Once upon a time I believed in fairytales, but my fantasies as well as my ideals had been stripped from me on two occasions. The first one had left me bitter, angry that the world would rip away something so beautiful and loving in an instant, as if a life didn’t matter. The second would forever haunt me, leaving me with nightmares, although I’d learned early on that there was significant evil in this world.
On that very night it was confirmed.
Monsters did exist.
The nagging feeling had settled into the pit of my stomach, my heart racing.
I glanced out the window at as the taxi driver careened down the street, passing by dozens of vehicles. I still had a firm grip on my overnight bag, for no particular reason other than it held a vast majority of the only belongings that mattered to me inside. Everything precious had somehow managed to fit in a twelve by twelve case. I bit back a groan at the thought. I had no idea where I was, the street signs and brightly lit stores with bold writing meaning little to me.
While I knew passable Spanish, the onslaught of names seemed overwhelming, leaving me questioning my impetuous decision. A cold chill shifted down my spine as the driver made a sweeping right turn, moving onto what appeared to be an even more desolate street. Confusion settled in, the kind that left my mouth dry and my head aching even more than it was.
“Perdoneme,” I said as I leaned forward, glancing from right to left. This couldn’t be right. “Perdoneme!” I growled again when the driver didn’t bother to glance into his rearview mirror. A full thirty seconds passed and I was pissed, exhausted from the flight and hungry as hell. “I said. Excuse me!”
The driver grunted, finally lifting his head. “Yes, miss? Is there a problem?”
So the asshole spoke English after all. He’d likely found amusement in the butchering I’d done of their beautiful language. “Fine. Where the hell are we?”
“Almost at your destination, miss. A few blocks. No worries.”
No worries. I’d spent years of my life doing nothing but fighting anxiety. I bit back a nasty reply, the chill remaining, as I studied the surrounding area. There was nothing but dim street lighting and an occasional blip from a passing building. And it was getting dark quickly. My hackles were raised, a series of butterflies churning away in my stomach. “I don’t think this is right at all.”
“Are you certain?”
I fumbled to yank out the address from the case, struggling to read it in the dim lighting then forced to say the words in Spanish.
I could swear I saw the asshole smile.
“Are we really close?” I made certain my tone was demanding.
“Yes, miss. Three blocks.”
Huffing, I sat back in my seat, now clenching the bag until my fingers were aching. I’d barely debated my decision in coming here, wanting nothing more than a fresh start if only for a few months. Maybe I should have grilled my aunt with questions before agreeing to come to Galicia, Spain of all places. I remained tense while he made another turn, jerking sharply until the front tire hit the curb as he braked hard. At least there were several additional lights, including the windows in the surrounding buildings. Maybe everything would appear different in the morning.
I needed sleep, a glass of wine, and the promised food left in my aunt’s refrigerator. And not necessarily in that order. I peered out the window at what appeared to be a dilapidated building, cringing deep inside. I hadn’t seen my aunt in almost ten years. Maybe her grandiose tales of living the good life was nothing but a lie.
“We’re here,” the driver said in a more authoritative manner, as if I was holding up another fare. After taking several deep breaths, I finally grabbed the door handle, carefully stepping onto the curb. An eerie feeling washed over me as I scanned the perimeter, fighting a new wave of fear. I’d been in difficult situations my entire life, uncomfortable moments leaving me uncertain of everything from my safety to my worth. Standing alone on a deserted street corner wasn’t doing my courage any good.
Only then did he offer any help, moving toward the trunk in order to retrieve my larger suitcase. As he spouted off the fare amount, I couldn’t take my eyes off the rundown area, the flickering streetlight over my head highlighting trash blowing in the light breeze.
I grabbed the required amount, my hands clammy. “This certainly isn’t paradise.”
“No, miss. It is not. I suggest you be very careful on the street at night. There are many… bad men.” He yanked the money from my hand, pocketing it then moving quickly toward the driver’s side.
