Night of the Assassin Excerpt

Night of the Assassin

Russell Blake

© 2011


Published by Russell Blake. Copyright 2011 by Russell Blake. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used, reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage or retrieval system, without the written permission of the publisher, except where permitted by law, or in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. For information, contact [email protected].


 A Note From The Author

Night of the Assassin is the prequel to King of Swords, which chronicles the story of the super-assassin, “El Rey” and his plot to execute the presidents of the U.S. and Mexico at the G-20 summit in San Jose del Cabo, Mexico. During the chaotic and breakneck writing of that epic tale, I was constantly struck by fleeting insights into the mind of the killer, some of which I captured in glowing detail in that tome. But even as I put King of Swords to bed, I couldn’t shake the sense of unfinished business. I’d go to sleep and have vivid dreams, and they were always the same – about the characters in my book. Specifically, they were about the assassin’s past. It was like a disease. I couldn’t stop thinking about him.

That’s unfamiliar to me, for the most part. I had the same general sense when I got done with Al, from The Geronimo Breach, but I had no compulsion to write another book about him, fascinating as his character was. I felt closure at the end of that work. I’d told Al’s story, as well as I could, and there wasn’t more I felt I could add. There were no more words that needed writing.

But I no sooner finished King of Swords than I started making notes for a prequel. Which is really the wrong way to go about it. I’m a simple man. When starting a story, I always like the ‘Once Upon A Time’ part at the beginning, and ‘The End’ at, well, the end. But that’s not how it panned out for me this time. I felt driven to write about the assassin some more, and to mine his background. What created a man who could dispassionately terminate people’s lives for a living? What drove him to do the unthinkable? Was he a monster in the traditional sense? Did he kick dogs or swerve to hit them in the road? Did he put his socks on before or after his underwear?

It was fascinating to me, because El Rey was alive in my head. You see, I knew the answers to the questions I was asking, for once in my life.

And so it came to pass that I have the opportunity to share with you what I gleaned from him.

El Rey’s past, or at least the highlights of it, are alive on the page. If I’ve done my job right, you’ll be hurtled along on a ride like no other, to be at times shocked, titillated, revolted, sad, and ultimately, entertained.

I suppose you could say that El Rey won this round.

Enjoy this humble offering, with my compliments.

Your servant,

Russell Blake


 Chapter 1

Midnight, Five Years Ago

The lights from Contessa, the 160-foot Christensen super yacht, glowed off the calm surface of the harbor below the Grand Bay Hotel in Barra de Navidad, twenty-six miles northwest of Manzanillo, Mexico – the primary deep water port on the Pacific coast of mainland Mexico. It was a calm spring night, the air heavy with the scent of the ubiquitous tropical flowers, beaded with moisture from the cloudbursts that had sulked over the hazy, humid day. Crickets sang their mating cries to the broiling heavens, the only sound on the water besides the dull thumping of the disco beat emanating from the massive boat’s salon, which lay beneath the superstructure that supported a four passenger helicopter and a complement of jet skis.

The creaking lines of the yacht strained as the tide rolled in and the moon’s perennial pull drew higher the water level in the marina; the ropes that secured the ship to its long dock keened in futile protest. Armed security men clad in black windbreakers patrolled the concrete walkway that curved the length of the private marina, the unmistakable outline of Heckler & Koch UMP submachine-guns a silent testament to their intent. The battle-hardened men chartered with the safety of those aboard the yacht were dead serious, resonating a constant state of readiness against threats from any approach. The drug cartel skirmishes had escalated over the past two years – the guards had been in some blistering firefights with rival groups and seen more than their share of blood. These were men for whom killing was routine, and they drew their pay with the understanding that any day might be their last.

A radio crackled as the group checked in with one another, each member confirming that all was calm. The routine was to monitor everyone’s status every fifteen minutes throughout the night. If danger came, it often did so in the wee hours, and the group’s leader was keenly sensitive to possible fatigue or boredom – a luxury that could prove fatal on that detail.

