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Release date: 2022-12-07 12:03:38 Author:xpYeRWOu

The spotlights blinked off. The three figures vanished. But only for a moment. A battery of bright lights came on, and Gonzalez saw that he and the others were standing between two parallel stone walls. The three costumed men had removed. their masks and stood at the far end of. the alley. Halfway down from the top of each wall was a ring carved with the face of what looked like a macaw. In the semidarkness on top of the wall he sensed people moving, hundreds from the sound of their voices.

The voice again. "You will be given a chance to win your lives. The ball game will determine whether you live or die."

In the fleeting second he had framed the white-haired man in the viewfinder Zavala had frozen his likeness on his retinas. He leaned against the cold concrete, still not believing the evidence of his eyes. He had just seen the same' man in Arizona. He was sure of it, despite the clean.shaven face and the tailored suit. Only then the man with Halcon was wearing work clothes and had long hair and a thick white beard. He had a wife, since deceased. And he went by the name of George Wingate.

33 RAUL GONZALEZ SHIVERED IN THE darkness and waited for the bullet to smash into his spine, wishing it would happen before he froze to death in the cool night air. Again he cursed that American woman. By thwarting his Moroccan assignment, she was responsible for him being in this place. His angry ruminations were cut short. A spotlight blinked on, and Gonzalez saw before him a fantastic creature, part human, part beast.

"Madre mia." The pitiful whimper came from off to Gonzalez's left.

But she hadn't been sleeping when he burst into her tent, and when he and the others gave chase she ran like the wind. Three times the Brotherhood had her in its grasp only to fail in its attempts to bring her down. The hovercraft failed to drown her. The hit squad sent to finish the job on the NUMA ship was either shot or incinerated, its only survivor the lone commando by his side.

"We know why we are here. Three of our number were given tasks to further our noble cause, and they have failed us." The voice paused. "The punishment for failure is death."

Here comes the bullet, Gonzalez thought. Oh, hell, it's been a good life. He braced himself for the hail of lead that must soon come smashing into his body, hoping that it would be quick. His feet hurt from the unaccustomed standing. He was surprised by a round object that flew out of the darkness and hit the ground with a bounce. Gonzalez thought the black-and-white sphere was a soccer ball until it rolled to a stop about midway between the two facing lines of men and he saw that its markings were images of skulls.

The elevation gave him a view over the top of the fence. Except for the lone floodlight on the gate, the area was not illuminated. His eyes had become used to the darkness, and soon several shapes began to materialize. He realized he was looking at a vast complex of buildings, some rectangular, others cylindrical, all dominated by a massive pyramid with a flat top. The structures were built of a whitish stone and seemed to glow in the faint light of the moon.

In the fleeting second he had framed the white-haired man in the viewfinder Zavala had frozen his likeness on his retinas. He leaned against the cold concrete, still not believing the evidence of his eyes. He had just seen the same' man in Arizona. He was sure of it, despite the clean.shaven face and the tailored suit. Only then the man with Halcon was wearing work clothes and had long hair and a thick white beard. He had a wife, since deceased. And he went by the name of George Wingate.

"Greetings, Lord Halcon," echoed the murmured response from unseen voices.

The voice again. "You will be given a chance to win your lives. The ball game will determine whether you live or die."

Quickly regaining his composure, Zavala dashed for his rental car. He followed the limo onto the street, keeping one or two cars between him and his objective. They headed out of the city on the expressway in a northwest direction. In time the suburbs and shopping malls thinned out. The flat terrain gave way to rolling hills and more forested areas.

Some hunting lodge, he muttered. This was crazy! An ancient city in the wilds of the Texas countryside. He tried to call Austin but his cell phone failed to pick up a signal. After several minutes during which he squinted into the darkness in a vain attempt to make out details, he decided he had seen all he was going to see. He was about to climb down the tree when a light flicked on and he saw a strange sight. He got a new grip on the branch and watched, fascinated, as a remarkable scene began to unfold.

Zavala brought his Nikon to his eye and focused on the tall dark man who exited the elevator and walked with an easy grace to the waiting vehicle. Halcon. He snapped off several shots before Halcon got into the limo, then focused on the driver who was holding the door open for him. The man was wearing a dark suit, and, his white hair was cut military short. He was tall and broad-shouldered, his physique muscularly athletic even though he could have been in his sixties at least. Zavala got off a single shot before the white-haired man swept the garage with his eyes as if he had heard the quiet whirr of the motor drive. Zavala melted into the shadows and didn't dare breathe until the car door slammed and the limo moved off.