He had no way of knowing the kind of bad man I’d already dealt with in my life. There wasn’t an asshole on this planet who could top what I’d been through. Granted, as the driver revved the engine, his tires squealing as he peeled onto the street, I had difficulty breathing. I still had the address of my aunt’s flat in my hand, the nearly crumpled piece of paper my only lifeline to the country.
As I hoisted the suitcase into my hand, I could swear I felt dozens of eyes peering out from the windows lining the street. Watching me.
I huffed, pushing away the ridiculous thought as I trudged toward the first building, eyeing the metal numbers drilled into it. Funny how they didn’t match those in my hand. A flash of anger rolled in, settling in the pit of my stomach. If the asshole had taken me to the wrong place, I was going to find a way to kick his ass. The wafting breeze brought various scents, my nostrils flaring from recognition of stale cigarettes, grease, and what had to be excrement. What the fuck had I gotten myself into?
I studied both sides of the street, bolstering my courage as I rubbed my nose from the stench. The streets were wet, indicating recent rain and since the humidity had spiked, I hoped that the vile odor would be gone in the morning.
I took long strides up the sharp incline, passing a darkened alley until I was able to see another building plaque. At least there was a light on the facility itself, allowing me to see clearly that the numbers were going in the wrong direction. Fuck. The moment I turned around, a sickening feeling washed over me as a shadowy form slipped into the alley barely twenty feet from me.
Swallowing, I slowly shifted my gaze across the street, trying to find any recourse should the jerkoff attempt some kind of attack. Only a few of the third and fourth floor windows were lit up, the sidewalk itself black as night. A moment of real fear skittered into every cell and muscle, my heart hammering. I continued walking forward, thrilled to see two cars coming in my direction, praying one of them was another taxi.
No such luck.
I walked quickly, making my way to another more brightly lit building, the all glass front door more inviting than the others.
The sound was decidedly metal, as if something was being scraped against the well-worn brick. A blade. I’d heard the very sound on more than one occasion, the realization not as terrifying as it was startling that I’d actually know the sound from a full block away. I walked up the few stairs toward the entrance, praying to God the door was unlocked, but my instinct screaming that I’d have no such luck.
My gut feeling had been right, the door refusing to budge. I dared to take a glance over my shoulder while I tugged on the handle one last time. The monstrous figure was at least a solid two hundred and fifty pounds, his face remaining in the shadows.
My instinct kicked me in the gut, my mind reeling.
I had absolutely no recourse but to take off running. Within seconds, I was able to hear heavy, solid feet behind me, the man’s gait faster than I would have imagined given his massive size.
Terror ripped at every emotion, my entire mind reeling. I let off a solid wail, frantically looking for anywhere to go. The darkness was ominous, overpowering in every manner. I was in a city I didn’t know, in a country where people spoke little English and I’d fallen into a tourist’s biggest trap. I was a huge fucking fool. There was no one coming to save me, not a fucking soul on this street that would give a damn that a woman was being accosted.
My God, had the asshole laughed? The sound reverberated into my ears, dark and evil just like the man himself.
My anger turned to rage, flashes of light shifting across my field of vision. This motherfucker wasn’t going to kill me. I twisted around, tossing the larger bag in his direction, taking off running once again. Clothes I could do without. The anguished thud as the fucker tripped was satisfying, but the action had barely slowed him down. My God, he was gaining on me.
I heard the sound of another vehicle coming from the opposite direction. Then it slowed down, the headlights flashing in my direction. No. No!
This had been a setup. Oh, God. Oh, fuck!
As fast as I could run, the asshole was gaining on me. The sound of screeching tires matching my high-pitched scream as my feet pounded on the pavement. I jerked toward the street, weaving past a parked car in my effort to get to the other side. There was the sound of a car door, another pair of feet. My life flashed in front of my eyes.
