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Sheik Omair Al Arif sat in a dark corner of the cantina, sipping the last of his espresso as he watched the woman working the bar. She was the single pleasure he'd been afforded over the past few months as he'd bided his time in this sweltering Colombian rathole along the banks of the Tagua River, watching, waiting, listening for a sign the deal was about to go down.
He'd positioned himself at a round wooden table in the shadows, his back to the wallan assassin's habit. From this vantage point he could quietly watch the cantina door, as well as see who ventured in from a deck that tilted drunkenly over a coffee-colored estuary that snaked down through mangrove swamps to the sea.
Outside, monkeys screeched and swung from massive kapok trees that brooded over the building and sent giant roots down into the anaconda-infested waters. Inside, it was strangely empty for a Friday night.
An older couple, maybe in their seventies, drank beer from big mugs at a table across the room. At another table a group of mencacao plantation workershuddled over drinks and smoked dark tobacco cigarettes, skin glistening. Every now and then one of them would glance furtively toward the door. This was the heart of cartel countrylife here was cheap, everyone on the take, and eyes were constantly shadowed with mistrust and fear.
Music played softly from an old jukebox in the corner.
The barmaid was wiping down the counter, her body gleaming with sweat. Omair could see from the way she moved that she was well aware of his appreciative gaze. Tonight she wore her bloodred dress, his favorite. The fabric flowed like liquid over her Latina curves and plunged down the front of her chest to expose a smooth olive-skinned cleavage, along with just a tease of black lace bra. He enjoyed the way her raven hair fell thickly across her cheekbones as she moved, the way she tossed it back over her shoulders, the way her deep brown eyes made him think of sex.
Her name was Liliana. The men who drank at her bar called her Lili, and they were clearly smitten by her sensual aura, her husky laugh, her easy smile. Omair had deduced she was the mistress of the cantina owner, a low-level cartel player himself, and that if any one of these bar patrons actually dared touch Liliana they'd be found floating facedown in the Tagua by sunrise. And no one would even blink.
It was that illicit quality, that promise of danger, that made Lili all the more enticing to Omair. Over the past months she'd become something of an obsession, a heady drug to his system.
Women were Omair's sole Dionysian weakness and one-night stands his specialty. His lifestyle did not accommodate anything more permanent. And when Omair did indulge he preferred his sex spiked with as much adrenaline and risk as possible because it made him feel truly alive for a few brief moments.
But Lili's delectable cleavage was decidedly off-limitsa fling with the Hispanic temptress would be a sure ticket to trouble with the local cartel, and that could blow his mission, a duty to which Omair was bound by blood, honor and a fierce code of ancient desert justice.
A mission he could notwould notfail.
No, he was not here to mess in the business of the malignant cartel that controlled this region of the Colombian jungle. He was here to avenge the murder of his oldest brother, Da'ud, along with the assassinations of his mother and father, the king and queen of Al Na'Jar. Someone was trying to kill off the Al Arif bloodline and overthrow the kingdom. Omair's sole purpose in life right now was to hunt down and pick off those assassins one by one, then find the man who sent them, and kill him, too.
Only then would he go back to his job with a private army based off the west coast of Africa. Until that point he was a lone wolf, answerable to no one, and no thing, other than his ancient code of honor.
Already he'd meted out justice to two of Da'ud's assassins. Now he was after the thirdthe one who'd wielded the ceremonial dagger that had sliced his brother's neck to the spinal column as Da'ud slept on his yacht anchored off the beaches of Barcelona.
Before executing the first two men in Spain, Omair had forced them to yield information on the third man. He got more than he bargained forhe was told Da'ud's third killer would be coming to Colombia as the bodyguard of a North African arms dealer to buy a cache of black market weapons from the Tagua cartel boss. The weapons were rumored to be of Chinese origin, just like the guns being supplied to rebels in Al Na'Jar. The deal was supposed to go down sometime this month, somewhere along this estuary. The truck-loads of arms were to be driven onto barges that would be floated down to the sea. The weapons would then be transferred to a ship waiting offshore and transported through the Panama Canal disguised as a cacao crop. From there the shipment was destined for the Western Sahara.
Omair's plan was to quietly and quickly capture, interrogate, then kill the North African's bodyguard. If he did it right, the man would simply go missing from the entourage as if snatched by a jaguar and dragged silently off into the dense surrounding jungleit was not an unusual occurrence here. Time would continue to tick, and although the men might be put on edge by the disappearance of one of their hired guns, the weapons deal would by necessity still go through.
Omair would then track the arms shipment to the Sahara where he hoped to learn who was fronting the cash, hopefully getting closer to learning the identity of the man behind the coordinated attacks on his family and country.
Notice of the exact time and place of the weapons transaction was to be delivered to a contact in this riverside cantina, and it was why Omair had secured a job as a truck driver at a nearby plantation. It gave him an excuse to come into town daily for supplies. It gave him a reason to sit nightly at this table where he could watch and assess the locals, and wait for a hint of something big going down.
And he could watch Liliana. That was the bonus.
Lifting his cup to his lips he caught her gaze. She lowered her thick lashes and the corners of her full mouth tilted into a slow smile. Omair's blood heated.
She held his gaze for a long moment before easing her thick hair over her shoulder and returning her attention to a customer at the bar. She took the old man's order, reached for a bottle on the shelves behind her, then flashed another look at Omair. Her dark eyes sparkled as she leaned forward to pour the man's drink, affording Omair a clear view of the smooth delta between her breasts.
