down. Money like that, he could retire, finally get some time to spend with his family. Though he had no romance in his life, his brother married an accountant, and the two of them were raising a fine pair of boys. He smiled as he thought of his nephews grinning when they saw Uncle Paco with his gifts.
The smile vanished off his face when he remembered he was not with his nephews and was, in fact, trudging through the damp underbrush. No, this was a bad idea.
"Don't worry," Rafe insisted, the cocky fool.
An animal of some sort hooted. Animals had been making a racket since they entered, but this one sounded different. Paco couldn't place it in his head. It wasn't exactly surprising. The jungles had a ton of different animal species with more being discovered all the time. This hoot stood out, however. It was like a sharp cough that echoed through the trees, and it left an eerie chill in his bones.
"What is that?" Fidel Marta asked. He was the one tasked with carrying the package, and he took the opportunity to shift his backpack and stretch his back.
"Hell if I know," Rafe said. He paused to look around at the surrounding treetops. "There are a lot of exotic animals around."
"Well, let's just…" Fidel began. Paco never found out what he thought they should do. Fidel stepped on an unstable stretch of shrubbery and fell. There was a dramatic incline hidden by the vegetation. Fidel slid down several feet and fell off a ridge to clatter down in a heap to the ground below.
"Shit!" Paco was alarmed. Was the package intact? Would Fidel be unable to carry it? Did the noise give away their position? Of course, he also was concerned about his colleague's health, but this was a serious job they were working, and he had his priorities.
Paco and Rafe carefully made their way down the hill, finding more stable terrain. Once safely on the ground, they made their way to their fallen teammate.
"Hey, you okay, buddy?" Paco knelt to examine Fidel.
"Oh, my back!" Fidel groaned. Wincing, he moved a hand to touch it but just hit his backpack.
"Is… is the package okay?' Fortunately, it was Rafe to broach the awkward subject. Paco didn't have to be the one to look like a jerk.
"No clue," Fidel said with effort. "The thing was wrapped up in foam. It might be okay."
"If it's not, the client will just have to accept it anyway," Rafe said quickly. "We did our best, and it's not like there's any other of its kind out there to take instead."
Paco offered Fidel a hand and helped him up. As he did, he analyzed Fidel's physical ability. He seemed like he could walk, but the backpack would slow him down considerably. "I better take it for now."
Fidel took off the backpack and handed it to Paco. Paco opened it and turned on his flashlight to take a look at the bundle containing the package. It seemed to be in one piece, and the bubble wrap still had most of the bubbles intact. Without opening it up to inspect it, it looked okay. He zipped up the bag and slung it up on his back. The energy in the group visibly improved with his silent judgment.
"Thanks, man." Fidel sighed.
"Can you walk?" Paco asked.
"Yeah… Yeah… I'm good." Fidel stumbled a bit and had a visible limp, but he seemed determined.
Paco sized him up. It looked like Fidel had the ability to keep up. If the cops came and things looked bad, Paco might have to cut him loose.
"Look!" Rafe pointed to a small path leading through the bushes. It wasn't much larger than a foot across, but it was clearly dug out by human hands.
"Finally." Paco grumbled. They could at last make their way through the dense jungle and get this damn job over with.
"Looks like things are looking up!" Rafe exclaimed.
The hooting came again, this time accompanied by chips and whistles. Either the animal was following them or there were multiple. The sound reminded Paco of parrot chatter. Maybe there was some kind of nighttime bird mating going on. He wasn't looking forward to listening to much more of that. It wasn't annoying, but there was something vaguely unnerving about it that he couldn't put his finger on.
Rafe led them into the path. Paco followed Rafe, and Fidel took up the rear. They hustled down the path, heading deeper into the dark jungle. The path was small, with encroaching bushes making the space claustrophobic. It wasn't exactly pleasant, but it was a hell of a lot better than wandering aimlessly.
"Whoa, what was that?" Fidel turned around and back. "Did you see that?"
"See what?" Paco looked around but saw nothing but the surrounding bushes.
"There was something big. It just ran past right behind me!" Fidel was getting panicked.
"How big?" Paco demanded. "Like a cougar?"
Costa Rica was home to a lot of dangerous wildlife. Despite its reputation for exotic animals, the common cougar was one of the worst threats to people.
"Shit." Fidel looked back and forth. "I don't know, man."
It could have been a cougar. Paco cursed rapidly under his breath. He still had to keep his eyes on the prize, but he needed to make sure he lived long enough to see the job through. To do that, he had to break one of his rules.
"Guns out," he ordered. He didn't want to fire. Even in the middle of this expansive jungle, the boom of gunfire could signal their location to their pursuers. If they were in fact being stalked by a deadly predator, however, they didn't have much choice.
Pulling out their pistols, they turned to face the section of jungle into which Fidel insisted the shape had vanished. It was just a guess that the beast still was there. For all they knew, it had disappeared into the depths of the jungle, leaving them far behind. Paco couldn't help but imagine the creature instead circling around them to stalk them still. If not for this excited bit of paranoia on Paco's part, he might never have noticed the subtle hissing coming from the bushes to his left.
He acted on gut instinct. Exhaling, he clicked off the safety, turned left, aimed toward the sound, and squeezed the trigger. The gun produced a deafening rapping sound, comparable to striking a steel beam with a cudgel. To fire without safety equipment was hell on his ears, and for a moment, all he could hear was high-pitched ringing. A high-pitched animal shriek of a terrifying nature followed soon after.
Something slammed into Paco's back. He was knocked off his feet and crashed down on his chest. His gun flew out of his hands.
Fidel screamed. Paco turned his head to see him struggling on the ground with something on top of him, some kind of animal. It wasn't a cougar; that was for damn sure. It was dark green, striped, with a thin tail that waved back and forth in the air as its muzzle tore chunks of flesh out of Fidel's body.
It took Paco a second to realize with horror that another of the same animal must be on top of him too. He felt it shifting its weight as it stood on top of his backpack. The sound of canvas ripping prompted an image of a similar dark green muzzle buried in his backpack. For now, the attack was absorbed by the backpack, but it was only a matter of time before it redirected its attentions.
The familiar rapping sound of gunfire filled the air, and the animal fell from its perch on Paco's back. Paco was saved by Rafe's quick action. He glanced up to regard with great respect the sight of his teammate clutching the pistol and glaring at the creatures and then looked to where the shot animal had fallen. Paco could just make out the sight of a nightmarish reptile with huge claws and a mouth full of pointed teeth before his attention was stolen by Rafe firing again.
Paco looked where Rafe fired and saw the animal on Fidel stumble. Rafe continued to fire, and the animal fell. It was too late to save Fidel. The man was nothing more than a bloody mess.
Paco turned his gaze back on Rafe and saw a reptile head looming up behind him from the trees. "Look out!"
Rafe swiveled around. He raised his gun but was too slow. The creature leaped on top of him. Rafe fired into its chest, but its leg lanced down and sliced him open with its large claw. Paco saw his intestines slide out.
Paco stumbled to his feet and took off running. Leaves and tree trunks slammed into him, but he wouldn't let that slow him down. He didn't know which way to go. He just started running. Anywhere was better than staying put.
He emerged from the dense trees into a small glade. He came to a halt. It wasn't empty. Heads looked up and turned in his direction. More of the animals. Dozens of them. They chirped curiously, and he recognized the sound from before. What the fuck were they?
The bushes rustled behind him. He turned around and saw the beast that killed Rafe emerge. Its body was slick with his dark blood. It pulled back its lips and hissed.
Paco opened his mouth to scream.