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10

Bolan found the large apartment complex on the first pass. It was off the main drag two blocks over to the south of West Sahara where he had dropped Lucy Bernstein the night before. A quick call to her number listed in the telephone directory had brought no answer, and the Executioner was betting that last night's festivities had shaken her enough to make her call in sick to work and lay low for a day or two.

As on the previous visit, Bolan found the guard shack out front unattended, and he cruised past, slowing over the omnipresent speed bumps, following the parking lot that ran around the complex proper like an asphalt moat. The buildings fit the martial image, bearing more resemblance to a desert fortress than anything elsewhere rough stucco with the red tile roofs of vaguely Spanish style.

The soldier parked as close as possible to his intended target, locked the car and left it.

Lucy's friend lived back inside the complex, away from the lot, and any way he went about it, he would have to walk. Bolan was counting on the empty sentry booth out front to mean there would be no security on foot inside the complex after nightfall, either. He passed a combination swimming pool and sauna with a couple hiding from the nighttime chill inside the heated whirlpool bath. Their movements told him they were making love or maybe only warming up for later but he did not take the time to stop and check it out. His mind was occupied with war and death at the moment; lovers had no place on Bolan's solitary battlefield.

He moved along the imitation flagstone path to Building 9, then followed his nose around to apartment 186. It was a two-story town house layout and the only lights showing were upstairs, above a boxed in patio of sorts.

He spent a moment scanning the surroundings, buttoned his jacket shut, and pressed the doorbell set above a cardboard nameplate that identified the occupant.

Feeble chimes inside, then nothing.

Bolan waited thirty seconds and tried again.

Now he heard the sound of footsteps on the stairs inside. Despite the muffling distance they sounded heavy, labored. Male.

A light went on behind the French doors to his left, escaping through the peephole in the door. A shadow blocked it out as someone planted an eye against the viewing lens.

"Who is it?" a male voice inquired.

Right, Bolan thought, noting the heavy flavor of the Bronx. Bolan started thinking fast.

"Pizza man."

"We didn't order nothing'."

He played it cautious, knowing this might be a boyfriend of either young woman. He glanced down at an imaginary sales slip in his hand, performing for the benefit of the invisible observer.

And what materialized in his fist was the silenced Beretta 93-R, safety off and ready to rip.

"Well, I gotta note here says deliver one large pepperoni to a Mrs. Castorina," Bolan told the blank impassive door. There was a hesitation on the other side, slow wheels turning in there and sealing the other man's fate.

"She ain't here now," Mr. Invisible answered.

"Must be some mistake." You made it, slick, the soldier told himself, and plugged a silent mangler through the door six inches underneath the peephole, following through with a kick to the door that exploded the lock mechanism, slamming it back and open, catching the dead man before he had a chance to fall.

Bolan dragged him across the room checking him out with a glance the scarlet flower blooming on his chest, dead center, and beside him on the floor, a Colt Commander .45 that he would never have another chance to use. One down.

He scanned the combination living room and kitchen, found it empty. He was moving toward the stairs and homing on the sound of running water when a voice hailed him from the second-floor landing overhead. More Bronx in this one, with a hint of speech impediment behind the growl.

"Hey, Lenny what the hell?" No answer from the leaking Brooklyn delegate.

Bolan waited by the stairs until he heard the sound of cautious footsteps, tracking them halfway down before he made his move, emerging in a combat crouch, the Beretta out in front of him and steadied in both hands. A chunky goon in shirt-sleeves spent a second gaping at him, finally reaching for the side arm he had stupidly left snug inside its shoulder holster, knowing he could never make it in a million years. Mack Bolan stroked the trigger twice, and lisping Bronx became a sliding bag of bones, descending gracelessly toward him. The soldier was already moving, hurdling the corpse and taking the carpeted risers three at a time. The 93-R nosed out ahead of him, and he gained the final landing unopposed. Two bedrooms opened on his right both dark, empty. Dead ahead the bathroom door was standing halfway open, spilling pale fluorescent light into the hallway. He heard water running a bathtub by the sound of it and Bolan drifted to his right, craning for a better look inside the room. Another step, and he could see the mirrored medicine cabinet on the wall above a sink. It let him scrutinize the back side of the open door, a towel rack and the gunner waiting for him just inside. Bolan stepped back out of sight, approaching catlike and thumbing up the fire-selector switch to shift his weapon from the semiautomatic to 3-shot mode. He took up station three feet from the open door and three feet to its left, directly opposite the waiting gunner, only lath and plaster in between them now.