“Argh!” This time, the guttural scream hadn’t erupted from my throat, the deep bass echoing in my ears. Another hard thud was followed by an angry shout in Spanish. Suddenly, everything seemed to be in slow motion, the sounds exploding behind me vicious and brutal. When I no longer heard the sound of anyone following me, I turned, gasping for air, headlights from the same vehicle illuminating the street.
The light from the building washed over a small area, accentuating a man dressed in a white dinner jacket, his long raven hair pulled into a ponytail. There was no mistaking the shimmer of the knife in his hand, the reflection of the blade unmistakable. He snarled, kicking the man several times before standing to his full height, removing some kind of cloth from his pocket and wiping the blade.
Blood. He had to be wiping away blood from stabbing the asshole who’d been following me.
Ready to kill me.
By all rights, I should be paralyzed with fear, but another instinctual realization settled in. Whoever the stranger was, he had no intention of harming me.
From where I stood, I could clearly see the outline of the man who’d been following me, his body slumped onto the sidewalk. I suddenly realized I was walking closer, my body reacting while my mind attempted to process anything about the stranger who’d saved my life.
He tipped his head very slowly in my direction, his gaze locked onto mine and while there was no way I could see his eyes, I could swear they were boring into mine. Everything about him reeked of danger and possession, as if he owned the streets, and people were prepared to bow down to him.
After sliding the weapon into one pocket, he eased his phone from another. The husky sound of his voice floated in my direction, every word spoken in Spanish. I was still petrified, unable to process what had just occurred.
The roar of an engine caught my attention, the same vehicle moving closer to the stranger, a door opening. The headlights were suddenly blinding, forcing me to shield my eyes. Without any hurry in his step, the man walked toward the car. Before he climbed in, he took another look in my direction.
Then the sleek vehicle drove past, the dark windows hiding those inside, but I could still feel his heated gaze.
As well as his burning desire.
I am the danger. I am the darkness. I am the hunter.
The statements were all true. There was great power in being labeled a dangerous man, the term instilling terror into the hearts and minds of my enemies.
I’d been born into a ruthless family, my father notorious for his brutality. I’d inherited his business savvy as well as his lack of mercy for fools and traitors. I’d also been given a gift by my mother—her love of music. I chuckled at the dichotomy of the two. I’d never known how two such different people could have fallen in love, but their passion continued to this day, providing their three sons with an unbridled respect of family.
I rubbed my eyes then donned my sunglasses as I stepped out of my Maserati, eyeing the beautiful landscaping surrounding the gothic building. I’d always been a sucker for architecture, my love of old ruins as a child providing extensive fantasies of Spanish conquistadors. The ornate detailing was exquisite, the stonework precise, all carved by hand. I couldn’t imagine how much time it had taken in order to design and build such a thing of beauty.
However, I wasn’t here to admire the structure or the pristine landscaping provided by dozens of daily workers. I had family business to attend to.
I glanced toward the two men I’d brought as protection as they pulled their vehicle into one of the parking spots. At this point, their presence inside wasn’t needed, the danger level low. Even a bloodsucking pig like Alviro Calleja wouldn’t dare attempt to assassinate the son of a mafia leader.
Or there would be hell to pay.
I was a man who appreciated the aspect of consequences, atonement for the dark and ugly sins of the trade. In my mind there should always be honor, even among opposing organizations, but that wasn’t always the case. I knew this meeting could potentially prove my point.
I didn’t bother buttoning my suit jacket, merely sliding the key fob into my pocket and heading to the door.
My family had far too many, the kind of people who’d forgotten about humanity. Our adversaries were ruthless in every manner, but not nearly as merciless as anyone from the Galicia mafia, of which my father had been the head for decades. Our family had been the ultimate power within Spain, driving the course of both criminal and legitimate business activities in our organization with an iron fist. It was insanity to cross us.
But someone had.
And one day, the monster would face my wrath personally.
Death was a part of my world, the grim reaper hungry for souls damned by their vicious, primal nature. I was no different than anyone else in the business. I would meet my maker soon enough and there was no doubt I’d spend eternity enslaved in hell.
