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

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.

A second circle of light revealed another muscular figure with a different mask, the snarling mouth and blood-red tongue of a jaguar.

"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."

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.

Morocco. He wished he'd never heard the name.

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.

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.

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.

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

Morocco. He wished he'd never heard the name.

"Silencio," Gonzalez growled at the hydrofoil captain.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

Gonzalez again swore under his breath. Standing in the cold while some idiot puts on a costume pageant! It wasn't fair. All because he'd botched a few jobs. Business had been going to younger killers when the Brotherhood's emissary approached him. He didn't know the group even existed, but they knew everything about him. They wanted him for special assignments, and the aging hit man signed on eagerly. The money was good. The work wasn't difficult. Just like his street days. Wait for a call. Infiltrate and kill. Easy assignments. Like the one in Morocco.

A second circle of light revealed another muscular figure with a different mask, the snarling mouth and blood-red tongue of a jaguar.

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.

On one stop he saw a light ahead. Cautiously he walked toward the glow until he could see that it was a lone spotlight on the gate of a high wiremesh fence. He pulled the car off the road and made his way toward the fence under the cover of the woods, stopping at the edge of a swath cleared from the perimeter. The fence was about twice the height of a man and topped by coils of razor wire. A white sign with black lettering was attached to the gate warning trespassers to Keep Out. Guard Dogs Trained to Attack. His instincts had served him, well. Above the sign was a small box which could serve no other purpose than as a security camera.

"Silencio," Gonzalez growled at the hydrofoil captain.

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.

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.

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