Peals of shrill female laughter pierced the night as the salon sliding door opened to allow three scantily-clad young Mexican women onto the rear deck, to where the ashtrays were located near a well-stocked bar and a sumptuous over-sized hot tub. The girls were regular company for the owner of the boat, Sylvio Contreras, the number one warlord in Sonora and the head of the Zapata cartel. Not one was older than nineteen, the youngest seventeen – ‘Papi’ Contreras liked his meat fresh and tender, the more so since he’d had his fiftieth birthday the prior week. He could certainly afford the best, and there was a constant stream of eager girls interested is renting their charms; Contreras controlled a significant chunk of the Colombian cocaine and Mexican methamphetamine traffic that made its way through Sonora to the United States, and his annual personal take from the trade exceeded one billion U.S. dollars per year.

Contessa was one of three yachts Papi owned – the larger ones were on the eastern shore of Mexico and in Costa Rica, one docked in Cozumel and the other bouncing around Central American ports as its owner’s whims dictated. Contessa was more of a weekend getaway destination, a quick hop from home, whereas the others were good for several weeks aboard. Papi burned roughly twelve million dollars a year keeping his boats in the water before starting the engines. They were ready for him at any hour, staffed with full-time crews consisting of captains, chefs, deckhands, mechanics, maids, bartenders and masseuses. Security traveled with him at an extra cost. Then again, Papi wasn’t price-sensitive, and couldn’t have told anyone precisely what he spent on his lifestyle. He knew that his plane had cost forty million, and this boat a hundred and twenty, with the others roughly a quarter billion, but when you were rolling a billion or more bucks a year, what did it matter? The total he’d lavished on toys amounted to what he would clear by June, so it ceased to have any meaning.

The girls were in high spirits, fueled by a combination of tequila and cocaine, which was one of the other reasons why a place by Papi’s side was coveted – you had access to all the high-grade chemical supplementation you could want, in addition to the lavish financial generosity afforded his female companions. They blew smoke and chatted about clothes and their favorite television programs, taking a break from the fiesta that was winding down inside. Contreras had begun his birthday bash several weeks earlier and had decided to make it a month long event, hopping from destination to destination with his entourage, which consisted of his brother and a group of five or six girls, accompanied by a security detail of two dozen mercenaries. They flew in a 727 he’d acquired for next to nothing when it was put out of service by an American airline and, after ten million in refurbishments at a friend’s factory in Costa Rica, it served as his flying army headquarters.

Tensions were high between the Zapatas and the Gulf cartel, as well as the Sinaloa cartel, and the outbreaks of violence had escalated until the death toll reached into the hundreds each month. As with most of the disagreements that resolved in bloody skirmishes, this one had to do with power and money. The Sinaloa cartel felt that Sonora was making too much from its relatively insignificant place in the food chain, and was trying to dis-intermediate Contreras in order to increase its net. The Gulf cartel was more personal – Contreras had butchered the family of one of the Gulf’s ranking captains over some real or imagined sleight, and that had ignited a blood feud between the two cartels. All of which was just humdrum business for Contreras, who was one of the oldest of the living cartel bosses. He’d invented many of the tactics that were now standard in settling disputes, including beheadings, mass executions with bodies left in prominent places as a warning, the murder of judges and cops, and grenade attacks in densely-populated urban areas. Contreras was a maverick in the trade, an innovator, who more than most understood that if you didn’t have someone trying to kill you every moment, you were doing something wrong.

Contreras had sent the staff and his brother away to stay the night in the hotel perched above the marina so he could enjoy his private party with just his companions. He enjoyed his privacy immensely, even though in his line of work it was a commodity rarer than gold. As a cartel head, he was constantly surrounded by security personnel so part of the appeal of his boats was the ability to enjoy at least the illusion of privacy.

The door to the salon slid open again and a heavyset hirsute man with a bushy graying mustache and tousled curly black hair, wearing a Versace silk bathrobe and lambskin slippers walked out onto the deck, gesturing to the girls with an unlit Cohiba in his right hand. The youngest, Veronica, leapt to her feet with a lighter and rushed to attend to their host. Contreras smiled at her as he puffed on the hand-rolled Cuban cigar, and playfully slapped one of her perfectly-sculpted buttocks after fondling it through her white linen mini-booty shorts for a few moments.

“Oh, Papi!” she exclaimed with a giggle, faux indignation and petulance dripping from every syllable.

Eh, so how you girls doing? You ready to make a party with your Papi? Come on. You know how I like it,” Contreras rasped in his distinctive Sonoran accent.

