Western Thailand Jungle
March 2
Four Months Ago

The voices in his head were back.

“You no forget blood chit.”

Dante Johnson forced his swollen eyelids open, confirming he was alone in the dark basement cell. That he’d only imagined the Thai orderly Ping’s chop-chop voice.

He lifted his head, groaned. His ears rang like a couple of bell towers. A familiar calling card. He tried to move, but nearly blacked out again.

So what had hit him this time? Flashback, premonition, seizure? Or just another sucker punch courtesy of this damn malaria relapse?

As crappy as he felt, he at least knew the guards hadn’t beaten him while he was passed out. That had a totally different feel.

He sucked in a shallow breath. Relax, damn it. Think of the ocean. The sun. Think of waves lapping against his sailboat. He could practically feel it. The tropical breeze. The sweat on his skin as he chopped up that bitch’s body and fed it to the sharks. Yeah…that was it.

The sweetness of the dream beckoned and he was almost asleep when Ping’s voice echoed in his head once more. “You no forget-”

The blood chit.

Oh, shit!

Ignoring the protest of bruised ribs, he struggled to sit up. What the hell time was it and how long had he been out? Had the guard already been by for the three o’clock cell check?

He craned his neck toward the barred window high on the wall. Even though it still looked middle-of-night dark outside, the difference between 2 a.m. and 4 was huge. Life or death huge.

Rain slashed the glass. The unseasonable monsoons that cursed the area the past week hadn’t let up. Conspicuously absent, though, was the metallic scrape-drag of a dozen shovels.

The graves were finished.

Can’t worry about that now.

“Think,” he muttered. “What’s the last thing I remember?”

He struggled to focus. Earlier tonight he’d been outside, digging in the mud. Digging his own grave. Then he’d passed out, coming to just in time to receive slacker’s pay: thirty lashes.

No, after that. After he’d been returned to his cell. Ping had come by…to consummate their deal. Their goddamned deal.

He started scratching furiously around in the dirt floor. After negotiating an escape plan that seemed to have half a chance, had he blown it mere hours before his scheduled execution? If he’d screwed this up–

The cuts crisscrossing his fingertips stung as he dug, angry recriminations continuing to ricochet helter-skelter in his head.

After what seemed like two eternities, his fingers connected with first the shackle key, then the short-bladed knife. At least he’d had enough sense to hide them when Ping left.

A sudden dizziness scrambled his stomach. Lunging for the bucket, he vomited.

When his stomach was empty, he collapsed against the wall. The pounding in his head metronomed in sync with the storm as cramps wracked his insides.

In another part of the building, a door slammed, the sound muffled and distant. Completely alert, Dante leaned forward, listening for a second slam that would confirm the guard was making rounds.

He caught himself making a deal with God, then retracted it. His prayers had long gone unanswered. Yet when the second door slammed, he silently rejoiced. Maybe he had a chance after all.

Splaying his legs out in front, he unlocked the ankle manacle, made certain it opened freely. The four-foot chain allowed movement between his bunk and the slop bucket while restricting him to one corner of the six-by-eight cell.

He slumped to one side and leaned against the foot of the bunk. Then he dropped his head to his chest, hoping he looked passed out as the longest minutes of his life ticked tortuously by.

Time stretched and skewed as one worst-case scenario after another kaleidoscoped on his mind’s IMAX, beginning with the idiotic deal with Ping.

His gut instincts about the situation had been all over the board. He couldn’t lock onto any single outcome. One moment he’d see himself free; the next he’d get a feeling that Ping was lying. Then there was a premonition of death. Ping’s death, he hoped, since the vision usually followed thoughts of the orderly. But that wasn’t always the case.

It was crazy. He was crazy.

Trusting Ping – hell, anyone, had goatfuck written all over it. The guards had set up Dante before; allowed him to break out only to be captured and tortured – for sport.

But thoughts of escape had continued to consume him. That, and payback. In fact, most days vengeance beat out survival. The idea of getting even with the woman who had done this to him, who was responsible for his capture and the death of his friends took on epic proportions in Dante’s dreams. He lived to make sure she paid. With her life.