Ranirao Atoll, Tahiti, the present ...
t was a night made for an assassin.
At three a.m., a thick layer of clouds hung low over the tropical island, swathing the thin crescent moon in ghostly shadows and wrapping the
and her companion yacht, the
in warm, hazy blackness. The heavy fog that rose from the surface of the ocean muffled the slap of waves against the vessels’ hulls, dimmed the rotating searchlight from the
and distorted the vision of the four guards stationed bow and stern on the
The all-encompassing mist provided a perfect cover for the figure that slipped soundlessly from the water and made his way onto the deck of the
Gregori Varenkov’s luxury yacht showed not a single light burning, which suited the intruder perfectly. The Russian target had evaded retribution in Crete and barely escaped with his life in Rangoon. Grigori Varenkov had been judged and found guilty by a high court, from which there was no appeal. Tonight, the appointed executioner would carry out the death sentence.
Alex flattened himself against a lifeboat and assumed the color and pattern of the canvas covering as the thin beam from the
’s searchlight scanned the deck, revealing lounge chairs and a table, a marble-lined hot tub, and an equally extravagant outdoor shower area. All was as it had been when Alex last scouted the yacht, except for one notable exception.
The shower was occupied.
Alex’s gut tightened. He’d not expected anyone to be on deck but the two armed guards. Varenkov was fanatical about his routine and his security. Six nights a week, the Russian ate his evening meal in his stateroom, where he remained until twelve sharp, at which time a Zodiac arrived from the
with four guards to replace the ones on duty. Men stood six hour shifts around the clock, and walked the perimeter of the deck every two hours.
At twelve-fifteen, Varenkov showered for twenty minutes and retired, wearing only a towel around his thick waist, to his library where he conducted business by computer for three hours. At precisely three-thirty, regardless of the weather conditions, the Russian came up on deck to savor a large glass of Stolichnaya, his favorite brand of vodka. Varenkov remained for thirty minutes before returning to take phone calls from various associates around the world. This half hour on deck was when the target was most vulnerable.
Alex stared at the woman. In the six months that he’d stalked Varenkov, he never saw the Russian bring a visitor or an associate aboard the
And the crew and captain never came on deck after ten p.m. unless the vessel was underway or encountering bad weather.
This redhead, with her high, perfect breasts, neat waist, and long shapely legs that seemed to go on forever, shouldn’t have been here on deck in the middle of the night. She wasn’t the captain of the
or one of the dozen or more regular crew members, and she wasn’t one of the guards. That left only the chef who’d boarded the vessel in San Diego three months ago to replace the Ukrainian torturer who’d cooked for Varenkov for the past two and a half years.
Whoever she was, she was here, naked as the day she was born, and—to borrow a distinctly American expression—
throwing a wrench
into Alex’s perfectly choreographed plan to assassinate Varenkov. Alex should have been angry. By Zeus’s stones, he had every right to be. But the sight of such a delightfully formed female in a complete state of innocent seduction was almost more than he could be expected to endure.
Alex took advantage of the permeating darkness to move closer to the woman, and then held his breath as the searchlight illuminated her alluring figure once again. Had she been a figment of his over-active imagination? Or, had his imagination lent her attributes she didn’t possess? He wasn’t disappointed. She was real enough, he concluded as beads of excitement prickled the nape of his neck and trickled down his spine. Magnificent. She stood there as motionless as a Greek statue, back arched, head tilted back, letting the warm spray darken her red-gold hair and run in rivulets over her soapy body.
Though he usually had rigid self-control when conducting a mission, Alex’s body responded. Heat welled in his loins, his pulse quickened, and his throat tightened. Human or not, she was a rare vision. And the males of his kind were not known for their disdain of sexual pleasures.
The woman’s skin was unusually fair, almost alabaster in tone, and so silken in appearance that Alex could imagine what it would feel like to stroke and caress the curves of her ripe body. But regardless of the delight he might take in admiring such lush perfection on an ordinary evening, her presence tonight might ruin the best opportunity he’d had in months to take out the Russian.
The safest thing to do would be to eliminate her before Varenkov appeared on deck for his nightly vodka. In seconds, Alex could subdue her and dump her body over the side, where the sharks would quickly dispose of it. Predators prowled beneath Varenkov’s vessels wherever they were anchored because Varenkov insisted that his employees chum the waters with bloody meat to attract them. Tonight, Alex had seen more than a dozen large tiger sharks feeding not only on the scraps from Varenkov’s galleys, but on each other.
The sharks served a well-thought-out purpose. An Israeli swat team had nearly succeeded in ending Varenkov’s career two years ago off Hong Kong. Three divers, who’d trained with America’s Navy Seals, had actually made it on deck before the Russian’s private army cut them down with a rain of armor-piercing bullets. Soon after, Alex noticed that Varenkov had added sharks to his yachts’ safety net.
It was a clever scheme and worked well against human adversaries, but Atlanteans were not human. Alex had been trained to defend himself against sharks since he was a young child. While he had a healthy respect for the big ones, and for the danger of being present during any feeding frenzy, he didn’t consider individual tiger sharks to be much of a threat to him. They could be merciless eating machines, but they were highly intelligent, and rarely took on an adult Atlantean who wasn’t sick, feeble, or wounded. And he was none of those things; he was a warrior in his prime, with a lethal instinct every bit as developed as that of a tiger shark.
This unexpected civilian presented a huge problem in the middle of his killing zone. For more than a moment, Alex hesitated as duty warred with conscience. She was so close ... only a knife’s throw away. He could be on her and do what had to be done before she could even cry out.
If only she weren’t so beautiful ...
