"Did you say something?" Dr. Fairfield asked. She was still bent down by the dead calf.
It was the Zulu name for the monster, one that was whispered around campfires and kraal huts.
He knew why such a beast came to mind now. Five months ago, an old tribesman claimed to have seen an ukufa near here. Half beast, half ghost, with eyes of fire, the old man had railed with dead certainty. Only those as old as the leathery elder took heed. The others, like Khamisi, pretended to humor the tribesman.
But here in the dark shadows…
"We should go," Khamisi said.
"But we don't know what killed her."
"Not poachers." That's all Khamisi needed or wanted to know. He waved his rifle toward the Jeep. He would radio the head warden, get the matter signed off and settled. Predator kill. No poaching. They'd leave the carcass to the carrion. The cycle of life.
Dr. Fairfield reluctantly rose.
Off to the right, a drawn-out call split through the shadowy jungle—hoo eeee OOOO—punctuated by a high-pitched feral scream.
Khamisi trembled where he stood. He recognized the cry, not so much with his head as with his bone marrow. It echoed back to midnight campfires, to stories of terror and bloodshed, and even further back, to something primeval, to a time before speech, where life was instinct.
As the scream faded away, silence again fell heavily over them.
Khamisi mentally measured the distance between them and the Jeep. They needed to retreat, but not in a panic. A fearful flight would only whet a predator's bloodlust.
Out in the jungle, another scream growled.
All from different directions.
In the sudden quiet afterward, Khamisi knew they had only one chance. "Run."
Gray lay on his belly across the roof tiles, head down, sprawled where he'd missed grabbing Fiona. The image of her tumbling over the smoky edge of the roof seared into his mind's eye. His heart thudded in his chest.
Oh, God…what've I done…?
Over his shoulder, a fresh spat of flames burst out the attic dormer, accompanied by a growled rush of heat and smoke. Despite his distress, he had to move.
Gray willed himself up onto his elbows, then hands, pushing up.
To the side, the fire took a momentary breath, falling back. In the lull, he heard voices below, urgent, furtive. Also closer to him… a low moan. Just beyond the roofline.
Gray dropped back to his belly and scooted in a controlled slide to the roof's edge. Smoke choked up from the shattered windows directly below. He used the pall to cloak his approach.
Reaching the guttered edge, he glanced down.
Directly under him stretched a wrought-iron balcony…no, not a balcony. It was a landing to a staircase. The exterior stairs that Fiona had mentioned.
Sprawled across the landing was the girl.
With a second groggy groan, Fiona rolled over and began to haul herself up, using the railing posts.
Others noted her movement.
Out in the courtyard below, Gray spotted two figures. One stood in the middle of the flagstones, a rifle raised to his shoulder, searching for a clear shot. Black smoke belched out the broken apartment door window, obscuring Fiona from view. The sniper waited for the girl to get her head above the landing's railing.
"Stay down," he hissed at Fiona.
She glanced up. Bright blood dribbled across her brow.
The second gunman circled, a black pistol clutched double-fisted. He aimed for the stairs, intent to block any escape.
Gray motioned Fiona to remain crouched, then rolled along the roofline until he was above the second gunman. The churning smoke continued to keep him hidden. Most of the assassins' attention remained focused on the stairs. Once in position, Gray waited. He clutched a heavy roof tile in his right hand, one of the stone tiles Fiona had loosened during her tumble.
He would have only one shot.
Below, the man held his pistol at the ready and placed one foot on the lowermost stair.
Gray leaned over the edge, arm raised.
He whistled sharply.
The gunman glanced up, swiveling his weapon and dropping to a knee. Damned fast…
But gravity was faster.
Gray chucked the tile. It spun through the air like an ax and struck the gunman in his upraised face. Blood spurted from the man's nose. He fell back hard. His head hit the flagstones, bounced, then didn't move.
Gray rolled again—back toward Fiona.
A shout rose from the rifleman.
Gray kept his gaze fixed on him. He had hoped downing the man's partner would chase the other off. No such luck. The rifleman fled to the opposite side, finding shelter near a trash bin but leaving him a clear shot still. His sniping position was close to the burning rear of the shop, taking advantage of the smoke billowing out a neighboring window.
Gray reached Fiona again. He waved her to stay low. It would be their deaths to attempt to haul Fiona up. Both would be exposed too long.
That left only one choice.
Gripping the gutter with one hand, Gray lunged and swung down. He dropped to the landing with a ring of steel, then ducked low.
A brick above his head shattered.
Gray reached to his ankle sheath and pulled his dagger free.
Fiona eyed it. "What are we—?"
"Youare going to stay here," he ordered.
Gray reached a hand to the railing above. All he had was the element of surprise. No body armor, no weapon except his dagger.
"Run when I tell you," he said. "Straight down the stairs and over your neighbor's fence. Find the first policeman or firefighter. Can you do that?"
Fiona met his eyes. It looked as if she were about to argue, but her lips tightened and she nodded.
Gray balanced the dagger in his hand. One chance again. Taking a deep breath, Gray leaped up, pinioned off the railing, and vaulted over it. As he fell toward the flagstones, he did two things at the same time.
"Run!" he hollered and tossed the dagger toward the sniper's hiding place. He didn't hope for a kill, just a distraction long enough to close quarters with the man. A rifle was ungainly in tight situations.
As he landed, he noted two things.
One good, one bad.
He heard Fiona's ringing footsteps down the metal staircase.
She was fleeing.
At the same time, Gray watched his dagger wing through the smoky air, bang the trash bin, and bounce off. His toss hadn't even been close.
That was bad.
The sniper rose from his spot unfazed, rifle ready, aimed straight at Gray's chest.