She was toying with him. It had become a game, and hot damn, he liked it.
Lili returned the bottle to the shelf and made for a door that led to the kitchen, her high heels giving a seductive sway to her walk. And as Omair watched the movement of her buttocks under the tight red fabric, his mouth went dry. She made him want. Dangerously so, because he couldn'tnot this time. Not in this place.
As the kitchen door swung shut behind her, he breathed out slowly.
She was an enigma. Despite exuding a provocative sex appeal, Omair detected a quiet, calculating intelligence in Lilia different kind of awareness. He'd glimpsed it when she thought no one was looking. While she appeared to feign disinterest in business talk at the tables, sometimes he'd catch her watching, or listening intently to her patrons, as if weighing, gauging, assessing them, like he was. Omair figured she was an opportunist looking for her next big stepor layup the cartel ladder. A more influential, wealthier cartel member would mean a big hacienda, more clothes, more opportunity for a woman like Lili.
He didn't hold this against her. It was likely her only ticket out of this Colombian cesspool. A body like hers was to die for. Be a shame not to use it.
Lili exited the kitchen carrying a plate of food. She set it on the table where the group of men huddled. They exchanged rapid-fire banter with her and she laughed, throwing her head back, the column of her neck gleaming in muted light.
The tinny music from the jukebox segued from a recent pop hit into the dramatic and strident chords of a Bolivian tango sextet. The mood in the room shifted.
The older couple got up, the man holding his hand out to his woman as he led her onto the tiny dance floor. They began to move in each other's arms, crumpled echoes of once strong individuals. The woman's sandals were dusty and had a broken strap. The man's pants were threadbare. A strange emotion caught Omair by the throat as he watched them dance to the sensual beat. It was an odd little vignette, a reminder of the endurance of love, the passage of time. Even in this dirty, dangerous little settlement that passed for a town in the heart of poverty-stricken jungle, the universal story of human love still played itself out.
That couple probably had been born here, grown up on the banks of the coffee-colored river, met, fallen in love, married, had children. Grandchildren. And although faded and bowed by time, they still had each other. In their minds they were still the same. They still had tenderness, compassion, love.
Like his parents once had.
Like his brothers Zakir and Tariq now had.
Omair swallowed the last bitter grounds of his espresso, a chill crawling into his veins, and his jaw steeled. So did his heart.
This was his lot, his solitude. His warrior's duty to his ancient kingdom was now the pattern that shaped his days. No matter where in the world it took him, he was duty bound until justice was done, an eye for an eye, the old way. Omair wondered what would be left of him when it was overa hollow husk of a killer incapable of love? A man forever denied what that old couple had?
But before he could dwell on the thought, Omair sensed a shift. The air around him seemed to thicken and his assassin's instincts prickled down the back of his neck.
He caught the scent of pipe smoke coming from somewhere out on the deck, the tobacco pungent. He heard the soft hiss of a feral cat and a small splash in the water. Omair slowly moved to touch the hilt of the dagger in his boot, and he felt the reassuring pressure of the pistol tucked at the small of his back.
A man entered from the deck, the heels of his snake-skin shoes clumping onto the worn wood floor. The aroma of tobacco smoke and cologne wafted in with him. He wore crisp dress pants, a pale yellow golf shirt open at the neck. A gold chain nestled in dark chest hair, and a fat ring embedded with a blue stone adorned his pinkie finger. His skin glistened with humidity. His black hair had been slicked off his brow with oil, accentuating a sharp widow's peak.
The group of men at the table fell silent. One by one they got up and began to leave as the stranger slowly crossed the scuffed floor. As he reached the bar the elderly couple scurried out of the cantina behind him.
Omair was now the only patron left in the pub.
He reached for his straw hat and tilted the brim over his eyes as he slid slowly back into his chair, feigning drunken sleep. Through the small holes in the straw weave he watched Lili offer the man a full-wattage smile. Omair was now certainthis stranger was high-level cartel and Lili was one hundred percent on the make. An inexplicable twinge of jealousy shot through him.
Without uttering a word, Lili reached for a bottle of the cantina's finest scotch. She sloshed three fingers into a glass and pushed it toward the stranger.
The man swigged it back, nodded for a refill. Lili poured again but this time, as she gave him the glass, she allowed the backs of her fingers to caress the man's hand.
The man withdrew his hand, tossed back his second drink, set the glass onto the counter, then turned abruptly and strode toward the exit.
Frowning inwardly, Omair remained motionless as the man passed his table. The man stilled for a moment beside Omair, then left as suddenly he'd come, via the deck.
A monkey screeched outside, shattering the silence in the cantina.
Slowly, Omair returned his attention to Lili.
She was peering into the rust-pocked mirror behind the rows of bottles, reapplying bloodred lipstick from a tube she kept behind the counter. Although her back was to him, Omair could just make out part of her reflection, and while her right hand was applying color to her full lips, her left hand was sliding what looked like a scrap of white paper into her bra.
His pulse kicked. This was it. His sign had finally come, and it had gone straight down that decidedly off-limits cleavage. He'd misread Liliana. She was not simply looking to sleep her way up the cartel laddershe was a pivotal player, and Omair was convinced the time and place of weapons exchange was written on that piece of paper. He needed to get his hands on that note, stat, before she passed it on to someone else.
Seducing the barmaid had just become part of his mission.