The girls extinguished their cigarettes and exchanged glances. It was show time. Veronica moved to her two new friends and they began kissing, then caressing each other. Contreras stood by, watching impassively as the action moved from tepid to hot, and clothes began shedding along with any remaining inhibitions. Smooth, creamy brown skin rubbed against the cushions of the semi-oval exterior seating area, and soon the girls were largely naked, other than a captain’s hat the oldest, Ana, kept perched precariously on her head even as Veronica’s probing tongue  battled for her attention.

Papi opened a small eighteen-carat gold box and quickly tapped out two small piles of white powder on the glass exterior bar behind him. He snorted the heaping lines of cocaine laced with Levitra with gusto as he leered at the ménage a trois. He shook his head and stamped his foot against the teak deck in what he imagined resembled a wild bull’s mating dance before throwing his head back and grinning crookedly at the moon as it struggled to break through the gathered clouds. It was a good life; he was a lucky man. This had been a fantastic birthday so far and whoever had said that life began at fifty wasn’t lying. He reached below the bar and extracted a bottle of Herradura Selección Suprema tequila and poured a healthy slug of the amber nectar into a tumbler before returning his attention to the nubile entertainment. Yes indeed, a great birthday. He studied the face of his platinum Rolex Masterpiece and noted the time – a little after midnight. Another day older and closer to death. Ah, well. What was one to do? He’d try to enjoy himself nonetheless.

“Ladies. You’re shameless. Move inside and let the games begin. And save some love for Papi!”


The security team studiously avoided looking up at the transom of the huge ship, preferring to scan the periphery for signs of intruders. Papi’s love for the high life was well known and by now the men had seen everything. It was all fun until he couldn’t perform or things turned nasty after too many drugs and the girls ended up begging for forgiveness. They’d had to bury their fair share of young strippers who had failed to judge his moods correctly. He was infamous for being mercurial. Being a playmate for a narcotraficante was a high-risk, high-reward proposition in a world where the men were inured to violence and thought nothing of snuffing out life on virtually any pretense, including because it amused them to do so.

A pelican rustled its feathers at the water’s edge before taking flight, swooping low over the water as it searched out more tranquil surroundings. Two of the sentries swung around at the sound, ready to engage whatever enemy presented itself. They exhaled with relief when they saw the huge bird lumber into the air. Everyone’s nerves were raw from the last week’s duty, moving from danger zone to danger zone while Contreras partied without a care. They were in friendly territory but that counted for little when he was exposed like this. Every moment held the possibility of an attack by enemies who were every bit as vicious and determined as Papi, and when he wasn’t in his fortified compound back home, the risk-factor went through the roof.

The men were working in shifts, eight guards each shift, four hours on, eight off, so they could get rest and stay alert. After four hours of high-intensity patrolling, acuity fell off markedly and human error became more likely. The cartel game was one where you only got to make one mistake – your last. Papi was paying the highest rates in the world for his security; they wanted for nothing; but in return, he expected them to keep him safe no matter what, and if that meant every member of the team taking a bullet for him, so be it.

That was the gig.

The sound of the party from the boat was a headache for them, although no one would dare mention it to Papi. But he might as well have painted a big bulls-eye on the ship’s bow for any hostiles in the area. The head of security, Alberto, clenched his jaw as the women laughed, each squeal of ecstasy an invitation to disaster…in his mind. Let the old pervert bang around with his doped-up teenagers inside the fucking boat. Why did he need to make such a public display of it? It was recklessly endangering them all. He sucked down his frustration and concentrated on the job at hand, eyes scanning the surrounding dock area and the buildings for any hint of latent danger. They’d be back at the compound tomorrow afternoon, and so far there had been no attacks; with any luck they’d make it home safe, where the routine drill would be executed in a more controlled environment – where they knew everyone and owned the town. This was making him nervous – exposed – on the water, a million miles from nowhere with the boss kite-high on powder and bellowing into the night sky as though he was safe in his own living room.