Exactly what I deserved, but not on this day.
Just before I walked inside, the crisp blue sky drew my attention. This was certainly a beautiful late afternoon, the warm breezes wafting the scent of jasmine and other flowers across my nose. I was surprised I was in such a good mood, especially given the job at hand. One of my soldiers had gotten wind that the second in command of the Los Charlines clan had actually stepped foot into one of the Santiago establishments requesting to speak with me. The asshole was either a fool or prepared to die.
However, I wouldn’t put anything past the new and very brutal leader of the Los Charlines.
My father had insisted that I honor the original terms that had been established with the Los Charlines clan, an agreement that had been made with the previous leader. The repugnant man had been gunned down by members of the Portuguese policia, although rumors had flown immediately about the person behind the assassination, a member of his own organization.
From all accounts, Calleja had risen from the very depths of hell, demanding respect from the various soldiers even before the former leader was dead and buried. He was a nobody before and in my mind was nothing but a rat in a cage.
I knew enough about Alviro Calleja to realize that he was little more than a pig. Reported to be of Sicilian and Portuguese descent, his love of playing games had been well documented. He was a man with no conscience, kidnapping and murder considered his mild tactics. It would be interesting to finally meet him in person one day, especially given the secrecy regarding his identity. The thought was amusing.
His second in command was just as barbaric; Manuel Peron little more than a thug, incapable of reasoning. Why send him for a conversation? He was in charge of the soldiers, his brutality almost as well known as the man he worked for. Something smelled of deceit and lies. While I’d honor my father’s wishes for now, allowing the man to walk out unharmed, I was certainly prepared for any situation.
The double doors just inside opened up to a stunning atrium, the wooden floors polished to perfection. Even the bar itself was a thing of beauty, the two-hundred-year-old wood salvaged from a wrecked pirate ship. As I walked by, I brushed my fingers over the smooth surface, savoring the way the lacquered finish felt against my skin.
“Mr. Santiago,” the bartender said as she inched closer to the edge. “Such a pleasure to see you again, sir. Your usual?”
Her tone was sultry, suiting her voluptuous body with curves that simply wouldn’t stop. Even the crimson dress she was wearing made my mouth water, although I’d never touch the merchandise. After all, my family owned over fifty percent of the business, a fact that wasn’t well known. We never mixed business with pleasure.
“Why not?” I drummed my fingers on the table, scanning the room as she gave me a provocative nod, moving off to prepare my cocktail of choice. The clientele who frequented the bar were mostly wealthy retired men, their hunger for gambling and the attention of stunning women more of a necessity than a latent desire.
I also noticed the two Los Charlines guards flanking both sides of the expansive room. I was beginning to smell a setup and in my own establishment.
When the lovely bartender slid the Bombay and tonic across the bar, I didn’t bother looking in her direction. Maria had worked with the organization long enough to know when my business could be… tedious. As she walked away, I had no doubt her next task would be to call the cleanup crew, preparing them for a disposal operation.
I took a sip, studying the two men who’d obviously been brought as protection. I’d made it my business to learn the identities of the majority of the Los Charlines soldiers. The two assholes were unknowns, which meant the rival mafia group had been on a hiring binge. Evidently, plans had escalated, Calleja’s threats regarding a takeover attempt credible.
Whatever message was being delivered should be interesting. I only hoped I could honor my promise.
I scanned the perimeter as I took several sips, savoring the smoothness of the liquor. The soldiers’ participation was a clear indication that the organization had already slipped into our territory. It would seem their illustrious leader was in the mood to push the envelope.
Either that or he’d simply made a tactical error, one that I could certainly rectify beginning today if necessary. What I loathed were childish games and Calleja had a penchant for them. It would be good to end his reign.