He held the Beretta up, chest high, imagining the outline of a man emblazoned on the stucco, and stroked the trigger twice, two short bursts ripping through the cheap construction, all six rounds impacting in a fist-sized circle.

A muffled grunt inside was followed by a crash as number three connected face first with the mirrored glass of the medicine cabinet. Bolan stepped inside and found the gunner wedged between the sink and toilet bowl where he had fallen. His riddled back and lacerated face were dribbling crimson pools that beaded up on contact with the waxed linoleum.

The bathroom's other occupant was stretched out naked in the overflowing tub, her face a precious inch or two above the waterline. And it was Lucy Bernstein, barely alive.

Bolan killed the tap and took a heartbeat to appreciate her beauty before he reached down between the floating legs to pull the plug. He caught her under the arms, lifting the lady up in one fluid motion. When she was clear of the tub, Bolan got an arm beneath her thighs and carried her back past the lifeless pistolero to the nearest bedroom. They might have been interrogating her, but more likely they had meant to kill her and leave it looking like a simple household accident. Whatever, someone in Minotte's camp had traced her here and, had it not been for Bolan's timely arrival, she would be another colored pin on Captain Reese's wall map.

He left her on the single bed and backtracked to the bathroom for some towels. The lady was alive and Bolan needed answers from her in a hurry. Later he could give thought to searching out a haven in the hellgrounds for her.

Safety was a slim commodity in Vegas, getting more scarce by the moment. Soon there would be no free zones on the battlefield. Before it came to that Bolan had to have some answers. Solutions to the host of problems that were plaguing him, binding his hands in what appeared to be at least a three-way war.

There was the Yakuza with Seiji Kuwahara at the helm, united in a singleness of purpose that could make them deadly in the clenches. And the Mafia now anything but solidly united, from the glimpse that Bolan gathered of the meeting at Spinoza's just before he brought the curtain down. If anything, the family representatives seemed likely to attack each other, long before they got around to Kuwahara. There was the Bernstein faction if it still existed as an independent entity.

Finally there was Bolan, taking on the world as usual, with every hand against him in the hellgrounds. The odds were with the house as always, but perhaps, just maybe, he could find the key to trimming down those odds a bit.

With good fortune and an assist from the kindly Universe he might even find a way to turn them around for a change. And there again he needed answers.

Insight.

Truth.

Another scarce commodity in Glitter City but the Executioner had time to dig for it.

A lifetime, if it came to that.

Perhaps a deathtime.

Either way he was committed to the end of the line.

Bolan gave the woman a brisk rubdown that slowly restored a ruddy color to her body. She started showing signs of life as he was finishing, first coughing, moaning like a trapped and injured animal, finally thrashing out with slender arms and legs in all directions. She had surprising strength the natural result of desperation. Bolan held her down gently until all resistance ebbed.

When the first defensive spasms passed he brought the sheet and blanket up around her chin, tucking her in like a child. He turned the lights up so that she could see him when she woke, then sat astride a straight-backed chair pulled up beside the bed.

Her eyelids flickered moments later and she looked around, getting her bearings. The eyes settled on Bolan, sparking with recognition, and he was pleased to see her rigid form relax a bit beneath the coverlet.

"It's you, again," she said when she had found her voice."

"Afraid so."

She risked a little smile, without conviction.

"Don't be scared. I'm glad to see you."

There was a momentary silence, as she searched the shadows in each corner of the room for any hostile presence.

"The others..."

"They're not with us anymore," he told her simply.

"You... oh, I see." She was remembering Minotte's more than likely, and the showdown on the highway afterward.

He changed the subject, treading softly.

"Where's your roommate?"

"Working nights. She wasn't here when they showed up, thank heaven."