A cat scurried after a large rat on the slick-wet concrete path by the shops at the far end of the marina, setting Alberto’s nerves further on edge. He didn’t want to think of how wound-up his men must be after almost ten days of constant vigilance. All he needed was a trigger-happy lapse and they’d have the police and military landing on them, which would be a little awkward given that Papi was the number four most wanted man in Mexico. Money obviously bought selective vision where he was concerned, but it would only go so far. Gunfire at a six star hotel’s exclusive marina could raise the wrong eyebrows and the last thing Alberto needed was an all-out gun battle with the military in the dead of night.

He silently cursed Contreras for being so careless, then exhaled a sigh of relief when he heard the mobster call his whores back inside the boat with him. Alberto had six men on land, two on the boat, and one on each side of the bridge keeping watch for any potential menace that they might miss from the dock. It would be impossible to approach the yacht from the water in the still of the night – any boat would be immediately detected, even if it was being rowed. But he wanted to ensure that all avenues of attack were covered, so even the waterside was being watched. Contessa was docked on a side tie, her port side fastened to the pilings and the starboard side facing the harbor opening, beyond which the bay stretched into a black nothingness. If there was going to be an assault it would have to come from the land because they’d have enough warning from the ship’s radar to take positions on the waterside and cut any encroaching vessel to pieces.

They’d covered all possible approaches yet he was still worried. Maybe it was the place, or maybe because it was the last night of Papi’s latest binge. But Alberto had an ugly feeling in his guts – and it wasn’t something he’d eaten. He sensed there was something out there coming for them. And whatever it was, it meant them harm.

He called to his men for their radio check-in; everyone responded immediately, sounding alert and precise. They were the best. Seasoned professional killers from a half dozen countries, making thirty-five grand a month each to lay their lives on the line. He didn’t like the odds of anyone foolish enough to take them on in the dead of night.

But his gut still told him they had a problem.


The assassin checked the bright luminescent face of his stopwatch, noting with satisfaction that he was on schedule. He listened for the sound of the party at the marina, which was still some distance away. Faint gusts of music muttered a vague cadence over the water. The target was making it almost too easy for him. Perhaps it was just providence calling time on Papi. But whatever the wheels within wheels of cruel nature, he thanked his lucky stars that he’d taken this contract – one of the largest he’d ever been offered, at a million and a half dollars.

He’d planned the attack to the second and researched everything from the marina layout to the surroundings, even going as far as locating blueprints and a schematic for the ship and committing them to memory. This was his specialty – the impossible to carry-off execution of untouchables was his stock-in-trade. It had made him infamous in a relatively short time. But this would be the most difficult sanction yet, due to the heightened vigilance of the security team he knew would be on-edge the final night of their rough duty, which concluded in a vulnerable location. He’d thought through all possible ways of terminating Contreras, and when he’d decided on his final plan, even he was impressed at the ingenuity of it. Now he just needed his contractors to be on time and to do their job, and Papi was better than dead.

He slipped below the surface of the water and submerged to a depth of fifteen feet. That would be sufficient for his purposes. The small waterproof GPS unit he’d programmed with the coordinates of the dock glowed orange with just enough luminescence to be readable from three feet away. By his calculations, he would need ten minutes to swim to his starting position before the plan engaged, and he’d allowed himself fifteen, just in case. Better safe than sorry on a night like this. His tank held sufficient air to breath for an hour, which he hoped would be far more than necessary.

It had been difficult arranging for all the pieces he’d need to end the life of the brutal cartel kingpin; expensive too, but sometimes cost was key. He’d learned through harsh experience not to pinch pennies or cheap out. By the end of the night he’d be far richer, so in the end, whatever his sunk costs were would have paid for themselves. He was nothing if not pragmatic about the job.

His easy, practiced stroke propelled him smoothly through the warm water as he neared the private marina. He sensed he was close when he felt a current heralding the mouth of the harbor, as the surge pulled him through the broad opening. Visibility was zero in the inky darkness, and he was flying entirely by his instruments, which told him he had another hundred and fifty yards to go. Contessa was at the dock closest to the harbor’s entry, commanding the entire length, so there was no cover or alternative to doing the dive. This was the only way to get close.

