EXTRACT FROM "Czar Rising"

FROM THE OPENING CHAPTER

Prologue March 2000
Bitter End, Virgin Gorda, British Virgin Islands

The stars were the only pinpricks of light blinking against the dark tropic sky. The inky waters of Gorda Sound heaved gently in the swell, and the boats moored on the buoys bobbed quietly up and down. It was two a.m., and the myriad cruising yachts in the marina and on the buoys out in the Sound were largely dark and silent. Here and there, the odd light was visible, twinkling though a porthole or in a cockpit where the holidaymakers were keeping the evening going, but the black Zodiac inflatable was unnoticed.  Engine throttled back to keep the noise down, crewed by three figures, also in black, it crept through the mouth of the Sound.

Standing out amongst the chartered forty and fifty sailboats were two big yachts, each around 120 feet, anchored a couple of hundred yards off the marina pontoons - there were no berths alongside for boats of that length. Their lights were doused apart from a soft glimmer from the bridge of each, where the crewman on watch sat idly through his spell of duty, reading, playing on a Gameboy, occasionally glancing across the few hundred feet separating the two boats. They were bored, watch keeping largely redundant here - what was going to happen, in Gorda Sound, in the British Virgin Islands? Down below, in the big staterooms of the luxury yachts, the owners slept peacefully. They were among the world's super rich, why wouldn't they sleep sound and deep?

There was an almost imperceptible squeak as the rubber Zodiac nosed up to the stern of one of the two big yachts. Silently, quickly, the figure at the front lashed the dinghy to the stern anchor chain and all three of its crew scrambled nimbly up, pausing only briefly at the rail to check there were no lookouts. On rubber-soled feet they sprinted along the deck and then ducked in through a companionway. Again with only the slightest pause to check they weren't being observed, they ran on down the passageway. They clearly knew the layout of the boat, as they stopped directly outside one of the staterooms. From pockets in their black windbreakers, they each removed a Glock 9mm pistol and a silencer tube which they attached to the guns. Slowly, silently, the man in front opened the door. As they stepped through, the movement in his room awoke the figure on the bed. He looked up and saw three men, masked and clothed all in black. What were his last thoughts, as each of the men took aim and fired? Who knows, but the soft coughs of the silenced pistols were hardly louder than the gentle lapping of the water against the side of the boat. The figure in the bed fell back onto the pillows; one of the world's billionaires died in his luxury yacht, blood spurting from his throat and his brains spattered over the costly linen pillows and sheets.

The three men returned the way they had come; back in the Zodiac, they eased their way across the Sound - no stranger to piracy and blood-spilling here: this is where Drake and Hawkins waited in hiding to ambush the Spanish treasure galleons heading up from the Main back to Europe. Back through the narrows and out into the Sir Francis Drake Passage, the man at the stern opened the throttle and the little inflatable bounced over the calm sea until they saw the outline of a power boat ahead. Boarding, they stripped off their masks and black windbreakers and dropped them and the guns they had used into the deep, dark waters. In a guttural Chechen, they greeted the boat's helmsman, who helped them with the Zodiac. Then, as the helmsman opened the throttle they headed off towards St Thomas. Cigarettes are fast boats, and this one had 800 horsepower. They trusted the holidaymakers were all moored for the night, because at their speed, the radar wasn't too effective, and an unexpected sailboat tacking across in front of them could have created a nasty mess. The killers passed around a bottle of vodka, the helmsman concentrated on keeping the boat straight.

They took the first flight out of St Thomas in the morning, changed aeroplanes in New York, and were back in Moscow by the following morning. They never bothered to read the newspaper accounts of what they had done - all they knew were their orders and the money they got paid for their unthinking violence. Just a nagging curiousity, that the last time they had seen the man who had been their target, they had been bodyguarding him, as an important man, vital to their country's economic growth. Still, in the fragmented, violent world they knew from their homes in Grozny, alliances had always been fickle.