From the neck down the figure was a bronzeskinned man of muscular physique. Around his waist was a loincloth of rich green, yellow, and vermilion. The hard growths on either hip proved to be, on closer look, leather padding. The face was hidden behind a mask created in a madman's nightmare. The jade-colored snout was long and scaly, the eyes hungry-looking, and the grinning mouth full of jagged, razorsharp teeth. Long quetzal plumes streamed from the back of the head. The monster stood as still as a statue, brawny arms folded across a broad hairless chest.

But she hadn't been sleeping when he burst into her tent, and when he and the others gave chase she ran like the wind. Three times the Brotherhood had her in its grasp only to fail in its attempts to bring her down. The hovercraft failed to drown her. The hit squad sent to finish the job on the NUMA ship was either shot or incinerated, its only survivor the lone commando by his side.

"We know why we are here. Three of our number were given tasks to further our noble cause, and they have failed us." The voice paused. "The punishment for failure is death."

In the fleeting second he had framed the white-haired man in the viewfinder Zavala had frozen his likeness on his retinas. He leaned against the cold concrete, still not believing the evidence of his eyes. He had just seen the same' man in Arizona. He was sure of it, despite the clean.shaven face and the tailored suit. Only then the man with Halcon was wearing work clothes and had long hair and a thick white beard. He had a wife, since deceased. And he went by the name of George Wingate.

They'd been ordered to remain silent or be shot. Gonzalez wasn't about to be killed because a sniveling coward couldn't keep his mouth shut. The man standing quietly on his right was more to his liking. Lean and snake-like in his movements, an assassin like himself. At another time Gonzalez would have talked shop with the man about the murderous skills he learned as a skinny sore-plagued orphan in the squalid alleys of Buenos Aires, where he'd dodged death squads hired by local businessmen. The businessmen considered the street boys as vermin. Gonzalez was barely a teenager when he approached the shopkeepers and offered to infiltrate the packs he knew so well and quietly dispatch his sleeping peers with knife or garrote. As he grew older he obtained bigger jobs. Competitors. Politicians. Unfaithful spouses. All sent to an early grave. Gun. Knife. Torture. Gonzalez earned a reputation for delivering exactly what his employer wanted.

A voice came out of the night, amplified by loudspeakers. "Greetings, my brothers," it said in aristocratic Castilian Spanish.

Blink A third figure stood in relief. He wore the death's head with its staring empty eyes and dead grin.

The order to come to Texas wasn't a total surprise. Gonzalez assumed he'd get a sharp reprimand; have his pay docked, and be reassigned. Instead men with machine pistols had herded him with the others. After dark they were escorted out into the night and told to stand at attention. Warned they would be shot if they made a move or uttered a peep. So they had waited, listening to the howl of coyotes in the desert night air. Until now.

"We know why we are here. Three of our number were given tasks to further our noble cause, and they have failed us." The voice paused. "The punishment for failure is death."

"We know why we are here. Three of our number were given tasks to further our noble cause, and they have failed us." The voice paused. "The punishment for failure is death."

Some hunting lodge, he muttered. This was crazy! An ancient city in the wilds of the Texas countryside. He tried to call Austin but his cell phone failed to pick up a signal. After several minutes during which he squinted into the darkness in a vain attempt to make out details, he decided he had seen all he was going to see. He was about to climb down the tree when a light flicked on and he saw a strange sight. He got a new grip on the branch and watched, fascinated, as a remarkable scene began to unfold.

Blink A third figure stood in relief. He wore the death's head with its staring empty eyes and dead grin.

The fence was too high to climb, and he had no protection against the wire, or the dogs, but his guess was that the barricade was attached to an alarm. Remembering a low hill a short distance back, he returned to his car and headed away from the fence in reverse so the backup lights wouldn't be seen, then pulled off the road into the bushes. He made his way toward the hill then up its side, no easy task because he had nothing to light his way. He tripped and had to back out of briars a few times but made it to the copse at the hilltop without mishap. He selected a clean-!imbed tree and climbed to the highest branch that would support his weight.

Zavala pushed the rental car just to stay in sight of the limo, which flew along well above the speed limit once they were beyond the more heavily congested neighborhoods. They traveled for about an hour, leaving the main highway around dusk to follow a sparsely populated two-lane road. Zavala stayed far back. Before long he saw the flash of brake lights, and the limo disappeared. Zavala slowed until his headlights caught a small plastic reflector nailed to a tree, marking an unpaved road. He kept going to create the illusion he was bound elsewhere, then after a few hundred yards he did a quick U-turn and came back to the reflector.

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