Bolan felt a measure of relief. He had been half expecting to discover yet another female on the premises, this one already cold and stuffed into a cupboard somewhere by the goons before they settled down to handling the main event.

"Okay," he said, "you'll need to warn her off before we leave. Police will have the place sealed off."

"Those men..."

Bolan read the question in the woman's eyes, and answered it forthrightly.

"I don't have time to move them out." He paused, then continued. "Some questions, then we have to get you out of here."

"I understand. I'll make it up to her... somehow."

She started to sit up and the covers slipped. Hasty fingers grabbed for the sheet, color flaming her cheeks before she made the save. For the first time Lucy Bernstein seemed to realize that she was naked and that she had not put herself to bed.

She tried to feign bravado as she spoke to him again, putting a bold face on her obvious embarrassment, "I guess I don't have many secrets left."

His answer was a thoughtful frown.

"I wouldn't say that."

"Oh"... She saw that he was serious. Her small self-conscious smile evaporated. "You said you had some questions?"

Bolan nodded, jumped right into it with both feet.

"How long have you worked for the Beacon?"

Lucy looked surprised, taken off guard by his choice of subject matter.

"Going on three years now. I applied right out of journalism school. That's USC," she added, perhaps attempting to impress him.

Bolan was impressed already by the woman's beauty, by her courage... but he was curious about her, too. And he could not afford to take her at face value.

He still needed answers, and he tried a new approach direct now, sharp.

"I guess the family hookup helped," he said.

She looked confused again.

"What's that supposed to mean?"

He shrugged.

"It means Jack Goldblume and your grandfather go back some forty years. It never hurts to know the boss."

"My grandfather..."

"What do you know about him, really?" Bolan interrupted, silencing her protest.

There was more color in her cheeks, and it was temper now, with no trace of embarrassment. She came up on one elbow, losing the covers again in the process and retrieving them distractedly, her full attention on the nature of Bolan's questioning.

"I know that he's a kindly decent person, Mr. "Blanski." Oh, I've heard the stories all about his whiskey during Prohibition, and the gambling clubs. I know that he was questioned by Congress more than thirty years ago."

She paused, regarding Bolan with a fine hostility, and when she spoke again her tone was almost haughty.

"It's ancient history, my fine self-righteous friend. He's never been indicted, never been convicted nothing!"

"What's that supposed to prove?" he asked her calmly.

She was momentarily speechless and the soldier took advantage of it, veering off along a different track.

"You're working on the Syndicate. I guess you've heard of Frank Spinoza?"

"Certainly." Her tone was stiff with barely suppressed anger.

"That's Frank Spinoza from New York," he prodded.

"I said I know who he is."

But Bolan would not let it go until he made his point.

"Spinoza from New York, who has his office at the Gold Rush."

Lucy was silent now. She watched his face with something close to apprehension in her eyes.

"Your grandfather's casino," Bolan finished.

"Jack Goldblume used to run the PR there."

"I know all that," she said. "So what?"

"So, maybe nothing. Maybe I don't buy coincidence."

"You think that my grandfather got me this job?"

Bolan shrugged.

"Well, you're wrong, mister," she snapped. "I'm a damned good reporter. There were other offers when I graduated, other opportunities. I picked the Beacon and Las Vegas. Me. I like it here, okay?" She was convincing, sure, and Bolan wanted to believe her. But even if she was leveling, it did not mean she knew the full extent of what was going on behind the scenes.

"Who came up with the idea for a Mafia series?" Bolan asked her.

Lucy frowned and somehow it only made her more attractive.

"It just came down," she answered. "I guess the city editor..."

"Or Goldblume?"

She thought about it briefly, nodding.

"Maybe. He's involved in every aspect of the paper. What's the difference?"

Bolan answered her with a question of his own.

"If you were trying to get rid of someone like Minotte or Spinoza, how would you go about it?"

She paled briefly as the memories of last night came flooding back on her again.

"I'd say the Bruce Lee fan club had a fairly workable idea," she said at last.

"Agreed. But let's suppose you're trying to avoid a shooting war. What then?"