A commotion from the bottom startled him with a cloud of muddy sediment, and he almost dropped the GPS. A large sting ray rose from the muck and glided by him, nudging his neoprene-encased legs with one of its wings. He more sensed the creature than saw it, and he was momentarily caught off guard. His respiration increased as he flailed in alarm, causing a rush of bubbles to hurtle to the surface. Battling for control over his breathing, he struggled to slow his heart rate, and after a few seconds had it back to beating at a moderate pace. He didn’t pause long to dwell on the near-miss, beyond thinking that it would be ironic if his meticulously-plotted assassination fell apart due to surface froth from a panicked brush with a bottom-dwelling Myliobatoidei.

Another glance at his watch confirmed that he still had five minutes to go. By his reckoning he should be sixty or so yards from the front of the boat, and ninety from his targeted position. After a few more moments of swimming, he sensed rather than saw the hull of the massive ship above him – an opaque outline floating on an already-dark surface, dimly illuminated by the surrounding marina lights. Carefully calculating  the distance, he moved to the spot his schematics told him would be the correct one for his purposes.

From a mesh sack attached to his dive belt, he fished out a suction cup with a handle on one end, which he affixed to the hull. The assassin could feel the vibration of the big generators that provided all the power when the massive twin MTU turbo-diesels weren’t operating. As expected, Papi had all systems operating on the luxurious yacht. He extracted a waterproof battery-powered drill, and after taking one final confirming look at his position on the hull, jammed the bit against the fiberglass and depressed the trigger. The diamond tipped steel shredded its way through the material, almost five inches thick. The bit was six. Two minutes later he was through, and he dropped the drill back into his sack and extracted a small gas canister with a rotating valve on the end, where it connected to a custom-fabricated seven inch tube that would just fit into the hole. He jammed it up into the new opening and twisted the valve, wishing he could hear the satisfying hiss that would terminate the target.


That was where part two of the plan came in.

The assassin depressed a button on the suction cup and it dropped away from the hull. He swam to the far side of the ship that was facing the bay, and cautiously poked his head out of the water, right next to the section where the engine vents drew in air. Glancing at his watch again, he noted that he had a hundred and ten more seconds before it was show time. He groped in the sack and after re-submerging, drilled another hole, this time where the central air conditioning units sat. He repeated the procedure with a second gas canister, and then came to the surface again, hurriedly extending a telescopic tube akin to a car radio antenna. The assassin fitted a third, larger canister onto the end of the extension, and now in position and prepared, waited for the fireworks to begin.


Alberto was the first to hear the big chopper’s rotors. By the time he was on the radio to his men, the sound of the aircraft was a roar. A searchlight stabbed through the night, racing over the buildings and then towards the marina, tracing over the assembled boats until it finally alighted on Contessa’s superstructure, blinding the two armed men in the top-level bridge. Alberto screamed into the radio to his men to hold their fire – nobody from the helicopter was shooting. The piercing light slowly moved along the concrete path, locking on the armed men and freezing each in place before it moved on to the next. Eventually, apparently satisfied that there was no emergency at the marina, the beam shut off and the chopper rose, hovering for another twenty seconds before banking and moving back towards its home base in Manzanillo.

Alberto swore to himself. That had been way too close. It was one of the navy copters, no doubt sent over to check on reports of armed men on the waterfront. Both the army and the navy chiefs in the area had been paid off, so there shouldn’t have been any problem, but it probably took a few minutes for them to call off the dogs. Few things in life scared Alberto, but the prospect of taking on a contingent of armed Mexican marines was one of them; the army wasn’t a problem, but the marines knew their shit. They were the equivalent of the American green berets, the toughest of the tough, and they generally meant business. Alberto should know. He employed three ex-marines, and they were genuine, authentic hard cases, even in a world where blood was casually spilled on a daily basis.

The unexpected fire-drill over, the patrols commenced again. Everything returned to a fragile calm. The night was still, and Contessa gently rocked against the incoming tide, the music from within still booming its siren song into the deep.


The assassin made his way through the cabin to the main stateroom, his silenced pistol at the ready. He’d brought it in a waterproof bag, in which he carried anything that couldn’t get immersed during the dive. He didn’t think he’d need to use it, but you never knew. He’d pulled his flippers off and set them on the back deck, where he could grab them in a hurry. Worst case, he could always swim without them, although it would be much rougher going. That wasn’t his most pressing problem now, though. He needed to memorialize his success and get the proof back to his clients so he could collect the second half of his fee, and build his reputation in the process.

