Veronica Kelly came to Africa to start her life over. Still reeling from her divorce, she is grateful when a handsome stranger invites her to join a tour to visit gorillas in Uganda's wild Impenetrable Forest. A trip that goes desperately wrong when their group is captured by brutal gunmen.
Then one tourist is executed.
And then another.
This is no random kidnapping: their abduction is only the first move in a deadly strategic game. A game in which Veronica's ex-husband is somehow involved.
Now she must embark on a wild journey across Africa, to unveil a malignant conspiracy before it consumes entire nations - and thousands of lives...
"I think something's wrong," Susan says.
It takes some time for the words to trickle into Veronica's mind. She is too busy breathing to pay much attention to anything outside her body. Her lungs feel on fire, her feet are alive with blisters, her mind is lost in a fog of exhaustion. She doesn't even think to wonder why they have stopped until she registers the concern in Susan's voice.
Veronica lifts her head, looks around, tries to re-engage with the world. It seems like they have been trekking forever in this damp heat, up this steep and muddy trail. They are still in deep jungle. Montane rainforest, technically, but it feels like jungle, in the most alien and forbidding sense of the word. There is a reason this is called the Impenetrable Forest. The vegetation here is so violently, densely fecund that even the greenery has greenery: roots and branches are covered by moss, vines hang on vines, the boulders that dot the trail look like verdant hillocks. Leaves and ferns glisten with water from recent rain. Birds chirp, monkeys hoot, water burbles, clouds of pure-white butterflies flutter through the damp air. Only a few shafts of light fall through the massive canopy trees into the dense thickets below.
Ahead of them a walkie-talkie emits a burst of static, followed by a half-dozen sentences in some African language. Their guide holds the walkie-talkie close to his ear. In his other hand he holds his panga, a viciously curved machete. He looks carved out of ebony, short and powerfully built. After a pause he pushes his radio's red TALK button and speaks in a slow and careful voice. Veronica can't remember his name. Something biblical.
"What happened?" she asks Susan. "Why did we stop?"
The blonde British girl shrugs. "I don't know. I think he saw something. On the ground."
Veronica looks down and sees nothing but mud and underbrush. But then she is a city girl, while their guide has spent decades tracking gorillas through this rainforest, he can probably deduce volumes from a broken twig she wouldn't even notice. She had total faith in him when they departed park headquarters, he seemed so tough and self-assured. Now his voice sounds uncertain.
She looks around at the others. The Canadians, Derek and Jacob, are about ten feet away. Derek stands erect, breathing easily, his lean and muscled body already ready for further exertions. She can see the dragon tattoo coiled around his left bicep. Veronica has hardly admitted it to herself, much less anyone else, but Derek is the real reason she is here. Jacob is beside him, his pale, lanky, goateed form doubled over with hands on knees, gasping for air. Veronica feels sorry for him, but also grateful that she is not their foursome's weakest link. Susan looks like a model, willowy and fine-boned, and Veronica expected her to wilt like a fragile flower; but it seems she's tough, too.
The rest of their gorilla group is far enough behind to be invisible, but Veronica can hear the rustling of the hanging vines and underbrush as they catch up. The Brits appear first, Tom and Judy, slow and portly and middle-aged but surprisingly durable. They look like they're still enjoying themselves. Diane and Michael behind them do not. The two fiftysomething Americans are thin but not fit, and Diane in particular looks haggard. The Ugandan guards bring up the rear, two men in camouflage uniforms with scary-looking rifles slung over their shoulders.
"What's this then? Elijah finally call for a tea break?" Tom asks, hoarse but cheerful. Elijah is their guide's name, Veronica remembers. "Why start now, just when we're having so much fun?"
"We don't know yet." Susan too is British, but her clipped upper-class accent is entirely unlike Tom and Judy's broad syllables. "He saw something on the ground."
"Gorilla dung?" Judy asks, excited.
Susan frowns. "I don't think so."
Elijah's walkie-talkie crackles with new life, and everyone goes quiet.
"What's the story, mate?" Tom asks, when the disembodied voice falls silent.
Elijah shakes his head. "Silence, I beg you. Give me silence."
His low singsong voice is hypnotic. They obey. Elijah turns in a slow circle, peering intently into the jungle, so dark and overgrown it feels almost more like a cave than a forest. The idea makes Veronica uneasy. She doesn't like confined spaces.