I enjoyed another sip before walking toward the patio, gazing out at the impressive gardens. The beautiful sounds of birds and other wildlife mixed with the cascading water from the oversized fountain. Everything was breathtaking. Fortunately, the majority of customers had already moved on to the various high-stakes poker games, prepared to gamble away millions of dollars. Just another typical day in… paradise.
I noticed the man in question standing by the sculpted waterfall, his posture relaxed. I had to give the man credit. He had balls. There was no sign of additional soldiers, but I remained on edge. While the restaurant was protected by a top-notch security system, there were ample opportunities for soldiers to sneak their way onto the property. As I walked closer, keeping the drink in my hand, I reached into my pocket, removing the SIG Sauer, my preferred weapon of use.
I walked to within two feet, taking another swig of my drink. I kept my voice low. There was no need to draw attention to the scene. “Mr. Peron. I must say that I find it fascinating that you requested a meeting. To what do I owe this honor?” I wanted to choke on my words.
After chuckling, he turned to face me, lifting his glass at the same time, although his other hand had already shifted his jacket, prepared to grab his weapon. While he was considered a crack shot, there’d be a slim chance in hell he could get off a single round before finding a bullet between his eyes. “Second born son, Rafael Santiago. I always enjoyed your company.”
“Too bad I can’t say the same thing, Manuel. Why don’t we cut the chitchat? Why the fuck are you here? Did that animal send you?” His dig was painful, although I didn’t show it. The second born son usually meant nothing within any mafia organization. My world had been forced into a change.
Manuel took a deep breath, his eyes still twinkling. The fucker found this entirely too amusing, as if the clan had gotten the upper hand. “Tell me, how is your father, the illustrious Don?” he countered, taking another sip of his drink.
His words were meant as another jab, an attempt to rile my anger. “He is excellent. I’ll make certain Sanchez is aware you were asking.”
He nodded several times. “Be sure to do that. As far as why I’m here, Mr. Calleja would like to offer your organization a deal.”
“A deal?” I said, laughing. “We don’t make deals.” I started to turn away, knowing there was a hell of a lot more to this game.
“Oh, I assure you, you’re going to want to hear this. I would call it vital to the continuation of your operation.”
Exhaling, I tilted my head, finally locking eyes with his. “Vital. Be careful how you throw those words around, Peron. What is this deal?”
“Simple. Give us fifty percent of your operation and we’ll allow your people to live.”
I’d been involved in negotiating deals before. This time, I was honestly shocked at the man’s audacity. I couldn’t help but smile as I shook my head. “I’m sorry you made the trip. You see, we have nothing to talk about, Manuel, at least not in that regard. Now, for all your trouble in coming here, I will give you a single opportunity to tell me where Alviro is. It would seem I need to have this discussion with him.”
He took a deep whiff as he swirled his drink, finally offering a smile. “Unfortunately, Mr. Calleja only engages in discussions with those in charge. I’m afraid you aren’t that man; however, given you refuse to accept Mr. Calleja’s generous offer, you can certainly give your father a message.”
I remained quiet, refusing to engage with him. What no one knew was that my father longed to take a step back, allowing me to take the helm. However, the transition wouldn’t be widely accepted and even possibly considered a weakness in the Santiago family. There was enough turbulence, other organizations hoping for a larger piece of our pie, including the thug Manuel worked for.
“You have no idea who you’re dealing with, Rafael. I suggest you consider the opportunity you have in expanding your territory.”
“All for fifty percent.” I laughed again. “I hope the trip was enjoyable for you, Manuel, because you’re not leaving here with anything else but fond memories.” I turned away, taking several steps. The asshole was sending a message; that much was obvious.
“I’d be careful, Rafael. Things are changing, the Galicia mafia no longer a big fish in a little pond.”
His snicker pissed me off.
“Tell Don Santiago that we’re coming for him and trust me, there will nothing left of your empire or your family, including that precious niece and nephew you have. What are they now, three and four? Beautiful children. Too bad about their father’s… death. Horrible thing.” As he laughed, my rage surfaced, an ugly memory rushing to the forefront of my mind.