He pushed the door to the master stateroom open and encountered a tableaux straight out of hell. Papi lay naked in the center of the bed, surrounded by his three young friends, also naked. All were dead, the nerve gas he’d bought from the Russians having done its work, circulating via the three zoned air-conditioners. He’d been assured that the gas would kill within ten seconds of breathing it, but he needed to be sure. That’s what made him who he was. He was the man who made sure.

The sight of the corpses, bloody foam caked around their mouths and noses, already cyanotic, had no effect on him. This was his job, his chosen profession. Collateral damage was regrettable, but part of the deal. The girls would have likely been dead within a few years anyway, either at the hands of these goons, or their rivals. It was a fast money life, and didn’t come with a retirement plan.

The assassin, breathing through his respirator, studied the dead cartel boss, and then fired a single shot through his forehead, more for effect than anything. He inspected his handiwork dispassionately, and then reached into the water-tight gun bag and extracted a cell phone and a laminated rectangle. Approaching the man, he positioned the card almost tenderly on his exposed throat before snapping a photo with the phone.  The figure on the card seemed to watch the proceedings without interest, his medieval regal gaze unblinking in perpetuity, the double-edged blade of his clutched sword forever pointing at the heavens. Satisfied with his handiwork, the assassin dropped the phone back into the sack and sealed it before placing it into the web bag hanging from his dive belt.

A noise from above jolted him. He heard movement from up on the bridge, heavy footsteps that carried down into the mid-ship stateroom, which could signal either a problem or a shift change. The one part of the plan he hadn’t been able to nail was a detailed agenda for the security team. There was just nobody he could find that could be paid off, so he’d had to wing it. He hoped that wasn’t a fatal flaw tonight. He’d know soon enough – even though his work was done, he still needed to complete phase two of the sanction, which was often the hardest part – the part where he got out alive.


Alberto called his men to an area near the dock and briefed the new arrivals. They would be on shift until four-twenty, at which point they’d be relieved by a new, fresh set of eight. The men handed the replacements their weapons and spare magazines, then moved in a group towards the hotel, a wing of which had been booked for the security detail and boat staff. Alberto debated going with them, having already been on for eight hours, but he couldn’t eradicate the twisting in his guts that something was amiss, so he knew there was no way he’d be able to sleep. He held up a pair of night vision goggles, and studied the rocks of the jetty that protected the harbor, slowly scanning every foot of them.


A cry from the bridge interrupted his reconnaissance, and he looked up to where one of the new arrivals was waving. Fucking idiot. Why didn’t he use the radio? That’s what they were for.

Alberto turned the volume up on his handheld and called to the man.

“What is it?”

“I…were Papi or the girls swimming earlier today or this evening? I’ve been gone for eight hours,” the man asked.

“No. I don’t think so. Why?” Alberto asked, honestly puzzled by the question.

“There are a pair of-”

Without warning the radio went dead. The hair on Alberto’s arms stood up, and he peered through the goggles up at the bridge. He couldn’t see either of the men who were stationed there as sentries.

“Bridge. Come in. Repeat. Come in. Do you read me?” Alberto hissed into the radio, his stomach sinking even as he called.

The body of one of the two bodyguards sailed over the side of the bridge, landing in a formless mass four stories below on the concrete surface of the dock near his feet. Alberto stared at the body in disbelief, a stain of thick blood pooling around the corpse. Moments later a second form hurtled over, and the security men came running towards the yacht, now in full-scale attack mode. The two men on the bridge had been in unassailable positions, with the only access from the rear deck…and the salon, where Papi had last been seen leading his nubiles below to his palatial zebra wood-paneled stateroom.

The night abruptly exploded into an inferno, temporarily blinding Alberto. From inside the boat, the whump of an incendiary grenade illuminated the interior with a white hot flash before the ensuing blaze shot from the side windows, shattered from the scorching blast. A figure in black with scuba gear swung from the bridge over the waterside of the ship, dropping  the forty feet into the harbor even as Alberto hazily trained his weapon on him and opened fire with a hail of bullets. Burst after burst of sizzling lead seared into the water where the diver had sunk, and Alberto’s men quickly joined him, shooting point blank into the surface in the hopes of hitting something.