Veronica glances back at the guards in time to see them exchange a tense glance. A tendril of anxiety slithers into her gut and begins to tighten into an icy knot. Susan was right. Something is wrong.
Elijah completes his rotation, considers a moment, and says quietly, "We must turn back."
It is Michael, outraged, who breaks the silence. "What? No. We can't go back now."
"You may return tomorrow."
"No. Out of the question. We have to go to Kampala tomorrow, we've got a flight the next day. We are absolutely not going back now. We've already climbed an hour, we're already here. They can't be far away now. You said it would only be an hour."
"Really, Michael, if he thinks it's better -" Diane begins, looking like she wishes she had never come to Africa.
He cuts her off. "We paid four hundred dollars each, for a full hour with these gorillas, and we're going to stay here until we find them. You can bring these other folks back tomorrow. My wife and I need to see them today."
Veronica winces. She hates being around Americans like Michael, the ugly tourists who give her country a bad name. Elijah is wholly responsible for their collective well-being, in this jungle literally on the edge of civilization, and Michael is berating him like he would a dishonest taxi driver. He reminds Veronica of her ex-husband Danton at his worst. She wants to shout at him but knows it wouldn't improve the situation.
Elijah doesn't answer directly. Instead he barks out something in an African language, and both guards unsling their rifles. Michael takes a step back, eyes wide, as if they might respond to his demands with gunfire.
Elijah says, "We go back, all of us, now."
"What's going on? Poachers?" Derek sounds icily calm.
"Yes, poachers," Elijah agrees quickly. "Now go."
The group turns around and begins to retrace their trail, moving fast, any remaining reluctance snuffed out by the sight of readied weapons. They move through silence, the birds and monkeys have all ceased their chatter. Veronica is right behind the guards. She can see the tension in their muscles, and feel her heart thumping rapidly inside her ribcage. She tells herself that nothing will happen, this has nothing to do with her. Just poachers hunting gorillas, they won't come after tourists, and even if that were to happen, they have two armed guards with them, they'll be fine.
She jumps as the silence is broken by a loud crack from somewhere within the jungle. It sounds like the breaking of a sturdy branch. Veronica thinks she might have seen a camera flash. One of the guards twitches, slips on the mud and falls face-first only a few feet ahead of her.
"Stop!" Elijah shouts. He sounds alarmed now. Frightened. "Fall down! Fall down, all of you!"
None of them obey. Veronica turns to stare at him, unsure that she even heard him correctly: fall down? Elijah's eyes are wide and he is waving his arm violently as if miming a falling tree. He grabs Jacob by the shoulder and actually shoves him to the ground. Beside him, without further encouragement, Derek drops gracefully into a push-up position. Tom, Judy, Michael and Diane, closer to the guards, stand frozen in place.
Veronica turns back towards the fallen man. An awful notion has birthed in her mind. The world seems to be moving in slow motion. His uniform is now thickly stained by a dark liquid, and he is twitching erratically, like some kind of broken machine. The other guard seems to have disappeared into the jungle.
"Down!" Derek shouts. "Everyone get down!"
The fallen guard's breath is fast and shallow, blood is seeping from his torso into the dark mud beneath him. Back at park headquarters, only an hour ago, Tom and Judy started talking to him, and he told them proudly he had five children. Veronica knows she should try to help him. She is the only person here with medical training. But she doesn't move.
Another hollow crack erupts from the jungle, louder and closer than the last, from where the other guard disappeared. It is followed quickly by two more, even louder, even closer. Veronica slowly starts to back away from the fallen guard, telling herself it's too late, she can't do anything for him. Then she sees movement in the greenery beyond him, less than ten feet away, and she freezes again.
A levelled rifle emerges from the jungle, held by a short and wiry man dressed in rubber boots, ragged khaki shorts and a black Tupac Shakur T-shirt. His face is marked with vertical scars. His gun is aimed directly at Veronica, she can look right down the dark eye of its barrel.
Foliage rustles like paper as other intruders advance through the shadowed jungle all around. The pungent scent of gunpowder fills the air. Veronica stares disbelievingly at the gunman before her, as if he might be a hallucination. She feels very cold.