"I don't know. Set him up, I guess. Indict him on some charge." An idea clicked inside the tousled head, and Lucy's mouth was dry when she continued. "Or you could turn the spotlight on him. Make him vulnerable... run him out of town with bad publicity."

"It's worked before," the soldier told her.

She saw where he was going now and did not like it.

Verbally, she tried to head him off.

"What's wrong with that?" she challenged. "They should be driven out of town."

"I'm less concerned with method than with motive."

"Obviously."

Bolan took the jab for what it was and let it pass, forging ahead in hypotheticals.

"Suppose you had a score to settle, from the old days. Suppose that someone ripped you off years earlier, and now you've got a chance to make it right, with interest."

Lucy Bernstein's voice became indignant.

"This is nonsense. I don't understand..."

"I think you do," he told her softly.

"Well, it doesn't matter what you think. My grandfather... Jack Goldblume... they're not gangsters like Spinoza. They're both respected businessmen." He did not answer. In the silence, she continued speaking, and if Bolan read her tone correctly she was trying to persuade herself now. "Do you know how much money my grandfather gave to charity this year?" she asked him. "Last year? How much Jack Goldblume spent on civic service programs?""

"Where'd it all come from, I wonder?"

"God damn you!"

"He has," Bolan told her simply, rising from the straight-backed chair and stretching his legs. "You may still have a chance. Get dressed."

"Where are you taking me?" she demanded.

"I've got a friend who specializes in providing sanctuary, more or less official."

There were tears glistening in her eyes, but the voice was tough, unyielding.

"Wait up there, mister. I'm a big girl now. I've got a job, responsibilities..."

A big girl, right, and Bolan did not need to be reminded of the fact.

"You're marked," he told her coldly. "Show up for work with Bob Minotte's family on the hunt, and your next deadline will be just that."

She winced at the play on words and seemed about to answer, but she kept it to herself.

"Get dressed," he said again. "We're out of time."

The clock was running, and Bolan felt the fourthdown pressure without knowing yet exactly what or where his goal might be. The puzzle was expanding and he had more jumbled jigsaw pieces in his hand.

Lucy Bernstein had a puzzle of her own to deal with now her own dilemma of the heart and soul. She had some private problems to resolve. There would not be an easy answer for her, Bolan knew. But then, a big girl had to live with that reality. The Executioner had long ago adjusted to the grim reality of living in the hellgrounds. He knew there were no easy answers in the trenches, ever and no respite from the pressure, either.

He would drop the lady off with Tommy Anders, trust the comic and his people to secure Lucy Bernstein for the duration of his Vegas strike. Whichever way it went, the campaign would be short and decisive. But the intervening time would give Anders a chance to pick her brain a little. Anything he might be able to extract would be a bonus. As for Bolan, he was already thinking toward the next engagement with an enemy who kept on changing shapes and faces, multiplying. Somewhere soon the answer would walk up to him and tap him on the shoulder. Now, the only problem was that when it came it might be carrying a knife to plant between the Executioner's shoulder blades.

Las Vegas is a city of illusion, and Bolan was not sure that anything he had seen so far was real.

No, scratch that.

He had seen real death, for damn sure. No way to mistake it for show biz make-believe.

He lived in a universe where stark reality was everything. The only avenue of escape from grim relentless truth was a parabellum mangler through the brain.

And he resided in the charnel universe by choice, damn right. Along with others like Brognola and Tommy Anders the combatants who elected to spend their season in hell here on earth.

No one had drafted warrior Bolan for this holy war. He had elected to provide his body and his soul, a living sacrifice. But Lucy Bernstein.

She was something else again.

A big girl, right, who might not get much older if allowed to wander pell-mell through the battlefields of Bolan's war. Accustomed to the newsroom she was unfamiliar with the no-rules rules of war, and there was no damned time to train her in the martial arts that she would need to eke out a survival in the trenches.

Let the woman find her peace or purgatory in her own way, her own time. Mack Bolan had already found his course of action and he was proceeding with it, undeterred and undetoured by any of Glitter City's myriad distractions.

There were lots of big girls out there, right. And there were lots of big guns, too.

Right now most of them were not aimed at Bolan, but the coming hours would change all that. The Executioner was counting on it.


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