Humans and Atlanteans were natural enemies, and if Varenkov survived, many more lives would be lost. Yet, this female was a noncombatant. He could kill Varenkov or any of his guards without hesitation, and he’d never lose sleep over his actions, but murdering an innocent woman was different. Why hadn’t she simply remained below deck where she would have been safe?
He cursed himself for his own weakness. An assassin had no room in his heart for pity, and less for allowing lust to interfere with his intent. Not to mention that he had outdistanced his team. Bleddyn and Dewi would be here before dawn. Attempting the kill without their backup went against his own code. Yet ... Varenkov had slipped through their net so many times before. Waiting for backup might mean that Alex would lose the best chance he’d had of ending the Russian’s long reign of terror.
Abruptly, a movement to the woman’s left caught Alex’s attention. As he watched, one of Varenkov’s camouflage-clad guards lunged out of the shadows and grabbed the female’s arm. She cried out and tried to pull free, but he yanked her against him, pinning her with one hand and running his other over her naked breasts and down between her legs.
Instinct won over reason. Alex dove at the struggling pair, locked an arm around the guard’s throat and dragged him toward the railing. The man fought back with all of his strength, but Alex easily overpowered him. He went over the side with only a single strangled groan. And when the searchlight again scanned across the deck, the woman had retreated to the shadows.
Alex’s element of surprise was lost. The only sensible action would be for him to follow the would-be-rapist over the gunnel before he was seen by the woman or illuminated in the searchlight. But, by now the tiger sharks would be making the area beneath the boat a bloody mess, and he didn’t need to compound a series of errors with a bigger one. Instead, he cast an illusion, assuming the likeness of Varenkov, complete with an oversized bath towel—which would have been a brilliant disguise if the real Varenkov hadn’t chosen that moment to come through the hatchway.
For a heartbeat, the Russian froze and stared, his eyes bulging with shock. And then the towel dropped, and Varenkov raised his right hand, revealing a Makarov PMM semi-automatic pistol. Dropping to a kneeling position, Varenkov sprayed the deck with a hail of nine-millimeter bullets. Shouts came from the
followed by the pounding of boots as the reinforcements came from the bow at a dead run.
A bullet tore into Alex’s thigh, and a second one plowed a furrow along his neck. He dashed into the shadows and changed his appearance from a balding Russian gangster to a buff oriental soldier-of-fortune, complete with an automatic rifle and full gear. When the next rotating beam lit up the deck, Varenkov stopped shooting at him and turned his firepower on the woman. The bullet hit her midsection, knocking her backward, and Varenkov followed with a killing shot to her heart.
Alex had counted nine shots. The regulation Makarov PMM fired eight shots, but special models were often refitted for ten or twelve, meaning that Varenkov had either one or three bullets left. Alex decided he didn’t like the odds. It was time to leave.
His mistake was to cast one final glance at the dying female. She lay stretched on the deck, eyes open, hand outstretched in a plea for mercy. Blood seeped from under her body and ran in rivulets into the hot tub, turning the salt water an ominous scarlet.
“Mother of Ares!” Alex swore. He couldn’t leave her. He scooped up the woman in his arms and leaped over the side as the Russian emptied the chamber of his pistol in their direction.
Out of fire and into the caldron!
Now, men were shooting at him from the deck of the
as well. Hungry sharks and armor-piercing bullets. Perfect. Alex hated guns. The use of guns proved just how depraved humans were—they weren’t content to destroy each other with natural means; they had to resort to all sorts of flesh-destroying inventions.
A ten-foot tiger shark came at him, and Alex used a burst of imagination to conceal both himself and the female with the illusion of a thirty-eight-foot squid. As an additional incentive for the shark to turn its attentions elsewhere, Alex included a good measure of ink and one spiked tentacle. The tiger shark backed water, rolled his eyes until the whites showed, and turned his attack on two of his comrades who were fighting over a tattered fragment of what had been the unlucky guard’s right leg.
Alex couldn’t hold the disguise for more than a few seconds. Sharks weren’t nearly as easy to fool as humans. He used the respite to dive deep and put distance between him and the two yachts. Two sharks followed, and he had to dispatch one and wound the other before it broke off the encounter.
Watercraft erupted from the
overhead. Any moment, Alexander expected Varenkov’s private army to begin strafing the water and dropping depth charges that would shred him, the human female, and the sharks indiscriminately. Dismissing the finned predators as the lesser of evils, Alex swam for his life. He would have made an easy target if the sharks pursued him, but when the first explosions sent shocks through the water, the sea wolves scattered as well.
By the time Alex reached the underwater cave at the edge of the atoll, the woman had been deprived of air for a lethal amount of time.
he told himself. She’s gone, drowned, shot to death, or both. She was human, after all. Not his worry, not his fault.
his fault. He’d screwed up. If he’d abandoned the mission when he’d first caught sight of the female, she’d be alive. He’d been too cocksure, impatient, and certain that he could improvise and still take out Varenkov. He should have waited for Bleddyn and Dewi. He could just picture himself attempting to explain how things had gone so wrong so quickly.
Poseidon and the high court would have none of it. Alex’s mission. His responsibility. He was supposed to be a professional. How many kills? He’d lost count of the enemies he’d eliminated in the past several hundred years. All clean hits with no loose ends. And now this ...
Already the damage done by the bullets to his flesh was healing. The sea had marvelous healing powers—if you were an Atlantean. Humans were much frailer creatures. Their bodies tended to break easily, and they had only elementary regeneration powers. Their life spans were minute, barely a hundred years, and they died of diseases that Atlanteans had conquered eons ago. The kindest thing he could do would be to let the woman’s body drift away on the tide, to give her to the sea. Her body was only a physical shell, and it was not as if her spirit would be lost for eternity. Even humans were reborn in new bodies.