The bodies of several soldiers gunned down in the middle of the street.
Families torn apart.
The need for revenge…
The bastard had been a part of my brother’s murder, shot down in cold blood in front of his own wife. I held back my fury, even as my hand tightened around the gun. I could still see my brother’s anguished face as he’d attempted to crawl to his wife, finally collapsing in my arms. No, I refused to let the past stay in the past any longer. It was time for revenge. I slowly turned to face him, a smile plastered on my face.
Now I would handle things my way. “Then so be it, Manuel. Enjoy your time in hell.”
The single shot penetrated his brain with little fanfare. I watched as his body slumped, finally pitching backwards until he slid into the pool rather gracefully. There was no sound, other than a slight splash. Die, you fucking pig. Die.
I closed my eyes briefly, fighting the anguish I’d locked away. The fucker had messed with the wrong man.
Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord.
Not this time.
The thought of sweet revenge allowed me to shut down the anger, at least for the time being. While I knew the ramifications of the decision I’d just made, no one threatened my family.
I stood where I was, struggling to finish the remainder of my drink as the water turned a warm blush in color. Turning slowly, I placed the empty glass on the table, moving silently back into the atrium.
Maria gave me a single nod before moving into the shadows for protection. I had no doubt there would be hell to pay, news of the bastard’s death likely streaming on video. As if I gave a fuck. I still had additional work to do. I wasted no time, keeping the wry smile as I walked closer to the man on my left. The moment I lifted my weapon, he finally reacted.
But not fast enough.
“A good day to die, yes?” The single shot had enough distance that the force pitched him several feet, his body crashing on top of one of the tables. I immediately jerked one hundred and eighty degrees, popping off two rounds at an impressive trajectory. The second soldier went down easily.
There were no outward signs of disturbance from the few men enjoying their libations. In fact, they didn’t bother even glancing in my direction. For them, the incident had never occurred.
I walked out, shoving my weapon into my pocket, the sun blinding. As I grabbed my sunglasses, I caught the sound of tires screeching on the pavement, my extensive training drawing immediate reaction. I jerked the weapon into both hands, dropping down and rolling for cover, my breathing ragged. As I held the SIG in both hands, peering out from around one of the stone columns, a dark-colored sports car swerved around the corner, one of the tinted windows slowly opening.
One of the shooter’s bullets ricocheted off the stone, a second coming dangerously close to my head.
Pop! Pop! Pop!
I got off three rounds, all kill shots except the car had been rendered bulletproof. I shifted, moving closer, aiming for the small space of the open window. The shot missed, forcing bile into my throat.
My soldiers raced forward, immediately getting off several rounds.
The driver managed two more, hitting one of my soldiers.
I bolted off the stairs, shooting directly in front of the car, both hands on the weapon with my arms extended.
Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop!
I emptied the magazine, the windshield finally cracking as two of the bullets made it through.
“Fuck!” My hiss was drowned out by the screech of tires.
The driver slumped forward even as he pressed down on the accelerator, heading straight for me. I stood my ground, issuing two more before being tackled by my soldiers. I heard the sound of the horn just as I went down, gasping for air.
After the car swerved once again, the tires jumping the rounded curve of the landscaping feature, the driver managed to get control. Within seconds, it headed down the expansive driveway in the opposite direction.
“Jesus Christ, boss. Are you all right?” Jorge demanded, racing to my side.
I slowly rose to a standing position, glaring at the taillights, my chest heaving from the increasing rage. “I’m perfectly fine,” I growled. “Go see about Carlos.” I could tell the soldier was hurt badly, blood seeping onto the pavement.
My next task would be to hunt down Mr. Calleja and I would enjoy every minute spent capturing anything and anyone that mattered to him.
“I don’t know if he’s going to make it, boss. This is bad.”
Alviro Calleja had just made the worst decision of his life. His life was in my hands
After all, big game hunting was my expertise.