The assassin allowed himself to sink to the bottom, twenty-five feet below the surface. He kicked a few feet  and took cover beneath the gargantuan hull, the bullets tearing harmlessly through the deep where he would have been if he was stupid enough to try to swim out of the harbor’s mouth. He’d give it a few minutes and let the gunmen exhaust their wrath before doing so – he still had sufficient air. Even the most dedicated mercenaries would tire of emptying weapons into the bay for no reason, so it would only be a few more moments before they stopped and began thinking about evacuating before the military arrived to check on the blaze.

It would be a long slog across the bay without the swim fins he’d been forced to leave on the aft deck. That was regrettable, and he made a mental note in the future to bring an extra set with him to attach to the hull, where they would be safely waiting for him if he was forced to make a hasty departure. He checked his watch and peered through the gloom at his regulator gauge, which he illuminated using the dim glow from the GPS. He had forty-five percent left, which would get him out of the harbor and at least halfway across the bay before he needed to jettison the tank and switch to using his snorkel.

With any luck at all he could be on the far side, on the banks of the little fishing hamlet of Barra de Navidad, within an hour and fifteen minutes, where a battered Toyota Tacoma sat waiting on a dark, deserted street by the water. It would be the least-expected escape route given it was the furthest point from the ship. If the security detail still had any fight left in them after losing their meal ticket, they’d deploy to the more obvious areas closer to the yacht, although any pursuit would be hurried due to concerns over the arrival of the marines. The odds of there being any serious hung for him were about zero, he knew. They’d be far more interested in clearing out before they had to explain their heavily-armed presence to the military.

From the town of Barra he could be in Manzanillo within forty minutes, or better yet, at one of the big hotels just north of town. They were showing their age, but he still liked Las Hadras resort as a place to lay low for a few days while waiting for the wire transfer to hit his account. When he got to shore he would e-mail the photo of Papi with his calling card in glorious display, using his cell phone’s internet capability. The client would be ecstatic, and another impossible execution in his notorious string of accomplishments would have gone off without a hitch.

The gas had been a novel touch, and he’d been delighted with the results. It was short-duration and would have blown off within five minutes of entering the air-filtration and conditioning system, so the only trace any investigators would find would be the empty canisters wedged into the hull. At that stage it would be pretty obvious something in the atmosphere had killed everyone aboard, so the discovery would have zero effect on anything. The vendor had done well with the choice, and the assassin grinned behind the heavy glass mask; he’d use him again. Reliability in the assassin’s game was key to sustaining rewarding long-term relationships.

Rousing himself from his reverie, he began swimming slowly away from the boat, hugging the bottom so as to avoid any telltales to the flashlight beams playing across the surface. They were wasting their time, but he wanted to take no further chances. He resolved to hold his breath for the two minutes it would take to make it to the harbor entrance and to safety – there was no point in increasing the odds of more shooting by leaving an unnecessary bubble trail up top if he didn’t have to.


By the time the flames were extinguished there was little left of the ship’s upper salon or staterooms, other than the main bedroom used by the owner. When Alberto made his way down the destroyed stairs to the companionway that led to that area, he already knew in his heart what his eyes would confirm. His boss, his sacred charge, was dead. Still, nothing could have prepared him for the vision of naked Papi with the tarot card sticking out of his bloody froth-caked mouth, surrounded by cold naked nubile companions who had obviously died in excruciating agony. His blood ran cold when he saw the image of the seated regent protruding from Papi’s face. He’d heard the stories, the rumors of the ghost that came to kill, but never believed they were true.

Until now.

Until he’d witnessed the handiwork of the King of Swords, El Rey as he was known in Mexico, with his own eyes. It was every heavily-protected target’s worst nightmare – the man who could walk through walls or up the sides of buildings, and from whom no one was safe. Seeing the assassin’s calling card was a loss of any innocence or hope he’d ever had. Because now, Alberto knew that there was indeed a boogeyman, a devil that danced in the darkness, a stealer of things precious for delivery to hell.

Alberto could say with assurance that there was something that scared him more than the Mexican marines, more than torture, more than the prospect of death itself. He, a man for whom slaughter and killing was mundane, had seen the face of true evil, and it had stared back at him, unflinching.

El Rey had come during the night and stolen Papi’s soul.

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